Generally speaking, Birmingham City Council’s human resources and equalities scrutiny committee is eclipsed in the boredom stakes only by the mind-numbingly tedious audit scrutiny committee, where myriad accountants routinely compete against each other to say as little as possible of any interest.
But this month’s HR committee meeting was enlivened by the presence of cabinet member Alan Rudge, who not for the first time veered off-message in a spectacular fashion.
Rudge likes to remind everyone that he is deputy leader of the Conservative executive group.
That is to say, deputy leader of the Conservative cabinet members, which in theory places him only a heartbeat away from the council leadership should anything unpleasant happen to Mike Whitby.
Perhaps he thinks this position gives him the right to interfere in matters that are the responsibility of other cabinet members, although it is highly unlikely that Lib Dem deputy council leader Paul Tilsley will take a relaxed view of Rudge’s critical comments to the committee about the council call centre.
Coun Rudge began by pointing out, helpfully, that the performance of the call centre was nothing to do with him. It is the responsibility of Coun Tilsley, he noted.
There were, he said, many problems that needed to be ironed out.
In particular, the unfortunate habit that call centre operatives have of offering appointments to elderly people at neighbourhood offices miles from where they live.
The implication from Rudge, backed up by evidence given to the main scrutiny committee, is that in order to hit a target that states the vast majority of callers must be offered appointments very quickly, some people are being shunted to the least busy neighbourhood offices even if it is difficult for them to get there.
Coun Rudge continued: “An elderly person finding that they have got an appointment on the other side of the city would be horrified.
“The idea is to improve services, we must bear that in mind. I hope we can build improvements in as quickly as possible. This needs to be sorted out.
“There has to be enough understanding by those taking the calls not to send people to the other side of the city, unless they don’t mind.”
Responding to a claim by Labour councillor Peter Kane that elderly people in Kingstanding were being offered appointments “in three weeks time in Yardley”, Rudge replied: “The call centre doesn’t come under my portfolio. If it was my portfolio we wouldn’t be in that position.”
And just to make sure we understood where he was coming from, Coun Rudge added that he had expressed his views “quite strongly”.
You can say that again, councillor. One imagines that Coun Tilsley will now seek out Coun Rudge for one of his “little chats”, in order to correct any unfortunate misunderstandings.
That is a meeting I would willingly pay to watch.
Members of the city’s vulnerable children scrutiny committee had an entire month to think of suitably challenging questions to put to Jane Held, the new chairman of Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board.
Something along the lines of “how is Birmingham children’s social services ever going to convince the Government that it is fit for purpose?”, would have been a good start.
Or, “why do you think it is that every Serious Case Review conducted by your board into the tragic death of a child in Birmingham has uncovered a fatal lack of joined-up working between social workers, police, doctors and schools, and what can be done to address this?”.
Amazingly, councillors could find nothing to say to Mrs Held other than lobbing a few platitudes wishing her well in such a challenging role.
Even Labour’s Tim Evans appeared lost for words, confining himself to asking about the process for auditing improvement in children’s services.
It was a dismal performance given Birmingham’s position as a local authority where the care of children at risk of sexual and physical abuse is deemed inadequate by Ofsted, saddling the council with yet another special measures improvement notice.
Still, at least Labour councillors turned out in force. There was no sign of coalition members, apart from Tory chairman Anne Underwood.
The official policy of Birmingham City Council’s ruling Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition is to embrace Government economic policy and reluctantly accept the case for spending cuts on the understanding that short term pain is necessary in order to deliver long term gain.
And one of the few crumbs to fall from Chancellor George Osborne – a subsidy allowing council tax to be frozen – was warmly welcomed by Tory city council leader Mike Whitby, who said the measure would assist hard-up families.
Interesting to see, then, that Moseley & Kings Heath Liberal Democrat councillor Martin Mullaney has published an internet survey asking constituents whether they think the Government ought to perform a U-turn by raising taxes and cutting public spending more slowly.
The poll, which is based on a national BBC survey, asks whether Birmingham City Council should increase council tax, even if above inflation, to minimise spending cuts.
Mullaney tells would-be participants: “Your responses help us in shaping policy by allowing us to act on behalf of local residents.”
Possibly not the way Coun Whitby will see it, but still.