August 2009 Archives
A decision by the city council's Tory-Lib Dem leadership to reaffirm its opposition to Birmingham being governed by an elected mayor was depressing, but hardly unexpected.
All of the usual nonsensical half-truths were present in a report to the Business Management Committee - referendum on the issue unnecessary and too expensive, current system works well, no need for change, blah, blah - and a three councillors at thinly-attended meeting staged at the fag-end of the summer holiday season made it certain that Birmingham will resist all attempts to force it to switch to a London-style mayor.
There was even a pronouncement by the council's chief legal officer Mirza Ahmad, now labouring under the splendidly pompous title of Corporate Director of Governance, that there is no public appetite for a mayor since the existing leader-cabinet system is apparently delivering excellent public services.
I met Sarah Brown once and, guess what, she really is as wonderful as everyone says.
I'd managed to wrangle an interview with the Prime Minister, but when I turned up at Downing Street he was busy at a reception with small business leaders which had overrun.
Mrs Brown, spotting me looking lost in a corridor and probably mistaking me for a respectable businessman, wandered over and told me the history of one of the paintings on the wall.
We generally accept the idea that the Prime Minister's spouse has a role to play hosting receptions and supporting charities, as long as they keep out of politics.
And lower down the pecking order, there's traditionally been a role for the wife or husband of the ordinary MP too.
It may seem a bit old-fashioned now, and its probably true only in a minority of cases, but sometimes when you vote for an MP you get two people instead of one.
This is why I think suggestions that MPs should be banned from employing relatives as assistants or secretaries are misguided.
Peter Luff (Con), MP for Mid Worcestershire, has warned that he would "seriously consider leaving the House" if he was barred from employing his wife, Julia.
In evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, he claimed that she could do more to help his constituents than an ordinary secretary.
He said: "There is no doubt that my constituents feel they receive an excellent service from my office. They know that when they are talking to Mrs Luff (who answers the vast majority of calls to my office) they are talking to someone who speaks with the authority of the MP, they feel their confidences are genuinely secure and her personal and profession commitment to me is communicated in all her dealings with them."
I guess he means, to put it bluntly, that she can phone up the council and give them an earful on behalf of a constituent, with the full authority of the locally-elected MP, in a way no other secretary could.
The Committee is considering whether the rules should be changed to oblige every MP to advertise positions openly, and appoint people through a transparent process without favouring family members.
It sounds like a no-brainer. I imagine most people would instinctively say that staff should be appointed this way.
But would constituents really benefit? I don't think so.
- You can read all the evidence presented to the committee, including submissions from a number of MPs, here: http://www.public-standards.gov.uk/OurWork/MPs__Expenses___Evidence___Index.html
I have just announced to my staff that Trinity Mirror was starting a consultation process with them over the future of the Birmingham Post, the title I have edited for more than three years.
There are two options for change on the table - each a response to the fact that the Midlands region of Trinity Mirror will lose ÃÂ£6 million next year unless some radical action is taken now. The Post as a key title must play its part in plugging that profit gap, and I'll get to the two options later.
This consultation process is unique in my experience in that as well as seeking the views of staff - who are of course the people most directly affected by any changes - we also want the views of readers and advertisers. Launches and relaunches of newspapers always involve market research and testing, of course, but rarely do publishers open up the decision making process as early - and as transparently - as we are doing with the Post.
Staffordshire MP Sir Patrick Cormack ruffled a few feathers when he suggested MPs' pay should be doubled, in return for slashing the expenses they were allowed to claim.
But voters in his Staffordshire South constituency will be offered an alternative - when a rival candidate stands on a platform of cutting the pay of MPs by two thirds.
It seems that Sir Patrick's comments have prompted Mike Nattrass, who is already a UKIP MEP, to challenge him in the General Election.
UKIP won two West Midlands seats in the last European Elections. So far they've failed to win a single Westminster seat in an election (they briefly had an MP who was elected as a Tory and then defected), but there's always a first time.
Mr Nattrass is proposing that MPs receive just 30 per cent of their pay because, he says, 70 per cent of our laws our made in Brussels.
In a press release with the headling "do gonks deserve double pay", he said: "As a UKIP MEP sitting in Brussels trying to stop UK power being gifted away by spineless gonks at Westminster I believe that MPs fail to take their job seriously and fail to respect the will of the people."
Apparently a gonk is a round teddy bear without any arms or legs. Well-known examples include Humpty from Play School.
Even if voters in South Staffordshire don't quite share Mr Nattrass' interest in the European Union, a campaign to cut MPs' pay might just catch on.
By the way, Sir Patrick insists that his proposal, made in a submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has been misrepresented. You can read it here and decide (it's a PDF document): http://www.public-standards.gov.uk/Library/MP_Exp_E3_Sir_Patrick_Cormack_MP.pdf
I've received two press releases about the NHS in the past few hours - one from Downing Street, titled "PM backs support for NHS on Twitter", and one from the Conservatives, titled "Lansley challenges Labour to match Conservative commitment to the NHS".
The Government and opposition, represented by Tory Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, are battling to prove who loves the NHS most.
It follows a campaign on Twitter - a website which allows people to send short messages to anyone who wants to receive them, anywhere in the world - to support the NHS.
Many Twitter users have posted short messages and added the phrase "welovethenhs" at the end.
I don't know how many messages have been posted in total, but as I write this, at three in the afternoon, there have been 1,500 in the past hour.
The campaign is a reaction to US opponents of Barack Obama's healthcare plans, who have highlighted the British system as an example, in their eyes, of everything that is wrong with government-run health services.
British politicians are keen to jump on the "welovethenhs" bandwagon.
The issue should be a winner for Labour, which has traditionally been seen as the party of the NHS, but David Cameron has worked hard since becoming Tory leader to prove that he too is committed to our national health system.
Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, his position has been undermined by Daniel Hannan, a Conservative MEP who has been busy on Fox News and other US networks telling Americans why our system is terrible.
Mr Hannan became a political celebrity following an eloquent speech attacking Gordon Brown earlier this year. He was rewarded with the chance to make a high-profile speech at the Tory spring conference in April.
I doubt he'll be offered a similar opportunity when the Conservatives hold their annual conference in October.
I'm trying something new this summer using Yoosk, a website designed to allow members of the public to question politicians.
Sion Simon, the MP for Birmingham Erdington and Minister for Creative Industries, has agreed to give it a go, and will answer anything you want to throw at him about the work the Government is doing (or not) to promote and support creative industries.
To suggest a question, visit http://www.yoosk.com/theme-detail/199.aspx and click the "ask" button.
Yoosk is a Warwickshire-based site funded partly by 4iP, a fund set up by Channel 4 to support "public service digital media".
I'm going to take whatever is asked and put the questions to Mr Simon during the Labour conference. The plan at the moment is to film his answers and put the video on YouTube and the Yoosk site.
Mr Simon joined the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in June. As the Minister for Creative Industries, his responsibilities include Government policy towards the advertising sector, computer and video games, design, film and video, music, publishing, software and television and radio.
I have never been convinced by the newspaper adage that nothing much happens in August.
This year, certainly, we have been treated to a pitiful spectacle of grandstanding at the top of the Labour Party.
With Gordon Brown away doing community work in Scotland, probably digging some poor pensioner's garden as we speak, two people who would quite like his job have been making absolute asses of themselves.
Harriet Harman, who amazingly is deputy Labour leader, moved into Downing Street in Mr Brown's absence to "run the country" and amused everyone by making a series of increasingly bizarre equalities pronouncements, concluding with the statement that men could not be trusted to run anything on their own.
Not that this was a brazen pitch for Mr Brown's job, you understand. Oh, no. Of course not.