Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Those who can, teach. Those who can't, become Secretary of State for Education

Fear of electoral annihilation can concentrate the mind wonderfully, which explains why Nick Clegg has decided that he was opposed all along to a government policy pushed through by a series of LibDem Schools' Ministers - that of free schools and academies being able to hire unqualified teachers. We'll put aside the curious concept of collective responsibility not applying to a chunk of the government. We'll ignore that the LibDems are only too eager to claim responsibility for the nice things that the government does - raising the tax threshold is a LibDem policy in a way that raising VAT isn't, for example.

The big claim has always been that the independent sector hires unqualified teachers and they do a good job, so allowing the state sector to do the same thing will have the same result. We won't talk about the free school that recently parted company with a head teacher who herself had yet to complete a PGCE and whose only apparent qualification was a stint at the DfE, alongside the Tory peer and minister who set up the charity that runs the school.

Of course, the reality is that while the independent sector does employ unqualified teachers, they are very much the exception. Research by the Independent Schools Council shows that 90% of teachers in those schools have a teaching qualification and 59% have a PGCE. The ISC also reports that most teachers coming into the private sector come from the state side - either as newly qualified teachers or as experienced teachers in state schools and thus qualified. Essentially, the independent sector has no great propensity for unqualified teachers.

I have no problem with the various in-school training schemes that have been run over the years, that put unqualified teachers into the classroom and also allows them time to learn the skills of teaching, resulting in the confirmation of qualification. You wouldn't want an unqualified doctor who just thought they had the aptitude for the job, would you?

Just because you can get to be Secretary of State for Education on the back of being a journalist, doesn't mean that teaching is a job that doesn't have specific skills. Those skills can be learnt on the job with support, but at the end of it, wouldn't you want to know that the teacher with your children was adjudged to have at least the basic skills required?

Perhaps the real qualitative difference between state schools and the independent sector is the cost. In  Birmingham, we spend about £4200 per pupil as base funding - plus Pupil Premium for those in the free school meals group. Average fees in the independent sector for day schooling are of the order of £12,000 a year and that leads to average pupil teacher ratios of just over 9:1.

De-professionalising is not the answer, but the argument over that may hide the real agenda. If, as expected, any future Tory government would allow businesses to profit from education, then expect to see more schools employing more unqualified teachers. Not because they are the equal of those in independent schools, but because they are cheaper and the saving will mean profit.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Out of touch Hemming

At yesterday's full council meeting, the Liberal Democrats and Tories both wrung their hands as they attacked the implementation of the Bedroom Tax, yet when the vote came - they all wimped out. None of them had the courage of their convictions to support Labour's demand for the immediate scrapping of this vile and unjust tax.

And then today, up pops John Hemming, ever in pursuit of a soundbite to appease his Tory voters. 

Hit by the bedroom tax? John's got the answer. Again.

"There is also the option of taking in a lodger, even if it’s a family member. People in the private sector get a lodger if they are a bit short of cash. Well, right now the country is a bit short of cash. It’s an option."

We have been over this ground before, but let's be clear. Firstly, not all social tenants can take in lodgers (although those on Birmingham City Council secure tenancies generally can). Secondly, this isn't necessarily about having a truly spare room to rent out - many of those "spare rooms" being "subsidised" are being used as bedrooms or for other purposes right now. Perhaps it is used for an occasional carer, for medical equipment or because their partner can't sleep in the same room or bed as them. Perhaps it is kept there for a child away with the military or just in case their job falls through and they have to return to the family home. Perhaps they have children from another relationship that they would like to have to stay once in a while. There are many reasons why the badly phrased "under-occupancy penalty" assumes that a bedroom is spare when it isn't. 
There's 1200 people in Yardley district alone affected by this appalling tax. 
Comfortingly, as of yesterday morning, we had 40 one bedroom houses and 5 bedsits ready to let across the entire city. It wasn't even as good as the Birmingham Mail headline yesterday.
Unfortunately, not everybody has the same opportunity that John Hemming had when he faced a minor cash crisis in 2005. When John was a bit short of cash after his 2005 election, he "reorganised his finances as his income was going down" and remortgaged a flat in London that he already owned outright (he'd paid the mortgage off just prior to the election). That cash was used to pay down the mortgage on another property in Birmingham and John then claimed £30,000 in mortgage payment expenses from the taxpayer up to 2009. 
He also made sure that he claimed the maximum £400 food allowance every month - even when the House wasn't sitting, £4800 a year between 2006 and 2008. 
John's already blamed people for not taking action when they had eighteen months' notice of the bedroom tax. 
He's shown sympathy for the 600,000 public sector workers who have lost their jobs.
It's obviously very sad when people lose their jobs, but they need to understand why it's in everyone's interest" 

Monday, October 07, 2013

Gagging Bill Update

I had a tremendous volume of comments from constituents on the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which is currently going through parliament and reaches the report stage this week. On Saturday, I had a meeting with John Hemming MP, who has so far supported the Bill. 

The campaign group 38 Degrees has been organising a number of public meetings with MPs to express this broad concern. Unlike his LibDem colleague Julian Huppert, who has agreed to attend a public meeting in Cambridge, Hemming declined to attend a meeting planned for later this month and instead organised his own meeting last Saturday. Conveniently, he didn't confirm the location or time until lunchtime on Friday and also then decided to close attendance to those who had already expressed an interest. A contact made me aware of the meeting and I went along - I'm a constituent myself and as an elected representative, I have to raise the views of my constituents. 

UPDATED - John hasn't refused to attend a future meeting. 

When I arrived, a member of John's staff recognised me, asked me to take a seat and we started with two other constituents present, although three more turned up during the assigned hour. As John had originally limited attendance to 17, my presence did not deprive anyone of a seat and the other attendees were happy for me to stay. We had what I thought was a reasonable and good-humoured discussion of the issues around the bill, largely focussing on section two, which deals with the impact on charities. John has agreed to take back a request to increase the registration level back to £10,000, but he's not looking at increasing spending limits and/or asking that the range of activities be reduced or more clearly drawn. Sadly, he was very dismissive of the value of the legal opinions obtained on the bill - from a specialist solicitor and a QC, although John's own performance in the legal system is rather chequered

That hasn't stopped John spending a surprising amount of time calling me a gatecrasher and accusing me of preventing others from talking to their MP. I've Storifyed the twitter exchange. Really, this is a classic case of the standard LibDem technique of playing the man not the ball. All the more peculiar in that he has written that it is a "basic freedom of speech is to be able to speak to your MP about a subject" and he was happy to use parliamentary privilege to bust a super-injunction. Indeed, he even managed to get some publicity shortly after he was first elected about defending freedom of speech. All the more peculiar that he would be so happy to support this repressive measure.  

Why are the LibDems so eager to support the bill? The photograph illustrates why. They are running scared of students seeking vengeance and the trade unions. As Unlock Democracy's Alexandra Runwick put it
"It is explicitly partisan and is now being rushed through Parliament with very little scrutiny. Huge uncertainty is being created both for the voluntary sector and for the Electoral Commission. As its stands the proposals will have a chilling effect on campaigning
The Bill requires the registration of consultant lobbyists, but not in-house lobbyists - it exempts 80% of the lobbying business and ignores 90% of what lobbying firms do on a regular basis. Ministers and senior civil servants currently release records of meetings with lobbyists from particular firms, but we don't know who the consultants work for. The bill should at least put this right, but along the way it also introduces controls over other third parties and increases regulation of trade unions. The genius is that it won't stop those with power gaining privileged access, it won't stop Lynton Crosby being in a position with the capacity to influence government policy, but it is likely to prevent charities and campaigning groups from carrying out their role. This government, true to form, has failed to stand up to power. 

Labour's shadow leader of the Commons, Angela Eagle, has said that 
"we are clear that this is no way near enough. Labour remains concerned about a wide range of the Bill's proposals which would have a chilling effect on the quality of the national debate. The Government is using this legislation to try to insulate themselves against legitimate criticism in the run up to an election"
It regulates a tiny part of lobbying activity, but could gag charities, trade unions, residents' groups and even bloggers by imposing spending limits on campaigning in the year PRIOR to a regulated election. A regulated election would certainly be a general election, but could include elections to the devolved assemblies, the European Parliament or even local authorities, if parliament so decrees. Even considering general elections, although the date for the 2015 election is set, there is still a possibility that the government could collapse - this means that it is impossible to know exactly when that year actually begins. All charity expenditure would have to be considered as to whether it might be considered to fall within the law.

Imagine a campaign to save a local hospital that would naturally seek the support of local representatives or candidates. Publishing a photograph of the candidate standing beside a banner supporting the hospital would be bound to bring their activities into the regulated sphere, if it were to fall within the regulated period (and you can't know when that period will actually be). 

John Hemming thinks that charities will be unaffected by this. 

True, but that misses the point completely. At no point has anyone said that charities should be involved in party politics. They are involved in campaigns to further their charitable interests - think of Shelter, the RSPCA or the NSPCC. Along with many others, they have a considerable voice in policy discussions and rightly so. 

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations sought counsel's opinion from Helen Mountfield QC of Matrix Chambers.
An organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political (in the sense of advocating a particular party or change in the law). However, as the Charity Commission guidance CC9 explains, provided it guards its independence from political parties, a charity can undertake political campaigning or political activity in the context of supporting delivery of its charitable purposes. This can include campaigns for changes to law or policy where such change would support the charity's purposes. Although such campaigning cannot be the continuing and sole activity of the charity, it can be the only or main activity for a period of time, provided it always remains in pursuit of the charitable purposes.
The opinion also raises several cases where the barrister considers that routine campaigning activity could fall into the regulated sector and pointed out that the range of activities regulated is so broad, that charities could even end up having to include the cost of time given by volunteers in their returns, as well as more routine communications with their supporters. 

The way the bill is written, it creates vast areas of uncertainty and risk and if there is one thing that trustees and managers of charities don't like, it is risk. It is far more likely that these groups will withdraw from public engagement than risk being caught out. Remember that they can't know for sure when the regulated period will begin, so will have to assume that any potentially relevant campaigning spend is appropriately monitored. I spoke only this afternoon to somebody who works with small campaigning group and this was precisely the concern that they raised - the trustees and management would withdraw from anything connected to public policy if it brought them into this regulated environment. 

Ed Miliband asked the government to think again and Labour MPs voted against the Bill when it last came before the House. Sadly, the only two MPs in Birmingham who supported the bill and opposed Labour's amendments were Tory Andrew Mitchell in Sutton Coldfield and Tory Liberal Democrat John Hemming in Yardley. 

There is an unprecedented alliance of opposition to this bill. The Taxpayers Alliance called it "a serious threat to independent politics that will stifle free and open democratic debate." Greenpeace have described it as "the most pernicious assault on campaign groups in living memory." The British Medical Association raise concerns over freedom of expression and say that it would be "very regressive if organisations were unable to speak out about poor care in the run-up to an election." Grassroots bloggers at LabourList, ConservativeHome and LibDem Voice have criticised it and there's even been an unholy alliance of Guido Fawkes and Owen Jones in opposition. Nothing this government has done has raised this level of anger from across the entire range of the political spectrum. Even the Electoral Commission have raised concerns - they weren't consulted on their role and are worried about whether they can even enforce the law, as well as the legal challenges that they consider inevitable when action is taken. 

Given the level of concern, Andrew Lansley has agreed to amend the bill and those proposals were published on Thursday. They haven't met with universal support, however. 

The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations were quick off the mark.
"The government is clearly keen to show it is listening to civil society, but these amendments don't prevent the Bill curbing freedom of speech around elections. The Bill greatly increases bureaucracy for civil society groups in the year before an election, by halving the spending thresholds above which organisations have to register with the Electoral Commission. It also drastically restricts civil society's spending on public campaigns in election years. The public wants legislation that makes politics and corporate lobbying more transparent. Instead this Bill makes almost no change to lobbying rules while punishing civil society for a loss of trust in politics that is not its fault."
The Chief Executive of the NCVO added
“the proposed amendments put forward by the government will mean that much campaigning activity by charities and other voluntary groups will still be covered by this excessively bureaucratic and burdensome regime. The amendments leave a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity. In short, many organisations including small community groups, will be required to consult the Electoral Commission before undertaking campaigning activity in an election period in order to ensure they are not falling foul of the new regulations.”
We have an unholy alliance, now we have the complete opposite, as thirteen religious groups let rip, including the Salvation Army, the Methodists, Islamic Relief, CAFOD, Reform Rabbis, the Church of Scotland, the Muslim Council of Britain, Christian Aid and the Quakers. 
"Following legal advice and a statement from the Electoral Commission, we remain concerned that despite the Government’s proposed amendments we still do not have the necessary legal certainty that Part II of this Bill could not be applied to a wide range of legitimate campaigns, despite such activities being intended to be party politically neutral. We are concerned that this Bill does not adequately safeguard the activities of religious organisations and that there is a very real risk that non-biased political activity will be captured by the resultant Act."
38 Degrees have an initial legal opinion from a solicitor, Ros Baston, who has specialised in election law. She notes that
"the changes do not assist the clarity of the proposed regulation, results in new uncertainties and do not address concerns of grassroots or charitable organisations without formal paid subscribers that communication with their own supporters will be covered."
Speaking to the Independent, she added
"It appears that the Government has been taken aback by the level of opposition and has spent the past few weeks on a headless chicken run. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in amendments that mystify more than they enlighten."
Even the lobbyists aren't happy. 
Iain Anderson, the director of the Cicero lobbying group and chair of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, said: "The amendments have not changed the scope of the Bill's impact on the lobbying industry. It shows that they [ministers] are not listening. There has been no change to the definition of those who lobby, and who they lobby. Rational arguments and Parliament's wider concerns are being ignored."

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Farage of lies

Recently, we've seen UKIP cross-dressing as Liberal Democrats - if only in their enthusiasm for populist policies. One of their big campaigns is against HS2. As Nigel Farage put it in a tweet during Question Time last night - supporting a lacklustre performance by Patrick O'Flynn:

Seems clear enough. But then we look back at prehistory. Or the 2010 General Election manifesto, to be precise. In that, they promised to
Invest in three new 200mph plus high-speed rail lines including a new line between London and Newcastle with a spur to Manchester, a London-Bristol-Exeter line and a linking route via Birmingham
Their supporting documents went further.  (emphasis added)
11.2. UKIP enthusiastically supports the high speed rail concept, with trains travelling up to 220 mph, such as the new Beijing-Shanghai service which will cut journey times from 12 hours to 5 hours 27 and successful London-Paris/Brussels Eurostar trains that have cut journey times to under 2 hours, making rail highly competitive with short haul air travel. By 2003 Eurostar had already secured 65% of the London-Paris market and 55% of the London-Brussels market, whilst the French TGV system is impressive. The high-speed line between Madrid and Barcelona took 46% of the market the year after opening, and China is now investing in 8,000 miles of high speed rail lines. 
11.3 As the boss of Arup, Mark Bostock argues, “upgrading the existing track, eliminating bottlenecks and improving reliability is not a better option. Consider the west coast mainline upgrade. Its eventual cost of almost £9bn dwarfs its benefits.” The Department for Transport agrees, stating in a 2007 report: “The disadvantages of undertaking major new construction work alongside a working railway outweigh the advantages.” This argument was central to Arup's successful lobbying of government in the early 1990s, resulting in the selection of our route for the Channel tunnel rail link. Building a new railway is actually cheaper and less disruptive than fiddling with the existing network – though it requires an un-British, strategic view of national spatial and economic planning. France exemplifies the potential success. Despite labour market inflexibility, hourly productivity in France stands at $54, compared to $45 in the UK, which is recognised as largely due to its excellent infrastructure… The British Chambers of Commerce and CBI unanimously back the idea of a national high-speed network". 
11.4 UKIP will support 3 new 200 mph plus high-speed rail lines
Now, while you may argue that this is not specific support for the current HS2 route, the fact is that they rule out construction alongside an existing line, so a new corridor is going to be required. The principles of high speed rail demand a route that is as flat and as straight as possible to achieve and maintain the top speeds, so the final route is unlikely to be tremendously different from what is currently proposed. In any case, the UKIP policy would shift the argument to different constituencies. I'm sure the Thames Valley would welcome a high-speed line slicing through the landscape as warmly as it has been welcomed in leafy Buckinghamshire. 

And if you fancy another laugh, have a look at their cycling policy. While they enthusiastically deregulate on cars, including upping speed limits, the chief focus on bikes is to impose a "CycleDisc" and minimum third party insurance for cyclists. I kid you not. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

There's a storm a comin'

In advance of their conference in a week or so's time, Tory MPs held an away day with their very own prince of darkness, Lynton Crosby, who explained the attack lines on immigration (although probably not with regard to rabid Australians). This is an interesting line from the FT:
one MP said he had wanted a bit more venom directed at the Lib Dems after their attacks of the “nasty” Tories at their conference this week. Crosby and Shapps were more interested in targeting Ed Miliband, arguing that bis polling is weak and Tories need to capitalise on that vulnerability. [sic]
Essentially, the Tories are going to unload on Ed over the next eighteen months. As Martin Kettle put it earlier this week
prepare for the most sustained character assassination attempt in British politics since the days of Neil Kinnock

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Free school meals for all not a liberal aim for very long

On 20 May this year, Labour's Iain Wright asked David Laws if the government would consider allowing the children of all those in receipt of Universal Credit to claim free school meals.

Laws shut the door rapidly. 
"We estimate that extending free school meal entitlement to all families in receipt of universal credit would result in more than half of children being entitled to free school meals in England, at a cost of up to an extra £1 billion per year. In the current economic climate this is not affordable."
Now that is a number somewhat larger than is proposed under this scheme, but bear in mind that the Tories will be announcing a pointless tax break for married couples which will take the combined costs of these two measures to around the £1.2 billion mark. Which is apparently now affordable. 

In a letter to 38 Degrees in August this year, he wrote (my emphasis)
"We estimate the current cost of free school meals to schools and local authorities at £460 million per year, and the department's budget remains very tight. Any increase in eligibility would inevitably mean a reduction in the budget to spend on other areas."
Campaign poster from 2009, Diane Johnson MP
And then there's Hull Liberal Democrats, who scrapped the Labour council's universal free school meal policy.

Or we can turn to the rotating political weathervane that is Simon Hughes, who attacked Southwark Council for spending £15m on giving out free school meals.

I'm sure Simon will be back on message soon.

While I'm delighted at this policy shift from the Lib Dems, there are a couple of problems. Firstly - how is this to be funded and for how long? On past form, exactly as David Laws wrote, money is shifted between budgets, so a bit of extra cash here means a cut somewhere else. We won't get that answer until the autumn statement - even though the Tories will be spending a bit more cash when they announce their marriage giveaway.

The second question is how this will be delivered, as so many schools have scrapped their kitchen facilities. Tim Farron has been on the media stump and has suggested that packed lunches may be enough - but will that meet the aim?

I don't think we've heard the last of this policy and it may well stuck in the lunch queue for a while yet.

Ahh, the nasty party...

Labour ministers got burnt when they took on Joanne Lumley over the Gurkhas.

One Tory councillor in Ealing has gone one better. He's recommended the assisted death of another national treasure, a hall-marked broadcasting giant.

Standing by for the inevitable deletion and apology.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When sitting on the fence can be positively dangerous

Vanguard at Faslane
There are credible arguments to be made for maintaining a nuclear deterrent and for scrapping it. There is no credible argument for the finer points of the new Lib Dem policy on Trident.

On the one hand, Trident is a Cold War solution to a Cold War problem. Is there an enemy out there with the capability of causing such destruction that this level of potential response might demand? Is there any chance that if the worst happened that the US would not be bound to respond? A nuclear attack that destroyed London would kill 200,000 US citizens - more than live in Salt Lake City or Little Rock. But then, the major nuclear state players are hardly likely to hit the UK - would we consider responding with nuclear force to a non-state entity who hit us with weapons of mass destruction and would deterrence work in any case? Would any PM actually order a launch? There is a strong moral argument against the possession of these ultimate weapons and that we could make a statement by withdrawing from the nuclear weapon business - as has every other country in Europe apart from France.

On the other hand, it is a long term purchase. Just as few forecast the end of the Soviet Union from the chill of the Cold War in the 80s, can we foresee the threats that might be directed at us in 2025 or 2040, well within the operational lifetime of Trident and successor weapon systems? Might we need deterrence again?

For this is the thing about nuclear weapons - they are not ever meant to be used. Their efficacy lies in their deterrence value. The other side have to believe that your capacity to respond is credible, that you might be prepared to use it and that it might get through their defences. From the V-bombers sitting on their quick reaction pads in the 60s through to their submerged successors in Polaris and Trident boats, hiding in the depths of the Atlantic, that's the function of these political weapons.

The Lib Dem proposal drives a coach and horses through this idea and actually increases the potential for volatility.

We'll ignore the fantasy of having boats with dual capacity for nuclear and conventional operations. That's only possible if you shift from ballistic missiles in favour of something smaller, like a nuclear-tipped submarine-launched cruise missile. Ballistic missile boats are all huge beasts, designed for operation in the lesser-travelled parts of the world's oceans, crawling around silently, hiding away from anyone else. Hunter-killers are faster and smaller. The two roles are very different and require different equipment.

They propose to end the Constant At Sea Deterrent (CASD) - a permanent alert status that is a prerequisite for deterrence. Oddly, they suggest that they will maintain some form of patrol using boats that are not nuclear armed, which seems rather pointless. This will save money, as it will only require three boats and crews rather than the current four, which is about the only benefit. Submarines would be sortied at times of tension. On the one hand, that seems an interesting idea, but there's a story that should give concern.

Back in late autumn 1983, NATO conducted an exercise called Able Archer 83, which simulated a rise in tension and actually stepped up to the point of nuclear release. The Soviet Union was aware of this exercise and was concerned that it may have been a cover for genuine aggression - agents were tasked to report any signs of war posturing. They even put their own nuclear and air strike forces onto higher alert, considering that they might have to launch first. The West wasn't aware of the depth of the Soviet response until after the exercise ended, nor of the risks that they ran for a few days. Imagine the tensions of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, but where only one side is playing for real.

Now imagine that replayed where a British government sortied a nuclear armed submarine from Faslane. Immediately, that makes a statement about any situation - it may even be regarded as a threat by a paranoid opponent, but it certainly marks an escalation. That, of course, assumes that we have a fully trained crew and operational boat available - one that hasn't just returned from patrol or is down for refit.

And that's the danger. The one thing you don't want to do in nuclear politics is ratchet up the tension, but that's just what this policy risks.

As I wrote at the start, scrapping Trident is a valid policy. Retaining a deterrent can also be justified, but you can't justify this cobbled-together policy that sits squarely on the fence, taking neither the moral high ground nor offering effective deterrence.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Gentlemen, start your engines.

And as Mike Whitby is lured away from Birmingham by the whiff of ermine - not some new, exotic line for his wife's lingerie emporium, but the offer of a well-upholstered seat on the red benches of the House of Lords - the race to be the next leader of the opposition on Birmingham City Council begins.

Of course, Mike doesn't actually need to stand down, a number of peers have been councillors and sat in the Upper House at the same time - Lord Tarsem King is a local example, but the former leader of Essex County Council, Lord Hanningfield is a fellow Tory. Although he ended up doing time, a fate that even I would not wish upon Cllr Whitby. I wish Mike well - it would be churlish not to do so, even though I suspect that history may be a little less kind to his period in charge of Birmingham than his own memory appears to be.

In any case, succession is the name of the game now. I'd be very surprised if Mike chooses to contest Harborne at the 2014 elections, especially as the devastatingly effective Edgbaston Labour team have a solid candidate and Mike locked firmly in their sights. Defeat is staring him in the face and elevation to the peerage as Baron Whitby of Harborne (Baron Hardup might be appropriate, given how he left Birmingham) would be a face-saving excuse for an honourable departure, leaving a new Tory candidate to face defeat. It has been rumoured for a while that this was the chosen option by Downing Street, which explains the persistent refusal to grant Cllr Whitby the knighthood that typically goes with the job of leader of the largest council in Birmingham.

In pole position for the leadership has to be the Boy Wonder, Bobby Alden, whose relaxed dress style conceals a good brain with an eye for attack lines. And that's pretty much it for the group leadership. The only other potential leader is Bobby's mother, Deirdre, but Alden Jnr has been taking the lead role for so long, I'd be surprised if anyone else contests it, especially since the departure of Matt Bennett, who I think also had the ability to do the job.

The Deputy post would then fall vacant. Here we have a little choice, although I suspect that it will be a man - there being a seeming dearth of Tory women on the Council benches with the desire to compete for the almost-top job.

Gareth Moore looks to be a strong candidate, although that would mean concentrating the leadership in a single ward, Erdington.

James Bird may also fancy a pop at being the second string and has the advantage of being a councillor in Sutton New Hall and therefore essentially being elected for life.

A bit more experience could be found in Randal Brew, a safe pair of hands and an ideal support for the Boy King, although he's going to be struggling in Northfield in 2014, so might not be a long term choice.

Deirdre Alden could be slotted in to the under study's role, but would the party want themselves run by the same family?

While John Lines might offer experience, his views on certain issues might make him something of a loose cannon, especially in the run up to a general election.

Finally, if the Conservative Group could stomach someone so right wing, they could expedite a swift membership for Paul Tilsley to transfer from the Liberal Democrats. He'd feel quite at home, was loyal to the Tory leadership for years and has experience of managing a declining political group.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Quick update

Not being a regular on Cllr Deirdre Alden's blog-that-isn't-a-blog, I missed her riposte to my earlier post on her complaints about the council deigning to communicate with residents over a major change to a crucial service. 
Meanwhile I see a Birmingham Labour blogger is moaning because I complained about the amount of money the Labour Council has spent advertising something which is going to happen anyway.
The tunnel closures are happening anyway, but Cllr Alden didn't think the Highways team had publicised it enough - something upon which we are agreed, as a matter of fact. 

Then we turn to her real complaint:
my real complaint is the fact the Council is not just giving people instructions about the changes, but has also hired a PR company which specialises in “crisis media advice”.
It is certainly true that Dyson Media - run by the former Birmingham Mail editor and highly experienced journalist, Steve Dyson - provides crisis media advice. Many PR firms offer that service, because it is an additional service not necessarily within the competence of a communications team that handles day to day routine information. It isn't all he does. 

What I don't understand is why it is so wrong for a Labour council to spend money with Dyson Media - a firm with specialist knowledge and insights into our metropolitan area - but Cllr Alden didn't complain in public when the previous administration did exactly that. Dyson Media were paid over £5k in one month in 2010, back when the Tories and the LibDems were running the council. 

There's even a picture of Steve with a familiar face as a satisfied customer. The name currently eludes me.

Although providing crisis management advice to repair the image of the Lib Dems might be a challenge too far, even for a man of his talents. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Minister, get the branch out of thine own eye

Birmingham's Tories, ever eager to stir up trouble over the bins, have enlisted the support of Brandon Lewis, a former colleague of Commissar Pickles at Brentwood Council and who has now followed him to Westminster by getting the good people of Great Yarmouth to elect him as an MP. When he isn't doing his master's bidding and beating up local government, he's also in charge of an eclectic mix of fire services and local pubs. 

After prodding by a couple of Tories, Brandon fulminated on demand
"it is most disappointing to see the council introduce this annual charge for collection of garden waste. It is a ‘tax grab’ and increases the risks of fly-tipping in neighbourhoods. Birmingham residents already pay their council tax and should not have to pay extra for this service"
If, for one moment, we set aside the scorching cuts that Brandon's government has so far inflicted on Birmingham - and the cuts yet to come - then we should perhaps look at how things work in his part of the world.

Over in Great Yarmouth, the then Tory council (removed from office in 2012) introduced a garden waste collection scheme (in a wheeled bin) for which they charged a whopping £48.50 back in 2010 - that's 38% more than Birmingham will charge from next year. In Brentwood, the council that Brandon used to run before he crossed to the Dark Side, you can pay up to £46 for your garden waste bin every year - a mere 31% more than Birmingham.

I look forward to Brandon laying into those local authorities for grabbing tax from their residents.

Or providing a paid for service that is not required by law, depending on how you look at it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Do you hear the people's bins?

According to yesterday's Birmingham Mail, Cllr Deirdre Alden is shocked that the council have spent £29,000 on communicating with residents about the trial roll out of the wheelie bins in Brandwood and Harborne. I'm not sure if she expected us to just drop the bins off and not tell anybody, but I'm sure she would have had something to say about that if we had.

Given that this is the biggest change in decades to how Birmingham collects rubbish from residents and that there has been some appalling scaremongering from both the opposition parties - leaping aboard the bin wagon as they scent a few votes in 2014's local elections - communication with residents is vital. Last year, the scrutiny committee that monitors waste visited Manchester to see how their system works and one thing was absolutely clear - to make a proper waste management programme work, you need to educate the residents and that means communication for it to pay the dividends that it offers. If we want the changes to Birmingham's bins to be transformative, we have to communicate to people.

Each of those wards contains around 10-11,000 properties, most of which would have required information and one of the green or red cards to advise them whether they were selected for bins or bags. The costs of that are included in that top line £29,000 figure - as are the costs of the external supplier involved in supporting the council. That is, by the way, a tiny part of the £29 million winning bid.

A couple of years back, the last administration launched changes to the bin rounds to make them more efficient and kicked off with letters to 20,000 properties in Yardley, plus a telephone hotline and website. This will take a bit more work, thanks to the aforementioned scaremongering and also because the change is that much bigger. My favourite portent of doom is the threat that residents will have to pay £93 a month to have their bins cleaned. Needless to say, that's garbage.

Nobody doubts that this is a big change for the city, nor that some people will be worried about it. There are bound to be teething problems along the way - some will be ironed out during the trial rollouts, but different issues will arise in other wards and we'll fix them. At the end of it, though, we will have a transformed bin collection operation and things will settle down. Just as they have everywhere else.

Perhaps the most interesting story was the one last week, which revealed that wheelie bins have a 14 point approval rating already (50% approve, 36% disapprove), backed up by Birmingham Mail online polls that show 64-70% support. The quiet majority are turning up the volume.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

1995 Redux

David Cameron's troubles with Europe continue, as it appears he can't even rely on his ministers to vote through an unamended Queen's Speech and certainly can't risk sacking anyone who might then become an instant martyr to the Eurosceptic cause and a flagbearer on the backbenches. As we know, Europe has been a problem for the Tories over the past few decades and it remains problematic for Cameron. He won the leadership by throwing the party members the red meat of a withdrawal from the centre-right European parliamentary grouping. He held off from delivering on that for as long as he could, before finally giving in. His promise of a referendum on Europe after the next election, following a period of renegotiation unlikely to bring anything of any consequence, is another attempt to calm the wingnut tendency. 

The only thing it does do is divert attention from the ongoing economic problems in the country. Yesterday's news that we might not have slipped back into technical recession last year doesn't change the central fact that the economy has effectively flatlined since 2010, a record that would surely seen any other chancellor reshuffled. Ipsos/MORI's opinion polling shows clearly that the EU doesn't even figure on the national radar as the most important issue amongst the general public. .

Cameron may be able to satisfy his troops with talking tough on the EU, but the evidence so far is that he always caves in and each time, they want something more. He may need to persuade his Liberal Democrat colleagues to allow him to bring in some sort of bill that sets a pathway to a referendum at some point after the next general election to calm his backbiting backbenchers' suicidal tendencies. 

While there is some short term gain from these diversionary tactics, ultimately, it does make the Conservative party look divided - proved during the 80s by Labour and the mid 90s by the Tories - divided parties at war with themselves do not win elections. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Council Meeting Update Pt 1 - Margaret Thatcher

I note from the local and national press that somebody has decided to be offended by the decision of most Labour councillors not to join in Tuesday's minute's silence for the death of Margaret Thatcher. It was a personal choice by many councillors and not a collective Group decision and we were actually joined by three Liberal Democrat councillors, although I suspect that only one was joining our abstention. Some Labour councillors remained in the chamber and I respect their decisions to do so.

Some points to make - we did not 'flounce' out of the meeting, as some of the press have put it. The Lord Mayor put the silence at the very start of the meeting and we didn't enter the chamber until the silence had finished. It is rather hard to flounce out when you haven't even been in the room.

As one of the first filing quietly back into the chamber, I was disappointed that some of those present decided to hiss at us. Nobody had made a scene or staged a walkout and the decision to mark Baroness Thatcher's passing was respected - people just chose not to take part in it. Enforced public demonstrations of sorrow are not worthy of my country and are demeaning to those grieving.

I don't speak for anyone but myself on this - this blog has always been my personal voice and is not the mouthpiece of the Labour Group. As I have said since the news was announced on Monday, I don't find joy in the death of another human being - she had friends, family and close employees who should be allowed to grieve for their loss. I separate the politics from the personal and her politics were, on balance, bad for Britain and bad for the people of Birmingham. Britain became more selfish, more profit orientated and more socially divided. We are still paying the price for that today and Birmingham continues to suffer from the children of Thatcher who dominate the government - from both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat parties - and who have taken her policies further than she ever dreamed possible, keeping the flame alive.

As for the flag not flying at half mast? It wasn't lowered for the deaths of Edward Heath, Jim Callaghan, Harold Wilson, Alec Douglas Home or Harold Macmillan. It was lowered for both Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, but because they had been honoured with the freedom of the city. In this, we join Ealing, Wakefield, Eastbourne, Bradford, Bury, Camden, Islington and Slough, to name but a few.

There is also something particularly hypocritical in those eulogising her now, so many of whom gathered to force her from office in 1990. Cameron may well come to regret being so much to the fore of the public mourning - he will not come off well in comparison. Whatever you may think of Thatcher, she had a clear direction of travel and broad command of her party. Cameron is a sapling, twisted by every change in the wind direction and barely tolerated by many of his party. These days, the nearest the government gets to a conviction politician is Chris Huhne.

Margaret Thatcher was the first prime minister to really impinge on my consciousness - I was at secondary school and then university for most of her time in office. Lucy Mangan puts it really well in this weekend's column and like her, I remember.

I can remember the leaking school roofs, the lack of books, the dole queues and the rising waiting lists. I can remember that when the Tories were thrown out in 1997, their big idea on health was to promise treatment within eighteen months of diagnosis. By the end of Labour's time, we were confidently delivering treatment within eighteen weeks. When the Tories accuse Labour of not fixing the roof when the sun was shining, I can remember the schools and hospitals rebuilt after decades of neglect, where the roofs fixed were not merely metaphors. I can remember the rise in crime under the Thatcher years. I can remember her and her acolytes creating a culture that celebrated the individual and denied the reality that we achieve more together as a society. I remember that families, children and whole communities were left behind by an ideologically-driven economic shift, all just so much collateral damage.

Those memories are why I didn't stand on Tuesday and I make no apology for my choice.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Scrutiny Committee Report on Cycling

I didn't get called to speak, but here's the speech I would have given.

It has been a great introduction to the life of this council to have served as part of a group that has shown such cross-party agreement in setting a transformational direction for cycling and other forms of low-carbon transport in our city. In that mood, it seems appropriate today to borrow from the Thatcherite's Thatcherite, Norman Tebbit, as we encourage the people of Birmingham to get on their bikes. Indeed, only last weekend, one of my children went solo on his bike for the first time.

In particular, I welcome the recommendation that specific targets should be set - it was a criticism of the last strategy document that it was long on words, but short on measurable outcomes. This report has not made the same mistake and I welcome the executive commitment to take it through to delivery. We have a chance to build on the legacy of the Olympics, to seize the moment to take this city forward, but it takes commitment at the highest level amongst officers and executives to deliver on the ambitions.

This report is also about road safety - I would particularly encourage the spread of 20mph zones and limits across appropriate roads in the city. These will help make our neighbourhoods better places to live as well as delivering proven benefits in terms of reducing casualties and the severity of injuries. There is safety in numbers - the more people we can encourage to get on their bikes, the safer it becomes for them, as drivers get used to their presence, as Cllr Barnett pointed out.

A public outcry over road safety brought about a massive change in the Netherlands. They made the same mistakes that we did after the war, building cities and towns designed around car ownership. It was only at the start of the 1970s, following a rise in injuries to children, that they took a political decision to change direction and embarked on building the system that we see today. Make no mistake, this is a long term project that will take decades, but we need to make a start and this report is a good point.

As a committee, we have had sterling support from cycling evangelists like CTC and Sustrans, in the gallery today, as well as individual enthusiasts in the city, for which we are grateful, but the are not our target audience. We need to deliver, but not for those hundreds of indefatigable cyclists, who will resort to two wheels no matter how hard we, as a council have made it over the years. We need to deliver for those thousands, or tens of thousands, who will cycle if we make it easier and safer. We need to deliver on this for future generations.

Build it and they will come.

Location:Chamberlain Square,Birmingham,United Kingdom

Monday, April 08, 2013

And so farewell to Margaret Thatcher

I cannot celebrate the death of another human being. Margaret Thatcher had family, friends and people who cared about her, especially in her declining years. We can allow them the space to mourn her death by separating Thatcher the person from her policies.

She was, without question, the towering figure of British politics in the 1980s, a globally-recognisable symbol of the age and one that still casts a long shadow over politics in this country.

Her policies have outlived her and have been given new force and direction by this current government, which has picked up on policy proposals that she was unable to implement even at the height of her powers. If you want to get angry, direct yourself towards them - don't fight old battles when we have enough to do today.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Train crash a'coming

John Hemming was his usual charming self on BBC WM, loyally regurgitating his government's line on the bedroom tax. He's had four or five cases come to him so far. I can tell him that there are about 1200 households in Yardley that will be affected by this. We do not have sufficient properties to rehouse them - about 250 one bed properties are let each year in Yardley and many of those will be mainly suitable for the elderly. We just do not have the stock to allow social tenants to downsize.

Partly, it was their own fault for not taking action sooner:
John Hemming: "They were set in chain about eighteen months ago... I know of cases in Birmingham where people have already moved... reason why such a long time allowed for the changes to come in is to allow people to get things organised in sufficient time to deal with it."
Richard Wilford: "Was that enough time?"
John Hemming: "Well, I think so, yeah. It's no good saying its coming in next week when eighteen months notice was given - that's nonsense."
Nowhere does he mention the costs of moving or the disruption that it causes to people's lives - let alone the chance of finding a suitable property - a major challenge in Birmingham. As the bedroom tax starts to bite, people may find it harder to move if they have arrears. He then went on to recommend that social tenants should take a lodger, although whether a tenant can do so depends on their tenancy agreement. Not all Birmingham council tenants are allowed to do so. In any case, the income from a lodger can affect benefits.

I will remind you that John Hemming, upon election to parliament, remortgaged a flat he already owned in London so that he could claim on expenses and "reorganise [his] finances because [his] income was going down". John Hemming has been a vociferous opponent of the Living Wage in Birmingham - anyone would think he believes that our poorest-paid employees, predominantly women and many of them part time, don't deserve a proper wage. He launched an early day motion and dragging a government minister to a brief debate between him and two of our city's Labour MPs to criticise us. He backs the cuts because he believes that they stopped the country going bust (it wasn't) and if people lose their jobs, they have to understand why it is in everyone's interest. When questioned over Universal Credit paying rent to tenants rather than direct to landlords, he said that "if you have people frightened of handling their own rent, clearly they would be frightened of having a job" - conveniently forgetting that many people receiving Housing Benefit are actually in work, but that some people in receipt of housing benefit live chaotic lives and may be faced with the choice of paying rent to the distant council or paying off the dodgy lender standing on the doorstep.

John is wealthier than virtually everybody in Yardley, so it is no surprise that he has no concept of what ordinary peoples' lives are like, but it is shocking how lacking in humility he is about the damage that he and his government are causing.

Let's talk reality here. There are plenty of people who will be affected by the Bedroom Tax who do not have room to take in a lodger. They may have a spare room, but that is used by their child when they come to stay because the parents live apart (and as predominantly women have custody, that disadvantages separated and divorced fathers, damaging the link between father and child). The spare room may be required for a carer overnight occasionally or to allow the spouse to sleep apart from someone whose illness makes it difficult to share a room. The room might be required for medical equipment - it might even have been converted to allow access because of disability. There are hundreds of reasons why a 'spare' room might not be spare at all, none of which make a difference to the housing benefit level.

What we are talking about are not housing units, but homes. People - other human beings - will be faced with the stark choice of cutting back on food or heating to try to make up the difference in income, reduced to hoping that the council will be able to support them through a discretionary housing payment or simply be forced to move. The government tell us this is about freeing up housing for others in need, but if that was the case, why aren't pensioners included in the bedroom tax? The government talks about help through the Discretionary Housing Benefit scheme administered by local councils, but as the bedroom tax is supposed to save £500m from the housing benefit bill, the promise of £30m looks like a sticking plaster across a sucking chest wound. There will be tens of thousands of tough cases, many of whom will not be eligible for help from the Discretionary Housing Benefit fund.

More broadly, this will have a tremendously damaging effect on communities, forcing increased mobility and causing disruption. If people don't put down roots, they are less likely to engage in their community, less likely to vote and less likely to feel valued as part of society. This might be the idea - force the poor to the edge of society and make them pathetically grateful for every scrap that they can scavenge.

We'll also see problems with housing associations and councils, as they struggle to collect rents, which will have an impact on their ability to service their properties. Nationally, only 1% of tenants affected have moved and almost half intend to stay where they are. On that basis, the policy is going to fail to free up housing for the homeless and it may also fail to provide any savings. As the NHF found out, there are 180,000 households underoccupying two bedroom homes by one bed, but only 85,000 single bedroom homes became available last year, potentially forcing 95,000 households into the private sector, where the housing benefit payments to cover a privately rented one bedroom property will outstrip the costs of renting a two bedroom social let. Potentially, that could be an additional £143 million for just that small group - let alone any additional costs for the remaining 480,000 affected households.

Homelessness is rising - up six percent annually in the last quarter of 2012 across the country and up 22% in London. The welfare 'reforms' look certain to make that worse. We already have a housing crisis - it looks like it is about to descend into a full-blown emergency. With one hand, the Budget promised 30,000 more affordable homes at a time when we have 53,000 families in temporary accommodation and then immediately delivered fuel for a housing price bubble with the Chancellor's mortgage support scheme. In Birmingham alone, we have over 25,000 people on the waiting list for a council property - we could use all those promised social houses within the City.

One of my major criticisms of the last Labour government was that it did not sufficiently support social housing, whether council or housing association. This government is making the situation worse and there is a real opportunity here for Labour to put a marker down for 2015. We should promise a major investment in affordable, rented social property. That may mean borrowing, but it will be borrowing for investment. It will be borrowing that employs real people in the building industry to create infrastructure for the future, that can then be rented out at sensible rates and simultaneously control our housing benefit bill.

The government's current policy is morally and economically wrong. They claim it will save money - it won't. They claim it will free up housing for others, but at a terrible cost to those affected, as they are forced away from their support networks, their schools, their families - even away from their jobs, if London councils look to rehouse people in more northern local authorities because of the benefit cap.

I don't give a damn if John Hemming is out of touch or insensitive. The people of Yardley will judge him in two years' time. I do give a damn about the people in Yardley who will be affected by the policies that he so piously and wrongly defends.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The yellow bird flaps again....

As forecast, the Liberal Democrats retained Eastleigh last night. Rather more surprisingly, UKIP ran a close second and beat the Tories into third place.

So, is this a sign of a LibDem renaissance or just a wounded animal flapping around the place?

Well, despite my usual caveats about drawing any broad conclusions from the peculiarities of a by-election, I shall now proceed to do just that. The surprise isn't that the LibDems held on - it would have been more of a shock if they hadn't, given the extremely favourable electoral geography.

Firstly, they controlled the time of the byelection - moving the writ rapidly after Huhne's resignation and thus gaining an advantage. They also chose wisely - a candidate with a local profile as a councillor. The seat itself contains 40 of the 44 councillors on Eastleigh Borough Council - all of those are Liberal Democrat and they have increased their representation during the course of this parliament, bringing with it an effective and established local campaigning machine that could be refreshed by the influx of volunteers from across the country. Finally, it was a LibDem/Tory marginal, so there was still room to squeeze the Labour voters and see if they could hold their noses long enough to put a LibDem into parliament rather than see another right-wing Tory join the ranks. Finally, they have been established long enough to build up their loyal postal voters, with (I believe) over 8000 cast in this election. This proved to be especially fortuitous, as many of those would have been completed and returned prior to the Rennard revelations over the past week and the constantly shifting sands that have passed for Nick Clegg's versions of the truths.

The Tory selection of their 2010 candidate also proved to be a surprising help to the Liberal Democrats. Despite her well-known anti-European credentials and opposition to gay marriage, this did not persuade the sizeable UKIP vote existing within the seat to back her, but may have encouraged some of the left of centre to back the candidate most likely to beat her. She also proved to be extraordinarily gaffe-prone and apparently incapable of opening her mouth without inserting at least one foot - to the point where she seems to have become invisible in the last week or so of the campaign, avoiding two high-profile husting events. Far from being the vote winner that I thought she might be, she managed to drop the ball quite effectively.

Labour actually slightly increased their vote share, but not by any statistically significant amount. Given that they went from a standing start with little local structure, by all accounts, then that's a creditable result in the scheme of things. It would have been a brave pundit to have forecast a Labour win during this campaign.

UKIP have been the story of the campaign with their best ever parliamentary election result and coming within 1800 votes of winning their first seat. Their candidate looked competent and sane - rare qualities amongst some of the UKIPpers and seemed every inch the perfect Tory candidate.

I tweeted last night that the by election was probably more important for internal party politics than anything else. Clegg looks to have protected himself a little, but I'll still be surprised if he fights the 2015 election as leader. Cameron now feels the slavering hounds of the Eurosceptics at his heels again. They've tasted a little meat with the promise of renegotiation and a referendum, plus the minor triumph of the EU budget - but if Cameron thought that would calm them, he's wrong. They want more and he's not got a lot to give away. Expect the Tory party to look again at Dave and wonder if he's really the man to deliver them their first national majority in almost a quarter of a century. An increasing number will decide that he isn't (odd, as he has consistently proved more personally popular than his party in opinion polls). Could that be enough for a few of them to write those letters to the 1922 Committee Chair to trigger a leadership election? Perhaps not today, but maybe later in the year.

So we'll let the LibDems parade their 'Winning Here' signs round one more time, but remember this. In a General Election, it will not be possible to pour the entire party's resource into one parliamentary seat. Those fifteen to twenty LibDem MPs with narrow majorities, whether facing Tory or Labour opponents should be rather nervous. It seems that Labour voters will still turn out to back them against more terrifying options, but they will not always be advantaged with flocks of local councillors, a Tory candidate whose confidence drained away by the second or a handy right wing party to siphon off the Conservative vote. It isn't as bleak for the LibDems as it once was, but this is hardly a new dawn breaking - perhaps just a delayed sunset.

In truth, this was a damn close run thing.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Eastleigh bound and down

The upcoming by election in Eastleigh is a big one for the coalition parties. Not only is it a so far unique opportunity for them to compete with each other head to head in a parliamentary seat, it is also a seat that both would have reason to expect to win and recriminations can be expected when one of them doesn't.
I always make caveats about drawing conclusions from the overheated atmosphere of by elections, which are singular beasts in the political world, allowing parties to focus their entire national clout on 70,000 voters for three weeks. This campaign is no different, but conclusions will be drawn nonetheless, which may have quite far reaching impacts.
The Tories need to win seats like Eastleigh if they have hopes of winning a majority in 2015. If they fail, rumblings may get louder about the direction of the government and even the Cameron leadership - although I fully expect him to continue through the 2015 election. The Ashcroft polling initially puts them a nose ahead of the incumbents, with a 34% vote share. Shrewdly, they have picked a candidate who stood in 2010, so comes with some local profile and can also point towards her opposition to gay marriage, Europe and immigration. This makes her ideally placed to pick up tactical voters floating away from the 13% currently considering UKIP and she can also take comfort from Ashcroft's polling which shows Tory voters quite firm in their intentions.
Meanwhile, if the LibDems lose Eastleigh, a seat formerly occupied by an MP regarded locally as popular and a hard-working constituency member and in a seat where all 40 Eastleigh borough councillors within the constituency are Liberal Democrat (the other four seats are Tory, but not actually in the parliamentary constituency), then it will worry a number of Liberal Democrat MPs who have southern seats with similar majorities. Nothing concentrates the mind more than the rising fear that their political careers are about to end in failure rather earlier than they planned. After attacking the Tory candidate for not being local enough - a tried and tested tactic - they have sensibly picked a local councillor as their candidate, hoping to build on their continued electoral success at a local level. They will need to target the 19% Labour vote to boost their 31% vote share past the winning post, but Ashcroft reports that even the Liberal Democrat vote may be soft as they seem quite prepared to vote Conservative, even as Labour voters are prepared to back them to keep the Tories out - so we can expect the equally well worn tactic of squeezing Labour voters.
Historically, of course, you would have backed the Liberal Democrat by election machine to deliver a straightforward win, even starting 3 points behind, but with the Tories ahead and hungry for some good news, you wonder if the Liberals can field their usual army of supporters and whether they can outgun the Tories in spending terms. The Huhne effect is unclear - my suspicion is that voters won't seek to punish the Liberal Democrats for his behaviour in any significant way, but the loss of the incumbent personal vote might be damaging.
In the end, I think this is too close to call with any degree of reliability, but if I'm pushed, I suspect a Liberal Democrat hold on the 28th February. That is, however, three weeks away and in by election terms, that's a very long time.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Pickles Poll Tax

Last Tuesday, Birmingham City Council voted on a new Council Tax Support Scheme that replaces the Council Tax Benefit currently paid. This will impose 20% council tax on some people who have previously received 100% discount under council tax benefit. It wasn't an easy decision, but I believe that it was the best we could do in the circumstances. I think that everybody is also aware that other tough decisions lie ahead when we come to the budget proposals.

The government has decided to 'localise' Council Tax Benefit - probably the most common means-tested benefit, supporting a million households across the country - and give each local authority the chance to set their own scheme. Sadly, this localism came with a price tag - 10% of the benefit grant is retained by the government, a cut of £11 million to Birmingham (£470 million nationally). They also insisted that nothing could be done to affect the 100% discount for pensioners - so any change has to fall upon people of working age, which means that any change in benefit will have to be greater than 10%. By closing various loopholes in terms of unoccupied properties and backdating claims, we've managed to fill some of the gap, but there's still a black hole there.

The government offered us £2.1 million towards the cost, but only if we created a scheme that imposed an average 8.5% council tax payment (about £95 on 2012's figures) across all groups apart from pensioners. To get to that level would take the government money AND £1.3 million from the council, which could only be found by making cuts somewhere else. Don't forget that we've still got to make cuts of £110 million in 2013 - a figure that is likely to rise as the final settlement figures are still being developed. It looks like most councils are following this route, with only a third of councils so far deciding to run a scheme that takes advantage of the government money - all have to decide by the end of this month or will be stuck with funding the current scheme.

Some local councils have decided to continue with the current scheme, but they face much smaller shortfalls that they feel they can accommodate within their budgets this year. I would be very surprised if they maintain that position for the start of the 2014 budget year, especially with the additional cuts coming. Councils with smaller numbers of claimants may find it easier to absorb the relatively smaller costs, as might councils who have not suffered the same level of cuts - remember that Birmingham is hit by cuts at twice the national average.

As with any money offered by the government, you can be sure that they will attach conditions. The additional funding is only promised for one year, meaning that in 2014, we'd either have to find the full £3.4 million or impose the same sort of scheme we're bringing in this year. Actually, it might well take more, as the government let it slip this week that there might be further cuts in the 2014/15 council tax support scheme funding - dropping another 8.5%.

Our scheme will protect more people than the government proposal. With Labour, the following groups continue to get their 100% discount - something not guaranteed by the government scheme:
  • Claimant or partner in receipt of the disability premium, severe disability premium and enhanced disability premium.
  • Claimant or partner with a child under the age of 6
  • Claimant or partner with a disabled child of any age
  • Claimant or partner in receipt of a war pension
  • Claimant or partner in receipt of the carer's premium
  • Claimant or partner in receipt of employment and support allowance, who are also in receipt of a qualifying benefit such as disability living allowance
The last two groups were added as a direct result of the consultation process and we also increased the discount level from 76% to 80% - meaning that those now required to contribute will have to pay £223 a year, based on 2012's band D rate, less than we originally proposed. The survey, which received most responses from those currently claiming Council Tax Benefit showed some support for our proposals - 45% were in favour, 35% against, with the remainder undecided.

Unsurprisingly, the opposition were up in arms at us "taxing the unemployed." Liberal Democrats are already drafting petitions, although failing to mention that their government is to blame for this mess. What we will have is the Pickles Poll Tax. Tho original worked so well in the 80s and 90s that it brought down a
government and the Tory architect of that scheme now issues a similar warning
"The poll tax was introduced with the proposition that everyone should pay something, and with the present structure of society it doesn't work. We got it wrong.... The same factor will apply here, that there will be large numbers of fairly poor households who have hitherto been protected from Council Tax, who are going to be asked to pay small sums"
Make no mistake, the blame for this sits squarely with the current government.

Monday, January 07, 2013

What kind of year has it been?

A quick glance back at last year's predictions saw four out of five hit the mark. There was no general election in the UK, the coalition has stumbled on, we slipped back into recession and Obama won a second term quite convincingly in the end. I missed the mark over the mayoral elections in Birmingham, which were quite resoundingly rejected by the electorate, although we did get a Labour Police and Crime Commissioner, despite an embarrassingly low turnout which demonstrated the public apathy over this flagship government policy.

Personally, it has been a mixed year. The exhilaration of winning Acocks Green for Labour in May was tempered by redundancy from the Energy Saving Trust and it has proved difficult to get back into work since. That said, I'm not complaining - the job of a councillor is challenging and sometimes as frustrating as it is rewarding. Sometimes you can feel powerless to help deserving housing allocation cases who simply don't have enough points under the scheme. On the other hand, getting a tenant back into their home after a water leak had taken out their power or helping a resident find help that wins a benefit tribunal hands down makes for a very good day. I love doing it and am painfully grateful to the electorate for placing their trust in me.

Looking ahead to 2013, I still see no end to this government or the coalition, but this will be a big year for them. A number of their key policies come to fruition in April - the NHS changes kick off and Ian Duncan Smith's Universal Credit starts to roll out. When combined with other changes to the benefits system, this will be a brutal year for many - and they aren't aware of it. While the government have run a maliciously effective campaign designed to set the poorer economic groups against each other, the job of the Labour Party must be to hold a mirror up to the electorate and explain that when the government talk of scroungers, they actually mean people like you - not the faceless neighbours with their curtains drawn as you leave for work.
I'm also prepared to forecast that the Universal Credit scheme will be an ongoing train crash with dodgy IT over-reliant on internet access from a group for whom it is not necessarily a priority.

I suspect the economy will continue to bounce up and down around the point of stagnation. We may well avoid a technical recession this year, but things are so fragile at the moment that two quarters of negative growth are quite credible, depending on external events - there is no resilience in the economy. However, I think that the underlying trend will continue to be around the flatline.

In Birmingham, we are blessed with a fallow year in the electoral cycle, with the next council elections not until May 2014 (or more likely in June, to coincide with the 2014 European elections). That will not herald a year of peace and goodwill, however, as Sir Albert has promised that the summer will bring detailed consultation on what services are to be decommissioned over the next couple of years. 2013-14 will be the last year of trimming and salami-slicing budgets. From 2014's budget, Birmingham will be extracting itself from some functions and services that the council currently provides. Even before that, we will have discussions over the final budget for 2013, which is still guaranteed to be controversial. I have promised never to use the phrase 'This is not what I came into politics for' - although it certainly isn't.

The polls remain positive for Labour, with double digit leads now normal, but I'm not convinced that this is actually all that solid a lead. I do think that Ed Miliband has secured his place as leader - he made some shrewd political calls in 2012 and has got Labour on the right side of the argument a few times, wrong-footing Cameron once or twice in the process. The decision to oppose the 1% limit on benefit increases is both the right decision and a brave one. It is right, because we should be the party in defence of those in need of help and it is brave because of the campaign waged by the government and the press to paint claimants as scroungers, living high on the state. This campaign has proved effective in setting people against faceless claimants, although the reality for many is that if they want to see a claimant, they shouldn't look up at a curtained window when they leave for work in the morning, but in the mirror instead. When IDS lies about people on benefit, chances are he means to punish you. The caution I would urge is that we do not join in the Tory aim of dividing the poor into the deserving and undeserving - do not play into their rhetoric. If you want to cut the benefit bill, get people into jobs that pay a decent wage, not subsistence pay that demands a top-up from the government.

This will also be the year that the coalition moves closer to stage three of their relationship. To start with, they were inseparable, hanging off each other's words like any new couple. Now, they need to find their own space - we see a number of Tories and LibDems querying coalition policies as they manoeuvre for a post-coalition phase. Stage three will be when they each want to see other people - mainly the electorate, although the Lib Dems may find that the dating market is rather tougher for them than for the Tories, who have a chance of doing better out of the next election. In particular, expect to see certain LibDems - Simon Hughes and Tim Farron in particular - become increasingly publicly questioning of government policy and direction. This, they believe, will be of advantage to their party in the run up to the election, so they can point to their differences from the Tories. It will also be of help in the run up to the 2014 LibDem leadership election as Clegg makes way for somebody that the electorate might not loathe on sight.

I see no reason to change my view that the 2015 election will be a bloody one for the Liberal Democrats - I suspect that their parliamentary numbers could easily be halved overnight. This does not necessarily mean good news for Labour, as a number of those seats can be expected to fall to the Tories if Labour tactical voters cannot stomach casting their vote accordingly. Similarly, I still maintain that 2015 will have the economy at its centre and also that the Tories will benefit from any turn round in the situation. However, I'm also convinced that for them to have a hope, that this is the year that the green shoots must really start to show and I struggle to see from where they will come. As I have said before, I still firmly believe that if Labour want an election-winning policy for 2015, then a commitment to build social housing would be it.

We continue to pay a high price for Tory/LibDem economic incompetence and that price is the wholesale dismantling of the post-war Attlee legacy to the nation. Perhaps this will be the year that the people wake up to the destruction being wrought on our public services and our safety net for the poor.