October 22 2001
Last week, details of county councillors' travelling expenses and subsistence allowances, totalling £42,000, appeared in the local press.
Some members picked up sums of £4,000 to £5,000 while others collected just a couple of hundred, and a few did not claim at all.
In an attempt to deflect criticism from the handful of mega-claimants, a county council spokesman told the newspapers that their expenses were inflated because they travelled widely to represent the council on outside bodies.
How noble of them!
But this £42000 is only half the truth - which is about as good as it gets with the County Council.
In fact, the cost of transporting, feeding and accommodating councillors, in the manner to which they have become accustomed, is at least twice as great as that revealed by the figures released to the press.
That is because a large proportion of such spending is kept well away from the public gaze.
There are four main types of concealed expenditure.
Firstly, the cost of the "people-carrier" used to ferry the Chairman and other notables around the county, and beyond.
During the recent audit inspection, I asked the council to provide details of journeys made by the "people carrier" but they refused.
However, one can make an educated guess, and I would be surprised if the total cost of this enterprise was less than £30,000 a year, and would not be surprised if it was much as £50,000.
The second category of hidden spending is the large number of hotel rooms, train tickets, and ferry crossings which do not appear on the councillors' expense claims because they are booked and paid for directly by the council.
The council also refused to supply details of this expenditure but, based on what I have stumbled across, accidentally, after inspecting a very small proportion of the 200,000 invoices, I would guess this must come to another ten grand, at least.
Thirdly, there are the mountains of free grub consumed by our councillors, both in expensive restaurants and the even more expensive County Hall canteen - estimated at another £10,000.
And, lastly, there is a crafty little scam involving our trade links with Ireland.
This involves the Irish paying the bills when our lot go over there and us paying the bills when they come over here.
The result is that none of this Benfro-Irish expenditure is ever attributed to any individual councillor.
And, of course, the main beneficiaries of all this concealed spending are those leading councillors who, according to the figures released last week, already take the lion's share of the cake.
Over the coming weeks, it will be my pleasure bring you details of all the weird and wonderful ways that Councillors find to dispose of your money.
PS. I know lions don't eat cake.
During my trawl through the County Council's books I came across a claim submitted by Councillor John Davies in respect to an 18 mile return journey from Haverfordwest to Milford Haven on October 17th, 2000.
Alongside the claim he had written: " Councillors Luke, R Folland and a D G Thomas travelled with me ''.
You don't need me to tell you where I looked next!
And I wasn't disappointed.
There was Luke claiming mileage for the same journey - the only difference being that he couldn't resist the temptation to gild the lily by claiming 20 miles for the trip.
It brought to mind a description I once read of the typical small-time crook: " Not bright enough to earn an honest living. Not honest enough to go straight ".
Avoiding the issue
Last Thursday's meeting of the county council was a heady mixture of farce and pantomime.
Business proceeded smoothly enough until Labour's Terry Mills got up to ask some questions about the infamous Bluestone project.
For those of you not familiar with the layout of the council chamber, I should explain that from the public gallery, you can see only about one third of the members - all Independents.
The Labour members are somewhere underneath your feet, so all you can hear are disembodied voices rising up from the bowels of the chamber.
The upshot is that I couldn't hear everything Councillor Mills said, though, from what I could gather, he claimed to have acquired certain facts that contradicted the council's official version of the Bluestone story.
One thing I clearly heard him say was that the director of finance had refused to give him information about the amount of money the Heritage Lottery Fund were likely to cough up in respect of the project.
Whatever Councillor Mills said, he certainly stirred up a hornet's nest
The director of finance, Mark Lewis, was heard to say something about an attack on his integrity and chief executive, Bryn Parry-Jones, was quickly on his feet to offer his opinion that Councillor Mills' remarks were ''inappropriate''.
At that deputy leader John Allen-Mirehouse swung into action, proposing the motion: " That this County Council calls on Councillor Mills to withdraw the slur on the director of finance ''.
The motion was put to the vote and carried overwhelmingly.
When Councillor Mills refused to comply, Squirehouse reverted to his absurd posturing: demanding that he abide by a "this resolution of council'' and ''withdraw his slur unreservedly''.
This only goes to show what a poor understanding these people have of the democratic system under which they hold power.
The fact is that the council's standing orders do not allow motions such as that put by Councillor Allen-Mirehouse.
So the whole thing was a nullity.
Surprisingly, none of the highly paid officers, who are supposed to make sure the proceedings are conducted in accordance with the law and Standing Orders, saw fit to point out that this motion was ''inappropriate''.
Nor did any of them question the appropriateness of Councillor Brian Hall's unsubstantiated claim that a member of the Labour group had telephoned the Heritage Lottery Fund and urged them not to give the council any money - a slur if ever there was one.
Never mind, the brouhaha deflected attention from Councillor Mills' questions, which was the object of the exercise.
Government chief whip Hilary Armstrong is reported to have told dissenting Labour MP Paul Marsden that war is not a matter of conscience.
In a bad couple of weeks for the government we have had the Jo Moore affair; Lord Macdonald's attempt to tamper with Hansard; and Margaret Beckett's late-night release of an ambiguous press release about the bungled B S E tests.
People will eventually wake up to the fact that, despite Mr Blair's talents in the field of touchy-feely politics, there are no matters of conscience where New Labour is concerned: only the ruthless pursuit of power by any means.
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