October 29 2002

 

The infallibles

It is five years since Old Grumpy first drew attention to the widespread practice among County Councillors of claiming subsistence without providing receipts.
What was noticeable was that members almost invariably claimed the maximum allowed by the members' allowance regulations for meals and hotels.
I wrote to the District Audit Service pointing out that the regulations referred to "reimbursement" and, as the dictionary defines this as "repayment of a person's expenses", there was a clear implication that members could only claim back that which they had actually spent and without receipts there was no way of knowing how much to reimburse.
DAS replied: "The allowances paid under the Pembrokeshire scheme are the maximum allowed by the Secretary of State".
Well. I already knew that.
But you have to realise what is going on here.
Had DAS and the authority agreed that the councillors were over-claiming it would have been an admission that they weren't doing their job in checking the claims.
The usual tactics in these cases is to quietly bring things into line without ever conceding that you were wrong in the first place.
So it came to pass that the members allowance regulations were amended to include a clause that receipts were to be provided "wherever possible".
When I inspected the accounts the following year I discovered that of the 780 meals for which members had claimed it had only proved "possible" to provide receipts on 20 occasions.
I again took the matter up with the DAS who maintained that the words "wherever possible" meant the provision of receipts was at the discretion of the members.
Needless to say, I considered this to be a load of toilet, but I let the matter pass because I long ago realised the futility of arguing with unaccountable bureaucrats.
In any case things were happening behind the scenes and the latest version of the expense claim forms bear the legend "Claims for subsistence must (council's emphasis) be accompanied by a receipt"
So, over a four or five year period, the council has managed to bring itself within the law while at the same time preserving the doctrine of bureaucratic infallibility.

 

ORA story

During my annual trawl through the County Council's books I discovered a number of invoices from an Irish company, ORA International Ltd, for "management consultancy services … in accordance with our Memorandum of Agreement".
After digging out all the invoices and associated paperwork relating to this company, I was able to deduce that this Memorandum of Agreement - contract to you and me - required the County Council to pay Dr Michael Ryan of ORA International Ltd £18,000 a year, plus expenses, for a minimum of 38 days consultancy a year, which, as the mathematicians among you will already have worked out, makes him better paid, on a pro rata basis, than Mr Parry-Jones himself.
Requests for a copy of the Memorandum were originally refused on the grounds of "commercial confidentiality" but, eventually, despite its lack of enthusiasm for the Rule of Law, the council had to bow to the provisions of the Audit Commission Act 1998, which states with absolute clarity that members of the public have a right to inspect, among other things, "all contracts".
I will have much more to say about the council's relationship with ORA International in future weeks.
In the meantime I will content myself with pointing out that the Chief Executive of ORA International Ltd , and the man personally charged with supplying management consultancy services to the authority, is Dr Michael Ryan who also happens to be a Director of a company called Euro-Ryall Ltd.
According to Companies House records, the only other Director of Euro-Ryall is County Council Cabinet member, Cllr Brian Hall.
Am I alone in thinking there is a serious conflict of interest here?

 

Methinks the Indies do protest too much

I was disinclined to take the County Hall bugging story seriously (see You couldn't make it up - last week) until I read about it in the Mercury.
Not that I believe everything I read in the papers.
But, over the years, I have learned that the more vehemently the County Council denies something the more likely it is to be true.
I was particularly drawn to the comments of the Leader Maurice Hughes who was quoted as saying "There is not one shred of evidence to support this malicious rumour".
That should have been enough to dispose of the matter, but Cllr Hughes went on to over-lard the bread with: "In any event, there is no suggestion that any confidential discussions have been made public, which one might expect were this allegation to be true".
This is a non sequitur, par excellence.
There are several possible reasons why there had been no leak of the information gleaned from this alleged bug
For instance, it may only have been there for a short time, or, perhaps, it didn't pick up anything interesting, or, if it did, the controller of the device wanted the information for some purpose that did not involve publication.
Then there was alleged discoverer of the recording equipment, Cllr "Nuke" Luke, who told the Mercury: "I can categorically say with my hand on the bible that I have never found any bug and anyone who says I have must have lost their marbles. I wouldn't even know what one looks like (my emphasis)".
Old Grumpy is always a bit wary of people who invoke the bible to support the veracity of what they say.
And I would have thought that even Cllr Luke would recognise a tape recorder when he saw one.
However, if Cllr Luke finds the bible a useful aid to telling the truth, I would suggest he keeps one handy when next he sits down to fill out an expense claim.

Unintended consequences

It never ceases to amaze me how small events can alter the whole course of your life.
I suppose it is all down to chaos theory which holds that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a hurricane in the Caribbean - or so they say.
During my time on earth, I have experienced several of these seemingly insignificant, but life-changing, events.
I remember, after I left university in 1963, travelling down to London for an interview with International Computers and Tabulators (ICT).
Computers were then in their infancy and, as I recall, the job involved going to the customers' offices and ironing out any problems with the newly installed machines, which in those pre-silicon chip days needed a fleet of Pickfords' vans to move them around the country.
While in London, I went for a drink with some old college friends, one of whom was working for a family-owned construction company.
"My boss is looking for university educated people to train as contract's managers", he told me, "I can fix you up with an interview if you want".
So it was that, the following day, I found myself in the less than salubrious offices of E L Lacy Ltd of Acton being given the once-over by E J himself.
He offered me a job - report to the company's site at Parthenia Road, Fulham, the following Monday morning.
I accepted.
Two weeks later, I received a letter from ICT telling me that my application had been successful.
And that was how I missed the chance to be the British Bill Gates.
Last Sunday afternoon, at about half past three in the afternoon, I enquired of Old Grumpette what we were having for dinner.
"There's a tin of corned beef in the cupboard, we can have that with some pickles and bread and butter" she informed me.
Now, Old Grumpette is one of the world's great pickle makers but corned beef and pickle is not my idea of Sunday dinner, besides which we had already had corned beef and pickle for lunch.
So, I headed down to Tesco where I bought some nice pieces of chicken for a curry and a bottle of Chilean Merlot, the whole lot coming to £6.60.
Unfortunately, the checkout rejected my credit card and, with only £3.50 in my pocket, I was left with the most terrible choice: corned beef and pickle with wine, or Chicken Jalfreizi without.
I took a deep breath and handed back the Merlot.
I never thought I had it in me.
This discovery of hitherto unsuspected reserves of willpower might persuade me to make one last attempt to kick the smoking habit.

 

Money for nothing

On Thursday the County Council are due to revisit the question of members' allowances as a result of the revelation that the scheme they adopted back in May does not comply with the law.
One of the features of the present scheme is that members are paid £400 a year to cover the cost of a computer and Internet connection.
Amazingly, under the scheme as presently constituted, they are entitled to this £400 regardless of whether they have a computer, or even know what one looks like.
Is it too much to hope that some bright member of the opposition will propose an amendment to halt this abuse?
Probably!

 

Looking ahead

Old Grumpy notices that the County Council's Elderly Scrutiny Committee was due to meet today (Tuesday) to debate the proposal that, in future, 'Meals on Wheels' should be delivered frozen rather than fresh-cooked.
I am told that, as part of their investigation, the members are breaking off at lunchtime to sample the new-style food.
Must remember to put a note in my diary to check if any of the committee has put in a claim for lunch when I inspect the books next October.

Name game

A debate has broken out over what to call what is presently known as the European Union.
One suggestion being bandied about is the United States of Europe.
In view of the corporatism that drives the project, USSE might be more appropriate.
However, given the undemocratic nature of the beast, I would suggest that United European Emirates perfectly fits the bill.

 

Pest control

Advice from my grandfather on hunting rats.
Take time to block up their boltholes before flushing them out into the open.

 

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