May 18 2004

 

 

Bare all

The District Audit Service has finally reported its findings on the Hall-Ryan business and found that the two of them are squeaky clean.
Or so you may have heard on Pembrokeshire Radio and will probably read in tomorrow's Western Telegraph.
This conclusion is based on a three-paragraph summary at the end of a ten-page report by the District Audit Service (DAS).
As someone who provided information to the DAS inquiry, Old Grumpy has been favoured with a copy of the complete document.
And I must say, my first, second and third impression is that the District Audit Service must be a strong contender for the Lord Hutton award for institutional whitewash of the year.
Unfortunately, I am unable to comment in detail on the various errors and omissions because the report is accompanied by an extract from the Audit Commission Act 1998 which provides that anyone disclosing information "relating to a particular body or other person ..." shall be liable to up to two years in prison, a large fine, or both.
However, the Act does contain a get-out clause which states that such information may be disclosed: "with the consent of the body or person to whom the information relates."
Having nothing to hide, I have no problem with anyone disclosing any information in the report relating to me, and I have written to Pembrokeshire County Council's Chief Executive, Bryn Parry-Jones: Head of Marketing, David Thomas; the Leader, Maurice Hughes; Cllr Brian Hall; and Dr Michael Ryan suggesting that, in the interests of open, accountable government, they should consent to the information relating to them being put into the public domain.
I am anticipating a positive response from these taxpayer-funded public servants who can surely be relied on to put the public interest above all else.
If for some reason they feel unable to co-operate I will just have to find some other way of forcing the facts out into the open.
One possibility, now he has been cleared by the DAS, is that Dr Ryan will carry out his longstanding threat to sue me for libel.
It is with keen anticipation that I await the arrival of the writ.
Postscript.
I did write to all five of the above. Mr Thomas responded positively and Mr Parry-Jones said that he had no objection provided I published the report in full so as to avoid selective quotation.
Unfortunately, despite sending them all a reminder, none of the other three bothered to reply, which, of course, rather negated Mr Parry-Jones' consent.


Interesting distinction

 

However there are aspects of the DAS report which have either already been reported here or do not contain information relating to anyone, and I see no reason why I shouldn't discuss them here.
Firstly, I will deal with the DAS's conclusion that the inquiry has "...not identified any actual (my emphasis) conflicts of interest".
I am not altogether sure what difference there is, if any, between an actual conflict of interest and an ordinary conflict of interest and the report does not make the distinction clear.
Whatever, I think the DAS is wrong.
The facts are that on the 16 October 2000 Dr Ryan faxed a two-page letter and a six-page business plan to Cllr Hall.
These documents, the authenticity of which is nowhere questioned, set out in some detail the two men's intention to form a company as a vehicle for doing significant business deals in Pembrokeshire, particularly Pembroke Dock.
These included taking over the Pembrokeshire Business Initiative and a scheme involving the Purcell Bros, the then owners of the Cleddau Bridge Hotel.
The whole of Dr Ryan's letter can be read at (Hall-Ryan. The whole story)
It seems that on October 16, just 10 weeks after Dr Ryan's appointment by the council, these plans were already well advanced because, under the heading "Marketing", the business plan says: "To date Dr Ryan and Brian Hall have been requested to participate in a number of projects:
Hotel, Recreation & Conference Centre Project (Masterplanning and Project Management)
International Investment Project aligned to Pembroke Dock redevelopment
European Commission Objective 1 Project Finance Design and Submission."
I apologise for all those ungrammatical capital letters but that is how it is in the business plan.
Between 16-19 November 2000, just a month after the fax was sent, Dr Ryan spent four days in Pembroke Dock in the company of Cllr Brian Hall and a Mr Pat O'Sullivan.
Cllr Hall claimed travelling expenses during this period and Dr Ryan was paid £450-a-day, plus travelling and hotel costs.
In all, this exercise cost the taxpayer in excess of £2,000.
The Code of Conduct in force when these events took place states: "You should not allow the impression to be created that you are, or may be, using your position to promote a private or personal interest rather than forwarding the general public interest".
And, at another point: "It is not enough to avoid actual impropriety. You should at all times avoid any occasion for suspicion and any appearance of improper conduct".
I put it to you that anyone armed with all the facts about the business activities of Dr Ryan and Cllr Hall, present and planned, as set out in the fax of 16 October 2000 could form the reasonable "impression" that they were or may be using some or all of this time in Pembroke Dock to further their own ends.
The whole point about conflicts of interest is that they simply exist - there is no need, as the auditor seems to suggest, for proof of some tangible result.
Of course, I can't prove that Dr Ryan and Brian Hall spent some, all or any of those four days promoting their involvement in the "International Investment Project aligned to Pembroke Dock Redevelopment", or some other scheme, but neither can they prove that they didn't [Incidentally, I recently discovered that, just a few months after this tour of Pembroke Dock, Dr Ryan and a Mr Pat O'Sullivan set up the company Intro Europe Ltd see Little by little)
That being the case it was an "occasion for suspicion", as the Code puts it, and that is enough to create a conflict of interest.
To give an example: suppose a councillor fails to declare an interest and leave a meeting of the planning committee where his brother's application is discussed.
Nobody can ever prove that he was influenced by the fact that the applicant was his brother.
But, people may suspect that he was and, even if he is the Archangel Gabriel, there is a conflict of interest.
And that conflict of interest exists whether the application is passed or not.
Furthermore, these rules are so strictly applied that the House of Lords has upheld the principle that there is a breach of the Code of Conduct even if the councillor votes against his brother's application.



Stranger to the truth

In November 2002, when I first revealed details of the business relationship between Hall and Ryan, the county council rushed out a press release in the name of the Leader, Maurice Hughes.
One passage read:"The Council is fully aware of the company Euroryall. Before the company was registered the principals [Hall and Ryan] approached officers of the Council. They [Hall and Ryan] gave firm undertakings that the company would not trade in Pembrokeshire nor provide any conflict of interest".
This struck Old Grumpy as particularly dubious because I had by then had sight of Ryan's fax to Hall dated 16 October 2000 which detailed their extensive and ambitious plans to um, er, trade in Pembrokeshire.
I sent five emails to the Leader asking for the names of the officers approached, the date the approach was made and the nature of the firm undertakings.
I never did receive an answer to my questions.
The reason for his reticence is not far to seek because, after reading the evidence in the DAS report, I can tell you, without hesitation, that the passage quoted above contains not a single grain of truth.


 

Running on empty

Checking the list and runners for the forthcoming County Council elections, I was struck by the number of Independent Political (sic) Group members who have left the description section of their nomination form blank.
Following a recent change in the rules, the choice for those candidates who do not belong to a registered political party is either "Independent" or nothing.
Not wishing to be associated in any way with the undemocratic and discredited Independent Political Group (IPG) which runs the County Council, I, too, left the description blank.
Now I find myself running against George Max, a signed up member of the IPG- and they are signed up whatever they might try to tell you - whose description is exactly the same as my own.
It is a measure of the extent to which the synchronised voters of the IPG have debased Pembrokeshire politics that "independent" has become a dirty word.
So dirty in fact that that those who have dragged this honourable word down into the gutter are disowning it themselves.
It was always a logical nonsense, of course, to stand as an independent and then, straight after the election, join a "political group" but recent publicity seems to have brought it home to some that the name is now a liability.
The dirty baker's dozen who are trying to hide their membership of this "political group" from the electorate are: John Allen-Mirehouse, Bill Hitchings, Bill Roberts, Steve Watkins, John George, Leslie Raymond, Rosemary Hayes, Bryan Phillips, Glyn Rees, George Max, Robert Lewis, Mark Edwards and John Murphy.
And I can't let this matter pass without mentioning that a famous former stalwart of the Independent Political Group, one Edward George Setterfield, is also running on an empty description box..
Should one of them come knocking on your door, ask if they intend to remain detached from the group if elected.
If the answer is no, ask to see a copy of the party's manifesto.



Eggsagerating

I have received an anonymous email from a reader casting doubt on my claim in last week's column to have new potatoes in my garden as big as an egg..
"You seem to be learning tricks from the spin doctors in County Hall", my correspondent writes, "because you didn't specify what sort of egg".
"Presumably, if the garden inspection service was called in to investigate the truth of what you said and found nothing bigger than a marble under the soil, you would claim you meant a sparrow's egg and, although everyone knows the impression you intended to plant in the minds of your readers was of a hen's egg, the inspectors would give you the all clear because you hadn't told an actual lie."
In fact, faced with the inspectors I would buy some new potatoes from Tesco and bury them in the rows. I'm sure they wouldn't notice that the spuds were not attached to the tops.
However, just to be sure that last week's report was accurate I have had another moyle around the bottom of the stalks and I can confirm that the potatoes are the size of a hen's egg.
If challenged, I will say I meant moorhen.
And, if things get really tough, I will tell the inspectors that the article was written in June 2003 and got posted on last week's website by mistake, so, while I may have been a bit negligent, there was no question of wilful deception..


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