November 2 2004

Ins and outs

In one of his first acts after being elected Leader of the County Council, Cllr John Davies used his huge majority to amend the constitution by introducing four new posts of assistant Cabinet members.
To pay for this he lopped one-third off the Special Responsibility Allowances of those who were being assisted and gave it to their assistants.
So we now have a three tier Cabinet with the Premier League on £15,000, the First Division (now known as the Championship) on £10,000 and the Vauxhall Conference who have to struggle by on a paltry five grand.
The trouble with meddling with constitutions, as Mr Blair found when he tried to abolish the Lord Chancellor, is that the law of unintended consequences is liable to raise its ugly head.
In this case there is some confusion as to the exact status of these semi-detached assistants.
According to the council's constitution, Cabinet members are not eligible for membership of Overview and Scrutiny Committees.
This is an eminently sensible arrangement because the idea of someone scrutinising their own activities would be clearly ridiculous.
However, there seems to be no bar to these assistant Cabinet members serving on scrutiny committees.
This raises two obvious difficulties.
Firstly, the Cabinet is bound by the doctrine of collective responsibility.
If the Vauxhall Conference are similarly bound, then they suffer from the same disabilities as scrutiny committee members as the Cabinet themselves.
And secondly, even if they are not so fettered, the junior cabinet members are appointed by the Leader and can be summararily dumped by the Leader.
Hardly a recipe for the fearless criticism of the Leader and Cabinet's policies, which is the scrutiny committee's supposed role.



Jobs for the boys

Inclusiveness, or is it inclusivity - I'm never sure - is a word that is never far from the lips of our beloved leader, Cllr John Davies.
Cllr Davies can certainly talk the talk but how does he shape up when it comes to walking the walk?
Well, judging from the list of appointments to outside bodies that I have received from the County Council, not terribly well.
I should explain that when the authority's new constitution was agreed back in late 2001/early 2002 the Cabinet was given the power to make appointments to outside bodies.
At its very first meeting, the Cabinet delegated this power, together with that of appointing school governors, to the Leader.
As far as I am aware, the Leader never reports his decisions to the Cabinet nor does anyone know what criteria he uses to decide who will be slotted into which post.
Indeed, it seems that, in this field, the Leader has the very thing that democracy is supposed to avoid: absolute power.
What a statistical analysis of the appointments does seem to indicate is that being a member of the Independent Political (sic) Group (IPG) gives a huge boost to your chances of preferment.
There are, I calculate, 150 of these posts of which 87% are held by IPG members who make up just 62% of the Council.
Further analysis reveals that of the 20 appointments held by the 22 opposition members, five are in the hands of the Independents' favourite Labour party member, Cllr Simon Hancock.
In addition, five of the seven posts on the Community Health Council are held by Labour.
A Labour member explained to me that membership of the CHC was not sought after by the ruling group because (a) it involves a lot of work, and (b) it offers limited opportunities for driving around in your car at 50p a mile.
It is also difficult to reconcile the Leader's much-trumpeted enthusiasm for inclusiveness with the fact that all six council representatives on the Port Of Pembroke Liaison Committee are Independents, while Labour hold three of the four Pembroke Dock seats.
Ditto the Texaco Liaison Committee, on which all four seats are reserved for the Leader's Independent Group cronies.
The list does have its lighter moments such as Cllr Stephen Watkins' membership of the Welsh Centre for International Affairs.
Cllr Watkins, who once described himself as "a lifelong socialist" in a letter to the Western Telegraph, replaces the right-wing Tory Peter Stock on this body.
Does this herald a dramatic change in the council's Foreign Policy?
Does the council have a Foreign Policy?
And, if not, why is public money being expended on this enterprise?
The council also holds 15 positions on the Courts of Governors of various universities.
Cllr Islwyn Howells, the Cabinet member for education,is the leading light in this respect with membership at Coleg Harlech, and the universities of Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth.
I had not marked Islwyn down as the professorial type but his entry in the register of members interests records: "Kemes Lodge and other associated side degrees" so he's obviously well qualified for the job.
Before you become concerned that our higher education system may have fallen into the wrong hands, I should point out that these positions are more to do with raising councillors' sense of their own importance than raising the standards of university education.
I am told that the duties involve turning up, eating a nice lunch and then nodding through whatever the Vice-Chancellor and his inner circle put in front of you.
A bit like a County Council meeting, in fact, except that the nodding and the noshing are in reverse order.


Direct elections


Next Monday the County Council's Cabinet is to discuss Cllr Bill Philpin's Notice of Motion relating to reductions in Fire Service cover in Pembrokeshire.
The NoM requires that the council "...instructs its representatives on that body [The Mid and West Wales Fire Authority] to vote against such proposals."
The council has three representatives on the Fire Authority - Cllrs John Allen-Mirehouse and Brian Hall, both appointed by the Leader, and Cllr Pearl Llewellyn, appointed by the Labour group.
I am not aware of any constitutional mechanism whereby any of them can be instructed how to vote.
Quite simply, the County Council does not have a policy on Fire Service matters.
Indeed, except for the occasional grumble about the amount of money it is demanding from the County Council, I cannot recall any mention of the Fire Authority at any meeting I have attended.
As I understand it, with the possible exception of Cllr Hall who calls in at County Hall for "briefing" (About what? By whom?) on his way to and from Carmarthen, our representatives go to Fire Authority meetings and do exactly as they please.
This appointment of representatives, as opposed to election, is one of the great underlying weaknesses of our democratic system.
Nobody voted for any of these three because of any expertise in the matter of Fire Service provision in Pembrokeshire, and nobody voted for the Leader because of the likelihood that he would appoint Cllrs Allen-Mirehouse and Hall to the Fire Service.
Indeed you could take it a step further and say that nobody in Milford Haven, other than Cllrs Anne Hughes and Martin Davies, voted for the Leader.
Unfortunately, this method of concentrating power in the hands of one man; then giving him the authority to ladle it out in any way he pleases, leaves the idea of democratic accountability hanging by a very slender thread.
How much better it would be if we adopted the American system of direct elections to these sort of institutions.
Of course, the Leader might put pressure on his two representatives by threatening to remove them from the Fire Authority if they fail to do his bidding.
Alternatively, he could throw them out of the Cabinet - another of his absolute powers.
The Labour Party, ditto.
However, the point is, surely, they are our representatives and we should have some direct way of holding them to account.

Unwelcome questions

Last week the Western Telegraph ran a story about the previous week's meeting of the County Council under the headline "Council leader leaps to defence of chief exec."
It wasn't altogether clear from what followed where the attack was coming from.
The reason the Leader was "defending" the chief executive was that I had tabled some fairly simple questions about his remuneration.
The first involved the situation that arises when the chief executive carries out the duties of returning officer during the increasingly frequent elections.
On these occasions he is paid by central government.
All I wanted to know was what arrangements were in place to compensate the council for the loss of his services.
Two possible alternatives present themselves: foregoing part of his holiday entitlement, or not drawing his salary.
However, from what the Leader said, it would seem that the chief executive takes neither course i.e. he is paid twice.
The other question from which the Leader felt the need to "defend" the chief executive was about his salary, car allowance and expenses for the financial year 2003/2004.
This the Leader refused point blank to answer, citing the case where his predecessor was criticised for revealing the health details of a member of the council's staff.
The only problem with that excuse is that, in that instance, the monitoring officer ruled that Maurice Hughes was perfectly entitled to disclose the information.
The Telegraph reported the Leader as saying: "In common with other staff, the chief executive's personal details were confidential although they were in the accounts for everyone to see."
How something can be both confidential and open for public inspection was not explained.
What is actually in the accounts is a list of the council's top earners, in bands of £10,000.
One member of staff, presumed to be the chief executive, is recorded as having earned £110,000-£119,000 during the year in question.
I also know from other sources that Mr Parry-Jones is entitled to 12% of his salary as a car leasing allowance, though I don't know how much he actually claimed.
As for expenses, it seems strange that, in the same week that our MPs' income from this source was all over the newspapers, the amount claimed by the chief executive should be treated as a state secret.

Back to home page