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Grumblings in the ranks put Sir Albert’s leadership on the line

Grumblings in the ranks put Sir Albert’s leadership on the line

🕔11.Jan 2013

Sir Albert Bore’s grip on the leadership of Birmingham City Council suffered a humiliating setback following the worst rebellion by disgruntled Labour councillors in years.

Chamberlain Files has learned that almost a third of the Labour group refused to support Sir Albert’s view that the council has no alternative but impose Government benefit cuts on the poorest families.

It’s emerged that 20 of the 63 councillors attending a private group meeting earlier this week either voted against or abstained on a recommendation to end 100 per cent council tax benefit for about 70,000 low income claimants.

The proposal was eventually carried and approved at the following day’s full council meeting, but the scale of the rebellion sent shock waves through Cllr Bore’s administration and made a leadership battle inevitable.

It seems certain now that May’s annual Labour group meeting will see a challenge to Sir Albert, and possibly an attempt to oust deputy council leader Ian Ward as well.

Under council tax localisation plans, the Government has handed Birmingham responsibility for administering benefits while also cutting funding for a benefit scheme by £11 million. Cllr Bore has insisted that the council, already facing £625 million of cuts over six years, can’t afford to find an additional £11 million which would enable benefit to be paid in full.

But it was his refusal to enter the Government’s default scheme, which would have given Birmingham a £2.1 million transitional grant, which angered Labour backbenchers even further. The default scheme would have committed the council to paying at least 91.5 per cent of benefit to claimants, rather than the maximum 80 per cent that has now been approved.

One person who was at the Labour group meeting described the rebellion as a “crossing of the Rubicon” and said it was the most direct snub to Sir Albert in 10 years.

A two-hour debate reportedly saw speaker after speaker complain about the group being “bounced” into unacceptable cuts in benefit for families least able to help themselves. It was pointed out that a number of other councils, including Coventry, Wolverhampton and Walsall, have found money to retain 100 per cent council tax benefit payments.

Cllr Ward told Chamberlain Files that he fully expected challenges to the leader and deputy leader in May, but he was confident that he and Cllr Bore would be returned.

Cllr Ward said: “I wasn’t surprised that there was a certain amount of nervousness at the group meeting. It is counter-intuitive for Labour to propose that unemployed people start making a contribution to taxes when they haven’t had to do so before.

“But we were dealt the hand we have by the Government. You have to consider the whole budget position we are in, and this was the first of several very difficult decisions.

“We are doing our best to protect vulnerable people.”

One Labour councillor speaking after the meeting said: “It was noticeable that the only people prepared to support what was being proposed were cabinet members. There were many passionate speeches against Albert’s proposal, and they weren’t all from the usual suspects.

“When it came to the vote and people were asked to back the report to council setting out the benefit proposals, 20 members refused to support the leadership. That’s a very high figure when you consider that it wasn’t a secret ballot and that people had to raise their hands in public.”

The scale of the rebellion was all the more surprising given that several prominent anti-Bore councillors were not present. It’s being suggested that between 20 and 25 of the 77-strong Labour group would be in favour of a different leader – if a suitable candidate could be found.

Although council tax benefit was the catalyst for revolt, discontent in the Labour group is running at a high level on a number of contentious issues. Many backbench councillors are uneasy at what they regard as the unnecessary pace at which Sir Albert is laying the groundwork for unprecedented cuts to services.

Sir Albert has talked on several occasions about the need to decommission non-statutory services in 2014 as the council struggles to identify £625 million of savings. However, the rebels insist there are a number of other measures that could be put in place to protect front line services.

At the top of a list of demands is a thorough review of the £1 billion contracts Capita has with the council through its IT outlet Service Birmingham. The rebels also believe they can claw back substantial amounts of money from Amey’s £2.5 billion contract to manage the highways network.

Sir Albert has survived numerous leadership challenges since 1999, often hanging on by a tiny majority. However, more recently, he has easily seen off contenders most notably in 2011 when backbencher John Clancy’s leadership bid went down by 43 votes to nine.

Any challenge this May will probably be determined by what Labour insiders refer to as the “Asian dynamic” – the supposed block vote at the hands of 20 Asian councillors. Claims that some of these councillors are upset at being excluded from the cabinet and scrutiny committee chairmanships could be put to the ultimate test when they are called upon to show their loyalty to Sir Albert in May.

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