May 29 2009

 

Black out

 

Old Grumpy has been researching the county council's hasty decision to move Milford Haven library into the Port Authority's new office building at Cedar Court, Havens Head (Fait accompli).
To that end I sent a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to PCC asking for copies of correspondence between them and Milford Haven Port Authority regarding the lease of the building.
Section 10 of the FoI Act provides:
Time for compliance with request.
(1) Subject to subsections (2) and (3), a public authority must comply with section 1(1) promptly and in any event not later than the twentieth working day following the date of receipt.
The operational word here is "promptly", though up to 20 working days are allowed for those cases where there are difficulties in assembling the documents.
Unfortunately, Pembrokeshire County Council seems to regard the 20-day allowance as an entitlement rather than a maximum because, even though this information had been released to the Western Telegraph some two months ago, they waited until the 20 days were up before responding.
Even then, the response was unsatisfactory because much of the information has been blacked out (redacted) on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
These redactions include the commencement date and term of the lease; the amount of the service charge; and the annual rental.
There is however one piece of interesting information left standing and that is the clause which states: " Tenant [PCC] to indemnify landlord [MHPA] against any future clawback of grant by WEFO".
WEFO, I should, explain is the Welsh European Funding Office.
It is involved because Cedar Court was built to encourage private business with a 40% (£1.5 million) EU Objective1 grant and the use of any part of the building by a public body requires repayment of a proportion of the monies
So, Old Grumpy put in an FoI request to WEFO for copies of any correspondence they had had with MHPA and PCC.
I was told there was no correspondence with PCC in respect if its use of the building as a library, though it is difficult to believe that, before deciding to relocate the library, the county council did not exercise due diligence to ascertain its potential liability under this clause in the lease.
The information I was sent in respect of MHPA - heavily redacted, of course - concerned details of the clawbacks in respect of Stephen Crabb's office (£30,000) Pembrokeshire Community Health Council (£28,000) and Defra (£74,780).
Using the figures provided it is possible to make a stab at the amount of the potential clawback by extrapolation from the Defra case referred to above which is calculated on the basis of 1,695 sq ft i.e. roughly £44 per sq ft.
Pembrokeshire County Council are intending to lease some 8,665 sq ft so, as the mathematicians among you will already have worked out, the county council's potential liability is somewhere north of £380,000.
And even that might be an underestimate because the documents reveal that there was a difference of opinion between WEFA and MHPA as to the correct way to calculate the clawback.
Reading between the lines - and, given the extensive redactions, there is plenty of scope for that - WEFA initially thought the calculation should be based on a proportion of the available office space, while MHPA favoured a proportion of the total floor area.
It seems that MHPA's view carried the day.
This is not a trivial point because it means that MHPA could lease out the whole of the office space to public bodies while still retaining that part of the grant relating to staircases and other circulation areas.
Although an exact calculation cannot be made because crucial information has been blacked out, I would guess that, had the WEFO (correct) method of computing the clawback had been used, the bill would increase by at least 10%.
And WEFO's reasons for redacting information is interesting in itself.
Under the "Public interest test" WEFO say: "The Commission regularly monitors media/press coverage and will react immediately to any adverse publicity through increased audit scrutiny".
But why, if everything has been done by the book, should the redacted material generate "adverse publicity"?
And why, if everything is above board, should WEFO fear "increased audit scrutiny"?
Under the heading "Substantial harm test" WEFO says: "Disclosure [of the redacted material] could also prejudice the reputation of the the Assembly Government's ability to manage EU funds which could be detrimental to negotiations with the European Commission for future funding arrangements".
Again, unless the information withheld contains evidence of doubtful practices, why should its disclosure affect the Assembly's reputation?
I smell a large rat.

 

Expense fiddles

This week's Western Telegraph reports that county councillors' allowances/expenses topped £1 million for the financial year 2008-2009.
Council deputy leader John Allen-Mirehouse is quoted as saying it would not be fair to link council expense claims with the controversy surrounding MP's expenses as council claims are "governed by a very strict code and are scrutinised religiously."
As one of the chief scrutineers, I would take issue with this last statement.
During my annual trawls through the county council's accounts I have come across several cases where the official scrutineers (District Audit Service and PCC internal audit) seem to have overlooked examples of dubious expense claiming practices.
For example, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's former Leader Maurice Hughes, who twice claimed hotel expenses even though the council had prepaid the bill. (Pot and kettle) (Smear leader).
And then there was his independent political group colleague Alwyn Luke whose appetite for taxpayer-funded grub earned him the nickname "monster muncher".
For many years the "very strict code" to which Cllr Allen-Mirehouse refers allowed Luke and many others to claim reimbursement of £6.37 for lunch (the maximum allowed) without the need to provide receipts.
For anyone interested, the collected works on this subject can be found at The fat of the land with further reading at Master forger.
But the daddy of them all was the serial expense fiddler Cllr Brian Hall, alongside whom Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was happy to serve in the Cabinet for many years.
When I first drew attention to Cllr Hall's activities back in 1999, it resulted in threats of legal action backed by letters from the chief executive to the effect that, as he had authorised the journeys I has written about, they were "approved duties" for the purpose of claiming expenses.
It was only in 2007, that I managed to persuade the council to adopt the statutory definition of approved duty (Rare triumph).
I remember clearly that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse voted against this proposal in committee.
Interestingly, last week, I received an e-mail from someone who was present at the SWITCH meeting at Penllergaer on 1 February 2001 which was central to my complaint to the police.(Time Lord).
As the timing of Hall's arrival at this meeting was crucial it is even more interesting that he clearly remembers telling the police that Hall had arrived at the meeting somewhere between 2.15 pm and 2.30 pm, which is entirely consistent with his having travelled directly from the service station near the Severn Bridge to the meeting, and not via Pembroke Dock as his mileage claim indicated.
About two years after my initial complaint, the police informed me that the CPS had decided not to prosecute - the reasons given: "Lack of evidence" and "it would not be in the public interest".
Now, short of putting a tail on him when he left London that day, it is difficult to know what better evidence there could be than the timed receipts I provided.
As for the public interest, the CPS website says there is a presumption in favour of prosecution when it involves someone in a position of public trust.
Of course, having initially decided to drop the case on the entirely spurious grounds that, without a complaint from the injured party [PCC], they had no powers to investigate, a successful prosecution would have embarrassed the police as much as Cllr Hall The untouchables.
So Cllr Allen-Mirehouse is right to say that it is unfair to compare MP's expenses with those of county councillors.
The difference being that, thanks to the diligence of the national press, the MPs have not been able to get away with it.
So confident was Hall that his friends in high places would provide cover that, undeterred by his near squeak with the law in 2001, he pulled exactly the same trick several times in the financial year 2005-2006 (Mystery tour) (Is your journey really necessary) (Timed out) and many more.
I am not suggesting that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse played any part in these various cover-ups, but nor have I seen any evidence that, as might have been expected from someone who is deputy Lord Lieutenant and a JP, he has made any attempt to use his influence in the ruling group to halt these disreputable practices.
Hopefully, having had the scales removed from their eyes by the revelations about MP's expenses, the Pembrokeshire electorate will use the next election to call time on this corrupt political culture.


Out for the count

There is something strange about the "Ten most read" feature on the Western Telegraph's website.
Missing from the list when I logged on last week was any mention of the story about Stephen Crabb's expense claims though when I clicked on "Most comments" next door there it was at the top of the list with 29 readers' contributions.
Since then, I have been running regular checks which seem to indicate that Telegraph readers are more interested in "Angharad wins Wales cap" and "Haverfordwest ladies golf club news" than their MP's second home expenses.
Is this evidence that the people have been so sedated by the journalistic Mogadon served up by the newspaper that they have lost all interest in political matters, or has someone been manipulating the web counter?

90 not out

I am a bit short of time this week, having been up to my sister's place in Somerset to celebrate my mother's 90th birthday.
The old girl was on fine form - 20 fags, a glass or two of brandy and the Daily Mail crossword being her regular daily fare.
She has a bit of trouble with the stairs these days, but my sister and her husband provide her with room-service of a quality equal to the Savoy.
She also sits up most of the night watching sport on the tele and is a mine of information on anything involving golf, tennis, cricket and rugby, though, being a lady of discernment, she avoids watching soccer.
Her only weakness, as far as I can see, is her admiration for Shane Williams, who, she says, "Is lovely".
"But he plays for Wales. What would you say if he scored the winning try against England?", I counter.
"He would still be lovely" she replies.
Much too nice, my mother.

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