November 29 2005

Togetherness

When the Freedom of Information Act came into force on 1st January this year it was hailed at a great move towards open accountable government.
No longer, we were told, would the institutions of the state be able to operate in the dark.
Sadly, it hasn't turned out quite like that.
It is true that what exists now is a huge improvement on what went before, but because of the culture of secrecy that exists historically in many pubic bodies, and the Information Commissioner's tardiness in dealing with appeals - almost ten months in one case in which I am involved - the act is not working as, I assume, Parliament intended.
Back in February, I applied for a copy of a statement given to the police by the county council's director of finance, Mark Lewis, during the investigation into my complaint about Cllr Brian Hall's fraudulent expense claiming practices.
After an inititial refusal the police allowed my appeal and provided me with a copy (see Misinformation) in which Mr Lewis said: "I have myself examined these [Cllr Hall's] claims and confirm they are correct in every detail and do not believe any fraudulent act has taken place."
"Every detail" included buying lunch at the motorway service station near the Severn Bridge at 1.08 pm on 1 February 2001 and, according to his expense claim, leaving Pembroke Dock at 2.00 pm the same day to attend a meeting in Swansea (see The Time Lord).
As the distance from the service station to Pembroke Dock is 125 miles, this would represent an average speed of 144 mph - and that's taking no account of the time it took to him to eat his lunch.
Following receipt of Mr Lewis' statement, I learned that he had made a second statement to the police.
Naturally, I was interested in what Mr Lewis had told the police the second time around.
Two possibilities presented themselves.
Firstly, something similar to what he had told them originally and, secondly, something different and more in keeping with the timed receipts and claim form submitted by Cllr Hall.
However, if it was the second of these, it is difficult to understand how Hall could have retained his place in the Cabinet.
In April I asked the police for a copy of this second statement.
On 24 June I received a letter from the police informing me that my request had been refused on the grounds that it would not be in the public interest for such information to be disclosed.
I appealed, and today, seven months after my initial request, I received a short note from the assistant chief constable telling me that the police are sticking to their original decision.
The refusal letter of 24 June contains two passages that lift the veil on what really goes on in, and between, our so-called democratic institutions.
Firstly, the police say: "Our commitment to protect confidentiality of sources of information has been greatly undermined by the release of a previous statement in respect of the subject matter. Release of further statements from other partner agencies will generate reluctance by statutory bodies to assist the police in any future investigations where the witnesses are employees."
The first sentence means, in other words: we are now sorry that we let you have the original statement.
As for the second part: surely it is the duty of statutory bodies to assist the police and any reluctance to do so by members of staff would be a breach of their professional codes of conduct.
But it is the second passage that is the most revealing.
It says: "Release of a statement in [response to] a previous request [for an earlier statement] from the same individual concerning the same subject matter has had a detrimental effect with partner agency and with the individual concerned."
How would the police know about this "detrimental effect", unless someone from the county council had been in touch to express their displeasure?
Should the police put their relationship with a "partner agency" before their duty to uphold the law?
What business has the county council to interfere in the Freedom of Information process?
And even more important, should the police allow themselves to be influenced by such pressure?
These are all points I will be putting to the Information Commissioner when I submit my appeal.
At the present rate of progress, I will be picking tomatoes by the time the final decision is made.

I can, however, report on one minor triumph in my campaign for more openness in County Hall.
About a month ago a friend, and former councillor, told me of the existence of a register in which are entered all tenders received by the council.
So I asked to see it.
This caused quite a stir because the officer who has custody wasn't sure if it was a public document.
I argued that there was little point in keeping a register if no one could inspect it and that, in any case, confidentiality couldn't be the issue because the current set of Cabinet reports contained - admittedly in the pink pages for the eyes of members only - details of two sets of tenders recently received by the council.
It took just a little over three weeks for the council to concede the point.
This is hardly massive progress but, as Mao Tse-tung said: "Every journey starts with a single step."
Mind you, he also said: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" so, perhaps I shouldn't be taking him as my role-model.

 

Cottages everywhere

Last week, I promised to explain how every 150 acre dairy farm in the county could qualify for a second dwelling.
According to the county council the stocking rate for dairy farms is one cow per acre.
A farmer correspondent tells me this should be one cow for every 1.25 acres but, if 1:1 is good enough for the council leader, it is good enough for the rest of us.
As the mathematicians among you will already have worked out; on the basis of the council's figures, a 150 acre farm will carry 150 cows.
A dairy cow is considered to require 36 hours of labour, annually, and, in addition, 15% of the labour requirement is added on for "general maintenance".
Doing the sums, we have 150 x 36 = 5,400 hrs to which we must add 15% (810 hours) to arrive at a grand total of 6,210.
A labour unit (1 man/year) is 2,200 hrs, so our 150 acre dairy farm requires 2.8 workers.
I don't want to be a party-pooper but, before you ring your architect with instructions to apply for a 2,800 sq ft (three-times the size of a three-bed council house) herdsman's cottage, you should understand that things aren't quite so straightforward as the above simple sums would suggest.
Firstly, if, as in the case of the Leader's farm, Cwmbetws, the holding is toddling along making "healthy profits" on the basis of the present accommodation [ the house you live in], you may be required to show some "change in the scale and nature of the farming operation" that justifies a second dwelling.
Secondly, demonstrating the need for a second worker will not alone be enough because you will also need to prove that this second worker needs to "live on the spot".
As a farmer correspondent points out, while 10 people might be needed to look after 10 acres of forced rhubarb, none of them need live on the spot.
Thirdly, you have to recognise that, as the planning officer said in the case of the Ffos-y-ficer refusal: ". . . the planning system is concerned with the needs of the agricultural unit and not the personal preferences or circumstances of the individuals involved."
So, if the need for another dwelling arises, not from an increase in the scale and nature of the farming operation, but from a change in the farmer's circumstances (finding a more congenial occupation as Leader of the county council (£36,000) that prevents him from devoting himself full-time to the farm, say) then the application should be refused.
If your application falls foul of any of the above, do not despair; there is a Third Way.
You simply have to get yourself elected to the county council and join the Independent Political (sic) Group.
If you can muster a couple of D grade GCSEs , you will have a better than even money chance of becoming a Cabinet member, whereupon you will find that these tiresome rules are only for the little people and not for the likes of you.

Give over!

Old Grumpy is alarmed to read that Milford Haven Town Council is facing a serious crisis.
The scale of the problem can be seen from the minutes of the Finance and General Purposes (FGP) Committee, which I will quote in full.

GIFTS FOR VISITING DIGNITARIES

A proposal has been made that there should be a wider variety of gifts available for the Mayor to present to visiting dignitaries. At present, the only gifts available are plaques, ties and paper-knives.

However, folk shouldn't panic because the Town Council is on the case.

RESOLVED THAT:

A Civic Gifts Sub-Committee be established to consider the question of giving gifts to visiting dignitaries.

This committee will consist of the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Chairmen of both the FGP and Public Works and Planning Committees, together with Cllrs A Byrne, P Williams and J W J Roberts (RD).
With that sort of fire-power concentrated on the problem, a solution cannot be far away.
It is reassuring to know that the spirit of Alderman Foodbottom - Peter Simple's fearsome, iron-watch-chained chairman of Bradford's Tramways and Fine Arts Committee - lives on.

The Devil looks after his own

A couple of months ago, during my annual trawl through the county council's accounts, I came across a payment voucher in respect of a bill from Cardiff solicitors, Dolmans, for legal expenses run up by former leader, Maurice Hughes.
So I applied to the council for a copy of the original invoice.
When it arrived, I found it had almost all been blacked out (redacted is the official term) on the basis that it contained information which, if disclosed, would lead to a breach of solicitor - client confidentiality (see Information blackout).
On checking through the rest of the documents acquired during the public audit, I discover that these rules about the confidentiality appear not to apply to every Tom, Dick or Harry.
Take, for instance, the invoice printed below which concerns an action brought against the county council by a pupil from one of the authority's schools.
In order to protect the identity of the child, I have deleted the name of the claimant, and that of both the school and the officer concerned, though it doesn't need a trained data protection lawyer to realise that this document reveals some extremely sensitive and personal information.
Indeed, I am considering whether I have a duty to bring this to the attention of the Data Protection Commissioner.
Readers with good memories may remember the case of the social worker who dared to go on TV to criticise the council and who then had her sickness record revealed at a public meeting of the council.
And the person who divulged this confidential information?
Why, none other that His former Leadership, himself.
And, in case anyone tries to suggest that the appearance of this unredacted invoice is a one-off mistake, I should say I have several such documents in my possession.
The one-off is the substitution of an uninformative payment voucher in the place of Maurice Hughes' detailed bill.
I wonder who thought to do that?




Tax facts

There was an interesting discussion on Monday's "Today" programme between John Humphrys and Tory leadership contender David Davis.
Davis promised tax cuts if he became Prime Minister and Humphrys countered by asking him which public services he would cut to compensate.
As I have pointed out before, this is a false dichotomy.
The amount of money the Government can spend on public services depends on how much tax revenue it can raise.
In turn, the amount of revenue depends on the rate of tax and the size of the economy on which taxes are levied.
And, as old Adam Smith pointed out more than two hundred years ago, all these factors are interconnected.
It is common ground among economists that, above a certain level, taxes have a disincentivising effect.
If, as the German government has found, you tax people too heavily, you find they either move to the black economy or cease to put their backs into the job.
Either way economic growth is slowed and, despite high tax rates, revenues fall
It is known as killing the goose that lays the golden eggs!

What about the workers?

If politics is the art of the possible, then I wouldn't give much for the chances of this or any other government persuading private sector workers to accept a retirement age of 67 while their public sector counterparts are allowed to skive off at 60?
This is especially so because, according to figures I read in the Sunday Telegraph, the 18% of people who work in the public sector currently own 36% of the nation's total pension rights.
If you do the sums, you find that the average public sector worker is already two-and-a-half times better off, in terms of pension entitlement, than his private sector counterpart, without giving him/her a seven year start.
But there is a second and potentially more damaging divide: that between the generations.
People of my age and a bit younger have had a charmed life so far as pensions are concerned because there are rather a lot of us (baby-boomers) compared to the pensioners we had to support during our working lives.
Unfortunately, that situation is about to be reversed as those now in their 30s and 40s find that relatively few of them are going to have to pay the pensions of those same (numerous) baby-boomers.
At bottom this is the age old economic argument about the proper distribution of the fruits of industry between labour and capital.
In the past, when the capitalists were a few rich landowners, bankers and merchants, it was easy for socialist Trades union leaders to argue that the workers should have the lion's share.
But, today, the capitalists are the pension funds and everyone who is a member of a funded occupational pension scheme makes the transition from worker to capitalist on the day they retire.
It is quite entertaining to see the present crop of brothers threatening to call their members out on strike in defence of the right to have a capitalists' armchair ride on the backs of the workers

Generation game

To most grown-ups, snow is an infernal nuisance, causing blocked roads, slippery pavements and cancelled appointments.
But, to my two-and-a-half year-old grandson, last Friday's white blanket was a sheer delight.
Even before the snow had stopped falling, he was nagging his grandad to build a snowman and, when that was accomplished, he had a great time as I sent him slithering down the slope of our lawn on a large tin tray.
However, modern children do have a selfish streak because, when it came my turn on the tray, he steadfastly refused to give me a push.

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