27 September 2005

No return?

Unfortunately, I was unable to be in Haverfordwest last Thursday morning to witness, first hand, the spectacle of Cllr Brian Hall and the Pembrokeshire County Council's director of highways on the tandem.
This was, you will remember, part of the county council's "In town without your car" day where staff and members were supposed to park at the Haverfordwest Rugby Club and cycle or walk the rest of the way to County Hall.
However, one of my most reliable moles tells me that, when he arrived at County Hall that morning, he saw the two bikers being greeted by the Chairman Clive Collins (fully-chained) - the whole circus being photographed in front of a sign reading "SPEED KILLS".
For whatever reason, this episode has not yet appeared among the press releases posted on the council's website.
Perhaps, someone in the press office has decided that irony can be overdone.
However, finding myself in Haverfordwest at noon last Thursday, I took the opportunity to carry out some empirical research by taking a short detour to the rugby club.
I counted three cars - none of which was Hall's Black Maria.
And, when I passed that way at half past four, I had another look and again no sign of the Brimobile.
So, it seems, the crowds thronging the pavements in Merlins Bridge, hoping for a glimpse of the bikers toiling back up the hill at the end of their day in the office, were probably disappointed.

Information blackout


My attempt to obtain a copy of the solicitor's bill for Maurice Hughes' legal fees seems to be exercising the County Council's finest legal minds.
For those who are not familiar with the case, this involves my threat to sue the, then, council leader over a letter he sent to Cllr Michael Williams in which he accused me of making false allegations to the police with regard to Cllr Brian Hall's expenses (See Libel on the rates).
Last week I reported that the council had claimed that the that information requested could not be divulged because it is subject to legal professional privilege and therefore comes under the exemption in S42 of the Freedom of Information Act.
I was told: "It is in the public interest generally that clients can feel free to take professional legal advice and that this advice remains confidential".
I replied that the solicitor's invoice was not legal advice and was therefore not caught by the exemption.
However, the council's lawyers have now drawn my attention to the cases of Chant v Brown (1852) and Turton and Barber (1874) which they claim are authority for the proposition that "Such [legal] privilege would extend to cover a bill of costs rendered by a solicitor relating to litigation, actual or contemplated."
They have also sent me a 23 page judgment from the Privy Council on an appeal against a decision by the New Zealand Court of Appeal.
What the Privy Council said in the New Zealand case was that, where legal privilege is concerned, there is no question of balancing one public interest against another because legal privilege always outweighs all other considerations.
Their Lordships cited, with approval, the case of R v Derby Magistrates' Court Ex p B (1996) when the House of Lords held, in effect, that it was better that an innocent man be convicted of murder than to allow a breach of the hallowed principle of legal privilege.
I am also told that the statutory right under the Audit Commission Act to "Inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds contracts, bills vouchers and receipts relating to them" is of no help because, as the Privy Council also decided, legal privilege can only be overthrown by either express words or "necessary implication" in the relevant statute.
As the Audit Commission Act neither expressly nor impliedly rules out legal privilege it doesn't help my case.
While it is always a pleasure to read their Lordships' judgments; both for the elegance of the prose and the rigour of the arguments and, while from the point of view of the council's trained lawyers, such research must be a stimulating change from the daily grind of conveyancing and issuing writs for the non-payment of council tax, it is, alas, all completely beside the point because the New Zealand case hinged on whether a solicitor could be made divulge the advice given to his client.
The reason the Privy Council decided that the solicitor could not be so compelled is that duty of confidentiality enshrined in the doctrine of legal privilege flows from the solicitor to the client.
As Lord Millet said in that case: "It is, of course, well established that the privilege belongs to the client and not to his lawyer, and that it may not be waived by the lawyer without his client's consent."
But there is nothing, whatsoever, to prevent the client from disclosing any legal advice he has recieved.
And, in the present instance, it is the council - and by extension the taxpayer - that is the client.
Even if the documents in the council's possession were so protected, the Freedom of Information Act contains the "necessary implication" that legal privilege will not be a bar to disclosure because legal advice is one of those categories of information that are subject to the "public interest test".
Had Parliament intended that such material should be totally immune from disclosure it would have included it in the category of "absolute exemptions" alongside security information.
It seems the council agrees, at least in part, with my analysis because they have provided a "redacted" copy of the solicitor's invoice (see below).
What seems abundantly clear is that someone inside the authority is desperately keen to prevent the public from knowing what exactly went on.




Interestingly, it is not every solicitor's bill that is subject to this degree of secrecy.
During the last audit inspection, I acquired a copy of an invoice from Dolmans which was available for all to see.
This allows me to make an educated guess that what is concealed under the black ink after "Partner" is 29.25 hrs @ £120.
It also seems that the council has got off lightly because, by my reckoning, £3,510 + £850 = £4,360 which would accord with the VAT of £730 charged on the bill.
What is also interesting is that the invoice is headed M Stoddart v Pembrokeshire County Council, when, in fact, my complaint was against Maurice Hughes, personally.
I can only assume that the council tax payer picked up the bill because someone decided that Hughes was acting in his official capacity, though I am not aware of any council policy that authorises the Leader to go around libeling members of the public.
I wonder whether Cllr Michael Williams was provided with a taxpayer funded solicitor when he was being threatened with legal action by Brian Hall's chum Dr Michael Ryan.
And, if not, why not?
PS it is not all solicitor's bills that receive this treatment (see The devil looks after his own)


It's tough at the top

Members' allowances for Pembrokeshire County council and the National Park authority have recently been published in the local press. In addition members of the County Council hold paid positions on the Police, Fire and Port Authorities.
Old Grumpy has managed to collect together all the various allowances for the financial year 2004-2005 and below is a breakdown of the top ten.
Because the elections were held in June and the financial year runs from 1 April - 31 March some of the figures are for part of the year only. Where that is the case the full-year figures are in brackets.
Also, allowances for the Fire Authority were introduced half way through the year and again full-year figures are in brackets.
In addition to mileage allowance, members of the Police Authority are also paid travelling time.
Allowances marked * are in the direct gift of the Leader.
Allowances marked ** are in the gift of the Independent Group.
In addition to those marked * below, there are four cabinet posts, four deputy cabinet posts, and five places on the National Park Committee within the Leader's gift and, in addition to those marked ** , three scrutiny committee chairs, four scrutiny committee vice-chairs, one regulatory committee chairs , two regulatory committee vice-chairs and the chairmanship and vice chairmanship of the council under the control of the ruling group.


 NAME  Authority  Basic Allowance  Special Allowance  Travel time  Travel and subsist  Total
 J T Davies  Pembs CC  £10,872 £22,716** (£26,000)    £5,279  £38,867
   Police Authority  £5,165 (£6,500)*    £965  £757  £6,787
 B J Hall  Pembs CC  £10,872  £12,657*    £10,293  £33,822
   Fire Authority  £505 (1,000)*  £3,529 (£7,000)    £1,163  £5,197
 J Allan-Mirehouse  Pembs CC  £10,872  £13,922*    £2,038  £26,832
   National Park  £1,922*        £1,922
   Fire Authority  £505 (£1,000)*      £216  £721
   M H Port Auth  £6,300**        £6,300
 D M Evans  Pembs CC  £10,872  £5062**      £15,934
   Police Authority  £6,491*  £4,050  £1,363  £2,479  £14,383
 P Stock  Pembs CC  £10,872  £12,657*    £1,300  £24,829
 D Wildman  Pembs CC  £10,872  £11,646*(£12,657)      £22,518
 Joyce Watson  Pembs CC  £10,872  £7,719      £18,591
   Police Authority  £1,893  £1,181  £397  £66 £3,537
 S Hancock  Pembs CC  £10,872  £7,094**    £414  £18,380
   Nat Park  £1,922  £1,240   £260  £3,422
 I Howells  Pembs CC  £10,872 £10,058* (£12,657)    £816  £21,746
 W Hitchings  Pembs CC  £10,872  £6,662**    £3,924  £21,458


Ignorance is bliss

About a month ago, one of my constituents emailed concerning my total silence on the subject of LNG.
I haven't replied because I don't quite know what to say.
The fact is that, when it comes to LNG, I am in a state of "rational ignorance".
Rational ignorance is a concept associated with Public Choice Theory for which the American economist James Buchanan won a Nobel prize in 1986.
It is usually, but not exclusively, linked to voting behaviour where electors, realising that the way they vote will not make much difference, have no incentive to master the issues in order to vote effectively.
Quite simply the effort required to read and evaluate the various party manifestos far outweighs any benefits to be gained by casting a vote for the "right" party.
It is therefore perfectly rational to save time and energy by remaining ignorant.
The more complex the issues involved, and the more onerous the effort required to understand them, the more rational it is to ignore them altogether.
This is particularly so when there is no clear blue/red water between the parties.
This theory, if true, would explain falling voter turnout (if your vote isn't going to make any difference, why vote at all) and the politics of the sound bite (if the issues are to difficult for the voters to understand, hit them with a few simple slogans).
In the case of LNG, it seems to me that it is a done deal.
So even if I was opposed, which I am not, trying to stop it would be an exercise in futility.
Another aspect of Public Choice Theory is the idea that a concentrated interest will always defeat a diffuse interest.
An example of this is the furious reaction of the public sector unions to the Governments proposals to curtail their members' pension rights.
In fact, the vast majority of the electorate would benefit from such a move by way of reduced taxes.
But that is a diffuse, ill-defined, future benefit compared to easily recognisable, concentrated, immediate disbenefit to pensioners.
In the fullness of time, the burden of these gold-plated pensions will start to cause real economic pain, and the scales will swing the other way.


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