Sunday, February 28, 2010

Terry's Huge Bill

There is something almost obscene that one of the first thoughts of Birmingham's Childrens' Services when confront with the genuine horror of the Khrya Ishaq case was to hire a PR merchant specialising in reputational management on a whopping £800 a day for 141 days, some £113,000. As always, I have to ask - if the largest council in the UK does not have people capable of carrying out this task, then why not? No wonder, the department was described as being unfit for purpose by its own boss.

One question that has not been asked is that, given that the contract was for 141 days and likely to exceed £50,000 in total, was it advertised or was it deemed to be exempt under the council's own standing orders?

According to the Council's own briefing, Terry Brownbill is apparently possessed of
considerable specialist knowledge of supporting local authorities, particularly where children have died in suspicious circumstances

although his website is silent on this specialist knowledge.

He does have considerable specialist knowledge of the the issues of travellers, becoming a leading light in the formation of a campaign group Middle England in Revolt around his home in Cambridgeshire. Much of his work relates to this part of the world, with him stepping to the fore to defend Fenland District Council for employing a part time chief finance officer who had relocated to Adelaide and carried out all his work - including appearing at council meetings - remotely and for the bargain price of £20,000 for this one day a week.

Still, we end up with a council more worried about reputational damage and spin.

Marking the polling card

Much as I'm delighted to see the Conservatives just 2 points ahead in the polls, this is the time when I add my own caveats.

Firstly, there is the standard outliers warning - this YouGov poll is ahead of any other, so I'd like some confirmation before I start breaking out the sparkling water.

Then there is the standard Liberal Democrat factor, which I have noted before - they are consistently underestimated in national polls outside election time, usually by three points or so, because they do not get the same coverage as the two main parties and can't afford the advertising presence.

Added to that standard comment are two specific 2010 Liberal Democrat polling elements which could have opposite effects on their showing.

For the first time since 1992 - which was in itself the first occasion since 1979 - this election is going to be a real contest about who governs Britain and unless something spectacular happens in the next few weeks, that means a choice between one of two parties. In that kind of election, conventional wisdom expects a higher turnout and a squeeze on the other parties, who are typically recipients of the protest vote for disaffected supporters of either the Conservatives or Labour.

The counter to that is that this time, Nick Clegg - Cameron-lite - will be participating as an equal in the leaders' debates in the run up to the election. His performance could significantly affect the out turn for the Liberal Democrats in bringing any undecided voters on board. In the actual poll, the Liberal Democrats will also benefit from tactical voting, as voters back them as the best chance of keeping either the Tories or Labour from holding a seat. Expect that to be a big issue in Solihull, as I suspect Labour voters are tacitly encouraged to back Lorely Burt in the hope of keeping her in place.

A bigger issue for me is the effect of voting in the marginals and how the uniform national swing indicated in the polls is not relevant. This election is not going to be decided in Sutton Coldfield or Ladywood, where the vote for the Conservatives and Labour can be safely weighed. It will be fought on the ground in a relative handful of seats, many of which have 'benefitted' from the Ashcroft largesse over the past few years, as the Conservative party has become a partly-owned subsidiary of the Ashcroft brand. There could be a disproportionate swing in safe seats for either party that will affect the national figures, but the real interest is in these marginals. I suspect that there will be an additional 3-5% swing to the Conservatives ahead of the national trend in the marginal seats and that this could make the difference.

So, while these national, headline polls are interesting, they may not be representative of the final outcome, which I suspect will be largely about turnout.

Economics for Osborne

Given that we're just about out of recession, does that mean that he'll be powering us into a full-on depression? He's certainly turned his poll ratings around. Last autumn, he was romping away with a double-digit lead, which has shrunk to a two point lead according to the latest YouGov poll.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Gideon's about

Demonstrating that his powers of communication remain undiminished, George Osborne was on the rounds of the TV and radio stations this week, full of his usual doom and gloom and promising an emergency budget within 50 days of the planned Conservative victory (it was originally pencilled-in for the first couple of days, but now he needs to see the books first). Cuts to public spending are back on the agenda, but he's ruled out swingeing.

Curious George was also his usual consistent self, reading his script that Britain needs to show that it is open for business and that the first steps towards creating jobs involve getting rid of existing ones.

Back in 2005, Danny Kruger was bounced from the parliamentary candidacy in Sedgefield (not the most winnable Tory target) for suggesting that a period of creative destruction - an economic theory close to the neoconservative heart - and then ended up advising Cameron for a while. It seems that the destructionist ideal remains current, however misguided and intolerant of humanity it is.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tory lead narrows, panic sets in

"Right chaps, we've tried terrifying them with fake crime figures, we're scaring them over social care, we've even thrown in vague fears about padded bras for the tweenies - we're even going to worry them about the route of the railway. And still the blighters won't vote for us. What's left? Anyone? Osborne? Osborne?"

That's how bad it is for the Tories - end of a third term, end of a recession and they still aren't leaping ahead of Labour in the polls. Alistair Campbell puts it well:
The Tories really should be doing so much better, and must be getting worried as to why they're not. An economy that has gone through a period of genuine crisis. Politics dominated by expenses. A current war becoming more unpopular and a recent unpopular war returning to the centre of the political debate. A tame media that fails to pursue them on difficult questions. A huge spending imbalance in their favour which is allowing them to put up expensive posters all over Britain, and fire millions of letters to voters in marginal seats. Yet as their spending has increased, their lead has not increased with it.

So, they turn to Gideon and he scrabbles around in his limited intellect and offers up a bribe. Vote Tory and get cheap shares.

Tory lead narrows to just 6 points over Labour - lowest gap since December 2008.
  • Conservative - 39% (down 1 point)
  • Labour - 33% (up 2 points)
  • Lib Dem - 17% (down 1 point)
Game. On.

Got to love the comment from the unnamed Tory MP who is clearly not a Cameroon
The inner circle can crow all they like about how well they are doing, but the elephant in the room is the polls. Cameron spent last week talking about sexualisation of children and nine-year-old girls in suspenders, when there are much more important issues he should be talking about.
We're still talking about a hung parliament with the Tories the largest party, but let's run with the message from Gordon.
We will fight for every single vote, in every single seat on every day between now and the close of polls. Labour’s fight begins today – and it's one that together we can, and must, win.
Harriet Harman opened this morning by reminding us that this fight is about the future of our country and she wasn't wrong. This isn't about change for the sake of change, about replacing the party at the top just because we're a bit bored with their narrative, this is about the future itself and how we want that to develop.

Sent to Coventry

Just back from a quick trip to see the Prime Minister.

We ran the gauntlet of a silent protest of Tory students - a handful of them, some waving home-painted signs demanding 'Brown Out.' Some of these were discarded carelessly by the protestors, so I've ensured that at least one has been brought home to form the base of the cat litter tray for the next week. Really - back in the 80s, we had slogans and songs, we didn't just mope around. Students today, eh?

Far more Labour-supporting students were present inside the hall - not bussed in as the Tories do - once we'd dodged Krishnan Guru-Murthy and his camera crew, who were taking soundings from members on the new Labour slogan. My daughter and I amused ourselves by playing spot-the-politico and there were a few there - Lynda Waltho from ultra-marginal Stourbridge, Ian Austin, Pat McFadden, Geoffrey Robinson, Bob Ainsworth and Steve McCabe were all there, flying the flag. The main turns then appeared and took their seats amongst the audience.

This was an interesting shift, as they took turns to make their speeches from the floor amongst the members and guests, not sitting on the platform. Harriet Harman opened proceedings briefly from the platform, before handing over to Alistair Darling, then Alan Johnson, Yvette Cooper and Peter Mandelson all warming up for the main act and confirming their relative status within the party by their placing on the theatrical bill for the meeting.

Mandy was his usual, bullish self. He's not a boot boy in the Tebbit mould, but rather more fond of applying a well-turned John Lobb loafer to the sensitive areas of the Conservative Party. His speech was rather good, praising the employers and employees who have worked together to see their businesses through the recession by reducing hours and pay. Not unreasonably, he described them as the real heroes and promising the government's ongoing support to allow them to grow and pull us out of recession with active support for enterprise from a government that is committed to their future. Peter Mandelson may be called the Prince of Darkness, but he has been one of the shining lights in recent months, prepared to hit the radio and TV studios, taking the fight to the Conservatives through the media and not letting them have the media story all their own way. Magnificent stuff - and I look forward to more of it.
And then came the birthday boy, threading his way through the audience, shaking hands and enjoying the welcoming applause. He's far better in these smaller, more intimate venues and he's nowhere near as airbrushed as his opponent, but Gordon has clearly worked hard on his skills in performing on these big, theatrical occasions. But this is the thing about him - you aren't getting an android designed to look good on posters and spout media-friendly platitudes, this is a real human being, with human frailties and failings, but with that come the deeply-held beliefs and a background that has driven him to where he is now. He's not flash, just Gordon.

I liked his opening line about the Conservative liability, the Shadow Chancer, George Osborne, of whom it is apparently said that from a Tory point of view,

he has lost the art of communication, but not sadly, the power of speech
Those airbrushed photos of Dave were mentioned as the

greatest advertising money Labour never spent
and there were further brickbats thrown at the Conservatives, reminding us why they are unfit for power, as they chose cheap political point scoring over a meeting with other parties and expert, charitable stakeholders to discuss the future of long-term care for the elderly. That they preferred to sit aside rather than engage in the white paper over the vital High Speed Two line between London and Birmingham and beyond. He stressed that the Tory policies don't come without a price - a price that will be paid by ordinary families.

Like all his colleagues, he recognised that we cannot campaign on our record alone, but must look to the future too. Interestingly, he spoke about the force of the market and how it has worked for freedom and prosperity, but also about how it needs to be moderated by morals - it isn't just about price, but about values, too. We will seek a global agreement over a bank transaction levy. He promised that a Labour government will deliver on rebuilding and renewing infrastructure and encouraging new industries - renewable energy, biotech firms and the digital and creative industries.

Essentially, there are four key messages for the campaign ahead.
  • Securing the recovery

  • Supporting new industries and new jobs

  • Cut the deficit but protect frontline services

  • Act for the many, not the few
Shrewdly, he's turning his imperfections into positives by using them to stress that he comes from a relatively ordinary background.

I know where I come from, I know what I stand for, and I know who I came into politics to represent. And if you, like me, are from Britain's mainstream majority - from an ordinary family that wants to get on and not simply get by, then my message to you today is simple: take a second look at us and take a long hard look at them.
If this signals a decision by the party that we're going to fight for this election, that we haven't given in to the inevitable, as spun by the media, that we think that the future is still up for grabs, then we have to be out there, making the case, demonstrating that the Labour Party is the one party fit and capable of guiding this country through the recession and back to prosperity.
Nobody believes that this election will be easy or anything less than our most challenging election since I don't know when - 1992, perhaps? One thing is clear, we must give people good reasons to vote Labour. People may feel that change is necessary, but they aren't sold on the idea that the Tories are the answer. We need to show people that a protest vote to elect a Conservative government simply because they aren't Labour will impose real costs on families and other people in your area.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Don't sexualise the kids, says Dave

Advertising firms that market to children in an age-inappropriate way will be blocked from government contracts for three years, says Dave, in a bid for the mums' vote.

Meanwhile, his spin doctor in chief, Andy Coulson, keeps quiet about his time running the News of the World, a 'newspaper' that only exists because of a fascination with other people's sex lives. Or his time on The Sun, where he thought that a good political question was asking the Prime Minister if he was a member of the Mile High Club, while the paper carried on printing pictures of half-naked women on page 3.

Not that this contributes to an oversexualised society, of course.

Quite how much of a threat this is is another matter, as Dave has promised to take an axe to government advertising.

This has the feel of yet another policy invented on the back of an envelope, because Dave's old mates in advertising have questioned the point of the government duplicating work already done by the ASA - which has only had to take action on five occasions in the past three years on issues over unnecessary sexualisation.
Hamish Pringle, IPA Director General, said: "This is a classic example of policy on the fly and as usual with such proposals they crash land when confronted with some facts." He added: "You can't just airbrush over nearly fifty years of the highest standards in legal, decent, honest and truthful advertising, governed by tough Codes, abided by over 95% of the time by advertisers and their agencies, and enforced by a world class self-regulator in the ASA. Cameron's idea of a "specially set-up website" would pull the rug out from under the ASA and is clearly ill-thought-out."

This is another policy that has grabbed a headline and will now be allowed to gather dust.

Irony lives

The shortfall in capital spend in leisure services is pitting the Mike Whitby Vanity Swimming Pool against community facilities in Sparkhill, Moseley and Stechford.

Put simply, while the cabinet report approved in October 2009 lists sources of funding totalling £102.4 million, very nearly half - £51.1 million - is classed as high risk. A further £7.5 million is earmarked only for Harborne and BALC and is thus unavailable to Sparkhill/Moseley. Referring to the contingency and capital receipts funding, the report notes that

Due to the high risk nature of the above potential sources of funding, it is considered that these cannot be assumed at this time to support the pool programme

The remaining low risk funding amounts to £28.5 million, insufficient to support the 5om pool and also unlikely to be sufficient to deliver the Harborne, Sparkhill, Moseley and Stechford community options. Once you take out the approved spending on Harborne, you are left with £17.2 million available - which is probably enough to deliver on Sparkhill and Moseley in some form, but not anywhere near enough to provide for the replacement of the tired-looking Cascades pool in Stechford.

Unless the capital funding situation eases rapidly, I suspect that it will come down to whether the political leadership is prepared to abandon either the 50m BALC complex or drop the community pools. I genuinely don't see a prospect of being able to afford both. It should be noted that the report put forward in October has committed the council to progress BALC, in principle at least and subject to planning and funding, putting that project ahead of any of the other community pools. As Whitby is committed to BALC and Mullaney firmly attached to Sparkhill/Moseley Road (although no councillor seems to be standing up for Stechford), the fight is very interesting.

All of this makes the title of the art project currently running at Moseley Road Baths rather more prescient than merely ironic.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lies, damn lies and Tory statistics

Airbrushing pictures isn't enough, the Tories are now airbrushing the statistics. We saw that with Chris Grayling and his abuse of the crime figures, to the point where the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority felt that he had to intervene, warning that Grayling's wilful misinterpretation of the figures was
likely to damage public trust in official statistics

Grayling's flailing defence of the indefensible, attempting to claim that the changes in recording methods didn't affect his argument - which is utter rubbish.

Then this week, we've had a minor decimal error in a report, which now states that 54% of girls in the most deprived areas get pregnant before the age of 18.

The actual figure is 5.4%.

Perhaps it was a simple mistake, but why did nobody spot it?

Is it that they don't understand statistics? Was it just a simple error?

Or did somebody look at the figures and assume that because this was about areas of deprivation that the figures must be right? Do they actually believe the propaganda?

The Lib Dem Danny Alexander put his finger on it
"The Tories seem to think that half our teenagers are pregnant, our cities are like The Wire and that people will get married for a few extra quid. If they really believe Britain is like this, it's remarkable that Conservative MPs can pluck up the courage to leave their houses. They should lower their drawbridges, spend less time tending their moats and duck houses, and join the rest of us in the real world."
Meanwhile, Don Paskini reviews a book that puts the lie to the tabloid tales of teenage pregnancy and challenges the received wisdom of the Daily Mail. Doubtless, because it is based upon academic research, it will receive precisely no coverage. I wonder if we'll hear that the birth rate to mothers aged 15-19 is now lower than it was in 1957 or is half that of the peak year of 1971? I doubt it.

Perhaps that is because it doesn't allow for easy answers - like encouraging marriage or tackling teenage pregnancy. Failed marriages and teenage pregnancy aren't causes in themselves, but symptomatic of a wider injustice - that of social and economic disadvantage. That may not fit the received narrative that Britain is a broken society, but it appears to have some foundation in reality.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Look how far we've come....

One of Labour's greatest achievements has been the investment in the NHS that has delivered a real saving - lives.

Hat tip to Bob Piper for this little gem of a website, reminding us of how things used to be.

In another reminder, last Friday, I was fortunate to have a chat with Baroness Morris of Yardley, formerly the Member of Parliament for Birmingham Yardley prior to the spread of the reign of Hemming.

She spoke of a local school that she had visited during her first term as MP, where the water supply and foul waste pipes ran inside a corridor, where it got so cold in winter that these pipes froze and cracked.

Under Labour, that school has been rebuilt.

Remember that.

Also via Bob:

No early bath in Sparkhill

The battle for second place in Hall Green is hotting up, with Respect's Cllr Salma Yaqoob accusing the Liberal Democrats of misleading the electorate over the future of Sparkhill Baths - closed for some months following the discovery of structural problems. In return, the champion of local democracy, Moseley Cllr Martin Mullaney and the boss of Leisure Services, has complained to the Standards Committee about her blog post, after demanding that she alter it to match his view of reality.
Thing is, I think she has a point.

On the left is a leaflet distributed by the Liberal Democrats in Sparkhill, showing a suitably-scrubbed-up Cllr Jerry Evans (currently best placed to come second in the upcoming parliamentary election) posing in front of the closed pool and the unequivocal statements

'Your local Lib Dem team have succeeded in securing funding for the rebuilding of Sparkhill Baths.... the rebuilding is likely to take around 2 years to complete'

That seems pretty clear. We can expect the bulldozers any time soon.
Or can we? Let's roll things back a little - and bear with me, because this takes a little unravelling to get to the truth.
Back in October 2009, the City Council Cabinet considered the Sports Facilities Strategy document presented by Cllr Mullaney's department. The following points came out of the report submitted and agreed for implementation.

4.3 .... A condition survey for Sparkhill Pool has been completed indicating that
the structure is failing and is unsafe for use and it would be more cost effective to
replace than refurbish.

4.4 Given the funding position, at this time, as outlined in Appendix 4 and the state of readiness of the 1st tranche projects i.e.: -
• That further work is required to develop detailed proposals for Stechford Cascades and the Sparkhill/Moseley area
Cabinet could now move forward on the Harborne project, to take advantage of the current competitive market, whilst maintaining a commitment to progress Full Business Cases for the other 1st tranche projects to be brought back to Cabinet in due course. This course of action would maintain momentum on the pool replacement programme, whilst adopting a pragmatic approach within the financial constraints.

From that also flowed the decision
Cabinet is also recommended to: -

2.11 To authorise the sum of £100,000 funded from the LTFS provision for major capital projects to develop options for a solution for swimming pool provision in the Sparkhill/Moseley area and the outcome and Project Definition Document will again be brought back to Cabinet for consideration in due course,
The 50m pool complex - known as BALC - has had the full business case prepared, but is still to have final approval
2.5 To note the Full Business Case for the Birmingham Aquatics and Leisure Complex (BALC)... and is still subject to the capital funding being identified from the capital contingency fund and capital receipts.
They haven't tied down the funding for this flagship project yet, so haven't progressed it. To keep Tranche 1 projects moving, the Harborne pool (coincidentally in Mike Whitby's ward) will be built and funding has been located for this project.

Some technical issues around BALC were agreed to be progressed, but it is interesting that the only commitment made at that meeting was to progress the other projects to the stage of having a full business case produced, for which £100k of funding was made available. We know that the costs of replacing Sparkhill pool are likely to be in line with the Harborne costing - £10-15 million. The current phasing of the plan indicates construction is planned for completion in 2013/14, despite the promise of completion within two years - construction isn't even proposed until 2011/12 at the earliest, although there is the potential for demolition and groundwork in the 2010/11 budget year, according to the proposal.

So far, those business cases have yet to come back to Cabinet, so no decision has formally been taken to replace Sparkhill pool. Cllr Mullaney maintains that the commitment is there, but the paperwork does not demonstrate this, although I accept his word about the political intent.

The financial plan was published last week and can be found here. Obviously, this is only a snapshot, but it lays out the plans for the next few years in terms of capital spending.

Comparing the two documents, you will see that the capital costs of Harborne translate into the plan, along with some other costs for moving the rest of the Tranche 1 projects forward for the next stage of approval. Interestingly, there is no funding identified for subsequent years for any other swimming pool proposal.
It has to be noted that this may change - the forecasts for 2011 and 2012 spends are just predictions. Actual capital spend may well turn out to be different from that predicted, but it is absolutely clear that no funding has currently been agreed for the Sparkhill baths replacement. Indeed, final approval from the Cabinet has yet to be obtained and cannot be obtained until the business cases are presented.
Cllr Mullaney may well have an informal promise that this will be forthcoming when the business cases are brought to Cabinet, but this is not the same as
'Your local Lib Dem team have succeeded in securing funding for the rebuilding of Sparkhill Baths.... the rebuilding is likely to take around 2 years to complete'
The publicly available evidence of decisions taken by the council simply does not justify that conclusion.
I would have to agree with Cllr Yaqoob that
The minutes of the council meeting report Councillor Mullaney as saying this: “…from an officer point of view, nothing has been allocated as such to Sparkhill, but there is the political will to allocate sufficient money to rebuild Sparkhill Pool.” So, as “nothing has been allocated as such” to Sparkhill pool, I will not be changing my article. But I am happy to repeat that Councillor Mullaney said there is the “political will” to come up with the money for Sparkhill.
It seems entirely reasonable for Cllr Yaqoob to call the Liberal Democrats on their misleading publicity.
In summary: the Cabinet have yet to approve the construction of the replacement baths and therefore no money has yet been allocated to the project. To state anything else is not supported by the evidence available. Indeed, if there is evidence that agreement has already been reached, those involved should withdraw from any further decision-making on the project, as they cannot be expected to reach a decision on the reports presented.
Given that Cllr Mullaney faced the wrath of the Standards Committee himself only a short while ago, his behaviour in using the process simply to bully a fellow councillor into accepting his particular world view is unacceptable and he should withdraw the complaint.
Back when HE was on the wrong end of a Standards Board complaint - and I had some sympathy with him at the time - he wrote on The Stirrer that
I believe that members of the public should decide at the ballot box whether or not they think a Councillor has been disrespectful. I don't think it is the role of the Standards Board to decide on the Ps and Qs of politicians.

I agree with that statement. This complaint appears to be solely politically motivated and an attempt to use the complaints process to undermine the parliamentary campaign of an opponent for the benefit of one of Martin's political colleagues.

I think he should consider whether this is behaviour appropriate to a Cabinet Member on Birmingham City Council, or indeed to a councillor.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tory redundancies hit home

The Conservatives are cutting council jobs in Birmingham, but they want us to know that they are suffering too, so cuts are hitting them as well.

Cllr Les Lawrence is one of the innocent victims, but news reaches me that after 16 years of loyal , if unobtrusive, service in the ultra-safe seat of Sutton New Hall, Cllr June Fuller has been deselected by her local party in advance of the elections in May.

She is to be replaced by another of Team Alden, Dennis Byrd, when he will be returned by the voters of Sutton for wearing a blue rosette.

EDIT: the new candidate is James Bird, a senior member of Edgbaston constituency party. My mistake.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Les - miserable?

The imminent elevation of Len Gregory to the dizzying heights of Lord Mayor has turned the thoughts of the Dear Leader to reshuffling the pack of jokers that constitutes his Cabinet of curiosities.

Not only does he have to replace Cllr Gregory at Street Services and Transportation, but it is rumoured that Tory Cllr Les Lawrence is about to face ejection from the inner circle as he is regarded as having gone native. Given that his other half, Chris Keates, is General Secretary of NASUWT, it can be said truthfully that he is in bed with the union. John Bercow, the current Speaker, is mistrusted by many Conservatives because he is perceived as far too wet and it doesn't help that his wife is a Labour candidate. Les is held in similar low esteem by some Tories, which is a shame because he's a decent bloke by all accounts and hasn't really dropped the ball with regard to education in Birmingham for the past five years, to be fair to the man. The same cannot be said for the child protection service under Les' control and the failure of this may prove to have been the final nail in his coffin

The jostling to replace him has begun in earnest, with various Conservatives vying for Whitless to show them some love, but it has been suggested that Len Clark may be the man for the job, following his devastating report on the state of child protection services within Birmingham City Council.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Still in the Tower

"Life on a council estate is markedly better than it was when I was growing up..."

Nadine Dorries. Conservative MP.
And next week we can look forward to her announcing that....
"It dawned on me suddenly that I could actually be making things worse."
Nadine Dorries MP
Perhaps this flash of self-awareness, a reality about her political career that hit many of us some while back, heralds her retirement from politics. Somehow, I doubt it.

Interesting programme this week. Toryboy Tim Loughton (nope, still no idea) actually came across rather well, trying to understand the issues around living in inner-city Birmingham. I thought Austin Mitchell and wife might have discovered empathy, but the generational gap between a young, middle-aged man and one in his 70s was apparent. I also suspect that some of Austin's humour was a little dry for the editorial taste on the programme. I hope that's the case.

Mark Oaten did himself no favours

Nadine Dorries this week assumed the role abandoned last week by Iain Duncan Smith - he left the series for understandable reasons - and quickly displayed her publicity skills. Required to present herself on a council estate with nothing but her clothes - no credit cards or cash - she secreted a small stash of cash in her bra. When this was discovered - the cash, not her bra - she claimed that it had been brought to allow her to buy presents for the children. Her claim would have been helped if it wasn't for the shifty glance into the camera as she 'explained' the discovery.


I have to admit that I think the Labour Party has made a mistake over the three MPs charged on Friday. Clearly, the three involved are entitled to use whatever defence they see fit - although I suspect that their attempts to use parliamentary privilege as a shield against allegations of criminal behaviour will be unsuccessful, as privilege has typically been used to protect an MP's freedom of speech, not the administration of their expenses.

However, the moment that charges of this seriousness were laid, then the three involved should have been suspended from the Labour Party. This should have happened on Friday without delay and would have been the right thing to do.

Suspending them today was the right move, but so belated that it allowed the Tories to gain a political advantage, which was a daft mistake to make. It is bad enough that three Labour MPs face criminal action, but it has been compounded by Labour making the bullets for the Tories to fire.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Not hideous, but diverse

"I feel as if I am home now. As if I have freedom now with all that brings with it. I can go anywhere in the whole world. I can walk tall. This is a country where you can sleep with both eyes closed. Where the chances are that you won't get robbed. Where you can build a house without tall walls. Where you can have any kind of car and no one will challenge you with a gun. Where the police are not lawless. I feel proud. Like I was born again today."
Albery Ekemode, a new British citizen.
Yousif Khaledi, 26, a shop assistant who arrived five years ago from Iraq, was entranced by the talk of British values, diversity and demo­cracy. Enough to sing the ­national anthem when others were only mumbling. He may not sing it again, but that's OK. On any reasonable ­criteria, once is more than enough.

Welcome to Britain, Albert Ekemode and Yousif Khaledi.

However, this other article makes me wonder if we deserve you.

Cuts, cuts and more cuts

The Stirrer reports that changes in the council's parks service could leave it unable to comply with legal obligations or government reporting requirements as certain key posts are being scrapped.

Another department which deals with building conservation issues is also facing the axe, as the officer in charge is retiring in March and not being replaced and the staff are expecting further job cuts to come.

Embarrassingly, this came to light at a recent meeting in Yardley, where residents in Acocks Green were stunned to discover that plans for a conservation area in the ward had been delayed, despite a promise from the ineffectual Tory in charge of Regeneration, Cllr Neville Summerfield. Although the Liberal Democrat councillors in the ward had promised a start to the scheme within six months, it was revealed that it wasn't in the departmental work plan at all and that this covers the next eighteen months. With the job losses, even this looks unachievable.

It appears that the plans have now been restored to the work plan, but a start date is still some way away. With the job cuts looming - how realistic is that?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The job of propping up Gordon Brown is not a job I want. We need to make Parliament do its job properly... Under a minority Government, things would have to be discussed and argued about, and what is wrong with that? Ministers would have to get their legislation through by convincing people it is the right thing to do.

Very democratic and laudable.

But odd that this comes from the man who was desperate to prop up the Conservatives in a coalition. Councillors aren't allowed to freely discuss and argue matters - disagreements are hammered into shape behind the closed doors of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative group offices. Cabinet members don't need to to convince councillors, because both groups will do exactly what they are told.

Odd that when the then Cllr Hemming had the influence to achieve this democratic dream, he declined it and signed up to the concordat in 2004. Now he has no influence of which to speak, even within the Liberal Democrat party at Westminster, he's reversed course.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Opportunity Knocked

Imagine this.

You are a maverick, backbench MP from a minor party, starved of media oxygen since your last leadership bid.

PMQs comes around, as it does every Wednesday.

The green leather benches are packed, the galleries are full. Gordon is there. So's Dave. And Whatsisname, Nick something-or-other. The TV cameras are there, this is live on the radio. This is what Parliament should be.

Mr Speaker's gaze has alighted upon you and he has called your name, summoning you to the centre of the bearpit of the Mother of Parliaments.

This is your moment. This is your chance to skewer the Prime Minister, challenging his policies over the economy, the military, Iraq, Afghanistan, the chance to demand an immediate election.
You could make your name with this question.

Silence falls across the chamber.
Not just because half of them are trying to work out who you are.

You are on your feet, ready to dazzle with sparkling repartee.
You have it - a leftfield question that the big man won't be expecting.

Then you wonder why the whole House laughs at you.

And before John Hemming burbles something about the Labour Party not caring, he's wrong. we've been campaigning on this as well. In short, Travel West Midlands have re-routed the number 41 bus, taking it away from the centre of Acocks Green. As part of their re-routing, there is no now bus serving the Fox Hollies Leisure Centre directly, which has to be a stroke of genius on their part. Furthermore, the 41 now carries passengers to Shirley, close to the site of a new Asda superstore, rather than to the local shopping centre of Acocks Green. TWM have got it massively wrong, but this is not something that can be laid at the door of the Labour Government. I seem to recall John's new best mates, the Conservatives, deregulating the buses back in 1985.
Incidentally, Cllr Gareth Compton - a Conservative star in the making - reviewed the bravura Hemming performance on The Stirrer:

You made an absolute tit of yourself at PMQs, provoking howls of derision from all sides... You had an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister a serious question. Instead, you chose a stunt for a press release and another 'Focus'. It made you sound frightfully trivial I'm afraid.

I think Gordon was joking when he said that he was going to call an emergency Cabinet meeting, but he did promise to write to John about the matter.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Tower Block of Commons

An interesting idea, taking these Westminster fish out of their Thames water and putting them somewhere where they are small fry in a much bigger pool.

So far, I've been distinctly unimpressed by our own Austin Mitchell - or more precisely, his wife, who are finding out about how the other half really live, but aren't getting into the spirit of the life swap as much as the others and seem to confuse empathy with condescension. I have a sneaking suspicion that I could have started to warm to Iain Duncan Smith and I'm feeling rather sorry for Mark Oaten, despite the embarrassment of his history as a Liberal Democrat, who appears to have a thin skin for a politician. I couldn't help grinning when his first response to the poor housing conditions of his tower-block hostess was to start a petition.

Tim Loughton, who is apparently the Conservative shadow spokesman on children (no, me neither) looked crestfallen when sent to Birmingham, as apparently, there are no Conservative MPs in Birmingham. Mr Loughton, can I introduce you to the shadow secretary of state for international development, Andrew Mitchell, who is the MP for Sutton Coldfield? Last time I checked, that was within the boundaries of the fine City of Birmingham, no matter how much the residents wish it otherwise.

Like all reality programming, this is staged and carefully edited to meet a particular agenda, but is this just a social safari? These MPs may want to live like common people and do whatever common people do, but at the end of the programme, they will return to their own realities, to their comfortable, safe houses with their swimming pools and wring their hands over the dinner table about how some people live. Austin Mitchell was at least honest enough to admit that he didn't know about how readily available drugs are, but I hope that this proves an eyeopener for four MPs who are clearly out of touch with some of the realities of life at this forgotten end of society. Perhaps it may even allow them to reconnect with their original reasons for going into politics.