Time for city council to deliver after My City, My Say consultation…

The feedback event for the My City, My Say campaign.

The feedback event for the My City, My Say campaign.

So that’s that. The My City, My Say consultation exercise organised by Stoke-on-Trent City Council is over.

In all likelihood, you probably didn’t attend one of the 49 meetings which took place across the city.

I know this because only around 200 people turned up to the key events.

The chances are you didn’t fill in a questionnaire either.

I’m told just over 900 people did.

Being brutally honest, these numbers are pitifully low given how many people live and work in Stoke-on-Trent.

Then again I’m not sure what was expected given that at local elections the turn-out in some wards in the Potteries hovers around the 20 per cent mark.

That’s right. Only around one in five people can be bothered to vote to elect local councillors. It’s frightening.

I was chatting to someone who did attend Tuesday night’s feedback session at the King’s Hall in Stoke and he blamed the lack of engagement in the My City, My Say process on a general feeling of apathy and disillusionment towards politics and politicians – especially at a local level.

I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone who feels angry or frustrated at the city council – or rather the council’s leaders – given some of the decisions that have been taken (or not taken) during the last 15 years.

Today’s front page, for example, will certainly divide opinion…

However, it’s one thing to feel fed up with the local authority’s leadership and it’s another thing entirely to remove yourself from the mechanisms which allow you to change what you’re not happy with.

Some people have blamed the poor attendance on the fact that they didn’t know the events were taking place.

All I can say is that the meetings were publicised in The Sentinel, on local radio, on social media and via organisations including residents’ associations and schools.

As well as the key events, there were many other meetings at churches, children’s centres and even supermarkets.

Suffice to say tens of thousands of people did know about the events but, for a variety of reasons, chose either to not read the information or not to engage in the process.

Some people may have avoided the My City, My Say debates because they believed them to be little more than a stunt, perpetrated by the council’s Labour leadership, to make them seem all warm and cuddly ahead of next year’s local elections.

This isn’t a view I subscribe to, given the conversations I had with council officers before the campaign started. Otherwise I, personally, wouldn’t have given up my time for some of the events.

What’s more, if senior officers and councillors stick to their pledge of holding these consultation exercises on a regular basis then they cannot simply be dismissed as a token gesture or electioneering.

Were the My City, My Say events perfect? Absolutely not. Would I have organised them differently if they had been my gigs? Definitely.

For starters, I wouldn’t have made the discussions so prescriptive or short. At times it felt like people were being rail-roaded away from asking certain questions by the very nature of the topics or duration of the chat.

It was just too ‘stage-managed’ for my liking which inevitably leads to accusations that big, controversial decisions like relocating the council HQ from Stoke to Hanley or the fight to give Fenton it’s own town council were off limits. There was also too little time for questions from the floor.

Having said all that, this was the first time the council had embarked on such an extensive consultation process and thus it was a steep learning curve for all concerned.

It was still, in my opinion, a very worthwhile exercise because the people who did attend engaged in a high level of debate – making some terrific (and occasionally left-field) suggestions about what our priorities should be, both as a city and as communities.

This feedback, along with the information garnered by the 900 plus questionnaires, is incredibly valuable market research for the council and should help officers and politicians to better tailor policies to local priorities.

So where do we go from here? I guess that’s the big question. Well, for me it’s very straightforward.

The council needs to analyse the data properly and then demonstrate within the next couple of months (certainly this side of Christmas) that tangible results have come from this exercise.

They need to show that the people who engaged with the process have been listened to – and the only way to do this is to act on some of the ideas put forward for action at a local level.

Secondly, the authority must keep its promise of holding such consultation exercises more frequently than once every three or four years.

Why? Because local authorities up and down the country will be facing the same tough budgetary decisions for years to come and the need to talk to tax-payers about their priorities has never been greater.

Of course, if you still think it’s all a sham and you don’t like what you see and hear, you can always do something about it come polling day in May.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Army trials highlight the best of our youth

Officer candidates put through their paces at AOSB.

Officer candidates put through their paces at AOSB.

‘Are you sure, red one? Think carefully, red one.’ The Group Leader’s unflinching gaze bore into the nervous-looking young man stood in front of an audience of six of his peers and three high-ranking Army officers who looked on impassively while scribbling on large, white noteboards.

The other candidates sat in mute sympathy in a semi-circle with their backs to me, clad in all-in-one green jump suits – distinguishable only by the numbers on their red bibs.

You could have heard a pin drop in the briefing room as the lad shuffled uncomfortably, looked to the ceiling for inspiration and then replied: ‘1500 hours, sir?’, more in hope than anything.

‘You’re making it up, red one,’ replied the emotionless young Rifles officer from behind his desk. ‘Does anyone else know the answer? How about you, red three?’

And so it went on for two hours as each member of ‘red group’ was put under the spotlight during the planning exercise element of their three-day assessment at the Army Officer Selection Board (AOSB) at Westbury in Wiltshire.

You may have heard of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst – the British Army’s initial training centre for officers. Well, to get to Sandhurst you have to graduate, for want of a better phrase, from AOSB.

In order to be selected for officer training, a candidate – male or female – has to prove themselves mentally and physically able to cope with the rigours of one of the toughest jobs in the world.

There is no hiding place for candidates at Westbury: It isn’t just a matter of how academically gifted you are; It isn’t just a matter of how fit you are; It certainly doesn’t matter if you have a relative who was or is a serving officer. There are no ‘jobs for the boys’. Or girls, for that matter.

At Westbury all young men and women are equal. It matters not whether you attended a state or private school or whether you have a plummy accent or grew up on a rough northern council estate. AOSB is a genuine leveller.

Referred to only by the colour of their bib and a randomly-assigned number, over several days candidates are put through a complex series of assessments designed to expose any weaknesses and character flaws.

I was shown a picture of His Royal Highness Prince Harry, taken during his time at AOSB. “He was Blue 13,” said one of the officers with clear pride. “He was treated no differently to anyone else. The truth is, first and foremost, Harry’s a very good soldier.”

If he hadn’t of been, HRH simply wouldn’t have made it through Westbury. As one Lieutenant Colonel told me: “I’ve just returned from Afghan, so I’m fairly ‘current’. There’s nothing like an operational tour to reinforce the fact that we can’t afford to have weak leaders for our soldiers because they could get people killed.”


It is a fascinating and, at times, emotionally draining experience to watch these young people give their all to join Sandhurst’s elite.

You can’t help but feel for them. Indeed, at times it’s human nature for a civilian observer like me to even root for them – if only to alleviate the awful, awkward silence as they grapple with a complex equation or struggle desperately on an outdoor obstacle. Bear in mind the candidates receive no affirmation. They are given no positive or negative feedback during the process.

They have no idea how they are being scored on those ubiquitous white boards the assessors carry around.

During their time at AOSB the candidates live together, eat together and endure together a series of tests which will, ultimately, result in almost half of them being rejected – or ‘not selected’ in kinder phraseology. They can apply for selection once more, but AOSB operates a strict ‘two strikes and you’re out’ policy – and it’s worth saying that 20 per cent more candidates pass at the second attempt.

Set in the beautiful grounds of an impressive country house, Westbury immediately sets a tone which is aspirational.

Candidates are not competing against each other. Instead they are competing against the minimum standard expected of an Army officer.

That could be, for example, completing X number of obstacles on the individual assault course in three minutes. Or it could be how they score when briefing their peers on a command task. Or it could be displaying a degree of empathy or the integrity expected of someone who may one day lead troops into a fire-fight or represent his or her country in a battle for hearts and minds.

At every point during the three-day process the candidates are observed by a number of officers who are themselves being monitored by an assessor whose job it is to ensure that standards are maintained across the board and that each candidate is given the same opportunity and undergoes the same level of scrutiny as their peers.

The officers who will ultimately make the decision on who is selected (and who isn’t) do not compare notes during the assessment. They focus solely on their part of the process. Some have limited knowledge of a candidate’s background and academic prowess – others do not even know a candidate’s name throughout the testing.

On Friday morning the officers come together as a ‘board’ to discuss each young person in depth and score them according to a remarkably scientific yet flexible grading system.

As someone who takes great interest in the military and is exceptionally proud of this newspaper’s long links with the Armed Forces and our local units, what was so reassuring about my visit to Westbury was that so much time and resource was devoted to each individual. The system is fair and robust. Nothing is left to chance when choosing the officers to lead our boys (and girls) into battle.

What’s more, it doesn’t matter which part of the country you’re from, what school you attended or what your parents do for a living. It’s what’s inside that counts.

The bottom line is: Anyone can earn a place at Sandhurst – if they’re made of the right stuff.

What was also life-affirming is that by the end of the week even those candidates who were patently struggling by all AOSB measures had been accepted into their ‘team’ and were receiving the same sort of help, support and encouragement from their peers that one would expect from a platoon commander: The kind of support they can expect from the Army ‘family’.

If you’re wondering what happened to ‘red one’, he passed. Bright as a button, extremely likeable and with good leadership potential he has been identified as having the raw potential for being a fine officer one day.

He received his congratulatory letter this week and will be at Sandhurst in a few months.

All the young people I saw were the best of their generation. Exposed to the stress of thorough interviews, tough physical assessments, academic trials and mental aptitude tests they were pushed to their limits without complaint.

I came away with nothing but admiration for both those who were selected for Sandhurst and those who weren’t but who, during their time at Westbury, learned an awful lot about themselves in what is, effectively, an intensive three-day job interview.

It underlined for me the importance of looking for the potential in all young people and the dangers of judging any book by its cover.

For more information about applying to become an Army officer, visit: http://www.army.mod.uk/join

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Could you join the army of hospice volunteers?

Yours truly in the kitchen at the Dougie Mac Hospice.

Yours truly in the kitchen at the Dougie Mac Hospice.

If you are of an age, like me, and you’re born and bred in North Staffordshire, the chances are you will know someone who has received care at the Douglas Macmillan Hospice in Blurton during the last 40 years.

That’s how long Dougie Mac, as we call it, has been caring for local people.

Hopefully, no longer to does anyone view the place as ‘somewhere people with cancer go to die’ – as a member of my family once referred to it.

Dougie Mac is, and always was, far more than a hospice which provides end-of-life care.

If you ever have cause to visit you’ll find a bright, airy place which has more of a community feel than somewhere caring for sick patients.

I suppose that’s part of the magic. The first-class facilities, the modern decor, the beautifully-maintained gardens and the wonderful meals.

It’s actually a lovely place to be.

But what makes Dougie Mac truly special is the people who work there and the hundreds of people who give up their time as volunteers.

It costs more than £10 million each year to keep the hospice running – or £22,000 a day, if you prefer – much of this raised through donations, shop purchases and legacies from the people of North Staffordshire.

The fact is that sum would be a hell of a lot higher were it not for the army of volunteers who supplement the hospice’s paid-for staff.

Either that or the hospice’s income would be lower and it would simply be unable to offer the huge range of services it currently provides.

Some volunteers are students, many are retired people, others simply have a few hours a week to spare and want to give something back to their community.

Roles are many and varied – depending on whether someone wants to be based at the hospice, working with patients or out in the community helping with events or fund-raising.

Wherever you go in the hospice you’ll find volunteers.They answer the phones, they look after the gardens, they help maintain the buildings and they interact with the most important people – the patients and their relatives.

When the Prime Minister talks about the ‘Big Society’, people scoff. The truth is it’s been in action at Dougie Mac for decades.

Earlier this week I, along with BBC Radio Stoke’s John Acres, Stuart George and Charlotte Foster, and the Hanley Economic Building Society’s chief executive David Webster, spent some time at the hospice as volunteers.

I found myself wearing a green throwaway apron (much to the amusement of colleagues back at The Sentinel newsroom) and working in the busy kitchen which, I discovered, operates a rolling 10-week menu which makes your mouth water.

Once I’d proved I could polish 40-off glasses for a do the following day, chef Stephen Pickerin (CORR), from Hanley, let me loose preparing two huge trays of braised steak for patients and staff.

Mum would have been proud of me.

I have to say it was quite a therapeutic experience and a lovely atmosphere within which to work – helped no end by the banter with Steve, a long-suffering Vale fan like myself.

I chatted to another volunteer, Keith, (a Stoke fan) who told me how he’d begun working at the hospice after retiring when he found himself wondering ‘what he was supposed to do now’.

Keith began as a volunteer in the hospice garden before neck and back pain had forced him inside where he now works as a kitchen assistant.

It’s quite clear that the volunteers are extremely well thought of by staff and are viewed as a vital part of the team.

As chef Steve said: “We really couldn’t cope without them.”

But it was something he said later that stuck with me as I drove away from the hospice.

Steve commented: “We get lovely compliments from the patients and relatives about the meals. The best thing is when you hear someone who is ill say: ‘I couldn’t face my food until I came here’. That’s really special.”

It’s volunteers like Keith, of course, who help Steve and the team in the kitchen achieve such incredible results and genuinely improve the quality of life for patients and their relatives.
Right now, Dougie Mac is desperate for more volunteers for all kinds of jobs 24/7.

If you think you could help out for a few hours a week, or more, in a patient-facing role, a fund-raising or income generation position or a hospice-based role, then call the Douglas Macmillan Hospice voluntary services team on 344332 or email workforce services@dmhospice.org.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Afore ye go… what about the rest of the United Kingdom?

Are our flags about to change?

Are our flags about to change?

This time next week we could be living in a very different country.

Maps may have to be redrawn to remove the words ‘United Kingdom’. Certain flags may become obsolete and sporting unions would have to be changed dramatically ahead of, say, the next Olympics in Rio. Currencies would have to be re-thought.

I would suggest the loss of MPs north of the border would also make it far more difficult for Labour to win a General Election when relying on an electorate in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Yes, the list of repercussions of a ‘Yes’ vote in next week’s Scottish referendum on independence from the Union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland goes on and on. And on.

Why anyone would want to carve up our tiny island further is beyond me – particularly as the inevitable consequence will be that each part will have its influence on the world stage diminished as a result.

Having covered General Elections as a journalist since 1992 I’ve developed a healthy disregard for opinion polls.

But it seems that the result of next week’s vote is genuinely too close to call.

To my mind, both sides of the debate are guilty of scaremongering and crass hypocrisy.

I think the truth is neither side fully understands or can predict all the ramifications of Scotland going it alone.

Sadly, the main parties in Westminster give the impression they have only just woken up to the possibility of the ‘Yes’ campaign winning.

The sight of the Prime Minister, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg scurrying north of the border to bolster the ‘No’ campaign smacked of desperation to me and I can’t believe it will have any substantial effect on voters.

Meanwhile, Alex Salmond and the nationalists can’t shake off the simple fact that independence is a huge gamble – not just for Scotland, but for the UK as a whole.

Not that the SNP give much of a monkey’s about the rest of us.

A lot of the ‘Yes’ campaign’s rhetoric seems to be based on perceived historical injustices and the fact that the south east of England gets all the money and attention from the powers-that-be at Westminster.

Of course, on that basis, anywhere north of the Watford Gap has a gripe.

Indeed, I eagerly await Stoke-on-Trent’s bid for independence from London and the ‘sarf’ east.

I will, personally, be extremely sad to see a majority of the people in Scotland vote for independence. I love the place. I holiday there most years and I think it has the best landscape in Britain and, perhaps wrongly, I consider it part of ‘my country’.

I’ll be sad because we’ll be saying goodbye to hundreds of years of tradition and ties – involving, for example, the military and the Royal Family.

The Union that survived two world wars will have been undone by the drip, drip effect of devolution.

Even if it’s a ‘No’ vote this is a ‘win-win’ for Mr Salmond and the nationalists because more powers will be ceded north of the border by the main Westminster parties as an incentive to keep the fragile Union together a while longer.

I dare say there are plenty of people here in England who will say, without hesitation: ‘Let them go and have their independence!’.

They will be angry that the constituents of Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown continue to enjoy free prescriptions and free university tuition paid for, arguably, by taxpayers in the rest of the UK.

Meanwhile, here in England prescriptions cost £8.05 each and a university education is cost-prohibitive for many because it equates to a second mortgage.

I’m not jealous of the Scots. Good on ’em, I say.

In fact, here in England I would suggest we could learn a few lessons from them with regard to their relentless pursuit of equality and fairness for all.

I joked earlier about the Potteries and the north seeking independence from London and the south east. But I believe there is a genuine argument for the rest of the country outside London no longer being treated like second class citizens on account of the capital being ‘the City’ and our ‘financial powerhouse’ – as Boris Johnson and the like constantly to refer to it.

From an English perspective, the Scottish referendum on independence is sort of like watching your brother rail against his parents and threaten to leave home.

What’s worse is that you’re not allowed to have a say in his decision – even though your brother’s departure will have a huge impact on the family as a whole.

Whatever happens, I wish the people of Scotland all the best for the future because I consider them my friends and neighbours – even if they do take the high road.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

No excuse for not playing your part in local democracy

One of the My City, My Say debates.

One of the My City, My Say debates.

This is one of those columns which I’m going to be slated for. This is one of those columns where I can’t win.

Then again, as my forerunner – the late John Abberley – once told me, being a newspaper columnist isn’t a popularity contest.

I’ve chosen a subject where the opinions of people who may wish to comment are so polarised that they can’t even, through gritted teeth, acknowledge that maybe the other side has a point: That maybe, just maybe, there could be some common ground.

Have you heard of the My City, My Say debates taking place across Stoke-on-Trent? No?

They’ve been promoted in The Sentinel, on local radio, on social media and even on billboards and flyers.

There are 35 events taking place across the Potteries, organised by the city council, with the aim of giving local people – local taxpayers – a say in the future priorities for their communities.

When any initiative like this is announced there is an awful lot of cynicism and I can understand elements of it.

Some people will say: ‘Isn’t it funny how the council – or rather the ruling Labour group – has decided to roll out these forums in the run up to next year’s elections?’

It’s certainly no surprise to me that some opposition councillors are boycotting the meetings and presumably telling everyone they’ve ever met to do the same.

(Although I should just give a big shout out here to councillor Randy Conteh for being part of Wednesday night’s excellent debate at Thistley Hough Academy in Penkhull – irrespective of his political persuasion – having clearly seen the value of the event).

Other people say: ‘What’s the point? The council never listens anyway. This is just a PR stunt.’

I’m sorry but that’s a huge abdication of responsibility – similar to the one some people would accuse the council’s leadership of.

Even if you think it’s a PR stunt, if you’re not there voicing your frustrations then how could anyone know what they are?

All you are actually doing is perpetuating this awful apathy that pervades politics in general in this country, and our city. The apathy which sees only 20-something per cent of people turn out on polling day.

I’ve also seen people posting on forums arguing that the ‘council’ – I guess they mean the leadership of the authority – doesn’t care about their communities because they haven’t supported or funded projects that some local people are passionate about.

That is a very fair and valid point. You could certainly argue that some towns in Stoke-on-Trent (Fenton being the obvious example) seem to have been overlooked in recent years and campaigns such as the one to save Fenton Town Hall haven’t received the support from councillors, MPs and people in positions of power, that they deserve.

But not turning up to meetings and not articulating these views accomplishes nothing.

If you, for example, think the authority shouldn’t be relocating its headquarters from Stoke to Hanley then why not come along to one of these meetings and tell council leader Mohammed Pervez?
You can even come and praise him too.

If you think Hanley doesn’t need a second large retail centre called City Sentral – particularly as the other one, Intu Potteries, is expanding, then why not go along to a meeting, have your say and write your comments on a form?

If you are concerned about fly-tipping locally, or the grass needs cutting somewhere near you, or you have an issue with another council service, why not come along to one of these meetings, fill in a ‘service card’ and you’ll get a reply within two weeks (Or so I’m told).

To my knowledge the My City, My Say initiative is the first time the council has done such a public exercise – putting councillors, officers and representatives of other key partner organisations on the road for people to meet, quiz and debate with.

Despite the cynicism of some, if I was the council’s PR chief I’d be saying this was exactly the kind of initiative that’s needed at a time when the authority – like every other in England – is staring down the barrel of continuing budget cuts.

Otherwise, how can you – in all good conscience – know what the priorities of the local electorate and taxpayers are and how they want money to be spent on their communities?

I got involved in this initiative as one of several ‘independent’ people – including the Editor of The Sentinel – who host the evenings and effectively chair the discussion.

We don’t get paid (other than cups of coffee provided by the venue). I’m doing it because I care about the future of Stoke-on-Trent. I also honestly see the value in ordinary people, taxpayers and voters voicing their opinions and concerns. This is democracy.

Of course, the key now to making My City, My Say a real success is demonstrating that the priorities of local communities start to come through in the council’s policies and budget allocations.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

I’d rather trust teachers in the sex education debate

What age (if at all) do you believe sex education should be taught in schools?

What age (if at all) do you believe sex education should be taught in schools?

As we stumble towards the general election, a few eye-catching policies are starting to trickle out from the main parties.

This includes the Liberal Democrats who this week ruffled a few feathers with the suggestion that sex education should be taught in schools to children as young as seven.

Yes, I know it’s only the Lib-Dems but there’s every chance that the smaller parties could hold the balance of power in Westminster come next May and such policies could therefore become key bargaining chips.

As a parent, my instinctive reaction to the sex education proposal is to recoil in horror at the thought of my youngest, who just happens to be seven, being exposed to this sort of knowledge at such a tender age.

Surely children should be allowed a childhood before they have the grim realities and responsibilities of relationships thrust upon them?

At the age of seven I was enjoying Scooby-Doo cartoons, playing with toy soldiers and cowboy guns, and hoping against hope that Santa Claus would bring me a Raleigh Grifter.

Girls were those other people in my class at school. The ones with the long hair who used skipping ropes at playtime and showed no interest in my half-full Panini sticker album.

They were just different to us boys. It didn’t matter why, they just were. It didn’t matter to me because I was seven.

Having been a governor in a primary school for several years I am only too aware of the fact that at the age of seven many children are still painfully shy and struggle to communicate and integrate with others.

Some don’t play well while others may not be able to read or write as well as many of their peers.

So how on earth would such children, or even their more confident and mature classmates, cope with sex or relationship education?

The truth is I’m not against the Lib-Dem proposal per se. For me, it’s more about how such knowledge is delivered and who it is given by.

When I was a shy, tubby 12-year-old at Holden Lane High I remember flushing red with embarrassment as the biology teacher asked the class to turn to the pages in our text book focusing on reproduction.

Cue much sniggering from the boys and girls in what was the top class in the year.

It seems to me there has always been a strange blurring of the lines in schools in England between where the duties and responsibilities of parents end and where those of teachers begin.

When I was growing up in the late Seventies and early Eighties, sex was not discussed in the playground or the PE changing rooms until the boys in my year hit 14 or 15.

Some may have known a while before how babies were made but, if they did, they kept it to themselves.

A few doubtless found out from their parents in a traditional ‘birds and bees’ type chat. However, I dare say the majority of us learned things from older siblings or friends.

Most of us didn’t have girlfriends or boyfriends until we were in our final year at high school, aged 16, or perhaps even later.

At no point did anyone sit us down and explain that what is more important than sex is how you treat the other person before, during and afterwards.

Nobody told us that during the course of adolescence we’d all have our hearts broken and our dreams crushed.

Nobody taught us the importance of respect and trust either.

I dare say my class and my year (1988) was no different to any other around that time.

Arguably, because of mobile phones, the internet, and social media, nowadays children grow up even more quickly and are exposed to the kind of chatter and images that would have sent teenage me running for cover.

But I would argue the same problems still remain. Unacceptably high rates of underage pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases, broken relationships and domestic violence.

I can’t help but think that if children were, as part of their general education, given some help and guidance in the perils, pitfalls and practicalities of relationships, it would perhaps better prepare them for life.

We’re not very good at honest debate in this country but sex (along with booze and drugs) is a subject which our young people need help with in order to understand and deal with it in a responsible fashion.

Perhaps seven is a bit young, but I’m damn sure that by the time most children reach high school these days they will be mixing with others of a similar age who know a lot more than they perhaps should and learnt it from a less reliable source than their friendly class teacher.

Classrooms the length and breadth of the country already teach personal and social education and promote respect.

Surely education in relationships is just the next step along that path.

Whether or not teaching staff in primary schools are qualified and feel comfortable talking to their pupils about such things, well I guess we’d have to ask them.

But I’d rather trust their judgement than a politician’s philosophising.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Gender is irrelevant: It’s how good people are that matters…

Minister for Employment and Disabilities Esther McVey.

Minister for Employment and Disabilities Esther McVey.

It was less Night of the Long Knives and more Morning of the Rolling Pins in Downing Street this week as the Prime Minister gave us the first glimpse of the kind of shenanigans we can expect in the countdown to next year’s General Election.

It was thumbs up to women and mothers in David Cameron’s new-look cabinet and thumbs down to white, middle-aged men.

Speaking as one of the latter, I should just say that I wholeheartedly agree with the oft-quoted aim of having more women in senior positions within government.

In fact, you can apply that objective across the entire UK workforce as far as I’m concerned.

Having more women chief executives, directors and managers makes absolute sense. Why wouldn’t we? I can name you half a dozen brilliant female executives working here in North Staffordshire who you’d be proud to have as your boss.

For me, it’s not about gender equality – it’s simple maths: As a society we are clearly missing out on some really talented and capable people if so few women are able to get the top jobs.

Men do not, despite what some of them may think, have a monopoly on good leadership. Neither are they unique in having the best ideas, the highest IQs or the ability to take difficult decisions.

By the same token, hands up if you’ve worked for a bloke who was so inept he couldn’t run a bath? Yes, me too. And hands up how many have worked for similarly poor female managers who think pastoral care is a type of low fat milk?

Am I pleased that the Prime Minister has replaced a bunch of men in suits with a bunch of women in, er… suits?

Well, I suppose before you answer that you have to look at Call me Dave’s reasons for ringing the changes because I’m sure it has very little to do with smashing through the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ which prevents women from rising to the top of their profession.

It’s surely no great surprise that Education Secretary Michael Gove has been unseated ahead of the country going to the polls.

He’s so unpopular with the teaching profession because of the reforms he’s implemented in recent years (some of them entirely justified, I might add) that if he was a schoolboy he’d be Billy No Mates up the corner of the classroom with head lice and a penchant for eating his own bogies.

I’m afraid to say that, to my mind, Gove has been cynically sacrificed in the pursuit of votes and to avoid damning soundbites from Labour and the trade unions and nine months of negative headlines from left-leaning newspapers.

In total David Cameron has promoted 10 women in this reshuffle. I don’t know them. They may all be brilliant. Perhaps they are and the PM has only just noticed.

Or perhaps, more likely, Mr Cameron is trying to give his party – which is caricatured as millionaire Eton types who are all friends with bankers and don’t know the price of a Wright’s pie – a softer, more human veneer.

As opposed to the millionaire Labour front-benchers, of course…

Perhaps the thinking is, rather patronisingly, that women will vote for a party with more women. Or that because women still, statistically, do the majority of household chores, look after family finances and provide most of the childcare in the UK then they will have more faith in other women to run the country.

Those who can remember Labour sweeping to power under Tony ‘the Iraq war was entirely justified’ Blair will recall similar excitement in the national press when the ‘Blair babes’ – not my phrase – were unveiled, and more women than ever before were elected to Parliament.

I have to say that this is all just window-dressing to me.

Honestly, I couldn’t give a monkey’s who’s in the cabinet or how many women MPs we have so long as they do a good job.

That, of course, is an entirely separate debate – the answers to which will vary depending on whether you’re sporting a red, yellow or blue rosette come May.

In wishing the women who’ve just been promoted to the cabinet all the best in their new posts I would just caution them not to get too comfortable in their new offices or get carried away with ordering too much branded stationery. After all, 10 months is a long time in politics.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday