October 4 2012

Power grab

Last week, I revealed how we unaffiliated independents had been counted towards the Independent Political Group's allocation of seats on the Dyfed Powys Police and Crime Panel (PCP) which has been set up to scrutinise the activities of the soon-to-be elected Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC)(Useful idiots).
This has upset some dictionary independents, including Old Grumpy, who consider any suggestion of association with the anti-democratic, oxymoronic IPG as actionable.
The upshot is that the Dyfed Powys Independent Political Groups have been allocated six of the twelve seats on the PCP whereas, without the inclusion of the unaffiliated independents among their number, they would only be entitled to five.
With half the seats on the PCP they can install their own chairperson and, as the chair has a casting vote, rule with a 7-6 majority.
I object most strongly to my "vote" being used to support the IPG.
This is especially so because I have always made absolutely clear in my election addresses my outright opposition to this post-election power-grab.
I am firmly of the view that a party that isn't prepared to campaign openly at elections has no democratic legitimacy whatsoever.
And the people who voted for me on that basis have every right to have their wishes respected.

Fairy stories

The hero of George Orwell's 1984, Winston Smith, was employed in the Ministry of Truth, where his job was to revise newspaper articles and doctor photographs so that the historical record matched the ever-changing party line.
That is how "rewriting history" got a bad name.
However, rewriting history to reflect newly discovered evidence is a perfectly respectable activity which serious historians do as routine.
Part of that exercise involves pointing out instances where the official party line doesn't mesh with the evidence.
So let us return to 2008 and Labour councillor Ken Rowlands's defection to the Independent Political Group upon which he was promptly elevated to Cabinet rank (Special Responsibility Allowance circa £15,000 pa).
The story as it was told at the time was that Cllr Rowlands was upset with Labour because the party's government in Cardiff had broken its promises over the funding of improvements to the Bulford Road.
And, although he had been adopted as a Labour candidate for the 2008 election, he decided to stand as an independent.
Unfortunately, he neglected to tell the Labour party which was, therefore, unable to field an alternative candidate.
According to the official line, Cllr Rowlands had only decided to join the IPG after the election and his decision had nothing whatsoever to do with his being offered a Cabinet post.
As he told one of his former supporters, who was upset by this turn of events: "When I mentioned to you that I would be standing independently from the Labour Party before the election I made it clear that I was standing as myself in protest to the decision made by the Assembly Government over the road."
However computer records provided by my super-mole show that this story about Cllr Rowlands "standing as myself" simply doesn't hold water.
One of the files named Vote Rowlands.doc is one of those cards which candidates shove through your letter box late in the campaign encouraging you to turn out and vote for them.
Clicking on "properties" reveals that this file was created on 17 April 2008 - two weeks before the election on May 1.
The author of the file is David Wildman, a leading member of the IPG, and it was last saved on 18/4/2008 by lewisrob who is, I believe, Cllr Rob Lewis; the man chosen to mastermind the IPG's election strategy.
Alongside "company" are the letters PCC which further interrogation reveals is "The name of the company or publisher where the item originated".
Now, it is possible that Cllrs Wildman and Lewis were sitting in the Cabinet room producing election material on Cllr Rowlands' behalf without his knowledge.
However, there were two other Labour councillors who jumped ship at the same time as Cllr Rowlands: Cllrs Umelda Havard and Lyndon Frayling.
Interestingly, their election material also features in the computer records released to me.
There is Frayling1.doc and Frayling2.doc which are the front and back pages of Cllr Frayling's election address.
Under "properties" you find:
Author: David Wildman.
Date created: 7/4/2008.
Company. PCC.
And Vote Frayling.doc which has exactly the same template as Vote Rowlands.doc (see above)
Author: David Wildman.
Date created: 17/4/2008
Company: PCC.
Then there are Umelda1.doc and Umelda2.doc - containing the two-page election address put out by Cllr Umelda Havard - which are identical to the Frayling files except that lewisrob is the author, and Vote Umelda.doc which is identical in all respects.
Cllr Sue Perkins, Leader of the Labour group at the time, had a theory that Cllr Rowlands was the ringleader in this triple defection and that his Cabinet post was reward for persuading the other two to jump ship.
This was roundly denied at the time, though, as Bulford Road doesn't pass anywhere near Merlins Bridge or Garth ward Haverfordwest, it is difficult to know what grievance prompted them to abandon Labour.
However, apart from the authorship, timing and origin of these documents being identical, they do not conclusively link Cllr Rowlands to the decisions of Cllrs Frayling and Havard to change sides.
That is until you inspect the documents themselves where you find at they are all imprinted with the words "Promoted by Nalda Rowlands, Woodlands, Church Road, Johnston, SA62 3HE", which as the more alert among you will already have deduced is also the address of Cllr Ken Rowlands.
The date: 7/4/2008, when the election addresses of Cllrs Havard and Frayling were created on the computer, is interesting because that is around about the date when nominations were published.
As all the text and photos had to be assembled before these documents could be created, it would indicate that Cllrs Frayling and Havard had decided to throw in their lot with the IPG at a very early stage in the election process, and, as Cllr Rowlands' wife is named as their agent in these documents, she must have been aware of their decision.
Of course, it is always possible that Cllrs Wildman and Lewis were producing election material on his behalf without his knowledge; and that, unbeknown to him, his wife was acting as election agent for Cllrs Frayling and Havard; and that the moon landing was all faked up in a Hollywood studio; and that there are fairies at the bottom of your garden; etc, etc, ad infinitum.

Secret service

One of the advantages of being governed from Cardiff rather than London is that national politicians can keep a closer eye on what goes on in local authorities in Wales.
After all, more than 80% of the money spent by local authorities comes directly from central government, so MPs and AMs have a duty to ensure that councils are behaving themselves.
It seems that Tory shadow minister for local government Janet Finch-Saunders takes this role seriously because she has produced a list of figures showing the frequency with which the Cabinets of the 22 Welsh local authorities go into secret session.
What is striking is the wide variation between councils with Conwy (84%) Newport (83%) Swansea (82%) and Wrexham (80%) leading the way, while Torfaen (10%) Monmouthshire (19%) and Gwynedd ((21%) bring up the rear.
Pembrokeshire (44%) is well below mid-table.
This is a subject in which I have a long-time interest and I should say that, while Janet Finch-Saunders efforts to shine a light into this dark corner are entirely commendable, the raw figures don't paint a true picture.
The legislation on this matter is contained in section 100 of the Local Government Act
The act specifies two types of information - confidential and exempt.
Confidential information is information provided by a government department under conditions of confidentiality which MUST be discussed in private session.
With respect to exempt information; the categories of which are described in schedule 12A of the act and include information relating to employees, those in receipt of council services, legal advice, negotiating positions, etc, the legislation provides that the committee/Cabinet MAY by resolution exclude the public.
Firstly, even the most enthusiastic proponent of open government has to concede that there are certain matters which are almost always better discussed in private.
Nobody would argue that a council should expose its negotiating position to the other party, or the advice it has received in respect of a legal dispute.
So without knowing the nature of the business it is not possible to say whether councils such as Conwy are abusing the legislation.
It may be that they were discussing confidential information, in which case they had no choice, or it could be they were discussing exempt information of a type that any sensible person would accept should be considered in private.
The devil, as they say, is in the detail.
Clearly, the provision that councils MAY vote to exclude the public implies that they also have the discretion to allow the public to remain.
I am hard pressed to recall a single occasion when a PCC committee has voted in favour of openness.
Back in 2007, the Welsh Assembly tweaked the rules so that, whenever the public are excluded because exempt information is on the agenda, the "proper officer" must certify that he/she considers "that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information".
This attempt by the Welsh Government to encourage greater openness has made not a blind bit of difference and excluding the public remains the default setting..
As I said above, there are clearly occasions when the public interest is best served by keeping the information under wraps.
However, there have been a number of occasions recently when the Cabinet has discussed applications for European grants on properties in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock.
At its September the Cabinet, meeting behind closed doors, awarded grants totalling £330,000 on seven properties.
That much can be gleaned from the published minutes, though who is to receive the grants and, on which properties, is not something that the taxpayers who provide the money are allowed to know.

Reality check

Following the London Olympics, much has been written about Britain's great sporting summer.
I hate to be a killjoy, but what's great about our recent record in the sports that really matter.
Take rugby, where the four home nations - if the Irish will forgive me - went to the southern hemisphere to play and out of twelve matches came back with a single win (Scotland of all people) and a draw (at least England weren't whitewashed).
In cricket we lost our place at the top of the test rankings and were eliminated in the group stages of the Twenty20 world championships.
Even in the less important sports like soccer, our record in the World Cup qualifiers is anything but inspiring.
Out of eight matches we managed just one win (England v Ruritania?) and we won't dwell on Wales' trip to Serbia.
As for the Olympics, much of our success was in those sports performed from a sedentary position: horses, bikes and rowing.
What does it say about a Nation when its youth excels at rowing which involves both sitting down and going backwards.
Of course, we mustn't overlook Andy Murray's triumph in the US tennis championships - the first win by a Brit since Fred Perry in 1936.
Not wishing to be a Jeremiah, but I would remind you that, just three years after Perry's last championship win, war broke out.
It's being so cheerful that keeps me going, as Mona Lott used to say

Man of honour

One of my political heroes is Richard Cobden who, along with John Bright and what were known as the Manchester Liberals, led the campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws that led to a split in the Tory party between the land owning classes and the meritocrats that still has echoes to this day.
Cobden had a long and distinguished career as a Parliamentarian, but never held high office.
This is Wikipedia's account of the occasion when Lord Palmerston offered him a Cabinet post.
"In a frank, cordial letter which was delivered to Cobden on his landing in Liverpool, Lord Palmerston offered him the role of President of the Board of Trade, with a seat in the Cabinet. Many of his friends urgently pressed him to accept but without a moment's hesitation he determined to decline the proposed honour. On his arrival in London he called on Lord Palmerston, and with the utmost frankness told him that he had opposed and denounced him so frequently in public, and that he still differed so widely from his views, especially on questions of foreign policy, that he could not, without doing violence to his own sense of duty and consistency, serve under him as minister."

I wonder what Cobden would make of the post-election, political machinations in Pembrokeshire County Council.

In case you missed it there is an update on the Ombudsman's guidance on councillors rights to free speech at stop press


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