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Ian Ward becomes Mr Quite Harsh….and the strange case of the phantom font

Ian Ward becomes Mr Quite Harsh….and the strange case of the phantom font

🕔20.Nov 2012

Gosh. Who would have thought it? Mild-mannered Ian Ward, the personification of reasonableness itself, has transformed if not quite into Mr Nasty then certainly into Mr Quite Harsh.

In his second stint as deputy leader of Birmingham City Council, Ward seems determined to ensure that this Labour administration will not repeat the mistakes of 1999-2004, when cabinet members openly fought against each other and no one was prepared to take a decision about anything.

He spent a good part of this week’s cabinet meeting issuing veiled threats.

Directors and cabinet members for the three departments not hitting a £17 million savings target will be invited to meet Coun Ward and his ‘star chamber’ enforcers for a cosy little chat about how they might do better.

And in a clear warning that the thumbscrews will be applied, Ward fixed the comrades around the table with a steely glare before adding: “Failure is not an option in this area.”

There was more. On the matter of the council’s staggeringly appalling staff sickness record, the deputy leader is to apply the ultimate deterrent. Senior officials of departments where absenteeism is unacceptably high will be denied an annual pay rise if they are seen not to be taking appropriate disciplinary action against malingerers.

What, I hear you say. Hasn’t local government pay been frozen for three years? Well, yes and no. The annual cost of living rise has been set at zero, but so-called increments paid annually on the basis of performance are still being dished out.

When the council invested in expensive software to track the daily attendance records of all employees it was claimed that managers would be able to spot patterns of behaviour such as consistent ‘sick days’ around weekends, or the Friday cold syndrome, and take action.

That’s not happened. Sickness levels are now at an average of 12 days for each employee, which is way above the 9.25 day target. To make matters worse, three-quarters of all absences are long-term with staff off work for more than six weeks.

As usual, there is disagreement about the validity of council statistics. Birmingham’s former Tory-Lib Dem coalition claimed to have reduced absenteeism to 7.9 days in 2011, but Ward is insisting the figure was hopelessly inaccurate. “We are getting a truer picture,” he told the cabinet, before adding that managers not complying with policy on absenteeism should know “there may be disciplinary consequences”.

Personally, I quite like the new, edgy, Ian Ward even if it is a bit of a shock at first. Imagine switching on Inspector Morse and discovering that Sergeant Lewis has taken to solving the Times crossword before breakfast, or that Dr Watson isn’t a bumbling old idiot after all, and you get the idea.

THE transfer of Birmingham schools from council control to independently-run academies continues to pick up pace. Soon, there will be more academies than council schools much to the annoyance of some Labour politicians.

But the grounds for opposition are beginning to wear a bit thin. We’ve had the awful unfairness of the 125-year peppercorn leases the council has to dosh out to the academy sponsors; we’ve been through the financial cost of organising the transfers.

And here’s the latest whinge. What happens about polling stations at the transferred schools, asked veteran left-wing cabinet member Stewart Stacey. Might the academies refuse to allow the good people of Birmingham to exercise their democratic right, and could this involve the council in additional cost and a race against time to find other locations for polling stations?

No one had the heart to tell the old warhorse that it really doesn’t matter. At the present rate of decline turnout for local elections will soon be so low that we’ll have more polling stations than we know what to do with.

ROBERT Alden really is doing very well since becoming deputy leader of the city council Conservative group at the ridiculously young age of about 30 or something. But he may be trying rather too hard with the conspiracy theories.

Alden the Younger seized on a “strange looking” report tabled at the cabinet meeting, demanding to know why the typeface used and the layout were different to the usual council template.

Ah, ha. Could he be on to something? Is there a secretive Labour enclave producing highly sensitive cabinet reports and tabling them at the last minute?

Sadly, it would appear not. Fontgate, as it was inevitably dubbed by disrespectful hacks, turned out to be a simple cock-up. Someone pressed the wrong button on a keyboard.

At least, that’s the official explanation. But who believes that? Remember: it’s always the cover-up that gets them in the end.

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