Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mad Nad - playing politics with ethics

Abortion votes are, by convention, not subject to party whip. This is an area of policy-making that is best kept out of the party political structure - witness the way the issue has polluted the political environment in the US.

Conservative MP (and member of the Tombstone group of right-wingers) Nadine Dorries has strong views in opposition to abortion and has enthusiastically leapt aboard the Alive and Kicking campaign which is highlighting MPs who have voted in favour of choice and have majorities under 5000. Curiously, the three she has picked on so far have all been Labour women - Laura Moffat, Barbara Follett and Jacqui Smith.

In the name of balance, here's a couple of equally vulnerable Tories that should draw her attention - and a Lib Dem as well.

Termination of Pregnancy Bill
Ben Wallace - Con, majority 4171
Mark Lancaster - Con, majority 1665
Lorely Burt - LD, majority 279

I hope that Nadine will feature these in future columns - I wouldn't want to think that she's exploiting a serious ethical issue for cheap political gain.

Legalese Imprints

Shameless nicking from Bob Piper and Luke Akehurst in the name of legal covering of backside.


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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

EXCLUSIVE: Labour councillor stands down

News reaches me from the darker reaches of Kingstanding that Cath Grundy, nemesis of Sharon Ebanks and once touted as a potential leader, is standing down from the council at this election in a move that has surprised senior Labour leaders.

Expect a sudden flurry of applications for what should be a safe Labour seat - whatever some of the wilder Tories promise. Yes, young Mr Sambrook, I mean you.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Moseley Spinners

I'm on the record as having 'issues' with the Standards Board for England - my thinking is that no quango has the right to remove an elected councillor. That is the sole duty of the electorate - there are other avenues for redress for a councillor's indiscretions through the criminal and civil law. So, when Martin Mullaney, Liberal Democrat councillor for Moseley and Kings Heath ends up before the beak - well, the first ever meeting of the Birmingham Standards Committee, at least - my feeling is to back the guy, regardless of the error of his political ways. I do at least try to be consistent.

In a really brief summary, Martin made a video which was then posted on YouTube to highlight what he saw as the damage being done to a listed building in his ward by a developer. During the course of making the video, he wandered off a private access route to another building - where he had permission to be - and onto the private property of the developer. Certain comments were made which were removed from later versions of the video - needless to say, they weren't positive comments about the developer in question. There are two conflicting lines on this - one that the developer is trying to do his best with an old building that has suffered from years of neglect and the other that he has some ulterior motive for wanting it to fall down.

The Standards Committee found Martin and his partner in crime, Cllr Ernie Hendricks (friends tell me he's actually a decent guy, despite HIS political leanings), very guilty of disrespect and sentenced them to be taken from that place and suspended for a month unless they apologised to the developer and removed the video from YouTube.

So far, so straightforward. Storm in a teacup soon to blow over.

What then gets interesting is that Ernie decides that he'll stand up for his principles - that he believes that he has done nothing wrong and he'll take the suspension for it, an entirely consistent point of view. Martin decides to apologise. That strikes me as odd, but both Martin and John explained it on 'The Stirrer', that Cllr Mullaney would apologise so that the Ward Committee could continue to function, as the quorum is two of the three councillors.

How valid an argument is this?

We'll leave aside the consideration that an apology not genuinely meant is devoid of any meaning and look at that claim. Any suspension wouldn't take effect until two weeks after the Standards Committee formally publish their recommendations - so that takes us up into early April, all told and into the election run up. I would suggest that a full suspension would be served by mid-May - around the 12th or so.

The fact is that the Moseley Ward Committee met on the 19th March, with all three councillors available. There would be no need for the committee to meet again until mid-May - the Acocks Green Ward Committee met the previous week and won't be assembling until late in May, so even if both councillors were suspended, it would not impact on the committee's functions.

But, I hear you cry - what happens if decisions need to be made between times? Well, you have a point, although decision making during the election period is dodgy.
John Hemming retorted that
Decisions between committee meetings require the written consent of two councillors at least.

Far be it from me to criticise an MP and a local councillor, but he's talking cobblers.

Every Ward Committe has this as the last item on the agenda:

14 AUTHORITY TO CHAIRPERSON AND OFFICERS Chairperson to move :– ''That the Chairperson (or in his/her absence, the Vice-Chairperson if appropriate) is hereby authorised to act until the next meeting of the Committee except that, in respect of the exercise of the Council’s executive functions delegated to it by the Cabinet, the appropriate Chief Officers are hereby authorised to act in consultation with the Chairperson and that the Chief Legal Officer is authorised to affix the Corporate Seal to any document necessary to give effect to a decision of the said officers acting in pursuance of the power hereby delegated to them; further that a report of all action taken under this authority be submitted to the next meeting and that such report shall explain why this authority was used.'

What that jargon says is that the chair of the committee - John's squeeze Emily Cox - can make decisions in the meantime. It makes no mention of consultation or written agreements - although good practice would suggest that the chair consult their colleagues prior to making the decision, that decision is down to the chair alone.

The fact is that Martin didn't want to face the embarassment of going into an election campaign - he's up this May - as a suspended councillor.

The latest rumour is that he will take his punishment like a man - something that I would have a whole lot more respect for than his current stance, where he is trying to spin his way out of trouble.

The debate on The Stirrer has become even more entertaining, as it has descended into a discussion of the finer points of the law around trespass - even though that wasn't why the punishment was imposed - as part of an attempt to gloss over the whole affair and shift the focus.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Here we go again

I'm told that the unions are likely to step up their action against the council in support of their members' reasonable claims - a two day strike is believed to be the next step.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ceasefire to end?

The unions and the council have been under truce for the past couple of weeks, trying to thrash out an agreement and something was produced yesterday.
An improved offer has today been finalised between Birmingham City Council and the Joint Trades Unions over the pay and grading/single status review following two weeks of intensive talks.
Cllr Alan Rudge, Cabinet Member for Equalities and Human Resources, said: "I am delighted that we have reached an amicable outcome which, if accepted by union members, will avoid the threat of further industrial action and disruption to services.... This would be a good result for both employees and the citizens of Birmingham. I am grateful to my officers and the Trade Unions for the hard work and professionalism they have shown in reaching this outcome."
Note that it is called an 'outcome' and not an agreement or a solution to the dispute. The deal is being put to union members today and tomorrow in meetings across the city and the omens are not good. The union leaders are not enthusiastic about the offer - they are putting it forward because they have to, not because they want to. The members aren't buying it either, so unless tomorrow's meetings are the complete reverse of today, then we may be seeing a return to industrial action.

There do seem to be a lot of issues left unresolved. The additional terms and conditions on flexibility and other matters are left hanging, the seven grades remain - although I suspect that there may be some wriggle room for each side on this issue - and there is an offer of another year's 'protection' for the losers (although those losers still see their pay eroded by inflation during those years of 'protection').

This is very far from over - I think that the Spring of Discontent may be bursting into life again.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

What have the council ever given us?

Apart from schools, roads, rubbish collection, recycling, parks, social services, tourism support, planning, pest control, trading standards, street cleaning….

You get the idea. Iain Dale doesn’t.

He’s whinging
Ok, so I live in a larger than average house and earn more than average too, but I'm struggling to think what I get for my Council Tax beyond a fortnightly rubbish collection and a Police Service which thinks seven hours to come out after a burglary is quite acceptable
For those of you who missed the headline story, Kent police didn’t immediately send a major investigation team with armed response support to cover the theft of the lead from the roof of his outbuildings. Now he’s complaining that he has to pay more, even as he admits that he lives in a good house (one of the top two bands, certainly, if not the top-rated band) and earns a good wedge. Society costs, Iain.

Here’s the rub. Iain tells us that the (Conservative-invented) council tax charge on his home (under a Conservative council) is so high because of the Labour government. Yet, here in Birmingham, we’re told that the council tax increase of 1.9% is low because of the sheer financial nous of the Conservative/Liberal administration. (Nothing to do with the thumping great increases in central government funding, no sir)

They can't both be right.

Don't leave Samantha all alone, Humph

Humphrey Lyttelton, a man for whom the phrase 'veteran performer' may have been coined, is standing down from his weekly jazz show on Radio 2. I just hope that this doesn't bode ill for the funniest show on radio, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. After all, he's only 86 and you can't afford to lose that much knowledge of the intricacies of the rules of Mornington Crescent.

One little curiousity is that Humph was in the same Eton orchestra as the late Lord Pym.

Who provided more pleasure?

I vow to thee my country

Swearing an oath of allegiance? Nope. Let this one sink like the stone it undoubtedly is. While I back the idea of citizenship ceremonies for adult migrants to this country, who are changing their allegiance, I think that this kind of public ceremony for kids is extraordinarily un-British. Besides, how is swearing allegiance to the Crown going to work in Cornwall, Wales or Scotland – let alone with a large chunk of the population across the sea in Northern Ireland – some of whom have no desire to be citizens of the Crown? It seems to work better in the US, but there the daily Pledge of Allegiance has been kicking around for over a century and has been legally recognised since the 1940s. All traditions have to start somewhere, but this one should stop here for us.

By all means, let’s educate children about how society works, give them an understanding of what politics is, how it works and what it can achieve. Above all, teach them that they have rights, but that those rights carry heavy responsibilities that provide the basis of society.

Mind you, if it would help the England rugby and cricket teams remember that they are supposed to win things, perhaps it isn't such a daft idea.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

EU stupid boy

When was the last occasion any political group was on a three line whip to sit on the fence? Granted, that’s the natural position for most Liberals, afraid of offending their voters. A quarter of the Liberal Democrat party disobeyed their high command’s instruction to do nothing and voted alongside their Conservative friends, including our very own John Hemming.

In fact, that instruction is itself odd, as Clegg and Ed ‘Duck’ Davey have been wandering the studios of the nation telling everyone that there was no need for a referendum as the Lisbon treaty is sufficiently different from the early constitution. That’s pretty much the government line, so why didn’t the Liberals have the courage of their convictions and vote alongside our people against a referendum? Why cook up this ludicrous doomsday option of a catch-all ‘In or Out’ vote – culminating in the staged mass walkout that would have disgraced a sixth form debating society, let alone a party that claims to be a serious player? None of that was necessary for anything other than base party political reasons.

Then you have the peculiar situation whereby three Liberal Democrat front benchers resign their portfolios to vote against their leadership, but another eight junior spokespeople get to keep their jobs (the other four votes were from the tiny number of Liberal MPs not trusted to speak for the party on anything). That’s either inconsistent or simply hypocritically expedient – they don’t have enough MPs to do all the work, so dropping all eleven would have caused huge problems. I’d expect to see the three senior rebels rehabilitated in due course.

This morning, another Liberal Democrat – Chris Davies MEP – popped up on the Today programme and made sure that he got across the party line that Nick Clegg’s leadership wasn’t in question. The very fact that he shoehorned that statement in – despite not even being queried over it – suggests that it may be very far from the truth. Clegg hasn’t performed well in PMQs lately, his media appearances over the European issue – one where his party should be the most sure-footed of all, as it is avowedly pro-EU – have been flustered at best. If he can’t carry his front bench with him after less than four months, then I think the countdown clock can be started. I’m sure he won’t feel the knives in his back quite yet, but he has to raise his game massively if he isn’t to become the latest former leader of his party. Can we make the leadership race an annual event?

Don't forget, it isn't over yet. The referendum may well be reinserted in the Lords and come back to the Commons to be removed - how will the Liberals vote then? More squirming and manoeuvring for Clegg to come.

And while we’re on that subject, the breathtaking hypocrisy of the Tories never ceases to amaze me. Much of what is happening in the EU today is consistent with the steps taken with the Maastricht Treaty (and others). We never got a referendum then – in fact, Iain Dale’s former boss, David Davis, was whipping the Conservatives through the lobby even as their rebels were being spat on by colleagues.

William Hague (voted against a referendum on Maastricht) argued on the Today programme on Wednesday that the content of the treaty wasn’t important, it was the manifesto promise that mattered. Well, if we’re going to be nitpicky, the manifesto promise referred to the constitution, not the Lisbon treaty – as Nick Clegg has pointed out. Hague then went on to argue that the 1992 manifesto contained a promise to ratify Maastricht, so there had been a choice back then. Well, he’s wrong. It doesn’t. It does promise that the UK parliament would decide on a single currency, with no mention of a referendum on that issue
When or if other members of the EC move to a monetary union with a single currency, we will take our own unfettered decision on whether to join. That decision will be taken by the United Kingdom Parliament.
Quite unlike the unequivocal guarantee offered by Labour of a public vote on a simple issue and one that should go to a wider vote outside parliament.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Ulster says go!

So farewell then, Ian Paisley, a political curiosity of a bygone age, brought down by allegations about his son’s financial behaviour, rumours about his own expenses and the factor of his age – 81. Aside from the curiosity that he has managed to hold pretty much the complete set of elected political office – NI parliament, Westminster and Europe – he has proved a hugely divisive force of nature over his career.

Even in his dotage, his avuncular double act – nicknamed the Chuckle Brothers - with Martin McGuinness, a man previously categorised alongside the pope in the Anti-christ stakes for the good doctor, has divided his own party who can’t understand the reversal of his promise not to sit down with the IRA. Before that, he has divided unionism and has been the best recruiting sergeant that the IRA could ever have, with his fire and brimstone evocation of an earlier age of unionism. Many have wondered why the republicans never seriously targeted this high-profile representative of unionist politics, but there has been a curious symbiotic relationship between the two. He needs their bloody, murderous criminality to justify his anger, while they need his rabid anti-Catholicism and intransigence to fuel their campaigns. Not for nothing has it been said that if McGuinness and Adams heard that Paisley had a cold, they’d send him a carton of Beechams and a get well soon card.

In fairness, people on the ground tell me that he has a fine record of assisting the Catholic constituents who come to his surgeries and without his conversion to the cause of devolved government, power would still sit with the Secretary of State. I only hope that his successor does not seek to move from the rocky and precarious path of peace, but keeps the country moving forwards as it has done in recent years.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Good news Monday

Unusually, I’m going to say something nice now.

Matthew Parris says that he regrets not coming out as gay while he was an MP – the first openly gay MP was Labour’s Chris Smith, subsequently a minister. Given the past record of Conservative party on gay rights, it is a genuine delight to see Alan Duncan, someone who I actually hold in reasonable regard, announce that he is to take a civil partnership. Alan was the first serving Tory MP to come out and that took until 2002 after ten years as an MP. He recognised this government’s role in changing the culture
You have to give some credit to Tony Blair and the Labour Party for that. They championed an agenda that has made life for a lot of people lots better. They have done a good thing.

So, raise a glass to Alan, who has the good fortune to represent a small slice of English perfection in Rutland and Melton, but has the embarrassment of being the Tory shadow minister for Tyneside. Now there’s a love which dare not speak its name.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Straitjacket for Mr Redwood

And the other Tory taxcutters as well. And if someone could stop Gideon from hyperventilating, that would be great.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow health spokesman (at time of going to press) has committed the Tories to increasing spending on the NHS – even as some Tories slate the government for additional spending. He’s promised up to £28 billion to get spending up to 11% of GDP. As Hopi Sen puts it – there’s nothing like testing your leader’s pledge of job security to destruction, is there?

Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain how this will be funded – not his problem. Squaring that particular circle – feeding the red meat of tax cuts and state reduction to the Tory loyalists like Redwood, while delivering this proposal looks ludicrous. Even maintaining Labour’s spending promises wouldn’t cover the cost. All this means is that either Gideon has to start axing things on a wholesale basis, borrow more or tax more. None of those are attractive options for a politician, but I can’t see Osborne doing either of the last two.

While this is clearly a calculated attempt to fill the yawning gulf between Labour and the Tories over the NHS, Mr Lansley has just declared open season on Gorgeous George Osborne. Every promise or comment he makes for the next few years will be measured against this commitment and he’ll be asked how he proposes to afford it.

Of course, this could just be another of those headline-grabbing gimmicks that won’t be borne out by their next manifesto.

The new-found Conservative love for the NHS wasn’t borne out by Lord Mancroft, who swiftly rose to his feet and used parliamentary privilege to slam the nurses who had treated him in the Royal United Hospital in Bath, simultaneously destroying Lansley's work earlier in the week,
"The nurses who looked after me were mostly grubby - we are talking about dirty fingernails and hair - and were slipshod and lazy. Worst of all, they were drunken and promiscuous.”
I don’t have rose-tinted glasses and I accept that not every nurse rises to the highest professional standards, but this is a gross generalisation about nurses - or perhaps he spends too much time watching telly. Of course, the noble Lord has lived a life of purity and ascetism. Curiously, the Telegraph profile and his Wikipedia page both fail to mention his time spent as a drug addict and the time he spent in the US getting clean. While I would commend m'lord Mancroft for taking the opportunity to sort his life out, he would do well to remember that not everyone has his privilege or opportunity. The nurses I know are normal human beings with normal failings, but they do their best at work.