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Mr Dale’s Diary: Promises, promises and how politicians failed to keep their word

Mr Dale’s Diary: Promises, promises and how politicians failed to keep their word

🕔05.Dec 2012

It didn’t take very long to break a promise to protect workers at Birmingham City Council’s Shelforce unit, which employs disabled people to make double glazed window frames.

On February 13 this year Tim Huxtable, then the cabinet member for transport, environment and regeneration, told a cabinet meeting that none of Shelforce’s 81 staff with disabilities would suffer compulsory redundancy even though the unit was losing money hand over fist.

It is true that Coun Huxtable, a Conservative in the dying days of the city’s Tory-Lib Dem coalition, found himself in a difficult spot. Labour councillors had been campaigning hard to save Shelforce and Huxtable doubtless felt he had to come up with something.

In any event, the no compulsory redundancy pledge was backed by Labour at a full council meeting and as a result of that the entire issue was shunted into a siding until this week when Huxtable’s cabinet replacement, Labour’s Tahir Ali, said he couldn’t rule out compulsory redundancies at Shelforce.

Ali dressed it up, of course. Exhaustive efforts would be made to find alternative employment for disabled workers, either at the council or elsewhere. But, in the current dire economic climate, you don’t have to be Governor of the Bank of England to conclude that some Shelforce staff will find themselves out on their ear within six months.

The reason that the council cannot promise to never force disabled employees into redundancy is because to do so would break employment lawby discriminating against able-bodied staff and the council would find itself sued and have to pay costs and compensation.

Coun Ali, in announcing plans to slash the Shelforce workforce from 81 to 13, described the no compulsory redundancy promise as “flawed legally”.

Well, yes it was. But the fact that such a pledge could never be delivered in practice was well known to council leaders in February when they issued their no redundancy promise.

The cabinet report put it in this way: “This positive action is not without litigation risk in terms of differing treatment of other council managed disabled employees. In the event of a redundancy situation arsing in Shelforce and these employees are not subsequently made compulsory redundant then this places the council at a high litigation risk.”

A fresh report released by Coun Ali states that the litigation would be “indefensible”.

Tim Huxtable has a deserved reputation as one of the most honest and assiduous councillors in Birmingham. It is unthinkable that he would have knowingly ploughed on with a promise that he knew was likely to prove impossible to deliver.

However, I don’t recall any discussion about the legal difficulties of delivering the jobs pledge at the cabinet meeting. Certainly, council legal officers did not jump up and intervene to say ‘you just can’t do this’.

The councillors, on all sides, got what they wanted: a positive pre-election pledge to help vulnerable people.

But the promises turned out to be useless. No wonder so many people mistrust politicians.

A 52-PAGE ‘health check’ into the performance of Service Birmingham, the Capita-led joint venture company responsible for transforming the city’s IT, was not quite as damning as expected.

The independent study ordered by the city council’s Labour administration concluded that, on balance, Service Birmingham had given value for money in running the call centre and was a “competent” IT provider.

However, the document went on to knock heads together by portraying a broken relationship between Service Birmingham and council officials, with mistrust and suspicion on both sides.

The central findings, I hear, were rather too supportive of Capita for the liking of Labour councillor Barry Henley, who has been one of Service Birmingham’s sternest critics.

Henley, who is on the Service Birmingham board, reportedly tore into the organisation at a recent Labour group meeting.

One source described Henley’s stance as a forensic demolition of the health check based on the premise that “you can’t say Service Birmingham is value for money if the call centre doesn’t work properly, which it doesn’t”.

Henley aims to expand on this at a scrutiny committee, which should be well worth attending.

Capita may be pinning its hopes on an impressive-sounding customer satisfaction survey which found that 46 per cent of council staff felt that Service Birmingham was excellent or good.

And who conducted the poll? Well, none other than Capita Surveys and Research.

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