18 November 2003


Death of democracy

Last week the Mercury published an interview with County Council Leader Cllr Maurice Hughes in which he claimed that the reason people thought the new Cabinet arrangements undemocratic was that "they don't understand them".
What I do understand is that the foundation stone of any democratic system is the constitution and that the constitution cobbled together by Pembrokeshire County Council ahead of the introduction of the Cabinet leaves us in a democratic wasteland.
At the head of the tree is the Leader who has sole power to hire and fire members of the Cabinet - hardly an recipe for independent thinking.
In addition, the Leader has the authority to appoint all County Council representatives to outside bodies, including the Local Health Board.
All this on the strength of 462 votes in Merlins Bridge.
Cabinet decisions are invariably unanimous and taken without debate.
After the Cabinet makes a decision it comes into effect within 48 hours unless the matter is called in by one of the Scrutiny Committees.
These Scrutiny Committees are supposed to act as a democratic backstop - holding the cabinet to account and all the usual garbage.
In fact, of the more than 250 Cabinet decisions made in the past 18 months, only one has been called in.
The reasons for this low level of activity are not far to seek.
Rather cleverly, when the constitution was written the Scrutiny Committees were restricted to 10 members, which, on the present political balance, means they are composed of seven members from Cllr Hughes' Independent Political Party and three from the opposition.
The constitution stipulates that, for a Cabinet decision to be called in for scrutiny, there should written notice from either the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee (an Independent Group stooge, with an £8,000 a year Special Allowance, appointed (and removable) by the Leader) or four members of the committee.
So, before they can exercise the power of call-in, the three opposition members on the committee have to recruit a member of the Independent Group to the cause, which, given the Stalinist solidarity of the ruling group, is no easy task.
Not that it matters anyway because even if the Scrutiny Committee disagree with the Cabinet's decision it cannot force its reversal.
All the Scrutiny Committee can do is delay implementation of the decision for a week or two.
Of course, there is a mechanism for changing the constitution but for as long as the Independents have their hands on the levers of power it is unlikely to be triggered.
That mechanism involves a member, so far, always from the opposition, submitting a Notice of Motion to Full Council.
If the proposal is reasonable, all that is required to carry it is for nine or ten members of the Independent Group to detach themselves from the main body.
Well, that's how it would be except for another couple of neat constitutional tricks.
The first is that the Chairman of Council (appointed by the Independents) has the absolute power to remit Notices of Motion to the relevant committee - in this case the Corporate Governance Committee (Chairman Cllr Maurice Hughes) - rather than have them dealt with there and then.
In addition to Cllr Hughes, the Corporate Governance Committee is made up of seven Independents (three cabinet members and the four scrutiny committee chairmen) and four members of the opposition..
Proposers of Notices of Motion have no right to address the committee in support of their proposals, though they may speak with the Chairman's permission.
If the Leader and his cronies don't like the proposal they can use their majority on the committee to vote it down and that is the end of the matter.
So, we have a situation where a proposed amendment to the constitution, which may attract majority support if put to the vote at full Council, can be killed off by this backroom committee, packed with the leader's placemen.
The constitutional philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville said that to allow those in power to set their own rules would inevitable lead to tyranny.
And that's what we've got in Pembrokeshire: a petty tyranny, maybe, but a tyranny nonetheless.

Deja vu

Old Grumpy is struck by the similarities between the activities of Minister for Children Margaret Hodge and County Council Leader Maurice Hughes.
Ms Hodge wrote a letter to Gavin Davies, Chairman of the BBC Governors in which she described Dimitrius Panton as "a seriously disturbed person".
Cllr Hughes wrote a letter to Cllr Michael Williams in which he accused Old Grumpy of making "unfounded" allegations about Cllr Brian Hall's high-speed travels on 1 February 2001.
Both letter were headed "private and confidential" because both writers wanted to conceal what they were up to - a cover-up.
Ms Hodge hoped that by smearing Mr Panton she could persuade the BBC to discontinue its investigations into her time as Leader of Islington council.
Cllr Hughes tried to brand me a liar hoping that that might persuade Cllr Williams to cease his enquiries into the relationship between Cllr Hall and Dr Michael Ryan.
Both came unstuck when the recipients of these "private and confidential" letters decided it was in the public interest to publish.
Ms Hodge ended up issuing a grovelling apology and, if newspaper reports are to be believed, forked out £30,000 in a payment to charity and legal costs.
Makes you think!
PS. As predicted (see Smear Leader) His Leadership has been a bit slow to respond to my email about Gulliver Hall's travels. Still, I read in the Mercury that he intends to hold an 'open mic' session before Christmas.
I'll be there.

Tax facts

In 2005 there is to be a Council Tax revaluation.
As house prices have more than doubled since the original valuation more than 10 years ago, there are predictions that this will automatically lead to huge increases in the amount of Council Tax we are all called on to pay.
You may all relax because this proposition, being the result of looking through the wrong end of the telescope, has no foundation in either arithmetic or logic.
Take the notional example of a council with a budget of £100 million; £80 million of which is funded by government grant and £20 million from Council Tax.
That £20 million is shared out between the householders of the area, with the precise amount paid by each individual calculated by reference to the value of their property.
Assuming the value of houses is uniformly doubled by the revaluation then all householders will be called upon to pay precisely the same share of the £20 million as they were previously.
Of course, if the total take from Council Tax rises to £25 million in, say, three years time, our Council Tax bills will rise by 25%, but that will be nothing whatsoever to do with the rise in house prices or valuations.
Undoubtedly, there will be cases where the value of properties has risen by more than the trend and the owners will find themselves in a higher band and paying more.
But the iron laws of arithmetic ensure that, all other things being equal, for every extra pound paid by that group of people another group of people will pay a pound less.

Futile trade war


With a European-USA trade war looming, it is difficult to believe that it is almost 200 years since David Ricardo set out his theory of comparative advantage and the resulting benefits of free trade.
Perhaps not that difficult when I tell you that my authoritative Oxford English Reference Dictionary can find room for "Richards Cliff (born Harry Roger Webb) British pop singer" ; "Richards Viv, West Indian Cricketer" and "Richards Gordon. English jockey" but not a word about Ricardo, one of the greatest economic thinkers that ever lived.
Ricardo's theory was quite simply that, if A was better than B at growing potatoes, and B was better than A at growing carrots, it would benefit them both if each specialised in that activity in which they were most efficient and satisfied their need for potatoes or carrots, as the case may be, through exchange or trade.
He also showed, mathematically, that, even if A was the more efficient producer of both potatoes and carrots, it would still suit them both to trade.
Unfortunately, these ideas have been rather slow to catch on and we still live in a world where protectionism, in one shape or form, is rife.
This argument about free trade goes back a long way - at least to 1846 when Robert Peel split the Conservative party by repealing the Corn Laws which had hitherto allowed the landowning classes to profit from the high prices caused by tariffs on imported grain.
And, for some reason: probably that economics is not generally taught in schools, it still goes on today.
I came across a classic example of our general confusion about trade in yesterday's Western Mail.
The confusion arises because we regard exports as good and imports as bad, without ever stopping to think that, if we didn't take in imports, foreign countries wouldn't be able to buy our exports.
Under the headline "Local food best for children" the Western Mail reports: "National Assembly plans to provide primary school children with free breakfasts should go further and insist that fresh, locally-produced food is served at all times, the Farmers' Union of Wales has demanded."
No bananas for breakfast, then.
Over the page, under the headline "Welsh lamb deals sealed at German trade fair" the Mail reports that Welsh Country Foods are celebrating the signing of a contract to supply 900 tons of lamb to Wal-Mart in Germany and that another deal has been struck that will see £500,000-worth of Welsh lamb sold through the Belgian supermarket chain, Delhaize.

Rugby Extra

Baby Sam slept like a log through last Sunday's game against France.
I've instructed his mother to keep him up late on Friday evening.



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