Mayor Lutfur’s decision to commit £3million of council money to paint domes, polish signs and refurbish faith-based community centres has caused a bit of a stink within the Labour party.
Many members are deeply unhappy that scarce public money is being spent to fund religious activities, particularly given some of those religious activities do not promote the kind of equality at the heart of their party’s values.
I asked them for a statement on their position on Tuesday and they sent it yesterday evening.
This is it:
Cllr Sirajul Islam, leader of the Labour group, said: “We strongly support our many faith communities and the good work that they do in supporting local people. Many organisations will have applied for this funding in good faith to continue the work that they do which strengthens our communities.
“We do not want any of our faith organisations to be stained by the grubbiness of the mayoral administration.
“There is a strong perception that this funding is being used to put pressure on people to support the Independent Mayor at the next election. It is wrong to seek to buy an election with local people’s own money.
“The Mayor does have a duty to explain to the people he is meant to serve how he has balanced these needs against the many other pressing needs in our community, as families face a lack of school places, social care budgets are squeezed, street cleaning cut and local people badly need help with getting jobs. There are many unmet needs in Tower Hamlets.
“We would not seek to reverse these decisions unless there was clear evidence of any corruption or wrongdoing.
“Labour Group have expressed our concern at the Mayor’s profligate approach to the Council’s finances and with this decision coming only days before the Conservative led Government announces further destructive cuts to the Council’s budget, we would urge the Mayor to ensure he is taking every step possible to safeguard the core services residents rely upon.
“If, however, anybody has evidence of wrongdoing or misuse of resources they should of course take this immediately to both the local audit service and the police.”
I then asked Labour’s John Biggs, who will challenge Lutfur for Mayor next year, whether “not seek to reverse these decisions” meant he would guarantee the entire £3million committed to this scheme.
This was his reply:
“It means what it says. We are committed to the decisions the mayor has made this week. We don’t give him a blank cheque. We consider each decision he makes and weigh it up against his commitments and justifications and other priorities.”
So that’s not a guarantee.
This is a tricky issue in Tower Hamlets.
In March 2008, a couple of weeks after Canon Michael Ainsworth was beaten up in the grounds of St George-in-the-East church in Shadwell, the East London Advertiser carried a front page editorial backing his call for “the council to to play its part” in improving security at the borough’s churchyards.
Lutfur was council leader at that point and while there were mumbles of “things must be done”, I don’t recall anything actually happening. Some of these historic churchyards remain vulnerable to violence and anti-social behaviour.
As Canon Michael’s call was about securing churches from violent elements in the borough, the money that he wanted used would have come from “community safety” budgets. That’s very different from paying for the running costs of churches and mosques etc.
Incredibly, £2,400 of the £15,000 Lutfur has given to the Aberfeldy mosque is for “sessional staff, management, ie Meetings, minutes, diary, letter…and £595 is for refreshment/volunteer cost/travel cost”.
So this means our council tax is being used to fund that mosque’s own salaries and expenses. Again, that’s very different from painting and decorating.
This is the danger of this policy: it creates a link between the state and religion, and in Tower Hamlets that really means between the council and Islam and the Council of Mosques. It sets a precedent for more money.
Another recipient of Lutfur’s largesse is the Shoreditch Masjid Trust in Redchurch Trust, just north of Brick Lane. It’s been awarded £25,000 to fund “improvement works”.
The Shoreditch mosque is listed as following the Deobandi tradition, which is closely linked to the Saudi Wahhabis’ outlook on life. And for a flavour of that, let’s have a look at an objection they made last night at the council’s licensing committee.
The committee was hearing an application for an alcohol licence for the small Burro e Salvia Italian deli opposite the mosque. The deli, which sells pasta, ham and cheese, and has seating for 12 people, wanted to sell wine until 7pm when it closes.
But this outraged the members of the mosque, which submitted two letters and a petition against it.
This is one of their letters:
Isn’t the language depressing? That a small, innocuous Italian deli could be accused of driving up levels of crime and racism…well, it’s the kind of argument you’d hear in Islamic republics.
And we’re giving them £25,000. Bit sickening really.