Last Friday, all Birmingham City Council (BCC) Labour councillors received a set of emails from Majid Mahmood, their colleague who had resigned only days earlier as cabinet member for waste management. The council is embroiled in ongoing industrial and strike action by its bin collectors.
Mahmood’s resignation letter stated that he was not prepared to be party to ‘an attack on a trade union‘. The council threatened legal action against unions over their industrial action after payments by the council to members of a third union that did not participate in the successful 2017 strike – industrial action that the council could have avoided or at least delayed – although that has been replaced, for the moment, by arbitration via Acas.
But his archive of emails sent to his Labour colleagues, which the SKWAWKBOX has obtained, reveal more details of Cllr Mahmood’s worries about the council’s behaviour – including concerns over council leader Ian Ward and that senior council officers have withheld or at least failed to communicate vital information relevant to waste collection failures from councillors.
What did they know and why didn’t they act?
At the heart of the latest Birmingham bins dispute is a payment made to members of the GMB union among the council’s refuse collectors – who did not participate in the 2017 strike. The council claims that this is a payment for its failure to consult with GMB when redundancies were threatened, but Unite and Unison say that no such payment was legally required as no redundancies were imposed – and they consider this a payment for not striking and therefore a form of blacklisting against their own members.
Mahmood’s email to colleagues alleges that council leader Ian Ward and his deputy knew about the payment to GMB – and had opportunities to avoid making it:
Mahmood also states that the council was in breach of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that it signed with unions to end the 2017 strike.
What didn’t they know?
Mahmood also complains that council officers had failed to provide – or even withheld – critical information from him and from Ward. In an email to council chief executive Dawn Baxendale, he wrote:
Mahmood made a similar complaint in a separate email to Baxendale, in which he expressed his dismay that the council had still not appointed a new director of waste when the service was in chaos.
In another email to Baxendale, Mahmood links the failure to appoint key officers to an ‘inherent desire to out source [sic] the service‘ and again raises the issue of withheld information:
Broken fleet promise
During his tenure as cabinet member for waste, Mahmood had identified the dilapidated state of the council’s fleet of refuse vehicles as a key issue in failing bin services – an issue he believed was a first priority.
In emails to Baxendale and Ward, he accused them of failing to correctly prioritise the renewal of the fleet and of ‘pulling’ new vehicle purchases after agreeing them:
Held together with duct tape
Worryingly for Birmingham residents, Mahmood’s emails reveal that BCC’s refuse collection services are being held together only by the emergency use of a large number of teams from other services – who will soon be back on their normal duties. Mahmood wrote to Dawn Baxendale:
Behaving like officers
Mahmood’s damning assessment of Ward’s conduct in the bin dispute was that the council leader had forsaken his political roots and responsibilities and was behaving like an apolitical council officer, working against the unions:
The SKWAWKBOX emailed Dawn Baxendale with questions about these allegations and others. She had not responded by the time of publication.
In a telephone conversation with Ian Ward, the council leader insisted that he was acting according to ‘the principles of the Labour Party’ and denied being involved in an attack on unions. He declined to comment on what he knew about the payment to GMB members and when.
Majid Mahmood’s decision to circulate his emails to his colleages and their resulting leak has given Birmingham residents – and others around the country interested in the behaviour of ‘Labour’ councils run by centrists – a rare glimpse into the workings of local government behind the scenes.
What that glimpse reveals shows the urgency, for the Labour Party, of putting candidates forward at local authority level who genuinely represent the party’s values and are committed to resisting the Tory government’s discredited austerity agenda and not handing propaganda to Tory councillors. In the West Midlands, this issue looms as large as anywhere.
Residents of the city should not be misled into blaming unions for the continuing issues with their bin collections when the council and its employed officers were clearly warned of issues by the elected official who was responsible for Birmingham’s waste management – and have had opportunities to avoid the current strife, as Mahmood’s emails and other documents demonstrate.
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