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Archive for December, 2010

Vote fraud in Spitalfields

There is a long tradition in Tower Hamlets that any election held here is accompanied by allegations of vote fraud. And so it is the case with yesterday’s events in Spitalfields and Banglatown.

While nothing can match the comedy of the general election when a large burkha-clad person with a suspiciously deep voice quickly legged it after being challenged as (s)he tried to vote in Poplar, there were still a couple of moments of high farce yesterday.

They have all been reported to the police and/or Returning Officer Kevan Collins. And all allegations are being made by Respect, which won the by-election, and against Labour supporters.

Concerned that Labour supporters might get up to dirty tricks, Respect placed polling agents with deep knowledge of the local area at the various polling stations. It was their job to spot suspected malpractice.

The first was at a polling station at Christ Church Primary School. There, according to Respect, a Bengali man giving the correct name for a someone registered at a flat in Chicksand House was challenged by a polling agent who knew that the named property was actually let to white students. The presiding officer then asked the man to name the other occupants of the flat. He could not and not only that, he admitted he did not live there himself! However, because he had already marked his ballot paper and because his name was on the electoral register, the presiding officer felt unable to invalidate his vote. I’m not clear whether the presiding officer asked for verification of the man’s name.

The second incident was described by Respect’s Rob Hoveman in an email sent to Mr Collins yesterday:

We are very concerned about attempted personation at Osmani polling station where an individual gave an address as XXX Arthur Deakin House. Fortunately, [Respect's winning candidate] Fozol Miah was aware that this is the address of his niece and challenged the individual. He was not given a ballot paper and left the area with some others quickly. Our concern is obviously that this may not be an isolated incident and that there may be a concerted attempt to corrupt the election. Is there anything that can be done to deter this?

The third incident at Canon Barnett Primary School polling station had a Keystone Cops flavour to it. When a man purporting to be a Mr Uddin of Brune House came to collect his ballot paper, the Respect polling agent looked at him and said, “I know Mr Uddin; you’re not him.” The imposter tried to scarper, but was detained under a “citizen’s arrest” by some Respect supporters. They then “escorted” him back to the party’s HQ and took a statement from him while they waited for the police to arrive. When the police did finally turn up – some 30 minutes later, I’m told – their concern was not whether the man had breached election law, but whether he had been unlawfully detained and kidnapped!

Respect’s supporters should, of course, have allowed the presiding officer handle the matter, but I suppose that in Tower Hamlets we’re used to the law of the jungle and their reaction was perhaps understandable. When the situation calmed, Respect say they offered the police the man’s statement, but the officers declined to take it. I expect it will now be passed on to the police through more formal channels. I understand that the statement names the man who put him up to the attempted fraud and that he was going to vote for Labour’s Abdul Alim. For the avoidance of doubt, Alim was not named in the statement.

Clearly, if Tower Hamlets council and the Met Police are serious about clamping down on electoral fraud, they will want to fully investigate these incidents. If they don’t – and the suspicion is that they won’t because such fraud is considered a “victimless crime” that costs money to examine – what message does that send out?

As an aside, there were also some interesting developments on the postal voting front in this by-election. As of Tuesday, according to Respect, some 500 postal ballots had been sent in and of those the council’s new electronic signature checking systems had rejected a huge 20 per cent. Another 137 postal votes came in after Tuesday, but the council has so far been unable to say how many of those were rejected.

Now, either the system itself needs examining, or people need to remember what signatures they actually use, or there was attempted electoral fraud on a relatively large scale. Remember that the turnout was barely 1,500…

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In what was probably one of the most underwhelming by-elections ever held in Tower Hamlets, Respect has regained a foothold in Spitalfields and Banglatown.

Its candidate, the former councillor Fozol Miah, won by 113 votes from Labour’s Abdul Alim. The turnout was a mesmerising 16.8 per cent.

Fozol was a Respect councillor between 2006 and 2010 and while he seemed to be a genuinely decent bloke he hardly set the council chamber on fire. I imagine he will now join the queue for jobs in Mayor Lutfur’s administration, which is already looking decidedly threadbare.

As for Labour’s loss… . Spitalfields and Banglatown is a law unto itself and Fozol only just missed out on re-election back in May does have a large personal support there. However, it is the back yard for both Helal Abbas and Lutfur Rahman. I’m sure that if Lutfur had really put his heart and soul into a pro-Labour campaign, Alim would now be a councillor.

I suppose it’s also interesting that Abbas’s currency there seems to be on the wane. This result will inevitably add momentum to moves to oust him at Labour’s April AGM.

The following is taken from the Tower Hamlets council website:

An election was held for a vacant council seat in the Tower Hamlets Borough ward of Spitalfields and Banglatown on Thursday, 16 December 2010.

The result of the election was as follows:

  • Abdul Alim, Labour Party – 553 votes
  • Jewel Chowdhury, Independent  – 28 votes
  • Magaret Ann Crosbie, The Green Party  – 52 votes
  • Fozol Miah, Respect – 666 votes (elected)
  • Ferdy North, Liberal Democrats – 33 votes
  • Matthew James Smith, Conservative Party  – 135 votes

Number of ballot papers spoilt: 19

Electorate for Spitalfields and Bangaltown Ward: 8,827

Votes polled: 1,486

Turnout: 16.83 per cent

16 December 2010

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Councillor waste

A kind reader has sent me this link to an FoI request that’s just been disclosed by Tower Hamlets council. Actually, there was no need to FoI it as it is a public document, but all the same, I think it will make interesting reading for most people.

It’s a list of the Special Responsibility Allowances paid to Mayor Lutfur Rahman and 24 councillors. That means almost half our 52 elected representatives are being paid over and above the £10,065 they get as basic councillor pay. And that’s before Lutfur, if he finally manages it, fills another few members of his cabinet at £13,325 a go.

Some of these positions, such as the chairs of the Development Committee (Cllr Carli Harper-Penman) and Overview and Scrutiny (Cllr Ann Jackson), do involve a fair amount of work, but whether an extra £10,710 is the right amount, I don’t know.

Other positions attracting serious pocket money defy belief. Take the General Purposes Committee, for example. Its chair, Cllr Helal Uddin of Bromley-by-Bow, trousers almost an extra annual £8,000 for presiding over a few hours extra work a year, if that. Check out this link and you’ll see there has only been three meetings this financial year. In total, there have been four agenda items, all of which were simple rubber stamp reports such as agreeing the terribly crucial appointments to the Billingsgate Market Consultative Advisory Committee. I once sat in one of these meetings to see exactly what went on and the answer was pretty much nothing. The councillors usually arrive late, the officers (who claim the evening sessions as lieu time) sip tea and nibble biscuits, and then the meeting is usually over within a matter of minutes.

Then there is Mizanur Chaudhury who get £5,800 for being an “Olympics Ambassador”. What?? Why?? Shouldn’t he be doing whatever he does for free, just for the pure privilege?

That there are so many paid positions is a corruption of our system. They are the paid vote. Some 500 council staff will soon lose their jobs. Many of these payments should also go. Given that most of the recipients are Labour members, Mayor Rahman, who while council leader was the worst offender for paying his mates, might well propose such a move.

Councillors wouldn’t dare squeal if that happened. Not even Tower Hamlets councillors…or would they?

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I’m not quite sure where to start with my thoughts on last Wednesday’s Tower Hamlets council meeting. In the years I’ve covered the goings-on at Mulberry Place, I’ve seen some pretty tawdry and comical moments, but Wednesday’s affair suggested the amateurs had well and truly taken over the asylum. Judging by the horrified expressions on the faces of the council’s senior management team, they thought so, too.

Firstly, allow me to get the important admin details out of the way. I arrived at about 8.20pm – an hour after the meeting had started – and was greeted at the town hall doors by someone who looked like a cop, talked like a cop, but who is paid far more than a cop. He was a Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officer, or better known to many as a THEO. I first wrote about them in the Sunday Express last year, here. Unbelievably, they’re paid £35,000 a year. “Are you here for a reason, sir?” he asked me. Yes, I said, I was there for the council meeting. I told him I was a resident and a member of the press. “Well, I don’t think we can let you in, sir. It’s full.” I smiled and walked past him while he sought advice from a proper policeman. I was let in.

I then had to deal with Amateur Number Two. For some disturbing reason, the council has got rid of the press desk (ie a table) that used to be placed right at the front of the public gallery. There is no legal requirement for the council to give the press a desk, but it is considered best practice. It allows journalists to remain apart and neutral from any barracking in the public gallery; it identifies journalists to the public and to other journalists; and it allows us to see and hear the proceedings so that we can report the meeting to the wider world. All this seems to be lost on the council’s £100,000-a-year head of communications Takki Sulaiman. For the moment, I’ll be generous and assume it’s because he can’t grasp that concept, rather than suggest he is deliberately trying to hinder the work of the press in the interests of the new regime (because, shurely, he wouldn’t do that would he… .)

So when Takki told me there was “plenty of space” for me to sit at the back of the gallery, I smiled and then ignored him. Another far more helpful council officer understood my point and found a seat for me in the second row.

Which is where I had the lovely privilege of witnessing Amateurs Numbers Two and Three. Directly behind me was millionaire housing association tenant and main Lutfur Rahman supporter Shiraj Haque, who, because council chairman Cllr Motin uz Zaman was too weak or terrified to control, spent the entire evening: a) eating crisps; b) playing with and talking into his mobile phone; c) insulting me, Andrew Gilligan and everyone bar Lutfur and his supporters; and d) displaying the kind of political naivety that I’m sure made even Lutfur cringe.

Here are just a few of the things Shiraj bawled out:

“One Mayor, one borough, he will do anything he likes”; “Peter [Golds], get out of the borough, you can rent one of my flats”; “Peter, are you going on a honeymoon with Jim Fitzpatrick?”; and heckling during a discussion on investment strategies, “I can give you a better rate of interest if you invest in me”.

At no stage was he told to shut up. Respect chair Carole Swords may have an opinion on this: she’s currently banned from the public gallery for one heckle too many.

In contrast, Lutfur himself, sitting on the dais next to chief executive Kevan Collins, maintained a semblance of dignity – even as his young four-strong cabinet displayed a mixture of embarrassing inexperience and bungling incompetence. Lutfur needs to have a word with his kindergarten crew and tell them to dodge Labour’s poison bullets, stop the childish name-calling and forget the threatening finger-wagging: they’re meant to be in charge now and they need to earn respect.

But what of the politics, you ask….

1. Lutfur began his opening speech by addressing the large number of his supporters in the public gallery with: “It’s a pleasure to see so many members of my community here.” That raised the eyebrows of more than one councillor.

2. As my fellow blogger TowerHamletsWatch highlights in an accurate post here, Lutfurite cabinet member Oli Rahman revealed he knew other councillors had been submitting supposedly confidential members’ enquiries (ME) on a particular issue. Stupidly, Oli said MEs are not confidential and now his remarks are to be fully investigated. Again, inexperience and incompetence.

3. Labour councillor Carlo Gibbs and Mayor Lutfur engaged in a momentary but intriguing love-in. Both praised and smiled at each other during a Q&A session. Even Shiraj gave Carlo the Emperor’s thumbs-up. Carlo used to work for Jim Fitz and is very much and up-and-coming politician. It might be that he is playing half of the good cop/bad cop routine and wooing Lutfur in, but I doubt it. I think he’s being more sincere. On Lutfur’s election night, Carlo was overheard saying that Labour should work with the new mayor, but he was then shouted down. This is a relationship to watch, I reckon.

4. Abbas does not seem to be suited to the role of Opposition leader. He’s just too quiet and not forceful enough in the council chamber. Labour need to address this problem.

5. A Lutfurite motion calling on all councillors to work with the mayor was soundly defeated. To me, this was a fairly pointless motion, but I’ve no doubt it will be reported widely in the pro-Lutfur sections of the absent Bengali media as a major snub.

6. A brilliantly insightful and important question on council investment strategy by Labour’s David Edgar, who is a highly respected accountant, to Deputy Mayor Ohid Ahmed, who is not, comprehensively exposed the latter’s lack of grasp on finance and his inability to think on his feet.

7. A motion proposed by Labour’s Josh Peck on the over-exploitation of Victoria Park for summertime music events was passed unanimously. (There were 10 gigs there this year, blocking off almost half the park for entire weekends and causing mayhem for locals who were subjected to revellers vomiting and urinating on their properties.) However, the following comments by Lutfur’s cabinet member for culture, Rania Khan, were later described by one Labour councillor as “dog whistle” remarks: “We need to maximise income [and]…I would urge councillors to think about the whole community not just those who are lucky enough to live around the park.” The demographics of the park perimeters are mostly white and Afro-Caribbean.

8. A motion on Bancroft History Library and Archives provided the most dramatic moments of the night. I’ll save my observations on that for another post, except to say here that it exposed deep rancour between former council leader Denise Jones and her party colleague (just) Marc Francis. He  spoke against her with such passion that his voice at one stage faltered and then broke the party whip by voting against a call for Deputy Mayor Ohid to apologise for defaming her and questioning her integrity. Marc lost that vote, but helped secure a council investigation into the Bancroft/Rich Mix affair. As I said, more another time…

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Apologies to those awaiting a post on Wednesday’s full council meeting at Tower Hamlets, but I’ve been a touch busy with my day job. I intend to write a lengthy post about it over the next couple of days – and yes, there is plenty to say about what happened: the meeting was among the most poisonous and uncontrolled affairs I’ve been to.

In the meantime, Tory group leader Peter Golds has asked me to publish a personal statement from him following the bizarre and disturbing comments made by some people on my previous post here. These comments extended to some borderline homophobic insults hurled at him by some senior political activists in the public gallery of the council chamber on Wednesday night (but, as I say, more of that later.)

Here’s Peter’s statement:

It is clear that a number of your correspondents do not understand what an elected politician should or chose not to understand.

I received an enquiry from a resident regarding Medialink and raised that enquiry. This is what councillors do in every local authority up and down the country and of course what Members of Parliament do each and every day.

Before I received a response the head of Medialink telephoned me four times in one afternoon to discuss my enquiry. It was obvious that had been told the details of my enquiry. This could only have come from within the council and breaks all protocols.

Having received the actual response, which was not confidential, I shared it with the original enquiry and Ted Jeory who was also interested in the subject.

I then received increasingly threatening calls and messages from the same person. On Wednesday I met with the council’s Chief Executive and monitoring officer who were quite clear that my enquiry was right and proper and that as the response did not break commercial confidentiality I was entitled to share it.

It should be noted that I have raised many enquiries regarding consultants engaged by the Council, including Verve Communications who once had a very large contract. Strangely no one has attacked me for raising that particular company.

It should also be noted that at council on Wednesday night a member of the administration let slip that he had knowledge of an enquiry raised by another councillor.

There is to be a full investigation into how this is happening.

As a matter of fact on another issue, I have served on many appointments panels. On one occasion I ensured that the panel did not reach a decision until we had women and BME candidates to consider and on another I refused to serve because the assembled panel was entirely male and we would be interviewing women for a position.  I would treat any candidate who submits a dishonest CV in the same way, and in most organisations such a CV is grounds fro instant dismissal.

The attacks of racism against me are puerile and totally wrong.

I am more than happy to engage in debate with anyone, but attacks and lies for people who hide behind pseudonyms and are often the same person deserve to be treated for what they are. Sock puppets is the usual term. The sort of people who used to write poison pen letters, often on green ink.

For those unfamiliar with Verve Communications, it is the PR consultancy that used to run the press office and East End Life at Tower Hamlets Council. It was headed by Lorraine Langham. Following a series of investigations by Peter and me, when I was at the East London Advertiser, a council committee concluded that Verve had been allowed to exploit its position for commercial gain. Ms Langham subsequently left the council and is now the number 2 to ex Tower Hamlets CEO Christine Gilbert at Ofsted.

See here for more info.

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I’ve been sent a copy of Lutfur Rahman’s election expenses, which are publicly available from Tower Hamlets council for a cost of just a few quid. However, the dutiful public servant that I am, and in the spirit WikiLeaks, I thought it would be useful to simply publish them here.

I won’t go into detail about every single penny of his £11,316.69 spend, but instead allow you, dear “army of armchair auditors”, to undertake your own exercises in scrutiny.

To help, this link outlines what details limited companies must include on their invoices.

This is the summary sheet:

And the full document can be found here. Informed comments only, please. Any baseless accusations will not be allowed.

And, in the interests of fairness and balance, if anyone has the expenses for the other candidates, do please email them to me.

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During Lutfur Rahman’s election campaign, strong suspicions lingered about who might benefit from his victory. Certainly, millionaire housing association tenant Shirajul Haque was one name mentioned. After all, I’m told by several sources that he bragged he had underwritten Lutfur’s legal fees during his High Court challenges against the Labour party (something Lutfur himself denies).

I suppose Shiraj is a generous soul: over the years he has also given money to the Labour party and offered cash to the Lib Dems. But as with many businessmen mixing in the political arena, I’m also sure he would want a pay back. And nothing would please him more than to regain control of the annual Baishakhi Mela, the cash cow festival attracting 100,000 visitors in Brick Lane and Weavers Fields every May. Control was removed from his a few years ago after council appointed auditors filed a devastating report about his organisation’s lack of financial control.

So it will be interesting to see who puts in bids and who wins the tender for two tenders that have just been advertised. One, here, is for the “production management” of the Mela on next May 8, the other, here, is for the “creation of the procession” for the Mela.

Here’s a flavour from the tender blurb from the former:

Expressions of Interest to Quote Contract number: CLC3895 Production Management: A Baishakhi Mela in Banglatown Brick Lane Sunday 8th May 2011 Introduction Tower Hamlets is seeking quotes for the Production Management of the annual Baishakhi Mela event. The Production Manager will be responsible for delivering a coherent event plan and risk assessment, site plans, contracting and managing site crew, site managers and safety staff and procuring site infrastructure for up to two sites. The Baishakhi Mela is an annual event celebrating the Bengal New Year with an attendance in the region of 100,000 people during the course of the day and across three main event sites: Brick Lane, Allen Gardens and Weavers Fields and linked via a series of closed roads. The event is one of the key community festivals in the borough and draws an audience from across the UK but focussed on the local Bangladeshi community. Now in its 14th year, the 2011 Baishakhi Mela will take place on Sunday 8th May. Criteria To be considered for this contract you must have relevant experience of managing similar large-scale outdoor community festivals (e.g. 20,000+ audiences) within an urban environment and have comprehensive Health & Safety documentation. Any company unable able to demonstrate this need not apply. Interested suppliers can express an interest via the Council’s e-tendering system (London Tenders Portal) which is free of charge and must allow sufficient time to register (at least 1 working day). Expressions of interest must be made on the following website: https://www.londontenders.org/procontract/supplier.nsf/frm_home?openForm Expressions of interest must be received by 2pm, 10th December 2010. Late expressions of interest will not be accepted. Suppliers who have expressed an interest will be sent quotation documents after the closing date for expressions of interest. The criteria for awarding this contract will be included in the request for quotation documents. The closing date for submitting completed quotation document is 2pm, 7th January 2011. The Council does not undertake to invite all applicants or bind itself to accept the lowest or any tender. The Council will not be liable for any costs incurred in tendering for this contract.

The other organisation whose name was mentioned heavily during of the grinding of the Lutfur rumour mill was Media Link. Many thought it had its eyes on winning more contracts for council publicity – it already has several – and perhaps even the star prize of helping to print and distribute East End Life.
A reliable Town Hall source told me some weeks ago that Media Link had upset some council officers by helping to publicise the official Mayor-making ceremony for Lutfur at the end of October. I was told they had been helping with invitations and the like.
It seems that Tory group leader Peter Golds had also heard these suggestions because he submitted an official member’s enquiry about them. The response to his questions was written by Takki Sulaiman, the not-so-value-for-money £100,000 a year “head of communications” hired by moonlighting Lutfur Ali in March this year. This was his answer:
That phrase “formal role” is interesting. I really doubt that an officer would wish to mislead a member. However, Peter has just submitted some follow-up questions, including a demand to know how his member’s enquiry was leaked to Media Link. See here:

May I know how many existing contracts the council has with Media Link?

May I know how long these contacts have been in place? What they are for and what is the fee? Have any Executive council members, either currently  in office or previously been involved in the appointment of Media Link and if so what declarations have been made?

In addition I am mystified as to the response to Media Link’s involvement with the last council meeting.  I was informed that they were involved. Interestingly, having tabled my question the MD of Media Link contacted me four times on my private mobile number and sought a meeting to discuss “questions I may have”.

I am in intrigued as to how Media Link would have any knowledge of my tabling questions on their council related activities?

I’ve tried calling Media Link, but the number listed on its website (020 7422 0002) is unobtainable, which isn’t really very good for a bespoke communications consultancy. I would also like to ask its bosses under what name(s) they file their accounts at Companies House…because the only two I have so far found listed at their registered address in Myrdle Street, Whitechapel, are Media Link World Ltd and Media Link Training Ltd, both of which have fewer financial assets than I do – and that’s saying something.
UPDATE, Dec 7, 6.30pm
Mujib Islam, who owns, Media Link, tells me he did not help with any publicity for Lutfur’s mayor-making ceremony in October. He also tells me that he found it difficult to secure an invite for himself and that it was only when Cllr Oli Rahman stepped in that he gained access. He says he feels distressed at being dragged into the politics of Tower Hamlets and that he is merely a businessman looking to develop a business that has taken 10 years to build. He says that he has not thought about bidding for any contract for East End Life, both because none is currently available, but also because he does not have that sort of capacity at the moment. He says that he had not met Lutfur until about eight or nine months ago when Shiraj Haque persuaded him to do some work on the Yes for Mayor referendum in May.

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