October 28 2008

Party games

There has been a fascinating development in the local political scene with the Lib Dem Group - reduced to two members by the loss of the St Dogmaels' by-election - having disbanded to take advantage of the political balance rules.
So, there are now six unaligned members on the council, which gives rise to the interesting thought that, if we were to form a group, we would become the principal opposition, thus depriving the leaders of Labour, Plaid and Conservatives of the nearly three grand a year so generously bestowed upon them by His Leadership Cllr John Davies (Quick change artist) (Sleeping beauties).
The upshot is that 'The Six' have now come into quite a lot of the unallocated committee seats which are reserved for unaligned members.
For myself, I am now on the prestigious 12-member corporate governance committee which is charged with overseeing changes to council's constitution and the audit function.
There I will rub shoulders with four members of Cabinet, the four scrutiny committee chairmen and the three leaders of the main opposition parties.
I hope I don't find myself swimming out of my depth and I promise to try not let this sudden elevation go to my head.
One of the curious aspects of the allocation of these unallocated seats is that The Six have been given three seats on the 12-member licensing committee.
As the mathematicians among you will already have worked out, this means that 10% of the members (six out of 60) have 25% of the seats on this committee.
What I haven't yet worked out is how this fits in with the statutory requirement that: "(d) subject to paragraphs (a) to (c) above, that the number of the seats on the body which are allocated to each political group bears the same proportion to the number of all the seats on that body as is borne by the number of members of that group to the membership of the authority."
Paragraphs (a) and (b) need not detain us because they have no bearing on the situation under consideration, but paragraph (c) which requires that the number of seats on all ordinary committees, by happy coincidence 60, the same as the total number of councillors, may be relevant.
I must sit down one night with a bottle of the £3.99 and and a calculator and work out if giving "The Six" three seats on licensing is the most effective way of following the statutory rules.
One of the alternatives is to give one of us a place on the senior staff committee which determines the pay of the chief executive and directors.
You can understand why this might be seen as a more attractive proposition than sitting on a committee that decides whether someone is a 'fit and proper person' to run a pub or drive a taxi.
It is also of some relevance that four out of the six have already debarred themselves from serving on the licensing committee because of potential conflicts of interest Peter Mandelson, please note.
In my case, and Grumpette's by association, the potential conflict of interest arises because my brother runs a taxi business.
The upshot is that "The Six" are unable to take up one of the places on the licensing committee.
My own reasons for not being willing to serve on this committee have already been made clear to the council, so it came as something of a surprise to find the Leader proposing me for membership.
When I again explained why I was unwilling to serve, up jumped the Leader's sidekick Cllr Jamie Adams, purely by coincidence, of course, to give me a little lecture on the Code of Conduct.
According to Cllr Adams, I would only have to declare an interest on those rare occasions when the committee was dealing with my brother's specific licensing applications.
I must say that, if I needed advice on the interpretation of the Code, Cllr Adams would be some way down the list of those I might wish to consult.
In any case, I think he is wrong because what the Code attempts to guard against is any perception of bias in decision making.
So put yourself in the position of one of my brother's competitors whose licence application has been refused by a committee of which I was a member.
And as I am not in a position to know who is, or is not, one of my brother's competitors, I can never be certain whether some member of the public, including the applicant, might think I am biased.
That being so, it is much safer if I steer clear of the subject altogether.
In any case, whether a member has an interest to declare is ultimately for the member to decide.
And I have decided that I have, and as far as anyone else is concerned, that's it.
What Cllr Adams and his ilk need to understand is that while it might be the case that, as Francis Bacon said: "Knowledge of itself is power" it doesn't work the other way around.


News review


Buried beneath the news of the bursting credit bubble, an interesting story is developing in media land.
This concerns the BBC's study into its own proposals to set up a network of local video news services.
Naturally, the regional and local press are not well pleased with the prospect of extra competition in a market that was already shrinking before the slump put the skids under their advertising revenues.
The BBC's inquiry is being led by Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC's trustees, who, rather unwisely, revealed his views during at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch in London earlier this month when he questioned the strength of the regional press, and said it was "not the same proposition it was 15 years ago" and that "There's nobody who can be satisfied with the quality of local news in most parts of the United Kingdom."
Understandably, the press barons are outraged that Sir Michael has expressed his low opinion of the local news service while chairing what is supposed to be an impartial inquiry into the BBC's future role.
That is fair comment but, Sly Bailey, Chief Executive of the Trinity Mirror Group goes even further.
She told Press Gazette: "The regional press needs all the help it can to make this tough transition - and safeguard the essential role its journalists play in making local democracy work, holding those in power to account and binding local communities together."
Clearly not a reader of the Western Telegraph where she would find that the coverage of local government consists almost entirely of the regurgitation of county council press releases (propaganda?) while serious issues are ignored (Media Blackout) (Overtrained) (Cut down) and that the only accounts involved are the inflated bills for public notices and other adverts (£200,000+ per annum) (The public notice).
Mind you, I would have thought Sir Michael and the BBC Trust had enough on their plate with the public outrage over the puerile activities of their highly paid "stars" Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand.
I am rather tired of hearing apologists for this pair of buffoons invoking the right to free speech and the need to "push the boundaries" in the sphere of comedy in their defence.
While I am all for free speech, it cannot be used to excuse what can only be described as rank bad taste on a publicly funded broadcast service.
As for the comedy, I am pleased to see that, judging by the number of letters of complaint received by the BBC, I am not the only person who can't find anything even remotely funny about leaving offensive messages on the answering machine of a 78 year-old actor.
Surely, he suffered enough humiliation at the hands of Basil Fawlty without having to endure the antics of these two over-paid clowns.

Expensive carry on


It is now more than two years since I reported that some commentators, most prominently Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Daily Telegraph, were warning of the danger that the carry trade - borrowing money in low interest currencies to lend in those with higher rates - could destabilise the global financial system (Carried away).
In the event, the sub-prime mortgage fiasco beat it to the punch, but the carry trade is now having its day.
The first domino to fall was Iceland, but now the contagion had spread to the former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe, most notably Hungary and Romania.
While borrowing money in Japan or Switzerland at one or two percent, to lend in Iceland and Hungary at 5%, might seem like a free lunch, the price tag comes in the form of what is known as the exchange rate risk.
In Hungary's case the florint has devalued by 40% against the Swiss franc which means that, when the loan matures, you have to pay back 140 for every hundred borrowed, wiping out your profits, and some more.

Generous in defeat


I see the French are having one of their periodic moans about our unchivalrous behaviour during the Battle of Agincourt, in which, as every schoolboy knows, they ended up in the silver medal position.
What the French have to face up to is that they were up against a formidable combination of a big pack of English forwards armed with pikes and swords and some speedy skilful Welsh backs and their bows and arrows.
Imagine you see an earlier version of Shane Williams taking aim at you.
You watch the arrow through the air and you can see it is well wide of the mark, but, just as you begin to relax, it does a double side-step and hits you amidships.
No wonder the French soon lost the will to fight.
Of course, back in 1415 the Welsh and the English were on the same side, which is sadly not the case with more recent battles.
Since moving to Wales in 1966, I have suffered not a few personal Agincourts - the most painful being defeat at the Battle of Wembli (1999) - and my advice to the French is 'get over it and move on' because the more you grumble the more your enemes enjoy their triumphs.
There are three possible ways to deal with these situations: you can try to disarm your grinning Welsh friends with words such as: "Wales deserved to win - we were lucky you didn't put 50 points on us"; you can claim not to have seen the match because you were on a walking holiday in Outer Mongolia; or you can go about in dark glasses and a false beard until such time as they forget about it.
This last suggestion is totally impracticable because, in my experience, the Welsh have extremely long memories where victories over England are concerned.
Just a couple of weeks ago I was talking to a Welsh friend about the forthcoming autumn internationals when, completely out of the blue, he said: "Remember when 'Chico' Hopkins came on as a replacement for Gareth Edwards at Twickenham and scored a try as Wales came back from 11-3 down to win."
That was in 1970, for goodness sake.
If England should lose at the Millennium Stadium in February, Outer Mongolia beckons.

Infant savants


My five-year-old grandson and I have a standing joke in which I ask him what he's learned in school that day and he answers "nuthin'".
I then give a little speech about the amount of tax I pay towards the education system and threaten to write to his head teacher to complain.
He knows I'm only 'funning', as he puts it, and the conversation moves on.
But, after reading in the papers that the government is proposing to make sex and relationships part of the curriculum for children as young as five, I will not be asking the question again in case he comes out with something that might make Grumpette blush.


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