Last week, when we got the papers and the advance copy of the tabled questions, it looked like Full Council was going to be a relatively low key affair finished by 4pm.
It didn’t go like that at all.
Questions didn’t go as planned because a number of people were missing – if either questionner or questionee is missing, the question is deferred and answered in writing, and that happened to two interesting ones. The Conservative chair of the Wilford and Clifton area committee wasn’t present to talk about his views of the A453 widening scheme threatened by government cuts; and a Labour councillor wasn’t present to ask a question that was essentially “Could the Labour leader please expand at length on how awful the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are?”
Cllr Collins’s material on that last topic wasn’t wasted, because at the last minute, we got an emergency report on cuts. The government has taken the extraordinary step of making in-year cuts to the council’s grant. Three quarters of local government finance comes from central government. Normally we get told good and early in the year how much to expect so we know how much to budget for, and what council tax to set to raise the remaining quarter. Once the figures have been set, they don’t change; normally government would tell us what to expect the following year. Telling us halfway through a year that we will not be getting as much as previously thought is an extremely unfriendly thing to do, and will have more serious consequences than letting us know that we will lose money for the next year’s budget.
The report we were sent sets out that we will lose about 1% of our budget – which doesn’t sound like much. It translates to about £4million pounds, which suddenly sounds a lot more.
So we debated that. The report itself has been drafted in neutral factual terms detailing what has been cut. The debate… well the debate was a good mix of factual explanation of the consequences, and political theatre making extreme points. I’m sure you will have heard pro-cuts / anti-cuts arguments in the public arena elsewhere so I shan’t rehearse them here again.
Then we moved onto petitions. Councils up and down the country have been told by the government how they should handle petitions in future. It’s a bit of a cheek that central government should tell local government how to represent local people, and Julia Goldsworthy once made a good joke about the irony of a government department that doesn’t accept petitions telling councils how to, um accept petitions. Anyway, the last Labour government made new rules on petitions that the Council just accepted, that generally will be a Good Thing. Now any petition in Nottingham getting over 5,000 signatures from people who live, work or study in Nottingham, will have to be debated by councillors in Full Council.
Finally, we moved onto my motion about blood donation. Happy coincidence meant that Full Council fell on World Blood Donor Day, so I tabled a motion celebrating that, urging as many people as possible to donate blood, and regretting that gay men can’t give blood.
Now I assumed that would be fairly uncontroversial within the Council. Perhaps I didn’t spend as long finessing the words of the motion. I assumed most people would be with me. The first few speeches went fine. Mine; then one from a Labour portfolio holder; then one from the Conservative leader, all making good points, all being supportive. So I settled back, took a few notes and got ready to make a summing up speech.
One of my group’s little habits with motions is it’s not enough to just have a motion saying X is a good thing – it has to get someone to do something. So we included in the final bullet point, an action that the Labour portfolio holder for Adult Services and Health ((Adult Services is not as risqué as it sounds – the Government insisted that all councils that run social services make sure that education and schools are in the same department as child social services. That leaves adult social services separate in most places, and that becomes a department in itself)) write a letter to the Blood Service saying the discrimination should end.
So I was expecting the Portfolio Holder to get to her feet, and talk to the motion. I was half expecting an amendment, as the Labour group are slightly control-freakie, and don’t like opposition motions to pass unamended.
But I wasn’t expecting the Labour party to delete the reference to discrimination against gay men. That came as a bit of a shock.
The Labour Portfolio Holder even used the infelicitous phrase “some of my friends are gay, but…”
The seconder of the Labour amendment carried on in the same theme. She drew heavily on this advice from Terrence Higgins Trust, who, in my view, are not on the side of the angels in this matter.
A third Labour speaker spoke to endorse their approach, saying our motion was flawed because of all the groups who are unfairly prevented from giving blood, we didn’t mention women who used to be sex workers but who had subsequently been given a clean bill of health.
My group leader got up to back me up and had an interesting extra nugget of information to add to the debate I didn’t know before we started – that his dad had once caught hepatitis from an infected blood donation. He underlined the importance of safety and screening of blood, and how our views about gay men should not undermine that.
Then it came back to me for my right of reply, and I had to give a speech I hadn’t prepared for one bit. It’s always a bit of a weakness that I don’t prepare for summing up speeches in the same way I get ready for introductory speeches. (And it was my weakness 20 years ago at school debate club, too). But even if I had prepared, I wouldn’t have had material for this.
Some of the points I made were these: my main point in putting the motion down was to celebrate blood donation generally. Getting into the gay debate was only one part of my plan. The main message to take away was that those who can give blood should do so, as often as they are asked to.
Then I picked up on a point made by the Conservative leader: that the health service discriminating in this way sent a signal to people with old fashioned views that it is OK still to discriminate. It reminded me of this post I read at JoeMyGod (adult ads and swearwords in the comments) where a lobbying group drew on the gay blood ban as “evidence” that it isn’t safe to let gay people serve in the military, which is presently a big hot topic in the US.
Then I drew a bit on personal experience. I’ve been tested. I can be more sure than many people that I am HIV negative. I take precautions. I also think that the aforementioned former sex workers are also more likely to have been tested for STIs and know they are clean, so they too should be able to draw on their personal experience and their personal knowledge when it comes to deciding whether they are safe to donate blood.
I also mentioned the thing that several NHS workers from doctors to have said to me – just lie. THT’s advice is that this is not a good idea, and I do agree with them on that.
The mood changed in the room, and it got a bit uncomfortable. This was perhaps a bit more personal than it usually is at Full Council.
Ultimately we got to the vote. One gay Labour councillor absented himself from the room shortly before the actual vote. And why is this? The Labour group in Nottingham is almost stalinist in the way they observe their whip. Labour councillors always vote together, en bloc. They discuss things privately in group, decide on a common line, and then stick to it rigidly. Things are different in the Liberal Democrats. We discuss things, come to a common line, and then normally vote that way. But if there are personal concerns, so long as they are raised in the group in advance, it’s not often a problem if people decide to vote their own way. This is to some extent a luxury of being in a small opposition group that may have to go by the wayside as and when we grow in numbers. But the point is, in Nottingham, the Labour whip is always rock solid.
But not this time. At the vote for the Labour amendment, at least five Labour councillors sat on their hands, and looked uncomfortable. Including three frontbenchers and a civic.
Good for them. Thanks.
The rest of them voted for the amendment, and it was enough to get it through.
The final motion as amended still encourages as many people as are able to donate blood. And that is still a good thing, and still something we were able to support. But it is a shame that our lines about discrimination against gay men did not make the final version.
MOTION IN THE NAME OF COUNCILLOR FOSTER:
1.Celebrates today’s World Blood Donor Day, which highlights the importance of blood donation.
2.Celebrates the work of phlebotomists across the UK, and everyone who keeps this vital life-saving service running.
3.Urges all those who are able to donate blood to do so regularly.
4.Regrets that the blood service in the UK discriminates unfairly against different groups in our society including gay men and bisexual men.
5.Pledges that the Portfolio Holder for Adult Support and Health will write to and lobby central government and the National Blood Service, urging them to scrap their discriminatory and outdated policy towards gay and bisexual men.”
“Points 4 and 5 to be amended to read:
4.Welcomes the Review started under the previous Government, to review criteria for the donation of blood through the Advisory Committee, SaBTO, which will ensure the criteria are clearly linked to the most current scientific evidence and international Best Practice.
5.Recommends the Portfolio Holder liaise with City MPs when the Review is published in the autumn, to ensure Recommendations are implemented, which will address concerns about discrimination in the current criteria.”