March 1 2012
Last Thursday's Pembrokeshire County Council meeting was lively affair.
One item item on the agenda was Cllr Michael Williams' proposal that cabinet members, who are already paid some £28,000 a year by the county council, shouldn't be allowed to receive allowances from other outside bodies.
The Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales has already decreed that they should be barred from receiving payments from the National Park Authority and the Fire Authority but Cllr Williams wanted the restriction extended to the Police Authority and Hywel Dda Health authority.
The allowances from these two bodies are not chickenfeed. PCC's two representatives on the police authority ( Leader, Cllr John Davies and David Neale) get £8,500 a year with an extra £4,500 for Cllr Davies as chairman of the finance and general purposes committee + travelling time based on £15 an hour AND mileage allowance of 45p per mile, while Cllr Wildman trousers £10-15,000 a year as local authority representative on Hywel Dda Health Board.
Indeed David Edwards, who takes a close interest in these matters, tells me he calculates that Cllr Davies picks up approximately £60,000 a year from his various political activities.
Sure beats milking cows! (No udder conclusion)
As a Cabinet member's Special Responsibility Allowances is based on working full time, so it is something of a mystery when they find time to sleep.
As Cllr Williams observed, with reference to the recent reports on the serious failings in the council's child protection procedures, Cabinet members like Cllrs Davies and Wildman would be better concentrating on their day jobs rather than "moonlighting" on these outside bodies.
Deputy leader Cllr Jamie Adams said something about working an 85 hour week and calculated that on the basis of a 40 hour week they were being paid £15 an hour. When this line of argument failed to make an impression he decided to play rough by claiming that: "Cllr Williams' notice of motion seems to be motivated by jealousy and not out of concern for the public purse."
Labour leader, Cllr Sue Perkins, said that Cllr Adams' imputation of base motives to Cllr Williams was "disgraceful" and that he should apologise and withdraw his remarks.
Cllr Tony Brinsden (Independent independent) remarked that if there was any substance in the rumour that Cllr Adams was to become Leader of the Independent Political Group following the election then "Heaven help Pembrokeshire".
I tried to introduce a bit of levity into the proceedings by asking if all this extra-curricular activity might contravene the European Working Time Directive. And I suggested it was not jealousy that motivated opposition members but concern that Cabinet members were risking "burnout".
And where would we all be then?
One rule for them . . .
During my period of enforced silence, there have been many interesting developments.
One story that caught my eye was the hefty penalty (£4,000+) handed down to a south county business for breaches of health and safety rules.
To the best of my recollection, this involved a faulty electric plug and an unsafe access to a roof.
While all right thinking people favour safety in the workplace, four grand seems a bit steep especially compared to the ludicrously small fines handed down to burglars and other members of the criminal classes.
The report in the newspaper concluded with quote from Cllr Ken Rowlands; Cabinet member for the environment, to the effect that the council was determined to stamp out this sort of thing.
It struck me as rather strange that Cllr Rowlands - a member of the Cabinet that had overseen the serial failures in the council's child protection procedures - should be taking this holier than thou attitude.
However, I concluded that it would be a bit unfair to hold him responsible for deficiencies in someone else's department.
But, it seems, I was being too generous.
In the wake of the child protection fiasco the Leader removed half of the responsibilities of the Cabinet member for children, young persons and the Welsh language, Cllr Huw George, and handed them to new Cabinet member Cllr Anne Hughes.
That prompted Cllr Michael Williams to put down a written question asking whether the Special Responsibility Allowance paid to the Cabinet Member for Education and the Welsh Language (Cllr Huw George) been adjusted to reflect his reduced level of responsibility, bearing in mind that he is no longer responsible for Children and Young People?
The minutes record that: the Leader stated that the Special Responsibility Allowance in respect of the Cabinet Member referred to in the question had not been reduced.
He pointed out that Executive functions were not discharged by individual Cabinet Members. The Cabinet took collective responsibility for such functions.
It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that there was no direct link between the scope of an individuals portfolio and their level of remuneration. No single portfolio was more or less important than the others. It should be recalled that he had taken a decision to reduce the number of Cabinet Members in the previous year and reallocated the portfolio responsibilities, and in these cases, on the same principle, there had been no consequent increase in remuneration for the remaining Cabinet Members.
So, if the Cabinet took "collective responsibility" Cllr Rowland was as much to blame as the rest of the gang.
But blame is perhaps too strong a word because nobody has been fined and nobody has been sacked.
As for the final sentence of the Leader's answer, it will be remembered that he reduced the number of Cabinet posts from ten to eight in order to save money. So, any "consequent increase in the remuneration for the remaining Cabinet members" to reflect the fact that the eight were now doing the work of ten would have rather defeated the object.
Of course, he could have had the penny and the bun by reducing the allowances of the eight by an amount sufficient to pay Cllr Hughes' SRA.
Wonder why he didn't think of that?
Old Grumpy has been taking a keen interest in the "slave labour" controversy.
As someone who has, over the years, employed hundreds of people in Pembrokeshire, my advice to any young person eager to get a job is to take any opportunity for work experience, paid or unpaid, that comes along.
My own experience in this might be instructive.
In 1964, we were living in Stoke on Trent when I lost my job and had to make a visit to what was then known as the labour exchange.
All they could offer me was a job as a hod carrier, but with a wife and young family to support I decided that was preferable to the dole.
The job was with a pair of piecework brickies and my task was to see that they were always well supplied with bricks and mortar.
That was fine when we were on the ground floor but once the scaffolding went up it was a different proposition.
It was a hot summer and after about six weeks mixing compo and climbing the ladder with hodsful of bricks, I spotted an advert in the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel for building site foreman with a firm called Axon and Brown.
With about a year's experience as an assistant site foremen, I applied.
I thought it best not to mention the hod carrying so there was an unexplained gap in my CV.
The contract was to build three blocks of two-storey flats in Stafford - way bigger than anything I'd tackled before.
The interview went well enough but I could sense that Mr Percy Axon had serious misgivings about my lack of experience in contracts of this size.
He had noticed the gap in my CV . "Not working at the moment, then?"
I knew by his tone that Mr Axon didn't approve of people not working so I blurted out: "I'm hod carrying for gang of subcontract brickies on a site in Longton".
That afternoon I had a phone call from Percy asking if I could start a week on Monday.
Though he never said so, I am convinced that what persuaded him to offer me the job was that I had been prepared to get off my backside and take whatever work was available.
And , as an added bonus, when I turned up for rugby training in mid-August I was the fittest I had ever been.
This week I had intended to discuss the Ombudsman's report on my complaint that Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse breached the Code of Conduct by failing to declare an interest and took part in a meeting of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (PCNPA) where the authority considered his claim for the reimbursement of some £40,000 in legal expenses incurred defending himself against a previous Ombudsman's finding that he had breached the Code.
Unfortunately, compressing all the information into a digestible form has proved impossible in the time available, so it will have to wait for next week (hopefully).
In the meantime, I provide a brief outline of the case.
The meeting took place in June 2009.
I was present, during the first part of the proceedings when members debated a proposal that they should go into private session.
Cllr Michael Williams proposed that the issue should be discussed in open session and called for a recorded vote.
Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was present and the authority's solicitor David Prescott suggested that, "for his own protection", Cllr Allen-Mirehouse should consider whether he had a "prejudicial interest".
The monitoring officer, John Parsons, intervened to say: "It is clear that the member has a prejudicial interest".
To which Cllr Michael Williams added that the Code of Conduct required any member with a prejudicial interest to withdraw from the meeting.
Mr Parsons explained that the reason members were required to withdraw in these circumstances was the perception that their presence might influence the way other members voted.
But despite the advice of the monitoring officer that he was risking a "red card" and that "this is a 'show and go' situation - clear as that", Cllr Allen-Mirehouse chose to stay.
In the event, members voted overwhelmingly to exclude the public and the press and I left.
That evening, on the basis of notes I had made, I wrote an account of what I had witnessed and posted it on my website the following day (Interesting times).
It was not until the minutes were published in September 2009 that I became aware of what happened after the public had been thrown out.
The minutes record: The words in square brackets have been added for clarity.
Claim for indemnity of legal costs and expenses
The Member concerned [Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse] requested that consideration of the above-mentioned matter be deferred. In support of this request, they [he] stated that they were [he was] unhappy with the way in which the Monitoring Officer's report was presented to Members. They [He] acknowledged that the facts of the report were correct, but considered that the Monitoring Officer had placed the wrong inclination on them. The Member also asked that their [his] Solicitor be allowed to represent them [him] in this matter.
The Monitoring Officer reminded the Member that he had already given them [him] the opportunity to make their [his] representations. He agreed that the matter was one of considerable complexity, and that the Member had been the innocent party in this case, nevertheless it had to be pointed out that the Authority had played no part in the matter either. The Monitoring Officer went on to say that, as the Member should disclose a pecuniary interest in the matter and consequently withdraw from the meeting, it therefore followed that their [his] Solicitor could not be present.
The Member then asked whether the matter could be deferred in order that a meeting could be arranged with the Monitoring Officer to discuss the report, and that the report be considered at the next meeting of the Authority. The Member then withdrew from the meeting.
It occurred to me that if the debate on excluding the public was a "show and go" situation and Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was risking a "red card" by remaining in the meeting, then being present and taking part in the debate on his request for a discretionary payment of £40,000 must be doubly so.
I complained to the Ombudsman who found that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had breached the Code by failing to withdraw from both the debate on excluding the public and the substantive issue of the payment of £40,000.
However there are some glaring inconsistencies between what I wrote, contemporaneously, and the recollections of National Park officers who gave statements to the Ombudsman some months after the event.
The four National Park officers interviewed by the Ombudsman
gave widely differing accounts of what went on but, although my complaint stated that I was present during the debate on excluding the public, the Ombudsman didn't think to interview me in attempt to resolve these inconsistencies.
The Ombudsman decided that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's breaches of the code warranted no further action as: "In these circumstances I do not believe that the Standards Committee or Adjudication panel would impose a sanction on Cllr Allen-Mirehouse."
"In these circumstances" involves giving credence to versions of events that differ markedly from what I witnessed and reported on the same day.
And you might wonder, what might persuade a standards committee/adjudication panel to impose a sanction if trying to influence your fellow members to pay you £40,000 out of the public purse, doesn't fit the bill?
Living in hope
I suppose I will accused being a bad loser if I fail to mention last Saturday's events.
Defeat was particularly difficult pill to swallow because halfway through the second half I was seriously entertaining the idea that England might pull off an improbable victory.
Alas it was not to be.
All I will say is that it was a terrific game and tries count.
Hopefully, next year - it's always sweeter to slay the dragon in its own lair.
Even sweeter when they have won the Grand Slam the previous season.
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