Surreal experience attending a meeting of the battered and bruised Drainage Board.
They have been severely criticised by the auditors. I attended their meeting today as a member of the public. I had to pinch myself a couple of times to make sure I was not dreaming.
The meeting approved a budget that the General Manager (GM) said was based on 'guesswork.' He has been in place for a year. Surprising that progress has not been made beyond a few guesses on the back on an envelope. Even after the abject disgrace of being bamboozled for years by a previous GM, the members sweetly accepted the new GM's assurances without a peep of protest.
The key decision was whether to sue the previous GM for between £100,000 and £115,000 that he was probably overpaid. The maximum permitted salary for his job was £60,000 a year. He was eventually paid £83,000. He had been awarded, or awarded himself, an increase of 5% a year. Add to that his swelling pension pot and the amount overpaid is six figures. This is public money the board and its sub-committee allowed him to claim. That was a remakable lack of contrition from board members this afternoon, even though many of them were on the board at the time.
Predictably the meeting kicked the decison into touch until their next meeting and more solicitors advice is received. Some argued that pursuing recovery of the cash could cost more in legal fees and costs than the sum that might be retrieved. There is a much bigger issue.
If no attempt is made to sue, there is a clear message to others tempted to make unjustified claims on the public purse: 'HELP YOURSELF. THERE IS NOTHING TO FEAR AS RECOVERY IS TOO EXPENSIVE.'
I doubt whether the auditors would agree.
Today I also had an exchange of e-mails with the GM. The figure he gave me for the Newport contribution to the board's coffers was different from the one provided by the auditors.
I wrote finally:
The board congratulated themselves on avoiding a sea flood for 400 years. There has been some over-topping of the sea-wall in 1987 in my constituency. They are tempting fate as a high tide and a storm may coincide over the weekend.
My column in tonight's Argus.
I don’t say this very often.
Congratulations to the Tory councillors who blew the whistle on the abuses of the drainage body. It took courage and persistence to reveal the murky facts.
The auditor’s excoriating conclusion is that the quango ‘lost sight of the fact that it was a public body. It failed to remember that it did not exist for its own sake but to serve those who work and live on the Gwent levels.’
Council tax payers were overcharged. Landowners were undercharged. Many board members are landowners. Board members disregarded the Nolan principles by failing to declare financial and other interests. The board was run as a private fiefdom.
The levels are the precious fens of Wales. They were not in safe hands. Ancient ‘ridge and furrow’ fields have been buried. Reens have been polluted by the watchdog against pollution. A unique environment was put at risk for commercial gain.
Apart from whistle blowers, all board members must be sacked. They presided over gross abuses. All monies claimed unlawfully must be repaid. The Crown Prosecution Service should review its options.
This is a first step. I will be seeking a parliamentary debate and a probe by the Commons Public Administration Committee.
Well done Gwent Victim Support. Their hustings for the Police Commissioners Election was an eye-opener.
The 23 year wait for the truth on Hillsborough convinced me that we need a strong Commissioner outside of the police community. Gwent has been well served by its police force. But all bodies tend to close ranks in crises. There is no need for a second chief constable. That’s a recipe for division. But we do need a powerful advocate for victims at the heart of policy making.
My crime was being caught in possession of the truth.
The ‘Lie’ I nailed is a deadly one that has sent our brave soldiers to Afghanistan. No British soldier’s life should be put in peril unless there is a threat to the people of our country. We have lost 433 soldiers. 2,000 others have returned broken in body and mind.
In March I petitioned to bring our troops home. 25 have been killed since then. By 2015 it could be another 100. Canadian and Dutch troops withdrew with their heads held high.
Come to my public meeting on Friday 19th October at 7.30 at the Newport Civic Centre.
What should we do now?