Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Democracy closed down

Paranoia seeks to have gripped Birmingham city council since a few dozen students briefly occupied the council chamber last week. Protesters who turned up yesterday to exercise their democratic right to lobby councillors before the monthly full council meeting found themselves facing a heavily stewarded, and closed, Council House. Even members of the public who wished to sit in the public gallery were asked to open their coats and jackets before entry to ensure they were not carrying concealed…'pamphlets'.

Inside, it was more of the same. Any mention of the tuition fees issue received nervous, evasive and, frankly, ridiculous answers from council leader Mike Whitby. When I asked my question (below) his reply was only to say it was beyond his remit to answer questions on national policy. This is unacceptable. The city council routinely lobbies national government on a wide range of policy questions. In acting like this, the council leader appears to be contemptuous of the concerns of many thousands of young people and their parents. What was striking about the council meeting was how uncomfortable the Tories and Lib Dems were; how desperate they were to avoid any debate.

We had more of the same with the discussion on the West Midlands Police Authority. Project Champion (the now discredited spy cameras) featured heavily in the discussion. Despite an extended time for debate, and despite the fact that I was one of the most high profile critics of a scheme that affected my ward directly, the chair refused to call myself or my Respect colleague Councillor Ishtiaq. They were desperate to avoid any embarrassment. Well, I won't be silenced. I will say here what I would have said there.

It is a disgrace that the police officers responsible have not at least been demoted. They failed in their public responsibilities, they deceived the public, damaged relations with the community, and undermined the institution they are supposed  to represent. Yet they have not faced any sanction.

It is a disgrace too that the Chair of the West Midlands Police Authority is still in post. Bishop Webley was worse than useless throughout. The West Midlands Police Authority needed to do its job – to be independent and to act in the public interest. Instead, its Chairperson acted in a completely deferential manner to the police, doing both the police and the public a disservice in the process. This has brought into question whether the Police Authority is fit for purpose. Bishop Webley spectacularly failed in his responsibilities and should resign.

But he is not alone. I was not surprised that Councillor Cornish who also sits on the Police Authority, said in the 'debate' that it was time to 'move on'. So he would. If he had done his job properly we would not have had to work double time to clear up the mess that the West Midlands Police Authority failed to deal with, despite robust scrutiny and regulation being its very reason to exist.

Senior council officers also attended public meetings and relayed the police 'line' that there would be a crime prevention benefit to local people, despite no infrastructure to support this claim. Indeed it was the Thames Valley Police Review which shed light on what has been going on, bringing out the discrepancies following a public outcry, so credit is due to them. The Council and the West Midlands Police Authority were part of the problem, not part of the solution. West Midlands Police have apologised, have acknowledged the huge cost to reputations and the public purse (another £650,000 to remove the cameras), yet we still have no timeline for when this will happen.

The council has generated a lot of hot air about ‘'lessons being learnt' from the debacle of Project Champion. But inside the council chamber they acted to prevent any real debate from taking place. My Respect colleagues and I were not prepared to sit quietly and heckled the chair before walking out in protest and disgust.

Without the slightest trace of irony, the Tory-Lib Dem administration that run Birmingham refer to themselves as the 'progressive partnership'. But you don't have to scratch the surface too deeply to realise what a reactionary bunch they are. Roll on the local elections in May 2011. The electorate will then have the opportunity to kick away the rotting Lib Dem stump that keeps this Tory dominated administration in business.

QUESTION TO THE LEADER OF BIRMINGHAM CITY COUNCIL: I am sure that Councillor Whitby is proud to be the Leader of the city with the youngest population in Europe. Indeed, the Birmingham City Council Plan for 2010 says that an economically successful city means that: “...more young people will be in education, employment and training”. Can the Leader explain how government plans to raise tuition fees and cut the educational maintenance allowance will encourage more young people into education? Isn’t it true that the cuts will destroy the educational opportunities for very many young people in our city?
SUPPLEMENTARY: Will the Leader stand by the young people of this city and challenge the priorities of this government which is waiving £6 billion of tax owed by Vodafone, yet tells us we cannot afford free university education, when nationally it would only cost us £2 billion? The City Council plan says that “improving education and skills” is an immediate priority. But this Tory and Liberal Democrat council is backing government policies that will make that impossible to deliver. Do you agree with me that it is a disgrace that politicians who got their university education for free should now deny this to the student generation of today?