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A sick council, Michael Gove meets Steptoe and Son

A sick council, Michael Gove meets Steptoe and Son

🕔05.Mar 2013

medicineThis week’s Birmingham City Council cabinet could really have been any meeting at any time in the past 15 years, regardless of which political party or parties are in control.

Same old depressing problems: same old failure to solve same old problems.

The issues that just won’t go away include ludicrously high staff sickness levels, poor performance in parts of children’s and adult social services, under-performing schools, failure to use IT systems effectively, high unemployment, poor public transport and gridlocked city centre roads at the first sign of an accident.

These are matters that have concerned the council certainly since 2000, and probably for longer than that. It has been clear for a long time that the city centre renaissance of 2002-2008 was to a large extent illusory, hiding Birmingham’s desperate social and economic problems behind a glitzy façade of high-rise offices, expensive restaurants and shopping malls.

Even today, stride out two or three miles from the Bullring in any direction and you are likely to find the real Birmingham – a place still struggling to come to terms with the collapse of the traditional manufacturing sector almost 30 years ago, a post-industrial city where a third of adults in some wards are unemployed.

To get back to the cabinet meeting, deputy council leader Ian Ward might as well have picked up his script on staff absenteeism from the autumn of 2003. Perhaps he did.

For it was a decade ago that Labour, staring at likely defeat in the 2004 civic elections, decided to “get tough” with Birmingham’s eye-wateringly high sickness levels. I recall Sir Albert Bore ordering all chief officers and their deputies to attend a meeting in the council chamber, to which the press were invited, where he proclaimed an all-out assault on absenteeism.

True, the average time taken off back then was about 17 days per person. This did in fact fall to just under 10 days towards the end of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition period in charge 2004-2012. But the figure has risen sharply since last year to now stand at 12.5 days per person.

Sir Albert made a bit of a thing about this when he regained power last May, reminding the coalition of their failure to tackle staff sickness. One imagines he may come to regret being quite so outspoken on the matter.

At the very least, you have to pay tribute to Ian Ward’s openness. He is one of the most honest politicians I have ever come across. He could have blustered his way out of the latest performance figures on sick days, but this is what he said: “This is moving in the wrong direction despite all the attention being paid to it.”

He did test our patience by suggesting that the average number of sick days has risen not because more people are staying at home but because the council has become better at pinpointing those off work. This, I suppose, was a reference to “sophisticated” new computer software that was supposed to enable managers to discover at the press of a button who is at work and who is not.

As part of the business transformation hype, the council claimed several years ago that better IT would help crack the sickness culture. It clearly has not. The information is there, but as is ever the case with Birmingham council is anyone actually using it?

Given that the figure of 12.5 days is an average for the council’s 16,000 non-schools employees, and that some people will rarely if ever be off sick, you can easily get a feel for the length of time thousands of employees are away from their desks. The brutal truth in statistical terms is that every single member of staff has an average two and a half weeks a year off sick, plus five weeks holiday, plus public holidays, plus ‘special’ holidays negotiated over the years by unions.

Having in the past singled out staff who persistently indulge in short ‘duvet’ breaks, and also those on long-term sick, Cllr Ward is now targeting employees absent for between four and 14 weeks.

The problem if that doesn’t work is that there aren’t any more absenteeism categories to “crack down” on.

AFICIANADOS of the classic television sit-com Steptoe and Son will recall an episode in which the two rag and bone men had fallen out with each other to such an extent that their chaotic house had to be divided into two sections with marker tape diving father and son territory.

One of the unintended consequences of Michael Gove’s obsession with academies is that schools are facing similar farcical turf wars.

But you’d have to go a long way to beat the confrontation between Holte School, Lozells primary school and Mayfield special school in Birmingham.

The three schools share the same site. Holte and Lozells are converting to academy status, but Mayfield is remaining under council control.

Tense discussions are taking place over access arrangements in Mr Gove’s brave new world.

Council leader Sir Albert Bore, remarkably maintaining a straight face, explained: “One of the schools has access to the boiler room, the other one does not. One has access to the thermostat control for the boiler, the other does not.

“The alarm system for the whole of the building is in the boiler room, to which one school does not have access.”

And for the latest update on negotiations, over to cabinet member Brigid Jones: “Both schools now have access to the boiler room, but access to the intruder alarm is yet to be resolved.”

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