Why is this council so addicted to secrecy - Neil Elkes

Why is this council so addicted to secrecy – Neil Elkes

Last July, when the bin strike was in full swing, the key areas of dispute were the downgrading of dustmen’s jobs, effectively a pay cut or redundancy, and moving from four- to five-day working.

The council’s justification was that four longer days of just over nine hours were less efficient than a full working week of seven-and-a-bit hour days.

The bosses argued that staff get tired and slow down as the day of demanding physical labour draws on and almost routinely ended up working the fifth day as overtime.

They had work rate comparisons from other parts of the country which appeared to support this.

Not only was four-day working less efficient, they argued, it was costly as not only was overtime needed but more agency and temporary staff were brought in to mop up.

The combined bill for the financial year before the strike was about £8 million.

It was also quietly whispered that the distribution of over time favoured a few workers over the vast majority with those routinely pulling in pay packets way above their basically salary. This was not evidenced and therefore not reported.

So, to check the claim, the Birmingham Mail submitted a request for the breakdown of over time paid to the city’s bin workers during 2016 and 2017. At the same time another request, again designed to verify or not rumours of ill discipline on the picket lines was submitted.

The city council, in particular the bins department, was understandably in meltdown last summer so it was no surprise that the reply and inevitable rejection of both requests was two weeks late.



A wall of bin bags on Medley Road, Sparkhill

What did come as a surprise on the discipline issue was that less than a week after being told this was too sensitive to release to the press, a backbench councillor made the same inquiry at the council meeting and was given a full printed reply.

A while later the council admitted a blunder over this.

So, an appeal was lodged on the overtime question and eventually a reply came from the council’s chief lawyer Kate Charlton.

The key reasons here were the information would attract publicity (negative we presume) and it might help those staff making equal pay claims against the city council.

A key factor in the very costly equal pay cases of the last decade was that bin men were favoured with routine over time which was denied other staff.

While the council has an interest in suppressing such information, it has no reason to withhold it so an appeal was submitted highlighting this ridiculous argument.

This dragged on, and on, and by this spring there had still been no decision on the appeal so the Birmingham Post called on the Information Commissioner to intervene.



A wall of bin bags on Medley Road, Sparkhill
A wall of bin bags on Medley Road, Sparkhill

It was only then, ten months after the original request, the city council gave way and revealed it spent at least £1 million on overtime for 374 bin men during 2016/17.

It showed a third of the workforce were paid more than £5,000 overtime that year, standing up the council’s claim overtime was routine.

It was certainly a lot less than conclusive on the other rumour a small clique was cornering large amounts of overtime. The distribution seemed reasonable.

This could be an isolated case and on what was a very traumatic and far from resolved issue for the city council.

However, it has also recently came to light it is blocking the release of an impact report into Brexit – compiled two years ago during the referendum.

The report was initially blocked in the middle of the EU Referendum campaign when it could have been used for propaganda by one or other of the sides.

However, there is no reason to with hold it now. One key area of concern is how gaps in funding from the loss of EU grants could be filled. The city has historically done very well from these in the past.

Councillors and the public need to see this detail. The fact Brexit is a political hot potato should be no barrier to this report being put in the public domain. The council needs to trust its citizens.

It all serves to demonstrate that, despite nice comments about openness and transparency, Birmingham City Council remains a deeply secretive organisation which thinks it knows best.

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