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Archive for November, 2012

Just a couple of months after I highlighted some quite worrying discrepancies on the invoices submitted by Gulam Robbani during his time as an adviser to Lutfur Rahman, it looks like there are questions surrounding another of his colleagues.

The invoices emanate from the weird and wonderful world of Lutfur’s rapidly expanding mayoral office. This is where that merry band of male-dominated mayoral advisers lives under the watchful gaze of Murziline Parchment, the chief of staff with an impeccable eye for detail.

One of those little foresters is Mohammed Jubair. He’s been mentioned before on this blog because when he’s not imparting his great wisdom onto the lesser qualified press officers (and Takki Sulaiman) at the Town Hall, he acts as chief reporter for Channel S television station which is run by a convicted fraudster.

But what actually is his job? On January 31 this year, John Williams, the council’s head of democratic services, emailed Tory leader Peter Golds with a list of mayoral advisers. I reported that list on this blog here a fortnight later. Here’s what John wrote in January about Jubair’s role:

Mohammed Jubair – Advisor on community media matters for one day per week at a cost of £175 per day

Remember that: one day a week. That’s £9,100 a year for 52 weeks.

Let’s have a look at the invoices Jubair has been submitting. They’ve been released under a Freedom of Information request to the Tories and relate to the period from June 2011 until February 3, 2012.

The total of these invoices is £18,550. That’s 106 days at £175 per day over an eight month period. That’s a little more than “one day per week”.

There are a couple of points to make about this.

1. What contract was Jubair on during this period? In January 2012, the following advert appeared on the Londontenders website seeking two mayoral advisers:

Description: Advisory Service to the Mayor in the following areas broken into two lots:

Lot 1 – Communities’ Communication and Media

Lot 2 – Communities and Public Policy

The anticipated contract start date is 6th February 2012. The contracts will be for a maximum period of up to 30th April 2014 but may be renewed on a periodical basis.

The Council is looking for one provider per lot and anticipates a maximum annual budget of £30,000 per lot.

The anticipated contract start date is: 6th February 2012

The estimated value of the contract is:

£60,000 per annum for both lots.

Deadline for expression of interest and return of quotation is:

Friday  20th January 2012

The supporting documents for the tender gave the following job description for the communications role:

Lot 1: Communities’ Communication and Media

  • Advising the Mayor and Cabinet members on community media matters.
  • Advising the Mayor on effective integration of community media matters with all media workstreams.
  • Advising the Mayor on effective use of, exposure to and management of community media.
  • Keeping the Mayor and Cabinet members updated on all aspects of community media matters.
So, when John Williams emailed Cllr Golds on January 31, it seems he couldn’t have been referring to this new contract because a budget of £30,000 a year is clearly more than one day a week. The Londontenders website has no details of any earlier 2011 contract.
If John’s email to Peter is accurate, Jubair was over-invoicing and there are questions that need answering. Of course, the email may have been wrong and Jubair’s invoicing may have been legitimate. Either way, the matter needs investigating.
2. Under the Government’s transparency agenda, the council is required to detail all payments to suppliers over £500. But during the period June 2011-February 2012, I could only find three payments to Jubair from the Mayor’s office: two on October 7, 2011, for £525 and £700; and one on December 5 for £525. This is curious. If the invoices were rejected, the payments wouldn’t have been made, of course. Again, this needs investigating.

And thanks to Jubair’s invoices, we now have a much clearer idea of what Lutfur and Parchment meant by the word “communities” in their job advert.

Silly old me thought that because “communities” was in the plural, he’d be working for more than one community. But every single item on his invoices relates to the Bengali media only. No favours have been done for the Somali or Chinese communities, nor for the various east European communities in Tower Hamlets.

And he has arranged nothing for the mainstream media, such as the national press or the East London Advertiser, or The Wharf.

Unless I’ve missed it, I can’t see any other “mayoral adviser” hired to deal with other media at such a detailed level.

Which shows us exactly where Lutfur’s priorities lie in his supposed desire to create this One Tower Hamlets.

He’s using public money to direct it at one section of our community only. I’d have thought that divisive — and discriminatory. Perhaps that needs investigating as well.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission may have something to say about this. After all, its predecessor, the Commission for Racial Equality, criticised the council a few years ago for holding special press briefings exclusively for the Bengali press.

Oh, and one last thing. When you’re a £30,000 a year “communications adviser”, you should really be able to spell the word ‘English’ correctly….

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Robin de Peyer of the East London Advertiser reports:

Plans to remove the electoral ward of Banglatown from Tower Hamlets have been slammed as “an attack on Bangladeshis” by Mayor Lutfur Rahman, who has threatened legal action to block them.

The Boundary Commission unveiled its draft proposals for a reduction in the number of councillors sitting in the Town Hall last week, adopting recommendations from Tower Hamlets council’s Conservative group to remove “Banglatown” from the title of the Spitalfields and Banglatown ward.

The proposals have been met with fierce opposition, from councillors from the independent mayor’s cabinet and Tower Hamlets Labour group.

Ward councillor for Spitalfields and Banglatown Gulam Robbani said: “Generations of the Bangladeshi community have historically settled and started businesses in the Brick Lane and Banglatown area.

“This Tory proposal is a smack in the face for thousands of Bangladeshis and non-Bangladeshis who have struggled and sacrificed to have Banglatown recognised in the map of Tower Hamlets.”

Mayor Rahman added that the council would consider a legal challenge to ensure the name is retained.

“Let me be absolutely clear; this decision to adopt a Conservative proposal is a disgrace,” he said.

“This is an attack on Bangladeshis, not only in this country but across the world, and I will do everything I can to retain the name Banglatown.”

Labour has also urged the Commission to drop the plans, insisting the name is an important symbol for the East End’s Bangladeshi community.

However, Conservative group leader cllr Peter Golds accused Mayor Rahman of “playing the race card”, and said that the Bangladeshi community is spread across the borough.

He added: “There will always be Banglatown on a map, but why should it be included in a local government ward name?

“There is no government ward in country that specifies a community. This is an abolsutely typical attempt to paint opponents as racist.”

Sigh.

How utterly depressing. The Tories suggestion to drop the Banglatown name is one of the poorest political moves I’ve seen in Tower Hamlets for quite some time.

To allow the egregious Gulam Robbani the chance to whip up more division and fuel the “great white plot” conspiracy theories that Lutfur Rahman used successfully in his 2010 election campaign is nothing less than stupid.

Here’s the somewhat hysterical press release the “One Tower Hamlets” mayor put out this week:

Mayor considers all options to save Banglatown
 
Lutfur Rahman, Mayor of Tower Hamlets reassured the Bangladeshi community across the country that all options are being considered including a legal challenge, if necessary, of the Boundary Commission’s proposed decision to drop Banglatown from the ward name Spitalfields and Banglatown.
 
A national outcry has ensued in the Bangladeshi community since the Commission’s proposal came to light last week.
 
Speaking to the waiting media on Brick Lane, in the heart of Banglatown, Mayor Rahman said:
 
“I have written to the Director of Boundary Commission with my objections; protesting in the strongest possible way and asking them to reverse their decision.
 
“Let me be absolutely clear. This decision to adopt a Conservative proposal is a disgrace. Banglatown is the spiritual home of Bangladeshis outside of Bangladesh.
 
“This is an attack on Bangladeshis, not only in this country but across the world, and I will do everything I can to retain the name Banglatown.”
 
Ward Cllr. Gulam Robbani, leading the Save Banglatown Campaign on behalf of the Mayor said:
 
“I urge everyone to sign the Save Banglatown petition, email or write to the Boundary Commission to show your disgust at this proposal, together we can reverse this decision.”
A “national outcry”? An “attack on Bangladeshis across the world”? Not among the Bengalis I know. They have more pressing concerns, for example wondering why Lutfur, who throws around grants to his friends in small community groups, seems to have cut down so heavily on road-sweeping services that dog dirt lies on pavements for fortnights at a time.
That said, the Tories need to lance this little boil – and quickly. Lutfur’s crew have started a petition to “Save Banglatown”. It’s great that we have a name which celebrates Bangladeshi culture in the borough.
A few years ago, Labour’s Abdal Ullah tried to get Shoreditch High Street station renamed Banglatown. He failed but he raised his profile politically and in that regard it was a clever move.
The Tories should admit it was a mistake, that they have listened, and call for the Boundary Commission to drop the idea.

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Tower Hamlets has a history of controversial stickers appearing in various public places.

I saw this one on a Boris Bike docking station in Southern Grove, Mile End, last week.

Discuss.

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A lot has been written about the forthcoming sale of the Henry Moore sculpture, the Draped Seated Woman, or Old Flo as it is better known, but a crucial element has also been missed.

At tonight’s Tower Hamlets council cabinet, Mayor Lutfur Rahman overruled the concerns of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee and confirmed his decision to sell the bronze.

Of course, he made the oh-so-sincere noises about it wrenching his heart – but that the Coalition cuts gave him no choice.

There are two aspects to this.

During his mayoral election campaign of 2010, Lutfur produced leaflets saying he was the Great Saviour of East End Heritage. In reality, these leaflets, detailing his apparent one man campaign to save Bancroft History Library in 2008, were aimed at the white working class voters (as they are termed in the divisive world of Tower Hamlets politics); they were a direct counter to the accusations that he cared only about the Bengali community or the East London Mosque influenced vote. (I wrote about the history revisionism here.)

So his love of heritage stretches only so far, it seems. Those who applauded his boasts about Bancroft might now want to engage in their own revisionism.

However, that’s not really the main point. Lutfur’s love of heritage is nothing compared with his love of power. In May 2014, he will be seeking four more years.

As an independent, that’s a tricky proposition, especially as financial backers such as the millionaire housing association tenant Shiraj Haque are apparently now unhappy with their man.

However, when you’re in power you have access to far larger funds than those offered by the likes of Haque: our tax money.

You see, away from most prying eyes, Lutfur has recently embarked on a massive vote-buying programme with hundreds of small community groups and mosques as his targets. At October’s cabinet some £6million was set aside for the mainstream grants programme, which he almost alone controls, until 2015. I warned about his takeover of this grants programme last June, here.

At the October meeting, the cabinet tried to discuss the final grant allocations. However, because so many of the councillors were personally linked to the winning groups, half of the cabinet was ordered to leave the room.

I and a few others are going through the allocations and quite frankly it stinks. More will be published on this in due course (feel free to email or leave comments on the blog if you have further information by the way).

And one other important issue was discussed at that October meeting: Lutfur proposed to set aside another £2million for a three-year “Community Faith Building Support Scheme”. What this, you may ask? Well, it’s a lot of money that he wants to spend refurbishing the borough’s “faith buildings”.

Every faith building will be eligible to apply, but the big heritage churches needn’t bother; they have access to funds from elsewhere. No, the bulk of it is for the small mosques and community centres that occupy former shops all over the borough.

I’m extremely wary of state money being used for these purposes, but I can also see the potential for good if the funds are used to broaden the appeal of these community centres. Far too often they are inward looking and male dominated.

However, that’s for a separate discussion.

The point is that these two grants programmes are designed politically to secure support for Lutfur. If he generates 500 votes from from say 50 community centres/groups, that’s 25,000 votes in total. That will deliver him Mulberry Place once more.

So, it’s easy to understand why he is so keen to sell off Old Flo. He needs the money.

[By the way, for what it's worth, here are my thoughts on Old Flo. I've never seen it, I have no emotional attachment to it at all. It's been up in Yorkshire since 1997 and as long as some people actually do see it, then fine.

Personally, if some solution could be found to bring it to Tower Hamlets, I think that would be great. I know that Morpeth School in Bethnal Green offered it a home. I think that would have been wonderful.

However, I have little sympathy with the demands of Danny Boyle and others to place it for free in the Olympic Park. If the Olympic Park wants it, let them pay us for it. They took the Olympic marathon away from us, remember... .

If there are no covenants attached to the sculpture, then I don't see why the council should not sell and raise some money. I just hope the money is spent wisely.]

And if anyone is wondering what the heck all this Old Flo business is, I recommend reading this piece in last Sunday’s Observer by Stepney’s brilliant architecture critic Rowan Moore.

Here’s a sample:

The work is Henry Moore‘s Draped Seated Woman, and the proposal is to sell it to the highest bidder, to fill some of the gap, they say, made by government spending cuts. Councillor Shahed Ali, one of Rahman’s cabinet members, told the BBC that “we’d love to keep it in the borough”, but it is “uninsurable”, at a time when large bronzes like this are sometimes stolen for their scrap value.

The proposal has aroused the fury of, among others, Henry Moore’s daughter Mary, the local MP Rushanara Ali, and Danny Boyle, hero of the Olympic opening ceremony. In a letter to the Observer today, they write that it “goes against the spirit” of Henry Moore, who sold it to London County Council at a price – £6,000 – far below its then market value. It demonstrated the “belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality”.

Moore, they say, was “delighted” that it was installed as the centrepiece of the Stifford estate, a group of tower blocks in Stepney. Boyle says that “it represents everything I believe in”. He and his fellow objectors are right: Draped Seated Woman fulfils an ideal that nothing was too good for ordinary people, an ideal that modern local politicians are in danger of losing. To sell the sculpture as if it were a piece of real estate would be, according to Rushanara Ali, “a betrayal of working class heritage”. It would also betray Moore’s generosity. It would raise the question why anyone should ever want to offer anything to a local authority again.

The piece itself, which acquired the nickname Old Flo, is noble and touching. It is 3 metres high and weighs 1.6 tonnes, but there is still a lightness with which the figure of the woman sits on a low plinth, delicacy in the fall of drapery on her body, and a springy alertness in her pose. It is beautifully made. Placed amid tower blocks, it was a rare moment of quality, a sign that someone cared. It was also accessible – children could play on and around it, and residents could see it from their kitchens. No doubt it was inscrutable to some, and uninteresting to others, but as long as it was there it created the possibility that some might be inspired, intrigued, or provoked into seeing the world in a different way.

It sat on the Stifford until 1997, when the estate was demolished and the sculpture was moved to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, allegedly temporarily. It has remained there ever since, while plans have come and gone to, for example, relocate it to Canary Wharf. Lutfur Rahman has tried to sell it once before, when he was leader of the council, but was stopped. Now, with the greater powers of an elected mayor, he is trying again.

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My last post about Murziline Parchment’s failed application to become Tower Hamlets chief executive has caused a bit of a fuss at the town hall, I’m told.

What Murziline herself thinks, I don’t know.

Prior to publication, I wrote to her to say I intended to publish details of her application. I invited her to discuss them with me but she simply passed on my email to the press office, which, surprisingly, made no attempt to talk about the story or find out what details I had. Instead, communications head Takki Sulaiman emailed me to say employment details were “private and confidential” so there would be no comment.

This “private and confidential” line is interesting. The council owes a duty of confidentiality to Ms Parchment and it has now ordered an investigation into how her details were leaked to me. Apparently, only a handful of senior officers and five councillors had access to the application, but I’m also told there had recently been a clear-out of some files during an office move, when someone else might have spotted the report lying around.

I’d been told that the council was trying to fine a way of “getting me” but for nine days after I published the documents, no one from town hall made any contact. But then, last Friday, the council’s legal department sent me an email.

The department, which is headed by the fine Isabella Freeman, usually marks all correspondence (and even responses to members’ enquiries) as “private and confidential”. But the letter to me contains so such marking and as such I’m going to publish it.

Frankly, the letter a bit weak. It accuses me of “poor journalistic standards” and of breaching the Editor’s Code of Conduct, citing paragraph 3.1 which states “everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications”.

It also cites item 10, which states that “the press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by…the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or digitally-held private information without consent”.

On item 10, I didn’t seek anything. As I said in the original post, the documents were posted to me and they arrived as a complete surprise.

I then removed all Ms Parchment’s personal contact details from the report and published only professional matters. Remember, she was handed her current (powerful) role as head of the mayor’s office without any formal and usual recruitment process. Remember, too, that her work now forms part of a fraud investigation examining the invoices she signed off for Gulam Robbani.

As chief executive of Tower Hamlets, she would have been “head of paid service” and been responsible for signing off far more invoices. Perhaps the interview assessors in 2009 did us a good public service. I wonder what they would have written had she been before them for her current role, one which is new and evolving under her own direction.

The council makes three further points in its letter to me. It says that my publication of the headhunters’ report “may cause distress to Ms Parchment”. Note: “may”, not “has”. Again, Ms Parchment has made no attempt to contact me.

The council says the publication “may also affect the confidence of individuals who might apply for roles in the council”. If that’s the case, the council needs to demonstrate it can keep confidential information confidential. That means strengthening its processes, I suspect. I’m glad to have been of service.

And finally, the council “requires” I remove the documents because I do not own the “intellectual property rights in the report”. It says those rights remain with the council and the headhunters, Green Park.

In that paragraph, the council reveals its desperation. However, it’s an interesting argument and for that reason, I’d like to open it up for wider discussion before making a final decision.

Here’s the council’s legal letter.

 

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