September 14 2004

 

Whistleblower

One of the advantages of being a member of the county council is the large amount of reading material that comes through the post.
This not only impresses the postman, but some of it is actually interesting.
Take the article "Lincolnshire gives chief executive £400,000 payoff" in the latest edition of a magazine with the uninspiring title "Public Finance".
Apparently, relations between £115,000 a year chief executive David Bowles and the Tory leader of Lincs CC, Cllr Ian Croft, had reached breaking point and, when the council was advised that Mr Bowles was likely to trouser in excess of £1 million if the matter reached an industrial tribunal, it decided to let discretion be the better part of valour and coughed up the four hundred grand.
It was interesting to find that Mr Bowles was being paid approximately the same salary as our own Mr Bryn Parry-Jones, though Lincolnshire's excellent website informs me that the authority's net revenue budget is £559 million, which is almost four times Pembrokeshire's £153 million.
But much more interesting than the sponduliks is the reason for the poisonous atmosphere in County Hall.
It seems that Mr Bowles went on a crusade to raise ethical standards inside the county council, a task he describes as "a difficult experience".
Things seem to have come to a head when, as the article puts it, "he blew the whistle on former Tory leader Jim Speechley, who was jailed for 18 months for corruption in March."
Now, there's a thought to conjure with!


Movin' on

My moles in Pembroke Dock tell me the recent 60s concert as part of the ONE9T celebrations was marred by the antics of a rather over-enthusiatic usherette.
For those not familiar with ONE9T I should explain it is a series events to commemorate the town's 190th aniversary.
Why they couldn't wait ten years and have a bicentenary is anybody's guess.
It appears that some of the ex-flower children got word that the concert was a sell out and arrived early to ensure themselves a front row seat.
Enter the usherette, disguised as Cllr Brian Hall, to tell them to move because the seats were required for VIPs.
Naturally, having paid their nine quid like everyone else these middle-aged swingers were reluctant to give up their prime positions.
I am told that Hall became rather petulant in the face of this insubordination and, one of my moles tells me, threatened to call the police to have them moved.
Has the man no sense of irony? (see August 10)
Not wishing to cause a scene, they withdrew to the sidelines.
This was a pity because I am not sure that sitting in a seat that you've paid for is a criminal offence.

 

Home improvements

It was a bit of a shock to receive a letter from the council tax valuation people informing us that our modest little cottage has moved up from Band C to Band F.
On my calculations that means it is now worth about £200,000; allowing 25% inflation since the valuation was made in April 2003.
Anyone who wants to snap it up at a 10% discount can give me a ring.
Ever the practical woman, Old Grumpette decided that the way to counter this almost doubling of our council tax bill is to increase the value of the property to bring it into line with its new status.
So, last Saturday morning was spent touring the builders merchants' yards looking at fittings and tiles (for the planned en-suite shower room) paving slabs ( for the soon-to-be landscaped garden) and conservatories.
I tried to persuade her that it would be cheaper to appeal against the new banding, but once she gets something in her head there's no turning back.


More hot air

Two issues have dominated the week's politics - global warming and pensions.
What these two problems have in common is that any practical solution is likely to be extremely painful.
So painful in fact that politicians prefer to indulge in windy rhetoric rather than face up to the truth.
The pension crisis results directly from advances in medical science, which means that we oldies are living longer.
As Milton Friedman said, there's no such thing as a free lunch.
More pensioners and fewer workers is a recipe for financial disaster.
Because pension funds are by far the biggest owners of stocks and shares, when someone retires they cross the threshold between workerand capitalist.
So it is rather entertaining to hear trades union leaders calling for pensions to be protected i.e. that a greater share of the country's wealth should go to the capitalists.
One idea mooted at this week's TUC conference is that the wicked companies should be forced to pay more into their workers' pension funds.
This is, of course, self defeating because the more they put aside for pensions the less they have to distribute as the dividends that the pension funds rely on for their income.
There is only one way out of this problem and that is to raise the retiring age.
At a stroke that will result in fewer pensioners and an increase in GNP because of a larger workforce.
But don't expect any politician grubbing for votes to tell you that.
As for global warming, that is all down to the Yanks, the unspeakable Bush in particular.
It is true that Bush pulled the USA out of the Kyoto Accords but he was only bowing to the inevitable.
The fact is that when Clinton put Kyoto to Congress for ratification it was thrown out by 96 votes to nil.
If you go into Google and type "global warming skeptics" you will find there is a fierce debate raging in the States over this issue.
And it's not just the States - log on to www.heartland.org and you will find that Putin's chief scientific advisor doesn't think much of the theory either.
But, if you really want to find out the extent we have been brainwashed by the global warming litany, you should read Lomberg's "The skeptical environmentalist" in which he argues, convincingly, that, even if the predictions about global warming are true, the way to tackle the problem is not by halting world economic growth but by seeking technological solutions.




Engaging Dr Ryan

Older readers will be familiar with the name of Christine Keeler.
For those under 45, I should explain that she was the high class call girl whose sexual liaison with John Profumo led to his resignation as Minister of Defence in the Macmillan government, and, some would say, the eventual demise of the government itself.
Profumo resigned, ostensibly, because he lied to Parliament about the affair but his case wasn't helped by the fact that Ms Keeler was also sleeping with a Russian naval attache [spy] name of Ivanov.
If lying to Parliament hadn't done for him, this connection, so to speak, surely would have done.
There was another lady of the night involved - one Mandy Rice-Davies, or Randy Mice-Davies as one scurrilous magazine dubbed her.
And, because of something she said in the witness box during the trial of Stephen Ward - the upper-class pimp at the heart of the scandal - it is Mandy's fame that has best stood the test of time.
Ward's trial centred round the wild sex orgies he organised at grand country houses, most particularly that of Lord Astor at Clevedon.
Questioned about these parties in court, Astor denied all knowledge.
When the defence lawyer put this to Ms Rice-Davies she uttered the now famous words "He would, wouldn't he?"; often misquoted as "He would say that, wouldn't he."
These immortal words have earned Mandy a place in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, though whether she is flattered by the dictionary's description of her as "English courtesan" is another matter.
Old Grumpy's thoughts turn to Ms Rice-Davies whenever I read the auditor's report on the business relationship between Cllr Brian Hall and the County Council's Irish-based economic development consultant Dr Michael Ryan.
See how many times you think Mandy might have raised an eyebrow during what follows.
You might also note the almost complete absence of precise dates and other detailed information in the quoted passages.
It seems that the council knew Dr Ryan long before he was awarded the consultancy contract.
"The Chief Executive has confirmed that three senior officers including himself first met Dr Ryan on a business trip to Dublin in 1998 at the offices of a company he was representing."
Dr Ryan next pops up in "early 2000" when he visited County Hall and met the Chief Executive and Head of Marketing and Communications, David Thomas.
"The Chief Executive and Head of Marketing and Communications have explained that this was a courtesy visit by Dr Ryan who planned to visit a number of other [unnamed] organisations in the county during his visit. They confirmed that they did not discuss the possible future appointment of a consultant and that this meeting did not place him in a more favourable position in relation to his subsequent appointment."
Well, I never!
In May 2000 Pembrokeshire was awarded Objective 1 status and officers considered ways to maximise the amount of money the council could obtain from this source.
"One such initiative included the appointment of an appropriately qualified economic development consultant."
As the auditor reports, there are set procedures for this sort of thing.
"The standing orders in place at the time state that 'Consultants shall only be employed where the Council's Management Board have agreed that there are insufficient resources [manpower] available to perform the services required and that appropriate budget provision exists. The Chief Executive has informed us that the decision to appoint a consultant was discussed and accepted by the Management Board although this was not recorded at the time."
Wot! no agendas - no minutes?
Astonishing!
In due course "In accordance with standing orders, the council advertised in the Irish Independent for expressions of interest in such a role"
The advert. which was tucked away near the bottom of page 19, is reproduced below. Because of the poor quality of the image the text of the advert is repeated at the bottom of the page (cf www.oriain.com)


Two things are striking about this advert: firstly the similarity between the qualifications required and those being touted on Dr Ryan's website (www.oriain.com) and, secondly, its lack of impact.
My enquiries have established that the advert actually appeared on 6 July 2000.
However inconspicuous the advert may have been, it didn't escape Dr Ryan's eagle eye, and, just three days after it appeared, a detailed 18-page application which "included Dr Ryan's CV, a company profile and a list of relevant completed projects." was in the post.

The closing date for applications was 19 July 2000 and a mere eight working days later, on August 1, a letter from David Thomas was winging its way across the Irish Sea informing Dr Ryan of his success.
Now you might think that eight days is not much time to draw up a shortlist, bring applicants from Ireland for interview and check references.
And you would be right, because none of these were deemed necessary.
"Following a review of these expressions of interest, the Head of Marketing and Communications wrote to ORA Ltd [Dr Ryan's company] on August 1 to confirm the appointment ... . Before the contract was awarded the Head of Marketing and Communications took one satisfactory verbal reference from a reliable [unnamed] source known to senior officers. The information and comments received were not formally documented, however, we have subsequently contacted the referee and he has confirmed that he provided such a satisfactory reference at the time."
You don't say!
What is puzzling is why the Head of Marketing and Communications (chief spin doctor), who knows nothing about economics, was in charge of ORA's contract rather than someone from the economic development department.
It is also interesting that Mr Thomas did not involve the council's legal department in the drawing up of ORA's contract as required by standing orders.
As the auditor records: "Although a Form of Agreement was issued to ORA Ltd it was not formally approved by the Director of Support Services or Head of Legal and Committee Services. The Director has, however, subsequently seen the letter of engagement and is satisfied that it covers sufficiently the main aspects required for a contract of this sort and value."
Well. fancy that!
Then there is the question of monitoring the ongoing contract.
This seems to have been something of a hit and miss business because "... details of contract monitoring and the prior approval of travelling expenses [as required by the contract] are not formally recorded ..."
However, it does seem that the Management Board discussed ORA's appointment at its October 2000 meeting.
Whether this meeting took place before or after "early Autumn 2000", when, it is said, Cllr Hall told the Chief Executive of his business relationship with Dr Ryan, is not clear.
But, if it was after, it would be interesting to know whether this development was reported to the meeting.
It would also be interesting to know if the Chief Executive informed the Monitoring Officer of this burgeoning business relationship.
So many questions - so few answers.




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