5 November 2001


Travellers' tales


Private Eye has run a series of articles about " Benny the bin man'' who makes his living by rummaging around in the dustbins of the rich and famous in search of discarded documents which can be sold to the tabloid press.
I must admit that I sometimes feel like Benny when trawling through the County Council's books, except, of course, my activities are not illegal: indeed they are backed by the force of statute.
Nevertheless, the County Council show a marked reluctance to enter into the spirit of things by providing information in a timely fashion.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the bogus figures released by the county council that purported to show that the members had claimed £42,000 in expenses during the financial year 2000-01.
As I pointed out, this was a gross underestimation of the cost of transporting and feeding our elected representatives because it excluded both the cost of the chairman's people-carrier and accommodation and train/ferry tickets booked and paid for directly by the council.
In the spirit of free enquiry that is the bedrock of a democracy, I asked for a log of journeys undertaken by the people carrier.
The council replied: " the day-to-day deployment of the council's people-carrier is an internal management issue related to the extensive support required by the chairman of the county council in fulfilling a busy schedule of civic engagement. The control of the vehicle is scheduled by the chairman's secretary via the civic diary ''.
Undeterred by this rebuff, I asked to see the civic diary.
No luck!
The diary is, alas, '' not regarded as a document for public inspection ", the council told me.
However, I had rather more success for my efforts to discover the cost of travel and accommodation, which, because it is paid for directly by the council is not detectable by an inspection of the members' expense claims.
A useful starting point when searching for this information is to focus on the council's dealings with travel agents.
That was how I came across an Ocky White invoice for £159 in respect of " Mr X Pembrokeshire County Council x 2 " for a ferry trip to Ireland on the 29th-30th March 2001
It didn't take me long to work out the identity of the mysterious Mr X because his car registration number, L637 LDE, was on the invoice.
This is the Citroen belonging to " Monster Lunch Muncher ", Councillor Alwyn Luke.
Further investigations revealed that he was travelling to the Emerald Isle to attend a meeting in Cork as the county council's plenipotentiary to the Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA).
However, as Councillor Luke is the Council's sole representative on the N F L A it is not altogether clear or why the " x2 " and the " two-berth cabin " both ways.
Fortunately, the conference was cancelled because of the foot-and-mouth crisis so we were spared the expense of B&B for him and his unidentified travelling companion.
But the county council desire to hide their activities from Old Grump's prying eyes reached new heights (or depths) with a trip to London to attend the Queen Mother's Birthday Awards Lunch on 6th November 2000.
Intriguingly, the order sent to the President Hotel, Russell Square reads: " please reserve 1 x double room B&B for Monday 6th November, 2000 for our chairman (Lady Councillor) and Mrs Bill Hitchings + dinner ".
Now, the chairman of the time was Bill Hitchings (which is why Mrs Bill Hitchings was along for the ride) so what do the words " (Lady Councillor) " mean?
Well, applying my considerable forensic skills (lubricated by a bottle of £2.99 Chilean Merlot, I should add) I concluded that there are two possible scenarios.
Either Councillor Bill couldn't make the trip himself and decided that, so as not to deprive Mrs Hitchings of the honour of attending such a glittering occasion, an impostor should accompany her, or Councillor Bill has taken to going about in drag.
I have sent off an inquiry to the Department of Marketing and Communications and hoped to clear up this mystery some time in the near future.

Bovine motion

Last week the chairman of the County Council, Rosemary Hayes, wrote to local papers to complain about their reporting of the recent " Bluestone " debate.
According to Mrs Hayes, both the Western Telegraph and the Mercury had omitted to mention the motion proposed by Councillor John Allen-Mirehouse, deputy leader of the Independent Political (sic) Group, and passed by a large majority: " That this Council calls upon Councillor T Mills [Labour] to withdraw unreservedly his statements which have cast a slur on the personal integrity of the director of finance ''.
What this letter showed, I fear, is that, like several of her predecessors in the chair, Mrs Hayes has not quite grasped the distinction between the constitutional and political.
As chairman, she represents the whole county, not just the 12 per cent who, I calculate, voted for the Independents at the last election. Her duty is to stand above the political fray and ensure that council meetings are conducted fairly and in accordance with standing orders.
Writing partisan letters to the press is a job for politicians, not the impartial "Speaker".
As for the ridiculous motion put forward by the ridiculous John Allen-Mirehouse - living proof that there is no necessary connection between expenditure on education (Eton and upmarket cow college) and outcomes - that was not only an attack on Councillor Mills' right to free speech, but contrary to standing orders.
The fact is that, despite a large independent majority for the resolution, Councillor Mills did not withdraw his remarks
And, it seems obvious to me, if the council lacks the powers to enforce a resolution then, by definition, it lacks the powers to pass it in the first place.
Of course, if the chairman is dozy enough to allow it, the members can put their hands up for anything - a declaration of war on Iraq, for instance - but such a resolution would clearly be ultra vires and void.
It is to be hoped that, when the minutes of last week's chaotic meeting it come up for approval in December, the Labour members insist on having this unconstitutional resolution expunged from the record.


Self interest

Over the past couple of months, the Mercury has been engaged in a concerted campaign to extract the truth about the infamous " Bluestone " from Pembrokeshire County Council.
Some time ago, I read in the Mercury that the £62,000 that this doomed project has cost so far, had been loaned by the County Council to Preseli Menter and when, and if, the Heritage Lottery Fund pay up, the County Council would be looking to recover this loan with interest.
In last week's Mercury, I read that in July 1996 it was resolved that Preseli Menter should become part of the County Council.
Now, in my time, I have witnessed some remarkable feats of mental gymnastics by the Independent Political (sic) Group, but lending money to yourself must take the biscuit.

Have faith

In 1972 a group of environmentalists known as the Club of Rome published a book called Limits to Growth in which it was predicted a that the world's supply of oil would run out by 1995.
Needless to say, this prediction, like many others made by the environmental doom mongers, failed to come to pass.
In fact, we now have sufficient known oil reserves to last until at least 2050, by which time our energy needs will most probably be met by nuclear fission, renewables, hydrogen or some technology nobody has yet thought of.
As the former chairman of Opec, Sheikh Yamani, once said: " The Stone Age it didn't come to an end because of a shortage of stones, and the oil age won't come to an end because of a shortage of oil ".

It will end, as did the firewood age and the coal age before it, because we marvellously inventive and resourceful humans will find something better.


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