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Fifty shades of Sir Albert

Fifty shades of Sir Albert

🕔04.Sep 2012

It wasn’t exactly Fifty Shades of Grey, but Sir Albert Bore was at pains to show he can crack the whip at this week’s cabinet meeting.

The newish Labour leader of Birmingham City Council stared angrily at a sheaf of papers in his hand.

“I have some concerns about this report,” he began. “There are things here that ought not to be here, and things are not here that ought to be here.

“There are a number of questions I have been asking myself, and I will be seeking answers.”

A frisson of excitement, and even fear, rippled through the cabinet room.

At the back, the Commissar, aka David Hallam, Labour’s spin doctor, raised a languid eye. He’d seen Comrade Albert like this many times before. It was good. It would keep people on their toes and if anyone didn’t like it, well, they could be dealt with.

The brilliant young cabinet member for Children and Family Services, Brigid Jones, blushed slightly at Albert’s forcefulness, a brief smile of anticipation flickering across her normally expressionless face. Big city politics was everything she’d ever dreamt of and more, she thought.

And then we all woke up. Sadly, Sir Albert didn’t stroke a small white cat sitting on his lap while pressing a hidden button to dispatch hapless councillors and bumbling officials to the foaming piranha tank in the Council House basement. He didn’t even shout. But he was cross. You could tell.

The cause of his anger was the latest quarterly monitoring performance of the Council Business Plan, taking in the period April to June 2012. There was good and bad news. Some 80 per cent of improvement targets were being met, but 20 per cent were lagging behind.

Unfortunately, the four-fifths of delivered targets were, mostly, easily met challenges, while the one-fifth of undelivered targets represented the difficult areas of adults and children’s social services.

The city’s former Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition was always ecstatic about hitting 80 per cent of targets, on the “road to excellence”. But Sir Albert with the benefit of his razor-sharp brain jumped to the conclusion that 80 per cent is simply not good enough.

To make matters worse, Sir Albert couldn’t really play the “inheritance” card since half of the period covered by the monitoring report covered Labour leadership in Birmingham since the middle of May.

The Conservatives and Lib Dems, now in opposition, had sent their B-team to the cabinet as cover for Mike Whitby and Paul Tilsley who were away. The Tories put up Randall Brew, whose gentlemanly nature is to instinctively find something pleasant to say about everything and everyone, and Deirdre Alden whose heroic failure to become the MP for Edgbaston represents one of Birmingham’s more fascinating political tales.

It didn’t really matter because Sir Albert conducted a pretty effective hatchet job on his own cabinet members and highly-paid officials. Perhaps it was his way of responding to claims that he’s not up to carrying out two important jobs – he’s also chairman of the Birmingham University Hospitals NHS Trust.

The council is failing to deal with customer complaints quickly enough, he declared. Quite so. But you have to remember there are a lot of complaints to deal with.

More seriously, the social services department is still not making sure all children subject to a Protection Plan are visited by social workers. “We are flat-lining,” Sir Albert commented. Even more seriously than that, a plan to save millions of pounds by enabling older and disabled people to live at home rather than being taken into residential care is floundering.

The council is supposed to be fitting the Telecare system in the homes of social services clients. This appliance, better known as “help at the press of a button”, enables vulnerable people to summon assistance and, allegedly, results in social workers dashing off to help clients at risk.

The council has a target to install 60 Telecare systems a week. But only half of that number is being installed. Sir Albert found this “extremely worrying”, and clearly did not believe the stock local authority excuse about “problems with the suppliers”.

Sir Albert’s whip bristled again in his hand. “Why isn’t this work being done? Who isn’t doing the work that was expected? This could have extremely serious consequences for the council budget.”

But the true scale of the Albert terror was reserved for that perennial issue of staff sickness. Put simply, all efforts to reduce absenteeism below an average 11 days per employee have failed and continue to fail even though the council spent millions of pounds on “sophisticated” computer software that was supposed to enable managers to track and deal with malingerers.

It’s been an open secret for a long time that many managers simply ignore the sickness statistics, preferring a quiet life rather than demanding to know why members of staff are taking so much time off work. Up to the minute information about absenteeism is supposed to feature in the annual Performance Development Reviews that all council employees face. Sir Albert suspects this is not happening and that “managers are not managing properly”.

It is estimated that the council spends £35 million a year on covering staff that are absent. If the absenteeism average could be cut by 20 per cent, that would generate £7 million which would be enough to continue paying full council tax benefit to low income families.

No wonder Sir Albert is cross. You could say he is sick to death with failure.


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