May 27 2008

 

Hobson's choice

Last week, I received a nice letter from the county council informing me that they were acceding to my request for details of expense claims submitted by the chief executive and director of development in the financial years 2005-2006 and 2006-2007.
It reads: "The Council has given due consideration to the disclosure of the information of the details of payment of expenses reimbursement to the Chief Executive and Director of Development, previously withheld, and it has been decided to release the information. Copy attached."
How nice, you might think, that the council is at last coming to terms with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.
However, as usual with the county council, the letter only tells half the story.
I originally requested this information way back in January 2007.
This was met with a blank refusal in an e-mail which began: "As a preliminary point, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives an entitlement to seek information, not to the disclosure of documents which are not otherwise available publicly.
In this case, the documents you have asked for are not publicly available as they contain personal information. Section 40 provides that personal information is exempt from disclosure. Accordingly your request is refused."
I invoked the council's appeals procedure and was again rebuffed.
So, it was off to the Information Commissioner who eventually e-mailed me in early May this year to say that he had told the council that disclosure of the information I had requested would not be in breach any of the data protection principles.
"Accordingly, I have asked the Council to consider disclosing the information to you", he concluded.
"Due consideration" should be viewed in the light of the fact that this is the Commission's polite way of telling the council that, if they don't cough up voluntarily, a letter will be in the post requiring disclosure.
As for the information itself, interesting as it is, further research is required and it will have to await another day.
Though it appears the chief executive is a very thorough man because he went to the trouble of filling in a form to claim two miles on 29 September 05 for attending a meeting at Withybush Hospital.
As they say,, if you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves.

Pick your own

Last week's council AGM showed yet again just how dominant the Leader of the council has become.
First we had the spectacle of Cllr Davies standing up and nominating all the chairmen (Special Responsibility Allowance £8,400) and vice-chairmen (£4,200) of the scrutiny committees whose role it is to scrutinise the activities of his Cabinet.
The scrutiny committees are modeled on the Parliamentary Select Committees (PSC) that regularly bring out highly critical reports on government policy.
Some years ago, when Tony Blair tried to oust two of the more troublesome PSC chairmen: Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson, there was a mutiny by his own backbenchers at what they saw as the Prime Minister's attempt to curtail MP's powers.
No such luck here in Pembrokeshire where your recently elected "independent" councillors sat mute while this travesty of democracy went on around them.
The issue of who is chairman is important because of the way the scrutiny committees' powers to call in Cabinet decisions operates.
Call-in can be instigated by either the chairman or four committee members.
The committees are divided 8-4 in favour of the IPG, so either all four opposition members must sign the call in request, or they must recruit an IPG member(s) to the cause.
That raises another problem because, supposedly in the interests of inclusiveness, the Leader has awarded three of the four vice-chairmanships to opposition members.
The snag is that, rather than allow the opposition parties to choose which of their members will fill the posts, Cllr Davies insists that he makes the call.
Given that the key members are on the Leader's payroll vote, it will come as no surprise to learn that, in the six years of Cabinet government, only four decisions have ever been called in.
None, I might add, by the chairman acting alone.
What the Leader giveth, the Leader taketh away.
I recently read an article on Russia where the political system was described as "a formal democracy" i.e. it has elections, a parliament and all the other paraphernalia of democracy, but lurking behind the facade is an autocratic dictatorship.
I'm afraid that, if it hasn't already arrived, Pembrokeshire is rapidly heading in the same direction.


Outmanoeuvred

 

In addition to the appointment of the various chairmen and vice-chairman, the AGM had to approve the allocation of committee places under the political balance rules.
In the normal course of events, a report on these allocations should have been sent to members three clear days before the meeting.
Unfortunately, because "anticipated political groupings" whatever they may be, had not submitted their membership forms, the production of this report was delayed until just before the meeting.
Purely by coincidence, of course, by then, the IPG had managed to get its strength up to the magic 38 (Brian's revenge), when, late in the afternoon prior to the day of the AGM, Cllr Hall was finally persuaded to sign on the dotted line.
I would have thought the better way to proceed would have been to classify all those who had not signed up for a group by the due date as unaligned and distribute the committee places accordingly.
If any of them did subsequently join a group, it would have been an easy matter to adjust the figures at the next council meeting.
As it was, with little or no time to study the report, we four unaligned members were caught on the hop.
According to the allocation we were to have two seats on both the planning and licensing committees.
But as we, by definition, don't have a leader it is up to the council to decide who will fill the positions.
So up bobs the leader to propose that Cllrs Malcolm Calver and Phil Baker should fill the two planning committee places.
A proposition that was swiftly endorsed by his IPG block vote.
Now it may be that the Leader was acting in the public interest because he knew of some reason why Cllrs Baker and Calver were better qualified to sit on the planning committee than either of the other two unaligned members.
Or maybe he was indulging in a bit of "good old Pembrokeshire politics at its worst" by ensuring that Grumpette and myself were excluded.
I hope my consistent opposition to the abuse of agricultural planning consents by members of his party (Worker's paradise) (Time to count your spoons) (All comparisons . . . ) (Bending the rules). played no part in his considerations.
As it happens, neither of us is particularly bothered about being denied the chance to serve on the planning committee.
But what we do object to is that the leader, eager to spread his tentacles into every aspect of the council's business, should take it upon himself to engineer this result.

Quick change artist

Then there were the several constitutional amendments proposed by the Leader and nodded through by the majority group.
Henceforth we are to have joint deputy Leaders (Cllrs John Allen-Mirehouse and Jamie Adams) and three vice-chairmen of the licensing committee instead of one.
It will be interesting to what bauble, if any, is awarded to Cllr Allen-Mirehouse to compensate him for having to undertake a job (and SRA) share..
Another change introduced by the Leader concerns the £8,400 SRA paid to the Leader of the principal opposition party.
With Plaid Cymru, Labour and the Tories all tied on five seats each, there is no principal opposition group.
So, in future, the £8,400 will be shared between the three minority group Leaders.
By sheer coincidence, of course, all these changes spread the Leader's powers of patronage, as did the his introduction of assistant Cabinet members (later abandoned) immediately after the 2004 election.
But the changes are not the real issue, but the way they were done.
If ordinary members seek to change the constitution they must do so by way of a notice of motion to full council.
The chairman invariably remits these NoMs to the corporate governance committee, which then makes a recommendation to the next meeting of full council.
But here we have His Leadership standing up and making wholesale amendments to the constitution, more or less on the nod, without written notice.
In addition as there was nothing about these changes on the agenda so members had no time to make a considered response.
When I objected to what was going on and suggested that these proposed changes should be routed through the corporate governance committee, the chairman responded that that "would upset the apple cart".
And that just about sums it up.
Nothing must get in the way of the Leader's latest pet schemes - not even the constitution.
But what seems to get forgotten is that the county council is a democratic institution charges with spending some £300 million of public money annually.
It is not the Leader's plaything.

 

Jim'll fix it

I don't know whether you heard it, but Radio Pembrokeshire's big story of the day on Friday was the council's AGM.
There were interviews with incoming chairman Cllr Robin Evans and The Leader, Cllr John Davies, in which the message seemed to be that the Independent Political Group is easily the best thing since the invention of sliced bread.
There was also an interview with Cllr Anne Hughes in which she said how proud she was to be the first vice-chairman (chairman-elect) from "my town".
These interviews were conducted on Thursday afternoon by the station's roving reporter, one Jim Hughes (husband of the said Anne), who just a couple of hours earlier had been sitting up on the top table in readiness to be invested with the chain of office as his wife's consort.
Which is, of course, why the council's AGM was Radio Pembrokeshire's big story.
But what really appalls me is that these people don't seem to understand that it is totally inappropriate for someone with such close ties to the political establishment to be carrying out these interviews.
Unlike the newspapers, local radio stations have a statutory duty to provide balanced, unbiased reporting.
I feel a complaint to Offcom coming on.

Temporarily indisposed

Driving past Milford Cemetery one day last week, Grumpette and I noticed a horse box parked in the lay by outside the gates.
On the side was an advert for horse drawn funerals.
Now I have a theory that the fancier the wedding the less permanent it is likely to be.
If I am right, any bride that fetches up to church in a horse and carriage can be expected in the solicitor's office seeking a divorce in the not too distant future.
If horse drawn funerals can be promoted as a similarly temporary arrangement, they could be the coming thing.


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