Latest from Birmingham Post news...
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.
An important anniversary in the recent political history of Birmingham occurs this year, but this is a distinctly low key landmark.
It will be 10 years to the day on May 4 that Sir Albert Bore, or plain old Albert as he was then, became leader of the city council Labour group.
And since Labour enjoyed a healthy majority then, Albert automatically became council leader - ending the five-year reign of Theresa Stewart.
Five years later, having miraculously survived annual attempts by ungrateful Labour councillors to topple him, Sir Albert was finally ousted by the one vote he couldn't do anything about - the 2004 city elections.
The West Midlands is to have a new business czar in the form of Sir Roy McNulty, former chair of the Civil Aviation Authority.
He has been appointed chair of Advantage West Midlands, the government quango with a ÃÂ£300 million budget which is responsible for supporting the region's economy.
But for how long will he be in the job? As the Birmingham Post reported earlier this month, Conservatives have announced that a Tory government would abolish bodies like Advantage West Midlands, which are known as regional development agencies.
The report has prompted some dissent - as did a story I wrote last year, during the Conservative conference, which predicted the announcement - from people who dispute that abolish is the right word.
The Tory proposal has two parts. First, they will remove the powers of regional development agency, except those directly related to economic development. The agencies will no longer play a role in housing or planning, for example.
Clearly, this does not mean they will be abolished.
But the second part of the Tory proposal is to invite councils to take over the remaining responsibility - economic development - and transfer it to new organisations they create themselves, called enterprise partnerships.
These will cover boundaries determined by local authorities, instead of huge regions such as the West Midlands. They will be answerable to local councils, not Ministers in London. And they will spend the money currently spent by regional development agencies.
Whatever else comes out of David Cameron's decision to hold referendums on creating elected mayors in Britain's big cities, it has certainly prompted debate about reform of local government.
Mr Cameron, the Conservative leader, Hazel Blears, Labour's Local Government Secretary, and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, have all written articles for the Post on the topic this week.
But in some ways, the Tories are late to the ball. Labour has been talking about creating a mayor for cities like Birmingham for donkey's years.
The difference is that the government proposal has two stages. First, campaigners face the difficult task of convincing thousands of people to sign a petition saying they want a referendum. After that, the actual ballot takes place.
Mr Cameron's policy is to sweep away the first stage, and simply order 12 major cities to hold votes on whether to have a mayor, all on the same day. The referenda will probably coincide with local or European elections.
At least one Labour figure is furious that Mr Cameron has been allowed to steal the spotlight. Philip Collins, who was once Tony Blair's speechwriter, complained that the Tories had "stepped in" to snatch Labour's ideas while the Government stayed silent.
Based on his bad-tempered article in The Times, Mr Collins seems to be one of those Blairites who are still furious that their man isn't in charge any more.
But he does have a point. This was once a Labour policy, which the Conservatives have somehow taken the lead on.
Which group of bigots ought to be allowed in the country?
Loopy anti-gay crusaders the Westboro Baptist Church, the team behind the "god hates fags" and "god hates the world" websites, are set to travel to Basingstoke - of all places - to protest outside the performance of a play.
The group - made infamous through TV programmes with Louis Theroux and Keith Allen, do a good line in frankly unhinged anti-gay bile, and are best known for picking high profile events like funerals in the US to try to get attention for their insane views - often inviting amusing counter-protests.
Almost every Tory of any importance in the West Midlands gathered in Coventry on February 17 to hear party leader David Cameron speak passionately about why the largest English cities should be run by directly-elected mayors.
But there was one rather obvious absentee.
Mike Whitby, the Conservative leader of Birmingham City Council, Britain's largest local authority some 20 miles down the A45, was not there.
David Cameron has always been a big fan of mayors, and at long last the Conservatives have unveiled their plans to encourage big cities like Birmingham and Coventry to develop their own elected leaders.
It's possible to hold a referendum on introducing a directly elected mayor already, but only if you manage to get thousands of people to sign a petition asking for one.
The Tories are planning to scrap the need for a petition. They'll simply order 12 large cities to hold referenda.
They're promoting this as an opportunity to let cities have their own Boris (or, presumably, their own Ken Livingstone). But Birmingham already has one, in the shape of council leader Mike Whitby, and he's always fiercely opposed a mayor.
I don't know how the Conservatives are planning to spin this, but there's no getting away from the fact that their flagship measure to reform local government is opposed by the Tory leader of Britain's largest local council.
However, it's also worth noting that in almost every other respect, Mr Cameron's plans coincide with Coun Whitby's long-running campaign for greater freedom for local authorities.
Whether run by a mayor or a council leader, Birmingham would be free to set its own priorities instead of following orders from London, to borrow cash for investment (such as new transport services), and to keep the extra business rates it collects if it manages to entice employers to the area.
It would also get its hands on a good chunk of the ÃÂ£300 million currently spent by Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency.
This would still be spent on economic development, and probably by a development agency of some kind. But while AWM is accountable to Whitehall, any new body would be created and overseen by local councils.
Just attended a briefing with Tony McNulty, the employment minister, folliwing today's new figures (the number of claimants in the West Midlands is up to 142,600, up by 47,800 in a year).
There is some good news, according to the Government, in that the number of unemployed people who are finding jobs is also holding up. In other words, businesses may be laying staff off but job centres are still sucessfuly finding work for people.
But Ministers are wary of saying anything positive at the moment, for fear they will be portrayed as modern-day Mary Antoinettes. Mr McNulty repeated two or three times "I'm NOT saying green shoots, I'm NOT saying light at the end of the tunnel", to make sure hacks didn't get the wrong idea.
The row over Jacqui Smith's expenses is fading away.
The Home Secretary and Worcestershire MP has been claiming expenses of up to ÃÂ£22,000 for the cost of a "second home" - the one her husband and children live in, in her Redditch constituency - because she lodges in her sister's spare room when she is staying in London.
She's not going to get into trouble for this. Ms Smith was right when she said: "I have abided by the rules. Everything I have done is above board."
Because the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is not going to find her guilty of anything, and isn't likely even to investigate, interest in the Westminster village is fading.
But I wonder if the Westminster elite is out of touch with the rest of the country.
Voters may not think it's okay because it's within the rules. They may conclude instead that the rules are dumb.
John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP for Yardley, has likened British National Party supporters who are planning a protest in Birmingham city centre as the "heirs of Hitler parading in Victoria Square".
In the very next breath, or more likely without even pausing for breath, Mr Hemming said he hoped a counter-demonstration against "racial and religious hatred" planned by a coalition of left-wing supporters would be peaceful.
The MP's views are doubtless sincerely held, and his distaste for the far-right BNP and their thinly disguised policies of repatriation for ethnic minorities, is shared by me and, I suspect, by most people in Birmingham and in this country.
But isn't it likely that Mr Hemming and his supporters, with their casual use of inflammatory language, risk ensuring that when right meets left on the streets of Birmingham the result will be anything other than peaceful? Aren't they simply preparing the ground for a dust-up?
There was no hiding the slightest smirk of self-satisfaction on the face of the ticket inspector as our train thundered through the Swiss Alps.
"You have lots of snow in England, I believe? And nothing works, yes?"
Oh, yes. Nothing works when the snow comes down in England.
I'd become a bit blase about snow by the end of a skiing break in Kandersteg, about 40 miles south-east of Berne in the Berenese Oberland.
One of the coldest winters for years had left the snow pile up six feet high on either side of the roads, but that didn't seem to stop the traffic, or trains, which ran with obsessive Swiss punctuality.
It came as absolutely no surprise to me to learn that Birmingham City Council's decision to refuse planning permission for a 30ft high digital advertising screen at the entrance to the Bullring shopping centre had been overturned at appeal.
Barely seven months after the planning committee unwisely rejected Scottish Widows' application to place the screen on the side of City Centre House, the Planning Inspectorate decided that approval must be given after all.
But that's not what Sparkbrook councillor and wannabe MP candidate Salma Yaqoob is trying to make everyone believe.
And she's saying this shows up the failings of Birmingham - as a city and as a local authority - in dealing with diversity.
A major announcement which could be important for the West Midlands is expected tomorrow (as I write this - ie Thursday).
Ministers are apparently going to give the go-ahead to a third runway at Heathrow, sparking a major row with Labour London MPs who have been campaigning against the planned expansion.
Potential good news for us is that the scheme involves a new high speed rail line, initially linking Heathrow with London's St Pancras station, where the Eurostar departs.
The long term plan may be to extend high speed rail northwards - possibly to Birmingham, relieving pressure on the West Coast Main Line.
I doubt everything will be entirely clear even once the announcement is made this week, but it's definitely something to watch in the long term.
Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary, is to unveil a package of measures to provide credit for small and medium-sized businesses.
This is likely to be a loan guarantee scheme, reducing the potential risk to banks which lend money. This should encourage banks to make credit available.
But there is still no sign of agreement over a large business which has been asking for support, namely Jaguar Land Rover.
Apparently, talks earlier this week ended with the Treasury still unconvinced the Government should make credit available to the carmaker. But the situation could change very rapidly.
I'm told the loan guarantees announced by Lord Mandelson will benefit the automotive industry, but this may mean just the suppliers rather than the major manufacturers.
Suppliers are crucial - and employ more people between them than the actual carmakers - but they will only survive if they have someone to supply to.
The next stop on my week-long visit to the Crimea with shoe box appeal Operation Christmas Child takes me to the coastal city of Feodosia.
After a somewhat bumpy two-hour drive through the snow, we pull up outside the Feodosia Republican orphanage, which is home to 50 children aged between four and 15.
A local church group are also on hand to help distribute present-filled shoe boxes to the children who live and are educated at the orphanage.
We are led up the stairs to a classroom where a group of children are patiently sat waiting for their presents.
It was of course never remotely likely that Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby would apologise for the Big Screen debacle.
You'll remember the fiasco: council teams up with the BBC to pay for a giant television screen in Victoria Square, grants itself planning permission in the face of opposition from conservation groups worried about the impact on listed Victorian buildings, fails to conduct noise assessment tests, finds itself in court after an injunction is granted to owners of nearby office block, and ends up facing a ÃÂ£1 million bill in order to get the thing switched on.
A bitter internal Labour Party row may be resolved soon.
Shabana Mahmood is about to learn whether or not she is Labour's candidate for Birmingham's Ladywood constituency.
Ms Mahmood, who is the daughter of Mahmood Ahmed, the chairman of Birmingham Labour Party, won the selection contest last June.
But the result was challenged by supporters of Birmingham city councillor Yvonne Mosquito, who had also applied to become the Labour candidate.
They claimed that as many as 30 people were prevented from voting for Coun Mosquito by officials, on the grounds that they had not been members of the local Labour Party for long enough.
Labour's head office in London set up an inquiry chaired by Amicus official Mike Griffiths, to try to work out if the rules had been broken or not.
It's taken six months for him to come to a conclusion. We should learn what it is this week.
But this may not be the end of it. One possibility is that Mr Griffiths suggests the contest is run all over again, leading potentially to a fresh round of feuding.
Ladywood is currently represented by Clare Short, the former Labour MP who is now an independent and will leave the Commons at the next election.
Whoever becomes Labour candidate is almost certain to be the constituency's next MP.
Today we are taken to a tower block on the outskirts of Crimea's capital Simferopol to deliver the next batch of boxes with Operation Christmas Child.
Children play outside in the snow as we are led up a stairwell into a cramped, two-room apartment that is home to a family of seven.
Inside the flat, crouched in the corner of a bed, is six-year-old Eva.
Rostislav was just like another other six-year-old boy.
But when he started limping, his mother Svetlana knew something was wrong.
A visit to the doctor confirmed that Rostislav had contracted TB in his hip, so mother and son made the 1,200 km journey from their Chernobyl home for treatment at the Bobrov Children's Sanitorium in the Crimea.
At last, a major national transportation project that the West Midlands can win.
Until recently talk of the government approving a multi-billion pound high speed rail link between London and Birmingham would have been dismissed as wishful thinking
But the ground is changing quickly, with both Labour and the Conservatives now battling each other to take credit for pushing forward with what would be the largest and most expensive rail project in the UK for more than a century.
Labour had its B-team out to argue the toss over plans by the ruling Tory-Lib Dem coalition on Birmingham Council to build an Olympic swimming pool and refurbish two existing pools at a cost of ÃÂ£85.5 million.
Even the laziest, second-rate politician ought to be able to poke holes in such a proposition given that the council admits it has no idea where it will get the money from to deliver the project or how it will be able to afford to run the 50 metre pool complex.
But Labour's less than dynamic duo at a scrutiny committee, Muhammad Afzal and Gurdial Singh Atwal, failed abysmally.
The Birmingham Post offers no apology for returning - again - to the question of whether or not Jaguar Land Rover should receive any Government aid to help it survive the most savage economic downturn in the peacetime history of the car industry.
The answer, we firmly believe, should be an unequivocal yes.
The national Press, which has unanimously argued against intervention, would doubtless accuse us of special pleading.
Merry Christmas everyone! Of course, speaking as a non-religious person myself; Christmas isn't just about Christianity any more. Christmas, in this country at least, is a time for people of all faiths and beliefs to come together.
For example look at this fellow here. He believes gays and jews should be hanged. You know hanged, like to death probably. From a big crane. And your tax money is paying for him to appear on television. Hurrah!