Private and confidential

The full text of the "private and confidential" letter sent by David Thomas Pembrokeshire County Council's Head of Marketing and Communications to my Internet Service Provider, freenetname

Dear Sir or Madam,



I write to draw your attention to the above site, currently being published on your freenetname service.

This site has postings, the content of which is defamatory to leading officers and members of this authority. The defamatory content is posted under a site which purports to contain information about this authority as a whole. (By way of example I attach a hard copy of the site's Home Page which contains accusations of "shady backstairs dealings of Pembrokeshire County Council", with implications of financial fraud, improper planning decisions, corruption and fascism. The individuals aggrieved by the content you are publishing may decide to take legal advice in a personal capacity, with a view to pursuing an action in defamation against you.

A review of the site reveals postings which are of a defamatory nature, and which cannot be justified. I suggest that you access the posting headed 'list of past columns' and then open the column for 29 January 2001, headed "Portfield Gate" as a mere example of the type of content your site is currently publishing. By way of a specific example, the comments made under this column about the Council's Director of Leisure and Development and the way he conducts planning meetings are overtly defamatory and factually inaccurate.

In summary, these postings clearly contain imputations and suggestions which are untrue and are harmful to the reputation of the individuals mentioned and of the County Council.

I refer you to your freenetname 'Terms and Conditions of Use' and 'Acceptable Use Policies@ and remind you of you powers to suspend an account or remove material where there are complaints of unlawful or inappropriate postings. I refer you to also to the leading case of Godfrey v Demon Internet Ltd.

I write therefore to put you on notice that you are hosting allegedly defamatory material. I would suggest that to continue to publish this site on your service may expose your company to the daily risk of publishing fresh defamatory material.

I should be grateful to hear from you upon receipt of this letter.

David Thomas

Faced with that combination of threats and bluster, freenetname, who, as their title suggests, provide a free service, had little alternative but to pull my site.

As the County Council well knew, having previously closed down dickdammit's site, Internet Service Providers, particularly those which make no charge, can neither risk being sued nor afford the cost of carrying out lengthy investigations into the truth or otherwise of the material carried on their servers.

One thing that struck me was the assertion in the antepenultimate paragraph that my postings on the Internet were "unlawful".

We are fortunate in Britain that decisions on what is lawful, and what is not, are taken by the courts and not on the say so of jobsworths with fancy titles in County Hall.



Certificate X

Unfortunately the articles below were written three weeks ago before I was rudely interupted by the County Council censors.

I apologise therefore for the rather dated references to "bog-standard" which was all the rage at the time.

You might have read in the local press (singular) that my website had been pulled down following a complaint from the County Council that the content was "defamatory to leading officers and members" of the authority.

Strangely, the Council failed to specify the precise words which were "overtly defamatory and factually inaccurate" so I have been unable to mend my ways and the content of my website is unchanged.

Equally strange is the fact that not one of the "leading officers and members" has complained, either to me or my Internet Service Provider, about anything I have written.

Naturally, I am fully prepared to go to court to defend everything that has appeared on my website if anybody decides to take up "the mighty sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play" against me.

So far, at least, nobody has chosen to test these issues before an impartial judge, though, in the case of Cllr Alwyn Luke's irregular expense claims, I may yet take the initiative myself.

As they say, attack is often the best form of defence.

The innumerates

One of the great mysteries of modern education concerns the reasons why boys under perform in school.
Another is why so many of these underachievers then end up sitting on the Independent benches on the County Council where they are responsible, among other things, for education.
Last Thursday's meeting of the Policy and Resources committee (supposedly made up of the wisest and most experienced members) was a sad reflection on our education system, though it should be said that many of the gerontocracy who sit as Independents went to school long before the bog-standard comprehensive had even been thought about.
The Leader of the Independents, Cllr Maurice Hughes, was in ebullient mood as the announced the welcome news that there would be no rise in Council Tax next year.
According to The Leader this happy state of affairs was due entirely to the prudent financial management of the ruling Independent Political (sic) Group (IPG) working in tandem with the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB).
Indeed, The Leader told the members that "we" (of which more later) had even considered an unprecedented cut in the Council's claim on the local taxpayer.
When he finished his peroration his fellow independents responded with a burst of clapping.
It was left to Lib Dem Leader John Allen to explain the true situation.
As Cllr Allen pointed out, the Council had budgeted to spend an extra £7.5 million next year - a six per cent increase, well above the rate of inflation.
Fortunately, the Welsh Assembly had agreed to give the Council an extra £8 million, thereby fully funding the Council's increased spending.
So, the standstill Council Tax was the result of the Assembly's generosity and has nothing whatsoever to do with the financial wizardry of Cllr Hughes and his colleagues.
I would have thought this piece of simple arithmetic would have been within the compass of even the dimmest members of the Innumerate Party.
But for once, it seems, I overestimated them.

At last week's full Council The Leader offered another reason for the zero increase when he told members that the Welsh Assembly had predicted a 4-5% average increase in Council Tax across Wales.

"Some councils have imposed increases of 7-8% and it would have been wrong for us not to assist the Assembly in arriving at the desired average". He said.

So, employing similar logic, if other councils had opted for a nil increase, Cllr Hughes and his colleagues would, presumably, have hit us with a 7-8% tax hike.

Eat your heart out Lewis Carrol!

For those who still favour selective education, I should mention that The Leader is a grammar school old boy.


Opportunity knocks

Until recently I would have hesitated before picking an argument with someone with MA (Oxon) after his name.
But, having read in my Sunday paper that these Oxbridge Masters degrees can be acquired by anyone with a bog standard honours degree and a spare tenner, I am emboldened to enter the fray.
At last week's P and R committee Plaid Cymru Leader Michael Williams questioned the cost-effectiveness of Withybush Aerodrome.
According to the budget statement before the members the net annual cost of running the aerodrome is £227,000, or £4,500 a week.
This deficit is made up of a £71,000 trading loss and "asset rental" of £156,000.
Chief Executive Bryn Parry-Jones MA (Oxon) assured Cllr Williams that the figure in the budget statement was "a bit of a mirage" because of the notional amount for "asset rental".
"The real cost is £71,000" he insisted.
This view is rooted in one of the most popular economic fallacies - the idea that outright ownership carries no burden.
That idea ignores the well-known economic concept of opportunity cost.
If you were left a farm worth £500,000, which you then ran at a profit of £40,000 a year, you might think you were doing rather nicely.
That is until you consider that selling the land and putting the proceeds into an Egg account would bring in £30,000 a year.
The upshot is that by eschewing the Egg opportunity you are working seven days a week and taking large risks for just £200 a week.
Fortunately, the District Audit Service do understand opportunity cost which is why it insists that local authorities make the effort to include "asset rental" in their budgets so as to give members a more realistic picture of the cost of their activities.
That is supposed to allow our elected representatives to decide whether money invested in one particular asset might be better employed elsewhere.
The "mirage" is the assumption that council members have either the imagination or the intelligence to make use of this information.

Bottom line

Cllr Williams also had some questions on Project Phoenix, the school being built in Pembroke Dock under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI).
Veteran Pembroke Dock member Viv Hay was outraged that anyone could dispute the benefits of this PFI.
It is a pity that Cllr Hay didn't listen carefully to what the authority's senior officers had to say on the subject.
Director of Finance Mark Lewis said that PFIs had their good points and their negative points.
"The prize was that if we set up a PFI the Welsh Assembly would fund it".
Which translated means: it doesn't matter how daft an idea is so long as someone else is paying the bills.

And Chief Executive Bryn Parry-Jones said that any debate on the pros and cons of PFIs would reach different conclusions depending whether they were looked at from the point of view of the Council's finances or the public purse.
What this rather Delphic utterance means, I think, is that PFIs are good news for Council Tax payers and bad news for general taxpayers.
As these two groups are, broadly speaking, made up of the same people, the real question is whether the good news outweighs the bad.
My own view is that it doesn't and these PFIs are merely devices for keeping the government's capital expenditure out of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement -the sort of off-balance sheet transaction so beloved of the late Robert Maxwell.
In his case it was the Daily Mirror pensioners who picked up the tab, with PFIs it will be our grandchildren who have to pay up when these financial turkeys finally come home to roost in 20 or 30 years time.
Old Grumpy was also struck by the comments of Cllr Pat Griffiths who congratulated the council's officers for negotiating the PFI contract "down to the last loo roll".
In actual fact London accountants Robson Rhodes and London solicitors Beechcraft Wansborough negotiated the contract at a cost to the public purse of £240,000 (see Old Grumpy January 7)
Not that Cllr Griffiths, who was Chairman of Eduction at the time, could be expected to know anything about that.
And Old Grumpy hopes we were not paying these solicitors £180 per hour to argue over whether the school should be supplied with super-soft Andrex rather than bog-standard bumf.

We singular

As promised I will now return to the "we" who appeared in The Leader's triumphant speech on the standstill Council Tax.
Labour member Terry Mills wondered who the "we" were who had discussed reducing the charge as the matter had never been discussed by any Council Committee.
Needless to say he didn't get an answer.
However, a leading Independent Cllr Rev Emyr Jones was good enough to throw some light on who "we" weren't.
According to Cllr Jones, who is Chairman of the Public Protection Committee, no less, the question of reducing Council Tax had never been discussed at any meeting of the Independent Political (sic) Group.
My own guess is that the "we" who attended the meeting to discuss the budget was made up of members of COMB and The Leader and, possibly, his deputy.
The purpose of the meeting was for COMB to tell The Leader what was required of his troops.
Obviously The Leader was so confident that his followers could be relied on to put their hands up at appropriate moments that he didn't even feel the need to forewarn them of what COMB had in mind.

Cllr Jones returned to the "we" mystery at last Thursday's meeting of full Council.

For a while it looked as if the Chairman Bill Hitchings was going to save The Leader's blushes by ruling his question out of order.

But Cllr Jones persisted and, eventually, The Leader rose to answer.

According to Cllr Hughes, "we" referred to all those County Councillors who had discussed the budget at the various committees.

As the rate of council tax had never even been mentioned, until Cllr Hughes told Policy and Resources - when all the committee budgets had already been agreed - that "we" had considered reducing it, this explanation simply couldn't be true.

At least the leader had the decency to look embarrassed as he tried to persuade the council's Humpty Dumpties to believe six impossible things before breakfast.



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