12 November 2002

Conflict of opinion

Old Grumpy was fascinated by County Council Leader Maurice Hughes' statement, published in last week's Mercury, regarding the relationship between Cabinet member Brian Hall and Dr Michael Ryan, managing director of the county council' economic development consultants ORA International Ltd.
In August 2000, ORA and the County Council entered into a contract by which the company agreed to provide 38 days consultancy a year in return for a fee of £18,000, plus expenses (£7,000 for the year 2001/02)
Within a few months of ORA's appointment, on 29 December 2000 to be precise, Dr Ryan and Cllr Hall formed a company, Euro-Ryall Ltd, of which they are the sole Directors.
According to Cllr Hughes, this arrangement was sanctioned by officers of the authority after the two men gave "firm undertakings that the company would not trade in Pembrokeshire or provide any conflict of interest".
I have emailed the Leader asking which officers approved this relationship, and when, but he has yet to reply.
But it is the question of the potential conflict of interest that seems to me to lie at the heart of the matter.
The most notable recent case on this subject arose during the Pinochet case before the House of Lords.
The initial judgment of the Lords was that Pinochet could be extradited to Spain to stand trial for human rights offences.
It then emerged that one of the judges involved in the hearing, Lord Hoffman, had links with Amnesty International and, although there was no suggestion that his judgment had been influenced by this relationship, it was considered that it gave rise to a conflict of interest sufficient to nullify the original decision.
On 28 June this year the County Council's Cabinet met to discuss, among other things, a proposal initiated by ORA to seek funding for a Science and Technology Park at Cleddau Bridge.
The minutes of that meeting record:

"Decision
That Local Regeneration Fund and Objective 1 funding bids should be prepared to facilitate the development of the proposed Science and Technology Park".

As this project was ORA's baby, there is the possibility, at least, that, had the Cabinet decided to reject the scheme, its contract with the authority; due to expire in August 2002, might not have been renewed.
Clearly, then, Dr Ryan, as managing director had an interest in the scheme's adoption and so, by virtue of the Section 11 of The Conduct of Members (Model Code of Conduct) (Wales) Order 2001, did Cllr Hall.
"11. A member has a personal interest in a matter if that member anticipates that a decision upon it might might reasonably be regarded as likely to benefit or disadvantage:
(a) the member, one of the member's family or a friend, or any person with whom the member has a close personal relationship"
And Section 16(3) provides such interests must be declared and "If that personal interest is such that a member of the public might reasonably conclude that it would significantly affect the member's ability to act purely on the merits of the case and in the public interest if that member were to take part in the discussion of that matter, the member must also withdraw from consideration of the matter at that meeting unless granted a dispensation by the authority's Standards Committee".
No dispensation has been granted in this matter nor, according to the minutes, did Cllr Hall declare an interest and withdraw from the meeting.
Indeed, according to the Mercury's report, the Council claims that: "There is clearly no need for Councillor Hall to have declared an interest".
Now, what I think follows from the legislation is that the basis for deciding what constitutes a conflict of interest is not the opinion of either the Council or the participants, but in what "a member of the public might reasonably conclude" and, in the final analysis, whether a member of the public's views on the matter are "reasonable" is a matter for the Ombudsman to determine.

 

Sleeping rough?

 

When it came to the vote on the recent debate on whether or not councillors claiming care allowances should be required to provide receipts as proof of the expenditure, Old Grumpy took a particular interest in the activities of two prominent members of the ruling Independent Political (sic) Group: Cllrs Alwyn "Nuke" Luke and Bill "King of the Road" Hitchings.
Cllr Luke's idea of providing valid receipts can be found at (Self Service)
Cllr Hitchings, Cabinet Minister for the Old and Infirm and three times a winner of the Marco Polo prize for publicly-funded travel in Old Grumpy's Rewards for Excellent Services (OGRES) is a less than meticulous expense claimer whose activities are well documented both on this website and in my columns in the Milford Mercury.
Sure enough, when the vote on the care allowances was taken, Luke and Hitchings both put up their hands in favour of proof of payment, as, incidentally, did every other "Independent".
I was particularly interested in how Hitchings voted because, during my recent trawl through the county council's accounts, I couldn't help but notice that, despite, the clear statement on the claim form that "Claims for subsistence must (Council's emphasis) be accompanied by a receipt". he had been paid sums of £91.04 and £94.03 (twice) for subsistence in respect of three trips to London, though no evidence of the expenditure was provided.
(On October 25 I asked the Council's finance department for an explanation as why the rules had been disregarded in these three cases, but, as yet, they have not favoured me with a reply.)
Then, when he travelled to London on 30 January this year, he put in another subsistence claim for £94.03 (the maximum allowed) again without any supporting receipts. However on this occasion the finance department appears to have stuck to the "no receipts - no payment" line and eventually Hitchings produced the evidence.
This comprised an invoice for £39.00 from the Regents Palace Hotel and a restaurant bill for £13.86 - £52.86 in all.
As the mathematicians among you will already have calculated, this is more than 40 quid less than his original claim, which carried a declaration,signed by the former member of the Standards Committee, that "I have actually paid the fares and made the other authorised payments shown ..."
But even more interesting was the expense claim for his annual midsummer migration to the Association of Port Health Authorities' conference, which has been a regular feature of his and Mrs Hitchings' itinerary for the past 12 years, at least.
Assuming that other authorities are the same as Pembrokeshire, where, once a member becomes the council's representative on one of these bodies, the only way out involves a box (ballot or brass- handled) then he and Mrs Hitchings must, undoubtedly, have made many friends at these annual taxpayer-funded jaunts.
Last years bash was held in Belfast which required a ferry crossing and a drive of 470 miles at 50p (£235).
I was immediately struck by lack of any mention of the cost of the ferry , but that mystery was soon cleared up when I located an invoice from Ocky White travel for £258 in respect of "Mrs M E Hitchings and Cllr W H Hitchings", together with a Nissan Primera W922 XCY, for a crossing to Ireland on the 11 o'clock Seacat on 18 June 2001, returning nine days later on 27 June, which, in itself, was rather strange, seeing it was only a four day conference.
What puzzled me even more was that Cllr Hitchings had claimed four days subsistence at £79.82 (£319.28), coincidentally the maximum allowed for trips outside London, but his claim was disallowed for lack of receipts.
It would have been a simple matter for Cllr Hitchings to ring the hotel in Belfast and ask for a duplicate bill, but he doesn't appear to have done so because the £319.28 remained unpaid when the accounts closed nine months later, on March 31 2002.
The idea of Hitchings forgoing more than £300, for the sake of a 10p phone call, doesn't ring true.
Perhaps, they slept in the car.
Investigations continue.

Motive Power

Word reaches Old Grumpy that the received wisdom among the oligarchs in County Hall is that this website and, more particularly, my habit of poking around in the County Council's books each October, are "politically motivated".
It is not often that the nomenclatura in the Kremlin on Cleddau get something right, but this is one of them.
As students of recent history will know, "politically motivated" became a term of abuse during the Seamen's strike in, I think, the late 1960s.
Interestingly, one of that "small group of politically motivated men", as the, then, Prime Minister Harold Wilson branded them, was John Prescott, the minister presently charged with working out an agreement with the Scargillite (Tony Blair's description) Fire Brigades Union.
However, what Mr Wilson was complaining about was not that the union was politically motivated, per se - after all, everyone who votes at an election is politically motivated to some degree - but that it was trying to force through its pay claim by other than democratic means.
That is the exact opposite of my "political motivation" which is to see that Pembrokeshire County Council conducts its affairs within the basic principles of democracy and the rule of law.
An uphill struggle, I must admit, because most members of the Independent Political (sic) Group seem to believe that democracy is something that only happens on the first Thursday in May every four years ( five years in the present cycle because members of the Welsh Assembly has decided to give their chums in local government an extra lap on the gravy train.)

Lucky strike

Without some sort of scientific approach, digging around in the County Council's accounts would be a bit like panning for gold.
In the room where the accounts are stored are some 500 boxes (I counted them) containing some 150,000 invoices (I am told).
Clearly, just attacking the boxes at random would be a not very efficient way to proceed, so, over the years, Old Grumpy has devised a way of avoiding the need to wade through file after file of telephone and electricity bills to find the pay dirt.
This involves asking the Council to provide printouts of specific accounts - Ocky White Travel is one particular favourite - which, because they carry file numbers, helps to narrow down the search.
However, as you might imagine, there are times when the County Council are a bit tardy in providing the information required and to wile away the time you take a box down off the shelf and riffle through the contents.
Very occasionally, this trial and error method brings forth a nugget.
For instance, I now know that, in 2001, Cllr John Thomas received a birthday card from Chief Executive, Bryn Parry-Jones.
And the reason I am in possession of this fascinating piece of information is that, during one of my random trawls, I turned up a petty cash account which records "Chief Exec. Birthday card (Cllr J Thomas) £1.81"
I hope he signed it: "From the Council Tax Payers of Pembrokeshire".
On the same sheet, my eye was attracted to the entry: "Chairman [Cllr Rosemary Hayes]. Flowers-birthday (Cllr Folland) £18.00".
Old Grumpy assumes this enormous bouquet went to Cllr Micky Folland and not his namesake Roy "six-foot-under" to whom floral tribute has an altogether different meaning.
Next week. The cost of replenishing the Chief Executive's booze cabinet.


What the butler didn't see

Old Grumpette is threatening to drag me off to Vilamoura for a week's holiday,
so, on Monday evening, I popped down to Tesco to buy some Portugese Merlot with a view to giving my liver a chance to play itself in.
The change of water will be enough of a shock to the metabolism.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find any Portuguese so I took advantage of a special offer - two £3.99 bottles of my favourite Chilean for £6.00
That evening, I supped rather too freely with the result that my snoring kept Old Grumpette awake for most of the night.
The frosty, breakfast-time silence was eventually broken by Old Grumpette, who, shall we say, expressed her feelings in rather forceful, unladylike langage.
Fortunately it was the butler's day off or it would be splashed all over the Mercury next week.

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