Friday, 16 November 2012

Hen's House has moved!

Hen's House has flown the coop and moved to another roost. For significantly fewer poultry puns check out my new online residence:


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Women in the Boardroom: Good for Business, Good for Growth!

This afternoon I attended a
Conservative Party Conference Fringe Event. Now I’m not into party politics.
I’d far rather research issues myself and come to my own non-partisan
conclusion than be told what I should think by a bunch of total strangers, thank-you
very much! (That and I’m part of the generation of young voters still suffering
from a total loss of political idealism after the fallout from the last general
election *cough-LibDemstuitionfees-cough*.)

But, for those benefit of those who
have never attended any party conference fringe events, many have that lovely
attribute of being about political issues without necessarily being about
particular political parties. The event I attended today was of just that ilk,
it was entitled: The Politeia Women in the Boardroom: Good for Recovery, Good
for Growth!

This event took place in a packed out
little room in the Novotel hotel and it was genuinely good to see, not just
lots of women there, but a fair few men too. The panel was lacking in neither
experience nor status and featured some fantastic, and successful, guest
speakers. The main focus of the discussion was essentially: women on boards –
there aren’t enough, is this really a problem and what should the solutions be?
With a particular emphasis on whether quotas are a good idea or not.

Personally, I’ve always been a bit
suspicious about quotas. I think they are a trifle patronising (a sort of ‘well
you wouldn’t have got here based on your own merit but you’ve done very very
well for a woman sooo you’re promoted!’), build tensions between those who
qualify for quotas and those who don’t (‘she’s only here because she’s a woman’)
and don’t address underlying issues preventing women from aspiring to reach
these positions in the first place. So I can honestly tell you it was a mighty relief
to hear a panel full of actually successful women (and a man) largely sharing
these views. Here’s a brief summary of who said what:

Helen Grant MP: Helen Grant, Minister
for Women and Equalities felt a top down approach like a quotas is
inappropriate but that boardroom culture certainly needs to change. She quoted
an encounter with a member of an all-male board who said of the situation ‘It’s
brilliant, we all think alike, discussions are brief and we usually come to the
same conclusion’. This is precisely why we need more women and increased
diversity – it’s all about getting a variety of perspectives in order to ensure
the best possible practice, put forward innovative suggestions and spot flaws
in the collective plan.

Sarah Sands, Editor of the London Evening Standard: Sarah was also
against quotas, she felt it was a business culture issue that was putting women
off and more needs to be done to address that, not artificially adding women in
at the top. She also pointed out that the rhetoric surrounding quotas was all
focused on boards – she questioned why this was and why not on women running
businesses themselves? (Note: with Marjorie Scardino stepping down from
publisher Pearson there are now only three female CEOs of FTSE top 100
companies). She used a lovely simile to describe the situation of the tough
women currently running businesses: they are like Polar bears, strong and
slightly terrifying but in rapid danger of extinction – we need to protect
their environment and help them survive and multiply or we’ll miss them when
they are gone.

Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton
Investment Management and Founder of the 30% Club: The 30% Club was founded
with belief that a non-commercial organisation was needed to co-ordinate
activities and drive a concerted effort by the business community to balance
their boards. Helena stated that we need business lead solutions, not quotas.
If businesses don’t take ownership of the idea it is doomed to fail. She cited
the 1000s of pages of rules and regs regarding banking and how all that didn’t
stop the economic crisis – if businesses don’t both want and fully embrace
these balanced boards they won’t stick.

Stephen Haddrill, CEO of Financial
Reporting Council: Stephen was the only male voice on today’s panel. He too was
not overwhelmingly in favour of quotas but he did stand by their potential to
provide positive role models. What he did propose, however, was a system
whereby companies have to report the composition of their board, plans for improving
the balance and steps they are going to take to get there on a regular basis.

Helen Brand OBE, Chief Executive of
ACCA: ACCA were the funders of the afternoon’s event and Helen Brand was
exceptionally well versed on the statistics regarding women on boards. She referred
to the Cranfield report which has revealed some interesting things,
firstly that most women on boards have a background, and qualifications in,
finance, whereas this simply isn’t the case for men (suggesting another
potential barrier to advancement for women). She also, whilst against quotas in
theory, pointed out Norway has a 40% female quota for their boards and it seems
largely successful.

Marina Yannakoudakis, MEP: Marina cited
a very interesting debate going on in European Parliament at present. Someone
has leaked a proposal for the EU to create legislation that forces quotas for
female non-executive board members on businesses. Some are in favour, some
against. She (rightly in my opinion) is highly against this measure because: 1)
the EU has no right to impose such a thing in the first place, it’s up to
resident countries and the businesses within them to resolve this issue 2) each
country within the EU has its own unique business culture and using a universal
set of quotas for the whole thing would be like using a very very blunt instrument
in a very delicate operation and 3) why focus non-executive directors? You
know, the kind of director that is essentially there to discuss issues but aren’t
the real power in the debate, what does that say about how the EU views the
role of women in business? Instead she favours more support for women as they
make their journey up through the career pipeline, ensuring that the promising
young graduates of today have the support to make it to being the CEOs and
executives of the future. She particularly mooted the power of mentoring.

Harriett Baldwin MP : Harriett brought
her experience from being on the Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee
to the table. She too citied the need to support women much nearer the
beginning of their career journey. She referred to measures already beginning
to be put in place – e.g. the move to universal credit aiming to avoid the
catch 22 situation many working class women find themselves in whereby they
would like to work over 16 hours a week and advance in their career but it isn’t
financially beneficial to do so. She also stated her support for the idea of
forcing companies to give employees the option of splitting maternity-paternity
leave in order to balance out the perceived risk of hiring a young woman over a
young man, especially in smaller companies.

So after the speeches were made we moved on to a question and answer round. Most questions were interesting and on the topics outlined above. However we were soon given a swift reminder why, far from being quite obviously common sense to all, these issues still need debating. The first question was from a fellow from the Campaign for Merit in Business (in the interest of impartiality you may view his blog here: …I assume you don’t need me to elaborate to gather what my views on this are...) 

His question was ‘where is the evidence that women are good for boards?
Because I have some here that I will hand out at the end which shows that women
are bad for businesses and bad for boards’. The panellists dealt surprisingly
well with this odd comment, doubly odd because many of them had, in fact, been
citing studies during their presentations. Helena Morrissey swiftly responded
with citing no less than six reports but, rather graciously in the context I
thought, freely stated that, actually whatever your hypothesis, causality is
notoriously difficult to prove – are these boards featuring higher numbers of
women performing well because there are women on the boards or are there women
on the boards because the companies in question are more progressive and
innovative? It’s near impossible to tell, but they certainly seem to be doing
something right.

In summary this afternoon’s event was pretty great really. It got me
thinking about issues I hadn’t considered, such as the current debate in
European Parliament and just whose responsibility it is to make sure boards are
more balanced, and got me wondering about my own future and where I see myself ending
up. It’s also made me regret that this is probably the only fringe event I’m
going to be able to attend this conference, tomorrow being the last day it’s in
town. So for future reference then readers, whatever your political leanings,
next time there’s a conference in town pick a few topics you’re interested in
and go see what you can find out. I can’t comment on all fringe events but this
one was definitely fun.



Saturday, 1 September 2012

Men of Britain - What the Hell?!

A worrying trend is gripping the nation - lone men making inappropriate comments to young women is now so popular it could be it's own Olympic sport.

So far this month when walking home/to work/around town on my own in broad daylight I've had the following comments hissed at me by various lone men aged over 30 with personal space issues:

'Cracking tits'
'great rack'
'nice arse'
'oh yes darling'
'I'd like some of that'
'smile for me beautiful' (to anyone who doesn't see the issue with this I would like to remind you that women in no way exist purely to look atheistically pleasing to some random BO scented creep)
And a man making a kissing noise.

I'm not a stunner, I dress modestly and my 'tits' far from being 'cracking' struggle to fit a b-cup.

Now this isn't a new thing, the leery perv is a fairly common figure in most cultures, but there are quite a few things giving cause for concern with this behaviour:

1) I look very young. I might be 22 but I have (far too regularly) been informed that I look like I'm in my mid teens. When dressed in my casual clothes these guys probably think they are making these comments to a teenager.

2) These guys are getting a private kick out of making these comments. These aren't groups of lads showing off to each other (not that that's anymore acceptable) - they are on their own - there must be some weird personal gain going on.

3) No man in his right frame of mind could seriously think that making sexualised comments to a stranger could be taken as a compliment. Especially when said stranger is almost a foot shorter than them, clearly lacking upper body strength and walking alone. It's the kind of behaviour that makes me want to employ a 7ft tall body builder to return the 'favour' and follow some lone perv up the street he lives on complementing his arse. Something tells me they wouldn't like it very much.

Whatever this sleazy repulsiveness is about, it's not about charming women. In fact the only conclusion I can come to is that it is some desperate omega male attempt at asserting dominance over women. They must like making girls afraid of being followed home and enjoy the look of mingled fear and revulsion they inspire. There may be some that genuinely are so thick they mistake utter disgust for fathomless desire but, unfortunately, I have a sneaking suspicion that really this sort of behaviour just gives them a good old shot of superiority.

In short, this sort of behaviour should be unacceptable in a country that ostensibly believes in gender equality. Women being frequnetly being treated like objects in the street by total strangers does not sound like a happy clappy equal society to me.

To put a male perspective on this, this weekend I was having one of my regular 'but objectification of and discrimination against women ARE still issues in the UK' conversations with my unconvinced boyfriend. Then, after on each successive occasion we went out TOGETHER I received comments from lads/beeps from vans, he said 'what the hell?! Do you get that a lot?' I answered 'Well I'm a young woman. So yes'. His response? 'that's horrible, I can't believe there's still that many men like that'. Unfortunately, there are a heck of a lot.

And for those who will probably say 'well the way girls dress nowadays they're basically asking for it' 1) bullshit, 2) today I was wearing a large cardigan, thick tights and glasses while carrying heavy shopping bags, how alluring.

So in summary, please dear god if you are one of, or are friends with any of, these men who behave in this way set the record straight: it is in no way shape or form ok to talk to women like this. Stop it now. Seriously.

- Posted using BlogPress

Friday, 6 July 2012

Police and Crime What?

On Thursday I did something I never thought I’d do. I went to a meeting aimed at helping select a Conservative Party candidate.

I’m not in to party politics and I’m certainly not a signed up member of the Conservative Party but this event represented a genuinely interesting political experiment: rather than restricting a ballot on who the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner candidate for the West Midlands should be to registered members, anyone could vote. All you had to do was be a registered as a voter in the region and register to attend in advance. This event took place at the Erdington Conservative club and was the first of four conservative Open Primaries currently being held across the West Midlands.

Now for those not in the know (as far as I can tell the vast majority of the population who, unlike me, don’t have a job that requires them to research the topic) Police and Crime Commissioners are a brand new exciting thing that will come into existence this November. Each police force will have their own democratically elected PCC who will have a series of specific powers, including setting a five year plan for the force, which could result in significant changes to the aims, emphasis and delivery of police services in their individual regions. Essentially the PCC will entirely replace the current system of Local Police Authorities.

There has been much to-ing and fro-ing regarding the pros and cons of creating PCCs. Supporters argue that they represent a much more democratic and accountable approach to policing and will force the police to respond to the public’s concerns, as well as being a more effective means of scrutinizing police spending. Those against the idea refer to how it may politicize policing priorities, potentially threaten cross regional delivery of police services and, with the position's average £100,000 a year recommended salary, represent another tier of bloated bureaucracy of ‘jobs for the boys’ style pointlessness. However, regardless of where you stand it is happening and, curiously, unlike the Mayoral system, the general public don’t get the chance to vote in a referendum on the matter.

But back to the Erdington Open Primary. Aside from an ill-fated conservative party BBQ my dad organized when I was about 9 this was actually my first experience of a local party event, and I was impressed. The candidates had already been whittled down to two: Joe Tildesley ( and Matt Bennett ( Matt Bennett went on first, did his speech and answered a diverse range of questions, then Joe Tildesley came on and did the same. The venue was packed full and the post speeches Q&A rounds were lively and thought provoking.

Potential Conservative Candidate
Matt Bennett

Most surprisingly of all I found that I was actually quite impressed by the candidates themselves. Despite the fact that I have met a fair few entirely pleasant politicians now, for some reason I'm always still slightly surprised when they turn out to be genuinely decent human beings. These two, whether I entirely agreed with all their policy points or not, certainly seem to care deeply about the communities they are battling it out to represent.

Their speeches, however, contained the kind of vague promises you’d expect from such an occasion ‘I’ll be tough on crime’, ‘let’s put victims and witnesses first’, ‘I want to outsource backroom functions and add more visible police’. The kind of general ideas that make me want to shout ‘But, specifically, what would you DO?’.

Potential Conservative Candidate
Joe Tildesley

Joe Tildesley, in fairness, had a very valid response to a question on that theme posed by another audience member – he can’t answer the specifics yet because PCC candidates aren’t allowed to view the police force finances. That’s right, PCC candidates are currently having to come up with policies and promises without the slightest inclination as to the regional force’s financial situation…unless they happen to already be on the local police authority and thus privy to this restricted information that is. I hope this is an issue that will be swiftly resolved because, let’s be honest, what’s the point of voting for someone if they themselves have no idea if their ideas are feasible or not.

And that was that. Speeches, questions and balloting over the event closed. In my (unfortunately long) wait at Erdington station I took some time to reflect on the evenings proceedings. The event wasn’t perfect. The format of candidates doing their speeches and Q&A sessions entirely separately to each other was unnecessarily long winded, especially given that many of the questions posed in the separate rounds were very similar (a one round panel like approach to the Q&A would probably have sped things up a bit). Likewise, despite the attempt to get more general members of the public in, the audience seemed largely dominated by conservative party members.

That said I actually really enjoyed the event and really welcomed the opportunity to get involved at this early stage. There are still another couple of Open Primaries coming up and I would genuinely recommend giving it a go. It’s not often enough that political parties open up their doors to politically engaged but unaffiliated members of the public and I believe that this is an approach that should be encouraged. (For details of the next primaries see here:

Yvonne Mosquito, Labour Party Deputy
PCC Candidate

Bob Jones, Labour Party PCC Candidate

I really do wish both candidates the best of luck and will be keeping an eye out for any up coming Labour PCC events featuring their candidate Bob Jones and his running mate for Deputy PCC, Yvonne Mosquito, as well as events featuring Lib Dem and any Independent/other candidates. So far the only events I’ve clocked are party member only, an ethos I really do plead with all candidates, regardless of party, to move away form in the coming months. Policing and crime are sensitive issues that affect and inspire passionate debate in everyone, regardless of their political affiliation.

Right now less than a handful of my friends and colleagues have heard of PCCs. In Birmingham this year’s local elections and Mayoral referendum achieved just a 29% turnout. If we want the citizens of the West Midlands, and indeed the nation as a whole, to turn out to vote in numbers that represent anything like a democratic mandate in the stand alone PCC election in November parties need to get engaging, now. The Conservatives have made a welcome start with their Open Primaries initiative. Now we need all interested parties to get out of their comfort zones and start communicating with the public.

The same goes for any members of the general public who might be reading this. There are probably going to be lots of community awareness meetings coming up over the coming months, why not go and get involved? You never know, like I was surprised to find, you might just like it.

For more information on PCCs check out the Home Office Website:
or the PCC specific website:
And for the latest PCC news: Top of the Cops                      



Monday, 28 May 2012

Equality, diversity and the Speaker of the House of Commons

On Friday 25th May I was fortunate enough to co-chair an event featuring the Rt. Hon. John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. For those who aren’t sure the Speaker of the House of Commons is that fellow who sits in the big chair in the House of Commons and tells MP’s off when they over step the mark (like when David Cameron called Ed Balls a ‘muttering idiot' on PM’s question time last week). His role is to stay impartial and maintain order. As well as this he’s also doing some rather excellent work with the Parliamentary Outreach service to help improve public engagement in politics and improve equality and diversity in the House itself.

The event in question was a W.A.I.T.S (Women Acting in Today’s Society) Policy Forum on the opportunities for and barriers facing women wanting to get involved in politics (see my previous blog post for a brief overview of the situation). Aside from Mr Speaker being delayed in traffic and arriving half an hour late the event was a great success, with the Policy Forum speakers and Mr Speaker himself delivering engaging, informative and occasionally amusing speeches and deftly answering challenging questions.

Our first speaker was Sharon Thompson. Sharon is currently a magistrate and has a vast amount of first-hand experience of the issues women, and especially mothers, face with wanting to get involved in politics. The key points that I took away from her presentation were:

1) There are two kinds of women local parties need to consider: those that are already engaged in politics and those that would make a fantastic contribution to the political scene but feel that they lack the knowledge (‘I don’t watch the politics show!’), skills or ability to make it. To help engage these women we need more successful female politicians to act as mentors and ‘pass the baton on’ to the next aspiring generation and more family and female friendly events. Things like low key, welcoming coffee mornings where women can get together in a friendly environment and chat about what makes them tick and how they can get more involved in party politics.

2) Parties need to raise awareness of political positions beyond just councillors and MP’s. Sharon made the point that there are loads of local party positions (such as women’s officer) that can represent fantastic ways for women who are interested in politics to gain a bit more experience without being shoved in at the deep end of the  MP or Councillor candidate selection and campaigning process. But hardly anyone knows about them.

Our next speaker was Ally Sultana. Ally is the Coordinator for Saheli Women's Group Empowerment Project which works to increase the understanding of politics and political structures amongst women in South Birmingham. She spoke passionately about the importance of politics and the difficult experiences of the women she had delivered training to on how to become a local councillor.

1) Ally began by talking about the experiences of the women she had worked with, saying that it’s not just the women who have to change but the parties themselves. After helping deliver training to South Birmingham women on how to become a local councillor, in line with parliamentary guidelines on the matter, many of the women were put off the political process by the in-fighting, pettiness and bickering that they had witnessed. If parties are serious about improving equality and diversity in their numbers, they need to be serious about changing their ways too.

2) Next Ally made the point that, if you’re going to run for candidacy you need to 1) know yourself and be confident that whatever the barrier you can get through, 2) build a vast support network around you. It’s a tough process and will involve a load of highs and lows, so you really can’t do it alone. Despite these difficulties and barriers, though, Ally concluded with an impassioned plea to the audience: get involved. Things won’t change until we make it happen so whatever you come up against, keep going and it’ll be worth it in the end.

Our final W.A.I.T.S Policy Forum speaker was Nura Ally. Nura is currently the Community Development Officer for the Hodge Hill constituency and founder and director of the Allies Network; a community organisation set up by women for disadvantaged women from ethnic minority backgrounds and communities in the West Midlands. She had some interesting advice and feedback based on her own experiences of competing for candidate selection:

1) The ‘tick box’ approach to equality is not always helpful. Nura felt that during the selection process there was far too much emphasis placed on the external qualities gender, race, sexuality, and not enough on what an individual can truly offer. She believed that a stronger set of guidelines to go alongside the process, weighting the importance of these external qualities against the individual’s personality and experience would help make the system fairer for all.

2) Like Ally, Nura called for all of the assembled audience to get more involved. Her own experiences may not have been difficulty free but that does not change that fact that she believes that it is every woman’s (and man’s) civic duty to get involved in politics. She asked that every audience member join a political party of their choice and start participating as it’s only through participation that change is going to occur.

Our final speaker of the morning was Mr Speaker himself, the Rt. Hon. John Bercow MP. Mr Bercow attended the W.A.I.T.S Policy forum as part of a series of events he was participating in in Birmingham that day as part of the Parliamentary outreach programme, aiming to bring Parliament to the people and helping make national politics national, not just London centric. The main theme of his speech was what Parliament is already doing, and what still needs to be done, to help make it more accessible to women.

1) He discussed changes he had insisted on already such as the creation of a nursery within the Houses of Parliament to help female employees and MP’s with young children. He also referred to the creation of ParliAble (a Parliamentary Disability Equality Network) and ParliOut (a support group for LGBT individuals) before talking about the female ‘movers and shakers’ of Parliament.

2) He then referred to what he felt were still key barriers facing women wanting to get involved in politics. First the anti-social work hours (on Mondays and Thursdays, for instance, Parliament opens at 2:30pm and ends at 10:30pm) which he felt should be swiftly dealt with. Secondly the ‘ya-boo’ (heckling) atmosphere of the House of Commons itself and the masculine ‘boys club’ attitude it can portray, which he hopes will be changed by more women striving to become candidates and thus more women making it into Parliament.

After this we moved onto a brief question and answer session in which the assembled audience excelled, asking tough and poignant questions and suggesting improvements to the system Mr Bercow should take back with him to Parliament. There were too many to list here so here’s just a few:

1) Job share MP’s? One lady had an interesting suggestion: in order to make high profile political positions more attractive to women Parliament could look a job share scheme. She argued that many women, especially in the public sector, manage to juggle advancing their careers with looking after young children by opting in to a job share position, so how about applying the idea to MP’s, divvying up the role so that one individual does the local constituency work and the other the Westminster role/varying combinations of the two?

2) How can we guarantee that the hard work Mr Speaker has put in to improving equality and Parliament outreach will be continued by his successor? This highly apt question had a very simple answer from Mr Bercow: we can’t. But on the plus side he plans on sticking around for a good few more years.

3) The selection process for MP’s is ridiculously expensive, requires a large amount of travelling and favours candidates with public speaking training and experience (i.e. private school or Ox-Bridge), what about a hardship fund and how about making the selection process as much about the person’s other abilities as it is about public speaking? Mr Bercow agreed with this statement but discussed the difficulties of getting either Parliament (and the public) to agree to putting a portion of tax payer’s money aside to help candidates of any party in dire financial need, or individual parties to put a portion of their funds towards an in party scheme.

At this point Mr Bercow was whisked off to his next appointment, already a little on the late side, and myself and the assembled audience were left to reflect on what had been said and what still needs to be done.

For me, I was personally genuinely impressed with Mr Bercow’s down to earth, often amusing approach to his role as speaker and his dedication to going out in to the community to engage with harder to reach groups. However, despite the leaps being made forward, I was left feeling that the fight for more women in Parliament is still an uphill struggle. Mr Speaker himself stated that just getting a nursery facility in place in Parliament came up against opposition and apathy, with many colleagues complaining ‘there’s nowhere we could put one’ (a statement proved glaringly untrue by the fact that there is now one in place). Likewise, the W.A.I.T.S Policy Forum speakers all depicted an image of local party politics that really needs to make more of an effort to become more approachable for women in ways that really would not require too much effort on their half (coffee mornings, mentoring, family friendly event times, fairer selection process). 93 years on from when the first female MP took her seat the proportion of women in Parliament remains stubbornly at just 22%. Only 37 out of Birmingham’s 120 local councillors are female. I’m very glad that someone is standing up for common sense policies to get more women involved in the political process but there’s a heck of a lot more work still to be done.

Fortunately the W.A.I.T.S Policy forum speakers seem more than willing to take on the challenge. Sharon, Ally and Nura are all carrying on their fantastic work either by running for political roles themselves or helping many other women discover their potential and take on greater roles of responsibility. On top of this in the post event networking several of the audience members declared their intention to get more involved in local politics and even go for candidate selection before the next local election too. We need more dedicated and inspiring women like these to keep building up the momentum and pushing for positive change in the UK. Luckily for us, if this event is anything to go by, we’ve got them in abundance.


Thursday, 24 May 2012

W.A.I.T.S. Women in Politics Event

So I haven't done any blog posts in a while, but it's not because I haven't been doing anything interesting; quite the contrary, it's been hectic. First up tomorrow morning I'm co-chairing a W.A.I.T.S Policy Forum event with the Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt. Hon. John Bercow MP. More details to follow after but, for now, here's  the press release for what's set to be a rather interesting event.


Women Acting In Today’ s Society ( WAITS)   is hosting a vist of  The Speaker of the House of Commons Rt Hon John Bercow MP   Friday May 25th  

Speaker of the House Of Commons Rt Hon John Bercow MP will be visiting Women Acting in Today’s Society (WAITS) as part of an outreach visit to Birmingham and Dudley.

The speaker will be hearing from members of WAITS Policy Forum who have experience of being involved in local politics and the most recent Council elections. 
The speaker Rt Hon John Bercow MP will also be speaking at the Football League Community Trust Annual Conference at the NEC, attending a session of the Dudley Youth Council, and delivering the Frank Foley Memorial Lecture in Stourbridge. 

House of Commons Speaker, Rt Hon John Bercow MP said: “WAITS is involved in crucial work building the leadership skills of local women and supporting women affected by domestic abuse. For all the progress made in recent years to increase female participation in politics, we still have a long way to go. I am very much looking forward to the WAITS event and hearing the personal experiences of women involved in politics”.

About Women Acting In Todays Society WAITS:

WAITS is a registered charity established in 1993. WAITS mission is to enable women from diverse communities within the West Midlands to develop themselves and others. WAITS two main areas of work are:

1. Empowering Women- building the leadership skills of local women to engage more effectively with other women, groups, networks, policy makers and service providers.

2.  Women’s Support and Development Services – supporting women affected by domestic abuse, in particular BAME and Chinese women, through advocacy, counselling and Accommodation

For more information Contact Marcia Lewinson WAITS CEO

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Why I'm Voting Yes to a Birmingham Mayor

*I would like to apologise in advance for any misspellings/not good writing style, I'm in my final year at uni and it's exam season so I've only given myself a brief break from revision to write this...the joys*

In just under 18 hours voting opens in the Birmingham Mayoral referendum. Luckily for me I know quite a lot about the Birmingham Mayoral debate; I’ve attended events, read blog posts and local news articles, met potential candidates and personally heard from both sides of the divide. The vast majority of citizens of Birmingham, however, haven’t. The first time that most people I know heard about it (apart from for those exposed to my incessant chatter on the subject) was when their polling cards arrived. As well as being a pretty bad failing on the half of the council who should, whether they want a mayor or not, be committed to encouraging democratic engagement in the city it has led to a significant amount of confusion, misapprehension and frustration amongst my friends and colleagues. So, rather than talking at unfortunate bystanders, filling up facebook and twitter feeds and generally driving my friends and family nuts I’ve decided to do a brief as possible blog on the one reason that, above all else, I think we should have a mayor: accountability.

As some of you may know and some may be surprised to find out the city council’s annual budget is approximately £3.5billion. This, given that the population of Birmingham is around 1,036,900, works out as roughly £3375 per citizen per year. This is a vast amount of money. Up until recently the budget was even bigger, £4billion a year. Can you name any of the 120 councillors who decide what this mindbogglingly vast sum gets spent on? I can’t.

There’s no doubt that Birmingham has not been using its resources entirely efficiently over the past few years. Take for example the Birmingham city council website: back in 2009 the original estimated cost of overhauling the outdated design and moving more services online (in order, in theory, to save money) was £580,000. The final cost, taking into account delays in getting services up and running, was an estimated £6million. And then the council announced plans to outsource 100 IT jobs to India (a number later cut down to around 55 due to public outrage).

Now, we move on the current plans for the Birmingham metro. Don’t get me wrong, a council project that will create an estimated 1,300 new jobs is a great idea. Paying £128million (£75.4million from the Department of Transport, £52.6million presumably from the council budget) to connect two stations that are a fifteen minute walk apart, isn’t. Especially since the only other places the metro currently goes are Wolverhampton, West Bromwich and Wednesbury (Wolverhampton being a 17minute train journey from New Street anyway). Call me crazy but this doesn't seem like the best possible use of public funds.

For every big spend in one area cuts have to be made elsewhere. As a keen women’s rights campaigner I’ve been shocked and horrified at the reduction in funds available for domestic abuse charities, especially when incidences of domestic violence have trebled over the last 18months ( This is by no means the only area where cuts have been made but it serves to highlight my point: the way the council chooses to spend its budget really can change, and even save (or lose), lives.

Now, I haven’t highlighted these issues to condemn the city council: they have done a lot of good over the years and an elected Mayor will have just as much potential to cock up. The difference is if we don’t like what the Mayor does we will know who they are and we will be able to hold them accountable.

Right now we don’t know who is responsible for taking these decisions. If a Mayor messes up we’ll be able to identify the issue and vote them out at the next election. Councillors are essentially anonymous. We don’t really know who’s responsible for what. Mayors publish manifestos, councillors, for the most part, don’t. If Mayors breaks promises we know, if councillors do (if they made any promises in the first place), no one notices. We really need someone we can hold accountable when things go wrong so we can make damn sure that it does not happen again.

This might seem an oddly negative reason for electing a mayor, ‘we’ll know if they mess up’, but I think it is an important one and one that has not been largely touched on elsewhere in what I’ve read/heard so far. There are of course, many wholly positive reasons for voting ‘Yes’ tomorrow. These include, but are not limited to:

-        -   The Prime Minister is going to create a special cabinet for elected Mayors. If we have one they can gain influence in Westminster unheard of for our current city representatives and lobby for better provision for our city and the addressing of our cities issues. If we don’t, we won’t, where other cities will.

-        -  A Mayor will be mandated to represent the whole city, not just and individual ward, with a clear set of policies designed for the whole city, not just their immediate locality, so we can vote based on their plans for the city, not just the party they’re affiliated to.

However, rather than continue to vent my thoughts on this increasingly long  and disjointed blog post I will direct you to some other posts written by people who are much more articulate, and have a much better understanding of the Birmingham political scene than I do:

Marc Reeves on an elected mayor’s ability to provide a whole City Vision:
Kevin Johnson on the need to shake up the status quo:

And in the interests of democracy the ‘No’ campaign website:

In conclusion I don’t believe an elected Mayor system is perfection itself. Personally I like the idea of so called ‘metro-mayors’ or regional Mayors that oversee the strategic development of regions, not just cities (something the West Midlands could definitely benefit from). However this is not on the cards and probably never will be unless we take this first step (that is if it ever is). An elected Mayor is not perfect, but it is a better system than the one we have now. As the saying goes ‘things don’t move unless you push them’. For me, an elected Mayor for Birmingham represents the first big step towards making local politics, well, interesting. Last year’s local election saw voter turnout in some constituencies of Birmingham drop as low as 23.9% (Ladywood, 2011) and our city is routinely ranked in the top 4 in the UK for high rates of unemployment. We need to reengage the citizens of this great city in politics, and we need a strong, visible leader to help tackle the issues we face strategically and on a city wide level, as well as representing us on a national or even international basis. And I believe that if we vote ‘Yes’ to a Birmingham Mayor tomorrow, we might just get it.