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Saturday, September 25, 2004

Corporate hospitality merry-go-round

A recent e-mail conversation has caused me to reflect a bit more deeply than I might otherwise on the issue of corporate hospitality. All Assembly Members are used to receiving invitations from major corporate bodies seeking the pleasure of our company at some sporting or artistic event. In the early years I was known to accept one or two of these partly because I did not know any better, partly for the novelty value but also because it is accepted that this is the way that politicians interact with businesses, listen to their opinions and feed back advice and views.

I have now made it a general policy to decline such invitations. I am sure that there may be occasions when I will make an exception to that rule but so far I have not come across such circumstances. I have come to the opinion that in many instances the company or body dishing out the largesse do so because they believe that they can influence the politicians concerned. I do not believe that there is anything ethical in that process. If somebody wants to pitch a point of view to me then they should come to my office in working hours.

One of the most prodigious purveyors of corporate hospitality is BT. This is largely because they own or have a substantial mortgage on the Millennium Stadium so they have more opportunities than most. They have always been very keen to cultivate elected politicians, briefing us on broadband initiatives and other matters of general policy where they have commercial interests. In return they have found that the Assembly has been a good body to do business with, though I hasten to add that this has nothing to do with their hospitality.

As BT is a body that places so much store in its relationship with elected politicians I rather foolishly expect a higher standard of service from them when I am taking up an issue on behalf of my constituents. I was astonished therefore that when they decided to remove 42 public payphone boxes from the streets of Swansea that they failed to notify the elected politicians of the details of their decision. Instead they wrote to local councils and left it to these bodies to consult with their Councillors, AMs and MPs. This has left us in a difficult situation as by the time we got the details half of the time alloted for consultation had passed. This meant that any consultation which we might wish to carry out with affected communities has also been curtailed.

I met the man in charge of BT's payphones in the Assembly on Thursday. They supplied lunch though I was unaware of this until I got into the room. I made my displeasure at being left out of the loop very clear and later that day received all the details of proposed closures across my region by e-mail. Useful as this is, as I only have a week in which to respond there is not a great deal I can do with the information at this stage.

In my other role as a local Councillor I had already obtained the information on the four phone boxes that are to be removed in my ward and lodged an objection with the Council and with BT. Today I received an e-mail from BT telling me that my views are irrelevant. They do not want any direct representations from any elected official or individual member of the community. Instead we must pass our views onto the local council who are expected to collate them and then come to their own view on which ones to pass onto BT. This is astonishing. I have dealt with a number of public bodies over the years and I have always been dealt with courteously. I have never encountered such arrogant disregard for the democratic process. The question has to be asked therefore, as BT spends so much on wining and dining politicians does that mean that they believe that they have a right to treat us with contempt? Is that what they think they are getting for their money?

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