March 20 2007

 

Gone, but not forgotten

Following Cllr Brian Hall's forced resignation from the Cabinet, there are some, even among the opposition, who are saying that a line should be drawn under the affair and we should all get down to working together for the good of the people of Pembrokeshire.
Sorry, but the corrupt system that mounted cover-up after cover-up to sustain Hall in power is still with us, so I won't be putting away my pen any time soon.
And it should also be remembered that Cllr John Davies only sacked Hall when it became clear that there was no other option
Things haven't yet got to the point where we award brownie points to people who are motivated by political expediency rather than principle.
In any case, I think that this all-pulling-together stuff is best left to tug-o-war teams.
We are fortunate to live in a country where adversarial politics has long been the order of the day and in which the opposition's duty is to make sure those in power don't overstep the mark.
This has served us well over many years and I can think of no reason why we should abandon it now.
As Adam Smith said: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."
Smith was talking about the merchant class, but there seems no reason why the same shouldn't apply to politicians.
I might be persuaded to change my mind if someone can point me to a one-party state where the people are free.


Timed out

So nobody should be under the illusion that Cllr Hall's resignation from the Cabinet will signal the end of my investigations into his unorthodox expense claiming practices (see Time Lord).
There are things that have happened during this affair that, in my opinion, have no place in a democracy.
For instance, there were the IPG's nasty brownshirt tactics during the "debate" on my notice of motion calling for the release of the director of finance Mr Mark Lewis's statement to the police (see Shouted down).
During the course of the proceedings, I was given a lecture by Mr Parry-Jones, who seemed to be questioning both my integrity and my right to investigate these matters (On the carpet).
I always knew that the chief executive was an immensely powerful man but it came as something of a surprise to find that he thought he had the right to set limits on my otherwise perfectly legal activities.
I lost the vote by 40-10 after Cllr John Davies read extracts from a letter the chief executive had solicited from chief supt Paul Amplett of Haverfordwest police in which he said that I would be unable to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a copy of the director of finance's statement.
Whether it was appropriate for a senior police officer to involve himself on one side of a highly-charged political dispute, I will leave you to decide.
In any case his advice to the council was wrong because, thanks to FoI, I am now in possession of the document.
And it isn't difficult to see why the ruling junta was so keen to silence me because Mr Lewis told the police that Cllr Hall's expense claim was "correct in every detail".
Every detail included crossing the Severn Bridge at 12.56 pm; buying lunch at the motorway service station near Magor at 1.08 pm; and, on the same day, leaving Pembroke Dock at 2.00 pm to drive to Penllergaer to attend a meeting which started at um, er, 2.00 pm.
Indeed, the meeting was well underway when - we are invited to believe - Cllr Hall drove past Penllergaer on his way to Pembroke Dock.
About 18 months ago, I was told that Mr Lewis had made a second statement and, following the police's refusal to provide a copy under FoI, this is currently the subject of an appeal to the Information Commissioner.
More recently, I have drawn attention to Cllr Hall's activitities on 3 November 2005 when he attended a Fire Service conference in Manchester.
The two-day conference, for which the taxpayer forked out a £420 fee in respect of Cllr Hall's attendance, ended at 3.45 pm on 3 November but, according to his county council expense claim, Cllr Hall was able to get back to Pembroke Dock in time drive the 113 miles to Cwmbran for dinner at 8.00 pm.
I have now obtained more information on his activities on 25 October 2005 when he claimed 66 miles from the fire authority for the return journey from Pembroke Dock to Carmarthen.
The fire authority tell me that day's meeting lasted from 2.00 - 4.00 pm.
On the same day Cllr Hall claimed 192 miles from the county council in respect of return trip from Haverfordwest to a civic amenity site in Llandrindod Wells.
This means either he returned from Llandrindod to Haverfordwest by about 1 pm, or he left Haverfordwest for Llandrindod at about 5.00 pm.
This seems like woefully poor time-management because it would surely have been much easier to call in at Carmarthen on the way to or from Llandrindod Wells.
Or am I allowing the trees to obscure the wood?

Pensioned off

Last week, I received a letter from the county council informing me that there was a vacancy for a local authority member on the Milford Haven Port Authority board.
My curiosity was aroused when I read that this was because of the retirement of Cllr Arwyn Williams.
I well remember Cllr Williams' appointment (in August 2005) because I was the other candidate for the post (see Foregone conclusion) and I was keen to know why he was retiring halfway through his three-year term of office.
According to Cllr Williams he has had to retire because he has passed his 65th birthday, but that explanation is not on all fours with the rules set out in the Department for Transport document Modernising Trust Ports (MTP).
MTP says: "There is no age limit for board membership" but "Unless exceptional circumstances dictate, board members should not seek to serve beyond the age of 70. Nor, given the investment in training required for new members, should first appointments be offered to anyone who will reach 65 during their first term of office."
According to the rules, Cllr Williams shouldn't have been appointed in the first place but, having already received the training, there seems no earthly reason why he should be forced to retire on reaching 65.
If the receipt of his pension book isn't the reason for Cllr Williams' premature retirement, Old Grumpy wonders what the hidden agenda might be.
One thing's for sure: unless he's discovered the elixir of youth, rumours that he's going to reapply can't be true

Sailing close to the wind

 

The sheaf of documents headed "Sea Empress - defence strategy" that landed on Old Grumpy's doorstep recently, shows just how desperate things were for MHPA as it faced massive damages for negligence over the grounding of the tanker.
With claims of £68.9 million (The International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPCF) £53.5 million and Texaco £15.4 million) offset by insurance cover of £30 million and reserves of £24 million, MHPA was threatened with insolvency.
It appears that things were so desperate that there was even talk of transferring the authority's assets to a subsidiary company to protect them from its creditors.
However, that ethically and legally dubious strategy was swiftly abandoned after lawyers advised that ". . . if subsequently we were judged to have transferred such assets to escape potential liability then they could be challenged by the Court and there would also be the question of personal liability on Managers/Directors/Members in answering to this."
The other contingency plan was to raise a £10 million loan to be financed by a 25% hike in harbour and pilotage dues.
Clearly the oil companies wouldn't like this but, as the report to the board says this was a feasible option: ". . . given our monopolistic position with the oil companies who are not able to move elsewhere in the short term . . . "
The oil companies' only recourse would be to complain to the Secretary of State who would be likely to side with MHPA because "if we went out of business [he/she] would be faced with having to replace us with something else anyway."
A meeting with civil servants in the DfT brought little joy when any possibility of a government bail out was firmly rejected, though there was an offer to make informal contact with colleagues at the IOPCF to make them aware of the difficulties that would arise if MHPA was driven into insolvency.
In the end MHPA opted for a "blood and stone" approach after their lawyers advised them "to make it as difficult as possible for any creditor . . ." by forcing them pursue their claims through the courts with all "the difficulties and public embarrassment" that would entail.
This was to be combined with a public relations campaign designed ". . .to create a political, governmental and commercial environment in which a negotiated settlement within our insured limit is the preferred outcome"
When the parties met with mediator Stephen Ruttle QC on 1st and 2nd October 2003, IOPCF opened up with a claim of £54 million while MHPA countered with an offer of £8 million.
By close of play on the first day the claimants were down to £29 million against MHPA's £10 million.
The following day MHPA let the claimants know that Texaco had settled for 30% of their original claim and after a bit more tooing and froing the parties split the difference and settled at £20 million.
As this was well within the insurance ceiling, MHPA didn't have to pay a penny.
Doubles all round!


Overcooked

Last week two of the UK's leading climate scientists, Professors Paul Hardaker and Chris Collier, spoke out against the 'Hollywoodisation' of global warming by the likes of Al Gore.
Profs Hardaker and Collier both believe that global warming is real and CO2 emissions are a factor, but, given the remaining uncertainties, both warn against over-hyping the risks.
Nobody, not even the most ardent sceptics, denies that the planet has warmed by about 0.6 degree C in the past century, but there is serious disagreement about the extent to which this can be attributed to human activities.
Commenting on the recently published IPCC "Summary for Policymakers", Prof Hardaker said: “The report shows unequivocally that the climate is changing and that humans are contributing to this.”
Notice contributing, not causing.
Prof Collier has criticised newspapers for their use of words such as 'catastrophic', 'devastating' and 'terrifying' which are nowhere to be found in the IPCC report.
Across the Atlantic, another global warming mainstreamer, Prof Don Easterbrook, has criticised Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth" for the many inaccurate statements it contains and a leading British climatologist Prof Mike Hulme has said that "Campaigners, media and some scientists seem to be appealing to fear in order to generate a sense of urgency".
What we have, in short, is the politicisation of science of a sort that we haven't witnessed since Lysenko ruled the roost in Stalinist Russia.
What needs to be understood is that the IPCC reports are based on computer simulations.
Though what the computers produce are often referred to as predictions about future climate, they are, as the reports themselves make abundantly clear, merely projections - what the IPCC calls "storylines"..
And understanding the difference between a prediction and a projection is vital to a proper appreciation of this subject.
So, while I can confidently predict that 1 April 2007 will be a Sunday, I cannot predict with any degree of certainty what the weather will be like on that day.
I can say that, in all probability, it will be warmer than the first Sunday in January and colder than the first Sunday in August, but not much else.
However, if I make certain assumptions, I can produce projections of the possible weather conditions on that day.
So, if it is assumed that, on the day in question, an anti-cyclone is lying over France, we can say that it will likely be warm and dry.
If the anti-cyclone is positioned over the North Sea, drawing air down from northern Europe, it will be cold and dry.
If there is a deep depression over western Scotland it will be wet and windy.
Etc, etc.
Naturally, politicians are keen to hitch a ride on this bandwagon, are trying to outgreen each other.
But it's all well and good emerging from European summits with agreements on emission reduction targets; quite another to persuade the public to take the necessary medicine.
Last week, in an attempt to outgreen Labour, the Tories announced some modest plans for taxing air travel and people are already squealing at the thought of paying extra for their second week in Benidorm.
No doubt, once it becomes clear to the politicians that people are not too keen on what Al Gore, himself, has described as "a wrenching transformation" in the lifestyles to which they have become accustomed, there will be some vigorous rowing back.
On a recent Today programme it was said that DEFRA was furious that some of its more ambitious schemes for CO2 reductions had being vetoed by the Treasury.
The problem for DEFRA is that the boys in the Treasury understand economics and they know that, if a 10 dollar rise in the price of a barrel of crude oil knocks 0.5% off world output, any large increase in energy prices resulting from a switch to renewables or nuclear is likely to have a similar effect.
And as Gordon Brown is having difficulty balancing the books with economic growth in its present healthy state, a 0.5% cut could easily send the British economy over the cliff.

Woe is me

It is now 5 O'clock on Tuesday afternoon - only one hour to go to my deadline - and I can put it off no longer.
I refer, of course, to Saturday's terrible events in Cardiff.
Unfortunately, I failed to observe my self-denying ordinance on Lenten gambling, with the result that I have to face the humiliation of handing over a fiver to Mike Jones of M J motors.
I have to admit that England were a bit lucky to get off with fewer than 40 pts, though I was really impressed with Harry Ellis's brilliant reading of the bounce when he scored the first try.
Still we finished above Italy!
My only real grumble is that there was only one week between the last two series of matches, which meant I was cheated out of 50% of my euphoria rations following England's victory over France.
I understand England are to play Wales at Twickenham in August.
It's going to be a long, long summer.
And, if losing to Wales wasn't bad enough, a worrying trend seems to be emerging in matches played between the Eurozone and the Sterling area.
Indeed, in cross-currency exchanges, the euro came top by seven matches to two. .
My resident number-cruncher says this is statistically significant, and not a result you would expect to arise purely at random.
It is difficult to see what causal connection there might be between the colour of the money in your pocket and prowess on the rugby field, but the numbers cannot lie.
Finally, I am grateful to Cllr Michael Williams of Tenby, who e-mailed shortly after the final whistle offering to put me in touch with a counsellor specialising in treating people with low self-esteem.
Very considerate, Michael! but I'll stick with the Merlot, thanks.
If its good enough for Freddie Flintoff, its good enough for me.
All in all, taking one thing with another, it's not been a particularly good week to be English.
PS. Michael Williams has e-mailed to say it's never a good week to be English.
Much more of that and he'll be hearing from Trevor Phillips.

 

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