28 September 2004

 

Unfair competition

Let me introduce you to the wonderful world of the Pembrokeshire County Council small business grant.
Strangely, while other public bodies such as the Wales Tourist Board publish the details of grants on their websites, the County Council dishes them out in conditions of utmost secrecy.
So, I have to be careful what I say or I'll find myself in front of the Standards Committee.
However, the recently published minutes of Cabinet meeting held on 13 September record the grant of £15,000 to purchase a piece of specialist machinery: "To assist in its formation stage a company with high growth potential".
On checking Companies House website I find this company was only incorporated last May, so there is no track record against which to check if its job creation projections are realistic.
Looking through Yellow Pages I notice there are another nine local firms in the same line of business.
Imagine you are one of those firms and you find yourself undercut by the newcomer, complete with a shiny new machine part-purchased with your taxes.
No wonder the council keep these things secret.

Golden oldies

I frequently ask myself the question: what are the council's Overview and Scrutiny Committees for?
The best answer I have come up with, so far, is that they are like skateboard parks for the over 50s - to stop members complaining "I'm bored. There's nuffin to do round here".
One of their functions is to call in Cabinet decisions for further consideration.
Either the Cabinet is virtually infallible, or the O&S committees are useless, because, in two-and-a-half years, the four Scrutiny Committees have called in only one decision between them.
The other half of their remit is to develop economic policy for the county.
Thus they debate such important subjects as the availability of industrial units and most recently "The labour market in Pembrokeshire."
As part of this latter study, the committee considered the "Economic contribution of older people ..." including "strategic objectives" such as "To work with the UK government to support the recruitment and retention of older people in employment."
And who has been more responsible than anyone else for sending 50-somethings into early retirement with gold-plated pensions?
Um, er, Pembrokeshire County Council.

 

Lateral thinking

Old Grumpy read recently that 70% of the population are unable to think in abstract terms.
If true, this is a serious failure of the education system.
Funnily enough, I came across an example the other day when I bought some spaghetti in the local shop and the girls behind the counter told me the story of a friend of theirs who, when cooking spaghetti, always borrowed a large jam pan from her mother so that she could lay it out flat before adding the boiling water.
"That's silly," I said. "she could manage with a much smaller pan if she broke it in half, like I do."
Thinking outside the box, it's called.

Just a nidea

My five year old granddaughter - six next Sunday, as she tells anyone who will listen - rang up the other day to tell me it was mummy and daddy's nanniversary.
This addition of the n from an, to the front of a word beginning with a vowel, is not new.
Two examples I know of are,a nickname (originally an ekename) and a newt (originally an ewt).
So she could be continuing the trend, though these changes in the language happen very slowly.
If you should open a dictionary in a hundred years or so and find "nanniversary n. the date on which an event took place in a previous year [f a(n) anniversary]" just remember where you read it first.

 

Just a matter of time

This week I will try to disentangle truth from fiction in the not unimportant matter of the timing of Cllr Brian Hall's first meeting with his business partner Dr Michael Ryan.
In his report on the investigation into this matter, the auditor says: "From Dr Ryan's correspondence with us, he suggests he first met Cllr Hall when he visited the council between 4-7 October 2000."
You have to ask yourself: would Ryan have started his fax to Hall dated 16 October 2000: "I have at last completed the first draft of the business plan ..." if he had only met him 9-12 days earlier?
Several other passages in this 16 October fax (see Hall-Ryan) would seem to indicate that this relationship was more than 12 days old.
There is also the matter of the business plan that accompanied the fax in which it is stated, under the heading "Marketing", that: "To date Dr Ryan and Brian Hall have been requested to participate in a number of projects, such as:
Hotel, Recreation & Conference Centre Project (Masterplanning and Project Management)
International Investment Project aligned to Pembroke Dock redevelopment
European Commission Objective 1 Project Finance Design & Submission."

All in 12 days (max)?
Then, of course there is the little question of the "private letter" Cllr Hall sent to the, then, Leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes, informing him of his intention to go into business with Dr Ryan.
That letter is dated 20 September 2000 - more than three weeks before they first met, if Ryan is to be believed,.
One thing that strikes me about the auditor's report is the almost complete absence of precise dates.
With the exception of the two quoted above, and the date of Dr Ryan's application for the post, every other date in the report comes from the evidence I provided to the auditor.
As the auditor says at paragraph 26 of his report: "We have been unable to clarify the exact date when Cllr Hall met Dr Ryan as the information provided to us differs somewhat although this is based on recollections from nearly four years ago."
Actually, the events concerned occurred during the 11 week period between 1 August 2000 and 16 October 2000, and the auditor was asked to investigate the matter by the Cllr Maurice Hughes in a letter dated 15 October 2003, which, even the less numerate will be able to calculate, is a little over three years.
Given the compressed time-scale, the precise dates of various events in the period 1 August 2000 and 16 October 2000 are crucial to a full understanding of what really went on.
Paragraph 27. "Cllr Hall initially informed us that he first met Dr Ryan in September or October 2000 [Why the vagueness if he had written a letter to Cllr Hughes on 20 September 2000?]. The Chief Executive recalls introducing Dr Ryan to Cllr Hall in a meeting in his office after ORA Ltd had been awarded the contract. From Dr Ryan's correspondence with us, he suggests he first met Cllr Hall when he visited the Council between 4-7 October 2000."
Para 28. "Subsequently Cllr Hall provided us with a private letter he wrote to the Leader dated 20 September setting out that he was going into business with Dr Ryan. This indicates [ proves, if Hall's letter is genuine] that Cllr Hall and Dr Ryan met earlier than the date suggested [claimed] by Dr Ryan.
In fact, there is no need for any of this uncertainty because, following his visits Pembrokeshire, Dr Ryan tenders an invoice for his travelling expenses.
In addition, the council receives a bill from the hotel at which he stayed, usually the Cleddau Bridge, which is paid direct.
Either of these sets of documents, to which the auditor has unrestricted access, would have fixed the dates when Dr Ryan was in Pembrokeshire and, as only seven weeks had elapsed between his appointment and Cllr Hall's private letter to the Leader, it would have been not too difficult to narrow down the possibilities.
Failing that, an inspection of the diary of Dr Ryan's line manager, David Thomas, would have yielded the information required to resolve this "apparent inconsistency".
Unfortunately, I was unaware of the business relationship between Hall and Ryan when the council's financial books for 2000/2001 were open for public inspection so I don't have these documents myself.
However, my information from inside County Hall is that Ryan visited Pembrokeshire in mid-August 2000 which I would suggest is when the introduction identified by the Chief Executive as "after ORA Ltd had been awarded the contract", took place.
I have asked Mr David Thomas when it will be convenient to inspect the file on Ryan's contract, so that I can confirm this for myself, but he has yet to reply.
Still, only three months until the Freedom of Information Act comes into effect.
Now, you might well ask, why, when they had more than six months to concoct a half-watertight story - the auditor started his inquiry in October 2003 and reported in May 2004 - Ryan and Hall provided these clearly inconsistent accounts of when they first met.
Well,to actually tell the truth in these circumstances might be worse than telling an obvious lie.
Go back to the middle of August, when, I suggest, Mr Parry-Jones introduced them to each other in his office.
I have no idea what the Chairman of the Highways Committee was doing at a meeting between an economic development consultant and the Chief Executive, but I know from an inspection of Hall's expense claims that he is in and out of the great man's office on a fairly regular basis..
But you have to try to imagine what happened next.
"Dr Ryan let me introduce you to Cllr Brian Hall our chairman of Highways who has just popped in to pay homage, as he often does" the Chief Executive might have said.
So far so good, but how do you get from there to the situation just eight weeks later when Ryan is sending his October 16 fax to Hall outlining their well advanced plans to trade in Pembrokeshire?
It is especially difficult to imagine how this could be achieved seeing that Dr Ryan was most of the time in Limerick while Hall was in Pembrokeshire.
If that is difficult, think how much harder it is for the same progress to be achieved in the six weeks between September 3, when Ryan wrote to Thomas promising not to trade in Pembrokeshire, and October 16 when he wrote to Hall outlining their detailed plans to do just that.
That, I would suggest, is why Dr Ryan decided to propagate the obvious lie about his first meeting with Hall.
If it was admitted that they had been plotting to make their fortunes in Pembrokeshire since mid-August it would have made the "contractually enforceable undertaking" in the letter of 3 September look as dodgy as it undoubtedly was..
Now let us return to Cllr Hall's "private letter" to the Leader dated 20 September 2000.
This letter troubles me because I have grave reservations about its provenance.
You may remember that when I first revealed Hall and Ryan's involvement in the company Euro-Ryall Ltd (see ORA story) the then Leader, Maurice Hughes, rushed out a press release (at least he signed it) in which he claimed: ""The Council is fully aware of the company Euroryall (sic). Before the company was registered the principals [Ryan and Hall] approached officers of the Council. They gave firm undertakings that the company would not trade in Pembrokeshire nor provide any conflict of interest."
I sent five emails to Cllr Hughes asking him for the names of the officers involved, the date they were approached and the nature of the firm undertakings: verbal or written.
Having failed to get a response, I took the matter up with the Council's Monitoring Officer who told me, in a letter dated 20 February 2003: "It is Dr Ryan who has entered into a consultancy arrangement with the Council. In that capacity he gave a written undertaking that a company in which he was involved would not trade in Pembrokeshire."
In my reply, dated 24 February, I said: "You say the Dr Ryan has given a 'written undertaking' not to trade in Pembrokeshire which is 'contractually enforceable'.
As your letter makes no mention of Cllr Hall, I assume he has made no such contractually enforceable promise.
That would seem to be at odds with the press statement issued by the Leader which states quite clearly that "... the principals [Dr Ryan and Cllr Hall] approached officers of the Council. They (my emphasis) gave firm undertakings that the company would not trade in Pembrokeshire."
During the public audit in October 2002 I had exercised my statutory rights to have a copy of ORA's contract with the Council.
I pointed out to the Monitoring Officer that the council had omitted to provide me with a copy of Dr Ryan's 'written undertaking' which was clearly part of that contract.
On 13 March the Monitoring Officer wrote back enclosing a copy of ORA's letter dated 3 September (see Ryan-Hall).
In his letter the Monitoring Officer made no attempt to address the question of Hall's 'firm undertaking' or lack of it and he dismissed the questions posed in a later letter with the words: "In relation to the other issues raised in your 20 March letter, I have no further comment."
It seems inconceivable that, during my lengthy correspondence with Mr James (five letters each way), he didn't consult with the Leader.
After all, the main subject of our exchanges was the veracity of the Leader's press release.
Why did the Leader not tell Mr James about the letter he had received from Cllr Hall on 20 September 2000?
Equally hard to understand is why neither the Chief Executive nor Mr Thomas informed Mr James about Hall and Ryan's developing business relationship, especially as it is clear from Mr Thomas' letter to Ryan dated 12 September 2000, and Mr Parry-Jones' evidence to the auditor, that they both understood that Hall's relationship with Ryan could give rise to a conflict of interest.
So why didn't they consult with the Monitoring Officer whose statutory duty it is to deal with such matters?
Also, according to the auditor, "The Chief Executive informed us that Cllr Hall sought a meeting with him in early Autumn 2000 when he had outlined his recently formed relationship with Dr Ryan and their emerging intention to establish a company."?
If the big boss already knew in 'early Autumn', which can't be that far away from 20 September, why the cloak and dagger stuff with private letters?
It may also be significant that Cllr Hughes didn't actually produce a copy of this letter when questioned by the auditor.
As the report says: "Towards the end of our review Cllr Hall also provided us with a copy of a private letter he sent to the Leader dated 20 September 2000 as referred to above."
But in the case of Cllr Hughes: "The Leader confirms he received that letter at the time."
You might have expected that the auditor would ask to see Cllr Hughes' copy of the letter if only to satisfy himself that it was the same as that provided by Cllr Hall.
And why did Hall wait until "towards the end" of the six-month-long review to produce such a crucial piece of evidence?
Of course, the advantage of a "private letter" is that it is um, er, private and, as such, will not be available for inspection when the Freedom of Information Act comes into force on 1 January.
Unless, of course, the new Leader decides to make it public.

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