Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Readers of The Stirrer will be aware of the little storm that has erupted in recent days over Labour's campaign to preserve the library service under threat from the Liberal Democrat councillors who ru(i)n Birmingham Yardley.

Let's go through the facts. For some months, the library service has been the subject of a 'service review' in Yardley. Whenever I hear those two words, I just wait for the cuts to arrive, for arrive they will. When the Liberals reviewed leisure services, we ended up with our local leisure centre not opening at all on Bank Holidays and closing early on Saturdays - in a warped bid to extend swimming. Go figure.

So, it was no real surprise last November when the interim report came to the constituency committee and the following comments were made about three of the five community libraries in the constituency.

Kents Moat Library is unsustainable as a stand alone site and does not have the space or facilities necessary to provide a full level of service. In the next few years the service will migrate to the proposed Poolway Customer Service Centre. However there are short term benefits in relocating to the Neighbourhood Office, Stechford Cascades, Meadway Community Centre or Poolway Co-op.

Glebe Farm Library is unsustainable as a stand alone site with insufficient space or facilities to provide a modernised library service. The current site could be developed to involve other partners who would provide services to complement the library. As a stand alone site Glebe Farm Library experiences security issues which would be addressed within a shared site. There are opportunities to work creatively with Hodge Hill Constituency to relocate Glebe Farm Library and remodel services to meet the needs of specific group within the community e. g The Pump. - Services for young people.

Sheldon Library is inflexible which limits the potential to offer a modernised and IT based service. The library does not have the flexibility to offer facilities and enhanced IT provision to meet the expressed needs of older people within the area. There is an expressed need for information and Neighbourhood Office services to meet the needs of older people within the performing meeting space, adequate public toilets, kitchen and refreshment area. Working for the Future has identified that services should be co-located to an enhanced Customer Service Centre at the Sheldon Community Centre.

The message there is crystal clear - those three libraries will be closed and the library service relocated elsewhere. The report also includes the reasons

Since localisation Yardley libraries have faced the ongoing challenges of a budget insufficient to operate universal levels of services from five libraries. Previously external funding has been used to allow for innovation, outreach and a programme of activities to increase the take up of the service. Currently services are being
delivered with minimum staffing levels, tight control of supply pool use, budget expenditure kept to a minimum and non filling of vacancies including critical supervisory posts.

This was raised in the meeting and the following comment was recorded in the minutes.

Adnan Saif, Constituency Director assured members that libraries were undergoing a business transformation which meant that Yardley had to achieve a
transformation of services. This did not mean that local libraries were closing...

That the report on the service review of Constituency libraries be noted.

Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of people weren't convinced and many left the meeting with a different view of the report. I can certainly say that I wasn't convinced and we decided to start a campaign to draw attention to this threat to our libraries from the Liberal Democrats, a party that won power in 2004 on the basis of a manifesto promising to raise library use to the national average. In Yardley in 2008, around 12% of the population borrowed a book, against a national average of 49%.

Thereafter, consultations were held with key user groups. Rather like the comments from the users of the Meals Direct service, these were immensely positive

At Glebe Farm Library [the unsustainable site] there was support for the staff and the services that have developed over the past five years. There was enormous praise for the work with local schools and successes in the Reading Challenge and initiatives to support National Year of Reading.

‘Staff are vital- ‘ they act as the facilitators. It is the staff attitude at Kents Moat [unsustainable] that makes it such a special experience.’

Marie only started using Kents Moat [unsustainable] library for Wired up to Wellbeing. She thought they were quiet ‘ shush’ places and not for her. It is only in the last year that she has started using libraries and she loves the experience of learning, using IT in good company.

The satisfaction levels are high - 93% of adults expressed satisfaction with the service and the report claimed that only 69.9% of children were happy with libraries. A union representative has since pointed out that this latter figure is incorrect, as it was calculated by taking the satisfaction statistics and dividing by the five libraries - ignoring the fact that for the duration of the survey, South Yardley library was closed, so not generating any returns. The accurate figure jumps up to 90.7% satisfaction - which is closer to the adult statistics and feels more accurate.

As you may be aware, we've taken this campaign up with gusto, working hard around the threatened libraries and gaining support in the most unlikely areas. And it seems that this riled the Liberal Democrat councillors, who seem to have become a little complacent in their exalted positions, so our campaign has come under sustained attack. When The Stirrer picked up the campaign, the big guns were rolled out, with Lib Dem councillor and deputy leader Paul Tilsley ringing Adrian Goldberg to tell him to 'do his homework' and then a press release from another Yardley Lib Dem, Jim Whorwood describing the original piece in the Evening Mail (which was based upon the report submitted to the councillors) as 'scaremongering.' The panic in the Lib Dem ranks even led to yet another gagging order - to match the one applied to the Meals Direct staff when that story broke - on the library staff in Yardley as the Stirrer threat-level was upgraded to 'mischievous.'

The Liberal Democrat councillors all seemed a little surprised and hurt that they were being held to account for their decisions by a rejuvenated opposition group determined to get involved properly in the political fight. Paul Tilsley told The Stirrer
'We have got no intention of closing libraries so I get very angry and upset when what I regard as responsible people are taken in by a political campaign by the likes of Stewart Stacey... He’s running a masterclass in how to attack a ruling administration.'
Now, let's nail this.

We haven't made this up. The truth is that this is a major concern to the people of Yardley and to the dedicated people in our libraries, who are also concerned about the future of their service. John Hemming has attempted to twist our simple message - wrongly claiming that we wanted to close the Glebe Farm site or that we opposed co-location or self-service checkouts.

Let's get one thing straight. Labour in Yardley aren't opposed to developing the library service, relocating libraries, technological improvements or co-locating them with other services. What we are opposed to is closing libraries, getting rid of the staff who are the lifeblood of the library system or replacing community libraries with 'neighbourhood libraries.' Neighbourhood libraries are little more than a room with a few shelves and a self-service RFID book checkout - they are designed to be run without much staff intervention. We've got no problem with them as outposts of the main libraries, but we will oppose them being used to replace the main service.

We've run a simple petition, calling for libraries in Yardley to be kept open and fully staffed for at least their current hours until better replacements appropriate to and agreed by local communities have been provided and opened. That's the nub of the campaign.

Paul Tilsley is right in one thing, though - it has been a masterclass from my friend Stewart. Even at a local level, some form of effective opposition to challenge the elected members is right, proper and healthy for democracy - and I'd argue the same in Sutton Coldfield, Yardley or even Ladywood. I would go further and say that the lack of an effective opposition to channel that challenge allows groups like the BNP to pick up on dissatisfaction and twist it to suit their own ends.

If Paul or any other elected member has problems with that, then they are in the wrong line of work. Labour in Yardley fully intend to turn the heat up in the political kitchen.

More on this tomorrow when I have had the chance to write up the outcome of tonight's meeting.

Welcoming our newest member

I'd like to welcome Terry Hipsey, lately Tory leader of Thurrock Council, to the Labour Party.

We welcome all converts, no matter how late. He's quit the party over tax:
I cannot justify David Cameron's decision to make his number one priority in a recession a tax cut, which would give hundreds of thousands of pounds to millionaires, but do nothing for the vast majority of Thurrock families

Last weekend, we had that loose cannonball, Ken Clarke, rumbling around the gundeck claiming that the inheritance tax giveaway had been downgraded from a firm commitment to an 'aspiration.' After Osborne and the attack dogs had a quiet word, Ken altered course and admitted misspeaking, causing Tory High Command to scattergun on-message shadow cabinet members around the news media.

It is a striking indictment of the new, modernised Conservatives that in the depths of a recession, one of their solid policy commitments is to give a billion pound tax break to the 3000 richest families in the country - a tax break that can only be funded by cutting services to those of us further down the ladder.

Same as it ever was...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Meals on Wheels Update

Hot off the Birmingham Post press....

The politician responsible for running Birmingham social services was forced to withdraw from a debate yesterday into her plan to phase out the council-run meals on wheels service after being implicated in helping to promote a private sector fast food alternative. Sue Anderson acted on legal advice and did not take part in a cabinet discussion. Her decision followed an incident earlier in the year when Liberal Democrat activists in her Sheldon ward distributed thousands of leaflets advertising Wiltshire Foods - a firm which offers daily deliveries of hot and cold foods to housebound people.

Earlier on in the day, John Hemming claimed that this leaflet did not compromise her ability to take decisions on this matter.

Legal experts disagree.

Sir Albert Bore also weighed into the debate.

We will see individuals facing huge increases in the cost of food delivered to their homes whether they are receiving hot or frozen meals. There is a client group out there that this council wll be putting at risk. I see this as a question of priorities. These people have to be a long-term priority for the council.

You heard it here first.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wheels within Meals grind slowly

And so the story goes.

It now appears that the staff in the Meals Direct service have been ordered into silence over their future, but there has been a joint statement about how their service - still cheaper than the one recommended by the Liberal Democrats - has been starved of funds and ignored.
"The council won’t give us any funding because they clearly want this unit closed down. We accept that the service does need to change but they won’t put their hands in their pockets to allow this to happen... What we cannot accept is that meals are of a poor quality. That hurts.. When our drivers have represented our service at open days they have been told by social services staff that they have not heard of us and have been told for years to refer potential customers to private sector suppliers.”

No real surprise, when the Cabinet Member in charge of the service can't even recommend it to her constituents.

John Hemming has been explaining how the Liberal Democrat team selected their chosen provider. According to a post on 'The Stirrer,' it came about through a rigorous selection process whereby one user recommended them. One user is enough to generate a mailshot reaching 45,000 homes?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cutting the cost of retirement

The second bit of 'good news' to come out of next week's cabinet meeting concerns the plans to construct ten new care home 'villages' and close the existing 29 homes across the City. When originally proposed, this received all-party support and the plans were striking and forward-looking - with the potential to put Birmingham at the forefront of elderly care and set the standards for others to follow.

Predictably, the Liberal Democrat/Conservative Regressive Partnership have run into problems. Part of the capital funding for building these new homes was supposed to have come from the sale of the land where the old homes sat, raising some £22.3 million, but property values now mean that the likely benefit is to come to around £4 million, leaving an £18 million black hole in the funding plan. In addition, the council will have to hand back £45 million in PFI credits that were to have been used to fund the development.

This is concerning on a number of levels, as the Budget agreed last week by the council only allows for a total of £15.3 million slippage in 'capital receipts' across the City. Granted, this will come in over four years rather than three, but the income should still be there - unless these figures are just so much wasted ink and amount to little more than a barely-educated guess. The capital income was to be used to pay off the borrowing used to fund these centres.

I mean, you can understand a Conservative-led council being tough on borrowing - they've been critical of the Labour government for increasing the national debt.

But then you realise that they plan borrowing of over half a billion pounds across the next three years, with a massive jump in debt this year to cover a shortfall in capital income. Indeed, the Tories and Lib Dems have approved a new borrowing limit of over £3 billion for Birmingham City Council. You do have to question their priorities - whether it is wilfully delaying construction of a new Library of Birmingham for shameless political reasons, spouting hot air over whichever project has been proposed this week to sate Whitless' vanity (the 50m swimming pool is a prime example of this) or the studied vagueness and corporate-speak that surrounds the 'Business Transformation' plans that will generate cost efficiencies at some point, but will actually incur a net cost to the city of a couple of million pounds this year.
So why couldn't some other programmes have bitten the dust or taken a cut in costs to cover this shortfall? Or is this just the easy option - hitting at those least able to fight their own corner?
The other possibility is that things are far worse than their own reports suggest and that far deeper cuts are coming down the line. The fact that only last week, there was a £15 million gap in planned capital receipts, which has now widened to £18 million in seven days, suggests that the figures listed above are just wildly optimistic and bear no relation to reality. If the land supposed to bring in £22 million is only likely to raise 20% of that, that suggests a black hole in the capital receipt accounts of around £230 million - a massive shortfall that cannot easily be filled. If the Highways PFI fails to lift off - a major risk in the current climate - then a further £300 million will have to be found for capital investment in Birmingham's roads, which have already been starved of funds in advance of the PFI starting.
Neil Kinnock once said 'You can't make a wit out of two half-wits' - but that hasn't stopped Birmingham Council from trying.

"I warn you not to grow old"

To quote a fine leader of our party. He was speaking of a Conservative victory and not of the Regressive Partnership that is getting down to work dismantling the role of the City Council and reducing it to little more than a parish council talking shop, but his words ring true today.
The first piece of 'good news' comes as an advance leak from the Cabinet meeting planned for next Monday, which will see a recommendation backed by Cllr Sue Anderson - the Cabinet Member for Adults and Communities and a Yardley Liberal Democrat councillor - that Birmingham City Council should cease to supply hot meals on wheels to the elderly and vulnerable by 2012 and must push all those who currently receive a delivery of pre-packed frozen meals off to private providers by 2010.
Naturally, this is being spun as anything but a cost-cutting measure. Heaven forbid that anyone would dare suggest it. This is about improving choice. Forget the data in the report submitted to Cabinet that the frozen and hot services both enjoy approval ratings of 94% and 88% amongst their customers and that the proposed option is the least popular amongst current users. Forget the focus group data quoted in the same report:

The focus groups held indicated that service users were generally content with the ‘Meals on Wheels’ Service currently being provided by ‘Meals Direct’. Some worrying factors arose from the groups in response to the question ‘what would the implications be for you if there were no ‘Meals on Wheels’ service?’. Service users made comments such as ‘My family would be very concerned’, ’I would worry’, ‘I would go hungry or try to cook for myself’.
This has nothing at all to do with improving choice. A problem was highlighted with supplying BME customers with appropriate food options, but that is hardly insurmountable. Of far greater importance was the increasingly urgent need to spend £140k on repairs and maintenance to the Cook Freeze Centre.

Should we be surprised by this? Not really, given that a leaflet distributed across 45,000 Yardley homes by the Liberal Democrats - complete with a picture of Cllr Anderson on the front - came with a recommendation from their MP and councillors to choose a specific private sector supplier and no mention of the City Council at all. That's how much faith Cllr Anderson has in her own department.
This private supplier apparently charges £20 for five frozen meals including dessert, compared to the £12 charged by the City Council for five meals - a whopping 66% increase in costs. For only £16, five hot meals are provided. To put that into perspective, that means an annual cost of £1460 for a daily frozen meal provided by this company, as opposed to £876 through the City Council - a thumping £584 annual extra bill for the elderly.
That doesn't take into account the vital daily contact offered by the Meals Direct service - often this can be the only contact an elderly person may have during the day. Incidentally, this supplier doesn't appear to offer much, in the way of ethnically-appropriate meals, unlike the range available from Meals Direct.
This is nothing to do with increasing choice. This is about cost-cutting - another of those inaptly named 'Business Transformation efficiencies' and it will end up costing these service users more.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Probably the most enticing pull-quote in the world.

I do hope Albert didn't write the headline to his rebuttal of the Tory/Lib Dem Regressive Partnership budget that is in the current edition of Backwards. The main article makes some strong points that the Partnership seem determined to ignore and is written in a fairly punchy style, which makes this pullquote inexplicably soporific. Curiously, your correspondent himself also makes an appearance on the budget pages. I'm the one in the bottom left hand corner. Still no idea who the bloke holding the plants is - answers on a postcard, please.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The magic of Spelman

'I know Caroline personally and she is literally the last person in Parliament who would want to do something wrong... someone of enormous integrity and honesty'

George Osborne, June 2008

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

That'll be £9600 please, Mrs Spelman. Cash.

The tax-paying public have a right to know how their money is being spent and politicians have a duty to ensure it is spent properly.

David Cameron - 2008

In a tidy piece of parliamentary defensive sleight of hand, the Parliamentary Standards Commission report has excused Caroline Spelman's use of public funds to pay her nanny as an oversight, but has demanded the return of the thick end of ten grand.

The full report can be read here, but here are a couple of salient points

212. ...the salary which Mrs Spelman paid Mrs Haynes from her parliamentary
allowances allowed Mrs Haynes to undertake her nannying duties for two years
without additional or separate financial reward which Mrs Spelman would
otherwise have had to have given her.

213. The problem was not in my judgement the dual roles undertaken by Mrs Haynes, but the remuneration arrangements made by Mrs Spelman for the two roles. These arrangements led in my judgement to Mrs Haynes’ work as a nanny being subsidised by the payment for her work as an administration assistant.

214. My finding therefore is that Mrs Spelman was in breach of the rules of the House when she incurred parliamentary expenditure for the employment in her constituency of her administration assistant because that expenditure was not incurred wholly or exclusively in support of her parliamentary duties, but was also used to support her assistant’s separate work as her live-in children’s nanny.

But it is all OK - she was under a lot of stress at the time, so we'll say no more about it.

For more on the Spelman case, look here and here and here and here.