November 15 2005

Italian job

Having suffered a severe drubbing in the "Sofa wars" (see Losing streak) I found myself on the end of another humiliating defeat last Sunday week as I sat on the tarmac at Stanstead waiting for the Easyjet flight to take off for Naples.
This was the culmination of a sustained propaganda campaign by Old Grumpette designed to persuade me to give up the "Today" programme and the Daily Telegraph in exchange for a few days in the sun.
With the benefit of hindsight: that most exact of all sciences, I now understand how this was achieved and I am kicking myself for not realising what was going on at the time.
The softening up process involved the appearance of several brochures for extremely expensive cruises around the Mediterranean.
And I mean expensive; four figures with a number greater than two at the front.
So when Old Grumpette produced an advert from the Daily Mail for a week in a four-star hotel on Ischia in the Bay of Naples, for just £230 including flights and all transfers, I jumped at the opportunity to remove the cruises from the agenda.
As we flew over the Alps, it dawned on me that I fallen for a none-too-subtle variation of the hard cop - soft cop routine.
Our flight arrived in Naples dead on time, but it took the airport authorities more than half an hour to provide a bus to take us to the terminal.
It was already dark, but not dark enough to conceal the rain bouncing off the runway.
And, even if you couldn't see the rain, the flashes of lightning and the rumbling of thunder were impossible to ignore.
The late arrival of the airport bus meant that we pulled into Naples harbour just in time to see the 8 pm ferry disappearing into the night.
With the lightning now directly overhead, and the rain falling in real earnest, it was a disappointment to learn the the next ferry wasn't due for another two hours.
Up to then I had kept my own counsel but I couldn't resist telling Old Grumpette that I hadn't seen rain like this since she dragged me off to Portugal three years ago.
However, my mood improved when one of our party discovered a little bar where a drinkable drop of vino rosso (I had taken the trouble to learn some important phrases before leaving) could be had for 90 cents a glass.
That, of course, was too good to last and at 9 o'clock the barman pulled down the shutters and we were all left huddled under a semi-permeable canopy to wait the arrival of the ferry.
We eventually fetched up at the hotel just after midnight.
Unfortunately, after that promising start, we awoke the following morning to blue skies and temperatures in the low 70s.
And so it remained all week, and, though I wouldn't want anyone to tell Old Grumpette, I quite enjoyed myself.
My fear is that if she finds out that the holiday was a success she may be emboldened to try for the hat-trick.
For several weeks now, she has been drawing my attention to the shabby condition of our N reg Vauxhall Vectra which was well second-hand when we bought it six years ago.
However, I am prepared to make a stand on this issue if only to prove to myself that I am no henpecked wimp.
Thus far and no further - hands off my car!

Almost the first thing you are told when you arrive in Naples is that on no account should you hire a vehicle and venture out into the local traffic.
And when you see the state of some of the bodywork you can see why.
One of our favourite ways of passing the time was to sit in a pavement cafe with the mandatory glass of vino - rosso or bianco, according to taste - trying to spot a dent-free car.
They are few and far between, I can tell you.
But, before Robbie Freeman and Parry and Blockwell think of rushing out there to make a fortune, I should say that most of the damage consists of minor scrapes and dents that are largely ignored as long as the car is still mobile.
Even when there is evidence of a more substantial shunt, the policy seems to be to do no more than take a hammer to the wing and beat it out so that it no longer rubs on the tyre.
They also seem to have a rather different perception of the role of the zebra crossing.
Over here, you stand by a crossing in the reasonable expectation that the traffic will stop to allow you across.
In Naples you could stand there all day.
Old Grumpette, who, having spent her early years in Libya, fancies herself as a bit of an authority on the ways of the Mediterranean, decided that the way to overcome this problem was to step out into the road with your hand up like a policeman on point duty.
Always the gentleman, I insisted on women and children first.
Returning from a trip to Pompeii on the coach, the air was suddenly rent by the sound of car horns from behind.
One of the tourists asked the guide what all the noise was about.
"They're annoyed because we've stopped at this red light", she replied

I go away for 10 days, thinking that the other 59 million of you can be relied on to keep things in some sort of order, and when I return I find the country in a shambles.
Not only have we had the largest Parliamentary revolt in living memory over Mr Blair's plans to scrap habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights, but things on the rugby field have also gone to the dogs.
What has the world come to when the All Blacks can come over here and, on consecutive Saturdays, put 40 points on Wales and Ireland, leaving only England and Scotland barring their route to a Grand Slam.
As Scotland's chances can be rated somewhere between nought and vanishing point, it looks like it is up to England to prevent a blackwash.
There must be Welshmen out there who are be prepared to set aside old enmities and join me in backing England to uphold the good name of British rugby.
Sadly, I fear, both of you are doomed to disappointment.

Wheels within wheels

When I arrived home on late on Monday night I found the Old Grumpy doormat covered by a pile of mail which when collected together measured almost a foot deep.
Most of it was terminally boring stuff like the invitation to the seminar to discuss "The implications of extended life expectancy".
I think most people will be able to work that one out for themselves.
The implications are that, either we wrinklies will have to work longer, or our children and grandchildren will have to pay higher taxes to maintain us in the manner to which we have grown accustomed.
But, among all the bureaucratic dross, there was a fascinating report by the county council's Monitoring Officer, Huw Miller, into a complaint by an organisation called the North Pembrokeshire Community Objective (NPCO) about the conduct of former Cabinet member and former member of the council's Standards Committee, Brian Howells.
Old Grumpy has already touched on this subject (see Letters galore) but Mr Miller's report adds some fascinating new detail.
Unfortunately, I have not had the time to study the report in detail but a cursory inspection reveals that the Monitoring Officer has come to the view that Cllr Howells breached the Code of Conduct by failing to declare an interest in a planning application for developments at Fishguard School during a meeting of Fishguard Town Council held on 18 February 2003.
His interest in the matter flowed from his membership of both the county council, which had submitted the application, and the governors of one of the schools affected.
Strangely, when the same matter came before the Cabinet almost a year earlier Cllr Howells did declare his interest as a governor of the school.
So, whatever his reason for failing to declare at the Town Council meeting, it wasn't ignorance of the rules.
I intend to deal with this report in detail next week when I have had time to read it more thoroughly.
However, what interested me was that NPCO first complained to the then Monitoring Officer Huw James who "concluded that there was no further action he needed to take in relation to it."
NCPO then complained to the Ombudsman who decided that there was a case worthy of investigation.
In such cases the Ombudsman has two choices: he can investigate the case himself or he can pass it on to the council's Monitoring Officer.
It seems that a hybrid system was used in this case with the Ombudsman starting the investigation before passing it on to Mr James.
Of course, on any reasonable view of the Rules of Natural Justice, Mr James, having already concluded "there was no further action . . . " was the last person to be charged with the duty of carrying out the investigation.
He seems to have come to this view himself when the Ombudsman sent him copies of his original correspondence with NCPO including his letter saying there was nothing to investigate on the face of which someone from NCPO had scrawled the word "whitewash".
A conclusion with which it is difficult to disagree given the findings of this latest investigation.
So it was decided that the investigation would be put in the hands of the council's head of legal services, Huw Miller.
Old Grumpy has the greatest respect for Mr Miller, who ran an extremely tight ship when he was Monitoring Officer for the former South Pembs District Council.
Indeed, I still have a copy of his report into Cllr Clive Collins' failure to declare an interest in a planning application that came before that council.
Cllr Collins is the present Chairman of the county council, so, it seems, a record of sleazy behaviour is no bar to preferment in the strange political culture of the Independent Political (sic) Group.
However, whatever Mr Miller's virtues, the fact remains that Mr Huw James was his immediate boss and, I would suggest, that was enough under the Rules of Natural Justice to disqualify him from carrying out the investigation.
It will be interesting to see what the Standards Committee decides on Thursday.
The committee does have the power to disqualify a member from serving as a councillor for up to six months.
What Cllr Howells is accused of would have to be considered as being at the lower end of the scale.
In any case, the question is purely academic because the good voters of Fishguard gave him the order of the boot at the elections in June 2004.
However, I believe he is still picking up £6,300 a year as one of the council's two non-executive directors on the Milford Haven Port Authority Board.
Having recently had cause to read the Higgs report on the requirements for non-executive directors, (see Foregone conclusion) I wonder if he should reconsider his position.

Ask a policeman

The most interesting, and the most disturbing thing I read in the papers last week was that chief constables across the land had been dragooned by the Home Secretary into lobbying MPs over the Terrorism Bill.
There was an excellent letter in the Independent pointing out that the role of the police is to implement laws decided by Parliament. It is not the role of Parliament to pass laws decided by the police.
The writer lived in Hong Kong so, perhaps, it is easier to recognise the characteristics of a police state if you live in one.
I was, of course, on the receiving end of this sort of thing myself when the chief superintendent at Haverfordwest police station obligingly provided the county council with a letter to use as ammunition against my notice of motion calling for the release of the statement given by the director of finance during the investigation into Cllr Brian Hall's fraudulent expense claim.
That letter was solicited by the chief executive who was also, to my mind, guilty of involving himself in what was, in fact, a political issue.
If you remember, Mr Parry-Jones asked the chief superintendent's advice on whether I would be able to obtain a copy of the statement through the Freedom of Information process.
Why one of the council's trained lawyers should turn to a policeman for an opinion on the very same act that applies to the county council is anyone's guess, but not only was the advice provided but a copy was sent to the leader of the council which he proceeded to selectively quote during the meeting where my notice of motion was debated.
Interestingly the advice was entirely wrong because when I did apply for a copy of the statement under FoI the police provided it (see Plodding on).
However, when I applied to the police for further information my request was refused.
As part of that request, I asked how many witnesses had been interviewed during the police operation.
That was refused on the grounds that disclosure of "The method used in this investigation and the scope of the enquiry will provide a documented record of police investigations. It is also very likely that disclosure of police tactics would give offenders the opportunity to avoid detection and prosecution, causing harm to the whole community."
If that reasoning seems a bit thin, think how much thinner it is when looked at in the light of the chief superintendent's letter to the chief executive ( copy to Cllr John Davies) which informs them that ". . . 29 witness statements were taken and 69 exhibits were referred to during the investigation."
All peeing in the same pot?

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