October 17 2013

Sorry, I haven't a clue

A couple of weeks ago I reported on a radio interview by Deputy Leader Cllr Huw George in which he made a valiant attempt to explain the intricate tax implications of the pension arrangements which he concluded with the claim that "the tax man gains in each and every way".(All shall have prizes)
Though I studied tax law at university, I make no pretence to understand the complexities of these pension arrangements, so I was quite surprised that Cllr George had mastered the subject.
However, nagging doubts remained because the the object of the scheme was to allow senior officers to avoid a "substantial tax liability".
So I put down a question to the Leader at yesterday's meeting of full council.
Wisely, Cllr Adams left his deputy to answer.
Cllr George is no mean talker and he rattled off his prepared explanation at such a speed that I was left as confused as ever.
However, one thing of which I was certain was that there was a logical disconnect between senior officers saving on their tax bills and the tax man gaining in each and every way.
So, when I rose to ask my supplementary question, I put it to Cllr George that his garbled explanation had failed to square this particular circle.
After a brief pause, he blurted out: "I don't understand HMRC, either".
Which only goes to show that bullshit doesn't always baffle brains.

Sins of omission

At a recent meeting of corporate governance committee the leader stated that "a number" of meetings of the council's senior staff committee had been held in the chief executive's office.
I had become aware that the meeting where the controversial pension arrangements were agreed was held at this venue, but my trawl through the minutes on the council's website didn't reveal any other cases.
So I put down a question to the Leader, Cllr Jamie Adams, which he answered at yesterday's meeting of full council.
According to Cllr Adams, three meetings of senior staff committee had been held in the chief's office: 22 April 2008, 28 September 2011 and 2 May 2012.
I suppose that just about qualifies as "a number", but, as they span a period of over five years, they are not as commonplace as Cllr Adams statement at corporate governance might imply.
However, be that as it may, I was rather puzzled as to why I had not come across these meetings during my earlier trawl through the minutes.
The header for minutes of council meetings take the standard form "Minutes of the meeting of [name of committee] held in [description of venue e.g. Committee room 2] County Hall, Haverfordwest on [day and date] at [time].

The minutes of the three meetings cited by Cllr Adams all followed this basic pattern, with one crucial difference - the precise location was not specified.

MINUTES of a MEETING of the SENIOR STAFF COMMITTEE held in
COUNTY HALL, HAVERFORDWEST on TUESDAY, 22 APRIL 2008 at
1.00 p.m.

MINUTES of a MEETING of the SENIOR STAFF COMMITTEE held in
COUNTY HALL, HAVERFORDWEST on WEDNESDAY, 28 SEPTEMBER
2011 at 2.30p.m.


MINUTES of a MEETING of the SENIOR STAFF COMMITTEE held in
COUNTY HALL, HAVERFORDWEST on WEDNESDAY, 2 MAY 2012 at
1.30p.m.

I have been unable to find any other example that doesn't specify the name of the room where the meeting was held.
So any member of the public consulting the minutes would have no indication that the meeting had been held in the chief executive's office, which is not part of county hall's public area.
Old Grumpy also notices another anomaly with regard to the minutes of the September 2011 meeting where the controversial pension arrangements were rubber stamped.
Standard practice is for the minutes to record the identity of the officer presenting the report, as in the committee received a report by the director of this or that.
This practice was not followed in this case, though we now know the report was co-authored by the director of finance and head of HR (both potential beneficiaries of the tax planning scheme) and was actually presented to the committee by the head of HR.
None of this would have been obvious to a member of the public consulting these minutes which merely record:
"Having convened in private session under the terms of Paragraph 12 of Part 4 of Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972, the Committee considered a report regarding the effects upon pension contribution arrangements of recent changes in taxation provisions affecting higher earners and which had imposed limitations and penalties on the levels of annual contributions and the taking of benefits."
It is not possible to say whether these omissions were deliberate, or the result of sheer carelessness, but Old Grumpy is reminded of the quip attributed to Groucho Marx: "I don't care who's in the majority, as long as I get to write the minutes."

 

Conspiracy theorists

Following yesterday's council meeting, I was accosted in the corridor by Cllr Stan Hudson.
He was obviously displeased and was muttering something about having better photos if I ever needed one again.
It took me a few seconds to realise that he was on about that now infamous mock-up in the Pembrokeshire Herald's "Badger column" which had the Chief Executive as puppet-master and the six members of the senior staff committee, including Cllr Hudson, dangling on strings.
"Nothing to do with me", I told the agitated Stan.
"You're Badger!" he insisted.
I repeated that Badger was none of my doing, but he was still unconvinced.
So I offered him the generous odds of five to one (in hundreds) that I could show that neither Badger or the puppet show were anything do do with me.
He declined, so I offered the same bet in tenners, but faced with the choice of believing me or putting his hand in his pocket, he went for the cheap option.
Nice to know that Cllr Hudson has such a high regard for my honesty.
This is not the first time this week that the establishment has detected my hand behind the actions of others.
All I will say is that I much prefer to both make and fire my own bullets.
And, I would add, the councillors with whom I normally associate are mostly able, educated people who don't need any help from me when they want to write a letter or a speech.
I appreciate why there are some among the ruling class who find this difficult to believe.
Indeed, only last week I revealed how several members of the IPPG (they're the ones who control the council's £300 million budget) had to enlist the help of ex-Cllr David Wildman to write their election addresses (Stop press 8 Oct).
Finally, I would say that I have no connection whatsoever with the Pembrokeshire Herald.
Nothing I have written has ever appeared on its pages without my name alongside i.e. letters to the editor and quotations in news pieces.
That said, I wish the paper well and I'm delighted that Badger's puppets ruffled the establishment's well-preened feathers.

'Tis an ill wind

Every cloud has a silver lining and the defection of Stephen Joseph from Plaid to the IPPG has brought some benefits to the good guys (and gals) who make up the county council's non-group of unaffiliated members.
Having been reduced from five to four when Cllr Joseph jumped ship, Plaid have lost their seats on both the seven-member senior staff and audit committees.
Whereas previously the calculation was 5/60 x 7 = 7/12 > 0.5 = 1 it is now 4/60 x 7 = 7/15 < 0.5 = zero.
The seats now become unallocated and fall automatically to be filled by members not affiliated to any political group.
This is tough on Plaid leader Cllr Michael Williams who sat on both committees.
It is also tough on the Pembrokeshire electorate because Cllr Williams is one of the few members who is prepared to ask searching questions.
Still, I'm sure the two unaffiliated members appointed to these committees: Cllr David Lloyd (Senior Staff) and Cllr Jacob Williams (Audit) will prove to be suitably robust replacements.

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