May 14 2009

 

Party games

Not having much enthusiasm for foregone conclusions, I didn't attend the stitch up known as the county council AGM.
I am not sure what I like least about this event: the exchange of baskets of taxpayer-funded flowers: the pinning on of chains; or the self-congratulatory speeches, but I did know that I wouldn't enjoy watching Cllr Anne Hughes' installation as chairman as her ultimate reward for joining the Independent Political Group despite her promise to the electorate that: "I am standing as a true independent with no political allegiance to any party. I WILL NOT abide or be controlled by party policy." (Cllr Hughes' emphasis throughout). (Party animals).
It must, then, be purely coincidental that, in her five years on the council, Cllr Hughes has unfailingly voted the party ticket.
However, I am told that there was a minor departure from the standard procedure because the appointments of chairs and vice-chairs followed nominations from the floor rather than anointment by the Leader
As I have said previously, the idea of the Leader choosing who will chair the committees that are supposed to scrutinise the activities of him and his Cabinet is profoundly undemocratic, not to say anti-democratic (Pick your own).
That the Leader couldn't see this for himself says all you need to know about his vaulting ambition and his hunger for power.
And I suspect that his enlightenment owes more to Welsh Assembly guidance: that scrutiny committees should not be seen to be under the control of the ruling group, than anything I have said (Useless opposition).

No expense spared

While no doubt damaging to democracy, there is no denying that the Daily Telegraph's reports on MP's' expense claims has added to the gaiety of the nation.
I am sure that democracy will soon get over it, though the reputations of some of these serial expense-fiddlers have probably been put beyond repair.
In the beginning the mantra was that "it was all within the rules" together with an acceptance that the rules needed to be changed.
It was almost as if MPs were the victims rather than the beneficiaries of these lax arrangements.
When that failed to stem the flow of public outrage, there was a belated admission that what had gone on was wrong, followed by a mad scramble to regain a foothold on the moral high ground by repaying some of their ill-gotten gains.
It would all be more convincing if they had been campaigning to reform the rules before it became clear that the information was about to be made public.
When you hear these charlatans say "sorry" you should mentally add: "that I was found out".
The Speaker is in the firing line, firstly for spending £100,000 of our money to engage lawyers to fight the Information Commissioner's ruling that receipts should be made public and secondly for his intemperate attack on the saintly Kate Hoey.
In Tudor times, Speakers who incurred the wrath of the House had their heads chopped off, but that would require time-consuming, primary legislation and a faster, gentler method of disposal will need to be found.

Flipping hell

I notice that our MP Stephen Crabb has made a rare appearance in the Daily Telegraph's Hall of Shame.
According to the newspaper, in 2007, when he sold his London flat, Mr Crabb designated his home in Pembrokeshire as his "second home" i.e. the one on which MPs can claim Additional Costs Allowance (ACA).
This enabled him to claim £9,300 in Stamp Duty and £1,325 a month mortgage interest - £22,243 in all for the year 2007-2008.
His designated first home during this period, for which he couldn't claim ACA, was a rented flat he shared with a fellow MP.
In August 2008, the paper says, he moved into another London flat to which he then assigned second home status.
This would be the one referred to in an interview published in the Western Telegraph on April 8 this year.
Asked "Where is your second home?" Mr Crabb replied: "I have rented a two bedroom, ex-local authority flat in tower block in Bermondsey, south London for almost a year now".
Unfortunately the reporter neglected to ask: "And before that?"
In any case September 2008 - March 2009 is not "almost a year" in most people's book.
Mr Crabb told BBC Wales:
"Over the last four years juggling family life in two locations 250 miles apart has been extremely difficult. It has not been easy achieving settled arrangements but at no stage have I sought to change addresses for capital gain or to avoid capital gains tax."
Now, it is always wise to pay at least as much attention to what politicians don't say as to what they do.
Firstly, it is not clear why "flipping" second homes should make it easier to "juggle family life".
After all, London remains 250 miles from Haverfordwest whichever way you rank your homes.
Secondly, while he may not have changed addresses for capital gain, or avoidance of capital gains tax, he may have done so for financial gain.
Indeed, as he also told the BBC, the switch of his second home designation to Pembrokeshire "was actually suggested to me by an official in the fees office".
And what has become abundantly clear from the Telegraph's revelations is that there was a culture in the fees office that actively encouraged MPs to play the system.
Witness what I've just heard on the lunchtime news: that married Tory MPs Andrew McKay and Julie Kirkbride claim they were advised by the fees office to claim for separate second homes.
Mr McKay said he was sorry for his "error of judgement" in following the fees office advice.
But passing the blame to the the fees office simply will not wash.
As I understand the rules, the ranking of an MP's homes should be based on where they spend the most time rather than where they can claim the most expenses.

Silent conspirators

Sadly, my own modest efforts to clean up the expenses regime in Pembrokeshire County Council have not been anything like successful as the Daily Telegraph's campaign.
There are two reasons for this: lack of publicity and indifference, if not downright obstructiveness by the institutions that are supposed to safeguard the public interest.
The seminal case is that of Cllr Brian Hall whose expense claims for 1 February 2001 are chronicled at The Time Lord.
This involved the county council's director of finance giving a statement to the police in which he said that Cllr Hall's expense claims were correct in every detail; the chairman of the county council Rosemary Hayes (JP and churchwarden) making a statement to the council that Cllr Hall could "establish that he actually made the journeys for which he claimed travelling allowances" and a senior police officer trying to bullshit me that the police were powerless to investigate because the county council - "the injured party" - had declined to make a complaint The untouchables.
"Must make murder inquiries rather tricky", I remember telling him at the time.
When I attempted, by way of a notice of motion, to persuade the council to release a copy of Mr Lewis' statement, I was howled down by IPG bully-boys (Shouted down) though I am delighted to report all all three of my antagonists were thrown out at the last election.
I did eventually obtain a copy through the Freedom of Information Act when it became clear why the ruling junta wanted it suppressed (Mark Lewis statement).
Earlier the, then, Leader Maurice Hughes had tried to silence Cllr Michael Williams, who was taking an interest in what I had revealed about the corrupt relationship between Cllr Hall and Dr Michael Ryan, by writing to him saying: "I would remind you that this is the same website that has hounded Cllr Hall for many months over allegations that he had "fiddled his expenses".
These allegations of "expense fiddling" have now been investigated at every possible level and I hate to think how many tens of thousands of pounds of public money has been wasted on this ridiculous wild goose chase."
Happily, he became the ex-Leader at the next election.
This was the same Maurice Hughes who had twice claimed hotel expenses even though the council had prepaid the bill (Pot and kettle).
And then there was the Kafkaesque case where Cllr Hall was on private business for the purposes of the Code of Conduct and on official duty with regard to the Theft Act (Unseen evidence).
I could go on, and, when I have more time, I will.
And through all this not a single member of the Independent Political Group ever objected to what was going on.
On the contrary, those that didn't actively participate in the cover-up simply sat on their hands - except, that is, when using them to vote for whatever the leadership decreed.
Meanwhile, the supine local press - the supposed defenders of democracy - whose job it is to inform the public about what is being done in its name has given a passable imitation of the three wise monkeys.

Old hat

Despite representing the people most affected by LNG, Grumpette and I didn't get invited to the grand opening of South Hook.
So Grumpette's wide-brimmed hat remains in its box on top of the wardrobe.
I must save up and take her to Ascot next year.
Only joking!
According to BBC Wales this bash cost "millions of pounds".
Nice to know that they have money to throw around because when we suggested at a recent meeting with South Hook that they leaflet the whole of Hakin/Hubberston about the emergency procedures, rather than just those within a notional Public Information Zone, we were told it would cost too much.
Wales on Sunday carried an interesting piece about human rights in the desert kingdom which it claimed: ". . . stones and flogs citizens convicted of certain crimes" and ". . . has come under huge pressure to improve its treatment of women and attitude to human rights."
But, according to WoS, the Mayor of Milford Haven Cllr John Roberts RD [the RD, whatever it means, says it all] claimed the billionaire prince's visit to South Hook was "a great link-up for the town and Wales"
The Mayor opined that, as we need the gas, "We have to be nice to Qatar".
As I have said previously we need Qatar's gas and they need our cash (and military protection to maintain their feudal regime in power).
This is a purely commercial transaction and we don't have to like them or, outside the normal civilities, be nice to them, anymore than we need to like the man who comes to fix the central heating boiler.
By the way, being lifelong republicans, with a particular dislike for absolute monarchs like the Emir of Qatar, we wouldn't have gone even if invited.
That said, if that hat doesn't get an outing soon, I could be heading for the divorce courts.

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