November 5 2002

Put straight

The Professor has sent me a pained email about one of my headlines in last week's column.
"Your headline: 'Methinks the Indies doth protest too much', nearly brought on a fit of apoplexy" he writes.
By now, we are well used to your childhood ailments as an excuse for your atrocious spelling but to misquote Shakespeare is more than flesh and blood can stand", he thunders.
"I am beginning to wonder if you ever went to school at all" he concludes, "because, as any half-educated dimwit knows, what the Bard actually wrote is: 'The lady doth protest too much, methinks'".

That's telling me!

Normal service

There was an interesting exchange at last Thursday's meeting of the County Council when veteran Lib Dem Cllr Bill Philpin asked why questions submitted by members, under Council Procedure Rule 9.2 (Standing Order 10(2) of the old constitution) and the answers given by the Chairman, were not fully minuted.
Chief Executive, Bryn Parry-Jones answered that the Council had "followed normal practice".
This reply, which was somewhat at variance of my own recollection, sent me scurrying down to the shed to consult my vast library of County Council minute books.
As far as I can ascertain, the first time Standing Order 10(2) was pressed into service was at the County Council meeting in October 1998 when the then leader of the Labour group David Edwards submitted two questions.
The first, on some arcane matter relating to the comprehensive spending review, need not detain us.
The second on the cost of leased cars brought forward the interesting reply that 95 members of staff qualified for free cars by virtue of their contracts of employment, at a cost to the ratepayers of £289,000.
In all, the minutes of that meeting gave a full account of both the questions and the answers amounting to some 250 words covering 19 lines.
The "normal practice" of fully minuting both the questions and the answers continued through the meetings of 17 December 1998 (Four questions, 23 lines) and 25 February 1999 (Two questions, 14 lines).
This enlightened state of affairs ended in December 1999 when two questions from the new Labour leader, Joyce Watson, merited just five lines; the answers, none.
As the record is so brief I will quote it in full.
"The Chairman formally presented answers to questions which had been submitted by Councillor Joyce Watson prior to the meeting in accordance with the provisions of Standing Order 10(2).
The first question involved a number of technical financial issues regarding the Cleddau Bridge. The second question related to the total cost of Welsh language translation services provided to the Pembrokeshire County council in the financial year 1998/99".

This newly minted version of "normal practice" persisted through the meetings of 2 March 2000, 19 October 2000 and 14 December 2000.
Then, on 13 December 2001, "normal practice" underwent a further mutation.
The minutes record: "The Chairman formally presented the answer to questions submitted by Councillor Joyce Watson prior to the meeting in accordance with Standing Order No. 10(2)".
And, save for the change of name, effectively the same wording was used to minute the question put by Cllr Bill Philpin at the meeting in July 2002.
Hence Cllr Philpin's question!
So, where the County Council is concerned, it seems that "normal practice" means, to paraphrase Humpty Dumpty in "Alice through the Looking-Glass" whatever the Chief Executive chooses it to mean, "nothing more and nothing less".
And, during my researches into this matter, I have discovered another way in which the opposition's question-asking weapon has been blunted.
Under the previous Standing Orders five clear days notice was required for questions, but, under the new constitution, this has been doubled to ten.
That these changes have been introduced with hardly a squeak of protest from our elected representatives only goes to demonstrate the fragile grip exerted by the principles of open accountable democracy here in Republica Pembsca.

Secret service

Over the past few weeks, Old Grumpy has been taking a belated interest in the County Council's arrangements for doling out business grants.
The reason I have not addressed this subject in the past is that the proceedings of the Grants Panel, the body that distributes the taxpayers' largesse, are not recorded in the Council's minutes.
A case of out of sight, out of mind, I suppose.
However, during my recent inspection of the authority's books, I came across some eye-catching payments to a dozen or so of the county's largest tourism operators, under the heading "Foot and Mouth. Tourism Marketing Grant", and a plethora of smaller payments to various local businesses entitled "Foot and Mouth Hardship Grants".
My investigations revealed that the Marketing Grants, totalling £480,000, had been dished out by the officers, while the Hardship payments, totalling some £222,000, had been the responsibility of the Grants Panel.
Eventually, the Council provided full details of the Hardship grants, but not without a struggle.
This set me thinking about these Grants Panels, especially the high degree of secrecy surrounding their proceedings.
I am told that, to avoid the possibility of taxpayers finding out who is benefiting from their generosity, members have to hand in all their papers at the end of meetings to avoid the possibility of the information being leaked to the local press.
Yet, if you log on to the Wales Tourism Board website (www.wtbonline.gov.uk) you can find a complete list of all the grants awarded by WTB for the past three years.
What has the County Council got to hide?

 

Self-service

As I expected, the ruling Independent Political (sic) Group declined the substantial pay rises on offer at last Thursday's council meeting.
Had they voted for the increases, the salary of the Leader Maurice Hughes would have shot up from £35,000 to £40,000 and those of his Cabinet colleagues from £22,500 to £25,000.
As most of the voters already believe the present pay levels are way in excess of what these people are worth, this was probably a wise move.
After all, what is the point of filling up the trough if, 18 months hence, the electorate comes along and kicks it over before you have had time to eat your fill?
However, a mole tells me that there was a lively discussion on the issue at the party's secret group meeting the previous day where some of the old diehards, who will not be standing at the next election, adopted the motto "gather ye rosebuds while ye may" (I've checked this Prof)
During Thursday's debate on the new allowances, there was an interesting debate on care allowances for those looking after children and other dependents.
Labour leader Joyce Watson favoured a flat rate payment of £300 a month on the grounds that the need to provide receipts would be cumbersome and bureaucratic.
The ruling Independents argued for reimbursement of the actual costs, on proof of payment.
One of the Independent Group's leading thinkers, Cllr Norman Parry, couldn't see the difficulty "Why can't you prove the expenditure?" he asked Cllr Watson.
For the same reason, presumably, that some of Cllr Parry's Independent colleagues find it impossible to provide receipts to support their claims for hotels and meals (see below).
Cllrs Terry Mills (Lab) and Michael Williams (Plaid) drew attention to the £400 included in each member's £9,907 basic allowance to cover the costs of computers and Internet services.
Both suggested that those without IT facilities should pay the money back.
Unfortunately, neither Cllr Mills nor Cllr Williams could quite bring themselves to move an amendment, which would have allowed a recorded vote.
Given the Independents' enthusiasm for proof of payment for care costs, it would have been interesting to see how many of them thought the same principles should apply to their own non-existent computers.
Faced with an open goal, the opposition hoofed the ball over the bar when, as the soccer reporters are fond of saying, it looked easier to score.
Or maybe Alexander Pope had it right all those years ago when he wrote:
"Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike."

Silver service

Over the next few weeks I will be detailing some of the ways in which the custodians of our money use it for our benefit.
Our first port of call is the posh restaurant known as Penally Abbey, near Tenby.
The date is May 2nd 2001 and, according to the invoice I came across during my annual trawl through the County Council's books, six members of the great and the good are sitting down, at our expense, to a gourmet meal at £28.00 a head.
Old Grumpy has the checked the expense claims of all the usual suspects, but I can find no sign of any of them claiming mileage allowance on that date.
Pacing up and down the kitchen in my deerstalker, with smoke billowing from the meerschaum, it suddenly came to me - the Council's chauffeur driven limo.
And never can the besuited flunky's services have been more welcome, because the bill reveals that, between them, our six bigwigs put away 120 quids worth of vino, bringing the total cost of the outing to £288.00 (not including the chauffeur's wages and petrol)
No wonder the Council can't afford to employ enough home-helps!

Back to home page