23 July 2009

 

Sitting duck

When Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority meet next week, they are to decide if the taxpayer will stump up £40,000 to pay a councillor's legal bills
The agenda for next Wednesday's park committee is to consider a report of the monitoring officer on a claim for indemnity of legal costs and expenses.
As regular readers will know, this refers to Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse's bid to recoup the £40,000 he spent on legal fees defending himself against the Ombudsman's conclusion that, as the owner of land that could be affected by the "homes for locals" policy, he had breached the Code of Conduct by failing to declare an interest during a national park debate on the matter (Interesting times) (Strange developments).
The Adjudication Panel for Wales decided the Ombudsman's findings were without merit and cleared Cllr Allen-Mirehouse on all counts.
Thanks to "white-envelope man (WEM)" I was able to bring you up to speed with the issues involved (Open secret).
After all, if Cllr Allen-Mirehouse is successful it is you who will be paying.
That is because the National Park's insurance policy only covers requests for indemnity that are applied for and agreed before the expenditure is incurred.
This, of course, is a retrospective application so any payment will have to be met by the taxpayer.
That is why I believe these proceedings should be held in public.
I have a personal interest in this because I was the original complainant and my part came in for some scathing and, I would claim, unfair criticism both at the tribunal hearing and a subsequent Pembrokeshire County Council meeting (Simple explanation) and I suspect that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse will be using the same tactics at next Wednesday's meeting.
And, while he has every right to defend his reputation by whatever means he thinks fit, in these post-feudal times this is a right that applies to everyone.
Feeling uncomfortable in the role of sitting duck, I e-mailed the chairman of the national park, Richard Howells, requesting the right to reply to any allegations that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse might make about my conduct.
It seems to me that Natural Justice demands no less, though it seems Mr Howells doesn't agree because my e-mail is dated 26 June and he hasn't yet found the time to reply.
Assuming that I will not be given the opportunity to defend myself, could I ask members of the committee to bear in mind that it was the Ombudsman's allegations, not mine, that were the subject of the tribunal hearing?

Inequality of arms

One of the more bizarre features of Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's tribunal hearing was the fact that, other than presenting the report and explaining/clarifying any matters contained in it, the Ombudsman's barrister was not otherwise allowed to take part in the proceedings. ( Whitehall farce) (Two sides to every story).
So it is good to see that, following representations from the Ombudsman, the Welsh Assembly has "accepted that the current regulations place an unhelpful and uneccessary restriction on the role of the investigating officer at misconduct proceedings."
In future, among other things, the Ombudsman (and, presumably, his legal representative) will be able to:
Make submissions and produce evidence in support of the findings in the report,
Respond to submissions, or evidence produced by the member or their representative,
Question the member, their representative or any witness

In short, do all the things normally expected in any trial under the British legal system.
How the Welsh Assembly ever came to pass regulations preventing these things from happening is a mystery.
It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had these new regulations been in force at the time of Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's hearing.
As the Ombudsman's barrister, Mr Gwydion Hughes, told the tribunal, after Cllr Allen-Mirehouse applied to have his costs met by the Ombudsman, it was "iniquitous" that, thus far, he had not been allowed to participate in the process.
"Had I been allowed to do so, a host of questions would have been asked".
No doubt one, or more, of those questions would have been addressed to Mr Ifor Jones, PCNPA's head of conservation who was called as an expert witness and told the tribunal that Policy 47 (the "homes for locals" policy) would have had no effect on the value of development land in the national park.
If that was so, it is difficult to see how the object of the policy - to make homes more affordable for local people - was to be realised.
Before being silenced, Mr Gwydion Hughes managed to slip in evidence from the Lake District National Park that land values could be depressed by as much as 30% ( Whitehall farce).
He might also have wanted to question the assertion by Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's QC "that it had never been disputed that Councillor Allen-Mirehouse owned land that was capable of being developed when he participated in the relevant meetings of the National Park Authority".(Tribunal findings para 5.1.2) especially the apparent inconsistency with the fact that at the preliminary hearing Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's ownership of such land was one of the disputed facts (Tribunal findings para 2.4.2 (a)).
And you don't need to be Aristotle to work out that the QC's statement and that in the Ombudsman's report: "Councillor Allen-Mirehouse says that at February 2002 [when the meeting in question took place] he has no developable land "within the village" that did not already have planning permission." can't both be true.


Nice little sideline

A couple of weeks ago I drew attention to the number of Cabinet members now serving on the National Park Authority .
And I wondered out loud how these full-timers could find space in their diaries for these onerous extra duties (basic allowance £2,500 per annum) (Missing votes).
It seems I was not alone because in its latest report the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales raises exactly the same question.
"Given that there is general acceptance that the Leaders and cabinet members require full-time commitment", it says, "the Panel is of the view that where such special responsibility holders receive additional remuneration councils should give serious consideration whether this is appropriate and can be publicly justified."
Old Grumpy will be putting down a question about this at the next meeting of council.

Self-financing

Speaking of questions, at the last meeting of full council I failed to keep to Mark Twain's rule that you should never asking a question unless you already know the answer.
With Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's attempt to obtain indemnity for his legal expenses in mind, I began to wonder who else might have benefited from this scheme.
Naturally my thoughts turned to our old friend Cllr Brian Hall who was cleared of bringing the office of councillor into disrepute by the county council's standards committee and would therefore have qualified for reimbursement under the same regulations.
So I put down a question to last week's full council asking: "How many officers/members have been given indemnity for legal costs under the provisions of the Local Authorities (Indemnity for Members and Officers) (Wales) Order 2006 SI 249 (W37)?"
The answer: none.
I must admit that it came as something of a surprise to learn that the powers that be had let Cllr Hall shoulder the full burden which at a conservative estimate must have amounted to at least 10 grand.
Somebody must have been asleep on the job.
After all the council picked up the tab for Maurice Hughes legal fees back in 2004 - and that was before these new, more permissive, regulations came into force (Information blackout).


News-free zone

When the BBC put forward a proposal to use some of the license fee to set up a local Internet news service the local press was up in arms.
This unfair competition would, they complained, undermine their ability, nay duty, to hold local government to account by informing their readers about what was going on in the nation's county halls.
As I said at the time this was a bit of a sick joke as far as Pembrokeshire was concerned because all the Western Telegraph ever publishes are council adverts and press releases (propaganda?).
As if to prove the point, not a word about last week's county council meeting appeared in either the Telegraph or the Mercury, though I did see someone sitting in the press seats who bore a remarkable resemblance to one of the WT's reporters.
Nothing about the county council's bid to take over the National Park planning function.
No mention of the answer to Cllr Michael Williams' question about the Royal Gatehouse Hotel in Tenby which revealed that it had cost the county council £170,000 to demolish the building, of which it so far recovered £4,000 from the owners.
Not a word about the huge disparity in capital spending between Haverfordwest and the rest of the county's towns.
And definitely nothing about the Leader's reply to my question which told us that the council spent £205,000 on adverts with the WT's owners, Newsquest, in the financial year 2008-2009.

Painful memories

As 59-year-old Tom Watson stood over his putt just off the back of the 72nd green in last week's Open, Old Grumpy was thinking about rescuing the clubs from the garage in readiness for trip to the driving range.
All the five-times former champion needed to do was knurdle it down somewhere near the flag for a gimme par and the championship.
Three putts later and he was setting off down the 6th hole for a play off.
Two holes after that I remembered why I had given up this silly game.
I couldn't bear to watch the final two holes.
I can understand why players like Watson put themselves through this torture week after week because of the money, but every Sunday morning thousands of my fellow human beings go out and do this for FUN.
So much for the theory that our capacity for rational behaviour is what distinguishes us from the brutes.
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