March 7 2006

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

Double agent

Thursday's meeting of the county council approved the authority's budget.
The budget was first presented to Cabinet in early January, and since then it has been before four scrutiny committees and February's Cabinet.
What is amazing is that, during this journey, not a single penny has been moved from one budget heading to another; indicating either total unanimity, or total indifference, among members.
Not being a member of any scrutiny committee, last Thursday's meeting was Old Grumpy's first opportunity to speak on the issue.
Last year, when the budget came before full council for final approval, I was told that it was too late to make alterations, which seemed to bear out my theory that the elected members are nothing but an expensive rubber stamp.
However, in what must be counted as one small step for democracy, when last Thursday I argued that the council's power to approve the budget must imply the power to not approve the budget, the ruling elite agreed.
So, in order to test the water, I put forward an amendment to transfer £30,000 from the money earmarked for the National Cycle Network into the scheme for improving parking on the authority's council estates.
It came as no surprise that the Independent Political Group voted down this proposal.
What was surprising, however, was that Cllr Clive Collins, chaired the debate and voted on the issue because, whenever Old Grumpy drove past the recently constructed cycle path through the Thornton industrial estate, I couldn't help but notice that the works were populated by a fleet of rollers, dumpers and mini-diggers painted a rather unattractive orange colour and bearing the name "Collins Bros".
Indeed, my understanding is that, when it comes to providing plant for these cycle track developments, Cllr Collins' company has a virtual monopoly.
If I am right about that, it would mean that Cllr Collins had an interest to declare, and a pecuniary interest at that.
A Freedom of Information request has been submitted and a further report will follow in due course.

Double-speech

Last week's meeting also found me under attack from Cabinet member Cllr Islwyn Howells.
Cllr Howells was answering a written question on the Welsh language from Plaid's Cllr Moira Lewis when he decided to take a pop at me for something I had written about his making speeches in both Welsh and English.
I haven't yet been able to locate the offending article but, as I recall, it was a piece about the difficulty in reconciling the time limit on speeches with a member's right to put their case bilingually.
In short, if speeches are limited to five minutes, does that mean two-and-a-half, or five, minutes in each language.
Clearly, if bilingual members are restricted to 2.5 minutes each in Welsh and English that puts them at a disadvantage because they will only be able to put half their argument.
Equally, if members are allowed to hold forth for five minutes in both languages they gain an unfair advantage because they have the opportunity to put their case twice to the bilingual section of their audience.
This was a tongue in cheek piece designed to demonstrate the difficulty in making even the simplest of rules.
Still, I should have learned by now that someone who takes himself as seriously as Cllr Howells is hardly likely to be over-endowed in the sense of humour department.
What I think is really annoying him is that I have drawn attention to his activities regarding the Tetra mast in his Uzmaston constituency which he opposed despite the clearest possible advice from the planning officers that the company MMO2 would almost certainly win an appeal if the council refused permission.
That appeal has now been won and the council has been ordered to pay its own and MMO2's costs.
In answer to my question to last Thursday's meeting, the Leader said that the council's costs amounted to some £27,000 but they had not yet received MMO2's bill.
However, when it eventually arrives, it is hardly likely to be less that that of the council, so, as I predicted more than a year ago (see Playing for time) and (Dismasted), we now have both the Tetra mast and a large bill for costs.
In my earlier article I suggested a cost of £15,000, but I was clearly selling m'learned friends' short because the outcome is likely to be more like £55,000.
As cabinet member for education, Cllr Howells will know how many hours of tuition that would have bought for the aspiring musicians in the county's schools.
My own calculation, based on £15 per hour, is 3,600 hours.
It is up to the voters to decide whether that would be a better way of spending £55,000 than on Cllr Howells' excursion into gesture politics.
Interestingly, the Code of Conduct has something to say on this subject.
At Section 8(a), under the heading: "Objectivity and propriety" the code requires that "A member when reaching decisions must reach decisions on the basis of the merits of the circumstances involved and in the public interest."
As I have said before, I am at a loss to see what public interest is served by Cllr Howells' conduct in this case.

Double-talk


I got the impression from Cllr Howells' attack on me that he was trying to paint me as anti-Welsh language.
As someone who was bought up bilingually, I resent that suggestion.
I remember Mr Walter Purdham, one of my primary school teachers, telling us that, when Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins visited my home town during their 1847 tour of Cumberland, one or other of them was heard to say: "In Wigton, they speak a language that the strangers do not know."
In his book on the roots of English, my fellow Wigtonian, Melvyn Bragg, gives some examples of this strange twang; thought to be a mixture of Old Norse, Anglo Saxon, Welsh and Romany, especially this last which is said to stem from the numerous gypsy encampments that once encircled the town.
So, if you visit Wigton, you will still hear people saying 'Gizza deek at t'cower' (can I have a look at that thing) and 'Deek t'gadjie widt barey mort' (look at that man with that nice-looking girl).
They also use the construction 'ister' as in ister gaan? (are you going?) and 'waster' (rhymes with faster) as in waster theer? (were you there?) and ester as in ester got a cuddy? (have you got a donkey?)
In the fells above Wigton they even have a method of counting the sheep that goes yan, taen, tethera, methera, pimp.
I believe it goes on from there, but my farming relatives were so poor they had no need to master the higher numbers.
At school there was a constant battle with the teachers as they tried, against the odds, to get us to speak proper English.
Although there is no mention of it in Melvyn's book, the word was that, in order to help him get on in life, his mother packed him off to Carlisle for elocution lessons.
Seems to have worked!
The last time I had a serious problem with Wigtonian English was when I returned from a university interview and had to go and see the head to tell him how I'd got on.
"They ast uz ..." I started, with my native pronunciation of asked, and the customary 'uz', instead of me, before being sharply interrupted by the Boss.
"Who's uz?" he snapped, "Did you take your mother with you?"


Double standards

The controversy over Red Ken's one-month suspension continues with an article in the local government magazine "First" claiming that elected councillors should only be removed from office if they "have done something illegal".
I think there may be some confusion here between that which is illegal and that which is criminal.
Following an investigation, the statutory Standards Board for England has found that Mr Livingstone has breached the statutory Code of Conduct.
The Standards Board has reported its findings to the statutory Adjudication Panel, which, using the powers given to it by Parliament, has suspended him for a month.
If the complaint is that these rules flow from Statutory Instruments rather than Acts of Parliament then it is a case of double standards because many of the regulations that Mayor Ken's officials enforce against the citizens of London will have the same legislative pedigree.
Of course, we can all have our opinions about the appropriateness of Mr Livingstone's punishment and even the desirability of having a Code of Conduct and the apparatus to enforce it, but, as things stand, he has been found to have committed an illegal act and has been dealt with by due process.
Whether that state of affairs persists will depend on the success, or otherwise, of his appeal.


Double entry

As was entirely predictable, the attempt by Cllr Malcolm Calver to have the full text of ex-county council leader Maurice Hughes' solicitor's bill made available was voted down by the Independent Political Group (see Information blackout).
In order to maintain this veil of secrecy, the council relies on the doctrine of solicitor-client confidentiality, though, as I have pointed out previously, the duty of confidentiality flows from the solicitor to the client and there is nothing in the doctrine to prevent the client - in this case the county council - from divulging the information.
How much easier the Leader finds it to prattle on endlessly about the principles of open, transparent local government that to practice them.
Hughes' need for a solicitor arose from a letter he wrote to Cllr Michael Williams in which he accused Old Grumpy of making false allegations to the police about Cllr Brian Hall's unorthodox expense-claiming practices (see Hughes letter).
Naturally, I didn't take kindly to being called a liar by mendacious Maurice, so I threatened to sue.
One of the claims made by Hughes was that the allegations about Cllr Hall's expense fiddling had "been investigated at every possible level and I hate to think how many tens of thousands of pounds of public money have been wasted on this ridiculous wild goose chase."
The wildness, or otherwise, of this particular goose can be judged from the information to be found at The Time Lord.
I was aware that, as part of their investigation, the police had taken a statement from the council's Director of Finance, Mr Mark Lewis.
Having failed to obtain a copy of that statement by way of a Notice of Motion to the council (that Independent Political Group block vote, again) I resorted to the Freedom of Information Act and was pleasantly surprised when, a few months later, the police provided me with a copy.
It contained the words "I am employed by Pembrokeshire County Council as the Director of Finance and Leisure and have been so since 1995. My position gives me access to all financial records within the council. I am aware that a complaint of fraud has been made to the police regarding expense claims by Cllr Brian Hall. I have myself examined these claims and confirm they are correct in every detail and do not believe any fraudulent act has taken place."
"Every detail" includes receipts for the Severn Bridge crossing (timed at 12.56 pm) and the purchase of a meal at the First Motorway Service Station, nr Magor (timed at 1.08 pm).
On the same day, Cllr Hall's expense claim shows that he left Pembroke Dock at 2.00 pm to attend a meeting in Swansea, claiming £63 for the return journey.
Incidentally, the meeting in Swansea commenced at 2.00 pm so Hall couldn't have got there on time even if he had travelled directly from the service station.
Following receipt of the copy of Mr Lewis' statement, the full text of which can be seen at Statement, it came to my notice that he had made a second statement to the police.
So, not wishing to jump the gun, I applied for a copy under the Freedom of Information Act.
This request was refused and I have now appealed to the Information Commissioner.
One of the reasons given by the police for this refusal was that : "Release of a statement in a previous request from the same individual concerning the same subject matter has had a detrimental effect with partner agency and the individual concerned."
Naturally, I was fascinated to know what had passed between the county council and the police so I made another FoI request for copies of all letters, emails and notes of telephone conversations with regard to this matter.
The police now inform me that no such records exist and that "force knowledge of the aspect of detrimental effect had been obtained throughout the course of conversation(s) held by individuals that were not documented."
How very cosy!
Could Old Grumpy suggest that, while good relations with partner agencies may be important, they do not override the primary duty of the police which is to uphold the law.
Two questions arise out of this:
Firstly, is it right that the county council should interfere in a Freedom of Information matter by putting pressure on the police?
Secondly, should the police take any notice of the county council's views?
I shall be pursuing both these issues with the Information Commissioner.
In the meantime, I have submitted a further FoI request to the police asking for the identities of the two sides' conversationists.



Double bill

Old Grumpy hears that last Friday ended in a mad social whirl for the county council's nomenclatura.
At one end of the country (Cardiff, actually) a ten-strong contingent led by the Chief Executive and the Leader spent the evening at the "Celebrating Success" event at the St David's Hotel - a sort of Oscars ceremony for local government
Also present, I am told, representing the Mid and West Wales Fire Service was its chairman Cllr Brian Hall, resplendent in white tuxedo.
Is he making a play for the Martin Bell role?
"Celebrating Success" was the culmination of this year's "Excellence Wales" programme ". . . a new initiative introduced by the Welsh Local Government association for 2006.
Funded by the Welsh Assembly, the aim of Excellence Wales is to share the wealth of current good practice amongst all the local councils in Wales.
The result will be improvements to public services delivered to the highest of standards.
It is open to all local authorities in Wales and the projects will be judged by an independent panel made up from a cross section of people from public life."
(Further details can be found at www.wlga.gov.uk).
I am told that, as our local contingent made their way home in the chauffeur-driven limo, it more resembled a wake than a wedding because Team-Pembrokeshire didn't pick up a single award.
Still, it's not the winning that matters, but the taking part.
Meanwhile, another party of senior county council worthies was tucking into free nosh at the Wolfscastle Country Club where they were the guests of the ratepayers on a county council-sponsored table at the dinner to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Prince's Trust.
I am told there should have been ten of them (five husbands and wives) but one pair; believed to be vice-chairman Steve Watkins and his consort, cried off.
Full information on who else the Chief Executive selected to take part in this taxpayer-funded freebie is not yet to hand, but readers can be assured that the Watkins' dinners didn't go to waste because one of your guests was none other than Alwyn "Monster Muncher" Luke.
For details of Monster Muncher's expertise with a knife and fork (or pen) in hand see Master forger?

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

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