13 September 2005

 

Movable feast

 

Last week's piece on the fascinating subject of Cllr Brian Hall's expense claiming practices has brought a flood of emails along the lines: "Is he allowed to do that?"
One correspondent asked: "Are elected members allowed to drive wherever they want at taxpayers' expense?"
It seems that readers really start to pay attention when they suspect they are being taken for a ride (literally) by the people they elect to look after their interests.
On the face of it, the answer to the question of unlimited travel is in the negative.
Suspecting, perhaps, that some members might take advantage of the generous 50p mileage allowance, Parliament laid down some fairly stringent rules to govern the situation.
Basically, these rules restrict claims for travelling expenses to what are known as "approved duties".
After listing the obvious candidates, such as attending meetings of committees and sub-committees, training events and, in the case of Cabinet members, journeys connected with their duties, the regulations allow local authorities a bit of leeway by way of the more general provision:
(h) any other duty approved by the authority, or any other duty of a class so approved, undertaken for the purpose of, or in connection with, the discharge of the functions of the authority or of any of its committees.
The operative words are "approved by the authority" i.e the County Council.
So, from time to time, you will see in the agendas of bodies such as the Pembrokeshire National Park that the authority has been invited to send a representative to this or that conference/seminar and members are invited to decide whether such attendance should be an "approved duty".
Clearly, by the words "or any other duty of a class so approved", the regulations envisage a situation where the authority could designate attendance at certain types of meeting as approved duties.
I used to think this was all fairly straightforward until I drew attention in my Old Grumpy column in the Mercury to seven journeys for which Cllr Hall had claimed travelling expenses, but which didn't seem to fall into the categories of "approved duties" listed in the regulations.
These included two journeys from Pembroke Dock to Haverfordwest (and back) to "meet C Ex" and "meet R B-E re Pembroke Dock museum".
It was not long before a solicitor's letter arrived on the desk of Mr David Evans (I was working for the Western Telegraph at the time) demanding an apology and the retraction of this "malicious libel."
It soon became evident that Cllr Hall was relying on a resolution passed by the County Council in 1995 which defined an approved duty as: "Attendance by the Leader of council and other group leaders (or their nominated representative(s)) at such meetings approved by the Chief Executive for the proper discharge of the functions of the authority."
I must admit that it came as a surprise to me to learn that Pembrokeshire County Council had the power to rewrite regulations laid down by Parliament.
Nor was it altogether clear to me why the, then, Leader Eric Harries would want to nominate Cllr Hall to represent him at a meeting about Pembroke Dock museum.
In the event, despite bellicose threats from Hall's solicitors that, if their demands remained unmet, their client would have "no alternative but to institute legal proceedings without further notice" neither apology or writ was forthcoming, so the matter was never tested in court.
Last year, I had a lengthy correspondence with the District Auditor about the validity of a travelling and subsistence claim made by Cllr Hall in respect of his four-day tour of Pembroke Dock with his business partner Dr Michael Ryan and was further surprised to learn that the rules had been changed yet again.
An "approved duty", I was told, is now defined as: "At the request of the Chief Executive, the Leader of council or other group leaders (or their nominated representative(s) to attend at meetings for the proper discharge of the business of the authority."
When I suggested to the District Auditor that these latest rules bore even less resemblance to Parliament's original regulations than their 1995 counterparts, I was told: "The Council has confirmed to us that the list of approved duties set out in the Members Allowance Scheme complies with the Local authorities (Members' Allowances) Scheme 1991."
As my reason for writing to the District Audit Service was to find out what they thought the rules ought to be, I was not too impressed to be told that the council had given itself a clean bill of health.
And the self-policing didn't stop there because the auditor also told me that Cllr Hall's expense claims were in order because: "In line with procedures in other authorities, Cllr Hall has certified the relevant travel and subsistence claims that the items claimed were incurred whilst undertaking such council business and in accordance with the Members' Expense Scheme".
Also that ". . . The Chief Executive, nominated Cllr Hall (to be the representative of the Leader) to attend these meetings . . . "
So, the poor old Leader doesn't even get to nominate his own representative!
Unfortunately we have to take the council's word for all this because the auditor also informed me: "This nomination was made verbally and was not formally recorded."
You might think the auditor would be concerned that public money was being expended without any proper records being kept.
But not a bit of it.
As the late Jim McBrearty was fond of saying: "They're all peeing in the same pot", or words to that effect.


On yer bike

 

A visit to the county council's website reveals that "When it comes to getting on your bike - Pembrokeshire County Council is tops."
This is because: "The authority has been named the Most Proactive Local Authority in the UK in a prestigious new cycling award scheme launched by Sustrans - the charity which co-ordinates the National Cycle Network."
"Councillor Brian Hall, Cabinet Member for Environment and Transportation, said he was delighted at the award"
, the blurb gushes.
And so he should be because the awards' ceremony will provide him with yet another opportunity - to go with the 'Loo of theYear' and Bus awards - to jump in his car and drive long distances at 50p per mile to collect the gong.
But perhaps I am being too cynical because Cllr Hall is quoted as saying: "We are committed to promoting cycling within the County and believe that the development of traffic free routes is the best way to encourage people to get on their bikes or out walking."
Can we expect Brian to lead by example?
Information that has recently come to hand suggests he has plenty of scope to improve his drive:cycle ratio.
A couple of months ago, I revealed that, during the financial year 2004/05 he had claimed almost £9,700 in travelling expenses (25% of the total claimed by all 60 councillors) (see King of the road).
Now I learn that, in the same period, he claimed a further £1,100 from the Fire Authority; adding another 2,200 miles to the 19,400 he drove on county council (?) business.
I calculated that, given an average speed of 40 mph, his county council mileage would have occupied him for 12, 40-hour weeks.
Adding on the 2,200 Fire Authority miles makes it up to 13 weeks, or one-quarter of a year.
Put him on a bike at, say, 10 mph and, as the mathemeticians among you will have already worked out, he would be cycling round the county full-time.
Make a change from influence-peddling!
PS Just as I was about to post this on the Internet my attention was drawn to an article on www.pembrokeshiretv.com - the county's recently launched cyber newspaper.
It appears that the county council have beaten me to the punch because it features a picture of Cllr Hall on a tandem preparing to cycle to work.
pembrokeshiretv.com is offering a framed copy of Cllr Hall's 2004/05 expense claim to the first reader to provide a picture of Brian the biker.
This could prove to be an expensive prize because, during the recent public audit inspection, photocopies of the said document cost me £13.00.
I'm not going to say how many sheets it ran to, but I can tell you that scanned copies took so much computer space that the council had to open a second file to accommodate them.
Oh! and photocopies are 10p per sheet.
PPS I have just received my copy of this week's Western Telegraph.
As befits the county council's house magazine the press release about 'Biker' Hall is printed almost intact.
A few bits have been left out, it must be admitted, but something has to give if room was to be found for all the council's adverts (£240,000 pounds-worth in 2003/04).


Sky high

With no cricket on the Tele, life suddenly seems rather empty.
This morning, I went along to the meeting of the planning committee, but I must concede that, as a spectacle, it compared poorly with watching Kevin Pietersen slogging Brett Lee's 95 mph missiles into the back rows of the stands.
Indeed, listening to these people for more than half-an-hour at a time could easily cause you to lose the will to live.
I have spent most of the summer glued to the box watching Freddie and co demolish the Aussies and with back-to-back Tests the weeds in my vegetable patch were above knee high.
In fact the situation became so bad that I had get off the sofa one lunchtime to give Old Grumpette a quick tutorial on the use of the hoe so that she could sort the problem out..
So, as you can guess, I would dearly like to see Test Match cricket on terrestrial TV.
As I have no ambition to open a shoe shop or cuddle a chimpanzee, and, as our bath is perfectly serviceable, I would prefer it was on BBC.
Was I alone in hoping that the next time that smug-looking fellow with the boxes fell off the tightrope he would find that someone had removed the safety net?
And I closed my eyes when those two oiks in cricket sweaters tried to lure me into the arms of "Betfair".
Anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of the laws of probability knows that "Betfair", like Independent Political Group, is a contradiction in terms.
Indeed the betting ads reminded me of Voltaire's statement when invited on his death bed to renounce the devil.
"This is no time to be making new enemies", Voltaire replied.
It is the same with me and betting.
At my age it is no time to be taking on new vices.
However, despite my dislike of the intrusive adverts, I can't support the growing campaign to overturn Sky's deal with the TCCB.
After all, cricket is under control of the TCCB and in a free country they surely have the right, if not a duty, to get the best price they can.
Of course, if the Government wants to make test cricket available to all it could always subsidise BBC coverage through taxation.
But to force the TCCB to break its agreement with Sky and take less money from the BBC would smack of the sort of state confiscation of private property found in dictatorships.
Not that we need worry because Sky is owned by Rupert Murdoch who also owns the SUN.
Old Grumpy also noticed that the Prime Minister turned out today and joined in the celebrations.
Perhaps it's something to do with the times in which I was raised but, whenever I see a politician hitching his wagon onto the coat tails of sports' stars, I am reminded of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

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