March 2009 Archives
David Cameron once accused Gordon Brown of being "an analogue politician in a digital age".
And the Tories have certainly embraced all this interweb stuff, with numerous Twitter accounts and a dedicated "webcameron" video page, detailing the Tory leader's adventures across the country.
So I was a little surprised to receive a press release from them - attacking Gordon Brown for doing the same thing.
Black Country MP Tom Watson (Lab West Bromwich East) and Birmingham MP Liam Byrne (Lab Hodge Hill) are the people behind the Government's online communications strategy.
Of course, the Conservatives are spending their own money while Downing Street's website and YouTube activities are funded by taxpayers (and they are supposed to tell us what the Government is doing, not to be used for political propaganda).
So it's not quite the same. But are the Tories telling us they'll end Number 10's interweb activities if they win office?
This is the raw copy of my second piece filed from Mumbai today, Tuesday March 24. It's here because Birminghampost.net is currently experiencing technical problems.
The consequences of continued government inaction over Jaguar Land Rover were spelled out by Tata chairman Ratan Tata in his interview with the Birmingham Post.
When Tata bought Jaguar Land Rover exactly one year ago tomorrow, crucial to its wooing of the UK government and its new workforce was the promise to maintain the company's three main UK plants.
This is my raw copy filed to the Birmingham Post from India today, Tuesday, March 24. It can't be published on the Post's website because it's broken. Normal service will be resumed soon.
An exasperated Ratan Tata, boss of the multi-billion Indian giant that owns Jaguar Land Rover, has broken his silence in the UK media to accuse the government of failing to value the manufacturing sector.
He also highlighted the potential cost to the company and its employees if the government does not come forward with the requested loan guarantees. He raised the prospect of JLR's development projects being wound down, halting progress on a new sports roadster and leading to layoffs amongst development staff.
IN the nineties sketch show Goodness Gracious Me, one of Sanjeev Bhaskar's recurring characters would claim anything innovative, famous or succesful came from India - even if the subject at hand was William Shakespeare or Superman.
I appear to have upset that shadowy organisation Be Birmingham.
No, don't worry, you probably won't have heard of them.
Once known as the Local Strategic Partnership until a funkier name was required, Be Birmingham is a small but influential organisation consisting of senior officials from the city council, West Midlands Police, health trusts, Birmingham Voluntary Service Council and the Chamber of Commerce.
Few would have any serious disagreement with the aims of this outfit - to bring together the key public and private sector groups in Birmingham to make sure all are working together to deliver a list of agreed policies on unemployment, crime, health and climate change.
All of Britain's major cities have set up similar partnerships, by order of the government.
The trouble is, some people would like rather more clarity about how Be Birmingham works and how as a collective body it can be held accountable by the public for its actions.
It seems an odd connection at first.
A heap of steel wrapped around a 625cc engine that constitutes a car with a top speed of 65mph is about as far away on the auto food chain as it's possible to get from the sleek and supercharged Jaguar XK.
This week I have been privileged to have been embedded with the Queen's Royal Hussars in Basra.
I set out to find out just how ready the Iraqis were for the departure of the British army.
So far I have found a huge amount of mutual respect between both sets of soldiers - Iraqi and British.
Brigade Commander Bilal, for the Iraqis, has been mentored by Lt Col Chris Coles from the Hussars.
Bilal, a huge man with a friendly grandfatherly face, has a repuation not to be messed with.
Rockets have become a rarity and roadside bombs are now a lower threat than ever before.
If there is trouble then Bilal moves in in no uncertain terms.
Check points are set up around the area, patrols are sent out, people are questioned, and life in the area is generally made a misery.
It is fair to say Iraqi civilians hate it when Bilal uses this tactic.
But it works.
Not only does it make the area safe post-explosion but it deters terrorists from planting the bombs.
They know that Bilal is so revered that civilians will tip him off about their movements.
The last thing civilians want is Bilal in their back yard making life hell.
But I have been told (by Iraqis) that the job is only 80 percent done.
They know that neighbouring countries are still funding terrorists, providing them with new euipment and helping them cross the border into Iraq.
Stopping these terrorists is a huge task that is vital for the reconstruction of the city.
Ironically, the same countries who fund the terrorists are also the home for companies investing millions of pounds in reconstruction projects.
The country desperately needs these contracts to reach fruition.
But only time will tell if the Iraqi Security Forces can provide the necessary security in the long term.
Top marks to the Local Government Association, which has published a list of 200 words and phrases which councils should be banned from using.
It says councils should stop hiding behind "impenetrable jargon and phrases". So for example, instead of "interfacing", councillors and their staff should simply talk to people.
Instead of "actioning" things, they should do things. And councillors should stop worrying about "worklessness" and start worrying about unemployment.
Other phrases should just be deleted entirely, as they cannot be translated into normal English. So councillors should forget about "holistic governance" and "predictors of beaconicity" because the phrases are meaningless.
Wise advice, but there's at least one suggestion which I suspect will never catch on.
Instead of "outsourcing", the association says councils should just tell it like it is and say that services have been privatised. Somehow, I don't see that happening.
I'm currently sitting sitting with about 15 British squaddies in a hanger at Kuwait airport.
We are in the US facility waiting to board a one hour direct flight (on a Hercules) to Basra.
What's most interesting is the relaxed attitude of the soldiers.
The work to be done in Basra seems far from their minds as they tap me up for today's football and rugby scores.
As we sit here munching pastrami baguettes and watching Pearl Harbour on a widescreen television, you wouldn't believe we were just about to fly into one of the world's most troubled city's.
Just this month an Iraqi civilian, who was probably working at the base, was killed by a rocket.
But for many of these troops the trip in and out of Basra has been done so many times now that it is hardly worth mentioning.
For many of the others, who are already well into their six month tour, they will only have one more of these journey's left to do before they can concentrate their efforts elsewhere.
Elsewhere, also known as Afghanistan, will be a much longer story though.
Our new West Midlands select committee has launched its first inquiry, and will look at the effects of the recession on the region's economy.
Birmingham MP Richard Burden (Lab Northfield) is to chair the inquiry, following an election. I understand he was lined up by the men in grey suits who decide these things - presumably the party whips - but when the time came officially to choose Labour's nomination for chairman, Stafford MP David Kidney (Lab) piped up and said he rather fancied the job.
This led to a vote among Labour MPs, which Mr Burden won.
In practice, winning the Labour nomination meant he was certain to become chairman - as Conservative and Lib Dem MPs are boycotting the committee.
I think Labour has made the right decision in pressing ahead with the inquiry without the co-operation of opposition MPs, but it will inevitably undermine the select committee's authority.
Whenever the West Midlands committee praises the Government, it will be vulnerable to accusations of toadying to Ministers because only Labour MPs took part in the discussions.
The Government has created committes of backbench MPs for every English region to mirror the new executive arrangements which are in place, including regional ministers such as Ian Austin (Lab Dudley North), the Minister for the West Midlands.
It has emerged that the Government also plans to appoint new range of civil servants for each region as well - specifically, to help with PR.
There will be a head of communications for the West Midlands, possibly supported by a press secretary working below them.
These new staff will come on top of the existing press officers in the West Midlands branch of the Central Office of Information, which is responsible for getting Government press releases out to people like me.
Why do we need yet more press officers? I've heard that the civil servants Central Office of Information has been a little reluctant to work too closely with people like Ian Austin or his predecessor in the role, Hodge Hill MP Liam Byrne - on the grounds that it's hard to tell whether their job is to help run the country, which civil servants are meant to help with, or to convince people that the Government (ie Labour) is doing a great job, which they are supposed to keep out of.
Six years on from the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, troops from both Britain and America are well into their preparations for their final departure.
Among them are the Queen's Royal Hussars based in Thar Allah in the heart of Basra city.
Many of these soldiers, who have been given the primary task of training the Iraqi Security Forces, are from the West Midlands.
Tomorrow, I will fly out and join them for a week and report on conditions at the cutting edge of the development of this war-torn country.
The key question I will be asking is "Are the US and British Governments leaving the country in a position where it can undergo a stable reconstruction?"
At the heart of this is the condition of the Iraqi Army and Police.
With investors from Japan and America throwing cash at the city, and British Consul General in Basra, Nigel Haywood, claiming it is the next Dubai, there is a lot riding on the strategic withdrawal of troops.
Amazingly, the city is seen as such a potential honeypot in the region that construction companies from Iran are beating Western countries to the contracts on offer.
But are the British-trained Iraqi Security Forces ready to handle the terrorist threat without the guidance of their "occupiers"?
Remember those days, not so many months ago really, when it seemed most of life's woes could be solved by cashing in on ever-rising house prices?
Short of some spending money, no matter just top up the mortgage.
No retirement pension to speak of, don't worry just sell the house, trade down and pocket the difference.
And do you recall the machismo with which we used to discuss by how many thousands of pounds a day the value of property we owned was rising?
When house prices keep increasing, the land upon which homes are constructed also rises in value.
And when office rents keep rising, as was the case in Birmingham until recently, land values soar accordingly.
He who owns land is king, or so it seemed.
We all enjoy a good laugh, I am sure, and it is certainly difficult to keep a straight face while reading the latest ramblings from Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham City Council's opposition Labour group.
Sir Albert, who ran this city for five years from 1999, contends that the Birmingham Post is too soft on the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition which has been in charge since June 2004.
In particular, he is annoyed at our measured interpretation of the Audit Commission's latest Comprehensive Performance Assessment, which cut Birmingham from a three to two-star authority off the back of poor performance by children's social services.
As we report, a Commons committee has found that Caroline Spelman, the Conservative MP for Meriden and Shadow Local Government Secretary, misused her Commons allowance and will need to pay back ÃÂ£9,600.
A report by the Committee on Standards and Privileges said: "We accept that this breach, which occurred at a time when both the rules and expectations were less stringent than they are now, was unintentional."
A relatively minor offence with lots of mitigating circumstances, in other words. But this is not the same as being found "not guilty".
I'm told that she will probably keep her job, but it's not quite certain. David Cameron is still taking time off from politics, and has not responded to the findings, even to his Tory colleagues in private.
While other senior figures in the party feel she has done nothing which threatens her career - and are sure Mr Cameron will agree - his opinion is not known.
"Working closely with... moving as fast as we can ... holding a seminar next week ... urgently assessing ... continues to look very carefully..."
Are these the words of someone who is on top of the biggest challenge faced by the manufacturing sector since the Industrial Revolution - or the obfuscation of a man who simply doesn't know what to do?
An alternative interpretation is that Lord Mandelson and the government have given up caring for what they see as two lost causes: the automotive industry in the West Midlands, and Labour's electoral hopes for the region.
Talk about having your cake and eating it.
For the past 18 months, Conservatives have complained that the Government was too slow in appointing regional select committees - new House of Commons committees designed to give the regions a bigger voice at Westminster.
Tomorrow, the Government will finally appoint the members who will sit on the committee. But there won't be any Tory members, or Lib Dem for that matter. Both opposition parties have now decided they don't want regional committees after all, and are boycotting them.