5 October 2004

 

Measure for Measure

Just to prove what a sad life I lead, my opening shot this week is based on an article from a free monthly magazine sent to the nation's movers and shakers e.g. county councillors like me.
The title of the magazine: "Public Finance" should be enough to persuade any right-minded person that its proper place is in the waste paper bin.
However my legendary curiosity got the better of me and, after ploughing my way through the first 19 pages, I came across a very interesting piece by Colin Talbot; professor of public policy at Nottingham University.
Apparently, the government has no way of measuring either public sector outputs, or productivity, and has commissioned a report by Sir Tony Atkinson, warden of Nuffield College, with a view to remedying this deficiency.
It would seem, under the present system, public sector outputs, which are classed as part of the Gross National Product (GNP), are treated as if they equalled the amount of money the public sector spends.
This has two consequences.
Firstly, if outputs always equal inputs, there is no way of measuring increases/decreases in productivity.
And secondly, every penny that public bodies spend, however wastefully, is counted as part of the GNP.
This has the remarkable consequence that, statistically speaking, a fortnight's work by a £25,000-a-year schoolteacher makes the same contribution to the wealth of the nation as the £1,000 in fees, hotel bills and travelling expenses it costs to send a member of the County Council to a conference in some faraway seaside resort.
And to think that silly old me used to think that these conferences were just an excuse for a free holiday on the rates.
Thanks to Professor Talbot, I now know that those who go off on these jaunts are helping us get richer.
Sir Tony Atkinson's report is due to be published next January.
Should make interesting reading.


Singing for your supper

I am pleased to be able to clear up the mystery of the £51 spent by Cllr Brian Hall in the Mandarin Kitchen, Queensway, London W2 on the night of 31 January 2001 (see The Time Lord).
Cllr Hall was in London, you may remember, to represent the Fire Authority at a House of Commons bash which included drinks and a buffet on the balcony overlooking the Thames.
I know this has been bothering some people because there is a limit of £8.50 on what elected members can claim for "reimbursement" for their dinner.
And, as he'd already had a stab at the canapes and smoked salmon sandwiches at the taxpayers' expense, it seems rather excessive to head down to the Chinese for another bellyful
I asked the Audit Commission in Wales whether this £51 was approved expenditure as long ago as February 2002.
The auditor now tells me: "The Council inform me that 'this represents the reimbursement of reasonable expenses incurred related to the provision of hospitality in pursuing an inward investment opportunity for the Council and the payment is not therefore the dinner allowance under the members' allowance scheme.'"
I must try to find out if the council employ somebody full time making up these improbable stories or whether they are concocted on an 'as and when required' basis.
However, as we cannot completely discount the possibility that this story is actually true, I have written to the Economic Development Department asking if whatever "opportunity" Cllr Hall was pursuing round the West End that night ended in a right result.
I also drew to the auditor's attention Cllr Hall's habit of claiming travelling expenses - some £700 in all - when accompanying officers to meetings.
The auditor tells me: "The Travel and Subsistence Scheme sets out 'where officers are provided with cars for official journeys and they are accompanying Members, there is an expectation that the councillor/s will travel with the officer'. The scheme does not therefore preclude Members from claiming travel and subsistence expenses where Members are attending meetings with officers."
That's fine, so far as it goes.
But it goes nowhere near far enough because what the Members Allowances Scheme actually says, in full, is:"Members should always consider the most cost effective means of travel. Where officers are provided with cars for official journies (sic) and they are accompanying Members, there is an expectation that the councillor/s will travel with the officer [council's emphasis] and will not be entitled to claim travelling expenses. Any arrangements to the contrary should again be agreed with the Director of Finance or Head of Financial Services."
This regulation is designed to save the taxpayer money because officers with official cars are paid only some 25% of the members' mileage rate.
When I enquired of the Finance Department back in 2001 whether any such contrary arrangements had been made, as required by the regulation, I was told: "not as far as we are aware", which only goes to show what slippery customers we are dealing with..
But the big question is why a supposedly independent auditor should chose to quote selectively from the regulations in order to reach a conclusion favourable to the Council.


Invisible Tories

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to a talk on "Politics and the media" organised by the local Tory Party.
Perhaps 'invited' is the wrong word because it cost Old Grumpette and me eight quid each and, though there was a nice buffet laid on, you had to buy your own wine.
Not exactly the best way to make friends and influence people, I would have thought.
Old Grumpy goes along to these events in the hope of picking up some useful gossip about the local political scene; in this case about the crypto-Tory party; commonly known as the Independent Political Group, that holds sway in Pembrokeshire County Council.
Late in the evening I got talking to a prominent local Tory who, by the look of him, had spent as much on red wine as I had.
I would mention the name of one of the leading lights in the IPG and ask "He one of yours?" and he would give a shake of the head or a wink as appropriate.
What I couldn't get him to say was whether these "Tories" were card carrying members or mere fellow travellers.
Anyway, armed with the information I had gleaned, I headed into County Hall to check the members' register of interests.
The only declared Tories I could find were David Wildman, David Bryan and Mark Edwards - though he only admitted to membership of the Balfour Club, which is not quite the same thing.
No Peter Stock?
And, as for the other names that had brought a wink from my top Tory, not a sign of any political allegiance.
I was thinking to make something of this because there is a statutory requirement to register membership of political parties.
But then I noticed that the form asked for membership of any organisations whose purpose it is "to influence public opinion" and I realised that, in the light of the Hartlepool by-election result, the Tories are in the clear.
However, my trip to County Hall was not entirely wasted because while leafing through the register I came across the entry submitted by our new leader Cllr John Davies.
Nobody can accuse Cllr Davies of a lack of openness because, in addition to registering his membership of the NFU, Equity etc, he also informs us that he is "not a member of any Masonic organisation".
Plaid Cymru leader Cllr Michael Williams is fond of saying that the Independent Political Group is dominated by Farmers, Freemasons and the Far Right (or something like that).
Some of them may qualify under more than one heading but I am fairly confident that Cllr Davies' claim to membership is purely agricultural..

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