11 March 2003


Getting there

After more than five months of evasion, obfuscation and delay, the County Council, through its £70,000-a-year Monitoring Officer, Huw James, has finally conceded that it acted unlawfully when it refused to allow Old Grumpy the right to inspect documents relating to Cllr Brian Hall's tenancy of the council-owned industrial unit at 75 Stockwell Road, Pembroke Dock, during last October's public audit.
This is hardly surprising, given the clear terms of of the 1998 Audit Commission Act and the 1998 Data Protection Act behind which the council was seeking to take cover. (see Sauce for the goose).
In a letter dated 4 March the Monitoring Officer, having accepted my right to see the records, writes: "Although my enquiries have taken some time, I felt it was important to be absolutely certain that the release of such information was not going to cause subsequent difficulties in relation to the increasing sensitivity of sharing personal information in the context of data protection and human rights legislation."
No wonder it took him so long - sophistry of that calibre requires time and effort.
Notice there is no apology for denying me my statutory rights, nor even the slightest hint that the council were in the wrong.
Still, I suppose, infallibility and apology are uneasy bedfellows.
In any case, this wordy blather is at odds with what Mr James wrote to Mr David Edwards on 26 November 2002.
Mr Edwards had also complained to the Monitoring Officer about the Finance Department's refusal to provide details of Cllr Hall's rent account and was told: "I have to say that I have always (my emphasis) resisted making information about the council's various tenants open to third parties on the basis that it is not information that I think should be in the public domain".
If Mr James, who has been Monitoring Officer since 1996 has "always resisted" making this information available it would seem to follow that his refusal to let me have it has little or nothing to do with either the Data Protection Act 1998 or the Human Rights Act 2000.
And while his thoughts on what information ought to be in the public domain might make for an interesting discussion at a dinner party, his primary purpose as Monitoring Officer is to ensure that the council obeys the law.
Clearly, by failing to provide this information in a timely manner, the council has acted unlawfully.
Which brings me to the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, Section 5(2) which provides that the Monitoring Officer has a duty, "if it at any time appears to him ..." that any proposal, decision or omission of any officer has given rise to "a contravention by the authority ... of any rule of law or enactment" ... "to prepare a report to the authority with respect to that proposal, decision or omission."
I look forward to reading it.
Furthermore, it is not true that the council always resisted providing information about "the affairs of its various tenants".
Last October, without hesitation, I was given details of rents received from Barnados in respect of its tenancy of 34 High Street, Haverfordwest and, in previous years, the record of payments from the authority's tenant at Withybush Airfield.
So why was information about Cllr Hall's account such a closely guarded secret?
Surely not because the figures now provided in a letter from the Director of Finance (no apology here either) show the account to be six months in arrears at the end of the financial year 2001/02.
Or that the business rates of £4,089 were not paid until 12 February 2002, although half fell due on 1 April 2001 and the balabnce on 1 October 2001.
And I still haven't been told whether the three-months rent rebate, "in consideration of the Lessee completing within three months of the date hereof [15 September 2000] the works specified in Part 4 of the schedule hereof", has been reclaimed because of the Lessee's failure to execute the works.
Does the council allow all its tenants equal latitude, or are some more equal than others?


The Time Lord


Still no reply from Cllr Maurice Hughes to my questions about the business relationship between Cabinet member Brian Hall and the council's economic development consultant Dr Michael Ryan: the sole shareholders and directors of Euro-Ryall Ltd, a company they incorporated on 29 December 2000 some five months after Dr Ryan took up his post.
In a press release issued on 6 November 2002, Cllr Hughes claimed that Dr Ryan had been engaged after replying to an advertisement in the Irish press.
Having long ago decided never to take anything said by the County Council at face value, I emailed His Leadership and asked him to provide the name of the newspaper(s) in which the advert appeared and the date of publication.
Months have elapsed and he has still not afforded me the courtesy of a reply.
Conspiracy theorists among you might conclude that the reason for his reticence is that any answer he provides will be easily verifiable and, therefore, difficult to cloak in the County Council's standard garb of ambiguity, mendacity and spin.
But a much more probable explanation is that he simply doesn't have the time.
When I interviewed him on Radio Pembrokeshire a few months ago he told me he spent 70 hours a week in County Hall on council business.
That, for the arithmetically challenged, is five, fourteen-hour days or, put another way, 8am - 10pm Monday to Friday.
Since then he has appointed himself to the Local Health Group, which, I am told, demands a commitment of one-and-a-half days a week.
How on earth does he find the time to represent the County Council on Elwa, the Local Government Associaton, two school governing bodies etc, etc.


Slavish independence

Last week's Western Telegraph carried a most peculiar editorial about the goings on at the March 6 meeting of the County Council.
Whoever wrote this editorial must have been present, so it was rather strange that the paper contained not a single factual report of the proceedings to help readers to make up their own minds as to whether the meeting "resembled a six-year-old's tea party".
From my vantage point on the public gallery, it looked like the minority parties were mounting a good old-fashioned filibuster in protest against the totally undemocratic nature of the new Cabinet arrangements.
The Telegraph is particularly critical of Cllrs Michael Williams and John Allen, leaders of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats respectively, for "again and again denigrating the democratically elected independent leadership".
By "independent" the Telegraph means the Independent Political Group (IPG).
Who in Pembrokeshire, except for a few hundred people in Merlins Bridge, voted for the Leader of the IPG, Cllr Maurice Hughes who now enjoys almost absolute power to do whatever the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB) tells him.
And perhaps the Telegraph can do us all a favour by printing the manifesto on which the IPG fought the last election.
Only joking, because there isn't one.
What we have is a clique of 39 members who stood as Independents and once elected formed themselves into a "Political Group" so that they could monopolise the lucrative special responsibility allowances.
You don't have to be Wittgenstein to recognise that anyone who calls themselves independent, and then signs-up to a group that holds secret get-togethers where members are instructed how to vote at forthcoming meetings, must be a bit short in the logic and intellectual honesty departments.
The Telegraph tells us that: "Throughout Thursday's proceedings the hushed comment of 'for God's sake' could be heard across the chamber".
What the paper failed to mention was that the person invoking The Deity was none other than the serial expense fiddler Cllr "ex-Monster Muncher" Luke, member for Scleddau and £17,000-a-year Chairman of the Highways and Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee.
If it wasn't so funny, I'd be tempted to laugh!

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