Sunday, October 30, 2005

Thin ice?

While I'm pleased to see the council announce the new outdoor skating rink for the Christmas season, I'm a little concerned at the choice of sponsor. With all the focus on mobile phone masts, are T-Mobile the best choice?

Probably just my paranoid conspiracy theories.

Health warning

I'm not going to make a habit of this, but I must award full marks to the council for their plans to make Birmingham a smoke-free city - kudos to Sue Anderson, the Liberal Democrat cabinet member for Social Care and Health for getting on with this.

While this is the logical extension of the current government proposals, it should be noted that Liverpool (run by the Liberal Democrats) is trying something similar. It requires a private bill to pass through parliament. This isn't a quick process and there are strict time limits, so I hope that the council can get the bill readied for the end of November and that this isn't just a cheap publicity stunt. Liverpool started this last year and the bill is waiting to go to committee, having passed the second reading in the Lords in July. The bill is opposed by a number of petitioners, so isn't facing an easy passage.

If only the government had been prepared to follow this path, it would be a whole lot easier. Banning smoking in every workplace isn't about personal choice, it's about protecting those around the smoker. Just as we have rules and regulations to protect those who choose to work in industries where they are exposed to toxic materials - asbestos, radioactive sources, chemicals - we should offer the same protection to bar staff.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Muppet Show

Apparently, this week, people actually paid good money to eat dinner with Liberal Democrat MPs. £200 apiece, no less. God knows why - they are usually so desperate for attention that they would be prepared to pay YOU to eat with them.

Still, that's surely better than taking £2.4 million from a foreign businessman, isn't it? This was the donation that funded half of the Liberal Democrats' election campaign from Michael Brown, who is apparently still wanted by police in Florida for breaching the terms of his probation over chequebook fraud.

At least the party was allowed to keep the money, otherwise they would have been in rather deep water and calling upon their resident millionaire MPs to cough up a little more, but it certainly seems that the smell of the money was too strong in their nostrils. Their idea of 'due diligence' in confirming a donor's status amounts to 'Are you a legitimate donor? Can you add a few more noughts onto that for us?'
While this may pass for a donation of a few quid, when it comes to £2.4 million, shouldn't the rules be a little tighter?

He does have some odd views - he promises to back the Liberal Democrats for as long as Charlie is in charge, as he backs people, not parties. Curiously, although he was funding an election campaign, he doesn't think that Chuckles is up to the job
'In time, Charles would make a good prime minister. But not now, I don’t think he’s ready..'
While he believes in Charlie (and if you stop believing in Charlie Kennedy, a little Liberal Democrat policy dies), he doesn't believe in
'the muppets who purport to serve him.'
Chuckles, meanwhile, is launching an internal investigation - hopefully more thorough than the one the party carried out into Mr Brown - while stressing that the Electoral Commission found nothing wrong with taking the money. Honest.

Still, there's hope for the only peer named after a cheap soft-porn magazine (apart from Baroness Emmeline Readers-Wives, of course). Lord Razzall may be interested in 'America's Next Muppet.'
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The Liberal Democrat front bench earlier today.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Jeremiah was right.

Whitby - Livid (Official).

Today's Birmingham Post saw Mike Whitby, the Leader of Birmingham Council (for the time being) come out fighting - and trying to claim responsibility for New Conservatism. I guess we can now use the adjective 'embattled' to describe the poor man.

In a fringe speech at the Tory conference (ouch) Sir Digby Jones accused the Tory/Liberal Democrat council of talking too much and achieving too little and was followed up by a letter to the Post from the chairman of Birmingham Business Focus, Neil Maybury, which described Whitless's clowns as 'a mess.' They've also come under attack from Andrew Sparrow of Birmingham Forward, who has claimed that there is now an ingrained culture of indecision at the top. I've noted before that if a Tory administration has lost the faith of the CBI, then they are really in trouble. This bunch are in deep.

Predictably, Mickey's response was to say that he'd had lots of letters of support from other chief executives. Curiously, none of them are prepared to put their names above the parapet. In a long interview in the Post, curiously reminiscent of another puff-piece only a few months ago, Whitby got to spout his usual stream of moronity.

Apparently, this administration comprises
businessmen who would bring private sector know-how to the fore and unleash the forces of entrepreneurialism

If this is how they run their companies, I'm amazed any of them are still trading. If I'd wasted £300,000 on two studies into a patently impossible plan, I'd be looking for a new job, but the chief know-how that Whitless brings to bear is the knowledge of how to hang on to the top job in the face of sustained attack by the shareholders.

He meanders on:
The things that really matter to people, and I am not decrying projects like New Street and the library, are whether the dustbins are collected on time, whether the streets are clean and the housing decent... If some local Jeremiahs who are vaguely associated with the commercial community want to speak as individuals then they must make clear they are doing so. They are little more than self-appointed publicity seekers.

Well, we wouldn't any of those involved with the council, would we? To describe those three people as 'vaguely associated' with business is insulting and shows how out of touch Whitby has got in just 18 months. Let's hear from some of the business leaders who support this lot. Come on, let's be 'avin you! (C) Delia Smith.

Again, he's missed the point. Yes, people want the basic functions of the council carried out, but those are relatively straightforward - they worked under Labour and they continue to work under the Tories. Actually, it is questionable that the streets are cleaner than they were after the big clean-up started in 2004 and the scrapping of the planned wheelie-bin trial has left Birmingham's streets strewn with ripped black bin bags, spewing their rubbish across the pavements and feeding our resident rats.

What people also want and need is to see that those leading their city have a vision - that they are able to set a direction. Birmingham has changed massively since I first visited the City in the 1980s and I've seen further change since moving here more than a decade ago - as noted by David Cameron at the weekend. We've done great things in our city, but now I see us drifting, rudderless, with a captain just sunbathing and enjoying the voyage, rather than taking responsibility for the ship's course. We were on the way to being a global city, but Whitby and Tilsley (let's not forget the Liberal Democrats' unforgivable culpability) seem to have frozen in the spotlight. They didn't expect to be in power and counted on the honeymoon period to see them through. Well, it hasn't. The people of the city deserve action and progress - our motto isn't 'Forward' for nothing.

Mike closes with a heartfelt plea to his critics
'A period of silence on their part would be welcome.'
I'm sure it would, Whitless, but it isn't going to happen. A period of unemployment on your part would be even more welcome.

Oh, and Mike? Remember that Jeremiah may have been ignored, that didn't stop him being right.

Smokescreen

Pure genius.

How else do you describe this policy on smoking. 99% of employees in this country now get the right to be protected from tobacco smoke. The only exceptions will be a small number of poorly-paid bar staff. And the resistance to this came from a Scottish MP, all of whose constituents - even those who work in the pub - will get to work in smoke-free environments from April next year. It has confused the issue and we've missed a trick. We've also managed to annoy everybody - the legislation goes too far for the pro-smokers, but not far enough for the anti-smokers. This halfway house option just confuses smokers, non-smokers, publicans and councils alike. Unless a law is clear, it runs the risk of being ignored and that's not good for law in general.

People have the right to smoke, if that's what they want, but they also have the right to work without being unneccessarily exposed to poisonous gases. Why the population of England should be so much more sensitive to the 'nanny state' than the population of Scotland, Wales and both parts of Ireland escapes me.

I don't doubt that a total ban would lead to criticism from the right-wing press, but that's a risk worth taking. Stand up and say that for the sake of the workers, this party will protect them from second-hand smoke.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Camerwrong

We had another potential party leader in Birmingham this weekend.

Dishy Dave Cameron wandered into town to push his case to be the this season's loser of the Tory party.
This is a great city - Britain's second city, a powerhouse of our economy and a place that's enjoying a fantastic revival. Brindleyplace, the Bullring, The Mailbox - all these great new developments are testament to the renaissance of a world-class city. They're proving the truth of the city orchestra's slogan - "An international reputation, made in Birmingham."

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, David, the spirit of which you speak was created by a Labour council. For the past eighteen months, the Tories have been sitting on their overpaid backsides and stifling that revival.
The national revival of the Conservative Party depends on showing how modern Conservative values and principles can help deliver urban revival right across the land, in inner city areas and in suburbs too.
Can we see some of that in Birmingham, please? If Cameron's holding the creaky Tory/Lib Dem coalition in this city up to the nation as an example of what the Tories can do, then that's indicative of the problems facing the party in local government - just how desperate can you get?

He's still long on vision and short on policy (which at least puts him one up on Whitless). He is trying to put the memory of the Baroness to rest, though:
there is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state
and calling on one of the big rallying ideas of the Republicans in the US
...And I'm delighted to see that the city council is working increasingly closely with community and faith groups, exploring ways to help them achieve their potential. That's essential because we haven't even begun to harness the social sector's true potential...
- they sought to pass responsibility for some of the social support network onto voluntary and faith groups, relying on local communities to support themselves with reduced government backing.

What with that and the flat tax, I'm looking forward to him taking over - Gordon needs some fresh meat to chew up and spit out.

Roll on 2009 and an enhanced majority, say I.

Transports of despair

Is it any wonder that Birmingham residents think that the council is anti-public transport?

Mike Whitby continues to try and frustrate the expansion plans, this time by trying to change the route, so forcing a new public enquiry. Along with his LibDem lapdogs, they reckon that there are problems with running them along busy city streets - our local drunks may not cope with them. Trams run happily through the central entertainment area in Nottingham - I've staggered across the tracks a few times myself after taking refreshment in some of the bars with some colleagues. Two-way running along Broad Street isn't an option - it is a pre-requisite.

His partner in crime, Len Gregory, recently noted that many of the public contributions to the Congestion Task Force criticised bus lanes. Far be it from me to distrust a councillor, but I seem to recall that the council claimed public support for the new split-site library plan, a point of view not borne out by the public contributions to the scrutiny committee report. In any case, the dynamic 'Task Force' was trumpeted as a voice for motorists, not for those who need to use public transport. Alongside that, Len's announced a review of yellow lines (which will come as a relief to some councillors...

(Cheap shot, I know, but I couldn't resist that one - that's John H's Disco parked illegally in Brum a while back. Credit for the photo goes to a former Labour councillor who just happened to be passing as John was reading the paper. I've blurred out the reg and even the supplier's name for the sake of privacy. I'm nice like that.)

Never one to be left out, the new Liberal Democrat MP for Solihull is getting on the case and attacking the red route system, picking on a tiny anomaly to criticise the whole concept. If in doubt, pick on something petty just to get your name in the paper.

Despite their love for the car and motorists, Mr Toad and his mates can't sort out the PFI scheme for the roads in Birmingham and even that is descending into chaos with strike threats and one of the shortlisted bidders dropping out.

Life just gets better and better under the Tories/Lib Dems....

Wherefore art thou LibDemWatch

And so the blogosphere bids farewell to LibDemWatch.

That's a waste. There's so much material there - and all the more since 'OneTerm' won Yardley.

I also note from Recess Monkey that since John was elected, plans are afoot to remove sofas from MPs offices as they apparently 'encourage too much intimacy.'

Say no more, squire.

Farewell to a 20th century heroine

It isn't often that a middle-aged black woman gets to change history and make the world a better place, but she did. Few are given the opportunity to make that kind of a difference and only a handful of them have the courage to seize the moment as she did.

Remember her on the 1 December - the 50th anniversary of her sitting down for equal rights.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Multiple choice

Look, Tony.

I don't want a system of multiple choice that only really helps the middle-class who are already quite able to afford to relocate into the catchment areas of the good schools, creating sink schools on our troubled estates by default.

In fact, I don't want to need to make a choice at all. Any school around me should be good enough.

Is that too much to ask?

Saturday, October 22, 2005

You couldn't make it up, nr 463

My good lady has just received an invitation to the winter conference in Malvern and to a section entitled 'Making Politics Relevant to Women.'

Also down to attend is David Blunkett.

While we're talking about ridiculous characters, there's time to send best wishes and a welcome to the world to Isabel Cox/Hemming, born to Emily on Wednesday (can't help wondering if that's why John missed the vote against ID cards on Tuesday evening - the one where the government only scraped through by 32 votes). Of course, if some others had turned up, then things could have been different.

It is heartwarming to see that John's wife has got over her initial, erm, disappointment at the revelation of the affair and is now "there if Emily needs any help."Back in June, her response was a little different..

'This has obviously caused a lot of upset and heartache. I feel betrayed and hurt. I think this sort of thing sends out a disgraceful moral message. So many problems in society are caused by single parents and the breakdown of the family and while John is obviously very concerned with improving peoples' lives he has only added to the problem... I think she took advantage of him... she is now in a position where she can make our life very difficult for us.'

Ah well. Genuine best wishes to Emily, John and Isabel in any case.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

What's next?

Painful as it is, a hat tip to Radders.

Curiously, a friend of mine identified me as Sam a while back. Sadly, I'm nowhere near as good-looking and my electoral chances aren't as good.



The idealistic speechwriter is well-liked by just about everyone. He's known for his excellent writing, sense of humor, and tendency to be clutzy. Although being younger than the rest of the staff, he's often treated as so, much to his dismay.

:: Which West Wing character are you? ::

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Who do you think you are kidding Mr Whitby?

I didn't smile very much this morning when I saw the front page of the Birmingham Post. I was too busy laughing.

Not just the obvious embarrassment of the Whitby/Tilsley Blunderground cock up. Not just the comments of one of the authors of the annual report of the West Midlands Institute of Civil Engineers telling us that the council have just wasted £300,000 (up from £125,000 originally) of public money.

The ICE West Midlands Report 2005, which is published today, states that without quick political decisions on public transport, the region will continue to decline. Terry Mulroy, a member of the ICE and co-author of the West Midlands report, said: "Any transport professional could have told them these conclusions before they started."
Not only any transport professional, but even a web-monkey and political geek could have told them that.

And did. Hell, there was better value in having Whitless and his crew of gutless wonders standing in Victoria Square tearing up £5 notes.

Even aside from the laugh-a-minute that is World of Whitby - the world where 13 months messing around over the transport strategy (that's 13 months where the rest of the region was waiting for Birmingham to do the decent thing) has
'accelerated the process'

Now, stop for a moment and read that again. 13 months of dithering has apparently speeded things up. If you can make sense of that, answers on a postcard to the usual address, please. Mind you, this is the same man who reckoned that they could get the whole scheme cobbled together for £200 million, rather than the actual price tag of £2 billion (not that there's any funding for any of it).

No, that wasn't everything.

Today has also brought a report by the scrutiny committee on the mad plans for a new split-site library - also covered in the Birmingham Post, which concludes by saying

3.1.2 We took the view that the Cabinet report of 25th July 2005 was deficient and did not provide all the necessary information. Nor was the information which was provided given in a sufficiently rounded form to ensure that comparisons could be made.

3.1.3 We have to say that our review has reinforced our original judgment. Indeed officers have openly acknowledged that the two centre option emerged so late in the day that it was “inevitable” that its supporting information was well short of that available for other options. They did not see this as a problem. We do. The Cabinet should not be taking decisions without the full facts before them.


This is a pretty hard-hitting indictment of Cabinet government under this bunch of clowns. This decision was taken without full information and without reference to the highly-paid consultants' report.

Here's a question or two for Whitless. He's a businessman, so has some experience of executive decisions.

What would be his response if one of his employees ignored advice on one project and then wasted £300,000 of the firm's money on another madcap scheme?

Would he renew that person's contract if it expired in May 2006?

To quote the Post comment page on the library and underground schemes:
'[they] illustrate the stranglehold of inaction that has descended across Birmingham. Both are examples of unnecessary delay and poor decision-making by the city's political leadership.'

Monday, October 17, 2005

Can you do a u-turn on the underground?

Never mind.

It seems that one of the only big ideas of the Tory party in Birmingham at the 2004 local elections has spectacularly hit the buffers. This morning, a chastened and embarrassed Mike Whitless emerged from the Council House to admit that there was no hope at all of Birmingham getting an Underground system (a fact that I've noted a few times over the past year). They've decided to return to the original idea (and one backed by the other councils in the region) of an overground Metro, despite Cllr Tilsley's - the Lib Dem 'transport expert' and deputy leader - belief that the people of Birmingham won't stand for the construction mayhem.

What they aren't telling you is that this has only come out because of the persistence of one of my comrades and the threat of the Information Commissioner getting involved. You see, the city council rather hoped that we'd forget about this policy and it would all go away - they certainly didn't want to release the report.

Here's the story.

Back in August, he submitted a Freedom of Information Request asking to see the consultants' report into the proposal (well, if they are going to spend £125,000 of our money, he thought that reading it would be nice). Figures I've seen suggest that the true costs might be nearer £275,000, which makes it far worse.

Initially, this request was knocked back.

We are not able to respond to your request at this time as matters relating to the City Centre Tunnel Study have been deemed private and confidential for the duration of the work. This was agreed at the City Centre Tunnel Study Steering Group Meeting on Friday 7th January 2005 at 2pm. The attendees of this meeting included:
Councillor Mike Whitby (Leader)
Councillor Len Gregory (Cabinet Member for Transportation and Street Services)
Councillor Ken Hardeman (Cabinet Member for Regeneration)
David Pywell (Strategic Director of Development)
David Bull (Assistant Director - Development Strategy)
The minutes of the meeting recorded the following statement:
"It was agreed that all information regarding the City Centre Tunnel Study be determined as confidential under the Freedom of Information Act which came into effect on 1st January 2005 due to potential commercial sensitivities and effects on City Centre land values and developments."
As the study is now complete a report to Cabinet reporting the findings is being prepared for Monday 12th September 2005 which will be a public report.

Now, if you know anything about the FOIA 2000, you know that this is complete cobblers, so my comrade ploughed on. He wrote back, reminding them that this sort of 'determination' has absolutely no force in law (decisions on disclosure can only be taken when a request is received and this sort of prohibition requires the senior council legal officer to sign off on it, not some bunch of councillors and officers) and that he was entitled to know under which section of the Act the council proposed to withhold the data.

In the middle of August, the reply came back explaining that the council were refusing the request because they intended to publish the report (s22 of the FOIA 2000) and also because the report wasn't complete.

As explained above, the report has not yet been finalised, and the final version has not yet been released to us. Furthermore, as the delay between making a disclosure as a result of your request, and the scheduled release date, is approximately one month, I feel that the public interest in withholding, until the publication date of the report, is justifiable.
A date of the 12 September was given. Predictably, this date came and went, with no report being published and as late as last week, there was no date from the Cabinet member in charge, as Zoe Hopkin's comment reveals. Now my friend is a patient and fair-minded kind of bloke, so he gave them a few weeks and then lodged a complaint, asking that the decision be reviewed - entirely in line with the FOIA. Answer came there none, so last week, he fired off another note to the Birmingham City Council legal services team asking for the decision to be reviewed as a priority and threatening a complaint to the Information Commissioner unless the council properly discharged its responsibilities.

This seems to have stuck a rocket up somebody's backside and the council realised that they had no hope of keeping this embarrassing little secret under wraps any more. Indeed, to delay publication would mean almost-certain censure from the Information Commissioner. Hence this morning's press briefing - which wasn't, amazingly, preceded by a leak to the press over the weekend. That alone should tell you how hurried the whole affair was - let alone the fact that they haven't had a press release written.

And the result? Precisely what I forecast last year. The only difference is that my piece costs rather less than £275,000. Money that Mike Whitless and his gang of fools have wasted on a back-of-an-envelope, hare-brained scheme that was always doomed to failure rather than on investing in the people of Birmingham.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Rumours from the Palace

Rumours abound that John 'One Term' Hemming has achieved much in his first few months as the MP for Yardley - a leadership bid, a very public affair and leading a conference rebellion, to name but a few. Thus, he has managed to enrage some very senior members of the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party to the point where they are now actively seeking vengeance.

As always, watch this space. It promises to be an interesting autumn term for Cllr Hemming.

Born with a silver spoon up his nose?

It was all going so well for Dishy Dave Cameron.

The Boy Cameron had just about got over the obstacle of his privileged background (Eton, Oxford) and the Tories seemed ready to return to their traditional sources of leaders - rather than the grammar school boys (and girls) of late. He'd wowed the conference and put the other leadership candidates into the shade - David 'Dickie' Davis is universally reckoned to have damaged his chances of succession with a rather lacklustre speech. Rifkind finally twigged that John Hemming has a better chance of winning leadership than he does and decided to give up the chase.

Then, someone comes up with this awkward little question about using drugs. The other candidates fall over themselves to deplore personal attacks, but pointedly reminding everyone that, of course, they had never used any illegal drugs. Ken Clarke was perhaps the most direct - stating specifically that he had never used cocaine. Poor old Ravey Davey Cameron was left high and dry, with the entire media focussing on his refusal to answer the question and everybody drawing a rather obvious conclusion. Predictably, this focus has now located a relative with drug problems and this won't go away. I'm waiting for one of Cameron's 'friends' to surface with a revelation and a sworn statement - watch the Sunday papers, I suspect.

So, should Ravey Davey answer the question? Bob Piper thinks he should and makes the point that a lot of less high-profile jobs require you to declare past usage of illegal substances. It is also true that there is a divide between good drugs usage and bad drugs. Bad drugs are used by those scrawny, scruffy people who survive at the outer edges of our society, scraping their way to their next fix by petty theft and facing an early grave through infection or overdose - they are the addicts. Good drugs are used by the glitterati - they are the ones who can cope with their drug use, the ones who can snort coke on Prime Ministerial planes or in the toilet at No 10, for they are just recreational users. Ever-hypocritical, the media scent blood and lift their heads from their powder-encrusted mirrors long enough to look disapprovingly at Cameron.

Cameron, on the other hand, believes that everyone is entitled to a private life and events before he entered public office aren't that important. He has a point - if you look at the US, a candidate for high office has to be squeaky clean (or exceptionally capable at hiding the truth) to stand any chance of success. That level of tabloidisation of politics is creeping in over here as well.

I do think Cameron should be honest about his use or non use of illegal drugs. Not because I particularly care, nor because I'm particularly moralistic about drug abuse, but because this issue is going to overwhelm his campaign. Will it affect his chances? Probably not. There will be some of the more right-wing of the party who will be offended by the news that he took drugs, but I rather suspect that they wouldn't have been his natural constituency anyway. Mo Mowlam was honest about her drug use, Bill Clinton famously didn't inhale and Dubya's youthful excesses are hardly a secret. If we knew the truth about some of our great historical figures, I doubt we'd elect them these days. Churchill was an inveterate drinker and Lloyd George a womaniser and neither would survive close press scrutiny today.

Why should our elected representatives be any different from ourselves? Most of us probably have indiscretions from our younger days that we would rather not have plastered over the press and MPs and councillors come from the same cloth. It is rather more of a concern if their current behaviour is illegal or could leave them open to undue pressure or blackmail, but that's hardly the point.

So come on David, be honest with the people and kill the story and then you and the rest of your friends can get on with the real business of electing the next loser of the Tory party.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Practical politics

While some MPs are gadding about, claiming to be hacking computer systems like some sort of War Games geek, others are actually trying to do some work.

Rather than writing a press release spending his time writing press releases, the MP for Sparkbrook and Small Heath, Roger Godsiff has actually been pushing the government for further aid to Kashmir. Not only has he raised the issue in the House, I understand that he's also met with Hilary Benn and the Prime Minister and following that, the UK is to commit an £10 million to the UN appeal, in addition to the UK relief effort that is ongoing.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Hemming & Secrecy

John H is tilting at another publicity windmill.

He reckons that the Chancellor should be required to make the contents of the Treasury computer model public and is displeased that he's been told to go away. What the Treasury actually said was that it “would in future inhibit officials/experts in providing sufficiently free and frank advice.' Anyone who's reviewed the Freedom of Information Act would instantly spot that this is a legally reason for refusal - a s36 exemption, on the grounds that releasing the information would be prejudicial to effective conduct of public affairs. To be honest, the Treasury could also have refused access under s35 (advice to Ministers) and s29 (prejudicial to the economy of the UK).

While this isn't an absolute exemption under the act, I'd suggest that Hemming's appeal to the Information Commissioner is likely to be laughed at. Whatever you think about the FoIA 2000, the refusal seems to be entirely within the terms of the Act.

There is an odd choice of words in his press release, though.
'John Hemming MP, a computer specialist, has hacked in to the Treasury's Economic Modelling Computer System'
He denies that he's done anything illegal, implying that this is a flight of pure hyperbole and we won't see Cllr Hemming being called in for a quick chat by the police. Still, anything for a bit of publicity, eh?

John's very hot on disclosure of information, so perhaps he can explain why the City Council are dragging their feet over releasing the consultants' report on the scheme for the Birmingham Underground. Indeed, they tried to define the report as confidential on the say-so of Mike Whitby and a few cronies - a decision for which there is no support in law and one which has been overruled by the legal team at the Council.

The council can expect to find itself the subject of a complaint in the very near future.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Defective councillors

You may have heard that the Labour Group on the City Council has lost a councillor - Cllr Arjan Singh has decided that he has found a 'kindred spirit' in the Tory leader, Cllr Mike Whitby.

Cllr Singh denies that he has been dropped from the list of approved candidates, but my sources suggest that deselection from his Handsworth Wood ward was not far away - we're into the selection season for next year's local elections, so this is entirely credible. A councillor who can't manage to attend half of the council, ward and party meetings isn't pulling his weight, so he should fit right in with the Tories.

What isn't credible is Cllr Singh's sudden loss of his faculties. I find it hard to believe that this man was ever able to sign up to the principles of the party.
During the press conference, Coun Singh said he believed the majority of people who voted for him in Handsworth Wood did so because of his “integrity” rather than because he was a Labour candidate.
Of course they did, Councillor. And let's just see how many of them back your integrity next May, 'cos I doubt that the Tories will find you a nice safe seat anywhere else in the City.

Continuing, Cllr Singh also revealed that Mike Whitless is
'someone who, like me, takes inspiration from the Lord and wishes to do good for the benefit of all.'
I've struggled to find evidence of Whitless doing very much at all, let alone good for the benefit of all, although he does seem to move in mysterious ways.
'Don’t be surprised if more Labour councillors follow my lead in the future. There was a recent leadership election and about a third of the group wanted a change of leader, so you can draw your own conclusions from that.'

OK, now if anyone seriously believes that the annual challenges to Sir Albert's leadership comes from the right of the party, then they need to have their political compass realigned. I would be VERY surprised if the next defection were to come from the Labour party.

The Tories have gained an ineffective councillor - like they need any more of those - and will lose the seat to Labour next May. Still, they got a press conference out of it. Now, if they were to put their efforts into running the city rather than poaching failed councillors, they might be able to achieve something. I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

'If you're suicidal, please press 1'

The Social Care and Health emergency duty team provides an emergency city-wide facility out of normal working hours including nights, weekends and bank holidays. The team provide a service for people who are in danger and unable to protect themselves, or for people unable to remain in the community without immediate intervention. Each call to the team is received by an experienced and qualified social worker who is able to gain access to residential, day and peripatetic support if necessary.

Good news for the hard-pressed Social Services team at Birmingham City Council! Your political masters are going to relieve you of that pesky out of hours work.

The Liberal Democrat Cabinet Member Sue Anderson, under pressure to cut back her budget has worked out that she can save a small fortune by outsourcing that call-handling and screening work to the Contact:Birmingham call centre from the start of November.

Now, what this means is that rather than having trained social workers screening the out-of-hours calls (which by their nature tend to be emergencies - people with severe mental problems and urgent problems with children in danger, for example), these are going to be handed over to the Vertex call-centre workers. For the princely sum of £14K plus a 30% night shift allowance, they will be expected to switch from residents whinging about uncollected black bin bags to handling the problems of the drunk, the addicted, the abused and the unstable. Not only are they going to handle the calls, they are also going to screen out the ones that can wait until the next working day and only refer the genuine emergencies to the trained on-call social work team.

Don't panic, the call agents will get training in how to talk the clients down. The roll-out schedule suggests that this will amount to no more than a week, but I'm sure that it will be comprehensive and comparable to a four-year Social Work course. NHS Direct does a similar job for urgent medical problems, but at least I know that I get to speak to a qualified nurse with rather more than a week's training.

These are some of the most stressful and distressing calls that anyone can take, so putting underpaid call handlers onto them will only lead to them burning out through stress. I'd also be prepared to place a small wager that part of the deal includes a service level agreement setting out how many calls Vertex are supposed to pass on to the REAL social workers, so putting pressure on the call agents not to transfer calls. Who takes the blame the first time these unqualified call handlers fail to pass on a call from client who then ends up killing themselves or somebody else is rather unclear, but you can bet that no blame will attach to Teflon Whitless and the ship of fools that is the City Council Cabinet. In any case, those who use the out-of-hours service aren't likely to vote Tory/Liberal Democrat anyway, so why should they give a toss? Of course, these calls won't go away and many of them will simply be shoved onto the police or ambulance service instead - who will only call for Social Services assistance anyway, so the screening may prove useless.

So, if you are planning on needing Social Services after the start of November, for your own safety and security, please try and schedule your emergency during normal office hours, Monday to Friday (not Bank Holidays).

Thank you.

This has been a public service announcement.

If you are a member of the Council Cabinet, you may now wash your hands.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Shaken and disturbed.

Most people, when faced with public disclosure of how they shattered their marriage vows by being a serial adulterer and then went on to impregnate a young woman employee 19 years their junior would perhaps be a little embarrassed, contrite even.

But then most people aren't John 'Superstud' Hemming - for which relief, much thanks, oh Lord. But then most people aren't so desperate for publicity that they'll turn up at the opening of an envelope if there's a chance of a photo-opportunity - hence his Have I Got News For You/Private Eye- friendly series of pictures at the high-powered World Toilet Summit. (Write your own tagline - something about being flushed with success or watching his career going down the toilet).


Picture credit - John Hemming's blog

He's in the running for a new honour now - Love Rat of the Year. Surely it can't top his Rickard Prize at school? Nothing is proof against his need for publicity - any publicity will do. Nothing matters, except getting John's name in the headlines. Just like the original story, this one has John's fingerprints all over it - hell, he probably even nominated himself in this distasteful, grubby little contest.

In a sense, he's right. Name recognition is essential in winning a campaign, but I'm not sure that letting yourself be seen as equal to a bigamous car salesman is good for the image. One of the reasons that Cllr Hussain was unceremoniously dumped was that he was bringing the party into disrepute - I wonder if John's constituency party have any views on how he's dragging them through the mud. People already have a low view of politicians - they are the least-respected of all professions (apart from journalists) - and this behaviour just erodes that respect still further.

'People used to think of me as a bit of a geek,' he explained. 'But I now seem to have turned into some kind of James Bond character.'
Sorry about that folks, that last bit seems to be my fault.

Spelling it out

Caroline Spelman, Tory MP for Meriden (an endangered species in the Midlands) claims to have been 'shocked' by the rudeness she encountered from the public during the campaign and that the reception she received from her constituents was the most unfriendly she had ever received.

Caroline - that's what comes of being a Tory. You should be used to it by now.

Perhaps it didn't help that she spent some of the campaign complaining that Solihull had to deal with a few unaccompanied child refugees.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Perry Barred

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. The fallout from Cllr Hussain's sacking and subsequent resignation from the party goes on as the regional party suspends the Perry Barr and Ladywood constituency Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats have discovered that a sudden rush of new members weren't inspired by Chuckles, still less by John H. Nor were they suddenly taken with a conversion to the Orange Book or even by the anti-war stance. No, this bunch were after a sniff of local power and the money that goes along with it. Not that such low principles would ever drive other politicians, of course.

The Labour Party aren't strangers to this problem, either - there are a number of branches still suspended around the City over similar concerns (and I wonder how many of Cllr Hussain's loyal band of followers previously held Labour Party membership cards?). Given this, you'll forgive me rubbing my hands in glee at the travails of the opposition.

Quote from Cllr Hussain (Independent, possibly-soon-to-be-Respect), describing the Aston selection as
'Unfair, unjust and undemocratic'
On the other hand, Cllr Dave Radcliffe (Liberal Democrat) says that in the Lib Dems
'there are no imposed short lists, and members are given the final say.'
Unless it doesn't suit the LD High Command, obviously.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Multiple organ failure

It really hasn't been a good year for the Tories and Liberal Democrats who currently run (in the loosest sense) our city. Actually, that's not entirely true - it's been a very poor year for those of us who have to live in our city under the control of this bunch of clowns (not including Mike Whitless, of course - who has the good sense to live in Sandwell). At least if they all wore outsized shoes and had silly red noses, then they'd give us a few laughs.

They've blown thousands on a pointless study of the prospects for developing a Birmingham underground system (and apparently want to spend a further £125,000 on another study, according to Cllr Zoe Hopkins) - a study that proves so politically embarrassing that they are scared to publish it, despite promises to the contrary. All they have achieved is delaying the extension of the Metro into the city centre. They've managed to ignore the results of an £85,000 study into plans to replace the Central Library, so probably killing the chances of getting a new library anytime in the next decade. Their vacillation has also delayed a £1 billion investment in our roads and footpaths.

And now, we find that the Royal College of Organists have scrapped their plans to move their headquarters to the old Curzon Street station. After years of planning and the promises of grant aid from the City Council, they've pulled out thanks to a funding shortfall. I rather suspect that this is not entirely the council's fault - the RCO was offered very generous terms to move to the City, but it exemplifies the problems that beset us with this bunch of fools at the helm. Indecision is a way of life in the council house these days and they are incapable of making decisions about major projects.

This is a broad malaise that doesn't yet affect most wards in the City, but it will. This is what the future holds unless Labour start making some inroads into the Liberal Democrats next year and the year after.