May 2009 Archives
This evening I was given the rare privilege to stand shoulder to shoulder with soldiers from the 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters) for the repatriation ceremony of Lance Corporal Kieron Hill at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.
On May 28 he died, aged 20, as the result of an explosion that happened whilst he was on a patrol near Garmsir in Helmand Province.
Out of respect to his family, and his regiment, the ceremony is not reported in newspapers.
At around midnight, L/Cpl Hill's comrades lined up as his Union Jack-draped coffin was marched into a C17 military aircraft to be flown back to RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire.
It will be received at the miltary base in the morning before being taken through Wootton Basset, where it has now become tradition for townsfolk to line the streets to pay their tributes to fallen soldiers.
The ceremony at Camp Bastion was the army's way of saying a poignant and emotional goodbye to one of their own.
A sIngle bugler played the Last Post before L/Cpl Hill's casket was carried onto the aircraft by his comarades, led by the Padre.
The ceremony was one of the most moving I have ever had the unfortunate duty to report on.
The number of British service personnel who have died in Afghanistan since the start of operations in October 2001 stands at 163. Ten died in May.
The House of Commons has been in recess this week - on holiday, in plain English - and I was hoping for a bit of a rest.
It didn't happen, as the expenses row continued to drag on, leading up to the resignation of West Midlands MP Julie Kirkbride (Con Bromsgrove) on Thursday. Another local MP, Bill Cash (Con Stone) is in the news today, Friday.
To be brutally honest, I've had enough of studying people's receipts and examining their living arrangements. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said, it's not good for democracy - and while many of the practices that have been exposed are scandalous, some of the shock-horror stories that grab headlines aren't really that shocking.
Certainly the issues of how to change the expenses system, and what should happen to MPs who abused their expenses, still need to be in the spotlight.
But is it time to stop the daily focus on individual MPs and their wrongdoings?
This is a video blog post showing some of the work I have been doing as Political Editor of the Birmingham Mail and Birmingham Post over the past week, and how MPs have responded to the expenses controversy.
"This was all set up to give people a little bit of extra cash and hide it from the taxpayer, and that was very wrong." John Hemming MP.
You may also be interested in my Post column.
Birmingham Conservatives have managed to achieve something that even the world's most ruthless dictators could only have dreamt of.
Mike Whitby was re-elected leader of Birmingham City Council on Monday night in a secret ballot, but nobody knows how many votes he received.
It's all top secret, you see.
The 49-strong Tory group takes the view that it's not the done thing to reveal figures.
All a bit grubby, old boy. Like talking about how much you earn in front of the ladies. Bad form.
This is a story I have just sent over which may appear on the news section of the website soon:
Birmingham MP Steve McCabe over-claimed ÃÂ£2,000 for a mortgage from Commons expenses four years ago, he has admitted.
The MP said he had made a mistake in his expenses claim, and agreed to pay the money back as soon as the error was spotted.
Mr McCabe (Lab Hall Green), a Government whip, is highlighted in the latest round-up of expenses claims published by a national newspaper.
The Daily Telegraph said he had overclaimed on his mortgage by ÃÂ£4,059, but Mr McCabe said this figure was wrong.
He had in fact made a claim which was out by ÃÂ£2,000 after wrongly calculating the annual interest on his mortgage, when interest rates changed.
The claim was for a one-bedroom flat in London. Under Commons rules, MPs are allowed to claim for second homes used to allow them to carry out their Parliamentary roles.
Mr McCabe claims no subsidy on the home in Hall Green he shares with his partner.
He said: "If you look at the total figures for that year, I was actually the MP with the lowest total expenses claim.
"That's not what happens when someone is on the make. I made a simple mistake, which was corrected."
Supporters of Mike Whitby are increasingly confident about the result of tonight's election for the leadership of Birmingham City Council's Conservative group.
The audacious challenge to Whitby by Randal Brew is said to have come badly unstuck following publication last Friday of a 1,000-word manifesto containing a thinly veiled attack both on policies pursued by Whitby and his alleged personality failings.
Were Brew to win tonight, he would be named city leader at the annual council meeting tomorrow.
Randal Brew's manifesto for the leadership of Birmingham City Council is a stiletto-sharp masterpiece designed to knife Mike Whitby without ever once mentioning him.
The document is called Time for Change - a theme traditonally favoured by those who wish to overthrow established governments.
And true to form, the first few sentences praise Coun Whitby's five-year-old administration for having "much to be proud of".
Failing departments have been turned around, council tax rises kept low and investment has been brought to the city, Brew notes approvingly.
Not much need for change there, then, you might think.
He even takes care to claim, perhaps slightly disingenuously, that "my challenge is not based on a fundamental change of policy".
The rest of the document makes it quite clear that this is exactly what Coun Brew is intent on delivering - plenty of policy changes, fundamental or not.
The Conservative Shadow Cabinet are now going to publish every expenses claim they make online, as soon as they are made.
You can see the results here:
So, for example, you can see that North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson, the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, claimed ÃÂ£108 for newspapers on Wednesday, May 13.
Caroline Spelman (Merdien) and Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) will also be publishing their expenses online, as members of the Shadow Cabinet.
Cameron devotes his TV election broadcast tonight to the subject of expenses - including an admission that MPs had been claiming what they could "get away with" rather than what they need.
Here's a sneak preview:
The fight between Mike Whitby and Randal Brew for the leadership of Birmingham City Council, which is being conducted entirely behind closed doors, demonstrates brilliantly the democratic argument in favour of directly elected mayors.
Next Monday, 49 Tory councillors, mostly middle-aged men, all white, will gather in a private meeting to decide who should be their group leader and therefore run the second largest city in the United Kingdom for the next year at least.
Ultimate power, therefore, lies in the hands of the 25 councillors required to either re-elect Whitby, or appoint Brew to replace him.
Five days after Randal Brew admitted he wants Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby's job, the number-crunchers are beginning to take an interest in what is shaping up to be a fascinating contest.
The general consensus among Tory councillors I have spoken to is that Brew has a reasonable chance of winning.
With just over a week to go until the 49-strong Conservative group meets to decide whether Whitby should continue as leader, the feeling is that Brew is close to succeeding in stage one of his strategy, that is to sign up 20 supporters.
This, if true, will give him the chance to proceed to stage two, eking out the 25 votes he needs to win assuming everyone turns up and no one abstains.
The fight between Mike Whitby and Randal Brew for the leadership of Birmingham City Council is being described optimistically by Tory insiders as an example of the kind of thing that happens in politics from time to time.
Whitby's mates have been quick to condemn challenger Brew as an innocent abroad, adding that these disagreeable little events have to be expected when someone has been running the council for five years.
Leaders always make a few enemies and there's bound to be a little dissent in the camp, but it's nothing that Mike can't deal with.
They're all friends really, it's suggested.
The first indication that Liberal Democrats would be happy to continue working in a coalition with the Conservatives if Randal Brew becomes leader of Birmingham City Council has come from a senior councillor.
Martin Mullaney broke his group's silence, insisting that it didn't matter much whether Brew's bid to oust Mike Whitby as Tory leader succeeded or not.
Both candidates were OK as far as the Lib Dems were concerned.
Randal Brew, the Tory backbencher who is plotting to oust Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby, has been given an early taste of the venom that is certain to fly in his direction if he dares to go through with his challenge.
Alan Rudge, cabinet member for equalities and human resources and a close political ally of Whitby's, lost no time in sticking the knife in to Brew.
Describing him as an old friend of many years standing, Rudge proceeded to plunge the blade up to the hilt by adding that Randal Brew simply doesn't have the experience, the right qualities or the toughness required to lead Birmingham City Council.
When I returned to Birmingham three years ago, I couldn't believe what I saw.
No, it wasn't the shiny new city centre that amazed me, but the occupants of the seats of power. When I'd last paid my council tax to the city, it was well into the long, seemingly unstoppable reign of the Labour party, with the venerable Dick Knowles entering his eighth year in power.
Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby has two weeks to save his political career after it was confirmed he is likely to be challenged for the leadership of the local authority's controlling Conservative group.
Former Lord Mayor Randal Brew is understood to have agreed to put his name forward at the Tory AGM on May 18 after discontent over what backbenchers see as Whitby's "arrogance" and failure to consult colleagues over key policy issues boiled over into open revolt.
If Coun Brew can gain support from 24 of his colleagues, he will become the new Conservative group leader and be confirmed as leader of Britain's biggest council after the annual mayor making ceremony on May 19.
For anyone who is interested, or who may find it useful, here's the policy we issued to all BPM Media journalists today.
The current pandemic is clearly a major story that our readers expect us to cover comprehensively.
However, it is also the duty of all of us - managers and staff - to cover it in a way which minimizes as far as possible all the risks to ourselves and our colleagues. For this reason, the editors have agreed the following policy that must be followed by all editorial staff without exception. Failure to observe the policy will result in disciplinary action.
1. No journalist will visit a person who has contracted or is suspected of contracting the virus. This applies also to the victim's family and neighbours. All contact in such cases should be via phone and email.
2. If an unrelated assignment means a journalist has to go anywhere near an actual or suspected swine flu case (ie within one mile), then an individual risk assessment must be carried out.
3. If as the news agenda moves on, it is thought that it may be necessary to send a journalist to a location where swine flu is suspected, then such an assignment can only go ahead after a specific risk assessment is carried out and approved by the appropriate editor (ie in Birmingham, Marc Reeves or Steve Dyson). It is likely the risk assessment will consider measures such as face masks, interview protocols and other hygiene precautions. Risk assessment forms are available from myself, Steve and Debbie Hemming.
4. We will review this policy regularly over the coming days, and update if necessary as the situation develops.
5. Finally, if you have any concerns or questions relating to this note, please don't hesitate to speak to your manager, your editor, or a member of the HR team.