March 29 2005


A fishy tale

We are warned not to believe everything we read in the papers, nor anything that comes from the mouth of a politician.
So, when I saw a piece in the Western Telegraph in which Rhodri Morgan's gave his reasons for choosing Mwnt, near Cardigan as his favourite holiday destination , I cranked the scepticometer up to full blast.
The First Minister recalled a visit to Mwnt in the late 1970s when his son and he had witnessed, at close range, "...a dolphin flicked a mackerel six feet out of the water with its bottle nose - turning head over heels dozens of times, then caught it on the way down."
Thanks to the wonders of mathematics we can decide just how likely this is.
According to my calculations, the time taken for an object to fall six feet under the influence of gravity is about six-tenths of a second.
As the upward journey exactly mirrors the fall, the time lapse between the unfortunate fish leaving the dolphin's nose and entering its jaws is 1.2 seconds.
In order that the dolphin should execute "dozens" [24 minimum] of head over heels turns while the fish is airborne would require each revolution to take about 0.05 (five-hundredths) of a second, or, put another way, 1181 revs per minute.
That seems rather too much spin, even for a senior politician.



Assistant Cabinet Members.
What are they for?

Thanks to the wonders of the Freedom of Information Act, I have now obtained copies of the correspondence between the County Council and the Welsh Assembly regarding the appointment of deputy cabinet members.
The opening shot is a letter dated 23 June 2004 from Bryn Parry-Jones to Frank Cuthbert; a top Welsh Assembly civil servant.
"Dear Frank", it begins rather chummily, "Further to our conversation yesterday, I am writing to seek the Minister's approval of a proposal we have to create a number of Deputy Cabinet Members and to pay them a Special Responsibility Allowance from within the allowance currently earmarked for their corresponding Cabinet member."
What fascinates an untrained lawyer like Old Grumpy is the identity of the "we".
It certainly wasn't the council because the first meeting - the AGM - wasn't held until 29 June - six days after the letter was written.
And it couldn't have been the council leader because he was first appointed at the AGM.
In the event, the leader's notice of motion bringing in assistant cabinet members was passed, subject to Welsh Assembly approval, by full council on 13 July and, surprise, surprise, Frank's letter to "Bryn", giving the Minister's go-ahead, followed on 27 July.
To ensure that no extra costs would accrue, the Special Responsibility Allowance of the four Cabinet members lumbered with assistants was cut by one-third, with the money transferred to their side-kicks.
As I have said before, this led to a three-tier Cabinet: the Premier Division each with an SRA of £13,500, on top of their £11,000 basic (Cllrs Brian Hall, Peter Stock, David Wildman and Islwyn Howells); a first division on £9,000 (Cllrs David Simpson, Robert Lewis, Bill Roberts and Sion James); and the Vauxhall Conference (Cllrs Anne Hughes, Jim Codd, Mike Evans and Jamie Adams) on an extra £4,500 apiece.
As regular readers will know, Old Grumpy takes a jaundiced view of these non-leaguers, especially the fact that they also sit on the committees that are supposed to scrutinise the activities of the leader who appointed them and the cabinet of which they are members.
To my, admittedly, untrained eye this looks like the sort of foot-in-both-camps situation that offends against the principle of separation of powers and leads to an inevitable conflict of interest.
Interestingly, when Cllr Joyce Watson and I put forward a notice of motion calling for them to be barred from serving on scrutiny committees; as are the full blown Cabinet members, it was roundly defeated by the ruling group.
The Monitoring Officer's report recommending rejection of our Notice of Motion makes interesting reading.
After stating that the law limits the Cabinet to 10 members, it goes on to argue that as there are already 10 members of cabinet the four assistants cannot also be members of cabinet.
So "Whereas the ten members of the Cabinet cannot therefore sit on an Overview and Scrutiny Committee, there is nothing in the legislation or the Council's Constitution that prevents Deputy Executive Members from sitting on Overview and Scrutiny Committees."
Old Grumpy detects more than a hint of question-begging circularity in this reasoning.
Firstly, if the constitution barred DCMs from O and S committees it would have been rather stupid of Cllr Watson and me to put forward an amendment to the constitution seeking to duplicate what was already there.
And secondly, saying something is against the law has no bearing on whether or not the law has been broken.
That would be rather like being stopped for speeding and telling the policeman: "I couldn't have been doing 60, officer, because it's a thirty-mile-an-hour area."
But, then, when you have 38 independent members whose independent judgment always exactly coincides with that of the leadership, you don't need to concern yourself too much with trifling matters like logic.
And logic didn't get much of a look in when the reasons for the need these assistants was put to the council.
As I recall, in the case of Bill Roberts, who had previously been the Premier Division member with responsibility for housing, the reason he needed to hand over a third of his allowance to have his hand held by Nurse Hughes from the medical centre was that the portfolio was too big for one person to cope with.
That simply doesn't stack up because the way to address that would be to leave Cllr Roberts in the top division and give him additional help by way of a non-league bag-carrier.
And that brings me to the most important issue: what, aside from picking up 90 quid a week, are these assistants for?
The answer, according to the Monitoring Officer's report is " support and advise individual members of the Executive [Cabinet] but who will not be able to substitute for a member of the Executive or play any formal part in the decision making process of the Executive."
In plain English: not very much.
If I was a cynic, God forbid, I might conclude that their primary function is to strengthen the leader's grip on the Independent Political (sic) Group by adding four members to his payroll vote.

The daffodil revolution

On 14 March 2005, the Chinese National People's Congress (CNPC) passed a law authorising military action against Taiwan should what China sees as its rebel province declare independence.
The law was passed by a vote of 2,896 to zero, with two abstentions.
A bit like Pembrokeshire county council's ruling Independent Political (sic) Group, though I don't recall as many as two abstentions in any debate in County Hall.
The Chinese would also seem to have some lessons to teach the IPG about the importance of free and open debate.
According to CNPC's website, Article 2 of the constitution gives members "the right to raise suggestions, criticisms and put forward opinions" when the congress is in session.
If only we on the county council's opposition benches had the same privileges we might have been better able to resist Chairman John's ruthless suppression of our questions during the recent debate on the budget.
Still, mustn't despair!
Hasn't George Bush promised to devote his second term to spreading democracy to all corners of the world?
And where Kyrgyzstan leads, Pembrokeshire must surely follow.

The professor has emailed to tell me that last week's claim that a perfectly valid logical argument can lead to an false conclusion is "a complete load of tosh".
It is so long since I last heard from him that I thought he had gone off to the great university in the sky.
It is nice to know he is still among us: living proof that the supply of top quality academics has not kept pace with the growth in the number of university chairs.
He has never explained what his speciality is but, if that's how little he knows about logic, it must be media studies or golf course management.
As my battered old copy of Irving M Copi's "Introduction to logic" puts it: "Nor does the validity of an argument guarantee the truth of the conclusion. There are perfectly valid arguments which have false conclusions - but any such arguments must have at least one false premise."

Headlong Flight

It is hard to believe that an Oxbridge-educated, trained lawer - and a QC at that - could be so inept as to plunge his party into turmoil just weeks before a General Election, but that is what Michael Howard has managed to do with his ham-fisted handling of the sacking of Howard Flight.
Nobody would have been in the least bit concerned if he had merely removed Flight from his position as deputy party chairman but to bar him from standing as a candidate at the next election is way over the top.
But what is really amazing is that it is no longer acceptable for high-ranking Tories to question the size of the state.
It is surely a triumph for New Labour's propaganda machine that high levels of public spending have come to be seen as an unquestionable good thing.
Below is a graph that I have borrowed from the Sunday Telegraph which shows the percentage of GDP taken by governments across the English-speaking world.

What is interesting is that the level of public spending is almost exactly the reverse of the growth rates of the economies shown.
The comparison would be even more dramatic if France and Germany, where the governments take is around 50%, were included, because they have experienced years of stagnation with unemployment topping 5 million in Germany for the first time since the days of the Weimar Republic, and more than 10% of the French workforce is on the dole.

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