4 March 2003


Late lunch

Last Thursday I toddled along to County Hall to hear the County Council in all its majesty give its final approval to next year's budget.
Previously, the budget had been before the Cabinet (twice) and each of the four Scrutiny Committees and as it came to last week's full Council not a single penny had been moved from one area of spending to another, except, that is, the several hundreds of pounds it cost for the tribunes of the people to drive back and fore to Haverfordwest at 50p a mile.
Not only had the budget, as devised by the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB), survived intact but at no time did a single member even suggest that some of the money lavished on expensive food and wines, chauffeur-driven cars and London garden parties, might be better spent on school books or home helps.
Such lack of political activism is remarkable considering that our sixty elected representatives are set to trouser a total of £965,910 in "Members' Allowances" during the coming year.
This compares unfavourably with their annual take of £338,510 when we last had the opportunity to pass judgement on their performance at the 1999 election.
Although COMB's budget emerged unscathed from last Thursday's meeting proceedings were certainly not dull as the three opposition parties (Labour, Lib Dem and Plaid) deployed their weapons of mass disruption against the ruling clique.
Three-times the Independent junta was ambushed with time-consuming recorded votes; Cllr Barrie Woolmer made a valiant attempt to have Standing Orders suspended; and numerous points of order were lobbed into the Independent Group's heavily fortified bunker.
Points of order are a valuable weapon in the armoury of any minority opposition in an autocracy because Standing Order 7.12 provides: "A member may raise a point of order at any time. The Chairman will hear them immediately. A point of order may only relate to an alleged breach of these Committee Rules of Procedure or the law. The member must indicate the rule or law and the way he/she considers it has been broken. The ruling of the Chairman will be final."
But points of order are only effective when the Chairman is a believer in the basic principles of democracy under the rule of law, and I can't remember when that situation last prevailed in Pembrokeshire County Council.
So, when Cllr Terry Mills (Lab) rose on a point of order, the Chairman, rather than hearing him "immediately", as required by Standing Orders, told him: "I'm not taking your point of order".
Lib Dem Leader Cllr John Allen asked the Monitoring Officer (the council's top legal brain) for a ruling on whether the Chairman was following the correct procedure by refusing to allow Cllr Mills to put his point of order, but answer came there none.
Cllkr Allen stood his ground and demanded a ruling.
At that, Alwyn "The Fiddler" Luke began to wave his arms up and down like an over-excited choirmaster who had blundered into a hornet's nest.
This was, in fact, a signal to the Chairman to deploy the nuclear option contained in SO 12.1 "When the Chairman stands during a debate, any member speaking at the time must stop. The meeting must be silent."
At that point, His Leadership, Cllr Maurice Hughes, jumped up to declare: "what we've seen in the last five minutes is not what we want in Pembrokeshire."
For a brief moment, I thought His Leadership was criticising the Chairman for riding roughshod over Article 5 of the constitution where it says that the duty of the Chairman is "to uphold and promote the purposes of the constitution …"
Alas it turned out that the reason for his annoyance was the insistence of the minority parties that the council should be run on democratic lines.
Deputy leader John Allen-Mirehouse, the Laird of Angle, thought he detected a plot.
He told the meeting that he had gone into the members' tea room one afternoon, recently, and found Cllrs Michael Williams (Plaid); John Allen and Bill Philpin (Lib Dem) and Joyce Watson, Terry Mills and Barrie Woolmer (Lab) "in conference".
At last, I thought, the opposition have woken up to the fact that, faced with an Independent Political (sic) Group majority of 39-21 and a record of voting the party line, unmatched outside the Politburo, they have no prospect of ever winning a vote in the council, and have resorted to spoiling tactics.
Sadly, I was to be disillusioned when Labour Leader Joyce Watson stood up and told the meeting that the opposition "were not being bloody minded and obstructive".
This was a bit like being told that the horse you had backed was being held back for some future race.
I left soon after, though I was heartened to later hear that the meeting, which, under normal circumstances, would have been over by 11 am, had gone on until two in the afternoon.
Even better, my mole tells me, the lamb chops, especially prepared for the members' luncheon, were all cold and greasy by the time they arrived at the canteen.


Still waiting


Still no word from the County Council's Monitoring Officer on whether I have the right, under the Audit Commission Act 1998, to details of rents received by the authority (see: Sauce for the goose, 18 February).
I also understand that a councillor who asked for the same information has been refused on the grounds that he couldn't establish "a need to know".
Strangely, my previous requests for documents in respect of rents paid by the council's tenants at Withybush Airfield were met without demur.
The reason for my interest is Cllr Brian Hall's lease of the council-owned industrial unit at 75 Stockwell Road, Pembroke Dock.
This lease was granted in September 2000 and, according to the report to the Property Services sub-committee, Cllr Hall was to be allowed a three-month rent-free period in lieu of works to be carried out at the property at his own expense.
More than two years later, these works have still not been completed, leading to the obvious question: has the three-months rent rebate been reclaimed?
If not, there would seem to a breach of the provision in the Code of Conduct, which requires that members, in the role of council tenants or applicants for planning consent, "… should never seek or accept (my emphasis) preferential treatment in those dealings [with the authority] …".
Five weeks have now elapsed since the Monitoring Officer wrote to me saying that he hoped to reach a conclusion on this issue "shortly", and three weeks since he told me: "I had hoped to conclude this issue this week but I am still awaiting a response to one particular line of enquiry."
You can bet your life, had the other lines of enquiry supported the desired conclusion, I would have heard about it by now.


And waiting

Nor am I having much joy in my quest to find out the truth about the business relationship between Cllr Hall and the authority's economic development consultant Dr Michael Ryan; the sole shareholders and directors of Euro-Ryall Ltd (see Half-truths).
You will remember that His Leadership, Cllr Maurice Hughes put out a press release about this subject way back in November in which he said that "They [Hall and Ryan] gave firm undertakings that they would not trade in Pembrokeshire …"
According to a letter sent to me by the Monitoring Officer this is at best a half truth (about as good as it gets with the county council) because, it appears, only Dr Ryan has given such an undertaking.
And, as it is reasonable to assume that people who form a company intend to trade somewhere, then, if not Pembrokeshire, where?
Of particular interest is the period 16-19 November 2000, which Cllr Hall and Dr Ryan spent in Pembroke Dock together, in the company of a Mr Pat O'Sullivan.
This was three and a half months after Dr Ryan's appointment on 1 August 2000 and six weeks before the incorporation of Euro-Ryall on 29 December 2000.
Normally, it would fall to an officer to accompany an economic development consultant on a tour of the area.
To my way of thinking, to give the task to an elected member would be highly unusual if not downright irregular.
Even if I am wrong about that, it is difficult to see why Cllr Hall, who was at the time Chairman of Highways, should be singled out for special treatment rather than one of the other three local members, none of whom, as far as I know, was aware of Dr Ryan's existence until it was revealed in this column last October.
And, of course, what is crucial is whether Hall and Ryan decided to set up in business together before or after 13 November 2000.
If before, the suspicion must be that they were in Pembroke Dock on their own account rather than representing the people of Pembrokeshire from whom Hall was claiming travelling and subsistence allowances.
What we do know for certain is that, when Hall twice entertained Dr Ryan to lunch at our expense in February 2001, they were already in bed together, figuratively speaking.




He would say that

Of Karl Popper's many contributions to philosophy, his test for spotting a platitude must rank highly.
According to my dictionary a platitude is "a trite or commonplace remark, especially one solemnly delivered."
Popper said that the way to spot these examples of high-sounding meaninglessness was to consider the converse.
So, for example, when that Prince of platitudes, Cllr Peter Stock, stands up in a council meeting and says "I want to do what is best for the people of Pembrokeshire" all you have to do is substitute "worst" for "best" and see if it still sayable.
Clearly no politician would ever say that he wanted to do the worst for those he represented, so Cllr Stock's original remark is, on the Popper test, a platitude.
Mandy Rice-Davies who, as older readers will remember, was Christine Keeler's call girl companion in the Profumo affair, had her own version of the Popper test.
While being questioned on the testimony of another witness during the trial of Steven Ward, the society pimp at the heart of the Profumo scandal, Ms Rice-Davies uttered the immortal words "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he."
Which brings me, effortlessly, to Saddam Hussein.
Last week, during an interview with the veteran American reporter Dan Rather, Saddam dismissed the idea that he might do a runner to Libya, or wherever, if the Americans invaded.
Not only would he not take flight, the great dictator said, but would stand shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqi people in a fight to the death, with one last bullet kept in his revolver as insurance against falling into US hands.
Much of the western media seemed to be impressed by this show of bravado, though Popper would surely have pointed out that Saddam was hardly likely to announce to the world that, once the first Yank tank crossed the border, he would have his backside out of Iraq before you could say Osama bin Laden.
Or, as Mandy would have put it: he would say that, wouldn't he!

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