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Archives for March 2011

Women on Top: sexual politics in the boardroom

Patrick Burns | 14:21 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

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Blair babes May 1997

Blair's Babes, May 1997 (Gisela Stuart is front row, 6th from the left)

Parliament just didn't know what had hit it.

Long-regarded as the most exclusive gentlemen's club in London, suddenly the House of Commons had to adjust to no fewer than 120 women MPs after the 1997 New Labour landslide, of whom 'Blair's Babes' were the most conspicuous new arrivals.

It was double the number of women who had been elected to the previous Parliament in 1992.

And no, I am not forgetting that Margaret Thatcher had become Britain's first woman Prime Minister as long as 42 years ago. But surely her achievement in reaching that supreme office was precisely that she had to overcome the male-dominated environment of Westminster politics in order to do so.

Now we appear to have a settled trend: the number of women elected in last year's General Election climbed further, to 144 out of the total of 505.

There is still an obvious debate to be had about how relatively few of them get to the top: the Meriden MP and DEFRA Secretary Caroline Spelman is one of only four women in the present Cabinet. Even so, Parliament's reputation as a conspicuously masculine preserve appears to be disappearing fast.

And now, it seems, the Government wants the boardroom to follow the same example.

The Business Secretary Vince Cable wants at least one quarter of the directors of top 100 companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange to be women by 2015.

An investigation by the Politics Show reveals that of 31 such exalted seat placements here in the West Midlands, only four are occupied by women.

We contacted our region's three quoted FTSE100 companies GKN, IMI and Severn Trent and their responses demonstrate that so far as the corridors of power are concerned, the feminisation of British industry definitely has its limitations.

Across the UK, only three women joined the boards of our quoted top 100 companies last year. The current average female contingent is 12.5%. So Mr Cable certainly has his work cut out of that figure is to double over the next four years.

So what's the answer? Quotas? Targets?

Any attempt to introduce 'postitive discrimination' or what the Americans call 'affirmative action' inevitably leads to a cacophony of arguments about 'tokenism' and 'political correctness gone mad'!

Which begs the question what signals this sends out to the would-be businesswomen of the future. Remember, girls outnumber boys. They outperform them in the classroom so why not in the corporate world as well?

For an expert view, we turned to Corinne Mills, herself a successful businesswomen, one of the bosses of a company whose name tells you exactly what it is! Personal Career Management opened their Birmingham office last year, offering advice on the next move in the jobs market for everyone from young graduates to experienced company directors or chief executives.

Corinne acknowledges that of course women have to take career breaks to have babies. But that does not explain the sexism that still exists in the upper echelons of business. Do chief executives too often  recruit senior colleagues in their own image?

That's our talking point for this week's Politics Show.

Our reporter Holly Lewis will be asking the Chief Executive of Severn Trent, Tony Wray, why he has only one woman on his board when they make up nearly one-third of his workforce (you can watch the full interview below).

And she will also be reporting from Cheltenham Ladies' College, which has an enviable record in producing successful female captains of industry: how do the next generation of businesswomen rate their chances of making it into the boardroom?

I'll be joined in the studio by three leading local women politicians: Margot James had a highly successful career in business before entering Parliament last year as the Conservative MP for Stourbridge; Gisela Stuart was herself one of those so-called 'Blair Babes' and she is still the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston; and Heather Kidd is a Liberal Democrat member of Shropshire Council, a member of her party's Business policy team.

Email your views on this: and follow us on Twitter let us know what you think with the hashtag #polshowmids

And of course I hope you'll join us for the Politics Show from midday on BBC One on Sunday 3 April 2011.

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Enterprise Zones in the West Midlands

Sue Wilkinson | 10:42 UK time, Monday, 28 March 2011


Protests against the government spending cuts

Protesters against the spending cuts on Saturday 26 March

On the day after more than 60 coach loads of anti-cuts protesters travelled to London from Birmingham alone, the argument over the Coalition Government's economic policies was taken up by three of our MPs in the Politics Show studio: the Conservative MP for Halesowen & Rowley Regis, James Morris, the Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood Shabana Mahmood and the Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham Martin Horwood.

I began by asking them about the Chancellor's announcement in his Budget statement that two of the first 10 Enterrpise Zones would be in our region, in the Black Country and in Birmingham and Solihull.

They had just been watching a report from a Budget Breakfast in Stoke-on-Trent, where local business leaders expressed disappointment that North Staffordshire had not also featured on the list.

I began by putting it to James Morris that people in Stoke and Coventry must wonder what they have to do to get an Enterprise Zone.

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Second Budget, second thoughts?

Patrick Burns | 16:00 UK time, Tuesday, 22 March 2011


George Osborne outside Number 11 Downing Street

George Osborne outside Number 11 Downing Street


Will the Chancellor go for 'Plan B'?

Will he heed his critics' warnings that his austerity measures are taking too more money out of the economy and putting the fragile recovery at risk?

Our region's Labour MPs have been warning for months that record youth unemployment (more than one fifth of Midlands 16 to 24 year olds are out of work) and the highest regional increase in employment as a whole last month (up by 27,000 in our region to 265,000 or 9.9% of the working population) show that the Government's economic policies are 'off course, so change course'.

Are there any signs he really is bringing Britain 'back from the brink' and does he see the economy being back on the road to recovery in time to pave the way for better times ahead during the second half of this Parliament?

Without sustained growth the very foundations on which the Coalition was built could simply crumble away.

These were the fascinating subtexts going into Wednesday's Budget statement for us Westminster-watchers. But as I explained in my last blog post, our region faces some of the UK's most intractable economic problems: millions of Midlanders know their livelihoods, their homes and their families'  prospects are at stake in a way which calls into question Mr Osborne's oft-quoted assertion that "we're all in this together".

In the event, he showed he is in no mood for turning. He acknowledged that the economic indicators at the turn of the year (shrinking industrial output, rising unemployment and, now, higher inflation and public borrowing) have been a major setback. But he was determined to stick with Plan A.

One of his principal ambitions has been to 'rebalance the economy'. He singled out 'a region as important as the West Midlands as evidence of just how unbalanced the economy had become. He told a packed House of Commons that even before the economic downturn, private sector employment in our region had been falling. 

So the Midlands is to be awarded two of the first wave of 10 local Enterprise Zones, with business tax relief for small firms employing 10 people or fewer, encouragement for new business start-ups, and a marked easing of planning restrictions.

One of the zones will be in the Birmingham and Solihull area and the other in the Black Country. Mr Osborne promised a further 11 enterprise zones to be announced in the summer so there may yet be more. 

We knew all along he was going to proclaim his second budget as a 'Budget for Growth'. But one of the key tests will be whether the business-friendly measures he set out really will encourage small businesses to start-up, expand and create jobs in the way we need them to do if private sector employment is to fill the gaps left by the cuts in public spending.Fay Goodman

To find out what this means for countless small enterprises battling through the toughest market conditions we've seen in living memory, we caught up with Fay Goodman. A long-time Midlands spokeswoman for the Federation of Small Businesses, she's now branched out into promoting up-and-coming musicians and working as an ambassador for creative industries.

With an annual turnover of between £80,000 and £100,000 she says she's lucky if she breaks even. She says businesses like hers need 'tax incentives, not penalties".

So what's her verdict on the Chancellor's handiwork? Our reporter Ben Godfrey spent Budget day with Fay. 

She told Ben she welcomed the Chancellor's decision to merge National Insurance with Income Tax. And of course she was delighted with the cut in road fuel duty.

But its impact on her personally was far less positive.

She'll be telling her own challenging story on the Politics Show this Sunday. The other side of her life is as a carer for her 82 year-old mother Evelyn Preece.

She attends the Rainbow Mental Health Day Centre at Hall Green in Birmingham. There are four care workers employed there, and because of the Government's public spending cuts it's due to close at the end of next week. She had been hoping Mr Osborne would target particular help for small community-based organisations like the Rainbow Centre as a demonstration of his backing for the Big Society. She and her mother remain bitterly disappointed. 

We'll also be reporting from the area of the Midlands whose industries are the least resilient to the effects of the economic downturn, according to a survey commissioned by the BBC and conducted by Experian Research. For more details see my blog of 8 September 2010.

Stoke's football ground

In it I explain how the industry that gave the Potteries their name has declined over the past 30 years. But Stoke City's Premier League football team is still proud to call itself the Potters, and it is to the club's Britannia Stadium that local industry bosses will head first thing on Thursday morning for the inevitable post-Budget 'Power Breakfast', their first opportunity to come together and digest the significance of the Budget for them.

Joining me live in the studio on Sunday's Politics Show will be James Morris MP, the Conservative MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis. Before entering Parliament last year he was the Chief Executive of the Localis 'think tank' which makes him one of the architects of the Government's Localism agenda.

Shabana Mahmood is the Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood, one of the most deprived constituencies in the UK. Also elected to Parliament last year she's now on the Opposition Front Bench as a Shadow Home Office Minister. And Martin Horwood, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham. He's also the chairman of his party's Policy Committee on Transport.

Let us know what you make of the Budget: email us at

And of course I hope you'll join us for the Politics Show live on BBC One from 12 midday on Sunday 27 March 2011.              

The Budget: growth or bust

Patrick Burns | 11:54 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011


George Osborne outside 11 Downing Street

George Osborne - what will be in his 2011 Budget plans?

"The Chancellor is putting the finishing touches to his Budget."

It's one of those stock expressions beloved of journalists who need to find 'a new top line' when there's really very little new to say until the day itself. We're about to hear it trotted out again and again during the days leading up to George Osborne's second Budget on Wednesday 23 March.

The truth is that apart from one or two 'white rabbits' produced, as if from nowhere, for dramatic effect, the main themes are almost invariably heavily trailed in advance.

We know, for example, that to revive the ailing economies in areas like ours, he will unveil 11 Regional Enterprise Zones where companies will benefit from business tax relief, extended National Insurance holidays and incentives for R&D, start-ups and job creation. Surely several of these zones will be in the Midlands given the scale of the economic challenges we face.

Unemployment is nudging up towards 10% in parts of Birmingham and the Black Country according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.

A recent survey commissioned by the BBC and conducted by Experian identified Stoke-on-Trent and Sandwell in the West Midlands among the areas least resilient to the effects of the downturn and the Government's spending cuts.

It named Wolverhampton as the Midlands city with the lowest skills base: the Business Department reports skills shortages across the West Midlands are costing the UK economy £141m every year. All is not yet lost of course: the department also reported that West Midlands manufacturing contributes £15bn to the UK economy every year.

That's more than any other region.

But if we are to preserve what remains of our manufacturing base then we cannot afford the worrying evidence of a slow-down at the turn of the year to put our fragile recovery into reverse.

That's exactly what Labour say is made more likely by the Government's economic policies, "cutting too far and too fast". Ed Miliband told me during a recent visit to Wolverhampton that Mr Osborne was taking more money out of the economy than was good for private, as well as public sector employers. And he was scathing about ministers' decision to scrap the Future Jobs Fund which he said would leave too many young people unemployed and claiming benefit instead in work and paying taxes.

The only way George Osborne can prove his critics wrong is by delivering Growth. The 'G-word' will be all over his Budget statement like a rash. Just count the number of times he uses it. And it's a political imperative for him as well. He wants that 'G-word' to redefine the political agenda, to get away from the 'C-word' which has dominated it for so long.

Growth, Growth, Growth not Cuts, Cuts Cuts.

Economists who understand these things far better than I do will be scanning his speech for signs that he genuinely believes there are better times ahead during the second half of this Parliament. It's tempting to say we've been here before. Those of us with long memories recall another Conservative Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, proclaiming his 'Budget for Jobs' back in 1982.

But the reality is we have never seen the like of this. The Coalition Government was brought into being with the over-riding purpose of bringing Britain, as Mr Osborne put it himself  "back from the brink".

For the Government itself, as much as for regions like ours, it's Growth or Bust: if the economy doesn't deliver the goods, more and more sceptics inside Parliament as well as outside it will be left wondering what's been the point of this Coalition.

In the meantime, this is what the Conservative MP for Gloucester, Richard Graham wants to see in the Budget.

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These are the themes I'll be taking up with our guests on this Sunday's Politics Show from 12 noon on BBC One on Sunday 20 March. Among them will be the Chair of the junior Coalition party in Parliament, the Liberal Democrat MP for Solihull, Lorely Burt; and the Labour MP for Walsall South, Valerie Vaz.

I hope that you'll email us with your views on this at
and of course that you will join us for the programme itself on Sunday.

A new era in local politics: a PS from the Politics Show

Patrick Burns | 17:05 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011


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Our big talking point on this week's programme generated angry exchanges between Marcus Jones, the former leader of Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council, now the Conservative MP for Nuneaton; and Jack Dromey, the former Deputy General Secretary of the Unite union, now the Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington and a Shadow Local Government Minister.

Mr Jones appealed to local authority leaders to share more services to cut costs "without demeaning front-line services".

But Mr Dromey said such mergers would save under 2% from council budgets and they were facing cuts of 28%.

"I'd ask Marcus this question: where do you get the other 26%?"

That was just the start of what developed into a very fierce studio debate.

'Welcome to Redgrove': signposting a new era in local politics

Patrick Burns | 11:34 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011


Kym Riley

Kim Ryley: "an era-defining moment"

"This is an era-defining moment; the most radical in my 30 years in local government service. We are rewriting the script. We are rewriting the relationship between the State and the citizen. But I'm not sure people are clear about what's happening."

The words of Shropshire Council's Chief Executive, Kim Ryley, can leave no one in any doubt that the tough austerity measures now being implemented by councils under the Government's public spending cuts will leave local government as we've known it permanently and radically changed.

Which begs the question whether or not David Cameron's much-vaunted 'Big Society' will fill at least some of the gaps left by the shrinking role of local councils.

For my take on the Big Society, go to my blog of 2 November 2010.  

And this is not just about the technical delivery mechanisms for council services. Deeply-entrenched local loyalties will go into the melting pot as well.

Redditch and Bromsgrove are neighbouring towns in North Worcestershire. But they may as well be poles apart. Chalk and cheese.

Redditch is a '60s 'new town' where many engineering and manufacturing businesses have been hard hit by the economic downturn. Bromsgrove is a more traditional market town but with something of an identity crisis, increasingly a dormitory suburb of Birmingham.

But whether these two rival and often feuding communities like it or not, they are now having to find they have more and more in common than they had expected.

Their borough councils have agreed to share major functions including: Management, (up to and including the Chief and Deputy Chief Executives), Payroll, ICT, CCTV and Community Safety.

(They deny suggestions they may be moving towards a full merger. Please excuse an element of 'journalistic licence' in my headline. At least it grabbed your attention!).

As a direct result of the efficiency savings achieved by these measures, the residents in these uneasy neighbours will not face any Council Tax increases for the coming year.

There have so far been no appreciable cuts to local services and just 25 redundancies across the two authorities. Maybe local rivalries could be set aside after all!

Our reporter Ben Sidwell grew up in Redditch and he will be taking up the story on this Sunday's Politics Show (from 12 midday on Sunday 13 March on BBC One).

He tells me the Redditch's council budget is almost five times that of Bromsgrove; £50m compared with £12m.

He has been talking to both councils about the efficiencies: Redditch tell him they expect to save £1.6m over the next  two years, while in Bromsgrove they expect to save £1.3m over the same period.

It occurs to me that this all seems neat and tidy while both authorities are Conservative-controlled. But what happens if and when one of them has a change of political colour? (Labour are becoming more and more confident of ousting the current administration).

The councils say they plan to retain their separate political 'heads'. But how feasible would it be for their officials to manage what could become sharply divergent policy priorities at one and the same time?

There is a radically different way of achieving similar savings, according to the leader of Cheltenham Borough Council, Steve Jordan.

He has the distinction of being the Midlands' only Liberal Democrat council leader who commands an overall majority.

Instead of pooling resources with one neighbouring authority across a wide range of local services, he favours a more pluralistic system of partnerships with a variety of different councils on a more of a case-by-case basis.

Cheltenham shares its Business, Building Control and Legal Services with Tewkesbury; its Internal Auditing with the Cotswolds. And Finance and Human Resources with the Forest of Dean.

Councillor Jordan says he's been "banging on about this for years!": since long before the dawning of the Age of Austerity.

And we'd like to know what you think: you can follow us on Twitter and join in the debate with the hashtag #polshowmids or email us

A reminder, once again, we're on BBC One from midday this Sunday, 13 March 2011.

I began by asking Steve Jordan how well he thought public opinion had been prepared for the "transformational roles" that we shall all be expected to play, during this 'new era' in local politics.

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New industries, new jobs: a PS from the Politics Show

Patrick Burns | 09:33 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011


Our Politics Show discussion about the new three-party grouping of West Midlands MPs certainly lived up to expectations.

Co-chaired by the Conservative MP for Wyre Forest Mark Garnier, the Labour MP for Dudley North Ian Austin and the Liberal Democrat MP for Solihull Lorely Burt, the group aims to campaign for the "New Job, New Industries" which they say offer the way back to prosperity for our ailing regional economy.

They also aim to make sure the Midlands has friends in high places at Westminster.

But there remain of course significant political differences between them, especially between Ian Austin and the other two parties who are now coalition partners: not least over the Government's decision to replace the development agency Advantage West Midlands with Local Enterprise Zones.

But Mr Austin accepted that, like it or not, the LEPs were now the new show in town. 

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Three parties, one message: new industries and jobs for the Midlands

Patrick Burns | 11:46 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011


hi-tech computer screen industry

Is this the sort of hi-tech industry we need to see more of in the Midlands?

Ever heard the one about the former hedge fund adviser, the former assistant prison governor and the former spin-doctor to Gordon Brown?

They are (respectively) Mark Garnier, the Conservative MP for Wyre Forest in Worcestershire; Lorely Burt, the Liberal Democrat MP for Solihull; and Ian Austin, the Labour MP for Dudley North, who was the Minister for the West Midlands in the last Government.

And now they have something much more significant in common: they're the co-chairs of a unique three-party campaign aimed at bringing 'new jobs and industries' to our part of the country.

With our economy in an unholy mess, this has the look of an unholy alliance'!

But they do appear to be singing from the same song sheet.

Launching the campaign, Ian Austin said:  "The West Midlands was hit hardest by the downturn and will take longest to recover. We have great strengths in our region: hard work, ingenuity, adaptability and innovation. But we face challenges when it comes to skills, transport and our ability to exploit new economic opportunities."

Mark Garnier said: "The economy of the West Midlands is fragile, but its success is vital to the millions who live in the region. Creating a structure in which Parliament and local MPs can suppoprt our region is vital."

And Lorely Burt added: "In these difficult times it is very important West Midlands MPs all work together to defend and promote the interests of our region. We have tremendous resources in our region: human, technical, and physical. Together this group will focus on the positive things we can achieve."

Spot the difference! No mention here of the furious debate currently raging between the Coaltion partners and the Labour Opposition over a wide range of economic policies.

No question, though, about the Midlands being "hit hardest", "fragile" and suffering "difficult times".

The latest unemployment figures from the Office for National Statistics showed two-thirds of the 44,000 people who lost their jobs between October and December were in our region. 261,000 people were out of work during that period, an increase of 28,000 on the previous quarter.

And my blog post of 8 September 2010 reported the findings of an Experian survey commissioned for the BBC which showed that Stoke-on-Trent and Sandwell were among the UK's least economically resilient areas in terms of employment opportunities and skills levels.

But one leading local businessman is sceptical about how much use our MPs can be in bringing in "new" jobs and industries.

Paul McCairn is the boss of Bri-Mac Engineering of Dudley.

They make bearings for all manner of rotating machinery and had a turnover last year of £1.1m. Mr McCairn is also a board member of the Black Country Chamber of Commerce.

He says MPs are 'so far removed' from the business world he inhabits that it's hard for them to understand it. He tells us what new business he has won for his firm has come purely because he himself travels the world to bring it in.

And he questions the politicians' emphasis on 'new' industries. His long-established area of manufacturing is not dying he says, and he's proved that with hard work he can still get results even in the most difficult times he can remember.

Meantime, Amillan of Solihull is exactly the kind of hi-tech, value-added business which the MPs reckon we need to encourage here.

With an annual turnover of £6.4m, they make communications and computer-based equipment for a variety of high-profile business customers including Warwickshire County Cricket Club and Walsall and Bournville Colleges.

When they outgrew their original premises in Birmingham they could have moved anywhere. They chose to keep their 50 highly-trained employees right here in the Midlands, relocating to a shiny new business park on the outskirts of Shirley.

Their gleaming new offices were opened recently by the local MP, none other than Lorely Burt herself. It was there that I caught up with her for this week's Politics Show (BBC One Sunday 6 March from 12 noon).

I'll be joined in the studio by MPs Mark Garnier and Ian Austin and by the ever-sceptical Paul McCairn.

We want to know what you think too, so please email us and you can follow us and join in the debate on Twitter just use the hashtag #polshowmids

But I began by putting it to Lorely Burt that our region's economic woes meant that all-party campaign of hers had its work cut out.

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