May 10 2012

Missed opportunity

Yet again, the Western Telegraph has waited until after the county council elections to publish an editorial revealing the truth about the Independent Political Group.
You will recall that, a couple of weeks after the 2008 election, Wales biggest selling weekly newspaper; the one that " Fights for Pembrokeshire", described the ruling IPG as"... a farcical 'independent' cabal, or a cabinet of puppets, presiding over the last supper of democracy", adding for good measure: "What a sad state local government has slumped into: polarised by party politics and overshadowed by the 'independent' umbrella of the ruling oxymoron party".(Censored).
This time around the WT uses rather more measured language, asking how many those who stood as independents will have "the courage of their convictions" and "stand by their election campaigns and remain truly independent".
From what I am hearing, the answer is: quite a few, who, added to those who tripped over the ballot box, are enough to erode the huge majority that the non-political political party has enjoyed in the past.
The editorial goes on to seek an explanation as to why so many members casually discard their election promise to be "truly independent" once the votes are safely in the bag.
The WT suggests: "It can be argued that joining the ruling Independent [Political] Group may give you more clout to help your own constituents while, equally, critics point out that the potential for extra allowances from chairman and vice-chairman titles, or sitting on outside bodies, could influence the decision."
Well, given the requirement to respect my fellow members, I have to be careful what I say, but I would point out that the WT omitted the Leader (£28,000) and eight Cabinet posts at 15 grand a throw from its list of potential goodies.
But the "extra clout" to help your constituents is a theme that has cropped up more than once in my conversations with IPG members.
It is not easy to see how this "extra clout" is to be deployed without running into what I like to refer to as "The Dame Shirley Porter problem".
The Code of Conduct has something to say on this subject.
Para 4(d) provides: "You must not do anything which compromises, or which is likely to compromise the impartiality of those who work for, or on behalf of, the council."
And Paragraph 7 (b) (v) reads: "You must not use, or authorise others to use, the resources of your authority improperly for political purposes."
Turning to the Code of Conduct for employees, under the heading "Political neutrality" we read: "Employees serve the authority as a whole. It follows they must serve all Councillors and not just those of the ruling group, and must ensure that the individual rights of all councillors are respected."
Finally, under "Member/Employee relationships" we have: "2.2 It is not the role of members to involve themselves in the day to day management of council services and employees."
Reading those provisions together, it is difficult to see what advantage a member of the ruling group could, legally, have over the rest of us.
So, any claims by your councillor that they have been responsible for all the acres of new tarmac that have appeared in your area should be taken with a pinch of salt (The love . . . ).
I think the underlying democratic principle of equality is exactly the same as that which applies to individual councillors.
During an election campaign candidates have supporters and opponents; friends and enemies; and voters and non-voters.
Once elected, a member has only constituents; all of whom are entitled to equal consideration.
Anybody who has difficulty buying in to that shouldn't be allowed within a million miles of political power.

Quick off the mark

According to the Western Telegraph the IPG's Leader in waiting, Cllr Jamie Adams, told its reporter on Friday that "it was too early to talk about the Independent [Political] Group"
This was the same Friday which saw leading members of the too-early-to-talk-about political group hanging around at the count handing out printed invitations in an attempt to recruit new members.
Some considerate soul kindly left one of these invites in my pigeon hole at County Hall, so you can see it for yourself.

Unfortunately, as this was the day after the meeting, I wasn't able to go along and witness proceedings first hand.
However, Old Grumpy has been watching from the sidelines as this recruitment drive has got underway and, by piecing together the various morsels of information I have gleaned from those present and on the fringes, I have been able to build up a fairly complete picture.
It seems from reports in today's Mercury that Cllr Jamie Adams - the leader you were not told about in these "truly independent" candidates' election material - now has the 31 votes necessary for a majority.
From what I hear, the method by which this has been achieved is unlikely to inspire confidence in anyone who values open, accountable democracy.
During the last council there were 39 IPG members, seven of whom stood down leaving 32 standing for election.
First the good news which is that existing IPG member Mike Evans has decided he has had enough of the machinations inside the IPG and will be "truly independent" from now on.
That leaves them with 31.
More good news: five of the group's existing members (Clive Collins, Jim Codd, Anne Hughes, John George and Maureen Molyneaux) were voted out.
Two of their replacements (Paul Miller and Stephen Joseph) are party candidates, so they won't be joining the IPG.
The other three all stood as independents and my information is that the two who attended the recruitment meeting, Jacob Williams and David Lloyd, both declined to sign up.
The third (Tessa Hodgson) wasn't, for whatever reason, invited, but I have strong grounds for believing that she won't be signing either.
If my analysis is correct that reduces the IPG to 26.
Next we have replacements for the seven retiring members.
Of these, Guy Woodham and Pat Davies are both Labour, so they will not be contributing to the required 31.
Of the other five , Keith Lewis, Daphne Bush are thought to be likely to join the IPG, taking the party's strength to 28.
It all becomes a bit murky after that.
The remaining three are Lyn Jenkins, Reg Owens and Paul Harris
I understand that Reg Owens is reluctant to sign because, among other reasons, he is a Labour Party member and risks expulsion from the party if he joins another political group on the council.
Assuming the other two join, that would make 30.
And finally there are the two independents, John Nutting and Steve Yelland, who defeated sitting Tories..
As John Nutting made great play of his robust independence in his election campaign , I don't expect he'll sign up.
Cllr Yelland's papers were signed by former IPG bigwig Islwyn Howells so he is considered to be a likely recruit which would bring the IPG's strength up to the magic figure of 31.
There is a further complication in that my moles tell me that Cllr Brian Hall is refusing to sign unless he is restored to the Cabinet.
Regular readers will remember that he tried something similar in 2008 (Joined-up Government) (Brian's revenge) and eventually had to cave in.
I expect the same this time around, but wouldn't rule out the possibility of his being handed a lesser billet.
However, as the mathematicians among you will have already worked out, if Cllr Hall hasn't signed up, then one of the doubtfuls named above must have taken his place among the 31.
Cllr Adams has a rather more difficult task than his predecessor because he is working with a diminished war chest.
Since 2008, the payment of Special Responsibility Allowances to vice-chairmen of committees has been discontinued, reducing the payroll vote by six.
In addition, when it had 39 members, the IPG was entitled to eight paid positions on the National Park Authority; with 31,or 32, that is reduced to seven.
I am not sure about the police authority, but I fancy that, if the council is equally balanced between the opposition and the ruling group, the IPG may have to surrender one of its two places on that, too.
Update. The police authority has now been abolished so that puts paid to two lucrative billets at eight grand a time.
As the party is largely held together by patronage, the loss of eight or nine from the payroll vote is a serious blow.
Aside from the prospect of an SRA, the other attraction is the perception that being a member of the ruling group "will help to get things done in your ward" thus boosting your chances of re-election.
As I have pointed out above, such favouritism would be of dubious legality and, in any case, the system doesn't work like that, as I'm sure Clive Collins, Jim Codd, Anne Hughes, John George and Maureen Molyneux will all testify.
Indeed, sitting members of the IPG have a poor record at elections.
Seven of them, including the then Leader and three Cabinet members, lost their seats in 2004 (Night of the long faces) and it was the same in 2008 (May 13 2008)
On both occasions, despite losing almost 20% of its seats, the party's sophisticated recruitment strategy allowed it to bounce back with its majority intact. (All change - no change).
It hasn't worked out so well this time.
PS I notice that the Mercury has spotted that the Grumpy family hold as many seats as the official Conservatives.
What the paper might also have mentioned is that there are more Tory party members in the IPG (Cllrs Bryan, Edwards,Morse and Wildman) than there are on the Conservative benches.
Hard to believe, especially as the Tories hold all four of the county's national seats.
I will analyse the Tories' efforts, or lack of them, next week.
I hear there may be some further exciting developments so look out for updates under "Stop Press" on my home page.
PS One piece of gossip that I didn't report because I thought it sounded improbable was an account of a conversation between Cllr Reg Owens and Leader-elect Cllr Jamie Adams.
As it was told to me, when Cllr Adams approached Cllr Owens about the possibility of his joining the IPG, the bold Reg replied that he would only consider signing up if he could have the job vacated by Anne Hughes..
I thought this a bit far-fetched, but now I read in the Mercury that Cllr Owens is looking for a role involving "some sort of position dealing with child support, child abuse and welfare."
Which is exactly what Anne Hughes' former Cabinet position entailed.
I have known Reg Owens for about 40 years and, much as I would like to see as many independents as possible stay faithful to the dictionary definition, I can think of nothing better designed to upset the IPG applecart than to have someone as outspoken and opinionated as Reg inside their tent.
A red hot socialist pitched into the middle of all those Tory posh boys - the mind boggles.


One casualty of the election results is the plan to set up an alternative group - The Pembrokeshire Alliance.(The grapevine)
It was rumoured that Peter Stock and Brian Hall were both leading lights in this breakaway movement, but both deny any involvement.
Another potential participant was said to be William Rees, but his aspirations were torpedoed when he came a distant second behind Pearl Llewellyn in Monkton.
I know this group was on the cards for the simple reason that I was asked to join.
I won't embarrass the person who asked me by naming names but the email seeking my support said I would have to forget "old enmities".
I replied that I couldn't see why my objections to IPG Mark1 shouldn't apply equally to IPG Mark 2.
The response was that the advantage of joining a group was that a member can't achieve anything on their own.
And this group would be different.
Its manifesto would commit all members to open, accountable democracy, and the group would promise not to hold secret group meetings, or instruct its members how to vote.
The logical flaw in this scheme is that, unless a group votes as a block, it can't achieve anything that can't be achieved by a member acting alone.
Indeed, IPG Mark 1 members claim not to vote as a block, though they tend to fall silent when you ask them to explain the point of being in a political group if it is not to pursue some common purpose.
And, on the evidence of the recorded votes taken over the years, their claim to vote independently simply doesn't hold water. (voting machines)

Free speech rules - OK

Last week brought much good news, not the least of which was the High Court ruling that the decisions of Pembrokeshire County Council's standards committee and the Adjudication Panel for Wales (APW) regarding comments posted on Cllr Malcolm Calver's website were in breach of his right to freedom of expression enshrined in Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.
The Hon Mr Justice Beatson held that Cllr Calver's comments attracted the higher level of protection afforded to political expression and, therefore, the lower tribunals' decisions could not be allowed to stand.
In long and detailed judgment Mr Justice Beatson said the truth of what Cllr Calver had written was not disputed and "It suffices to say that restrictions on publication of both matters which are factual in nature and are demonstrated to be true, and of value judgments are generally difficult to justify under Article 10".
He cited with approval the judgment in Sanders v Kingston in which Wilkie J said:" . . . that in the context of political debate, there may be robust and even offensive statements in respect of which a finding of that the Code had been breached would be an unlawful infringement of the rights protected by Article 10"
Beatson J criticised the APW's finding that Cllr Calver's remarks were not political comment on the grounds that "it was all very one-sided".
He observed that one-sidedness did not preclude something being political expression, adding: "Indeed some would say that is a feature of much political expression"
The bad news is that this judgment came too late to help Cllr Calver's election prospects.
However, he has the consolation of knowing that, long after the 2012 county council elections have been forgotten, keen law students will be studying books on Human Rights in which the leading case Calver v Adjudication Panel for Wales will feature strongly.
Interestingly, this case come just over 100 years after the famous case of Tenby Corporation v Mason in which the Court of Appeal held that members of the press had no right to attend council meetings.
Parliament was so dismayed by this decision that soon after it passed the Local Authorities (Admission to Meetings) Act 1908 and to this day a plaque outside the Tenby Observer announces the paper as "The home of press freedom".
Must be something in the water down that end of the county.
While the decision in Malcolm Calver's case is encouraging, given my own troubles with the Ombudsman, it still leaves elected councillors, who are subject to the Code, in a worse position that members of the public at large because councillors have to rely on the Human Rights Act for protection while the general public's activities are only proscribed by the libel laws and the laws against incitement.
Malcolm's own views on the decision can be found at

The following appeared under "Stop Press" last week.

Election latest

Following the announcement of the election results on Friday, ruling IPG Godfathers were handing out neatly printed cards to newly-elected, non-party members inviting them to attend the group's inaugural meeting tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon..
Cllr David Wildman - one of the IPG's four card-carrying Tories, and your representative on the Hywel Dda Health Board - appeared to be in charge of this recruitment drive, so, in an effort to satisfy my curiosity about what goes on at these IPG meetings, I asked him if I could have an invite.
He told me that I could only have one if I intended to sign up.
But, as I pointed out, it is unreasonable to ask someone to make that commitment without them hearing what the "party" leadership had to say about its future plans.
After all, they surely can't expect me to buy a Pembrokeshire Independent Group in a poke.
Another who was not issued with an invitation was my daughter, who won the seat in Lamphey as an independent.
She was concerned that her exclusion was a case of visiting the sins of the father (and the mother) on the children, with the added implication that she wasn't capable of making up her own mind on these issues.
However, I reminded her that, in her election address, she had stated that she would be truly independent of all parties and groups, though, I might add, such declarations of "true independence" have never been a barrier to IPG membership in the past (Party Animals).
In an attempt to console her for this snub, I did suggest that the IPG was actually paying her a compliment by acknowledging that she was not the sort of person who tells the electorate one thing and then does another.
However, hope springs eternal and, from what I am hearing on the grapevine, there are a few among the newly-elected non-party members who can be similarly trusted to keep their word.
And don't be surprised if some existing IPG stalwarts, who have become disillusioned by the antics of the non-political political party, also join the unaligned.
Add to them the pragmatists, who will have been shocked by witnessing the political demise of IPG loyalists like Anne Hughes, John George, Jim Codd, Maureen Molyneux and Clive Collins, all of whom were soundly beaten by official party or staunchly independent candidates, and it is not difficult to contemplate a future where the IPG's iron grip on power is broken.
There has been an encouraging trend in this direction from two dictionary independents in 2004, to four in 2008, and the possibility of up to ten in 2012.
Progress is slow, but these sort of regimes don't loosen their grip on power without a fight.
After all, 21 years elapsed between the Prague Spring in 1968 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
By the way, I notice that Huw "Macadam" George's video "Black Magic" has been removed from You Tube "by the user" (The love that . . .).
Great pity - I was thinking about nominating it for the Turner Prize.
However, all is not lost because I believe a reader has downloaded a copy and I hope to have it back up soon.
Editor's Note. Tarmacadam was first used by the Scotsman John Loudon McAdam in around 1820, so there is plenty of time for his admirers to organise bicentenary celebrations of the event.
By the way, I searched the English - Welsh dictionary for tarmac and was disappointed to find the word is the same in both languages.
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