September 30 2008




This morning, I toddled along to county hall to observe the standards committee hearing into the Ombudsman's finding that Cllr Wyn Evans (IPG) had breached the code of conduct by failing to declare an interest in a planning application by one of his "friends" for holiday chalets at Heron's Brook near Narberth.
The reason for the inverted commas around friends will be explained later.
What immediately struck Old Grumpy was Cllr Evans' statement to the Ombudsman that he had not received any training in the code of conduct.
This was backed up by the council's monitoring officer at the time of the alleged breach who "confirmed that Cllr Evans had not received any training in the code of conduct since becoming a member of the council."
As this didn't accord with Old Grumpy's recollection of events - soon after the 2004 election I clearly remember sitting next to to Cllr Evans during an all-day training session presented by a barrister specialising in planning law at which the code of conduct was specifically covered - I made a mental note to do some research.
Fortunately, this wasn't required because someone has gone to the trouble of seeking out the relevant documents and placing them in an appendix at the back of the Ombudsman's report.
These include the itineraries for three training sessions held just after the 2004 elections together with a list of those who attended.
And lo and behold Cllr Evans has signed in at two of them.
During the hearing, standards committee member Mrs Sheila LaCroix pointed out that, like all members, Cllr Evans had signed an undertaking on taking up office to abide by the Code.
"Did you sign it and not read it?" she asked.
"Certainly not! I read everything", he replied, adding for good measure: "I thought the training was excellent."
And when another member, Mr John Edge put it to Cllr Evans that he had told the Ombudsman that he had received no training in the code, he replied: "That is totally incorrect - I did receive training."
Now, just in case you think the Ombudsman imagined this bit about lack of training, I have scanned in part of the questionnaire completed by Cllr Evans during the Ombudsman's investigation.

The truth is that when it became clear that the defence of lack of training didn't have any legs, an entirely different story had to be concocted.
George Orwell would have understood.
Unfortunately, the committee didn't think fit to press the point.
"Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike"

as Alexander Pope expressed it so beautifully.
Which brings us to "friends".
According to a report in the Western Telegraph, Cllr Evans told the planning committee: "I can't tell you how I feel about this application. I know this family so well. It is essential that you pass this today".
And, although the officers were recommending refusal as the application was contrary to policy, members voted 17-2 in favour.
Because this was a departure from policy, the planning committee decision had to go before full council for ratification.
At that meeting, Cllr Michael Williams suggested that, in the light of his remarks at planning committee, Cllr Evans should declare an interest in the application (Compound interest).
It was at this same meeting that the motion of no confidence in Cllr Brian Hall was to be debated and Grumpette, armed with her reporter's notepad, was in the public gallery.
According to her notes; submitted to the Ombudsman as evidence, Cllr Evans responded: "Herons Brook are friends of mine, that's what comes from living in a small community . . . delighted to call them friends of mine."
Nowhere in the Ombudsman's report can I find any indication that Cllr Evans had denied using the words quoted, or something very similar.
Cllr Evans argued, both during the Ombudman's investigation and the standards committee hearing, that the applicants were not really his friends; merely acquaintances, as were most people in Narberth.
Had he not described them as friends during two council meetings, that might have had some force.
But, once he had publicly stated that they were his friends, the game was effectively up.
As the Ombudsman says at para 35 of his report: "The provisions of the code of conduct relating to the declaration of interests are designed to secure public confidence in the decisions taken by council by avoiding not just the reality of bias, but also the appearance of potential bias (my emphasis) on the part of members taking those decisions."
Now, a member of the public, on reading in the local paper that a councillor, advocating that a particular development be given approval, has stated that he is pleased to call the applicants his friends, is surely entitled to mutter to himself "It's not what you know, but who you know" and come to the conclusion that those with friends in high places are given favourable treatment.
Exactly the reaction the code of conduct is designed to avoid.
This hypothetical member of the public can't be expected to go to Narberth, or wherever, and make enquiries as to the depth of this declared friendship.
In the event the standards committee upheld the Ombudsman's finding that Cllr Evans had a personal interest in the application and by failing to declare it he had breached the code of conduct.
The committee ordered that he be formally censured and "be required to follow the code on future occasions".
And I thought we were all required to follow the code on all occasions.
And in response to the Ombudsman's conclusion: "I have noted that Cllr Evans has not received any training in the code of conduct since becoming a member of the council which is a cause for concern." the committee has recommended that the authority organise a "top-up training session" for members which Cllr Evans will be required to attend.
As the Ombudsman's concerns about lack of training were clearly based on false or misleading information this seems superfluous.
There have already been any number of training sessions following both the 2004 and 2008 elections and if some members still haven't grasped the basic principle that you are not on the council to promote the interests of yourself, your family, or your friends, then it is difficult to see how more training will get the message across.


Special pleading


A few weeks ago I made reference to the Government's green paper on police reform and the fact that the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) were against the proposal that members of police authorities should be directly elected rather than, as at present, being appointed by the council high-ups (August 12).
In Pembrokeshire's case, the right to make these appointments is vested in the Leader acting alone, so it comes as no surprise to find that, despite receiving close on £40,000 a year for what is supposed to be the full time job of Leader, Cllr Davies seems have made time to appoint himself to the Police Authority for which he trousers an extra £6,500 + very generous travelling allowances.
In addition, he has recently been elevated to the Leadership of the WLGA in which capacity he made his statement about the iniquities of directly elected police authorities.
Now the WLGA's parent body: the LGA, which covers England and Wales, has sent every councillor a pro-forma card which they are invited to sign and post to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.
It reads:
"Dear Home Secretary,
I am writing to object to the current proposals in the policing green paper to alter police authority membership by introducing directly elected crime and policing representatives. As they stand these will:
* fail to give people greater influence over local policing and will confuse the public over who is responsible for tackling crime;
* undermine local partnerships, which are vital to reducing crime, by introducing competing mandates between representatives and councillors;
* increase the possibility for buck-passing and blame-shifting.
Instead police accountability should be improved by extending to council executive members (including leaders) the responsibilities proposed for directly-elected mayors, and by councillors continuing to form a significant part of police authorities.
Please treat this as my response to the consultation on the policing green paper.

Yours sincerely.


Now, there are two things I would wish to say about this piece of political propaganda.
Firstly, it is written by the shining stars of the local government firmament - council leaders whose lucrative positions on police authorities would be most under threat if Jacqui Smith's proposals go ahead.
Roughly translated, what the LGA is saying is: don't go for this or we'll be deprived of one of the boondoggles to which we have grown accustomed.
Secondly, I find it rather patronising that the LGA should find it necessary to put words in members' mouths.
Some of us are perfectly capable of articulating our own opinions without assistance from John Davies or the LGA.
For myself, I am generally in favour of direct elections as opposed to appointment by power brokers operating behind closed doors.
That said, I decided to consult my constituents on the subject.
Opening the telephone directory at a random page I noted down the first five Hakin numbers that I came across.
I then repeated the process until I had 20 numbers.
After introducing myself, I said: "As you may be aware, Pembrokeshire County Council appoints two members to represent you on the Dyfed Powys Police Authority. Are you able to name them?
Responses ranged from no/not the first idea/haven't a clue.
The upshot was that not one of the people I telephoned (I gave up after ten calls) knew who to contact if they wanted to have "greater influence over local policing", or "who is responsible for tackling crime".
I then asked for their views on the Home Secretary's proposals for direct elections and, to a man (and woman), they were, as I expected, all enthusiastically in favour.
I will, therefore be writing to Jacqui Smith urging her to get on with it.

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