‘Popular’ ASB Area Committee Meeting

It’s a hard one to know where to start on relating tonight’s meeting. It was clear over the last couple of weeks that both Walsall Council and various partners were pulling into full force their social media power to turn out people to tonight’s event.

We can all question the ability of social media to engage with local people and personally I’ve always been an advocate but with the caveat that it isn’t the be all and end all that some might think or wish it to be so.

However, the end result and I’m happy for anyone to dispute my figures. Tonight I counted 7 members of the public – lost count of the people who were ‘Partners but there was the usual 8 councillors for Willenhall wards minus Val Woodruff who I’m screwed if I can remember the last time she bothered to turn up for a meeting plus an army or officiers from the council and partners like the police.

I noted that the official Walsall Council Media Unit bod only took photographs down the centre of meeting towards the Chair because if they’d gone to the left they would have been met with the rows of empty chairs or right then they’d be met with the backs of heads of numerous council officers and those from partner organisations.

As a local councillor I know how hard it is sometimes to engage with people, it’s certainly not a party political issue and I’m sure across all parties irrespective of their persuasion we would all agree that getting local residents involved and perhaps more importantly – informed is a shared desire.

However I do question the direction the current administration in Walsall is going in relation to Area Partnerships and (although in principle I am open to devolved budget decision making) how we really interact with residents and make those decisions especially when turnout even at these high profile public meetings is so low.

Walsall LibDems spurn Allen’s Rough

Tonight was the meeting of the Allen’s Rough Residents Association.

As a local councillor when I’ve known about any meeting I’ve attended because I believe it is vital to engage with local residents and if I can, deal with the issues that they raise.

That is why I was extremely disappointed that without any consultation with other members of the Community and Environment Scrutiny Committee on Walsall Council that Councillor Val Woodruff (the new Chair) without consultation with committee members chose to change the date to tonight.

We’ll excuse the fact England were playing but given that the scrutiny committee concerns community engagement, of which the Allen’s Rough Residents Association are a shining light in the Willenhall area, snubbing them is a disgrace.

I know Councillor Woodruff doesn’t attend their meetings but councillors such as myself who do find them invaluable with addressing local issues.

The excuse tonight from Councillor Woodruff seems to be that she has something else to do next week and other ward councillors can attend. (Myself and her were in the room so that leaves only one)

Ten minutes after this ascertion Councillor Ian Shires turned up late for the meeting meaning that no councillor for Willenhall North was attending the Allen’s Rough Resident’s Association meeting.

This can only be described as a shambles by the Walsall LibDems who by switching meeting dates have robbed the residents of Allen’s Rough of having their local councillors attending their meeting when there are very important and specific issues that need to be dealt with.

Willenhall North Labour & Co-operative Councillor Gareth Illmann-Walker raised this issue at the meeting and asked to be ensured that this shambles will not be repeated and that members of the committee will be consulted in future regarding any changes of dates so that they can be accommodated and such a cock-up not be repeated.

Pre-Budget Report 2008 LIVE (part two)

Right, we’re off. Has he had a haircut just for today?  Sky has a FTSE tracker running. Am I the only person that thinks that’s part of the problem? This is a time for the bread and butter of economics, no what a few sharp suited kids think they can swap shares for.

On to the real economics now.

Good to see we’re tackling not only economic problems but the causes of economic problems. More power to the FSA.

Fabricant told to shut up by the speaker, good show.

Thought of the day – the films lie

As I wait for whatever bit of software I have to re-install on this system tonight does it’s thing Sky News is on in the background.

I’m thinking that if the lighting that struck that American dude filling up his motor at the petrol station didn’t blow the place up then why do we still have rules banning mobile phones from the forecourt? I’m sure a bolt of lightning has a bit more oomph than the 3.7 volt battery on my handset.

EXCLUSIVE – Brown to face challenge from Walsall MP

I’ve just had it confirmed that Gordon Brown is to face a leadership challenge from my own neck of the woods.

Apparently the steps are already in motion. I missed the meeting last night but it was decided that our current MP David Winnick intends to step down during summer allowing a by-election to take place.

The meeting agreed that current Labour Group Leader in Walsall Cllr. Tim Oliver will stand to replace him and then will mount a challenge to Gordon Brown’s leadership.

Speaking, Cllr. Oliver said, “I’ve already secured enough support from members of th PLP to mount a challenge and I don’t think we’ll have any problem in winning a by-election in Walsall North.”

Should be reported on Sky News shortly.

*PS, for the hard of reading, this is satire. ;-)

Uk Border Agency’s illegal worker

I might be missing something here and please don’t let it get in the way of any Tories popping up with the usual ‘shows the rank incompetence of the government’ line but there seems to be a glaring point that’s being missed and indeed with other cases of illegal immigrants working for various Governmental departments.

That of them cropping up as having worked for a contractor (cleaning agencies being popular). This isn’t as much as the Tories would like to portray it a failure of Government or even individual departments but is symptomatic of the failure of the private sector and the curiously fetishistic obsession we have in the UK of outsourcing our public services to private contractors who are obviously bloody useless at doing the proper checks.

One hopes that somewhere along the line someone thought to insert a bit in the contractual agreement that if said contractor screws up big time or employs someone who isn’t even supposed to be in the country then it’s tough chum, end of contract see you later, or not as the case may be. I think I’m probably hoping a bit too much there.

It’s the end of the world as we know it?

As I sit here, dutifully waiting for the four horsemen of the apocalypse to come charging over the Tividale hills ushering in the end of humanity and the subsequent reports in our staunchly independent mainstream media that it’s all Gordon brown’s fault. I thought I’d shy away from my usual in-depth approach and jot down a personal perspective on life as it stands at this current point in time.

I’ve learned from passing the news stands in the supermarket and corner shops around these parts over the past six months or so that our country is so over-crowded with immigrants that no one can get a doctor, dentist, delivery suite for giving birth or a place for said offspring when they reach school age.

On top of that the economy is tits up, our houses are going to be worth less than the price of a Pot Noodle by the end of the year which of course due to soaring inflation in the cost of food will stand at somewhere around £5,000 come the time the big red suited one descends for his annual distribution of Chinese manufactured toys – should said toys get here because oil will cost $10,000 a pint and the freight companies will have all gone bust.

OK, a little exaggeration there but you get my drift. Everything is getting worse and in case you didn’t know, it’s all Gordon Brown’s fault because he’s Scottish.

So for a little perspective here’s my rundown of various personal experiences of late which either means that 1, all this stuff in the media is rubbish, or 2, the little bit of the world I inhabit (Willenhall, little town in the Black Country) has broken with the old space time continuum and shuffled off to a different dimensional plane.

Getting an NHS dentist isn’t hard, I’m about to change mine, no hunting around, calling up numbers from the Yellow Pages like J.R Hartley only to be told sorry. There’s plenty of availability.

My GP surgery at least the last time I went there a few weeks ago had a sign up inviting new patients to sign up with them.

Last year I had a minor op, removal on ingrowing toenail. Waited 5 weeks to have it done. Bit of mild discomfort while I waited but nothing too bad that required anything like regularly taking pain-killers. Back in the early 1990′s my second-cousin-in-law waited nearly two years in agony for kidney stones to be removed which led to over dependence on pain killers and substantial time off work. Yep, health service has obviously got worse under Labour.

Apparently expectant mothers are being turned away from maternity wards because they’re full or understaffed. Well, I can highly recommend Wolverhampton New Cross hospital as a place to give birth. The wards were half empty, service was great and Mrs Penguin was well impressed by the food. Far better than anything you’d get in the pseudo-private-insurance funded system in Germany – which incidentally cost a damn site more to run than our own good old NHS. On a side note to that, the neo-natal facilities have all been done up since we had Little Penguin and are a darn sight better now than even two and a half years ago but shush, don’t tell anyone, things getting better in the health service, we can’t have that now can we?

When the little Penguin’s are due to start their academic career there’s plenty of school places knocking around. The most likely destination for them, the newly built (with lots of investment dosheroonies from the Labour Government) but admittedly built in the most stupid of places thanks to the local Tories and LibDems’ has, the last time I checked only about 70% of it’s capacity filled. Much like most of the schools across the borough to the extent that you can bet the newly wishy washy Cameroonian Tories will find a way of closing a few to save money. Not that they’re penny pinching bureaucratic minded micro-managerial types of course.

I’ve never quite understood the British obsession with house prices. I’m assuming it’s a British trait and perhaps would make a good question for one of those nationality/citizenship tests. “Will you worry constantly about the capital value of your house?” Answer yes, you’re in, answer no, well you’re not really British enough, please sod off.

For the last few years we’ve had a media banging on about how house prices are so high young people can’t get on the ladder. Not to mention it’s all Gordon Brown’s fault for letting in all those Polish people in the first place. Now prices aren’t rising at rates vastly above the rate of wage inflation and Ministers get spotted with papers indicating they might fall by between 5-10% by the end of the year which you never know, might actually make them a bit more affordable to first time buyers, and the world’s gone to pot.

My house is my home. I actually don’t care if my little two bedroom Victorian terrace is worth £50,000 or £100,000. It’s irrelevant if said other persons comparable property is worth the same and if the differential between property prices narrows it actually makes it easier and more affordable to upgrade, not that I’m planning to.

Apparently there’s a credit crunch going on, its impossible to get loans for mortgages or anything else and our whole economic system built on the procurement of debt is going to grind to a halt.

This is weird to me. I’ve been inundated with offers for loans and credit cards the last few months, far more than normal. Every time I go to the bank, building society or post office I get the question have you got a mortgage, would you like to switch to us or take out a loan?

As it happens, I am planning on switching my mortgage, have to sort out a few things but all told I should be shaving about 13% off my monthly payments which is nice. What was that about credit crisis again?

I’m torn but as far as I can tell, ably abetted by large swathes of the media we seem to be talking ourselves into a recession. Employment is higher than ever, unemployment continues to fall, the currency is pretty steady, interest rates are low. I may have missed something, and this is probably all Gordon Brown’s fault that he simply can’t do a recession properly but what happened to the good old days when the Tories were in.

They knew how to do a proper recession. Millions on the dole, interest rates at 15%, the pound collapsing in value overnight. Now that’s how to do a recession properly. Never mind, let’s hope the Tories get back in, after all they’ve got David Cameron who was an apprentice to Norman Lamont (the true master of buggering up economies) so I feel rest assured that when the Tories win the next general election we’ll have a proper recession and none of this wussy New Labour imitation stuff. Did I mention it’s all Gordon Brown’s fault, he can’t even get recession’s right.

So there we have it. This is not dismiss that there are real issues at the moment, many of which are hurting some of the most vulnerable in our society. Energy costs and as a direct consequence of them the cost of food. These are rising above the rate of inflation and those on fixed incomes like pensioners and people of benefits will be hit. Of course the rising cost of energy has nothing whatsoever with rip-off wholesalers like Centrico, conflict in the world, or the general inability to keep up with demand while supply gradually runs out. It is of course all Gordon Brown’s fault, I don’t understand why people don’t get that?

In fairness to Derek Conway

Take note, this doesn’t happen very often (hasn’t happened before and I don’t want to make a habit of it) but I’d like to, at least to some extent, stick up for a Tory.

First off though, we’ll get through the criticism. He’s been caught fairly and squarely misusing his Parliamentary allowance. There’s no excuse for what is nothing more than corruption and I’m sure if it was some single parent diddling the DWP out of a few grand those on the right would be calling for a prison sentence. As far as I’m concerned, just as fiddling benefits and evading tax are screwing the taxpayer out of money so is this, so he’s got off fairly lightly with paying back a few grand and being banned from the house for 10 days.

I’m even not going to go so far as make a party political critique of Cameron dithering over the issue then finally making up his mind because plenty of other people will.

I’ll also add that a few quid shy of forty grand for a secretary is taking the proverbial because no secretary is worth that, nor do I expect that any other MP’s secretary would quite believe that figure but there you go.

What I’m more concerned with is this article in the Daily Mail which ran as their front page headline today.

I originally picked it up online but, and dare I say it because it is a first, I actually went out and bought a copy to read it in full. I did of course hide it from public view, I do have a reputation to uphold after all.

So the headline is “Nice work if you can get it” with a nice little family portrait shot of Derek with his missus and two sons with the figure £1,535,716 stretched across the bottom.

The claim is quite simple in the second paragraph that “in the past six years the cost to the taxpayer Derek Conway and his family was an astonishing £1,535,401.73″.

I read this and thought, nah, that doesn’t sound right so I decided to have a little look myself with an inkling that I knew how they’d come to that figure but couldn’t quite believe that such a highly respected and quality newspaper like the Daily Mail could have made such an obvious error. After all these journos must earn more than me and be clever like.

Now I’ll add that Parliament only makes available MP’s expenses going back to the 2004/5 year but previous ones are available on request which is presumably what the Daily Mail did to knock up this article. I couldn’t be bothered to do that so I’m just using the last three years figures but as will become clear, that’s all we need to call into question this article.

We’re not disputing the salaries either of Derek Conway or his missus and the two nippers, we’re concerned primarily with the expenses section but we can see clearly that to end up with their headline figure the Daily Mail have added up in total his salary, his expenses, his missus’s salary and the two nipper’s pocket money.

So let’s have a look into the expenses for the last three years.

2004/5.

Cost of staying away from home: £20,902

For those not familiar with the terms I’ll do a few brief explanations. This is for staying near Westminster which in the case of MP’s from far-flung parts of our blessed isle is a fairly reasonable allowance that can cover either hotel accommodation, rent on a property in the capital or make up part of interest only payment towards a mortgage on a property up to a maximum of £22,110 at this year’s rates. He’s probably pushing this a bit given his constituency is about 30 miles from Westminster so why he can’t commute that distance is beyond me but there you go.

IEP: £19,251

Formerly known as the Incidental Expenditure Provision, this has now changed it’s name to give greater clarity and transparency but we’re talking office running costs, those annoying things like rent on the constituency office, leckie, gas, water, fire safety regulations, public liability insurance, maintenance, phone bills and odds and sods, not as sexy as champagne parties and ice sculptures but you never know.

Staffing: £77,608

We’ll come back to this one later.

Travel: £7,426

Again in the interests of transparency, how this is shown has changed but for this year in question that’s the overall figure for the member’s travel comprising of £6,273 in mileage for the motor and £87 on the train. Incidentally, not a good public transport user is Derek.

Staff travel: £5

Where you can get for £5 in the South East is beyond me but his staff spent a whopping £5 on getting somewhere in 2004/5.

Stationary: £972

I’m sure the Conway household must be awash with House of Commons headed notepaper to jot the weekly shopping list down for Tescos but again we’re talking rather boring stuff like needing paper to write to those annoying constituents about their latest problem.

Postage: £2,706

Letters need sending and all that boring constituent related stuff.

IT: £1,979

A little known fact (outside of MP’s staff circles) is that all MP’s IT equipment, as in desktops, laptops, printers and the like have to be centrally sourced through the House of Commons. Personally I think this is a bit daft, especially given that Dell currently has the contract to supply them which probably goes to show that Civil Servants know sod all about IT procurement and went for the cheap crap option but again not exactly a perk or gravy train moment, they are Dell’s after all.

Adding all that together I make that to £130,849 which by miraculous coincidence is the figure the Daily Mail give for Derek Conway’s expenses for that year and rather disingenuously lump it in as if it’s his own personal income. However we prove a point that we know where they’re getting these figures from.

Moving on to 2005/6.

We have:

Cost of staying away from home: £21,634
Office running costs (no longer called IEP): £23,495
Staffing: £80,578
Travel: £4,274 of which car £4,072, rail £202 (note, this was the year that the mileage allowance got hammered so it’s come down a fair bit)
Staff travel: £115
Stationary: £347
Postage: £1,025
IT: £1,029

I make that to be £132,497 which again is what’s quoted in the Daily Mail as his ‘expenses’.

Finally moving on to the year period 2006/7.

Cost of staying away from home: £22,060
Office running costs: £21,177
Staffing: 88,439
Travel: Note that this year the way this is recorded changed.
Car: £3,936
Rail: £239
European: £2,308 (this is specifically to cover costs incurred traveling to Brussels so things like travel, subsistence and accommodation).
Stationary: £432
Postage: £3,116
IT: £1,209

I make that to be £142,914 which isn’t what the Daily Mail quotes but not far off so one of us has probably added something up wrong but the difference isn’t important.

Now lets move backwards a little to the staffing element of the expenses. It’s for paying staff to do work, or offspring for not doing much work in the case of Derek Conway but the problem is that to reach their headline figure, the Daily Mail have totted up Derek Conway’s salary, added in his expenses, then on top of that added on the incomes for the missus and the sprogs.

Much as I hate to leap to the defense of a Tory, especially one that through who’s actions, once again everyone thinks all MP’s are dodgy corrupt geezers (or geezetts?) on the make, the bloke does deserve to be treated fairly and the Daily Mail’s headline figure of £1,535,716 is complete and utter crap.

Taking away all those annoying things that MP’s have to spend money on to do their jobs it’s just simply a case of double accounting. What’s also interesting is that the Daily Mail in it’s attempt to bump up the headline figure as far as possible misses not only this but one other glaringly obvious fact. There’s a discrepancy in the staffing budget figures.

Using their own figures, for 2006/7 the total monies paid to Derek’s missus and little Freddie when taking into account salary, one-off payments, overtime and bonuses is £64,096.83, in 2005/6 it was £57,901.70 and in 2004/5 it was £51,030.89 whereas his overall staffing costs were £88,439, £80,578 and £77,608 respectively meaning that outside of his immediate family again respectively £24,342.17, £22,676.3 and £26,577.11 was paid to some person or others who aren’t in the family.

Despite this we’re not just talking about double accounting, we’re into the territory of triple accounting as this money didn’t end up in the family, unless there’s some other relative knocking about that’s on the payroll. This of course further undermines the Daily Mail’s headline figure.

Much as I love seeing a Tory getting a good kicking as much as the next person of a Labour persuasion I do believe in fairness and that does even extend to Tories so on the basis of this article in the Daily Mail he’s been hard done by and misrepresented.

Might do more on this employing family members thing on another day but just to note in case anyone is wondering, no I’m not related (at least I don’t think so) to any Member of Parliament or indeed any other elected representative and on their payroll.