February 3 2009

 

Phantom democracy

 

According to Cabinet member for culture, Cllr Rob Lewis, the reason for the lack of consultation on the relocation of Milford Haven library was "commercial confidentiality".
I have already given my view on that piece of sophistry (see Bullshit).
At the same meeting of Cabinet, it was also decided to close Goodwick library.
Again, no attempt was made to find out the opinions of either library users or the local member.
Indeed, the first anyone knew about the proposals was when members received their Cabinet papers on the Thursday before the Monday meeting, leaving little time for councillors to seek the views of their constituents.
Of course, "commercial confidentiality" can't be trotted out as an excuse in the Goodwick case because no third party was involved.
Instead, Cllr Lewis claims that: "The Cabinet decision could have been called in but no attempt was made to do so."
Apart from the fact that it is difficult for a member to ask for a call-in when they haven't had the time to canvass their constituents' views, it should be said that the whole call-in process is nothing more than a piece of democratic window dressing.
To have a Cabinet decision called in by a scrutiny committee requires a written request by either the chairman or four committee members.
In this case the Children and Young persons scrutiny committee (Chairman Danny Fellows) was the relevant body.
And Cllr Fellows couldn't (even if he'd wanted to) call in the Goodwick closure on the grounds of lack of consultation without also calling in the Milford Haven decision.
And he couldn't call in the Milford Haven decision because he is vice-chairman of the board of Milford Haven Port Authority which stands to benefit as the owners of Cedar Court where the new library is to be based.
It should be pointed out that, in almost seven years of Cabinet rule, no Cabinet decision has ever been called in by a scrutiny committee chairman.
Nothing to do with the fact that these chairmen owe their positions, and the £8,000 special responsibility allowance that goes with them, to the patronage of the Leader whose Cabinet they are supposed to scrutinise, I suppose
So, that leaves any member wishing for a call-in with the task of running around the county getting four members of the committee to sign the papers.
This is doubly difficult in the case of the Children and Families committee because it has only three opposition members and the prospects of persuading one of the IPG to go against the party line are not good.
And, even if a member manages that, the C and F committee is hardly likely to question the Cabinet's decision because seven of the twelve members are on the Leader's payroll.
Finally, if a member manages to jump through all those hoops it is unlikely to do much good because, while it must consider the scrutiny committee's decision, the Cabinet is under no obligation to take any notice.
In short, the function of scrutiny committees is to give the appearance of democracy where none actually exists.

Protected species

Some commentators are predicting that the recession will mature into a depression, precipitating the sort of political turmoil that launched fascism on its march through Europe in the 1930s.
Until this last few days I found such talk much too gloomy even for a self-certified pessimist like me.
But, the sight of demonstrations against foreign workers and countrywide wildcat sympathy strikes takes us back to the 1970s when the social and political order came close to breakdown.
And the speed with which this anti-foreign worker campaign has taken off is rather frightening.
At its centre is Gordon Brown's slogan "British jobs for British workers"; uttered at the Labour Party conference in 2007 when he was thinking of calling a snap General Election.
Lord Mandelson claims that Brown meant that British workers should be trained so that there would be no need to bring in labour from abroad to carry out essential tasks.
That may be what the Prime Minister said during his speech, but the use of the words "British jobs for British workers" was a deliberate attempt to blow the 'dog whistle' for the benefit of those Labour supporters who might be attracted to the BNP.
That tactic has now spectacularly misfired.
Serves him right!
The way to neutralise the BNP is to confront its arguments head on, not steal its clothes.
Of course, "British jobs for British workers" resonates with large sections of the electorate especially when the economic weather is stormy, but, as Brown and Mandelson rightly say, insofar as it involves protectionism, it is likely to make matters worse than they already are.
However, while economists can draw nice diagrams showing how free trade benefits everyone, it is not an easy case to make to someone peering through the perimeter fence at a foreign worker who has 'stolen' their job.
Some years ago, Pembrokeshire was in a battle with Ireland to attract inward investment by Dell Computers.
Ireland won, mainly because of its generous corporation tax regime.
Now Dell has decided to take advantage of lower wage rates in Eastern Europe by moving its computer manufacturing business to Poland.
While it doesn't quite feel the same, there is no difference between that situation and one where the Polish workers moved to Limerick and undercut their Irish counterparts.
Central to the EU is the free movement of goods, services, labour and capital.
Indeed, I would say it is about the only worthwhile aspect of the whole doomed project.
But, of course, it brings to the fore the problem of cheap foreign labour whether it moves to where the work is or vice versa.
Former TUC general secretary John Monks was on the radio this morning advocating Europe-wide regulation of pay and conditions.
While that might sound attractive it smacks of a prices and incomes policy and brings back memories of the worker in the Soviet tractor factory who explained its low productivity to a western journalist with the words: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us".


House tax

 

The Cabinet papers have just arrived and I notice my Notice of Motion calling for the final decision on Section 106 agreements to be taken by full council rather than the Cabinet has met with the standard response: "That this notice of motion be not adopted (TTNOMBNA)".
I have already outlined my own objections to this scheme (A tax by any other name) (Double taxation) which would be a bad idea at the best of times but is sheer economic madness during a slump in house prices such as we are presently experiencing.
I should draw a distinction here between developments such as LNG and local house building projects.
The burden of a stealth tax on LNG plants will be shared between consumers of LNG in the form of higher prices and shareholders through lower profits and dividends.
As the vast majority of these will live outside Pembrokeshire there is a net gain to the county's economy.
But most of those moving into newly-built houses will be local, so taxing them is merely a taking money out of one pocket and putting it the other.
And, with house prices already down 15% and predicted to fall by the same again, there are no profits to be made from building new houses, even without an £11,000 surcharge.
The Conservative party has long inveighed against Mr Brown's stealth taxes, so it will be interesting to see which way the Tories (official and unofficial) in the Cabinet jump when it comes to the vote.
My confident prediction is that they will jump whichever way the officers tell them.

Hard copy - soft copy

Another Notice of Motion that looks set to bite the dust is that submitted by Cllr Sue Perkins which would allow members to forward notices of motion and questions by e-mail which comes up before Friday's Corporate Governance Committee (CGC) with the recommendation TTNOMBNA.
The reasoning behind the rejection of this NoM is wonderful to behold.
We are told that: ". . . submission of NoMs and Questions is a formal process under the Council Procedure Rules as enshrined in the Constitution and that for obvious procedural/legal reasons, it is necessary for such submissions to be properly verified; traditionally required as being by a clearly recognisable signature."
This conjours up the vision of lots of people out there who are looking for ways to slip bogus NoMs and questions into the council's agenda.
Surely, that would be easy enough to overcome by giving each member an individual PIN number to use in lieu of a signature.
Failing that, someone from the committee clerk's office could telephone the e-mailer to confirm that the e-mail was genuine.
After all, it is not as if there are hundreds of these things to check.
Interestingly, I submitted a similar NoM back in 2006 and, though it was rejected, a concession was made with regard to fax machines.
Perhaps a scan of the member's signature sent as an e-mail attachment would do the trick.
Can't see much difference between that and a fax.
Anyway, following its rejection by CGC, my 2006 NoM was debated by full council where the usually closed ranks of the IPG staged one of the biggest rebellions yet
If memory serves me right, on a recorded vote, five of them denied the party whips.
I am expecting even more this time.

Soft options

Much to my astonishment, the grandchildren went off to school this morning despite six inches of snow on the ground.
Pleased to see that 'elf and safety' hasn't taken over completely.
This rather spoiled my plans to tell them how hard it was in my day when my five-year-old brother and myself (7) fought our way through ten-foot drifts on our mile-long hike to school in the severe winter of 1947, when the snow lay on the ground for a full six weeks.
Mind you, I wouldn't want anybody to get the idea that they are as tough as we were because they had the benefit of shoes and socks, and they went by car.

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