March 2008 Archives
New contracts of emoloyment imposing the resuts of a pay and grading review on 40,000 Birmingham City Council employees came into force today, and it's all getting very interesting.
With union threats of more industrial action in the run-up to the May council elections ringing around his head, is Coun Rudge about to opt for the nuclear option?
Asked to respond earlier today to an announcement by UNISON vice-chairman David Hughes that strikes were highly likely over the next few weeks, Coun Rudge warned the unions might find themselves on dodgy legal ground if they ordered members to walk out without staging a new ballot.
The sticking point under employment law appears to be whether a fundamentally revised offer to ameliorate the pay dispute has been put by the council. Rudge says it has. Union leaders say the offer is not worth putting to a ballot.
When is an election campaign not an election campaign?
The answer - when civil servants are called in to help.
The Prime Minister and Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, have been in Coventry this morning, launching Labour's local election campaign in the West Midlands.
They visit was organised by the Labour Party, and focused on plans to improve neighbourhood policing.
Meanwhile, Home Office Ministers have been out and about in a series of regional events.
Liam Byrne (Lab Hodge Hill) met police in Birmingham while Lord West was in Cambridge, Tony McNulty was in Watford, Meg Hillier was in Merseyside and Vernon Coaker was in Nottingham.
Once again, the visits were promoting plans to improve regional policing.
But instead of Labour Party officials doing the organising, these visits were arranged by civil servants.
The difference was that they were billed as Home Office events, and nothing to do with the election launch at all. Just a coincidence, presumably.
That's what it feels like I've been doing lately as I've juggled work with my marathon training, not to mention everything else. And as a result this blog has barely got off the ground, but really you haven't missed much!
I just wanted to comment on a couple of issues that have caught my eye in recent weeks, firstly the scare-mongering edict from NICE over whether expectant ladies should ever expect a drink! Obviously anyone with half a braincell is not going to get paralytic during pregnancy, but one of the most bizarre arguments put forward (I think it was on BBC Breakfast) was that "What if a woman had got drunk unaware of 'her condition'!"
While I imagine a fair number of conceptions are aided and abetted by one or two glasses of wine or the odd G&T, any woman actively trying to get pregnant will be aware of the risks anyway.
But on the otherhand Britain is the teen pregnancy capital of Europe, and I don't doubt that is as much down to drink as it is to ignorance and not practising safe sex.
But for decades women have enjoyed the occasional sherry or sip of champagne at family parties without being told "ooh be careful of baby". Obviously I'm not suggesting that NICE's decision is wrong, it's good to get some clarity, but it doesn't seem that long ago we were all being told that one unit (a week? not sure?) was fine.
Again would a woman drink every night, knowing she was having a baby?
Then there's that bloke who used to be a woman but didn't have her/his (?) reproductive organs removed who is, if the pix in Daily Mail are to be believed (and I'm not so sure) is pregnant by his/her lesbian partner.
What rules does he/she have to adhere to? It's all very confusing...
Saloon bars across the West Midlands will be full of old buffers spluttering into their pink gins upon hearing that more than 60 council officials are now paid over ÃÂ£100,000 a year.
Generous holidays, long lunch breaks, gold-plated pensions, stroll into the office when you feel like it and go home early - that's the public perception of what the TaxPayers' Alliance calls fat cat town hall bosses.
And the TPA's research, based on Freedom of information Act questions to every council in the country, will sadly provide plenty of ammunition to reinforce the stereotypical view of council "pen-pushers".
Pay scales in the shire counties, which most people wrongly assume to be the poor relations of local government, are likely to cause most comment. Jim Graham, the chief executive at Warwickshire County Council, for example, earned ÃÂ£162,000 in 2006-07, while Staffordshire's Nigel Pursey was paid ÃÂ£176,000.
It's clear that elections are looming, as the parties are pulling out the stops to get their messages across.
Labour are distributing a press statement boasting about councils imposing the lowest council tax increases for 14 years, complete with figures which apparently show Labour councils charge less tax.
Their press release even claims that half of all councils have introduced council tax increases below the retail price index - which is running at 4.1 per cent.
This is unusual, because the Government usually prefers to focus on a different measure of inflation, the consumer price index, which is much lower at just 2.5 per cent.
However, Labour concede that 85 per cent of authorities are imposing above-inflation tax hikes if this measure of inflation is used.
Next Monday, March 31, is D-Day for Birmingham City Council's pay and grading review.
It's when new single status contracts come into force for about 40,000 employees, rewarding almost half of them with wage rises while some 12 per cent will suffer pay cuts.
Implementation of the new system has already been put off several times, negotiations between unions and management have all but fizzled out, and a one-day strike at the beginning of February attracted patchy support.
So, Monday is the day. Or, is it?
There is still a question over whether Alan Rudge, the Tory cabinet member for equalities and human resources, has the bottle to impose the new contracts before reaching a settlement with the unions.
Even given the long and tortured history of political shenanigans in Aston, the latest turn of events takes some explaining. There must be something in the water calculated to ignite trouble in the weeks leading up to city council elections.
Six years ago, the then Labour candidate Saeed Aehmed was sacked hours before nominations closed after failing to give party officials satisfactory answers about allegations of benefit fraud. Aehmed defected to the Liberal Demcorats and that set off a chain of events culminating in the infamous "banana republic" election court hearing of 2005, which destroyed Labour's reputation, and the 2007 election petition, judgement of which will be released next week.
There was perhaps a certain inevitability that attempts would be made to wreck Labour's selection process for this year's council elections on May 1. So, right on cue, serious allegations were filed against Amjad Hussain, the front runner to get the Labour nomination in Aston.
A bit of a set-back today for Birmingham City Council's ambitious chief legal officer Mirza Ahmad, who found himself accused of straying into political matters.
Mirza was well and truly ticked off at a meeting of the Business Management Committee after it emerged he wrote to the Government giving the council's response to plans to beef up the scrutiny process.
A Government suggestion to introduce something described as a Call for Action, allowing councillors to order scrutiny inquiries into matters of great local imortance if they thought local authorities or other public bodies, including the police and health trusts, were not doing their job correctly, was treated with some disdain by Mirza.
There was nothing much in the proposal and, in any case, the council's existing constitution and scrutiny procedures provided the necessary "safety valve" allowing backbench councillors to call the executive into question, he reasoned.
I spent most of last Friday at a meeting of Birmingham City Council's Standards Committee, called to decide whether two councillors behaved inappropriately when making a film of the former Moseley tram depot offices which they alleged were falling to bits and in a dangerous condition.
No, really, it's not April 1.
The Moseley Two - Liberal Democrats Martin Mullaney and Ernie Henricks - were fed up after being given the run-around by the council's planning department, which the committee heard spent two years ignoring their concerns about the alleged dangerous state of the listed building.
So, armed with a deadly weapon, a camcorder, they entered the premises where they captured shots of demolished walls, broken pipes and water in the basement. The film was posted with a commentary on YouTube "for all the world to see", in the somewhat dramatic words of the council's chief legal officer Mirza Ahmed.
These are nervous days for Alan Rudge, Birminmgham City Council's human resources cabinet member, and his Tory-Lib Dem coalition colleagues.
Having painstakingly stitched together a peace deal in an attempt to avert continuing industrial action over the pay and grading review, which will see more than 4,000 council employees suffer wage cuts, Rudge is now in the hands of union members.
The first signs are not encouraging. It is reported that six mass meetings of council staff yesterday overwhelmingly rejected Rudge's proposals.
The votes will have been a disappointment to union leaders who believe privately it is unlikely the latest offer can be significantly improved upon, although they took the precaution of putting the proposed deal to the 20,000-strong union membership without recommendations to accept or reject.
The story of West Bromwich East MP and e-government minister Tom Watson and his family's work in politics - netting them a total of ÃÂ£300,000 a year between them - appeared in the Birmingham Post's sister paper the Sunday Mercury a week or so ago.
It flew under the radar a bit. Until, that is, it was picked up by blogger and scourge of politicians Guido Fawkes, who claimed the story as a 'Sunday Sleaze Special' and described the Watson family as setting a record 'for snouts in the trough'
It has been revealed that the costs of operations by British Armed forces in Afghanistan have risen to more than ÃÂ£1.6bn, a year-on-year increase of 122%. More surprisingly, given a reduction in troop numbers in Iraq, the cost of Britain's military presence there has also increased to some ÃÂ£1.6bn. This costing revealed by the Commons Defence Committee comes not long after the newspapers celebrated the heroics of Prince Harry Wales of England's during his short stint of military service on the frontline in Afghanistan. While perhaps we should rightly be concerned about the financial cost of the war, and the individual sacrifice of our royal. But should we not consider the real cost to Britain, the hidden casualties?
There is the cost of the service personnel whose lives lost should not be forgotten. However, they do get some recognition (never enough, but can there be enough?). Other forces personnel though receive scant attention. There will be a cost though for many forces personnel that many people ignorant of. Serious and debilitating injury is one, and the compensation those seriously injured receive might need serious redress. But the cost is deeper still. Some might expect me now to talk of the innocents and civillians who lose their lives in war zones. While also worthy of attention, that is not the focus of this piece.
Many people ask how it is that Sir Albert Bore has managed to survive almost nine years as leader of Birmingham City Council's Labour group.
The answer lies in the sheer effrontery of the man.
It was obvious that Albert, ousted as council leader in 2004 by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, would have to find something disparaging to say about the local authority's latest performance figures, showing that three-quarters of Government efficiency targets are being met or bettered.
A far cry from the days when Albert ran the show and the city's social services and housing departments were so poor that they came within a whisker of being taken over by Whitehall.
Do we have a fair education system? Common sense says the answer has to be no. On the most basic level, we have fee-paying and non fee-paying schools. And despite the billions spent by the Government to narrow the gap between the two, independent schools - by virtue of charging parents - are able to separate themselves off from many of the ills of society that are associated with poverty.
In a city like Birmingham where grammar schools still exist, there is arguably a third tier of inequality. One might dispute this on the grounds that grammars offer free education to pupils based on academic ability, not their ability to pay.
What promises to be Birmingham City Council's event of the year so far looms, but this is not something for the faint-hearted.
Moseley Lib Dem councillor Martin Mullaney, in an attempt to shake up the dowdy scrutiny process, is staging what he likes to refer to as a select committee which will inquire into a matter of great importance.
The purpose of the hearing is to investigate whether the Stratford Road Red Route, which has imposed draconian parking restrictions much to the annoyance of Balti Belt restarauters, should be made permanent.
Mullaney, who likes to live life on the edge, has invited traders to the emeting next Tuesday and will even allow them to ask questions.
I thought political posturing by unions had followed Scargill into the chapter marked 'irrelevant' in the history books, but it seems the National Union of Teachers has other ideas.
Tonight's the big night for Labour's Euro-rebels, as the House of Commons votes on whether Britain should have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
The campaign in favour of a referendum has been led by Labour's new Gang of Four - Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart alongside Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer.
The chances of getting a referendum look slim, partly because the Liberal Democrats a refusing to support them.
The Lib Dems made a commitment in their 2005 General Election manifesto to support a referendum on the European Constitution, which the Lisbon treaty is based on.
My colleague Jo Geary (we call her the Post's 'blog nanny') discusses the early days of the Post's blogging community here .
Seems a few people think we don't have enough right-of-centre views represented on the site.
As an aside, Wikipedia until recently described the Post as a 'left-of-centre' paper. I changed that to 'free market'.
What do you think best sums up the Post's political stance?
Today the government announced a fivefold increase in the maximum fine for 'antisocial drinking' in public places and a new sanctions aimed at supermarkets and off-licenses that sell alcohol to underage drinkers. All this comes alongside a 'clampdown' on illegal drinking by young people. That accompanies a Home Office study on the impact of the change of the licensing laws and the effects on crime and disorder that confirms that later closing times have led to a spike in incidents of drink-related disorder between 3am and 6am. In other words, the problems that used to come earlier in the evening when pubs and clubs kick out, now just happen at a different time. In short then changing licensing laws and pub and club opening times didn't stop the problems. But then again, it was never going to.
If you actually think about it, there is no real shock to be found here. Yet we should avoid any calls to go back to the previous licensing laws.
The first rule of good blogging is to post frequent updates - as we're telling the Post's new model army of Birmingham bloggers.
Impressive, then, that the editor willfully ignores this instruction and leaves several days between his first and this latest post.
I think I have an excuse, though: last Friday's gala dinner to celebrate the paper's 150th anniversary rather occupied my thoughts towards the end of last week - and those of the great many colleagues who helped make the event such a great success.
At the dinner, I was able to shamelessly exploit the opportunity to plug this new website, and give a flavour of the challenges 2008 brings the Post and its sister papers.
Suicide is a difficult subject to write about. Now that the media concern surrounding Bridgend and the suicides of young people in that area has declined slightly, it might be an apt time to reconsider the media reporting.
In documenting the alarming suicide rate in what some in the tabloid media daubed 'Britain's bleakest town', it was quite common for newspapers to talk of social networking sites and suicide pacts. Rightly, some of the less responsible reporting has been condemned. Yet not all of the press coverage has been bad. Indeed, it might also have a positive effect and change policy.
There is clearly a story to cover when large numbers of young people take their lives, and it is right that we ask questions about how we might respond. I would also like to think that the media reflect the public interest, and that that is not simply ghoulish, but more driven by a true feeling of concern and empathy for the young people who ended their lives and their friends and families.
Who now, apart from public policy anoraks, can recall anything at all about the 2006 Local Government White Paper called Strong and Prosperous Communities?
No, I thought not.
Let me jog your memory.
There was one particular passage of vintage New Labour-speak in the document, which referred to the introduction of something labelled a Councillor Call for Action.
The idea was that the public would be encouraged to identify pressing concerns at grass-roots level and ask a local councillor to demand action from the council cabinet, or indeed from other public bodies including health trusts and the police.