October8 2001


Out to munch

My friends in Fishguard have been asking what has become of the "Monster Lunch Muncher'', Councillor Alwyn Luke, who used to feature regularly in this space.
Readers may remember that he acquired this nickname after I revealed details of his inordinate fondness for taxpayer-funded lunches.
During the financial year 1998/99, when he was chairman of the authority, he dined out at our expense on 145 occasions and in 1999/2000 he treated himself to 107 free meals.
You can judge the scale of the Muncher's liking for free grub by the fact that, in 1999/2000 the other 59 members are only managed 500 lunches between them.
Alas, the glare of publicity seems to have dulled his appetite, because last year (2000/2001) he managed only a modest 24 visits to the trough.
Perhaps, he's on a sponsored slim.
Gone too is the practice of nipping back to Fishguard between morning and afternoon meetings - 32 miles at 45 p (£14.40) being more lucrative than claiming for lunch (maximum £6.37) - especially as it is impossible to check if the journey has actually been made.
On one occasion this turnaround was accomplished in such short order that I had reason to ask if a Tardis qualified as a vehicle under the Member's Allowances Regulations.
This Tardis theory is not as daft as it seems because I have come across evidence that one of Councillor Luke's colleagues has also mastered the difficult business of being in two places at the same time.
But that story will have to wait for last week.
Despite the dramatic drop in Luke's consumption schedule it seems that he has not yet kicked the habit of claiming lunch allowances to which he is not entitled.
The rules state, quite clearly, that to qualify for a free lunch the member has to be on an "approved duty'' and be absent from his "normal place of residence" for "more than four hours including the hours 12 noon to 2pm".
When calculating these hours members are allowed to add " reasonable" (council's emphasis) travelling time.
Last year I detailed several instances (more than 15) when meetings that Councillor Luke attended concluded before 12.30 but where, nevertheless he claimed for lunch on the basis that he didn't get back home until 2:30pm of 3 o'clock i.e. that it took him two hours or more to cover the 16 miles back to Fishguard.
Now, there is nothing that says a member must jump in his car straight after a meeting and drive home.
But if he or she chooses to hang around County Hall; using the place as a Day Centre, then, however congenial that might be, it is not an " approved duty '' and therefore cannot possibly count towards the qualifying period for a subsistence allowance.
Otherwise, the old boys would be never away from the place.
I had thought that, having had all this explained to him last year, Councillor Luke might have mended his ways.
But, no!
When I checked his current claim forms, last week, I found 12 occasions when he claimed lunch though the meeting ended at least an hour before 2 o'clock.
I can only assume that he is either a slow learner or an even slower driver.


Thought police?

Old Grumpy hears that Mark Edwards, one of the three Conservative councillors who defected recently to the Independent Political (sic) Group, has wasted no time in getting up the noses of his new political masters.
The reason for their annoyance, a well-placed mole tells me, is the photograph showing Cllr Edwards signing a petition calling for a referendum on the question of an elected Mayor that appeared in last week's Mercury.
He was obviously not aware that an elected Mayor is emphatically not the policy of his new "party".
My mole informs me that Cllr Edwards' departure from the official line has resulted in him being summoned to appear before The Leader, Maurice Hughes to explain himself.
Had Cllr Edwards asked my advice, I would have told him to steer well clear of this Inquisition.
If he does condescend to attend he should ask The Leader what right he has to control what an "independent" member says or thinks.
If Cllr Edwards has any sense he will jump before he is pushed and set himself up as a truly independent, Independent.
That is what he should have done when he left the Tories.
It is never too late to repent.

Fax facts

Old Grumpy has been carrying out a detailed forensic examination of three faxes sent by Cllr Maurice Hughes to my former employers at the Western Telegraph.
These letters concerned an article in the Telegraph, based on something I had written in my Old Grumpy column in the Mercury, regarding Cllr Hughes' expense claiming habits (see August 20 for details).
Cllr Hughes complained that the Telegraph had libelled him and threatened legal action unless they published an apology and retraction.
Aside from the content, which was nothing more than the usual bluster, these faxes were interesting in themselves.
Although they appeared to have come from Cllr Hughes' home address the typeface and the layout of the letters bore a striking resemblance to correspondence I had previously received from the County Council.
Even the aggressive, threatening prose style had a familiar ring about it.
And whoever had sent them had gone to the trouble (on all three) to programme the fax machine so as to conceal the sender's fax number.
Also significant was the fact that, in every case, 9 preceded the number of the target fax machine, indicating that they had been routed through a switchboard.
I have now had the opportunity to compare the times and dates on these faxes with Cllr Hughes' expense claims.
In two cases this has yielded interesting results.
The first fax was sent at 4.45pm on November 26 1999. On that day Cllr Hughes left home at 8am to travel to a meeting in Llandrindod Wells, returning at 4.15pm.
Not much time, there, to write a two-page letter!
And the second, sent at 5.47pm on November 29, revealed a similar pattern.
On that day Cllr Hughes left home at 7.30am for another visit to Llandrindod, this time getting back to Haverfordwest at 5.00pm.
Of course, none of this is conclusive evidence that taxpayers' money has been used for Cllr Hughes private purposes.
The only way to prove that would be to examine the logs of the County Council's fax machines to see if there was a transmission to the Western Telegraph at the relevant date and time.
When I go to see the District Auditor in a couple of weeks time I will be asking for this to be done.

Green garbage

I have just finished reading "The Skeptical Environmentalist" by Professor Bjorn Lomborg.
Anyone who has ever been tempted to swallow the one-sided propaganda peddled by environmental doomsayers like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, on such subjects as global warming or the Kyoto accord, should read this book
Professor Lomborg, himself a former member of Greenpeace, dismantles the gloom-mongers' case brick by brick with a combination of hard facts and impeccable logic.
As he points out, the Kyoto Treaty, even if implemented in full, would only lower the increase in temperature by an insignificant 0.15 degrees by 2100 or, put another way, it would delay the projected increase by six years from 2100 to 2106.
But this miniscule benefit would come at enormous cost - much greater, in fact, than the cost of global warming itself.
And he argues, convincingly, that on almost every environmental indicator: air quality, marine pollution and the purity of our rivers etc; the World is now a cleaner, healthier place.
If we really are being poisoned by pesticides, gender-bending chemicals, dioxins and radioactive waste, as the doomsayers and their allies in the media would have us believe, how come that life expectancy across the planet has doubled in the past 100 years? He asks.


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