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I keep being asked what’s the latest with the PwC report that Eric Pickles was due to announce in the Commons last week.

The answer is that it’s all a bit unclear.

I’m told Tower Hamlets council, with a certain “coup de theatre“, dumped a whole load of new documents on the PwC auditors at the very last minute of the report’s preparation (and five months after the investigation started).

This has caused something of a delay.

Parallel to this is another potentially interesting little conundrum. At the end of August, High Court Judge Sir Kenneth Parker declined an application from the council for a judicial review of the decision to send in the auditors in the first place.

In his written ruling, he used the word “hopeless” to describe one of the council’s arguments. He firmly rejected the other grounds as well. His ruling is here:

3 - Tower Hamlets Judicial Review Judgement

3a - Tower Hamlets Judicial Review Judgement

However, as The Wharf reported in September, the council was undeterred and applied for an oral hearing before another judge.

This has been granted and a date has been fixed for next month.

Here’s the question I’ve asked…Surely it would be illogical to publish the report ahead of that judicial review? If the court rules in favour of the council, ie it rules it was unlawful to send in PwC, then surely that would mean the report itself was unlawful in some way?

Put it another way: what would be the point of the JR hearing if by that time Eric Pickles had already published the report? Would that hearing then be obsolete in practical terms? If the report was so damning that Eric determined intervention was necessary, could that intervention then take place if the JR rules his original decision was unlawful.

He’d be in a bit of a pickle, and embarrassed politically.

Wouldn’t the council’s lawyers want to apply for an injunction on publication of the report prior to the JR hearing? Camp Lutfur Rahman is keeping quiet on the matter.

Sources in Eric’s Department for Communities and Local Government, meanwhile, say the two issues are separate. But I do wonder whether they might wait until after the JR.

Maybe one of the learned readers out there can help?

As for the Election Court petition, that is still going ahead. I’m being told by town hall sources it’s likely to happen in January, although the venue is still unconfirmed. It’s quite possible it won’t take place at the town hall in Mulberry Place after all, but at another building that can accommodate an accompanying media and public circus.

York Hall, the famous boxing venue in Bethnal Green, might be one (very appropriate) option.

Oliur Rahman

Cllr Oli Rahman manning a PCS picket line in Stratford today

The below piece is on the Express website here.

THE Deputy Mayor of the controversial east London borough of Tower Hamlets was yesterday marched from his civil service workplace after concerns about his political activities.

A security guard was ordered to ban Councillor Oliur Rahman from entering the Job Centre Plus office in Stratford, east London, where he works as a benefits adviser.

His bosses at the Department for Work and Pensions said he could no longer perform the role, one he has had for 14 years, due to hypothetical concerns about political neutrality.

They claimed his high profile role in Tower Hamlets politics meant he was more likely to be recognised by people he dealt with in the job centre, even though he works in the neighbouring borough of Newham.

The DWP argued Mr Rahman was at risk of being accused of political bias in his day job.

It said this risk had increased following his appointment as deputy to Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman, who is currently the subject of Government and national media attention.

Mr Rahman’s bosses said they were acting on the direct advice of the Cabinet Office, which yesterday confirmed it supported their decision.

They said he was being transferred to a non-frontline role away from jobseekers at another office in Stratford.

Their stance and the decision to call in a security guard triggered a blazing row at the Job Centre yesterday.

It caused Mr Rahman, who is also an official at the PCS union, so much stress that he vomited and hyperventilated.

His bosses were so concerned they called an ambulance.

Paramedics treated the councillor but he declined to go to hospital.

PCS officials believe the DWP is “politically targeting” Mr Rahman.

He was today manning a picket line at the Job Centre Plus in a campaign against Government cuts.

Yesterday’s events were the culmination of a long-running dispute.

He has worked for the DWP for 14 years and has been a councillor since 2004.

Until 2010, he worked at the Poplar Job Centre in Tower Hamlets but he was then moved to Stratford after a complaint from an opposition party which claimed he could be trying to exploit his job for political purposes.

He has served in Lutfur Rahman’s cabinet since October 2010.

It is understood no complaints have been received about his dual role in that time.

However, DWP became increasingly worried.

According to Mr Rahman’s supporters, his bosses tried to transfer him out of London altogether.

Mr Rahman opposed the proposal and wrote to the Civil Service Appeal Board.

On October 28 last year, the board ruled in Mr Rahman’s favour.

It told the DWP that were he to be re-elected as a councillor in May 2014, he should be allowed to stay in his frontline role in Stratford.

After his re-election as a Tower Hamlets First party in May, his boss Lutfur Rahman made him his deputy.

The DWP believes his “elevated role” as deputy mayor of a borough receiving so much attention nationally has created a tipping point.

His bosses sought renewed guidance from the Cabinet Office, which has now told the DWP it can overrule the Civil Service Appeal Board decision.

When Mr Rahman objected to the proposed back office transfer earlier this month, the DWP suspended him–a decision it rescinded just days later following advice from HR professionals.

However, the department’s bosses continued to insist he move to the new role.

Mr Rahman is now understood to be consulting lawyers.

His friends also point out that the national attention on Tower Hamlets Council is not of his making.

They say it is largely due to a decision by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who ordered Government inspectors to examine the borough’s finances last April.

In a statement, Marjorie Browne of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said: “For the best part of four years Mr Rahman feels he has been subjected a series of targeted behaviour from the senior management of the Job Centre Plus (JCP) without any foundation or complaint from any clients.

“He feels politically targeted for simply being a councillor and politically active within Tower Hamlets.

“The fact that senior management from the JCP are going against their own Civil Service Appeal Board’s decision says everything one needs to know about this case.”

A DWP spokesman said: “Every day our Job Centre Plus staff are successfully helping people into work.

“It’s important that they remain politically neutral, which is why we can’t have elected politicians in frontline roles.”

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said it “supported” the DWP decision and added: “The Civil Service Code requires all civil servants to act with political impartiality, and to comply with any restrictions laid down on their political activities in line with the Political Activity Rules.”

Mr Rahman said he was unable to comment.

east end life

Bundles of East End Life left in the rain at the Bow distribution depot in 2012 (copyright Ted Jeory)

Is the end in sight for East End Life? It’s been predicted many times before.

But last Friday, Eric Pickles’s Department for Communities and Local Government quietly announced its latest move against 11 councils which continue to publish freesheets more regularly than the Government would like.

Not surprisingly, Tower Hamlets council’s weekly version–which has been the prototype for so many others, which costs far more than the council claims, and which drains vital funds from frontline services–is one of the top targets.

Ministers have given the council until October 9 to respond to their demands the paper should be published no more than four times a year. After that, the department will consider legal action.

Let’s quietly note that the deadline comes the week before Eric Pickles is due to stand up in the Commons and announce the outcome of, and any action arising from, the PwC report into ‘best value’ spending at Mulberry Place. East End Life was part of PwC’s remit.

The letter sent out by DCLG last week is scathing. It says Tower Hamlets is failing to abide by the local government Publicity Code. The council strongly contests this and claims East End Life is popular and serves a public interest. The council says EEL reaches hard-to-reach groups.

DCLG, on the other hand, maintains there are other ways of communicating with such groups and notes the council’s own boasts that broadband access in the borough has risen to 85 per cent.

The government also wants a “flourishing…independent and politically free local media” and argues East End Life works against that. It effectively says East End Life is biased towards Mayor Lutfur Rahman (as it was to the former Labour administration until October 2010).

It says other councils manage perfectly well with quarterly news-sheets, and were there to be any special circumstances in Tower Hamlets, these would justify no more than a couple of extra “special editions” in any year.

The London boroughs of Enfield, Greenwich, Hackney, Hillingdon, Lambeth, Newham and Waltham Forest, as well as Luton, Medway and North Somerset councils have received similar letters.

This is what Local Minister Kris Hopkins says:

Frequent town hall freesheets are not only a waste of taxpayers’ money but they undermine the free press. Localism needs robust and independent scrutiny by the press and public.

Councillors and political parties are free to campaign and put out political literature but they should not do so using taxpayers’ money.

This is the eleventh hour for 11 councils who we consider are clearly flouting the Publicity Code. They have all now been given written notice that we are prepared to take further action, should it be necessary, against any council that undermines local democracy – whatever the political colour.

And here are some extracts of the letter to Tower Hamlets council, the full copy of which I’ve attached below:

The basis of the Secretary of State’s proposal 

Information available to the Secretary of State indicates that the London Borough of Tower Hamlets does not attach sufficient importance to ensuring the lawfulness of its publicity. In January 2013 Ofcom concluded that an advertisement, showing the Mayor associated with the house building programme in the borough, was a political advertisement rather than a public service announcement and so breached section 321(3)(g) of the Communications Act 2003 and the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising. The Secretary of State is not aware of any subsequent acceptance by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets of the unlawfulness of this publicity or any firm public commitment of the Council to ensure the lawfulness of all its future publicity and accordingly is proposing the Direction above in relation to the specified provision on lawfulness. 

The balance which, with the approval of Parliament, the Publicity Code strikes is that the newssheets etc. of principal local authorities should be published no more frequently than quarterly. Moreover the Secretary of State recognises that the great majority of councils already publish their newssheets no more frequently than quarterly, notwithstanding the wide range of groups that display protected characteristics in the areas of many councils. 

Officials from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets wrote to the Secretary of State arguing that following a review of ‘East End Life’ in 2011, the publication was redesigned, TV listings were removed and the publication was made shorter. They also argue that ‘East End Life’ is the most cost effective solution as the weekly publication aims to run on a net-nil budget.

The Council notes that cost effectiveness in one of the seven principles in the Publicity Code, and that advice taken by the Council in 2011 and a finding by the then District Auditor indicated that the decision to proceed with weekly publication was lawful and justified having regard to the provisions of the Publicity Code. The Secretary of State’s provisional view is that these arguments do not sufficiently outweigh the case for as far as practicable maintaining an environment as conducive as possible to the flourishing of an independent and politically free local media, which is an essential element of any effectively operating local democracy. 

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets has not drawn to the Secretary of State’s attention any other special circumstances that could justify a departure from the frequency recommendations of the Publicity Code nor is the Secretary of State aware of such circumstances. Moreover, in any event, the Secretary of State considers it likely that were there to be any such circumstances, these would only justify one or two extra ‘special’ editions each year.

Public sector equality duty 

In considering the impact of any direction on the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ public sector equality duty, the Secretary of State has noted that the Council consider that a printed weekly newsletter is “particularly important amongst those seeking work, older white residents and BME residents”.

The Council also state that there is reliance upon ‘East End Life’ by “key demographic subgroups in the Council’s area which, if there was no weekly publication, would otherwise have limited access to relevant information”. The Secretary of State also notes that the Council state that broadband access in Tower Hamlets has increased to 85 per cent and that the Council “would willingly negotiate a manageable timescale for transition to digital delivery”. 

The Secretary of State recognises it may be the case, as the London Borough of Tower Hamlets have commented, that some groups in the community that display particular protected characteristics, such as age, disability or religion/belief will less readily be able to obtain the information currently circulated in ‘East End Life’ and hence all other things being equal could be adversely impacted.

However, the Secretary of State believes that it is open to a council having such protected groups to effectively communicate as necessary with them about the services and other matters which are the responsibility of the council without publishing newssheets more frequently than quarterly.

The Secretary of State recognises that the great majority of councils already publish their newssheets no more frequently than quarterly, notwithstanding the wide range of groups that display protected characteristics in the areas of many councils.

Moreover, even if there is an adverse impact the Secretary of State’s provisional view is that the proposed Direction would be justified because of the Government’s overriding policy of maintaining across the whole country an environment that is conducive as possible to the flourishing of the independent and politically free local media. Such media is an essential element of any effectively operating local democracy and hence the pursuit of this policy is a high priority.

DCLG explains that publicity by local authorities should:

  • be lawful
  • be cost effective
  • be objective
  • be even-handed
  • be appropriate
  • have regard to equality and diversity
  • be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity

It does not inhibit publicity produced by political parties or councillors at their own expense.

And it says, “On appropriate publicity the Code states that:

Where local authorities do commission or publish newsletters, news-sheets or similar communications, they should not issue them more frequently than quarterly, apart from parish councils which should not issue them more frequently than monthly.

Here’s the DCLG letter to the council’s head of paid service, Steve Halsey.

And here are some more pictures of council waste:

East End Life

Copyright Ted Jeory

East End Life

Copyright Ted Jeory

East End Life

Copyright Ted Jeory

East End Life

Copyright Ted Jeory

rushanara aliAs many of you will have heard, Rushanara Ali resigned from the Labour front bench this afternoon so she could abstain from the Commons vote on military action against ISIS in Iraq. She was Shadow Education Minister and had been enjoying her brief.

She’s rated by the Labour leadership and it’s likely she’ll be given a frontline portfolio if Labour secure a General Election victory next May.

That’s if she retains her Bethnal Green and Bow seat, of course. And that’s becoming a bigger if.

She’s genuinely worried about the threat of Lutfur Rahman’s Tower Hamlets First machine…and, in particular, one of his key cabinet members; in fact, his only female councillor.

Step forward Cllr Rabina Khan.

Rabina Khan

It’s well known in Tower Hamlets political circles that Rabina, who was expelled from Labour for backing Lutfur as an Independent in 2010, covets Rushanara’s seat.

After Lutfur’s re-election victory in May, she was dissuaded from formally declaring her candidacy. Lutfur was keen to have her as a negotiating pawn in his attempts to rejoin Labour.

However, I understand her ambition has developed a life of its own. Rushanara knows this and has been extremely busy raising funds for her own re-election campaign.

In that well-established arena of foreign policy debate, the Tower Hamlets council chamber at Mulberry Place, Rabina has been a very vocal critic of Britain’s military interventions abroad. No doubt she would also be against bombing ISIS.

And Rushanara, who watched her former boss Oona King fall prey to George Galloway in 2005 after she had voted for the 2003 Iraq War, is wary, to say the least, of treading that same path.

A little over a year ago, her fellow Tower Hamlets MP, Jim Fitzpatrick, quit his front bench role as Shadow Transport Minister over Labour’s cautious position on Syria back then. Not because it was cautious, but because it wasn’t cautious enough. “I’m opposed to military intervention in Syria, full stop,” he said in August 2013.

I don’t think he was at the debate today (I know he was overseas during the week), but he had the same dilemma as Rushanara: vote to bomb and (inevitably) kill Muslim civilians and risk waving bye to your Commons career. Moral principles also played a part, of course. I’m confident Jim supports Rushanara’s decision.

So politically, Rushanara has been wise.

Note she abstained, rather than go one further against Ed Miliband. It’s likely she discussed her move with him beforehand: EdMili understands the dynamics of Tower Hamlets politics.

But will it be enough to stave off the Rabina threat? What of her?

For newcomers to the blog, she is a children’s author who on has described herself thus:

I am a Writer, Producer and Creative Consultant, living and working for many years in Tower Hamlets, London. I’m involved in a range of writing, speaking, film, moving image and creative projects and I enjoy what I do. 

Over the years my writing and creative work has developed into film treatments, script writing, film making and managing commissions.

As a councillor and as a performer in the council chamber, I rate her. Confident and articulate, she is head and shoulders above her Tower Hamlets First colleagues in that particular arena, and I include Lutfur in that (although my friend Oli Rahman is also very good!)

Senior Labour and Tory figures in Tower Hamlets disagree with me on this. They perhaps know her better. They say she’s wooden, that she’s not good at thinking on her feet, that her answers are always read from a script.

However, constituents who have dealt with her rave about her. The great John Wright regularly comments on this blog to that effect.

She’s the cabinet member for housing and development. She’s said to be “passionate” about her job, so much so that I understand she turned down Lutfur’s offer to become deputy mayor in May: she felt combining the two roles would have been too much, so she chose the former.

So all good. However, when you Google her name the fifth item down returns this:

rabina khanOh dear. The full story is here. Unlike Oli Rahman, I don’t think she ever apologised for her part in that scandal. Maybe she had good explanations, but they were never passed to the media. Maybe that’s another good quality–you never know..

UPDATE 9.50pm

The exchange of letters between Rushanara and Ed Miliband are here:

Dear Ed,

It has been an enormous privilege to serve on the Shadow Front Bench in two different roles in the past four years.

It is therefore with great regret that I tender my resignation as a Shadow Minister in advance of the vote today on military action in Iraq against ISIL. I understand the case that has been made and will not be voting against the motion. But I am unable in conscience to support the motion and I will make a deliberate abstention.

There can be no doubt that the actions of ISIL are horrific and barbaric, and I share the revulsion that everyone in our country feels towards them. However, I am not confident that this military action will be effective in the short-term in just targeting the terrorists and not harming innocent civilians. Nor can I pretend to have confidence that there is a credible long-term strategy to build up the capacity of the Iraqi army, or that the potential impact on radicalisation in the UK has been properly thought through. Despite good intentions, too many mistakes have been made over the last decade and far too many people in conflict zones have had to pay a high price for misconceived actions by the UK and other countries.

I appreciate the sincerity of Members of Parliament from all sides of the House who today support military action against ISIL. I know that British Muslims stand united in the total condemnation of the murders that ISIL have committed. However, there is a genuine belief in Muslim and non-Muslim communities that military action will only create further bloodshed and further pain for the people of Iraq.

Once again, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to serve in the Shadow Government. There is no doubt in my mind that the plan you set out for our country this week is the right one, and it has all the hallmarks of your leadership to date: bold, fair, serious about the UK’s long-term needs, and unafraid of vested interests.

I remain totally committed to your leadership and I look forward to you becoming Prime Minister in eight months’ time. I will play my full part from the backbenches and in my constituency to ensure that outcome.

Yours sincerely,

Rushanara

Dear Rushanara,

Thank you for your letter.

I regret that you feel unable to support the motion. I know that you have thought long and hard about this. I respect your decision and accept your resignation.

You have served with real distinction as a shadow minister, both in the Shadow Edication and International Development teams. You are someone with great ability and talent.

I know you will continue to work tirelessly for the people of Bethnal Green and Bow and play your part in helping Labour to return to government at the General Election.

Yours ever,

Ed

Anjem Choudary was arrested this morning. There’s an account of it on the Express website here.

He and his helpers spend a fair bit of time in Tower Hamlets.

In May last year, I broke this story for the Sunday Express…that his groupies were running a chain of children’s sweet shops called Yummy Yummy in Whitechapel and Mile End.

When I visited them, the stores stocked on their sweet counters leaflets calling for an “Islamic Revolution”. Just the kind of thing you want with your bonbons.

The business brains behind the operation was Yazdani Choudary, Anjem’s elder brother. I wrote about him in the Sunday Express in 2011 when we revealed he’d been landing government contracts for IT training in Whitechapel Road. He was aged 48 then.

Yazdani had bought the lease on a three-storey block in New Road. The basement was used as a creche and discussion centre. The ground floor at that time was used as a printing and design shop called Master Printers. A graphic designer who had spent time in jail for raising funds for terrorism overseas worked there. I spent a bit of time watching them, including Anjem, come and go.

For the floors above, Yazdani had sought permission from Tower Hamlets council’s to convert them into Islamic teaching centre for Anjem called the Centre for Islamic Services. Adverts for CIS were even run in East End Life. Planning permission was refused.

That building was raided by the police a few months later. For a while, nothing more happened.

Master Printers then closed down, but some time later Yummy Yummy appeared in its place.

It has been quite a busy sweet shop by all accounts. I imagine it takes in a fair amount of cash.

Yazdani, now 51, has always refused to comment and there is nothing to suggest he is involved in Islamic extremism.

This morning, the police announced they’d arrested nine men on suspicion of being members of a banned organisation. They were aged between 22 and 51, according to police. We know Anjem was among them and it’s thought the organisation in question is Al Muhajiroun.

A total of 18 properties were raided, including 11 in east London.

I guessed the Yummy Yummy shops would be two of them, so I went to have a look.

The detectives declined to comment and none of Anjem’s groupies were there to talk to.

I promised the detectives I would pixelate their faces from the following pictures. I hope they enjoyed the jelly babies.

yummy yummy, anjem choudary

Detective taking notes from a resident outside the Yummy Yummy shop in New Road, Whitechapel (copyright Ted Jeory)

yummy yummy, anjem choudary

Yummy Yummy, Whitechapel (copyright Ted Jeory)

yummy yummy 3

Detectives enter Yummy Yummy sweet shop in New Road (copyright Ted Jeory)

yummy yummy, Anjem Choudary

Unmarked police cars outside Yummy Yummy shop in Mile End Road (copyright Ted Jeory)

My apologies for being relatively quiet over the past few weeks. Normal service will resume pretty soon.

In the meantime, here’s an update on the PwC report.

Earlier this week, Jim Fitzpatrick asked Eric Pickles in the Commons for an update.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The Secretary of State commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct an examination of the finances of Tower Hamlets council. Tower Hamlets council will be paying for that audit. Will the Secretary of State update us on how long it will be before the auditors report?

Eric Pickles: We are talking in terms of a matter of days. I understand that the consultants have finished their report, but the facts will have to be checked with Tower Hamlets, and only when that process has been completed will I be briefed on it. I shall then have to make a “minded” statement, because Tower Hamlets will obviously have the right to respond before I make a final statement to the House.

Actually, Eric “misspoke” slightly when he said a “matter of days”.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has just issued a statement detailing the next steps.

As the council’s head of paid service, Steve Halsey, announced to staff this week, PwC’s team of up to 25 inspectors have now “withdrawn” from the town hall.

Their fieldwork was completed on September 8. They are now into the fact-checking phase. This means extracts of the facts contained in PwC’s draft report are being sent to interviewees (ie Mayor Lutfur Rahman and officers etc) for fact-checking.

It is expected this process will take 10 working days. Responses and comments will have to be returned to PwC by September 25.

The report might then have to be amended; while this phase has in theory no time limits, it’s unlikely to take more than two weeks. The report will then be sent to both Eric Pickles and the council.

Pickles will then consider what action, if any, he will take. He’ll probably make his decision within 24 hours before issuing a statement to the Commons. The PwC report will also be published at that point.

It is expected this statement and publication will take place in the week beginning October 13.

What actions might Eric take? Well, certain “direct functions” might be removed from the council and instead placed under the direct control of the Secretary of State, or independent commissioners appointed by him.

In other words, special measures. This might well be the grants or procurement processes, for example…but that’s purely my speculation.

Many in Tower Hamlets, including within Lutfur’s camp, believe Eric will at least impose a new council chief executive and relieve the clearly overworked Stephen Halsey from his head of paid services duties.

Camp Lutfur, and some senior Labour figures, also doubt whether the PwC report will, beyond installing a new chief executive role, contain anything more than a few rapped knuckles over processes.

This language tends to downplay the importance of following “processes” in local government spending decisions…

Jim Fitzpatrick and Lutfur’s team are also openly worried and critical of the potential £1million cost of the PwC report. As things currently stand, those costs will be charged directly to Tower Hamlets taxpayers.

It is inconceivable this will happen in reality. If the report finds governance failures, it will surely be sensible politically for Eric to announce that Whitehall will pick up the tab: why should innocent Tower Hamlets taxpayers face the double-whammy of suffering poor governance AND the cost of detecting them?

Meanwhile, Lutfur seems to be carrying on oblivious. Over last few weeks he’s been concerned with the important matter of choosing his next chauffeured car.

Nine days ago, this Volvo V60 Estate D6 AWD Plug-in Hybrid 5dr (Price £49,975) was seen in his town hall parking spot.

Mayor car[1]

A Toyota Prius hybrid (as I predicted here in May) has also been seen in that space.

A council spokesman said:

We are currently exploring  a range of transport options to assist the Mayor in his duties. As part of this process the more efficient and environmentally-friendly hybrid cars are being considered as a potential option.  

A car is necessary because the Mayor seeks to maximise his accessibility to the electorate by going to them rather than requiring them to come to the Town Hall. 

Most recently the Mayor trialled a more environmentally-friendly Volvo hybrid D6 for three days, at zero cost to the taxpayer.

But when I asked what other cars he’d tried out, Takki Sulaiman’s press office told me to submit a Freedom of Information request.

Which says something about attitudes towards openness and what they consider the “best value” for taxpayers’ money.

PS.. Sadly, I wasn’t at last night’s full council meeting, which didn’t fail to live down to its usual standards. Lutfur and his Tower Hamlets First party staged a walkout rather than debate why the council has spent money applying for a judicial review on DCLG’s decision to send in PwC. All councillors were apparently told by interim monitoring officer Meic Sullivan-Gould they risked jail should they breach the Contempt of Court Act in debating the issue.

The East London Advertiser’s Mike Brooke has the full story.

And here is the full text of DCLG’s statement today:

Update 11 September 2014

Inspection of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets: concluding stages

In April inspectors from PricewaterhouseCoopers were asked to look into serious allegations of governance failure, poor financial management and fraud.

PwC have now substantially completed their inspection fieldwork and are in the process of producing their report.

PwC has today (Thursday 11 September) sent certain factual information, which they may include in their full report, to Tower Hamlets Council for fact-checking.

Where individuals have given information in interviews which may be referred to in the report, PwC will also be sending relevant information to that individual by the end of the week.

The council and individuals receiving this information will have 10 working days to comment to PwC on its factual accuracy.

All this information has been provided by PwC on a strictly confidential basis solely for the purpose of this fact-checking exercise.

From Thursday 25 September PwC will be considering all the comments received, and finalising their inspection report, which must include any matters identified where the council has not complied with its statutory best value duty.

As required by statute once PwC has finalised its full report, it will then send a copy of that report to the Secretary of State and to Tower Hamlets Council.

Once the Secretary of State has received the report, he will give it careful consideration. Subsequently, in due course, he intends to exercise his statutory power to publish the report, and to make any statement he considers appropriate to Parliament.

If the Secretary of State is satisfied that Tower Hamlets Council is failing to comply with its best value duty, he may exercise his powers of statutory intervention. Statutory intervention may take a number of forms including directing a council to take any action that the Secretary of State considers necessary or expedient to secure its compliance with the best value duty, or directing that certain parts of the council’s functions be undertaken by the Secretary of State or by a person – for example a commissioner – appointed by him for that purpose.

Remember these invoices I was sent by Tower Hamlets council under the Freedom of Information Act?

Panorama Champollin Invoices2 Panorama Champollion Invoices3

They were submitted by Champollion, the PR specialists hired by the council’s £100,000 a year head of communications, Takki Sulaiman. They were brought in because he and colleagues felt they were incapable of producing a media strategy to deal with the Panorama programme in March. They needed help.

The invoice totals were redacted because the council felt it had to protect its own and Champollion’s commercial interests.

Well, thanks to the wonderful Audit Commission Act, which allows people to investigate how their taxes are spent, I’ve been able to obtain the non-redacted copies.

Here:

Champollion invoice Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 21.21.00

So £26,970 + £14,174 = £41,144.

Actually, there was a third invoice from Champollion but because that was submitted after the financial year end on April 30, it falls outside the scope of the Audit Commission Act. We’ll have to wait until next year for that.

Still, not bad for a few weeks’ work. I’ve also obtained the contract between Champollion and the council. The contract commenced on February 14 and was signed by Kim Catcheside, a Champollion director and formerly the well-known BBC education and social affairs correspondent.

The brief sent out in January by the council to PR companies intending to bid for this goldmine stated:

A documentary is being made about Tower Hamlets and the Mayoral system by an investigative team commissioned by the BBC. The programme has been in development since at least June/July 2013 but we first became aware of the project in October.

It has proved hard to engage with them and the council is keen to ensure accuracy and balance in the final product. It appears the team want to make their documentary and add on an interview with the Mayor at the end. The precise focus of the documentary is being gleaned from other organisations rather than the documentary team. An interview is likely in mid to late February and a tour has been offered and accepted.

At the back of the contract is a schedule of Champollion’s proposed fees.

Here:

champollion fees

Kim Catcheside was the director assigned to the project. The proposal was that she would be charged to the taxpayer at an hourly rate of £250, or £1,750 for an eight-hour day. That’s about £455,000 for a 270-working day year. (That’s not Kim’s salary, of course.)

My new documents show that part of Kim’s £250-an-hour work was to spend some time coaching and preparing Mayor Lutfur Rahman for his interview with Panorama’s John Ware.

Here:

champollion briefing

And how very kind of them, you’ll notice, to offer a “Champollion graduate” to the Tower Hamlets press office…at the rate of £500 a day. £500 a day equates to a fee of £135,000 a year. They must have some pretty talented graduates on their books. Maybe Takki should sign up for a job there, if he has a degree.

You’ll also see that part of Champollion’s brief was to attend meetings with the council’s legal team.

Well, that team, headed by Meic Sullivan-Gould, had also decided it didn’t have the expertise to handle Panorama and ensure what the BBC is required to do anyway, ie adhere to its own charter.

So Meic commissioned City lawyers Taylor Wessing. Their brief also included handling the so-called Panorama “whistleblower”, who is now under criminal investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office. They also spent many hours examining the dossier she “obtained” from Panorama and which she passed to the mayor’s office in (probably) late January.

Thanks to the Audit Commission Act, I’ve also obtained the invoices from Taylor Wessing, its contract with LBTH and various other incredibly interesting back-up details.

Here are the invoices:

So that’s £36,922.72 + £40,170.74 + £3,179.72 + £1,651.52 = £81,924.70.

Here’s part of the brief Meic supplied to bidders in January (after they’d been handed the leaked dossier, of course):

TW brief

But Taylor Wessing were ever so kind when it came to costs.

Here’s a section from a letter sent by their Trademarks, Copyright and Media Partner, Niri Shanmuganathan, to Meic.

TW costs

So the partner charged £408.76 an hour; Tim Pinto, the “trademarks copyright and media senior counsel” charged £330 per hour; and the trainee was charged at a mere £156 per hour. All plus VAT.

They even charged LBTH for reading my blog! Which is free. At least someone’s making money from it.

I write all this, and there’s more to come, because any Tower Hamlets elector has the right to object to the council’s accounts. You have the right to dispute these invoices if you feel they are not valid or properly commissioned in some way.

In summary, the council paid at least £123,068 to Champollion and Taylor Wessing to try and stop/limit the damage from a half-hour Panorama documentary.

The council’s Audit Committee meets on September 16 when the external auditors will meet officers and councillors to discuss the draft accounts. Any objection should be raised then. I’ll dig out the email and post it here tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the wait for the PwC report into LBTH continues (at a cost of £1million…).

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