20 September 2005

 

Taken for a ride

 

Last week, I referred briefly to the county council's anti-congestion campaign: "In town without my car".
The idea is that motorists coming in to the county town will leave their cars at either Haverfordwest Rugby Club or Withybush Showground and complete their journeys by other means.
This would all be perfectly unexceptional but for the fact that the geniuses in the council's public relations department chose to put out a press release together with a photo showing that one-man traffic jam Cllr Brian Hall astride a tandem.
This is almost in the same league as the press release showing Cllr Hall standing in front of a sign saying "Speed kills" put out just a couple of weeks after I published details of his now famous high speed dash from the Severn Bridge to Pembroke Dock (125 miles in 52 minutes).
As regular readers will know, Cllr Hall is in a class of his own when it comes to driving around in his car at public expense.
Figures published on this website eight weeks ago show that, during the financial year 2004-05, his travelling expenses came to £9,600 - almost double those of the Leader.
Indeed, Cllr Hall claimed 25% of the total amount paid to the 60 elected members (See King of the road).
Old Grumpy reads that Cllr Hall and the director of highways, Ian Westley, intend to park at Haverfordwest rugby club and cycle to work from there.
It has not escaped my notice that the chosen route is all downhill.
It will be interesting to see how they get on when they come to tackle the climb from Merlins Bridge to the rugby club on the way home.
Several people have emailed to suggest that I publish the picture and run a caption competition.
Unfortunately, my mastery of the scanner does not stretch to speech bubbles and the like.
However one reader from Pembroke Dock composed a little ditty to be sung to the tune "Daisy, Daisy"

Brian, Brian, I won't share a car with you,
For I'm frightened 'cos of the speed you do.
But we could have a ball,
From the Dock to County Hall.
It'll be a treat,
On the back seat,
Of a bicycle made for two.

 

 

Secret garden

It was entirely predictable, I suppose, that an organisation as secretive as Pembrokeshire County Council wouldn't take to the Freedom of Information Act like the proverbial duck to water.
As recorded elsewhere (See: Libel on the rates), during the public audit inspection, I came across a voucher showing a payment of £4,360 to Cardiff solicitors Dolmans in respect of fees for representing Cllr Maurice Hughes.
Cllr Hughes' need for a solicitor arose after I took exception to a letter he had written to Cllr Michael Williams in which he accused me of making false allegations to the police about Brian Hall's travelling expenses (see The Time Lord).
What is interesting is that the £4,360 was paid out of county council's insurance fund.
I can see why the Leader of the council might require such protection while carrying out his official duties but I am not aware of any council policy that authorises the Leader to libel members of the public.
If, as I suspect, Hughes was on a frolic of his own, it seems only fair that he should have to pay his own legal costs.
I will be taking up this matter with the District Audit Service though, on past form, I am not expecting any dramatic results.
Being an interdepartmental document, the voucher was not very informative, so, as is my right under the Audit Commission Act 1998 (ACA), I asked for a copy of Dolmans' original invoice.
At about the same time, thinking I might turn up something of interest, I put in a Freedom of Information request for copies of all correspondence between Dolmans and the council regarding this matter.
The invoice not having materialised, I emailed the Director of Finance to remind him of my rights under the ACA.
He emailed back to say my request for the invoice would be dealt with as part of my FoI application.
I replied that my request for the invoice was entirely separate from the FoI request.
That was on 18 August and I have not yet had a reply.
On 12 September, I received an email from the council's FoI officer informing me that I can't have any of the information requested because it is subject to legal professional privilege and therefore comes under the exemption in S42 of the FoI Act.
"It is in the public interest generally that clients can feel free to take professional legal advice and that this advice remains confidential" the FoI officer tells me.
I have written back appealing against this decision and also pointing out that the invoice I requested isn't covered by the exemption because it doesn't fall within the description of legal advice.
That was eight days ago and I still await a response.
Of course, I could go directly to the Information Commissioner but, as he hasn't yet resolved an appeal I made six months ago, what's the point?



Double standards

An alert reader has emailed to remind me that, as long ago as 1st March this year, I forecast that Cllr Bill Roberts would be the victim of a Cabinet reshuffle.
"You should get yourself a new crystal ball" my correspondent suggests, after pointing out that Cllr Roberts is still in post.
That will teach me never to make predictions about things over which other people have control.
Still, I am a patient soul.
Another whose demise I expected was Cllr Jim Codd, deputy Cabinet member for something or another.
When he was appointed Leader, Cllr John Davies promised that the council would operate to "the highest ethical standards".
So when I revealed that Cllr Codd, who signed up to the Independent Political Group on 29 June 2001 (the day after the bye-election at which he won his seat), had misled the electorate by placing an advert in the Tenby Observer during the 2004 election campaign in which he claimed "I am a truly INDEPENDENT candidate - having no affiliations or leanings to any political party or group", I fully expected the Leader to reach for the axe.
I suppose this was a bit naive of me considering that Cllr Davies' seemed to find no contradiction between "highest ethical standards" and the appointment of Cllr Brian Hall (see The Time Lord) to his cabinet and Cllr Alwyn Luke (see Master forger) to the chairmanship of the education committee.
This last appointment being walking proof of Robert Louis Stevenson's dictum that "Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary."

Food for thought

 

Apart from a good dinner, there's nothing Old Grumpy enjoys more than a good lunch.
So, information I have recently received about county hall catering bills has left me green-eyed with envy.
It appears, while I have been down in the canteen tucking into a £2.50 pie and chips, elsewhere in the building, others have been living high on the hog.
How come I was not one of the chosen 26 invited to tuck in to the £12-a-head buffet put on by the education department on 14 July 2004 (total cost £313.18) or one of the 20 and 35 who each ate more than £10-worth of vol au vents courtesy of the Chief Executive's department on 7 April 2004 and 27 May 2004 respectively?
If that seems a lot to fork out for a paper plate full of nibbles, what about the lunch for 12 at £33.07 a time (£396.81) booked out to the Chief Executive's department on 30 June 2004.
And it is not just the Chief Executive's department that seems to have expensive tastes.
On 9 September 2004, lunch for 10 at £27.94 a shot (£279.78) was booked out to the Department of Finance and Leisure.
I hope the department is not concentrating its attention on the second part of its title at the expense of the first.
A Freedom of Information request is on its way to the council and I will report back if and when I receive a reply.

 

Sense of proportion

 

Last week, Charter 88 - the non-party group that campaigns for constitutional reform - sent me a leaflet extolling the virtues of proportional representation.
With the German political system deadlocked following last Sunday's election, Charter 88 could hardly have chosen a less propitious time to launch its campaign.
The leaflet sets out a series of facts about the recent UK general election including: "In England 60,000 more people voted for the Conservative than the Labour party; yet Labour won 92 more seats to 'represent the people' ".
And that: "For citizens supporting the Labour party it took only 26,858 of their votes to elect an MP, for those supporting the Conservative party it took 44,241 and for those supporting the Liberal Democrats it took 98,484 votes. Some citizens are clearly more equal than others."
As I have pointed out myself (See Electoral arithmetic) there is no doubt that our first-past-the-post system leads to serious arithmetical injustice.
However, I am not convinced that proportional representation overcomes the problem because it merely replaces one type of arithmetical unfairness with another.
The German election result illustrates this point.
Mrs Merkel's CDU has 35% of the votes (and seats) and its natural ally the Liberals (FDP) has 10%.
Mr Schroder's SPD has 34.2% while its ally - the Green party - has 8%.
The balance is divided between Oscar Lafontaine's Left part (8.6%) and a number of smaller parties that failed to reach the 5% threshold.
The Liberals have ruled out a coalition with Mr Schroder so the only way he can form a government is with the support of the Greens and the Left.
The Left will not get into bed with Mrs Merkel so the only way she can cobble together a majority is by building a coalition with the Liberals and the Greens.
The Greens, despite their poor showing in the polls, get into government either way.
The previous government was a coalition between the SDP and the Greens so the effect of proportional representation is to give a permanent place in government to the the Greens, who are supported by less than one in twelve of those who voted.
If we had proportional representation in the UK, the Lib Dems would also enjoy a permanent place in the sun.
In terms of fairness, I can't see how that would be an improvement.


Laffer minute

What is truly amazing is that, less than a month ago, Mrs Merkel was leading by a full 14 points.
Most pundits seem to agree that the tide started to flow against her when she appointed Professor Paul Kirchof as her financial advisor.
Professor Kirchof is an advocate of a flat tax regime which allowed Mr Schroder to claim that the election of Mrs Merkel would be a threat to the generous welfare provisions known as 'Social Germany'.
This was a rerun of our own General Election earlier this year when Labour was able to paint the Tory's tax cutting plans as heralding a return to the middle ages.
However, flat taxes, which are spreading like a rash through eastern Europe and the Baltic states are an idea whose time has come.
They are associated with the Laffer curve; named after Professor Art Latter who is said to have explained the idea to a group of Ronald Reagan's advisors by drawing a diagram on a table napkin.
Opponents claim that Laffer held that lowering income tax rates increases revenues to the Exchequer, but that is a travesty.
All he said was that, because the amount of revenue collected is a function of both tax rates and the size of the economy being taxed, and the size of the economy is dependent on the tax regime in place, there must be an optimum rate of taxation that brings in the maximum revenue.
Clearly, with tax rates at zero no revenue is raised.
Similarly, with taxes at 100%, revenue collected will tend to zero because there will be no incentive to work.
As you move away from zero, tax revenues increase until, at some point, they begin to diminish as they approach closer to 100%.
Where exactly this golden mean is located can only be found by trial and error.
What Laffer postulated was that, if taxes are higher than this point, reducing them will increase the flow of revenue into the Exchequer.
Conversely, if rates are too low, increasing them will produce more revenue.

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