November 1 2005

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

 

Watchdog or lap-dog


Last week, I received a letter from the Ombudsman informing me that my complaint regarding the Leader's failure to inform the council of the sale of his dairy herd prior to the meeting of the planning committee where permission was given for an agricultural dwelling to house a herdsman to um, er, milk the cows that were no longer there, has been turned down.
I will return to the actual reasons for the Ombudsman's decision at a later date but, for now, I will concentrate on the procedure by which it was reached.
Firstly, I sent off a detailed complaint, which the Ombudsman put to Cllr Davies and the council.
They responded and, based on these responses, the Ombudsman ruled that Cllr Davies was in the clear.
Had I been given the opportunity, I would have challenged some of the statements made by both the council and Cllr Davies but, it seems, the Ombudsman proceeds on the optimistic assumption that whatever those in power tell him must be true.
Old Grumpy and the Ombudsman go back a long way on this issue - to 1994, in fact, when I complained that, contrary to the provisions of the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1984, Preseli Pembrokeshire District Council had refused me access to a meeting of the Divisional Works Committee (South) held in Milford Haven Town Hall; thereby preventing me from doing my job as a journalist with the Milford Mercury.
The Ombudsman wrote to the council seeking its views.
In his reply the Chief Executive Islwyn David accepted that, if the Divisional Works Committee was indeed a committee as defined in the 1984 Act, I would have a case.
But, Mr David told the Ombudsman, "My view is that the public and press do not have the right of admittance to meetings of the Divisional Works Committees . . . as they are informal bodies which do not make decisions and are not formally constituted as Committees of the Authority."
On the basis of that statement the Ombudsman kicked me into touch, though he did suggest that, to avoid confusion, these "committees" should be renamed "Divisional Works Consultative Panels".
Had he allowed me to respond to Mr David's statement, I could have told him that, as a former member of PPDC (I had recently resigned to avoid any conflict of interest between my role as a councillor and my job at the Milford Mercury), I had participated in several of these Divisional Works Committees and that decisions were made about such matters as the priority for council house refurbishments and street works.
I did write to the Ombudsman making this point but he refused to reopen the case.
But the dog barks and the caravan moves on.
At a series of meetings during 1995 and 1996, the members of PPDC discussed confidential reports from the Chief Executive into what became known as "The Great Tarmac Scandal".
To mark the tenth anniversary of this shameful episode, I have posted all the relevant documents on my website but, briefly, for those who have a limited attention span, the affair involved the carrying out of several hundred-thousand-pounds-worth of illegal, unapproved works at various locations in the Central and Northern Divisions (The Southern Division was squeaky clean in this regard), which were then paid for by the falsification of invoices on other (sometimes) legal contracts (see Tarmac scandal).
What was really interesting was that the decisions to proceed with quite a few of these illegal projects had been made at the recently renamed Divisional Works Consultative Panels, which were, of course, supposed to be "informal bodies which do not make decisions . . .".
So it was that, when the tarmac scandal was discussed at a meeting of PPDC on 8 February 2005, Mr David recommended that, in order to safeguard against any repetition of this sort of thing: "The Divisional Works Consultative Panels should be redesignated as sub-Committees; their proceedings to be regulated accordingly and their meetings open to the public and press."
Furthermore, " . . . any recommendations which they make with regard to expenditure for which there is no budgetary provision shall be submitted to the Public Services Committee or the Housing Committee, as appropriate."
Clearly, this last bit would have been unnecessary had it not been the case that such recommendations "for which there was no budgetary provision" were not only emanating from these consultative panels but were being executed without reference to anyone i.e not only did these Panels make decisions but they had, in effect, plenary powers.
Another of the Chief Executive's recommendations was that "Members should not require officers to carry out works except through the machinery of the appropriate committee or sub-committee."
That says all there is to say about the corrupt culture that existed in PPDC at the time.

What's in a name

Old Grumpy notices that Steven Crabb MP has written to the Daily Telegraph pledging his support to David Cameron.
I read somewhere that Mr Cameron is a moderniser (whatever that means) who thinks the Tories have an image problem.
He has even talked about "rebranding" the party.
I am sure Mr Crabb will be able to offer him some valuable advice on that subject.
After all, here in Pembrokeshire, the Conservatives have managed to acquire an almost two thirds majority on the county council by the simple expedient of calling themselves Independents.

Enquiring minds

Old Grumpy was interested in Cllr John Davies' response to a question from Cllr Rhys Sinnett, during the recent meeting of full council.
Cllr Sinnett wanted some details about the number and source of requests received by the council under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Leader told him that the authority had received 229 such requests: newspapers 33, community organisations 19, councillors 39 and members of the public 138.
Cllr Davies went on to elaborate by telling members that of the 39 requests from councillors "26 were from one member and 11 from another".
As the mathematicians among you will have already worked out, that leaves only two for the other 58 members.
I hope I am not being too sensitive, but I think these unsolicited details may have been intended as a dig against myself and Cllr Michael Williams.
In fact, I am rather proud to be in top spot and I am sure Cllr Williams is not in the least bit embarrassed by his silver medal position.
My own feeling is that the public are rather keen that their elected representatives should keep themselves abreast of what is being done in their name.
Much better than the numpties who sit silently on the Independent Political (sic) Group benches; only showing signs of life when called upon to vote the party ticket.
But what was really surprising about these numbers is how few enquiries have been made by our fearless news hounds in the local press; especially as the Freedom of Information Act was hailed as an essential tool in our newspapers' constitutional role of keeping the public informed.
I have noticed stories in the Mercury based on information obtained through FoI but, though I must admit to not always reading Wales biggest selling weekly snoozepaper with the diligence it deserves, I have no recollection of ever seeing anything in the Western Telegraph originating from that source.

Outnumbered

As members of the council are allowed by the constitution to put down questions at full council for the Leader to answer, I do not have to rely entirely on the Freedom of Information Act to keep myself up to speed.
So, I can tell you that the amount spent on advertising in the year 2004-2005 (previous year's figures in brackets) was Newsquest Ltd (Western Telegraph and Mercury) £224,000 (£247,000), Tenby Observer £18,959 (£14,928), County Echo (Fishguard) £12,856 (£3,031) and Western Mail £44,275 (previous year not known).
I presume the almost 10% drop in Newsquest's take, and the 35% and 300% increases for the Tenby Observer and County Echo, respectively, have nothing to do with my previous year's questions.
I was also able to discover that in the two years 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 the authority's spent £2.1 million on cycle tracks; £352,000 of which was the council's own money.
Contrast that with the paltry £200,000 spent on tackling the serious parking problems on council estates across the whole county during the same period and you can see why I believe it is important that elected members take over responsibility for setting spending priorities.
When the budget process gets underway, I will be making strenuous efforts to see that money is directed to those areas where it will produce most benefit.
Not that I am anticipating success because the ruling (38 out of 60 seats) Independent Political (sic) Group can be relied on to do the officers' bidding.
It is not for nothing that are they known as the political wing of the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB)

Retired hurt

Following last week's article, in which I referred to the "corrupt" business relationship between Cllr Brian Hall and the county council's Irish-based economic development consultant Dr Michael Ryan, a concerned reader emailed to ask if I was worried about getting sued.
Generally speaking: yes, but in this case: no.
In fact, I would be rather pleased to have the match transferred from the spinners' wicket in County Hall to the type of fast, true pitch usually to be found in the High Court.
And, of course, the High Court has neutral umpires.
Indeed, Dr Ryan has threatened to take me on before, but when I clattered him with a bouncer by providing his solicitors with a copy of the fax he had sent to Brian Hall (see Hall-Ryan) he retired hurt to the pavilion nursing a rather nasty injury to his wallet in the form of a £14,000 legal bill (see Freedom come).
Despite being declared fit by the District Audit Service (see Interesting distinction), he is not expected to bat again.

Self-appraisal

Things are hotting up in in the sleepy village of Manorbier (see Manorbier.com) where a WDA-funded community appraisal is, apparently, under investigation by the Fraud Squad.
From what I know about these matters, a certain percentage of questionnaires have to be returned before an appraisal is considered to be valid.
The allegation is that, when the numbers failed to reach this threshold, some person or persons unknown decided to make up the shortfall with the help of a photocopying machine.
Very enterprising, but probably not what the WDA had in mind.
These questionnaires were then sent to a firm called ICT Marketing for analysis.
ICT Marketing has now presented Manorbier Community Council with a four-figure bill in respect of this work, but another snag has cropped up because the Community Council is refusing to pay on the grounds that it hasn't authorised the expenditure.
ICT Marketing is relying on an undated letter from a former Chairman of the Community Council instructing them to carry out the analysis, but the council counter that the Chairman didn't have the authority to give such an order because the council's Standing Orders require that the Community Council can only enter into contracts worth more than £1,000 after posting a public notice and holding a special meeting.
M'learned friends are said to be hovering in the background waiting to pick up the pieces and, no doubt, their fat fees.

Thanks Yanks

The BBC and other anti-American (or should that be anti-Bush) sections of the British media are having a field day following the indictment of Dick Cheyney's right hand man Lewis "Scooter" Libby, with Radio 4's lunchtime news programme on Sunday given over entirely to the subject.
But the fact is that the prosecution of such a high-powered figure reflects nothing but credit on the American political system because it indicates that nobody is above the law.
Contrast that with some of our European neighbours.
In France, several of the President's henchmen are on trial over kickbacks on building contracts during Chirac's time as Mayor of Paris.
The money, it is alleged, went into Gaullist party funds.
Alain Juppe, the former French Prime Minister and close Chirac crony has already been convicted on similar charges.
And what of the President himself?
Well, nobody seriously doubts that he had a hand in this shady business, but French Presidents are immune from prosecution while in office.
And, of course, in Germany we had the massive payments into Helmut Khol's CDU party slush fund by the French oil company, Elf.
Nobody was ever prosecuted over that.
In Italy, attempts to bring Silvio Berlusconi to justice are constantly frustrated by by his ability to employ his media empire and political power twist the law for his own purposes.
The resignation, en masse, of the European Commission three years ago (on charges of cronyism and corruption) didn't lead to a single prosecution.
And perhaps most shocking of all, nobody has yet had their collar felt over the Volker Commission's revelations of wholesale fraud and bribery that seem to have been the hallmark of the UN's Iraqi 'oil for food' programme.
Unfortunately, as Lord Acton pointed out, political power is apt to corrupt.
At least, in America, those who get caught can expect to have the book thrown at them.
And what would our chattering classes have to say if, as appears to be case with Mr Blair and David Blunkett, Mr Libby's fate was to rest with George Bush, rather than an independent tribunal?

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

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