28 October 2003
Independent of any principles
Thursday's meeting of the County Council went off exactly as predicted in last week's column (see Stop press).
Cllr Michael Williams had put down a Notice of Motion asking that "This Council calls on the District Audit Service (DAS) to carry out a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Dr Michael P Ryan as economic development consultant and Dr Ryan's business relationship with Councillor Brian Hall."
This Notice of Motion caused a serious problem for the ruling Independents because if they voted against, they would be accused, justifiably, of a cover-up.
On the other hand if they voted for it, and the balloon goes up, Cllr Williams would get all the credit.
And that would never do!
So, His Leadership decided to pre-empt Cllr Williams' N o M by writing to the Auditor asking him to investigate.
When the matter came up for discussion at last week's meeting, the Chairman Micky Folland asked Cllr Williams whether, in view of the Leader's letter to the Auditor, he wished to withdraw his NoM.
In order to encourage withdrawal, the Leader had written to all three minority party leaders informing them that he had asked the Auditor to investigate on virtually the same terms as Cllr Williams' NoM.
However, Cllr Williams, alerted by what appeared on this website last week, asked the Leader to read out his letter to the Auditor.
Then the great deception was uncovered.
Cllr Hughes had not asked the auditor to investigate in line with Cllr Williams' NoM instead he had written a rambling two page letter (see below) in which he asked the Auditor to "investigate" in the following terms: "You properly have access to all the information the Council holds and your standing enables you to conclude whether there are any issues of significance about the conduct of the Council's affairs which require any action. I should be grateful, therefore, if you would give consideration to this matter and carry out any enquiries that you deem appropriate."
In addition, there was a whole lot of stuff about Old Grumpy which had no relevance to the issue and was clearly intended for no other purpose than to discredit me in the eyes of the Auditor.
After the reading of the letter, up bobbed Deputy Leader, John Allen-Mirehouse, to propose that Cllr Hughes' letter should be the basis for the council's approach to the DAS.
But Labour Leader Joyce Watson and her Lib Dem counterpart, John Allen, were both struck by the disparity between what the Leader had told them about his letter to the Auditor and what they had just heard.
Both called for Cllr Williams' entirely neutral NoM to go forward.
But, when the matter was put to the vote, the result was a foregone conclusion as the Independents voted almost to a man (and woman) for the Deputy Leader's amendment.
It seems that, so far as the Independents are concerned, the truth is a movable feast.
Winning the vote is all that counts.
They remind me of something that the liberal philosopher Frederick Hayek wrote about the rise of the Nazis in a chapter "Why the worst always rise to the top" in his great book "The Road to Serfdom".
According to Hayek, most ordinary members of the Nazi party, and not a few of the hierarchy, were not particularly committed, ideologically, to the Nazi cause, rather they were attracted by the feeling of power that comes from being a member of an organisation that is so dominant it can always get its own way.
A bit like the way boys prefer to belong to the biggest gang.
The one consolation is that, by letting the Leader's contentious, unpleasant and partisan letter go forward as the council's official request to the Auditor, the Independents have made themselves a laughing stock.
Not that having such a bunch in charge of the county council is any laughing matter.
At one point in his letter, the Leader says that "as in [Old Grumpy's] previous campaigns of similar nature" he has "sought to excite certain sections of the local press ...".
So, what's wrong with that?
Doesn't the Leader realise that the free exchange of ideas and information is one of the cornerstones of any democratic system.
Is he suggesting that our knowledge of what goes on should be restricted to the County Council's press releases?
In any case, my efforts have been singularly unsuccessful with regard to the Western Telegraph which has somehow managed to ignore the Hall/Ryan story completely.
But it is in the final paragraph that the Leader really displays his authoritarian, anti-democratic credentials in their full colours.
"However, there is a further separate issue which I would like you to consider which I realise might take longer. Mr Stoddart's campaigns over the last several years have involved complaints to your office, the police and the Ombudsman as well as to this authority. It is evident that very significant sums of public money have been devoted to dealing with him. I think it is time we had that cost quantified as a matter of public interest so that others can properly judge the benefits or otherwise of his activities."
It is distressing to think that someone who has almost absolute power within the County Council should display such total ignorance of how the democratic system works.
I am a private individual who Parliament has given the right to ask questions of various public bodies.
I am not answerable to Cllr Hughes for how I exercise those rights.
If the Auditor thinks my questions vexatious or frivolous he is at perfect liberty to say so.
In any case, I doubt that the Auditor has the powers to carry out such an investigation, but, if I am wrong, fairness dictates that he should also quantify the credit side of the balance.
I can't provide a complete list off the top of my head but, for starters there is the dramatic fall in Monster Muncher's consumption of free lunches, the cessation of Cllr Hughes' practice of claiming hotel expenses - £560.00 in all - when the council had already paid the bill in advance; an end to the profitable scam whereby members would buy £2.00 sandwich in County Hall canteen and then claim £6.37 for lunch, and many more.
It should also be borne in mind that my "activities" are ongoing and the ultimate goal - honest, democratic government in County Hall - is, I believe a prize beyond price.
If I fail, I may seek political asylum in Zimbabwe.
Not that I have anything to fear from an inquiry into my letter-writing activities!
I have in front of me a sheaf of correspondence, covering the period October 2003 - July 2003, on the subject of Cllr Brian Hall's rental payments on the industrial unit he leases from the County Council.
The first item, dated 18 October 2002, is a request from me, under the Audit Commission Act 1998, for details of these payments.
The council's reply, dated 22 October 2002 informed me that I was not allowed this information because it is "Personal Data (Data Protection Act 1998)"
I wrote to the Director of Finance on 5 November pointing out that S 35 of the Data Protection Act expressly over-rides the non-disclosure provisions whenever "disclosure is required by or under any enactment" e.g. Audit Commission Act.
More than three weeks later, not having received a reply, I wrote to the Monitoring Officer setting out what I considered to be the legal position.
The Monitoring Officer wrote back on 14 December to tell me that he was doing some "further research" on the issue and, after a further exchange of correspondence, on 4 March 2003 he wrote to tell me: "I have now concluded my enquiries into the legal position and am satisfied that you are entitled to the information requested."
Three days later, I received a letter from the Director of Finance giving a list of payments received from Cllr Hall which showed he was six months in arrears with the rent and ten months late paying the rates.
This, in my view, still didn't satisfy the requirements of the Audit Commission Act 1998 which gives citizens the right to "Inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers, and receipts relating to them".
Letters flowed freely between County Hall and Liddeston until, on 16 June 2003, my patience finally snapped and I wrote a letter to the Monitoring Officer which ended: "... unless I receive a satisfactory response from you within the next 14 days, it is my intention, without further notice, to instruct counsel to institute proceedings in the High Court."
That did the trick and the information duly arrived through the post on 4 July - eight months after my initial request.
Had the council fulfilled its obligations under the law when I first asked for the information rather than embarking on a campaign of evasion and delay, none of this expensive letter writing would have been necessary.
I have several similar case histories which I will be more than happy to share with the Auditor.
I will also be asking the Auditor if he thinks it acceptable that the only way a public authority can be persuaded to act lawfully is through the treat of court action.
Not that the District Audit Service is much better.
I wrote to them on the question of Cllr Hall's rent, particularly the six-month rent holiday he was allowed in lieu of works he was to carry out on the site at his own expense.
The lease stipulated that these works were to be completed within three months of the commencement of the lease (September 2000).
More than three years later, when I wrote to the auditor on 12 March 2003, the work had still not been done and from what I could gather from the information on rent receipts the £4,500 rent had not been reclaimed.
A letter arrived from the auditor, dated 10 July 2003, which concluded: "Finally, regarding Mr Hall's lease of Stockwell Road, I will be in a position to respond to you within the next two weeks".
The rest, as they say, is silence.
The butler's butler
When I read in the papers that Paul Burrell was trousering more than £2 million for the sale of his book, it occurred to me that he would now be able to employ a butler of his own.
The way things are going in the Tory party, the ideal candidate could be coming available any time now!
Below is the full text of His Leadership's letter to the Auditor. My comments are in square brackets.
Dear Mr Stradling,
I appreciate you have more than enough to do [creep, creep] and that any further issues we ask you to deal with will necessarily result in an additional fee and we always ask you to keep your fees as low as possible. However, I have concluded with some reluctance that it is likely to be cost-effective for you to undertake a task which has been generated by Michael Stoddart [exposed by me - generated by the inappropriate business relationship of Dr Ryan and Cllr Hall] and is being pursued by one of our members, Councillor Michael Williams.
You will be aware of Mr Stoddart and his many previous campaigns against the Council [against the culture of dishonesty and spin] and individuals within it. The latest which is already taking an inordinate amount of our time and and limited resources relates to the engagement of our Irish Economic Development Consultant, Dr Michael Ryan and Dr Ryan's business relationship with Councillor Brian Hall.
The Council has had longstanding policy objectives to promote the Southern Corridor to Ireland and to encourage Irish business investment into the County. Dr Ryan was therefore engaged to promote the County to businesses in Ireland [but not his own and Cllr Hall's in Pembrokeshire]: to promote the Council's objectives to public bodies in Ireland and to advise on science/technology business development in conjunction with higher education bodies. Whilst visiting Pembrokeshire in this context, Dr Ryan met Councillor Hall [how, where and when?] and they determined privately to establish a company Euro-Ryall Ltd, which I understand has never traded.
Both parties made clear their intentions [when and to whom?] in this regard [what? not to trade] and I do not believe [on what evidence?] that they have acted in relation to their company in conflict with their roles and responsibilities with the Council [why haven't they sued me for suggesting otherwise?].
Mr Stoddart alleges otherwise and as in previous campaigns of a similar nature, he has sought to excite certain sections of the local press and to encourage anyone who will listen to him to pursue the matter [why not, it's a free country]. However neither he nor Councillor Williams have raised the issue with you but now Councillor Williams is seeking to persuade the whole Council to employ your services by way of a Notice of Motion to investigate the circumstances of Dr Ryan's engagement by the Council and his business relationship with Councillor Hall.
Your role is independent of the Council. You properly have access to all the information the Council holds [but not that in Old Grumpy's shed] and your standing enables you to conclude whether there are any issues of significance about the conduct of the Council's affairs which require any action. I should be grateful, therefore, if you would give consideration to this matter and carry out any enquiries that you deem appropriate.
I believe that in fairness to Councillor Hall and Dr Ryan who have been the subject of this campaign for several months [why, if what I am alleging is untrue, haven't they put a stop to it by suing?], it is desirable that you undertake this task as quickly as you are able. However, there is a further separate issue which I should like you to consider which I realise might well take longer. Mr Stoddart's campaigns over the last several years have involved complaints to your office, the police and the Ombudsman as well as to this authority [all within the context of my statutory rights]. It is evident that very significant sums of public money have been devoted to dealing with him [so, why waste even more by asking the auditor to investigate if not to make some cheap political point]. I think it is time we had that cost quantified as a matter of public interest so that others can properly judge the benefits or otherwise of his [un-Pembrokian] activities
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