Monday, December 24, 2012

Rolling out the bins

You may be aware that Eric Pickles offered a £250 million fund open to competitive bids from local authorities, ostensibly to help councils restore weekly bin collections - which Eric believes are a basic human right. The fact that best estimates suggest that it would cost something over £500 million to restore weekly collections may explain why only a single council actually bid to do that - Blackpool. Other local authorities have either used the cash offer to "protect" weekly rounds or to add something else to existing fortnightly collections. Birmingham submitted a bid for £29.5 million of that fund, that will increase the frequency of recycling collections for the quarter of the city that recycles the most, expand the rewards scheme, modernise our collection fleet and bring wheeled bins to about 90% of homes in the city. Although 40 bids were turned down, we had a bid sufficiently good enough to be allocated full funding as it delivered across the board exactly what the government wanted. This will cover the capital costs of the service transformation. 

We've committed to trialling it in two wards, to ensuring that it isn't a 'one size fits all' offer, so that where wheeled bins are entirely inappropriate, they will not be used. Assisted collections will be maintained, so that people who currently get help with handling their bin bags will get help with their wheeled bins (every round has a list of them, usually with a few more that the crews know about as well). Waste disposal has always been changing. BBC Four have had a couple of excellent programmes on recently about how we've dealt with rubbish, from the days when the old metal dustbins really did only contain dust, as food waste was put into bins for pig swill, through the expansion of rubbish as the economy recovered post-war and consumerism took hold, right through to the arrival of the black bag and their replacement by wheeled bins. 

I happen to believe that this will be good for Birmingham for a number of reasons, so I was disappointed to see the Liberal Democrat motion at the last council meeting, even more disappointed at the speeches and then at the call-in to scrutiny committee from the Tories last week. From the sound of it, you would believe that the 80% of authorities (including Solihull, Walsall, Sandwell, Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Coventry) that use wheeled bins must have descended into some post-apocalyptic hell, where the few bins not blazing in the street are being used to help burglars enter your home. Still, given their current rate of electoral descent, you aren't surprised at seeing the Liberal Democrats leaping aboard any bandwagon that trundles past. Their reports don't match the reality of anywhere I've ever lived or been that has these bins. Indeed, on a fact finding expedition into the dystopia that must be Solihull since wheeled bins were introduced back in 2009, I didn't have to negotiate rows of aflame bins or dodge hordes of burglars leaping down from conveniently placed chunks of moulded plastic. Friends living outside Birmingham's borders confirm that my experience is not unusual.

Yes, some people will set some bins on fire - West Midlands Fire Service currently attend ten fires a day involving rubbish. Yes, some will be used to facilitate entry to properties by thieves - who currently manage it anyway. I note in passing that one police team in wheelie-bin infested Solihull have just reported that they've managed a whole month without a burglary from a property being reported.

Will they obstruct the streets? Their physical footprint is very similar to the recycling boxes that are currently used, so if left out they will offer the same level of obstruction. Visually, they are more intrusive, but shouldn't we balance that against the wider public good of increased recyling?

Their objections entirely fail to address the funding gap. We know that by the end of the decade, if we do anothing, we will face an £8 million gap in the finances of this service alone. We currently spend £1 million a year on bin bags - and residents add to that with the bags they buy themselves. If anyone tells you that they want to retain bin bags - as the Yardley Liberal Democrats decided a couple of weeks back - then they also need to tell you what other service should be axed to pay for it, as we face a bleak funding future from a brutal and uncaring Tory/Liberal Democrat government. I'd rather see us spend that £8 million on services for those most in need than on continuing a failing system. Currently, we spend about £75 per household on bin collection - this will cut that cost to under £40 per property. 

I've praised the work that was done to improve recycling in Birmingham over the past decade - including that by the last administration - but we can't rest on our laurels. We send very little to landfill, largely because we send it to Tyseley to be burnt to generate electricity. We currently have a waste system not fit for the future - an elderly fleet of vehicles, with breakdowns causing missed collections. Our streets are strewn with rubbish, feeding a growing population of rats, all because of ripped bags spilling their contents onto the highway. Rubbish collection is our most visible service and the £29.5 million from the government allows us to invest in it and turn it round. 

Contrary to some views, this isn't a hasty decision. Way back in 2007, a council review suggested using smaller wheeled bins for weekly residual collections and noted that giving residents a 140 litre wheeled bin for recycling would “considerably increase capacity.” Indeed, the report proposed constituency-level pilot programmes, but failed to actually put any money into them. The new plans envisage a standard 240 litre wheeled bin for recycling – an even greater opportunity for improving volume, especially when allied to the incentive scheme and weekly recycling collections for a quarter of the city. We have learnt from the 80% of councils that collect from wheeled bins – their experience is that these are safer for our workforce, they increase the volume of recycling, they are cheaper to operate and they help keep the streets cleaner. 

The same report raised two objections to wheeled bins - one of the capital expenditure, which this bid will resolve - and one of the potential for them to increase the volume of waste disposed of. There is mixed evidence on this latter issue. Bear in mind that bins were originally launched some 30 years ago when the idea of a doorstep recycling provision was only a glint in the eye of the most determined tree-hugger. Bins were designed to handle volumes of residual waste and nothing else. There is evidence that the larger bins encourage more waste to be put into them - but there is also a slight gain there, as there is also evidence that the amounts of rubbish taken to household waste sites declined as a result, so saving the carbon dioxide emissions of several cars making that trip. There is a degree of 'channel-shift' there, not just increased volume. 

Like many councils, Bristol initially issued the large 240 litre wheeled bins for residual waste (residual is the technical term for everything that isn't recycled - whatever you currently put into your black bags), but they have recently replaced them with smaller bins, to encourage residents to recycle more - something that early adopters of wheeled bins now recognise as a good move. When I appeared on BBC Radio WM, residents from other authorities were incredulous at the level of opposition from Birmingham residents to the very idea of wheeled bins and I'm convinced that if you come back in five or six years' time, nobody will be asking for a return to black bags.

A decade ago, the Health and Safety Executive produced a report on manual handling in waste collection, which came out quite clearly in favour of wheeled bins - although they do bring about new issues in terms of safe handling. Far too many of our bin crew members either leave service early through ill health or die soon after retirement - it is a tough and very physical job. Providing a bin will help prevent manual handling and sharps injuries, as well as helping to reduce the food for the rat population. Our people have a right to come to work in as safe an environment as we can make it - that isn't about being a health and safety fascist, it is about being human. When you have a worker off sick with stress for six months following a needle stick injury - to the point where his marriage broke up - don't we owe them the safest working environment possible?

In 2009, the Local Government Association, responding to a brief campaign by the Daily Mail, surveyed 28 local authorities to get a quick snapshot view and every one that responded said that introducing wheeled bins increased recycling. As Richard Kemp, then Liberal Democrat deputy chair of the LGA, said,
All the evidence shows that most people like their wheelie bins and think that they make it easier and cleaner to throw out the rubbish. People also find that wheelie bins help to reduce litter on the streets
Food waste was part of the initial proposal from the last administration, but once we actually got to bidding stage, the Department of Communities and Local Government's own advice indicated that a food waste collection was not a high priority for funding – indeed, a third of those applications failed to pass the Pickles test, including applications from Bolton and a £17 million bid from Leeds. Elsewhere, we have seen Nottinghamshire scrap their food waste collections because of costs, as did Pendle in 2011. Shropshire scrapped their separate collections - used to feed an anaerobic digester - back in 2010 in favour of a mixed green/food waste collection to supply in vessel composting. I still want us to explore food waste recycling, but it has to cost in and we need to build the platform that allows us to go down this path. There is no doubt at all that wheeled bins and increasing the capacity for mixed recyclates will improve our recycling rates faster and more sustainably than food waste. That has great potential, but advocates of food waste collections now miss the point that it needs huge investment in education and massive behavioural change to achieve the figures that they have suggested. 

The other practical issue is that a weekly food waste collection would actually remove the need for a weekly residuals (black bag) collection - indeed, if you look at the two year WRAP study on food waste collections, the collection model with the lowest drop off in participation is exactly that model. The graph to the left shows a clear bias towards alternate week collections - note how the red stars are higher and further to the right, indicating both higher participation rates and higher volumes per household for alternate week collections. On that basis alone, I'm very surprised that any food waste collection schemes were approved, but that may be a matter of having to spend the money to avoid losing face. The DCLG were also quite firm that they wanted to see some public support for food waste schemes - either through specific consultation or even just through a manifesto commitment. As we know, neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats had the imagination to come up with a manifesto prior to May 2012, so they didn't even try to get over that hurdle. From what little we know of their scheme, I think it would really have struggled to get the funding required and would certainly not have won almost £30 million from the government. If we were already at an alternate week collection model, then we might have succeeded, but it is hard to see the economic justification for bringing in food waste collections and maintaining a weekly residual waste round - I'm not aware of any bids that offered that as an option. The Tory/Lib Dem bid would have failed on value for money terms.  

We found out in scrutiny committee on Friday that Cllr Tim Huxtable (Con) had taken it upon himself to discuss with government ministers whether they would be open to us reopening the bid to discuss changes - to reinsert the food waste scheme, for example. If Cllr Huxtable has such good contacts within the DCLG, then I think we'd be much happier if he could talk to them about not leaving Birmingham in the lurch by ripping away funding from a city with serious and broad needs. But he'd prefer to use his time to talk rubbish. 

To quote from experience elsewhere:
“The introduction of the wheeled bin service was a massive improvement to the bag and box format we had before. We wanted to give residents the chance to be able to recycle more and make it as easy as possible for them and it has been a huge success so far. It wasn't a one size fits all solution as we recognised many properties in the city didn't have enough space... so... we've adapted... some properties can have smaller bins, or can stick with the bag and box collection service. Since the introduction of the wheeled bins, the city has constantly exceeded recycling targets set by the government.”
That is from a Liberal Democrat councillor in Liverpool – a city with a very similar spread of housing to Birmingham and one where the council successfully collect from 90% of properties. 
Even a former Birmingham Liberal Democrat councillor and cabinet member wrote in August that if we won this bid, Cllr McKay and the Labour administration (actually, he also included me, but I can't take any credit) would have
“brilliantly outmanoeuvred every single council in the country and will brilliantly grab £28.5 million from a £250 million pot.”
Which we did.
Other parties seem determined to stand in the way of saving money, improving our waste collection service and delaying further development. Along the way, they would condemn the poorest in our city to further cuts to services. These bins will save money, protect our workforce from sharp objects and heavy lifting, keep our streets cleaner and make our city greener. Of course there will be problems and difficulties along the way - any change will bring challenges, but we will solve them. It is what Birmingham does. 

I accept change is difficult for many people, but even in these most challenging of times, shouldn't we try to make our city a better place to live?

At the last council meeting, we were treated to a Liberal Democrat led attack on Labour's plan to bring wheeled bins to Birmingham. This piece is based on a speech I hoped to deliver, before we were timed out without even a chance for Cllr McKay to respond to the attacks from the combined opposition forces. I've also modified it following last week's call in by the Tories of Cabinet's acceptance of the Pickles money.

Hemming opposes Birmingham Living Wage

Last Wednesday, Eric Pickles, David Cameron's commissar for local government, announced the settlements for councils across England, bringing about new, enforced cuts to council services. A number of Birmingham MPs were in the House to hear the announcement and both Richard Burden (Lab, Northfield), Steve McCabe (Lab, Hall Green) and Shabana Mahmood (Lab, Ladywood), raised key issues about the unfair treatment of our City - defending the people who elected them.

John Hemming, (Lib Dem, Yardley) was also there and he too went on the attack. Strangely, he decided to attack the lowest-paid workers in the council who have seen an increase in their pay thanks to the adoption of the Living Wage.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): When Labour took control of Birmingham earlier this year, the council immediately put up costs by what will be £10 million a year by increasing wages for some staff by as much as 70%. It is now aiming to charge the poor council tax at 24%. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should protect the poor and not put up costs in a time of financial problems? 
Mr Pickles: It was an outrage that Birmingham increased some wages by 73%— 
Steve McCabe: Who? name them. 
Mr Pickles: Birmingham. The council put 16-year-olds on the same wages as adults. It made a mistake and it was foolish to do so—[ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman should listen, because he is probably not used to dealing with poor people—[Interruption. ] No, no—a toff has an opportunity occasionally to meet the odd poor person. What was really bad about Birmingham involves the second part of the question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and how the council is seeking to get 23% council tax from poor people. As a committed socialist the hon. Gentleman should be on the phone now telling the leadership of Birmingham to look after the poor, not to tax them.
Let's see what other Liberal Democrats say. Simon Hughes
In my maiden speech to Parliament I quoted one of my predecessors, Dr Salter, saying "In a civilised society every worker has a right to a living wage. That is as true today as it was then.... it is hard to maintain the argument that the Living Wage is unaffordable"
Cllr Stephen Knight, Leader of the Liberal Democrats on Richmond Council - Vince Cable's turf:
"It is unacceptable that any council employees should be paid poverty wages. Thankfully there are very few council staff paid at this very low rate... but most are women and part time staff who always seem to get the worst deal. It is time that the council started treating its employees with the dignity they deserve and pay them at least the London Living Wage rate."
And again, just a few days ago
"In 21st century Britain no company should be profiting from the exploitation of its staff through the paying of poverty wages – and no local authority or other public body should seek to balance its books in this way, let alone a government department."
Gordon Birtwistle MP for Burnley and former PPS to Danny Alexander, co-chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills said in November this year
"Liberal Democrats support the living wage and we commend those employers who have introduced it."
Not only is there a moral reason for paying people a proper, living wage, there is an economic reason - money paid to the poorest in our society overwhelmingly goes straight into the local economy. 

I'm proud that the first item of business on the first agenda of the new Labour administration was the plan to pay our lowest paid staff a decent wage. 

We face exceptionally tough times in Birmingham - a government settlement that does not take account of the needs of the city (a settlement that John Hemming supports, by dint of his continued support for the government). The government has also imposed an impossible task on our council by handing over the delivery of Council Tax Benefit to local authorities - but with a 10% cut in funding. They have asked every council to develop a scheme to distribute this amount, but insisted that eligible pensioners cannot lose their 100% discount. This Labour council is working hard to protect other groups, such as the disabled, but unless we can find over £10 million to fill the gap (bearing in mind that other government cuts will slice £110 million from our budget in 2013), we have to spread the load over the unemployed and the working poor as well. That decision is enforced on us by John's own government. 

John would make better use of his parliamentary time if he supported the people of Birmingham, rather than attacking the poor and serving Eric Pickles' ego. Perhaps he's been spending too much time with the Tories. 

Vote Lib Dem - get poverty wages. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Budget Consultation 2013 Public Meetings

Tonight sees the last of the public meetings as part of the consultation process for the 2013/14 budget for Birmingham City Council. It will be held in Committee Room 3 & 4 in the Council House and the public are welcome. I've been to two of the three so far and they've been lively affairs, but generally well-ordered. We've heard the detail from Albert and the cabinet team, who have answered questions from the floor and spent far more time than was originally allocated to ensure that all those who want to speak get the chance.

Incidentally, if you miss the meeting, there will be a webchat with Sir Albert on Wednesday 19 December from 6:30pm to 7:30pm on twitter using the hashtag #askalbert. Even after that, you can send your comments to budget_views@birmingham.gov.uk or write to Budget Views, Room 127, Council House, Victoria Square, Birmingham B1 1BB.

Youth services and support for the disabled are key issues that keep being brought up. For those that doubt the importance of consultation, Cllr Ian Ward revealed that the consultation into the Council Tax Benefit scheme that we have to introduce next year has raised some important issues and he is minded to adjust our proposal to ensure that the disabled are protected, even if they are moved off Disability Living Allowance onto Employment Support Allowance and he is also looking to protect carers as well. Both of those are directly attributable to responses received from the consultation process.

One thing that comes up time and time again is a demand that we set an illegal budget, as Liverpool did in the 80s - where we plan to spend more than we actually receive.

Councillors can no longer be personally surcharged or jailed for setting an illegal budget. Actually, if that was all it took to sort this, there are several in the Labour Group who would accept it with equanimity, but that isn't the reality. While the council can move small amounts around between years to deal with events, it isn't legal for it to set a deficit budget that spends more than it brings in. The council could set a budget that was in deficit, but the chief finance officer (acting under s114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 - after the Tories got wise to that trick) would refuse to sign it off. Thereafter, the council would be unable to incur any expenditure, enter into any new contracts or collect any council tax until a lawful budget was set. Services in Birmingham would actually cease to be delivered fairly rapidly. Ultimately, if the council still refused to set a budget, the Department of Communities and Local Government would send in a small team to consult with officers and agree a plan of action, which would result in a budget being set solely to meet financial demands, with no thought for services. As the council had not been able to collect council tax, this would lead to a further shortfall in our budget, meaning deeper cuts still.

I do not believe that residents in Birmingham would thank any council for playing that sort of political game and it would be a dereliction of duty on our part to play it.

Who would you rather take decisions about services that affect you - Pickles' Whitehall mob or your local councillors?

All those who cite Liverpool as an example should remember exactly what concessions the government made when faced with that stand in 1985 when the authority refused to set a budget. Nothing. Not one iota. Just as Gove is spoiling for a fight with the teachers to prove his muscularity, so Pickles would relish putting the boot into Birmingham. We know where it ends - which is why I've included the clip from Neil Kinnock's magnificent 1985 conference speech.

We're taking enough of a beating from this government already. A deficit budget would not work and would actually damage the services that this council is trying to protect.

We were elected in May to run this city and we'll do just that. The budget envelope within which we have to work is not sufficient for the needs of Birmingham, but that is not the fault of this council, but the fault of the Tory and Liberal Democrat government that sets that envelope.

We just have to do the best we can with what we have.

Monday, December 17, 2012

I hate to say it, but I did warn you....

A little while back, I challenged some 'research' done by the boffins over at the Taxpayers Alliance - a well-known Tory front group - about their belief that Police and Crime Commissioners would be cheaper than the existing police authorities. I pointed out that they were likely to be wrong.

And as sure as night follows day, it has come to pass.

Tim Fenton over at Zelo Street kindly linked to that post after he spotted that the TPA are now walking on the other side of the street, all the better to throw stones at the office that they supported. The media have, as usual, lapped up this press release without pointing out that the TPA used to be enthusiastic supporters of the idea. It appears that some PCCs are appointing additional staff - something that the legislation allows them to do. So far, fifteen of the 41 PCCs have appointed deputies, with more to come. The Conservative Northants PCC has appointed no fewer than four deputy commissioners and is seeking to appoint no fewer than seventeen additional staff members, so is the runaway candidate to be the first PCC to cost more than the police authority they replaced.

The West Midlands' Bob Jones appointed Cllr Yvonne Mosquito to the post of deputy commissioner. Over in West Mercia, Bill Longmore has appointed his campaign manager, a path also followed by the Northants PCC, Adam Simmonds. Up in Humberside, the Tory PCC has appointed a fellow Tory councillor to the post, as has the Tory PCC in the Thames Valley.

Now, there's nothing wrong with the PCC appointing staff. Hiring a deputy is entirely sensible - you can't expect the commissioner to be everywhere, in particular when the force area is particularly large, nor can they be expected not to take holidays, so a deputy makes eminent sense. In the future, it would make sense for candidates to name their deputy prior to the election (as both Labour's Bob Jones and the Tory Matt Bennett certainly did) so that they can be scrutinised by the electorate.

And above all, take any dodgy research from the TPA with industrial quantities of salt.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Know your cheese

"This budget has more holes than gorgonzola," said Cllr Paul Tilsley, after Sir Albert Bore launched the Birmingham budget consultation today.

To the left is gorgonzola, an Italian cheese. Notable for the lack of holes. It does have blue veins running through it and as the budget is given to us by a Tory/Lib Dem govt, that seems appropriate.

I rather think that Cllr Tilsley meant Emmental cheese, from Switzerland, as seen on the right. That is packed full of holes. Unlike our budget, but rather like the ones left by the last administration.

Perhaps Cllr Tilsley would like to explain exactly why his colleagues scrapped the events line from this year's budget, but kept booking events for April and May - with no money put aside to cover the costs.

Even better, he and the spectacularly complacent Cllr Mike Whitby, who also appeared on the same broadcast to tell the populace that it wasn't as bad as all that, could explain why their government has decided that the people of Birmingham deserve to face budget cuts twice the size of the average for the rest of the country.

Sadly, there aren't many laughs in this budget process.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

And so the white smoke did rise from the ICC...

The West Midlands elected its first Police and Crime Commissioner and it has got a good one. Bob's got a great deal of experience dealing with the police, but he's also a decent, down to earth person and there was nobody else on the list who - despite my party allegiance - came anywhere close to being up to his standards.

He's got a tough job ahead of him, though - he's now the Head of Blame for crime in the West Midlands. Never mind that the biggest chunk of his budget comes from the Home Office - the police precept that we pay with our council tax only makes up 14% of the total spent on policing in the West Midlands and would have had to rise in total by over 40% last year to cover the cuts imposed by central government. From now on, though, the government will have a defence to criticism - they will point to your Police & Crime Commissioner as the person to hold to account.

The election itself saw a record low turnout, which the Prime Minister blamed on the public 
the turnout was always going to be low, when you're electing a new post for the first time
Oddly, the people of London weren't used to voting for a mayor in 2000, but 34% of them turned out. In Stoke in 2002, 24% of the electorate made it to the polls for their inaugural mayoral election and  28% of the people of Bristol turned out this Thursday to vote for their first mayor. A national turnout of 15% indicates something is seriously wrong with the policy that has led us to this. Even Conor Burns, Conservative MP in Bournemouth, was moved to tweet that he now regrets voting for the bill - although this may not be unrelated to the fact that a Bournemouth Tory councillor failed to win the post there in what seems to have been a particularly ill-tempered campaign with mudslinging aplenty. (FullFact have a series of graphs detailing turnouts here)

Every election brings a handful of ballot papers spoilt with insults to the candidates or the process, but only a handful (the candidates and the agents get to see all of them). I've never seen so many ballot papers spoilt with such clear opposition to this policy - people brought pre-prepared stickers detailing their objections or just scrawled across the paper comments opposing the politicisation of the police, the cost or even just noting that they couldn't decide because they didn't have enough information about the candidates.

This election has been an unmitigated policy disaster - a normal day at the office for this government. From the timing of the election - the cold, dark days of November do not encourage voters to trudge up dark alleyways to find polling stations, to the decision not to fund the same mailout to electors provided for all parliamentary and European elections, to the expensive error that meant emergency legislation had to be pushed through parliament to allow ballot papers in Wales to be printed in both English and Welsh, to a complete failure to explain why these posts were even necessary and even to the point that they were not made to fit in with the normal election timetable in May, just speaks of the appalling mismanagement of the implementation of a policy that the public showed absolutely no appetite for. £125 million has been poured down this drain.

I'm not sure we can draw an awful lot of firm conclusions from such a low turnout and so many additional parties in the form of independents. Indeed, in the Midlands, Cath Hannon fought an excellent campaign, even running neck and neck in Sutton Coldfield with the Tory candidate, Matt Bennett, a great achievement given the challenge of running any sort of campaign across 28 parliamentary constituencies, something that stretched even the organised parties. The Liberal Democrats, with just two candidates in the region (the other being in Gloucestershire) did see their vote slump - putting Ayoub Khan down in sixth place out of seven. Until the Birmingham vote came in, he was in serious danger of losing his deposit and he lost the Yardley vote by a crushing margin, took a beating in Solihull (both currently Liberal Democrat parliamentary seats with a solid base of Liberal Democrat councillors) and in Coventry, more people actually preferred to spoil their ballot papers than vote Liberal Democrats. The uncharitable would suggest that voting Lib Dem is actually a waste of a ballot paper in any case.

It is always possible that these posts may prove to be rampantly successful. I doubt it very much. I hope that Labour will commit to scrapping them at the first opportunity and replacing them with an effective system of local governance of the police. Ironically, the model of governance deemed unsuitable for policing has been accepted as perfectly adequate for the regional bodies designed to drive economic development and growth - the Local Enterprise Partnerships.

I wish Bob every success - he'll be a fine PCC for the West Midlands. I also hope he will be the last.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lest we forget....

Just two pictures from today's Remembrance Day ceremony in Birmingham, coinciding with the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

As always, it is touching to see the young and the old, the still serving and the retired, all gathered together to remember the sacrifices that are still being made today. For me, this isn't about approving of war, but about honouring those who have served this country - conscripts and volunteers alike - and have suffered for that service.
Even after decades away from a parade ground, the old soldiers still slip easily back into the rhythm - their backs stiffening as the parade NCO starts to issue a command and their shoes still hitting the paving in time. Amongst them, there are those currently in service and the young cadets who may yet join the armed forces.

It was also well attended by the public, with Broad Street blocked by the crowd, watching the ceremony. This year, we were blessed with a fine, crystal clear day with not a cloud in the sky.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them. 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Cottesbrook Junior School plans to close early on Fridays

You may have seen this story on the front page of the Birmingham Mail today - on BBC WM's Adrian Goldberg show this morning, the Drivetime show this afternoon and BBC Midlands Today this evening.

The school have refused to comment to the media and this has meant that there's a lot of disinformation flying around. I'll try to clear that up with some facts, but I should be clear that I'm supporting the majority view of the parents at this stage, but I will try to put the school's case as I remember it. 

The school is proposing to change their opening hours every Friday to close at 1pm, rather than the usual 3:20pm, starting as usual at 8:50. This is being consulted upon by the governing body with a view to the new hours starting in January. The school proposes to run a number of free after school clubs on the Friday afternoon to help those parents who are unable to collect their children at this time and they have suggested criteria for accessing this facility. 

The reason is that the school believe that this will make it easier to deliver PPA time for their staff. This is a legal requirement to allow teachers to carry out planning, preparation and assessment work and has been part of the education landscape for a few years now. It isn't, despite the shorthand used by some parts of the media, a chance for teachers to "catch up on paperwork" as if they are lazing around in the staff room. It is vital to the provision of good education. Schools provide that time away from the classroom through a number of methods - some employ a floating teacher to cover classes in turn, others use supply staff and some bring in external companies to deliver PE or other activities. 

Last night, there was a very well-attended meeting of parents, with about 100 people present. I attended, after a number of constituents had approached me with their concerns about it and I was struck by the dedication of those parents to the education of their children - their knowledge and their passion was impressive. There was only one parent there who spoke up in favour of the proposal - the vast majority of them were utterly opposed to the idea. 

A minor issue raised was the inconvenience of picking up their children at 1pm and working that time around jobs and collecting children from other schools, including Cottesbrook Infants across the road. For most parents, the main concern was that their pupils would be losing teaching hours. Over the course of a month, this comes close to a whole school day lost.When schools are focussed on attendance, this seems to send the wrong message to pupils and parents about the value of school time. 

The school claim that other schools adjudged excellent by OFSTED operate similar hours. One example cited was Ninestiles Academy, which does close at 2:15 on alternate Fridays, but the lost hours are made up across the remainder of the week - not something part of this proposal. In any case, merely saying that other excellent schools do this does not establish that this change actually brings excellence - I'd like some evidence to support this. 

Additionally, the school says that this means that the classes will have their usual class teacher with them for all the teaching week, rather than only part of it, citing the variable quality and sheer cost (over £60k) of supply teachers as an issue. The cost is a fair comment, but other schools do manage to deliver PPA time without this change. Further, they will still not have their class teacher - or any teacher - with them on Friday afternoons, whether they are at home or in school. 

I also have concerns about the after school clubs on Friday afternoons. They will be prioritised for those pupils whose parents are either in work or education, alongside pupils with special educational needs. What worries me is that pupils with unemployed parents could be excluded from these clubs and that also sends the wrong message about the value of people. 

This is all possible because last year, Michael Gove, in his infinite wisdom, gave schools the power to change the length of the school day, removed legal minima on the number of hours to be taught each week and also removed the regulations about consultation. The school governing body can take the decision and do not need to even consult the local authority. Gove did not remove the statutory requirement for schools top open for 380 half day sessions per year - usually delivered across the 190 days that most schools are open and at first sight, this scheme appears to reduce that number of sessions down to 357 this year and 342 in subsequent years. Some parents are certainly concerned that this may actually be unlawful as proposed - that's a key question that the school need to answer.

I can't stress enough - I absolutely support the aim of this school to deliver first-class education to their pupils, but I do not believe that this is the right route and nor do the parents to whom I have spoken, people who just want the best for their children. 

What do you think? Are the parents wrong? Am I wrong? Does this work elsewhere?

Cottesbrook Infants (where I am a governor) has no plans to consider changing their hours to match. 

I don't usually cross-post to both the John4AG blog and this one - this story may have wider reach than just the local audience, hence the duplication.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A government committed to outsourcing

We have a government that is utterly committed to outsourcing in a way that we have never seen before, but it is a shameless attempt to outsource the blame.

If crime rises in your area, that's nothing to do with government funding or legislation - that will be down to your Police and Crime Commissioner. You chose them, change them at the next election.

If you don't like the NHS services around you - talk to your GP, in charge of commissioning services. It isn't the government forcing through an unwanted and untested reform of the service or cutting 6000 nurses (so far).

Not happy with your council services? Change them at the next election. It isn't the fault of the government, cutting grants and capping council's ability to raise money.

Whatever goes wrong, this government hope that they can pin the blame on somebody else.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The end of local government as we know it. And I don't feel fine.

"I'm the first to say we should have lower taxes and smaller government. And I'm the Chancellor who is cutting the size of Government faster than anyone in modern times. We're reducing the size of government, from almost 50% of our national income to 40%, in just five years"
Sir Albert Bore dominated the local and regional news headlines yesterday with a blunt and sobering message - thanks to decisions taken by the current national government and inaction by the previous council administration, the Labour council in Birmingham will be forced to cut back on services. Not slicing off bits and pieces here and there, but making fundamental decisions about which services we do - or do not - provide to our citizens. This is the reality of Osborne's ideological plans to cut the size of the state - it comes at a cost of services that we provide to you. 
Cllr Tim Cheetham (Lab, Barnsley MBC) wrote about this situation in an excellent article here, where he reminded us of the Barnet 'Graph of Doom' - a chastening piece of work which was done for that London borough, but seems to apply to virtually every council across the country. What it effectively means is that, given the path that this government has set, by around 2020/23, local government will be funded to cover the costs only of adult and child social care. Nothing else will be affordable. As Tim writes,
The plain fact is that we have no fewer roads to mend, no fewer bins to empty, no fewer vulnerable adults to care for and no fewer children to safeguard. We have no less responsibility for any of the things the public have come to rely on the council to provide. In most cases we have more of these things
This massive shift will also mean that local authorities will be providing services for a minority of their residents and their voters. While just under half of the country uses a library and over a quarter use leisure services,only just over 10% of us use adult or children's services. This can't help but marginalise further these service users and reduce the value that others attach to the provision of that service. The government is, intentionally, trying to make local government less relevant to those that we represent. 
It has become apparent that this government will be imposing further cuts on Birmingham - more even than were known about by the last admininstration and some that are still to be confirmed, but are at the whim of Eric Pickles, the secretary of state at the Department of Communities and Local Government. There may be a further £50m of cuts to come - we don't know. We won't even be clear on the final settlement for 2013/14 until December or January. 

Even the plan set out by the last administration, which assumed a 1.9% council tax rise in 2013, has been blown out of the water by their own Coalition government. Eric has effectively capped council tax rises at 1.66% next year, requiring a referendum for any increase greater than that. That move alone leaves a shortfall of £600,000 in next year's budget. The government are likely to fund an amount equivalent to 1% in council tax next year - as they did this year - but unlike 2011/12, the government 1% will be a one-off payment, with no lasting increase in the grant. 

Mike Whitby popped up on BBC Midlands Today to make his point that Albert was scaremongering and that this 'displays political cowardice and weak leadership.' Albert and the Cabinet, along with other Labour colleagues will be at the public consultations, unlike the previous administration, who shoved council officers out to defend their political decisions. 
Whatever people say about Sir Albert - and people say plenty of things - he knows how local government works more than perhaps anyone else I have ever met. He's been a councillor in Birmingham for 30 years, through the hard years when the chill winds of Thatcherism blew through council corridors. So, when he says that this is the worst he has ever known, you sit up and you listen. 
We have choices to make over the coming weeks and months and many of them will be unpleasant. I can promise you that Labour in Birmingham will work to protect the most vulnerable - we will throw our increasingly dented shield over them, as one of my colleagues put it. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Vale Mitchell

So farewell then, Andrew Mitchell, former chief whip, as the inevitable ending to the over-extended saga of his resignation. The boil may finally have been lanced, but the delay has been immensely damaging to David Cameron's status as Prime Minister - he looks less like a leader by the day. His post-speech conference boost has certainly been damaged - he's failed to retain anything like the same level of approval as Ed Miliband.

As I wrote at the time, this did not have to be fatal for Mitchell or overly damaging for Cameron. Take yourself back to that self-justifying apology on the steps of the Cabinet Office, which was trailed in advanced, but actually proved as insubstantial as one of Osborne's economic policies. Camera crews turned up, radio stations were ready to take the apology live, just after 8am - a prime spot to catch the nation's attention for the day. Imagine if Mitchell had apologised, fully and unreservedly, explained that he had had a hectic day, was tired and had since spoken to the officers involved, apologised to them personally and had offered a donation to a police charity, as a mark of the pride he felt in the competence of our police service. To my mind, that would have largely killed the story - Tory MPs could have rallied around him and the matter would not have dragged on through the conference period. The apology that wasn't just worsened the situation, as he effectively accused the police of lying and failed to offer any alternative statement.

That would have been the preferred option - embarrassing, but an overnight wonder, as I would have suggested that the apology be made on Saturday morning to grab the Sundays and shut the story down for that news cycle. Alternatively, if he felt that the behaviour was sufficiently offensive, Cameron also had a window where he could have sacked Mitchell, a window that probably extended a couple of days into the following week, but with the right apology, I think this could have been avoided.

What Downing Street failed to recognise was the level of damage that this story would do and precisely how far it plays into supporting an existing image of a privileged elite that looks down upon the governed, as well as being an appalling way to treat somebody whose job it is to stand between you and terrorists. Regardless of the truth behind the exchange (and, for the record, I believe the police version of events, as they had too much to lose if they invented the details), the public were prepared to buy into the perception.. This should perhaps be the greatest worry for the Tories - that nobody recognised the way that this story would cut through to the voters and it is indicative just how out of touch they are politically that this wasn't identified early on and resolved.

The story has polluted what should have been a clean narrative about the Conservative government - they've not been able to get their message through because of the noise. Now, from a Labour point of view, I'm delighted at this incompetence, but from the point of view of a citizen of this country, it genuinely worries me. Mitchell has been spoilt goods for weeks now, his credibility destroyed with the public and with the people he needs to shepherd - his own backbenchers. He had no hope of being able to discipline them or bend them to his will and Cameron should have spotted this earlier.

I don't believe for a second that Mitchell was resigned to try to deflect from Osborne's little class difficulty on the Virgin train to Euston - that would be extraordinarily stupid, especially as Virgin, with one eye on the retendering process, rapidly supported the Chancellor's version of events. What seems to have been the case is that a number of Cabinet Ministers have expressed their concern - there were rumblings of this at the conference, with ministers openly talking of Mitchell's demise - and the deputy chief whip is rumoured to have talked of his own resignation.

Also important was this week's Prime Minister's Questions, where Mitchell denied that he had sworn at the police, when Ed Miliband challenged Cameron over the matter. Now, I don't think that a heckle can be regarded as a statement to the House, but, given Mr Mitchell's statement in his resignation that he had said to the officer, "I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us," that doesn't seem to be entirely true. (We can split hairs about whether he swore AT the officer or merely in his/her presence).

The outcome has been that the image of the Tory party has been further tarnished with the electorate and the relationship with the rank and file police has broken down, probably irretrievably for this government. Cameron looks like he is not in control of his government, but more focussed on looking after his friends than looking after the country. He's wasted a prime opportunity to get his message across to the nation because of this distraction and he has nobody but himself to blame. He's undoing the work of his speech in reinvigorating his membership and reinforcing his leadership. Virtually every interview has been diverted onto this subject and it couldn't have come at a worse time for the Tories, with elections for Police and Crime Commissioners just a few weeks away and Tories across the country hopeful of winning some of those posts outside the major urban areas. Fatally for his career, Cameron is looking less like a leader with every turn of incompetence and if the polls continue to reflect this decline, the call for Boris may come sooner than anyone thinks.

Cameron used to run PR for ITV Digital. With his talents, I think we now see why it went bust. Looks very much like he's intent on wrecking the Tory party as well as the British economy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

An academic exercise

The Boundary Commission have announced their plans for the parliamentary geography for the West Midlands. The highlights for Birmingham are that Sutton Coldfield remains as it is, but the rest of Birmingham looks to be safe Labour, should these plans go ahead, although the Tories might fancy their chances in Erdington or Harborne, but that would be a stretch with the current political system. I would suspect that Solihull would be a Tory gain still, but only marginally over the Liberal Democrats, who will import their mass vote from Sheldon. I also think that Meriden could be interesting, particularly with the mass Labour vote from Shard End being imported into a previously true blue constituency - which was a close-run thing in 1997.

Is this just an academic exercise or will the Tories surprise us?

Birmingham Edgbaston - LAB
Edgbaston, Moseley & Kings Heath, Selly Oak, Sparkbrook

Birmingham Erdington and Castle Bromwich - LAB (Poss Con target)
Erdington, Kingstanding, Stockland Green, Tyburn, Castle Bromwich (currently Solihull)

Birmingham Hall Green - LAB
Billesley, Brandwood, Hall Green, Springfield

Birmingham Harborne - LAB (poss Con target)
Bartley Green, Harborne, Quinton, Weoley, Old Warley (Sandwell)

Birmingham Ladywood - LAB
Hodge Hill, Ladywood, Nechells, Washwood Heath

Birmingham Northfield - LAB
Bournville, Kings Norton, Longbridge, Northfield

Birmingham Perry Barr - LAB
Aston, Handsworth Wood, Lozells and East Handsworth, Perry Barr

Birmingham Yardley - LAB
Acocks Green, Bordesley Green, South Yardley, Stechford & Yardley North

Sutton Coldfield - CON
Sutton Four Oaks, Sutton New Hall, Sutton Trinity, Sutton Vesey

Meriden - CON (Lab target)
Shard End (Birmingham), Bickenhill, Chelmsley Wood, Kingshurst & Fordbridge, Knowle, Meriden, Smith's Wood (all Solihull)

Solihull - CON (LD marginal)
Sheldon (Birmingham), Elmdon, Lyndon, Olton, St Alphege, Shirley East, Silhill

Birmingham's Soho ward goes into a Smethwick constituency, which is safe Labour. Oscott goes into Walsall South,

[EDIT: to correct misspelling of Old Warley]

Monday, October 15, 2012

Over the boundary

According to the Financial Times, senior Tories are plotting to buy Liberal Democrat support for their gerrymandering of the constituency boundaries with a blunt offer of cash for votes when the proposals return to parliament in autumn 2013. Grant Shapps specifically denied that he was in negotiations with the Liberal Democrats on yesterday's Sunday Politics, but that doesn't preclude somebody else plotting.

Now, although I will believe much of the Liberal Democrats, I don't think that they can formally shift their position on this. There doesn't seem to be a narrative that could provide a credible cover for a policy change. There's also a practical aspect for them, that if the review goes through, many of their sitting MPs will find re-election massively challenging. As we all know, they are like limpets once they are elected and typically focus on building up a personal constituency vote to shield them against electoral shifts. However, this only works in areas where they have incumbency and with new boundaries bringing in new areas, spreading the LibDem gospel will be even more challenging. So, for those reasons, I think a formal shift in policy is unlikely and I also think it is unlikely that the measures will pass next autumn.

However....

Look at the numbers.

There are currently 650 MPs in the House, but of those, the five Sinn Fein seats remain unoccupied. Add in the four members of the Speaker's team and that reduces your number required for a majority to 321. The Tories can be expected to have 304 MPs by the time the vote rolls around next autumn (assuming that Corby goes to Labour in November 2012, as expected), so the gap that needs to be closed is less than twenty. This does assume that all Tory MPs will vote for the changes - even those, like Nadine Dorries, who would see their seats abolished. Is it beyond belief that some of the nationalist parties could be persuaded to come on board and perhaps even a handful of 'rebellious' Lib Dems to bolster the numbers?

I don't think that Clegg will further erode any credibility that his party might have by deciding to support the change in policy, but I don't think that it is beyond the bounds of possibility that some deal may be done whereby certain MPs 'decide' to support the government or even abstain in return for financial support for the Lib Dem party.

Of course, the way to kill the idea now is to stop the work of the Boundary Commission. Hasn't happened yet, has it?


Friday, October 12, 2012

The Mitchell Question

Alistair Campbell, I believe, always took the view that if a bad news story ran on for more than a few days - and certainly across a weekend - then a resignation was on the cards. The same was true if the messenger became more important to the story than the message. Ultimately, that was why he himself left government - you can't get the message across if you are the bigger story.

Time and time again, Cameron has ignored this advice, perhaps out of some loyalty to his colleagues or perhaps because he lacks the necessary inner steel to tell them that their time is up and is more scared of having big beasts lurking on the back benches waiting for a chance to savage him. If, as expected, Andrew Mitchell falls or is pushed onto his sword today, I don't think that it will do much to reverse the damage caused by his outburst at the police. The swearing was out of order, but the sentiment of privilege is the most damaging, as it retoxifies the Tory brand (although savage cuts to benefits for the hardworking poor don't help much, even if they are given a light dusting of public approval and branded as cracking down on scroungers).

Even though the news agenda has moved on in the past few days, the echo chamber that is a party conference has been filled with grumbles about Mitchell - who wasn't even able to attend a conference in the city he represents. The Mitchell saga also puts the lie to Cameron's speech about wanting to spread privilege.

The problem is that the message over the past few days has been that it is time to move on, although Mitchell still accuses the officers on the gate of lying, even if nobody actually believes him. Mitchell should have been sacked/resigned on the spot, because it has been obvious that this story would run and that it would become bigger than the message.

With his speech in mind, Cameron could have demonstrated his views on privilege in a practical manner, by leading and not following public and media opinion and dismissing Mitchell in advance of the conference. He doesn't look like a man in control, but one carried away on the tide of events. While that may be an accurate representation of his leadership, it doesn't bode well for his future. People don't have to like a leader to elect them, but they do have to respect them. Gordon Brown would probably have won a - reduced - majority in 2007 after a strong summer of events that demonstrated his leadership abilities.

Cameron and Osborne have probably done enough to hang on until 2015 in their respective roles, after this conference, but it would be wrong to say that the Tory party likes or respects them. I think it is resigned to having to put up with them for the time being, but I don't think they are secure. Neither looks like a winner and neither looks like a leader. If that is maintained, I wouldn't rule out a challenge over the next eighteen months, particularly in the face of events.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Osbornomics - answering questions that have not been asked

With today's announcement that employees will be able to sign away their employment rights in return for a handful of shares, Osborne continues his record of economic illiteracy, providing ineffectual supply-side answers to demand-side problems. More than that, he's also created a tax break for the 'high worth' employees.

Employees will be able to surrender their rights to claim unfair dismissal, redundancy, the right to claim flexible working, the right to training and will also have to provide 16 weeks notice of a return to work after maternity leave rather than the current 8. Companies get to choose whether they offer this contract and, while it is aimed at small startups, it can be used by companies of any size.

This originates in the Beecroft Report - although report seems to be a generous term for a document entirely devoid of evidence or references and largely consists of a wish list from venture capitalists about how to further take advantage of their workforce. Nowhere is there any evidence that any of these changes will boost the economy. In fact, we already have the second weakest protections for employees of any comparable country - Germany is far tougher and has not suffered the same level of economic collapse that we have.

As I have said repeatedly, in my experience of recruitment over some fifteen years, I have never had employment rights raised as an obstacle to hiring a new employee. The main question you should ask is if there is a business case for recruitment and that is almost entirely based around demand.

What Osborne has done is to make Beecroft sufficiently palatable for Cable to swallow chunks of it - but Osborne has also written in a tax break for his mates. So, we will have the 'plebs' being offered £2,000 worth of shares - in return for a job which has significantly reduced security, while top level employees get an instant golden handshake of £50k in shares which will be exempt from capital gains tax.

This is not aimed at creating a stable economy, but increasing instability for the lower-end workforce - the very people whose spending helps sustain our domestic economy.

George - the problem isn't with regulatory issues holding the economy back. It is a lack of demand.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

LibDems still making promises they can't keep

Ayoub Khan, dismissed by the Aston electorate in May, is in the running to be the Liberal Democrat candidate for the Police & Crime Commissioner on Nov 15, assuming he wins the race to be nominated as their candidate. It is a race in which he is the sole entrant, so he's probably in with a reasonable chance.

His big policy announcement at last night's Birmingham Chamber of Commerce hustings meeting was that he will target the police to respond within five minutes of an emergency call.

Given the cuts imposed by the government that he supports, which will see almost 1200 police officers and over 100 PCSOs leave the service, this looks like a pipe dream at best. Especially as the service couldn't make the ten minute response target, so now works to a fifteen minute target.

Will officers be pushed to drive faster to incidents? Will all response vehicles be single crewed, ensuring that the initial response arrives on scene within the target time, but the officer then waits for backup to arrive before intervening?

Or is this just a vague promise from a candidate that will face a struggle to retain his deposit and knows that he will never have to keep it?

Clegg tells opponents to'Vote Labour'


There are a group of people - they are perfectly free to do this in a free democratic society - who like to throw stones from the sidelines, who like to be associated with causes where there’s never a difficult decision needs to be made, who don’t actually like parties being in government. And who always scream ‘betrayal’ when any party goes into government.  
“In other words, people who like protest but not the reality of power. 
“And I make no apology of saying to those people, we are not the party for you. If people want just protest politics, if they want a sort of ‘I don’t like the world let me get off” party, they’ve got one. It’s called the Labour Party.”
Frankly, this is beyond parody from the leader of a party that for decades has been the resting place for voters who want to cast a safe protest vote for a party that has resolutely avoided government. 
The Labour Party is a party of government. We had thirteen years in government nationally and we've just got back into government in Birmingham, ousting a failed Liberal Democrat/Tory administration. If you want to see the realities of power, look at local government trying to cope with Clegg's cronies in power nationally. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Handy facts on housing

Thanks to @joehalewood for digging these facts out - they are relevant to ongoing debates over housing and housing costs and I make no apology for lifting his blog post wholesale:

The COntinuous REcording (CORE) statistics for 2011/12 have just been released on the CLG website and make interesting reading

Did you know?
  • Average social rent is £76 per week or £329 per calendar month?
  • Average HA rent is £81 per week and £351 per month
  • Average ‘affordable rent’ is £110 per week and £477 per month
  • Average market rent is £163 per week and £706 per month
  • 20.88% of social housing tenants are unemployed
  • 29.48% of social housing tenants are EMPLOYED! – So there are 3 employed social housing tenants to every 2 unemployed!!
  • 94% of social housing tenants are UK Nationals (Less than 1% of all the housing in the UK is social housing given to foreigners)
  • Only 35% of ‘affordable rent’ tenancies are new build – 65% are not!
  • Shapps ‘affordable rent’ panacea has seen just 1592 of his planned 170,000 units built (0.93% of his target and so 99.07% to go!!)
The cost figures above make startling reading as they reveal :
  • Market rent is 114% higher than social rent;
  • Market rent is 101% higher than housing association rent;
  • Affordable (sic) rent’ is an increase of 45% to social rent level

Monday, September 24, 2012

Back to the future with Matt Bennett

Our Tory candidate for West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner put a leaflet out in Birmingham Ladywood which includes his priorities for policing.

Apart from noting that he doesn't promise to protect core policing from creeping privatisation, protect our neighbourhood police teams or our police community support officers, he does promise to introduce a contract with the public.

I can support that element of his programme. Indeed, it is a Labour policy, as the last government created something called the Policing Pledge, which laid down exactly what you can expect from the police.

One of this government's first acts was to abolish the Policing Pledge, which Theresa May announced on the 29 June 2010. Back then, she said:
I know that some officers like the policing pledge, and some, I’m sure, like the comfort of knowing they’ve ticked boxes. But targets don’t fight crime; targets hinder the fight against crime
So, according to his own Home Secretary, the Tory candidate for the police commissioner post will be hindering the fight against crime. Why does he know better than his own Home Secretary?

It isn't his fault - it's his background.

Boris Johnson thinks that people who swear at police officers should expect to be arrested. David Cameron thinks that they can be Chief Whip. I agree with Boris.

It is also a classic example of how not to handle a story. It started out so well - Mitchell apologised promptly on Friday night as the story broke. If he had left it at that, the story would have died a death over the weekend and would have been nothing more than a footnote that Labour would have rolled out occasionally to beat the Tories over being toffs. His error was to move past a simple apology and deny the specific words used - without explaining what he did say that now necessitated an apology. His non-statement this morning, dragging live OB crews to the door of the Cabinet Office for him to repeat on camera exactly what he said last week, has merely fuelled the fire. At the start, I didn't think it would be an event that could precipitate a resignation, but now, I'm not so sure.

BBC Radio WM have been trying to find a Tory MP to defend their local colleague and Chief Whip, but nobody has been prepared to put their head above the parapet. They initially had agreement from Richard Shepherd, MP for Aldridge Brownhills to come on, but he's now unavailable. Even the Tory candidate for Police & Crime Commissioner is too busy to comment on air, as he has non-political stuff to do today - although he has been engaged in a long twitter exchange with Cllr Bob Jones, the Labour candidate, this morning. It looks very much like Mitchell has been cut loose by his colleagues. Even Nick Clegg, interviewed on BBC Radio 4's agenda-setting Today programme a few minutes after Mitchell's non-apologetic apology this morning, offered only the most lukewarm of support.

Mitchell has essentially accused two armed police officers, trusted to guard the gates of Downing Street and other high value targets around London, of lying. Their notebooks - a contemporaneous record that would be relied on to support evidence in court - record the words used prior to him being asked to desist and warned of arrest, at which point he apparently calmed down.
"Open this gate. I'm the Chief Whip. I'm telling you - I'm the Chief Whip and I'm coming through these gates... Best you learn your fucking place.... you don't run this fucking government... you're fucking plebs"
The officers took notes of the exchange to cover themselves as they were clearly aware that this was not likely to be the end of the matter. As a professor of classics pointed out on the Today programme this morning, this is not an insult that the police would be likely to make up, although it is exactly the sort of phrasing someone with Andrew Mitchell's background would be likely to use. (Another classicist writes here). While I'm perfectly well aware that police officers have been known to collude and lie, I struggle to find a reason for them to do it here. Starting a fight with a VIP is not likely to end well for the officers involved. If there is a further witness out there - perhaps a tourist with a video camera - then the situation could change for Mr Mitchell.

On a practical level, as Alistair Campbell points out, being nice to people is much easier and actually brings benefits. When you need rules bent a little to help you with a problem like a forgotten pass, being courteous will pay dividends. More importantly, the officers on the gate represent us all - we empower members of the public to police us by consent. Insult them and you insult us all. Alistair Campbell also points out that
If there is one group of people you don’t want offside during an election, it’s the cops, or the teachers, or the nurses, or the doctors, or the public. Every time the government alienates someone working for them, the ripples fan out, and eventually they meet other ripples, which become a flood.
On the one hand, this could be seen as an outburst of bad temper by a senior government official, but I would argue that it is indicative of a nastier attitude. The Cabinet is populated by people with a sense of entitlement - many have had extraordinarily gilded lives, with paths smoothed from top end public schools through to top universities and thence onwards to well-paid jobs and political advancement and moving in circles of those who have similarly 'made it.' It shouldn't come as a surprise that they find it hard to relate to others that they perceive to be of lesser status or value. The problem is that Cameron has been trying to conceal this for years - he's notoriously sensitive about being tagged as an out of touch toff, despite the unerring accuracy of this definition. Outbursts like Andrew Mitchell's play exactly into that increasingly popular view of Cameron's government cronies.

The appalling media handling isn't really the story. Mitchell has revealed the inner thinking of this government. Mitchell isn't the exception - his foul-mouthed insults have confirmed exactly what the senior levels of this government think of all of public servants and, by extension, those of us not fortunate enough to have been born into the ruling class. It is a view drenched in class warfare, something for which the Tories and their useful idiots regularly criticise those of us on the left. Seems like they need to remove the plank from their own eyes.

Know your place, plebs. And mind how you go, now. Evening all.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Out of step - almost out of time

David Laws is backing the man who has just put him back into government and tells us that every LibDem MP is in the frame for their decision to sign a pledge that they knew was undeliverable - even under a Liberal Democrat majority government.
"Every Liberal Democrat MP has a collective responsibility - this was a decision by all of us"
Clearly, John "Maverick" Hemming hasn't got the memo. On BBC WM this morning, he refused to join in the orgy of apologising:
"I'm not apologising.... I supported it because I thought it was the right thing to do.. I worry about those who harp on about student debt this, student debt the other... if you look at what they actually pay, it's very fair"
Of course, Calamity Clegg wasn't apologising for the policy either - he was apologising for making a promise that his party couldn't keep.

If you recall, John said that it was in everyone's interest for people to lose their jobs.

Less than 1000 days left until the next election....

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Never apologise, never explain.

Some more free political advice for Nick.

Reminding the electorate of a pledge that you freely made and then abandoned isn't great politics. The apology isn't about the policy, the apology is for making the pledge in the first place. All you have done is remind people of exactly why they deserted your party in the first place. They aren't going to come back.

This has reopened a whole can of worms about why your party made a pledge to support a policy that you knew at the time to be unaffordable. It was a publicity stunt, pure and simple.
"I shouldn't have committed to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money around" 
Danny Alexander told Clegg in March 2010 that the policy was unaffordable and Vince Cable is known to have opposed the stunt, but every LibDem MP signed up to a very clear promise that most of them were promptly to break.

As an aside, it is interesting that Clegg uses 'we' throughout much of the piece, but apologises in the first person for committing to the policy.

Here's Nick in happier times, promising to keep his promises.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hemming - still not banned... (UPDATED)

John Hemming's gripes about being "banned" from last week's meeting with the Prime Minister continue to rumble on, with a short piece in the Birmingham Mail today.

Let's deal with the facts. All Birmingham MPs were invited to this meeting regardless of party affiliation - including John Hemming and Andrew Mitchell - by an email sent to their parliamentary addresses. Quite reasonably, the delegation wanted to agree the approach for the meeting, given that they only had 30 minutes with the PM right after PMQs last week, so two pre-meeting briefings were planned. One of these was in Birmingham and a second was in an office in Portcullis House (the parliamentary office block across the road from the Palace of Westminster) about 90 minutes prior to the meeting with Cameron, with MPs asked to attend one or the other.

There was ample opportunity for John Hemming to attend. He was not banned. As Jon Walker points out in his article, as the meeting was held in the Commons, not No 10, there was nothing to prevent John - as an MP with a pass - simply turning up, which Khalid Mahmood did.

The ever-imaginative Martin Mullaney points out that Birmingham "ratepayers" covered the cost - which they did. I wonder if a business meeting with the PM, compares well with more than £4000 spent by the City Council, of which he was a Cabinet member, on the drinks reception on the Commons terrace earlier this year?

According to Jon Walker, Cameron seemed impressed enough
"I thought what was very promising was that you saw all the parties working together, you saw the council and the MPs working together, you saw the private sector involved."
That's probably an outcome that we can all support.

UPDATE:
I've been given a little bit of extra information in terms of the timeline. The original plan was that the meeting would only include members of the business community and all three parties on Birmingham Council (that wished to participate). MPs were not originally included. It is at this point, during the last week of August, when the email exchange to which Martin refers took place. Subsequently, a decision was taken to open the meeting to all of Birmingham's MPs, at which point the invitation was sent out at the end of August.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Hemming feels all left out

Apparently John Hemming is upset that he wasn't allowed to join the key players of Team Birmingham in meeting the Prime Minister yesterday. His representative on earth, ex-Cllr Martin Mullaney has put up a posting on his blog showing that, contrary to claims, there was a spare seat that John Hemming could have occupied.

This rather misses the key point that it isn't about the seating plan. Indeed, the reply rejecting John's kind offer to join the delegation (which already included Cllr Paul Tilsley, lately deputy leader of the City Council from the Lib Dems and Cllr Randall Brew, a senior Tory councillor) didn't say that it did:
"As we only have half an hour, we are having to be extremely firm with numbers"
If you only have 30 minutes, then you worry more about being able to fit in all those who wish to speak rather than finding them all seats.

The delegation didn't include Andrew Mitchell or Roger Godsiff either, so John can't feel too left out. He was invited to a pre and post-meeting briefing (he couldn't make the pre-meeting), so won't be out of the loop in terms of discussions. Talking about 'banning' is just exaggeration and scaremongering.

There may also be a cross-party view that the presence of Mr Hemming might not have proved particularly helpful to the aim of the meeting. I couldn't possibly comment on that.

Besides, some of us think that John is already occupying one seat too many and we'd like Birmingham Yardley back.