18 March 2002
Way back in October 1998, while conducting my annual trawl through the County Council's books, I came across a claim submitted by Cllr Maurice Hughes in respect of a trip to Eastbourne in July 1997.
The Director of Highways, Mr John Heys, joined Cllr Hughes on the long journey to the south coast resort.
According to the expense claim Mr Heys occupied the passenger seat during the journey for which Cllr Hughes claimed 653 miles at 43.5p (£284.05) for travelling expenses.
Old Grumpy had attended a council meeting some months earlier when the benefits of giving senior officers a car leasing allowance of 10% of salary had been explained to members.
These were that officers in receipt of leasing allowances were only entitled to 11p a mile while those using their own cars could claim 28.5p a mile.
Therefore, members were told, once the officer had covered a certain mileage the Council would be quids in.
This piece of altruism looked rather less impressive when a back of the envelope calculation revealed that the break-even point was somewhere north of 30,000 miles a year.
Nevertheless, it was obvious to Old Grumpy that there were considerable savings to be made by insisting that when officers and members travelled to the same events they went in the officer's car (11p a mile) rather than that of the member (43.5p a mile).
I wrote to the District Audit Service pointing out that had the two men travelled to Eastbourne in Mr Heys' car there would have been a benefit to the taxpayer of £212.22.
When the "Members Allowances scheme" was published the following year I was delighted to find on Page 6, under the heading "Members Responsibilities", that "Reimbursement [of expenses] is subject to the following conditions - Members should always consider the most cost effective means of transport. Where officers are provided with cars for official journies (sic) and they are accompanying members, there is an expectation that the councillor/s will travel with the officer (council's emphasis) and will not be entitled to claim travelling expenses. Any arrangement to the contrary should again be agreed with the Director of Finance or the Head of Financial Services."
This provision remains to this day.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when inspecting last year's books, to find that on seven occasions Cllr Brian Hall had claimed travelling expenses for journeys to Cardiff and Swansea when accompanied by an officer who is in receipt of a car leasing allowance.
Having satisfied myself that no permission to disregard the rules had been sought from "the Director of Finance or the Head of Financial Services", I wrote to Mr Huw James, the Monitoring Officer and keeper of the council's conscience, pointing out that Cllr Hall's expense claim was accompanied by a signed declaration that "The amounts claimed are strictly in accordance with the rates determined by Pembrokeshire County Council under the relevant regulations" and that as the "rate(s) determined" was zero ("will not be entitled to claim travelling expenses") Cllr Hall appeared to have trousered £760 of taxpayer's money to which he was not entitled.
Five weeks later Mr James replied
His letter concludes: "Having regard to the statutory context and the wording in particular on Page 6 of the booklet, I do not consider that there is a bar against reimbursement for travelling in the seven cases you refer to. There is a distinction between an expectation and a regulation."
Or, put another way, the phrase "will not be entitled to claim travelling expenses" in the regulations, does not mean that the member will not be entitled to claim travelling expenses.
Several weeks ago, I recorded how County Council Leader Maurice Hughes had smuggled one of his cronies, Mrs Lynette George, onto the Appointments Panel set up to oversee the appointment of two outside members to the newly formed Standards Committee.
Old Grumpy must declare an interest in this matter because I applied to become one of these independent members.
Not that I entertained any hopes of success but I felt that as an applicant I would be able to keep a close eye on what went on.
Of particular interest to me was the presence on the Appointments Panel of Cllr Bill Hitchings.
Cllr Hitchings used to feature regularly in my Old Grumpy column in the Mercury.
Indeed, he was a three times winner of the Marco Polo medal for publicly funded travel in my New Years honours list.
Old Grumpy well remembers reporting Cllr Hitchings to the District Auditor for claiming for a First Class return train ticket to Hull when in fact he (and Mrs Hitchings) had gone by car.
Then there were the occasions when he was forced to pay money back to the Council after I discovered that he had been taking his wife to conferences up and down the country where she had been wined, dined and accommodated at the taxpayer's expense.
The latest little scam I have come across is his habit of claiming 24 miles, rather than the 12 it actually is, for the return journey from Ashdale Lane to Haverfordwest, whenever he catches the train on one of his frequent trips to London.
Further researches into my vast collection of councillors' expense claims reveals that this nice little earner has been running since at least 1993.
Old Grumpy sincerely hopes that my promise to question Cllr Hitchings about these various matters, should I be called for interview, didn't colour his judgement when my application came up for consideration.Otherwise I might be asking the Standards Committee to investigate whether the Code of Conduct requires him to declare a personal interest in such circumstances.
It is not a little entertaining to observe the leader of the Labour Party lecturing our friends across the Channel on the need to emulate the UK's flexible labour markets if Europe is to challenge the USA on the world economic stage.
The irony is that Mr Blair can point to the UK's superior record on job creation - unemployment at half Euroland rates - precisely because of the supply side reforms introduced by Margaret Thatcher, in the teeth of fierce opposition from Labour, during the 1980s.
As John Monks and other union leaders well know, flexible labour markets is a polite way of describing a situation where it is easier to sack people.
Naturally, this is not a scenario that appeals to Mr Monks' members who are already in work and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
However, as Mr Blair and Mr Brown both now realise, the route to a healthy economy lays in job creation and not job protection, though whether they can persuade the statists in France and Germany of this basic economic truth is another matter altogether.
I bumped into one of the more intelligent members of the Independent Political (sic) Group in the pub one evening last week.
This person is not one of those being touted for a place in the Cabinet (well, I did say he was intelligent) and during our conversation it became clear that it had dawned on him that under the new Cabinet arrangements he would have virtually no power to influence events within the council.
"Just what will we ordinary members have to do?" he asked me.
"Well, you will have your ten grand a year to collect - more if you can wangle a Scrutiny Committee chairmanship" I told him.
One area where the members will have their powers severely curtailed is in planning where almost everything has been delegated to the officers.
In future the only matters that will go to the planning committee are: residential developments over 2 hectares (outline) or 30 dwellings (full): Classes A1, A2, B1 and B2 shops and offices over 1000m sq; Class B8 wholesale over 2000m sq; mineral extraction over 0.5 hectare; applications involving environmental impact assessments; applications by members or senior officers; and applications contrary to policy which are being recommended for approval.
Have the bungalow farmers finally had their day?
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