14 May 2001

The Flintstones

Having studied the agenda for last Thursday's County Council, I decided to spare myself two hours of boredom and weed the onions instead.

It seems this was a poor decision on two counts: the meeting lasted barely an hour and an unexpected row blew up and I missed all the fun.

So, what I now report is pure hearsay, though none the less instructive for that.

It appears that Labour member Terry Mills had put down a written question regarding the cost of the large rockery in front of County Hall - nicknamed Jurassic Park by council staff - under Standing Order 10: "A member of the Council, may if five clear days' notice in writing has been given to the Director of Support Services, ask the Chairman or the Chairman of any Committee any question on any matter in relation to which the Council have (sic) powers or duties or which affects the County"

Unfortunately, Cllr Mills was unable to be present at the meeting and the Chairman, Bill Hitchings, ruled that as he was not there to put the question, personally, no answer would be forthcoming.

Cllr Barrie Woolmer (Lab) arose on a point of order to query this ruling on the grounds that there was no mention in Standing Order 10 of any requirement that the author of the question should be present, only to be told by Chairman Hitchings that he wasn't taking points of order.

Presumably the Chairman has been too busy clanking around the County in his ceremonial chains, eating rubber chicken dinners to have found time to study the Council's rules, otherwise he could hardly have failed to notice Standing Order15: "A member may rise on a point of order and shall be entitled to be heard forthwith." i.e. The Chairman has no power to refuse a point of order.

Cllr Woolmer knew this and tried to press the point but was forced to give way when the Chairman stood up in his place. (Standing Order 18 "Respect for the Chair. Whenever the Chairman rises during a debate a member then standing shall resume his seat and the Council shall be silent."

Unfortunately, Cllr Woolmer missed the opportunity to raise yet another point of order - that raising a point of order is not the same as engaging in debate.

Not that it would have done much good because, although the Chairman has no power to prevent a member making a point of order, Standing Order 17 provides that, with regard to its validity, "The ruling of the Chairman on a point of order shall not be open to discussion", which is why the Council should be careful not to appoint hard-nosed autocrats like Cllr Hitchings to what is, in effect, the Speakership of the council.

Meanwhile another Labour member, Thomas Tudor, had written to the Chief Executive, privately, asking about the cost of the rockery only to be told in a letter from the Director of Support Services that there was no point in telling him because the information would be given at the Council meeting on May 10 in response to Cllr Mills's question.

Happily, Cllr Tudor has now received the answer.

The car park for 300 vehicles cost £325,000 of which sum £31,000 was down to the rockery.

No wonder they were anxious to keep quiet about it.

Nothing changes

Recently, I read in the Daily Telegraph that last year saw the closure of more than 400 sub-post offices in England and Wales, a record.

Can it be only four years since the last General Election when I was called down to Llangwm to take a photo of Jackie Lawrence MP and the late Donald Dewar outside the village post office.

The purpose of Mr Dewar's visit? umm, er, to highlight Labour's campaign to "Save our post offices" from the depredations of the wicked Tories.


Musical Chairs

My moles tell me that members of the Independent Political (sic) Group are revolting.

But, of course, you knew that already.

What I meant to say is, they are in revolt.

What is getting them excited are the proposals for restructuring local government.

Several choices are available including a directly elected Mayor and, the ruling Independents' favoured option, a system whereby a Cabinet comprising eight members would run the show.

Some of the sharper knives in the Independent's drawer have worked out that eight from 39 leaves 31 permanently out in the cold (i.e. them) and are considering jumping ship.

Two members from the North are said to be talking to Plaid Cymru and four others are rumoured to be cosying up to Labour.

To date I have no reports of potential defectors to either the Conservatives or the Lib Dems, though such a possibility can't be ruled out.



Tony Blair's father in law Tony Booth was on the radio this morning campaigning for the restoration of the earnings link for old age pensions.

Older readers will remember that the link to average wages was discarded by the wicked witch Thatcher and replaced by a system which increased pensions in line with prices, leaving pensioners considerably worse off.

At the time the Labour opposition expressed outrage at this Thatcherite exercise in daylight robbery but now they are in power show no inclination to reverse it.

Three main arguments are deployed by pensions campaigners;

1. Pensioners paid into the system during their working lives and deserve to get a decent return on their investment.

2 Pensioners are entitled to share in the nation's increased prosperity.

3. Other countries, such as Germany and France manage to afford much more generous provision for their old folks.

As someone who is rapidly approaching bus pass age (I already qualify for a winter fuel payment) I find these arguments seductive.

The problem is that they are all entirely bogus.

The idea that pensioners have paid into a fund is false. Although the system is called National Insurance, it is nothing of the sort. There is no great hoard of cash saved up on our behalf - money is transferred directly from current taxpayers to current pensioners.

And the argument about sharing in the nation's prosperity is bedevilled with confusion between what pensioners get individually and what they get collectively. Clearly, as people live longer and the ratio of pensioners to workers increases so does the burden falling on the taxpayer. On current trends, it will not be too long before pensioners actually outnumber workers.

As for the French and the Germans, it is widely acknowledged that their pension systems face meltdown within the next 20 years as costs begin to swallow up an unsustainable chunk of GDP.

Indeed, this so-called "pensions time bomb" is one of the more persuasive arguments against deeper political integration with Europe as we may find ourselves picking up the bill for a problem that is not of our making.

The flaw in the present system is the vast inequality of provision. Nobody argues that trying to get by on a basic state pension is a struggle.But there are other pensioners who are rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

For instance a County Council Director with 40 years service will retire with a lump sum of £100,000 and a pension, index-linked for life, of £35,000 a year (£700 per week) - two thirds of which is funded by the taxpayer - on top of their basic state pension.

The difficulty is that increasing the state pension to lift the poorest pensioners out of poverty also benefits the super rich, which is unfair to taxpayers, especially the lower paid.

That is why Gordon Brown is right to rely on means testing as the best method of targeting help to those in most need.

Much as the Labour left detest means testing, because of the indignities imposed on the working classes during the inter-war years, they really should grow up and recognise that There Is No Alternative.



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