March 15 2005


Duff gen

An irate constituent rang to complain that, while he had read in the paper that the county council was putting tax up by 5%, he had worked out that his own Council Tax bill would be going up by 27%.
I had to tell him that he shouldn't believe everything he reads in the papers and that if he wanted accurate information, as opposed to recycled council council spin, he should log on to my website each week.(see Brass Tax) and (Take your pick).
I was, myself, concerned that some of the council's statements reported in the local press were less than accurate so I wrote to the Western Telegraph drawing their attention to the absurd comments made by Cllr Peter "Laughing" Stock at the February meeting of Cabinet and reported in the paper the same week.(see below).
When that failed to bring forth a correction in the next edition, I sent a letter to the Editor.

Dear Editor,
In your edition of February 9 (Page 2) you reported on a discussion at the county council Cabinet on Council Tax rebanding.
As many of your readers will know to their cost, this rebanding exercise has resulted in 36% of households in Pembrokeshire moving up by one or more bands.
You reported Cllr Peter Stock as telling Cabinet that Pembrokeshire County Council was not receiving the extra income from the 36% who had moved to a higher band.
I was at that meeting and my notes record that he said: "People think that the County Council are having additional money through this 36% [of households that are being rebanded upwards] - that money is not coming through to Pembrokeshire County Council."
At the same meeting, the leader, Cllr John Davies, said he wanted to "make it clear to the electorate that there would only be a five per cent increase in Council Tax next year."
I am afraid this is all highly misleading because the amount of money to be collected from Pembrokeshire council taxpayers next year is £27.85 million compared to £24.66 million in the current year - an increase of 13% - and, whatever Peter Stock might say, every last penny of this additional income is headed straight for the council's coffers.
The facts are that, as a result of rebanding, the county council's tax base (the number of band D equivalent properties in its area) has risen from 45,512 to 48,943 an increase of 8%.
It is true that the band D rate has only risen by 5% but, when that is combined with the 8% increase in the tax base, you end up with an increase in the tax take of 13%.
The upshot, whatever spin the ruling Independent Political (sic) Group try to put on it, is that the 64% of households whose banding remains unchanged will pay an extra 5% (more than double the rate of inflation), while the 36% who have gone up one or more bands are facing, on average, a whopping 27% hike (more than ten times the inflation rate).
I hope you can find the space to print this on your letters' page because I believe that the voters have a fundamental right to know the exact basis on which their taxes are being levied.

Yours sincerely

Clearly, the Telegraph didn't agree with the sentiments in my final paragraph because the letter wasn't published, though they did find space for one of those letters from somebody in England who was looking for information on some long-lost great great uncle from Maenchlochog.
Still, I suppose they must know what turns their readers on.

Inaction Man

It is getting on for three weeks since the BBC's Dragon's Eye broadcast serious allegations about Cllr Brian Hall, seven weeks since the events reported in the programme took place, and Glyn Davies AM and county council Leader John Davies have still to meet.
This is rather strange considering that Mr Davies told the programme on 24 February "I did resolve that, afterwards, I would speak with Cllr Hall or, indeed, the Council Leader.
I've not done that as of yet except that I have mentioned this, in passing, to the Council leader that I would like to discuss this with Brian Hall and the Council Leader simply because I thought it was inapp... and I don't really want that sort of thing said in public again." (See Dragon's Eye)
I did email Mr Davies for a progress report and he told me: "Our respective offices are working on a convenient date. My guess is it will be the week after next [week commencing 21 March]".
Must be a pair of terribly busy men because by then a month will have passed since the programme was broadcast.
Of course, the longer it takes to set up this meeting the longer Cllr Davies can put off doing anything.
If Cllr Davies really wanted to address the issues raised by the programme he might have thought to find out what Glyn Davies had to say on the telephone..
And now, Old Grumpy hears, the Ombudsman has decided to investigate the complaints against Cllr Hall so Cllr Davies has another excuse for inaction.
No doubt we shall hear that reliable standby "a man is innocent until proved guilty" trotted out, or even our old friend "sub-judice".
But tearoom talk is that Cllr Davies knows full well what went on when Cllr Hall spoke to Huw Roberts of the BBC and Glyn Davies in St Davids City Hall.
I am told that the matter was on the agenda for a secret Cabinet meeting when Cllrs Hall and Davies were both present and that the two of them met face to face in the Leader's office and discussed the subject for over an hour.
Of course, if the Ombudsman finds against Cllr Hall, Cllr Davies will have the perfect cover for giving him the sack.
His problems will start if the Ombudsman comes down the other way.


Off the record

Some months ago, I made enquiries with the District Auditor about Cllr Brian Hall's claim for £51 spent in the Mandarin Restaurant, Queensway, London W1 on the evening of 31 January 2001.
As I pointed out to the auditor, members are allowed to claim a subsistence allowance - they do not have expense accounts - and the maximum allowed for an evening meal was £8.50.
In reply, the auditor said that the amount had been included in Cllr Hall's expenses by mistake because on that evening he was entertaining a potential inward investor and the £51 should have been charged to the economic development budget.
Being a trusting soul, who is prepared to believe almost anything, I emailed the economic development unit seeking the identity of this inward investor.
My interest in this subject stemmed from the the reason given for Cllr Hall's high speed dash from Magor to Pembroke Dock (125 miles in 52 minutes) (see The Time Lord) was that he had to put an "Irish inward investor" on the ferry.
Naturally, I wondered if these inward investors were one and the same person.

The council responded:

Officers were aware of the prospective investors and that Councillor Hall
was seeking to attract them to Pembrokeshire.
Cllr Hall briefed the Council`s Inward Investment Officer on the outcome of
the meeting which related to a number of potential inward investment
There were follow up contacts with officers of the Council about a number of
projects and contact has been maintained, given the changing
circumstances/opportunities in the local economy and the fact that they have
a track record in commercial development.
We receive enquiries from a wide variety of sources and this includes
Members bringing opportunities to our attention.

Tough luck, however, because the names of potential inward investors are "commercially confidential".
Undeterred, I made an application under the Freedom of Information Act for the notes of the various briefings and follow up contacts with council officers.
No luck there, either, I'm afraid.
The council tells me:

With regard to briefing notes relating to Councillor Hall's meeting, the Council does not hold this information. Similarly, with the request for notes and minutes of officers' follow up meetings, the Council does not hold this information.

So, there is poor old Brian putting his liver in jeopardy by stuffing himself with chicken chow mein like a Toulouse goose, and risking his neck by driving along the M4/A40 at 150 mph, and his efforts don't even warrant a couple of scribbles on a post-it note.


Unfair tax

The criticism you most often hear of the Council Tax is that it is not based on the ability to pay i.e it impacts disproportionately on the poor and is, in the jargon, regressive.
Which is, of course, true of all indirect taxes.
Old Grumpy has visited the Treasury's website which shows that the $460 billion raised in the current year divides roughly 50:50 between direct taxes (income tax, corporation tax, etc) and indirect taxes (VAT, excise duty, council tax, etc).
Clearly, Chancellors have a fine line to tread between these two types of tax because to abolish regressive taxes altogether would require a doubling of income and corporation taxes.
Hardly a recipe for encouraging hard work and enterprise!
In any case, Council Tax is the least regressive of all the indirect taxes because large houses attract the highest rate of tax and, by and large, the rich live in larger houses that the poor.
The reason Council Tax is so widely criticised is that it is totally transparent in that you get a bill telling you exactly how much you must pay.
Other indirect taxes are much less noticeable.
During my research on this article I came across a truly regressive tax - that on wine.
According to the Wines and Spirits Association website, the tax on normal strength wine is £1.23 per bottle.
And that is the same whatever the quality and the price.
This means that, when I buy a bottle of Tesco's £3.99 Chilean, 30% of the price is tax, whereas when some flashy b****** rings up his wine merchant and orders some rare vintage at £20 per bottle the rate of tax is only 6%.
Now that's what I call regressive.

Constitutional crisis

The huge uproar over the Home Secretary's proposals to introduce "Control Orders" has made it a particularly fascinating week for anyone interested in the labyrinthine complexities of the British constitution.
When the controversial Bill returned to the House of Lords for the fourth or fifth time, the Lord Chancellor Lord "Charlie" Falconer told members that the convention was that the Lords must bow to the wishes of the elected House of Commons.
I am not sure this is an accurate representation of the relationship between the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament.
And what must always be remembered is that when we speak of Parliament we mean both houses and not just the elected House of Commons.
Rows between the two houses go back a long way.
It would be nice to be able to tell you that the second chamber has always been on the side of the good guys, but that would not be true.
There was a huge bust up in 1832 when the Whigs were elected with a massive majority on a manifesto promise to extend the franchise from about 450,000 to 700,000 by relaxing the criteria for who would have the vote.
At the time, large industrial cities like Manchester were not represented in the Commons though rotten boroughs like Old Sarum - seven votes controlled by the local nobility - had two members.
The proposed reforms were opposed by the Tory majority in the House of Lords, led by the Duke of Wellington, no less, whose powers would be severely curtailed.
In the end the Lords backed down after William IV, on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day, Earl Grey, threatened to create enough new peers to give the Whigs a majority.
A more comprehensive account of this episode can be found at Reform Acts
The next crisis occurred in the years 1906-1911 when the House of Lords blocked a series of Bills brought forward by the Liberal Government culminating in the rejection of Lloyd George's 1909 budget.
That crisis was resolved by the passing of the 1911 Parliament Act; forced through after George V let it be known that he was willing to create 400 new Liberal peers to neutralise the Tory's inbuilt majority in the Upper House.
The 1911 Act made three main changes: (a) it reduced the life of Parliament from seven years to five; (b) it removed the Lords' power to veto or delay money Bills; and (c) in the case of other public Bills it restricted the Lords' delaying powers to two years.
In 1949 the Atlee government passed a second Parliament Act which reduced the delaying powers of the Lords from two years to one.
So Lord Falconer's claim that the House of Lords was bound to defer to the will of the Commons over the "Control orders" is patently false.
What is true is that the Lords must ultimately give way to the elected chamber after the expiry of the time limits set out in the Parliament Acts.
Which is, of course, exactly what happened with the Foxhunting Bill which was rejected by the Lords in one Parliament; brought back in the next Parliament and rejected by the Lords a second time; and finally forced on to the Statute Book through the provisions of the Parliament Act.
One very important exception to the Commons' power to force through a Bill against the wishes of the Lords is that both Houses must approve any proposal to extend the life of Parliament.
So, if the House of Lords didn't exist, all that would stand between the elected majority and the abolition of elections would be the Royal Assent.
In those circumstances would the unelected Monarch feel able to resist the wishes of the people, as expressed by their elected tribunes in the House of Commons?

Easier said than done

When I went to university to study law, one of the first exercises we were set was to draft a simple bye-law outlawing vehicles from the public park.
I will not bore you with the details of how I managed to cover four pages of foolscap with my first excursion into lawmaking.
However, among the issues to be addressed was a definition of a vehicle.
If wheels are the defining characteristic, we would ban prams but not hovercraft.
If the possession of an engine; hovercraft but not sand yachts or bicycles.
Then there was a need for a clause exempting emergency vehicles and another setting out the penalties for non-compliance.
I promised I would not go on and on, and I won't; except to say that the point of this exercise was to teach us that making laws is a difficult business and to warn us against lazily suggesting "there should be a law against it" whenever confronted by a problem.
Which brings me to the call for "affordable housing for local need" made by Cllr Jamie Adams at the last meeting of the county council, and enthusiastically endorsed by most of the members.
One of the great injustices in our society is the gulf between those who own their houses and those who don't.
While the former sit back and watch their wealth increase as house prices soar, the latter just keep paying rent.
But, while affordable housing for all may be a noble aspiration, is it achievable?
I should point out that this issue is always discussed in the context of rocketing house prices and must therefore refer to "affordable housing" that people can buy as opposed to rent.
I will not deal with all the pitfalls inherent in any system designed to achieve the desired results but they can be neatly divided into the legal and the economic.
For any such system to work you would have to have a legal definition of "affordable" and "local" and some fair method of deciding who among the locals, so defined, qualified for a cheap house, and who should pay full price.
In economic terms, it would need to be determined how "affordability" was to be financed.
I am sure it would go down a bundle with the hard-pressed owners of "unaffordable" houses to find that their taxes were being used put someone down the road in a more advantageous position than themselves.
Then you would have to devise a set of rules to ensure that the houses remained "affordable" when they were sold on.
Imagine the disputes that could arise over, say, the valuation to be put on any improvements carried out by the first owner of the property.
Or, perhaps, there would have to be rules banning improvements in case they lifted the property out of the realms of affordability.
Of course, government and its agents in local authorities do have it in their power to make houses more affordable.
They could, for instance, relax the planning laws in order to increase the supply of building plots and so force down their price.
In this connection it should be remembered that it is not just the price of undeveloped plots that are affected by the escalating cost of building land but also the price of all existing built-on plots.
And government could ease some of the more draconian provisions of the building regulations to allow the construction of cheaper, lower specification houses.
While the present building regulations have undoubtedly driven up standards, they also drive up prices.
Those who argue that there should be no relaxation should ask themselves if they would be happy if the only cars on the market were top-of-the-range BMWs.

Democracy and efficiency

A couple of weeks ago, the Mercury carried a long statement by county council leader John Davies in which he claimed, with regard to the Independent Political Group's dominance of the county council, that : "The candidate who gets the largest number of votes wins the seat and the group that has the largest number of seats runs the council."
I have already had a letter published in the Mercury on this issue and a more comprehensive account of my views on this piece of nonsense can be found at PUP.
However, something else Cllr Davies said also grabbed my attention.
Referring to a "glowing report" from the District Auditor, on the council's efficiency, Cllr Davies asserted: "You simply don't get these accolades in local authorities where there is a 'democratic deficit' ".
Cllr Davies seems to be suggesting that there is some necessary connection between efficiency and democracy and in that he is most surely wrong.
Tesco is, after all, a very efficient company though nobody would suggest it is democratic.
And Hitler - no democrat he - transformed Germany into the most efficient industrial and military machine the world had ever seen.
Indeed, had Hitler not committed the cardinal error of attacking the USSR in 1941, we might now find ourselves enjoying those same efficiencies ourselves.
And, as I always remind my opponents whenever I get into an argument about this issue, Mussolini made the trains run on time.
The truth is that the efficiencies that come from living in a properly functioning democracy do not lend themselves to evaluation by bean-counters.
They are the efficiencies that flow, unseen and unmeasured, from living in a settled society where people believe in the rule of law and are generally satisfied, even in defeat, that their side of the argument has had a fair crack of the whip.


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