Birmingham's political leaders are facing a mutiny from their own backbenchers over the "deeply concerning" way the city is being run.

A damning letter, signed by 23 Labour councillors, condemns the way Coun Ian Ward and his Cabinet are leading the city over a range of issues, including their handling of the highly-damaging bins dispute and a long-running wrangle with home care workers.

It comes just days after a meeting of the region's Labour board voted overwhelmingly to call on the national Labour Party executive to investigate Coun Ward and his deputy Coun Brigid Jones to see if any party rules had been broken in connection with those disputes.

Ian Ward

It adds up to an explosive condemnation of the leadership and an open challenge to them to act quickly to avert a crisis. 

In their letter, sent to Coun Ward at 9.15pm on Tuesday, February 19, the backbench group say they share "deep concern" at the approach taken by Coun Ward and his Cabinet team over the disputes.

 

They also highlight serious concerns about the role of officers, who they say are effectively 'running the council' and directing policy - rather than doing the bidding of their political masters.

The group features an array of veteran and new councillors - among them former leader Albert Bore, veteran Mike Leddy and former bins chief Majid Mahmood.

Striking bin workers outside the Redfern Depot in Tyseley

They called on the leaders to immediately withdraw the threat of a legal injunction over the bins dispute, which has now escalated into all-out strikes.

 

They also urge them to agree to not impose working terms and conditions on home care workers in the enablement service; and to use 'every means possible' to settle the disputes.

Leaders are also urged to take steps to improve relations with the city's unions.

BirminghamLive has offered both Coun Ward and Coun Jones the right to reply, and requested a comment from the city council about the issues raised in the letter.

Council leader Ian Ward and deputy leader Brigid Jones discuss the results at last year's election count

The letter adds to the pressure on the leadership team, coming three days after a meeting of the Regional Labour Party Board voted overwhelmingly for a motion asking the party's national executive to investigate their conduct over the disputes.

 

The motion was brought by Unison.

It represents the mostly female home care workers who have been in dispute with the council for 18 months over a planned overhaul of the enablement service, which supports residents towards independence in the first weeks after a hospital stay.

The Labour NEC will now consider the motion, though that is likely to take some time given the national crisis currently engulfing the Labour Party.

One source said there was a 'very high' level of concern expressed at that meeting about the state of Birmingham's leadership. Those concerns would have been expressed in front of Brigid Jones, who is a member of the Board.

The dual challenges from within their own party come as the city battles to push through a difficult Budget , faces discontent over the funding of the Commonwealth Games and tries to see off the improvement panel which was forced on the city in the wake of the damning Kerslake Report.

How Coun Ward and Coun Jones, and the rest of the Cabinet team, respond to this open challenge from within their own party could decide their future.

What is the home care dispute and why is it causing concern?

The home care dispute revolves around plans to radically overhaul the enablement service, provided free for six weeks to people coming out of hospital who require help to regain independence.

The service was not performing well according to inspectors from the Care Quality Commission and was not meeting the needs of residents.

The outcome of a review was that all staff should become part-time, to enable the service to be offered at evenings and weekends and at other key times to suit users.

Home Care workers in Birmingham on strike.

In the 18 months since, the city and union Unison have been unable to agree a deal around the working conditions and new contracts for the 199, mostly female, staff affected by the changes.

Some of the staff would lose thousands of pounds a year in pay; others would be unable to fulfil the flexible working rotas on offer.

A turning point in the dispute came when home care workers tried to deliver a card to Coun Ward portraying him as Scrooge - and ended up being locked out of the Council House by security staff. The unedifying spectacle of women being kept out of the council's HQ was the final straw for some Labour members, who said it was a symbol of the council's approach to the dispute.

Eight of the city's Labour MPs have also got involved, expressing their concern over the dispute in a letter to Coun Ward last month.

 

The latest development, which almost certainly triggered last night's letter, was a message seen by BirminghamLive, sent by Adult Social Care lead Coun Paulette Hamilton, giving a final deadline of Tuesday for the union to accept the deal on the table or face it being imposed on workers.

The damning letter in full:

 

"As Members of Birmingham City Council’s ruling Labour Group we are deeply concerned at the position of the Council in relation to the present industrial disputes being followed by members of Unite the Union and Unison.

The current industrial action being pursued by waste management workers is the latest example of poor industrial relations in the local authority. The people of Birmingham are best served by a City Council that works in partnership with its workforce to deliver exceptional public services. We believe there is an urgent need to change the approach being taken by senior Council officers in conjunction with the Cabinet.

The intention of the Council to seek an injunction which declares the actions of Unite and Unison in relation to the current industrial action unlawful is misconceived and counterproductive.

Birmingham Council House, the city council's HQ

The fact that the authority is reaching for Tory, anti-union legislation which the Labour Party is committed to replacing with a new framework of workers’ rights and collective bargaining only exacerbates the situation. At the same time it is apparent that the Council is on the verge of seeking to impose settlement terms on the enablement service staff having failed over a 15 month period to resolve a dispute where low-paid workers face dramatic pay cuts. These approaches are neither necessary nor desirable.

We believe that there is a wider issue of governance that is highlighted by the approach that is being taken to the various industrial disputes which the Council currently faces.

Three reports have been submitted to the Executive this year in relation to the Industrial Disputes.

Rubbish piling up in Winson Green

Two reports have been called in and been referred back to Cabinet by the scrutiny committees on each occasion with concerns raised that the Executive failed to consider relevant information.

The other report on the waste management service was precluded from a call in on the basis that urgent action was to follow the report despite the fact that no such action took place.

In relation to the steps proposed in relation to the waste management service dispute there has been no policy agreed by the ruling Labour Group and the proposals have not been raised by the Cabinet with the Group. As such we believe that there is a democratic deficit which requires urgent resolution.

Local government requires that elected Councillors should set the policy and strategic direction of the City Council which is then implemented by the officers of the Council.

It is our belief that in Birmingham the elected Councillors are not setting the agenda which gives rise to the current state of affairs. It is apparent to us from the content and tenor of the reports that are being brought forward to the Executive in relation to the current industrial disputes that senior officers are being allowed to drive a particular approach to industrial relations which gives rise to confrontation and disharmony. In making this statement we are calling on the Leader, Cabinet and wider Labour Group of Birmingham City Council to immediately step back from the current approach to the on-going industrial disputes and to reset the relationship with the workforce and their trade union representatives.

It ought to be the case that a Labour Council is in the best position to have a positive and productive relationship with the trade unions representing the local authority workforce. As a Party, Labour shares the values of the trade union movement. We also have a shared vision for the future of our City and our society. There will be issues and occasions in relation to which it is necessary to negotiate with the City Council trade unions. We firmly believe that when those issues arise it is not only possible to reach an agreed way forward with the trade unions based upon our shared values but it is incumbent upon us to do so.

It is our view that a different approach to industrial relations is possible. To that end we propose the following steps be taken:

  1. The City Council withdraws the threat of injunction proceedings in relation to the current waste management service dispute.
  2. The City Council confirms that there will be no imposition of settlement terms in relation to the enablement service dispute.
  3. In relation to the various industrial disputes facing the City Council open and constructive dialogue is pursued with the various trade unions using every means possible to achieve a settlement in the interests of all parties.
  4. The Birmingham Labour Party and the Birmingham Labour Group should take urgent and proactive steps to restore a positive relationship between the City Council and the trade union movement including engagement with the labour movement, Party and Group that seeks to establish an open and transparent approach to industrial relations based upon our shared values."

Signed by Sir Albert Bore (Ladywood),  Mike Leddy (Brandwood & King’s Heath), Mike Sharpe (Pype Hayes), Mohammed Aikhlaq MBE (Ward End), Alex Aitken (Kings Norton North).

Tahir Ali (Nechells), Olly Armstrong (Northfield), Nicky Brennan (Sparkhill), Diane Donaldson (Bromford & Hodge Hill), Barbara Dring (Oscott) Kerry Jenkins (Moseley), Zaheer Khan (Small Heath), Josh Jones (Stockland Green), Keith Linnecor (Oscott), Peter Griffiths (Kings Norton South).

Hendrina Quinnen (Handsworth), Majid Mahmood (Bromford & Hodge Hill), Nagina Kauser (Aston), Mahmood Hussain (Birchfield), Zhor Malik (Balsall Heath West), Lou Robson (Hall Green North), Kath Scott (Sutton Vesey), Lisa Trickett (Brandwood & King’s Heath)