September 27 2012

 

Useful idiots

Last week I reported that Cllr Jamie Adams; leader of the Independent Plus Political Group (IPPG), had appointed Cllrs Peter Stock and Lyn Jenkins to represent his group on the Dyfed Powys Police and Crime Panel (PCP) which will scrutinise the activities of the soon-to-be-elected Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC).
My apologies for the alphabet soup.
Now, thanks to research by Cllr Tessa Hodgson, who seems to have inherited Grumpette's curiosity gene, I can reveal the unwitting part played in these appointments by myself and the other 10 dictionary-owning members of the county council who stood as independents and kept faith with the electorate by staying that way.
What follows is rather complicated but, as my old chemistry master Geoffrey 'Solomon' Beaumont was fond of saying: "Everything worth knowing is difficult to understand", though he was quick to add that not everything that is difficult to understand is worth knowing.
The allocation of the 12 seats on the Dyfed Powys PCP is based on the political balance across the four counties in the force area: Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Powys.
It works out as Independents 6, Plaid 2, Labour 2 and Lib Dems and Tories one each.
Curious to know how this was arrived at, Cllr Hodgson asked for the figures behind these calculations and was surprised to find that Pembrokeshire's contribution to the independent total was 42.
This comprises all those councillors who stood as independents/no description (described collectively as "others") who are now divided between the 31 independent candidates who now make up the IPPG and the 11 of us who are described as "unaffiliated to any group"
But the rub is that, while we are counted towards the number of seats allocated to independents across the four counties, we have no say whatsoever over who will fill these positions.
According to the figures, of the 249 councillors in Dyfed Powys 127 are 'others'.
As the mathematicians among you will already have spotted 127 is a little over half of 249 which means that 'others' are entitled to six of the twelve seats on offer.
The arithmetic is: 127 (the number of councillors in the group) divided by 249 (the total number of councillors in the force area) x 12 (the number of committee seats) = 6.17 which rounds down to six.
So far so good, but the problem is that the decision on who should fill the seats is in the hands of the leaders of the various independent political groups - in Pembrokeshire's case Cllr Jamie Adams - which means that, while we dictionary independents are instrumental in the acquisition of the seats, we have no prospect of ever filling them.
It seems to me that, as these positions are the sole preserve of the independent political groups, it isn't fair that members who don't belong to those groups should be included in the calculations.
There are actually 17 unaligned councillors in Dyfed Powys (Pembrokeshire 11, Powys 4 and one each in the other two counties) which leaves 110 independent political group members.
Repeating the calculation on this basis we have 110/249 x 12 = 5.3 which rounds down to five.
The upshot is that the independent political groups have helped themselves to an extra seat on the back of truly independent members, many of whom wouldn't touch them with a bargepole.
This is particularly ironic in that the IPPG's election strategy documents refer to independent independents as "uglies and "idiots" (Party games).
Useful idiots in this case, it would seem.
Interestingly, if the calculation is done on the basis of 110 independent political group members, it works out Independents (5), Plaid (2), Labour (2), Lib Dems (1) and Tories (1) which all adds up to 11.
Applying the political balance rules as they are currently operated in Pembrokeshire County Council, that spare seat would go to an unaligned member.

Money talks

The political balance rules which were brought in by the Local Government and Housing act 1989 are a relic of a bygone age when Special Responsibility Allowances (SRAs) were somewhere in the future.
It was inevitable that, once large quantities of public money became available to majority groups, people would find ways to game the system.
The advent of the Cabinet system, bringing with it additional SRAs in excess of £180,000 in Pembrokeshire's case, only made the situation worse.
Whereas, in the past, people joined groups/parties because of some shared political aim, now the pursuit of power and the SRAs that go with it took centre stage.
Of course, political parties have always sought after power, but it was power for a purpose rather than for its own sake.
If you believe that society would be better if the state owned the means of production, distribution and exchange the only way that you can create this utopia is by winning an election.
Unfortunately, the political balance rules work against the truly independent member who is penalised with regard to committee places and SRAs.
As an illustration of how the rules can be manipulated, any three members could get together and form a political group and it would be entitled to the scrutiny committee chair currently held by the Tories (SRA £8,700 p.a.) and a seat on the National Park (basic allowance £2,600).
This group could call itself anything it liked and could be made up of members with widely divergent political views.
I have raised this possibility at the family dinner table, but, when I proposed myself as leader, I couldn't get a seconder.

Healthy debate

It is with quiet satisfaction that I notice that Cllr David Wildman, Cabinet member for Health, Well-being and the Voluntary Sector, is taking some well-deserved stick in the comments' section of the Western Telegraph's website on account of his membership of the Hywel Dda health board which is pushing for deeply unpopular changes to the services provided at Withybush hospital.
One must assume that Cllr Wildman is in favour of the health board's proposals otherwise he would have resigned, though, considering he is the only democratically elected** member of the board, he has been strangely silent about the matter.
I first drew attention to Cllr Wildman's membership of the health board back in February (Gravy galore) and the £12-15,000 he receives for his services.
This means that, all in, Cllr Wildman pockets some £40,000 a year for looking after our affairs (basic allowance £13,000, Cabinet SRA £15,000 and Hywel Dda £12,000, say).
As Robert Lewis Stevenson put it: "Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary."
Although the Western Telegraph followed up my story about the huge pay packets enjoyed by senior Hywel Dda board members it somehow failed to make any mention of Cllr Wildman trousering £10-15,000 a year.
This lack of wider publicity may explain why, despite the almost unanimous public opposition to Hywel Dda's reform agenda which he has helped to devise, he was elected unopposed as county councillor for Burton at May's local elections.
So much for accountability!
** I use the term "democratically elected" loosely because, while Cllr Wildman was elected as councillor for Burton, he was not elected to the health board.
That appointment came about by way of the back-channels to which only those in power have access.
My guess is that, if the decision was in the hands of the electorate Cllr Wildman is supposed to represent, he would struggle to make it into the top 100.
Ditto, Cllr Jamie Adams' appointments to the Police and Crime Panel (see above).
One of the the seven principles of public life which underlie the Code of Conduct reads:

"Objectivity
In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit."

Dream on!

Catch 22

The Eurozone financial crisis stumbles on with no end in sight.
Events follow a repeating pattern as the markets are buoyed by some new initiative, followed by a close reading of the small print and a lurch back to reality.
The sugar rush from the latest plan by European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi to do "whatever it takes" to save the Euro has lasted about three weeks, which is better than some earlier initiatives that didn't make it past lunchtime, but it is slowly dawning on the markets that the underlying problems remain.
As a fully paid-up member of the pessimist's union, I don't see any solution to the Eurozone problem, or those faced by the UK and USA without an awful lot of economic pain.
The root of the problem is that western governments have made promises to their electorates in terms of health care, pensions and other benefits that they cannot possibly keep.
They are now in the unenviable position of either continuing to borrow in order to keep the economy afloat, leading to an unsustainable level of public debt, or austerity, which depresses the economy, reduces tax revenues and increases benefit payments leading to an unsustainable level of public debt.
Catch 22, between a rock and a hard place, up s--- creek without a paddle, peeing into the wind, breaking wind against thunder - take your pick.
Once upon a time, governments kept the show on the road by bribing taxpayers with their own money.
When that strategy failed to keep pace with the electorate's appetite for more publicly-funded goodies, they turned to bribing them with their grandchildren's taxes.
This is known a deficit spending which is financed by public borrowing.
Gordon Brown was a master of the art, but he was far from being alone as events in Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain have shown.
Despite all the talk of the coalition's austerity strategy, the UK government is currently borrowing some £120 billion per year, which roughly equates to £2,000 for every man woman and child in the country.
By about 2015 the National Debt (the accumulation of past deficits) will be £1.2 trillion (£20,000 for every person in the country).
Debts of this magnitude are unprecedented in peacetime and are simply unsustainable.
And all the western democracies are in the same boat with the more vulnerable Eurozone countries carrying the added burden of being locked into a fixed exchange rate system that prevents them from seeking relief through currency devaluation.
Indeed, there are those that argue that democracy itself, with its inbuilt incentives for vote-seeking politicians to outbid each other with promises that can't be delivered, is at the root of the problem, and that democratic governments; faced with violent street protests as the public come to realise that the promised utopia is a cruel illusion, are in no position to carry out the necessary reforms.
We have passed this way before in the 1930s when strong men emerged to take control of the situation.
It must be hoped that we don't repeat the same mistakes, but the signals from Greece and Spain give little cause for optimism.

Class loyalty

The Conservative party's reputation for being run by what MP Nadine Dorries has described as "arrogant posh boys", who are out of touch with ordinary people, received another boost this week when Chief whip Andrew Mitchell MP was accused of swearing at policemen manning the gate at No 10 when they refused to let him pass on his bike.
And Nadine Dorries is a Tory!
According to newspaper reports,Mr Mitchell tried to pull the "don't-you-know-who-I-am" trick when confronted by the policeman and when that didn't work resorted to liberal use of phrases containing the F-word, one of which ended with "pleb".
It seems, in these enlightened days, "pleb" is considered more offensive than f---.
From what I can gather Mr Mitchell has been a bit coy about what he actually said; sticking to the line that he didn't use the words attributed to him.
Which words, we do not know for sure.
It is bit like that old joke about the man accused of calling someone "a horrible little bastard" retorting: "I didn't say anything about little".
It seems that Mr Mitchell has the full backing of the Prime Minister, as did Jeremy Hunt when he ran into a spot of bother over his relationship with the Murdoch family.
Indeed, Mr Hunt has now been promoted to Secretary of State for Health.
Say what you like about these posh boys, there is no doubting their class solidarity.

Counter-intuitive

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece under the heading "Chief executive's dilemma" in which I soiught to show that what seems obvious is not always true.
For those interested a full explanation can be found at CED

 

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