November 28 2006

 

Memory lapse

Last Thursday, we had the long awaited Pembrokeshire County Council standards committee hearing into the Ombudsman's finding that Cllr Brian Hall had brought the office of councillor into disrepute when he uttered threats of violence against BBC Dragon's Eye journalist Simon Morris at a reception held in St Davids on 14 January 2005 to mark the launch of the BBC programme "Pembrokeshire - a land of dreams".
At the standards committee it was not disputed that, during a conversation with Glyn Davies AM and BBC executive Huw Roberts, Cllr Hall had said that if Simon Morris ever went to Ireland "he wouldn't becoming back" and that he had friends in Manchester's gangland "who could break his [Simon Morris'] arms and legs".
Cllr Hall turned up at last week's hearing accompanied by the leading London solicitor Tony Child - who was instrumental in Ken Livingstone's successful High Court appeal against the Standards Board for England's decision to suspend him from office for one month for a similar offence.
Relying on the argument that was successful in the Livingstone case, Mr Child said that Cllr Hall was in St Davids as a private individual and, therefore, there was no case to answer.
The Ombudsman, who was present in person, said that his interpretation of the Livingstone judgment differed from that of Mr Child, and he thought that the circumstances surrounding Cllr Hall's attendance at St Davids should be determining factor.
One of these circumstances, the Ombudsman said, was whether Cllr Hall had claimed travelling expenses for the journey to the reception.
When the chairman Susan Smith asked Mr Child about these matters, Team-Hall retired to a private room for a confab.
On their return, Mr Child explained how Cllr Hall had come by his invitation to the St Davids bash, but, on the subject of travelling expenses, all he was able to offer was: "My client is unable to help on expenses."
Clearly, this is a matter of some importance because, as a matter of logic, Cllr Hall was either on official council business, and entitled to claim expenses, or he wasn't.
While Cllr Hall was "unable to help" to resolve this issue, Old Grumpy; ever eager to be of assistance in uncovering the truth of what really goes on in county hall, was able to go down to the shed and consult the vast collection of papers accumulated as a result of my regular trawls through the council's books during annual public audit inspections..
It didn't take me long to unearth Cllr Hall's expense claim for the day in question, an extract from which is reproduced below.


Interestingly, according to the AA's routemaster website, the mileage for the journeys Pembroke Dock - County Hall - New Hedges - County Hall - Pembroke Dock - St Davids - Pembroke Dock adds up to exactly 113 miles.
Top marks for accuracy, then, even if the memory is a bit below par.

 

Slippery customers

 

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Cllr Hall's peregrinations on 30 November last year (see Brian the bus) when he first drove to Haverfordwest to meet a council officer, then to Pembroke to meet a J Parsons and back to Haverfordwest for a meeting with Ms Bassett, before returning home to Pembroke Dock
In all he claimed for 40 miles plus four bridge crossings.
As I pointed out, Ms Bassett is the Ombudsman's investigator and it not easy to see why attending an interview with her could be an "approved duty".
That being the case a large part of Cllr Hall's journey Pembroke - Haverfordwest - Pembroke Dock was on non-council business (he could have gone straight from Pembroke to Pembroke Dock) for which he was not entitled to claim.
I took this up with the Leader, Cllr John Davies who responded with this rather curiously worded e-mail:

As you are aware, the Chief Executive may approve as duties attendance by members at any meeting for the proper discharge of the business of the Authority. In order to undertake their duties, Cabinet Members regularly need to attend meetings with officers and others. I am satisfied that on 30th November 2005, Councillor Hall needed to attend a number of meetings at County Hall. I am also satisfied that it was reasonable for him to keep an appointment in Pembroke which broke up his day in the office. The mileage he has claimed is less than 2 journeys from his home in Pembroke Dock. What is confusing is that Councillor Hall appears to record some of his activities as well as his duties; though it also seems that he does not itemise all his duties.

Having read the report to the standards committee, it now transpires that J[ohn] Parsons is Cllr Hall's local solicitor, so neither was the visit to him an approved duty.
It is worth examining this statement in detail because it is a classic example of the sort of verbal trickery you come up against when dealing with the slippery customers in the county council.
Firstly, an "approved duty" is defined by statute and is not at all the same thing as a duty approved by the Chief Executive. So, while the Chief Executive might approve of Cllr Hall driving back and fore over the Cleddau Bridge to meet his solicitor and the Ombudsman's investigator, under the law, these are emphatically not approved duties for which expenses can be claimed.
Secondly, even on the council's rewriting of the statutory regulations, what the Chief Executive can approve is "attendance of the Leader or his nominated representative" so the question arises: did the Leader nominate Cllr Hall to represent him at the meetings with Mr Parsons and Ms Bassett, and why?
Thirdly, the Leader is careful to say that "it was reasonable for him [Cllr Hall] to keep an appointment in Pembroke", though he doesn't say it was reasonable for him to claim travelling expenses.
And, lastly, the final sentence is, as I said previously, a masterpiece of obfuscation because it hints at the possibility that Cllr Hall returned to Haverfordwest to carry out some approved duty that he didn't itemise, while recording an activity - meeting Ms Bassett - which was not an approved duty.
And this from the man that promised that under his leadership the council's business would be conducted to "the highest ethical standards".

True to form

It seems that the conspiracy theorists were wrong about the authorship of Cllr Pearl Llewelyn/Llewellyn's press release (see Pearl fired) because the council's marketing and communications department have denied all knowledge.
Just goes to show the danger of jumping to conclusions.
However, the suspicions that it wasn't Pearl's own work are not completely baseless.
I have now obtained a copy of the e-mail and its list of addressees is interesting.
As well as the usual suspects (Western Telegraph, Milford Mercury, Tenby Observer and Radio Pembrokeshire) the e-mail was sent to Cambrian News (Aberystwyth) Carmarthen Journal, Teifiside Advertiser (Cardigan), Western Mail, ITV and five separate contacts at BBC Wales.
It would seem either that the author thought Pearl's resignation from the Labour party was a matter of national importance, or the e-mail was transmitted by someone with a wide range of media contacts.
However, evidence that it is not the work of the wordsmiths in the press office is to be found in the fact that Assembly Members are twice represented as "AM's" in the text.
But the content indicates that it came from the pen of a senior member of the IPG - the non-political political party - because Pearl's ghost writer told the press: the Labour party in Pembrokeshire is only interested in one thing - staying in power at the expense of being honest with the electorate.
I know that logic and truth are not the Independent Political Group's strong suits, but even its members will be hard pressed to explain how the Labour Group with 12 (now 11) seats can be said to be in power in a council of 60 members.
The fact is that Pearl's new party, the IPG, with 38 (now 39) seats is the party in control.
That is why it holds all 13 cabinet posts, and nine out of the 12 committee chairmanships and vice chairmanships.
As for being honest with the Pembrokeshire electorate, could I refer you to the pre-election activities of Cllr Llewellyn's new chums, Cllrs Anne Hughes and Jim Codd, which are recorded at Party animals
And, as for being honest in the more general sense of the word, see Master Forger and The Time Lord

Pollyanna

Welcoming the Toynbeeisation of the Tory party, the writer Clifford Longley told the Today programme audience that there was an even higher authority for social justice than Toynbee: God.
During his peroration; delivered on Thought for the Day, Longley also had a pop at FJ Hayek the liberal economist whose free market ideas, together with those of the recently deceased Milton Friedman, are said to have provided the philosophical basis for Thatcherism.
Hayek's offence, according to Longley, was to say that social justice is a meaningless concept.
I have never actually met anyone who didn't believe in social justice, though when you ask them what they mean by the term you get a lot of different answers.
The two extreme versions of the concept are laissez faire capitalism where people are allowed to retain the fruits of their labours and the Marxist formula expressed in the words "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."
On the first version, a bricklayer who lays a thousand bricks per day is twice as well off as his colleague who lays 500.
In terms of reward for effort, nothing particularly unjust about that.
On the Marxist formula, a single bricklayer who lays 1000 bricks ends up with less income that the married man with three children who lays 500.
In terms of fulfilment of need, nothing particularly unjust about that, either.
In practice, no modern society has ever been organised on the lines of either of these extremes.
In fact, what politicians of all parties have tried to do is marry the economic efficiencies of the laissez faire model with the social cohesion that comes from redistribution.
Just where the balance should be struck is a difficult matter of judgment, though Hayek and Friedman would both say that any attempt to push the system too far in the direction of Toynbeeist egalitarianism requires a degree of state coercion that is incompatible with individual liberty.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the freedom argument, I have no doubt that Hayek is right to say that a term like social justice, that is capable of meaning different things to different people, is essentially meaningless.

It could be worse.


At times of crisis - Brisbane and Twickenham, for instance - the only way to retain your mental balance is to keep looking on the bright side.
One way this can be achieved is by finding someone who is even worse off than yourself.
And it is not the score at the Millennium Stadium that I have in mind, but the fact that the England v South Africa was on Sky; sparing me the ordeal of having to witness the gory details.
However, what made me feel really sorry for my Welsh friends was that, not only did they have to watch their team being overrun by an awesome All Blacks outfit, they also had to listen to commentary by that dreary pair Eddie Butler and Brian Moore.
Nor can I believe Wales' chances were improved by annoying the All Blacks with a political spat over the pre-match Haka.
The WRU hierarchy should have heeded the words of Voltaire, who, as he lay on his death bed, was asked to renounce the Devil.
"Nay", Voltaire replied, "this is no time to be making new enemies."
PS Thanks to the Internet, I am delighted to be able to report that the England team is well on its way to retaining the MacRobertson Shield currently being contested on the croquet lawns of Australia.
To follow the team's progress type "World Croquet Championships" into Google.
Don't all log on at once, or you'll crash the site.

Back to home page