October 15 2001

Time warp?

News has reached me that Cllr Brian Hall's solicitors are "finalising" a claim against me in respect of allegedly defamatory comments that appeared in my Old Grumpy column in the Mercury.
As the offending article was published in March 2000, this claim promises to be a mighty impressive document.
At least, it is to be hoped that after a 19-month gestation they don't bring forth a mouse.
As you might imagine, Old Grumpy has not been idle during this protracted phoney war.
I have been taking a keen interest in Cllr Hall's affairs with a view to going fully armed into our eventual courtroom confrontation.
So, last
week, when I arrived at Pier House, Pembroke Dock, to conduct my annual trawl through the council's books, my first port of call was the file on members' expenses.
Inspection of Cllr Hall's claims yielded several eye-catching items, including a trip to Cardiff on 6 December last year for which he claimed 360 miles, which, if correct, would put the Welsh capital on the outskirts of Stoke on Trent.
Then there is his practice, when travelling from his Pembroke Dock base to Carmarthen, of going by way of Haverfordwest on both legs of the journey.
I counted 30 occasions when this double detour was the chosen route, costing the council some £400 in extra mileage and toll payments.
Perhaps the council might consider buying him a decent road map for Christmas.
But what really fascinated me was Cllr Hall's movements on 31 January and 1 February 2001.
On 31 January he left Pembroke Dock at 8.30 am bound for London (via Haverfordwest, of course)
The reason for this trip to the metropolis was to attend a bash in the House of Commons as a representative of the Mid and West Wales Fire Authority, of which he is a member.
He booked in at the Jarvis International Hotel in Hyde Park, before making his way to the Palace of Westminster.
The House of Commons do started at 5pm and went on to 8.30 with the last hour and a half being devoted to drinks on the terrace overlooking the Thames.
All I know about Cllr Hall's extra-parliamentary activities on that night is that he claimed £44 in respect of three taxi rides; £51 for expenditure in the Mandarin Kitchen; and ran up phone charges of £8.40 at his hotel, including one costing £5.50 timed at 11.23.
The following morning he pointed his 2.3 litre Mercedes towards the west, and home a round trip of 520 miles.
According to his expense claim, at 2pm on the same day he was back in Pembroke Dock and climbing into the Merc to drive to Swansea to attend a meeting of the South Wales Integrated Transport Consortium (SWITCH).
He must have been a bit pressed for time because, for once, he headed straight up the A477 to St Clears.
On the way back from Swansea, his expense claim reveals, he did make the detour through Haverfordwest arriving home in Pembroke Dock at 5.45.
By now you will be asking the same question as me: why didn't he call in at Swansea on the way back from London, saving himself all that stressful driving and the taxpayers 130 miles at 48.5p (£62.40)?
Well, I suppose, the most obvious explanation is that he had some urgent business to attend to which required his presence in Pembroke Dock.
At this point I must digress and say that I had no idea that the success of my five-year campaign, to require councillors to produce receipts to justify their subsistence claims, would produce such wholly agreeable results.
In this case, these receipts - the products of that wonder of modern technology, the electronic till - provide a detailed picture of Cllr Hall's whereabouts on February 1st.
Firstly, the credit card receipt attached to his hotel bill is timed at 10.13am on February 1, leaving only three and three-quarter hours to get from Hyde Park to Pembroke Dock (via Haverfordwest) by 2.00pm.
By the time he crossed the Severn Bridge (at 12.56 according to the ticket in his file) he had just over an hour left to complete 140 miles.
It appears that, once back on Welsh soil, Cllr Hall started to feel a bit peckish and pulled into the First Motorway Service Station, near Chepstow, where he tucked into a "Large Fizz" and a "Daily Spec[ial]" cost £7.18.
According to the receipt this meal was paid for at 13.08 (eight minutes past one) and, as it is a self-service facility, it still had to be eaten.
So, we can conclude that, unless he had access to Alwyn Luke's Tardis, the probability of Cllr Hall setting off from Pembroke Dock at 2.00pm that day, to attend a meeting in Swansea, is somewhere between nil and vanishing point.
I can't wait to see him in the witness box.
And to think that February 1st is my birthday.
How very thoughtful!

The Third Man

I have received some interesting intelligence from a mole, with contacts in the Independent Political (sic) Group, following my revelation in last week's column that Cllr Mark Edwards had been called before The Leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes, to explain why he was backing a referendum for an elected mayor, contrary to official party policy.
My mole tells me that, originally, Cllr Edwards was to have faced a three-man Inquisition comprising The Leader, his deputy Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse (the Laird of Angle) and Brian "Rottweiler" Hall.
It appears that news reached these tinpot Torquemadas that if they tried to bully and intimidate the councillor known as Chicken Eddie (after the Fish and Chip emporium he owns, opposite County Hall) they might find themselves in the pit with a fully spurred fighting cock.
Or, to press the poultry metaphor to its limits, he would tell them to stick their Independent Political (sic) Group up their duck-runs.
That would have created a lot of publicity, which, given the public's affection for those who are prepared to stand up to control freaks (Ken Livingston, Rhodri Morgan) would not have reflected well on the Independents.
In short, to be seen to be twisting Chicken Eddie's arm would have the press sniping at them, which could cook their electoral goose. Or, to put it another way, the idea of subjecting the mild-mannered member for Prendergast to the third degree was a bit of a turkey. (That's enough Christmas dinners. Ed)
My information is that the leader quailed at this possibility and decided to have an informal man-to-man chat with Cllr Edwards to sort out their differences.
At this point my mole becomes a bit vague.
He tells me that, while the Laird and 'Rottweiler' were not at the meeting, he has evidence that a third person was present.
This person, he assures me, was "a senior County Council officer", though he declines to be more specific.
Naturally, being a keen student of the Kremlinology of County Hall, I have my own hunch about the identity of this mysterious third person, but, knowing how much the apparatchiks in the Lubianca on Cleddau would welcome the chance to "sue the arse off me", as one of them once, graphically, put it, I will, for the moment, keep my thoughts to myself.
However, I am in no doubt about the broad reliability of my mole's information.
So, why would a "senior County Council officer" be taking an interest in this internal "party" spat?
And, even more important, why should the taxpayer be paying for the involvement of a civil servant, who is, according to the law, supposed to be above politics?
Well, the answer to the first question is really rather simple: the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB) knows that an elected Mayor, with a county-wide mandate, would destroy the absolute power that they now enjoy as a result of their hold over their puppets in the Independent Political (sic) Group.
That is why one wag has suggested that COMB stands for "Control Over Maurice's Boys".
The answer to the second question is simpler still and is to be found in Lord Acton's famous dictum: "All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely"
When you have absolute power you don't have to worry about trivialities like constitutional principles and the rule of law.


Spun to death

Transport Secretary Steven Byers has said that the, now, notorious e-mail sent by his chief spin-doctor, Jo Moore, within an hour of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre, was "a terrible error of judgement".
Complete lack of judgement, if you ask me, coupled with cold-blooded cynicism and a total lack of basic human decency.
Blairite MP Stephen Pound came on the Today programme one morning last week to defend la Moore.
He excused her behaviour by suggesting that when she sent the offending e-mail she had no idea of the seriousness of the attack in New York.
Well, she may not have realised that the building was about to collapse resulting in a death toll of thousands but surely she had the imagination to see that hundreds had already perished in the initial impacts.
In any case, an hour after the second impact, the flames were consuming the upper floors of the towers and people were making the awful decision to jump rather than face incineration.
When another Blairite loyalist, Ben Bradshaw MP, tried to run the Pound defence past the Any Questions audience on Friday night, he was, I am pleased to say, greeted by hoots of derision and gasps of disbelief.
Thankfully, there are plenty of people in the Labour Party, including several Cabinet ministers, whose sense of what is moral and decent has not been corrupted by the pursuit of power and the smart money says that Ms Moore's days are numbered.
I also read that the spread betting companies are offering quite attractive odds to anyone who wishes to have a punt on Mr Byers surviving beyond Christmas.
Ms Moore also stands accused of lying to a Sunday Times journalist.
Apparently, David Parsley, of the paper's business staff received a tip off that the Government was about to put Railtrack into receivership.
Mr Parsley rang Jo Moore to check the veracity of the story.
At first she refused to answer his questions but when he told her the paper was going to print the story anyway she retorted: "If you run that you will look like a f***ing idiot".
This is a classic example of the spin-doctor's art of avoiding the direct lie.
Old Grumpy remembers the day when one of my moles in County Hall contacted me to say that a member of staff in the finance department had been arrested in connection with a payroll fraud.
I rang the press office to check the story out.
About half an hour later a junior spin-doctor, who has since left the authority, rang back to say that he had made enquiries in the finance department but had drawn a blank.
Note: this is not a denial of the truth of the story, merely an attempt to give the impression that it is not true.
"Can you give me some more details?" he asked.
I must say I saw through this ruse straight away.
If someone had indeed been arrested then why would I have more details than the finance department?
His game was to find out how much I knew so that a calculation could be made as to the chances of fobbing (fibbing?) me off.
"Oh well", I said, "if they don't know about it, it can't be true." Adding, "Can you put your denial in writing and I will write a piece along the lines ' Council denies payroll fraud rumours'".
Faced with the prospect of having to commit a lie to paper, it was not long before he was back on the phone to tell me that he had now discovered that the story was true after all.


Back to home page