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Archive for October, 2012

A brown envelope dropped through my letter-box last week.

Its contents concerned the woman on the far right of this picture.

Her name is Murziline Parchment and she is the “Head of the Mayor’s Office” at Tower Hamlets council, a job she landed soon after Lutfur Rahman’s victory in October 2010 largely because of her connections to Ken Livingstone.

She used to be Ken’s director of “major projects and service delivery” during his time at City Hall. Andrew Gilligan has written extensively about her, for example here.

Since then she has gained a reputation at the town hall for being Lutfur’s political brains. She’s also the person who signed off those dodgy-looking invoices from her political friend Gulam Robbani.

I’ve heard mixed reviews about her. Some tell me she is very able and I’ve no doubt she’s very suited to her current politically appointed role. But I’m also told some senior council officers view her with deep suspicion, that she sees herself as the real boss of a borough that still has no formal chief executive.

So perhaps it’s a touch ironic that she once harboured ambitions of becoming Tower Hamlets’ chief executive (and maybe still does).

Well, when I say “harboured ambitions”, I underplay it slightly: she actually applied for the position after Lutfur, then the council leader, sacked Martin Smith in 2009.

Here’s the first page of the document that arrived last week.

Her CV makes for outstanding reading on paper: student union president, barrister, Ken crony at the GLA, career break, boss of Lutfur’s office…

But there’s also a rather damning assessment of interview with headhunters. It’s a comprehensive rejection, scoring 7 Cs and 3 Ds in her 10 assessment tests.

The recruitment consultants described her performance as “very unconvincing”. They said she demonstrated good administrative skills but her “responses lacked substance” and that “she tended to deal with the issues at a process level but said very little about the issues themselves”.

“The responses were all fairly basic,” the report’s summary continues. “There was little analysis and she offered no meaningful insights. She showed little awareness of the political, managerial or partnership context. There were several items where it was not clear whether she had understood what the issues were but her responses were so general that it was difficult to be certain. There were some items where she appeared to be on the right lines but she did not follow her approach through or there were aspects of the scenario that she did not address.

“In summary, this was a disappointing performance.”

The overall summary concludes: “Based on her performance at interview, Murziline showed little that convinced she was ready for this level of role. Her lack [of] operational leadership experience makes her unsuitable for the role at this stage.”

Oh dear. Maybe she’s now gained the “experience”.

I guess the question is: was Lutfur aware in 2009 she had applied for the job  (when Kevan Collins eventually secured the role)? And was he aware of the above assessment when he appointed her reportedly without any formal interview of application process to head his office in early 2011?

Are there lessons to be learned about how these pork-barrel roles are dished out in future?

Here are the links to the assessment, Murziline’s CV and her cover letter to the recruitment consultants.

(On page 4 you’ll also read that she “finds Tower Hamlets to be an exemplary borough”. I know we all say things in interviews, but… .)

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When I asked Tower Hamlets council’s press office last week to justify the £855 spent by children’s services director Isobel Cattermole and her deputy on two first class rial tickets to Manchester for a conference, the reply was: “We don’t comment on individual travel arrangements.”

The same officer then said that “open tickets are sometimes purchased to allow greater flexibility with travel times”. I then asked for the council’s staff travel policy, but was told I would need to request that under the Freedom of Information Act.

Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat and I got it via other means. As you’ll remember from the last post, it stated that standard class would only be reimbursed.

And then I broke the story. And then there was the outrage and embarrassment. Cllr Oliur Rahman, the council’s cabinet member for children’s services looked into what had happened, and today I received the following email from the council’s press office.

Hi Ted

Please see the below statement.

A council spokesperson said: “The council policy on travel expenses for its staff to attend work related events is set out clearly on page 50 of our employee handbook.  Such expenses are reimbursed at ‘the available cheap rate or ordinary return fare, whichever is the lower.’

In instances where officers incur expenses in excess of the lowest available fare, they are duty bound to reimburse the council the outstanding balance.  This is exactly what has happened in the instance of the two officers cited in the Sunday Express report.

Mayor Lutfur Rahman added: “If Brandon Lewis is really concerned about protecting council budgets in order to help poorer communities he could use his opportunity at the Tory conference to oppose its plans for a further £10 billion of welfare cuts.”

So the council is now commenting on an individual’s travel arrangements, and it seems Isobel Cattermole and her deputy have been told to reimburse the difference. But when? I’ve asked the council to state the date, but I’ve heard nothing.

You see, the thing is, these tickets were bought not by Ms Cattermole, but by an official in the chief executive’s office on a corporate credit card. That spending would have been signed off by either Ms Cattermole herself, or by someone under her, and then paid by the town hall’s finance team – a team headed up by the director of finance, Chris Naylor….who I’m told has just landed a job as the top officer at Barnet Council.

Through this one transaction, we see the incompetence throughout the council.

1. Officers think it’s OK to spend £855 of our money on two luxury rail tickets.

2. They think no one will notice.

3. The press office thinks it can bury its head in the sand by telling journalists it won’t comment, but then U-turning.

4. And then they think they can play with words to imply the money had always been reimbursed…(contrary to the original FoI answer).

They really do think we’re fools, these people who run our council.

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Another Freedom of Information request to Tower Hamlets council hits the mark. Mind you, it’s not difficult.

In the Sunday Express today: (the FoI disclosures are here and here).

BRITAIN’S most impoverished council spent £855 on a pair of first class rail tickets for two officials to attend a conference a couple of hours away.

Tower Hamlets Council in east London bought the tickets for children’s services director, Isobel Cattermole, and her deputy Ann Canning to travel to Manchester last July.

They attended the annual conference of the Association of Directors for Children’s Services, a two-hour train journey from London’s Euston station that normally costs £72 for a standard off-peak return.

However, the directors, who both earn around £116,000 a year, were given first class open returns on Virgin Rail, the most expensive tickets available, costing £427.50 each.

The spending, described by a minister as “disgraceful”, would have bought two return airfares from London to New York, with change to spare.

Tower Hamlets is the poorest borough in Britain where more than half of all secondary pupils receive free school meals.

When asked to justify the spending, the council said: “Open tickets are sometimes purchased to allow officers greater flexibility with travel times, where conferences finish early/late, or officers need to leave early due to unforeseen circumstances.”

However, conference organisers told the Sunday Express the conference began at 1.45pm on a Thursday and finished mid-afternoon the next day, both times allowing standard off-peak travel.

The council’s press office refused to disclose its policies for staff travel, saying it needed a request under the Freedom of Information Act, but a leaked document confirms officers are required to travel by standard class.

“Travelling expenses will be reimbursed at the available cheap rate or ordinary return fare, whichever is the lower,” the policy states.

Last night, Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis waded into the row.

He said: “It is disgraceful that the poorest borough in the country has such a reckless attitude to spending taxpayers cash. This kind of wild spending is all too typical of left wing councils who have a casual attitude to the public purse”

Roberty Oxley, of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, described the spending as “incredible”, adding: “The rest of us could have flown half way round the world for that much money.

“It certainly appears that taxpayer value for money has taken a back seat to the directors’ desire for extra convenience and comfort.”

The council insists Whitehall spending cuts are causing so much hardship that the town hall is being forced to sell off the family silver.

Last week, its executive mayor, Lutfur Rahman, who hires a chauffeured Mercedes at a rate of £70 a day, announced a sale of the borough’s famous Henry Moore sculpture, the Draped Seated Woman, which is worth about £20million to plug a claimed £100million funding gap.

I think if I were a councillor, I’d be asking who requested this ticket, who authorised it, how many more are there, what trains these two actually took and what on earth was going through Ms Cattermole’s mind as she sat down in first class.

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