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There was a little bit about this in the press this week, but I was expecting more.

Let’s stress at the outset that the timing of the Electoral Commission’s decision to publish its report on vote fraud three days ago, given the Tower Hamlets election trial is due to start on Monday, was purely coincidental.

But because it honed in on the issue of potential fraud in British Bangladeshi communities, it made for particularly interesting reading.

Here’s the press release issued by the Commission:

The Electoral Commission has today laid out what is being done to prevent electoral fraud ahead of the May elections, including work by Returning Officers, the police and Crimestoppers.

The watchdog has also published two research reports – by NatCen and academics at the universities of Manchester and Liverpool – and a briefing paper on electoral fraud, fulfilling a commitment it made as part of its review of electoral fraud last year.

During this review the Commission heard anecdotal evidence and views that raised questions about whether fraud was more likely to be committed by, or in support of, candidates standing for election in areas which are largely or predominantly populated by people from British Pakistani or British Bangladeshi communities.

This raised concerns about whether people in these communities were able effectively to exercise their right to vote and participate in elections on the same basis as other voters in the UK. As a result, the watchdog commissioned further research with members of the public and political activists in eight demographically similar areas; four with histories of allegations or actual instances of fraud and four without.

Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission, said: “Proven cases of electoral fraud remain rare, but it is important that no-one underestimates how serious it is when it does occur. We have long known that, when fraud is committed, candidates and campaigners are the most likely offenders and voters are the victims. The research we have published today confirms this.

“The research also provides a useful insight into some of the particular issues faced by voters in some British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi communities, and how these can be tackled. Although clear plans are in place to prevent and detect fraud ahead of the elections, there is also a challenge to campaigners. They must ensure their behaviour builds trust with all voters, and all those involved in elections must make it a priority to communicate what is and what is not acceptable behaviour at election time.

“As we approach the election, it’s important that anyone who has evidence of electoral fraud reports it to the police in their area, or, if they want to do so anonymously, contact Crimestoppers.”

What the research shows

A summary of the research findings is below, but further details are available in the briefing note or in the reports themselves.

Strong community networks provide valuable support to people, but they may also be vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous campaigners.

There can be low levels of public awareness about what is acceptable campaigning activity and what is electoral fraud.

Voters in some British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi communities can be unsure where to report concerns about electoral fraud.

Low levels of literacy or a lack of English skills can exacerbate electoral fraud vulnerabilities.

Reduced activity by political parties in some areas, together with a reliance on kinship networks or those perceived to be “community leaders”, may also exacerbate vulnerabilities by focusing on winning the support of voters as a single group rather than as individuals.

The Commission has also set out today how it is working with the police and local authorities to support their plans to prevent and detect fraud ahead of the May elections. Further details of these actions can be found in the attached briefing note.

Action ahead of the May 2015 elections

The Commission, Police, Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers have different roles in relation to electoral fraud but are working together to ensure robust prevention and detection plans are in place ahead of the May elections. This package of measures includes:

Guidance on electoral fraud for police forces – this was published in November by the College of Policing, with support from the Commission.

Partnership with Crimestoppers – The Commission is working with Crimestoppers to make sure that, although the police should be the first point of contact to ensure concerns about electoral fraud are swiftly investigated, if people are worried about revealing their identity, they can contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. A translation service is available for those whose first language is not English.

A national seminar for specialist police officers – the Commission will join specialist police officers in February to help them prepare ahead of the elections, and exchange knowledge and strategies.

The Code of Conduct for Campaigners – The Commission will be making campaigners / parties aware that they must follow this agreed code.

Materials for police and local authorities – The Commission is making these available in a variety of languages for police and local authorities to use to let voters know what electoral fraud is, how to report it, and what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable campaigning.

Monitoring postal voting during and after the May 2015 elections, to identify whether there is scope to further improve security processes.

Longer term work

Some issues raised in the research are already being looked at by the Commission:

Voter ID –We recommended in January 2014 that there should be a requirement for electors across Great Britain to present an acceptable form of identification prior to voting at the polling station by no later than the 2019 European and English local government elections. We are currently considering how to develop a proportionate and accessible scheme for verifying the identity of electors at polling stations, and expect to publish our detailed proposals by the end of 2015.

Postal voting – New security measures for postal voting were introduced for elections in 2006, and voters now need to give ‘personal identifiers’ (their signature and date of birth) when applying for and casting their postal ballot. In addition, the introduction of individual electoral registration (IER) in Great Britain in 2014 further limits the scope for fraud in the postal voting process. Under the new system voters need to have their identity verified by providing a date of birth and a national insurance number. IER therefore makes it much harder to create fictitious electoral register entries, which could be used to commit postal voting fraud. The Commission is continuing to monitor campaigner behaviour and has not ruled out the need for the law to be changed to make it an offence for campaigners to handle any postal voting materials.

But this press release omits many other solutions proposed by the academics. Let’s hope they’re won’t be ignored.

The research was carried out by four academics from Liverpool and Manchester universities. Entitled ‘Understanding electoral fraud vulnerability in Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin communities in England’, the report was based on 37 interviews with community and political activists in eight local authorities where there was a high concentration of voters from those groups.

It’s not clear whether Tower Hamlets was one, although it’d be surprising if it wasn’t.

One of the main issues they found was the existence of influential kinship networks that can help deliver what some call bloc votes, ie ” male elders” calling the shots, telling family members how to vote. In essence, the researchers blamed political parties and activists for exploiting these rather than placing too much fault on the voters themselves.

They also said these closed networks often result in the selection of poor political candidates, ie the elders choose puppets in their circles who then get the bloc vote.

“These networks tend to be…hierarchal and patriarchal, which may undermine the principle of voters’ individual and free choice through a range of social pressures such as respect for the decision of elders at its mildews extreme, through to undue influence where in some instances access to individual ballots of women and adult children can be refused by elders,” the academics note.

The report is 55 pages long, but its executive summary and its conclusions are particularly interesting.

Although Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission, says in her quotes above that proven cases of fraud are rare, the academics suggested the actual level of fraud might well be under-reported – in part because those defrauded may not know they have been.

They write: “In some areas where fraud allegations have not been raised, the local activists do not feel they receive enough support to combat fraud, especially from the police and local political parties.”

However, they suggest there is hope. They think the elders through generational change will lose their influence and that younger people are “reported to be resisting the influence of their kinship networks”.

Fast forward to p44 of the academics’ report here and you see a raft of proposed solutions.

For example, on voter registartion (which applies all voters of course):

..our first recommendation is for a system of automatic voter registration (or at least an opt-out system) where at point of contact with NHS, and/or any government service, the individual is prompted to register/asked to opt out.

And there are others which didn’t merit a mention in the Electoral Commission press release, and which may or may not have relevance to Tower Hamlets and the impending trial next week. I’ve italicised those I found more interesting.

  • Stricter and more transparent guidelines to political parties and candidates on postal vote handling as the Electoral Commission has already proposed
  • The information whether a person has a postal vote should be included in the secrecy of voting – ie activists and parties should not be allowed to collect this information;
  • Tightening the rules on voting at polling stations by increasing the radius safe from political pressure, enforcing the law already specifying that the tellers must not be present in the polling station.
  • Introducing some form of identification to cast a vote.
  • To compensate for the increased difficulty of voting, new registration laws should be introduced to either automatically enrol voters, for example via other points of contact with the state, or create an opt-out system.
  • Given the weakness of parties as inclusive agents for political participation, the government and local government must fund more direct voter information, registration and turnout efforts at the individual voters in these communities.
  • Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers should receive greater and ring-fenced funding in areas where additional needs are present to deal with severe under-registration, lack of knowledge of eligibility or poor English language skills.

The academics hope the following cultural changes should take place:

  • Political parties should take a greater responsibility for not accepting the bloc vote delivered or promised by community leaders
  • Political parties should aim to strengthen their support for diversity of elected representatives. Widening access to standing for elected office to all minority groups, regardless of whether the candidate’s ethnicity matches those of voters, should be one of the parties’ main objectives.
  • Both parties and communities should strongly encourage women of all ethnicities to participate more in politics, including making this participation easier for women and more relevant to their daily lives.

I suspect Richard Mawrey QC, who is due to preside over the Election Court at the Royal Courts of Justice from Monday, will have read this report with some interest.

Apologies for the lack of posts: I’ve been settling into a new job.

It’s full council tomorrow night and it’s likely that the two commissioners, Sir Ken Knight and Max Caller will be there for a bit of midweek comedy. I’m sure everyone will try to be on their best behaviour but at some point councillors are bound to visit the playground.

One subject which might provoke a reaction is Rich Mix, which is based in what traditionalists call Bethnal Green but which is increasingly known (incorrectly) as Shoreditch.

Rich Mix opened as a £26m arts and cinema centre in 2006 with a specific remit to tap into artistic interests in the Bengali community. From memory, I think it launched with a working display by an artist from Dhaka who was assembling an old car in full view of the public. Art can be a bit like that..

Rich Mix relied on various strands of public funding, including from Tower Hamlets council and the Arts Council. It was very much a Labour project, driven by the likes of Oona King, Michael Keith and Denise Jones…and a certain Mayor of London Ken Livingstone.

One of the early board members in fact was a certain Lutfur Rahman when he was cabinet member for culture under Denise. I don’t remember and I can’t find any record of him ever opposing or being critical of the project back then.

I did. The place was a management disaster in its early days. Its business plan was flimsy and it had bosses who loved spending other people’s money.

In fact Rich Mix was the subject of one of my early posts on this blog in 2010 when I quoted an article I’d written for the East London Advertiser in January 2006 about the initial teething problems.

It’s worth reading that piece from nine years ago again because it provides some background for a row that I think will feature tomorrow.

Here’s what I wrote in 2006:

SERIOUS concerns have been raised about the financial viability of a major new national arts centre that is due to open in the East End later this year.

The Advertiser has obtained a secret report revealing that the Rich Mix Cultural Centre, which is being built in Bethnal Green Road, needs extra taxpayers’ help to meet soaring costs. Tower Hamlets councillors have been asked to top up loans to the project and some are now deeply worried the borough’s £3.5m investment in the £26m centre is at risk.

They are angry that costs have spiralled and are concerned more money is being sucked into what could become a huge white elephant draining the public purse for years to come. One councillor has branded the project ‘scandalous’ and a ‘bottomless pit with no proper business plan’. But his claims have been angrily rejected by the centre’s bosses.

The prestigious arts complex, whose board members include former Bethnal Green and Bow MP Oona King, is seen as crucial for the regeneration of the deprived area around Brick Lane. Concentrating on ethnic cultural projects, it will house BBC London, a three-screen cinema, art galleries, a Sunday market place and music and dance studios.

Ms King dubbed it the East End’s ‘very own Tate Modern’ and it is Mayor Ken Livingstone’s flagship arts project.

With most of the six-storey structure completed, designers are currently working on the internal fittings with the centre due to open in the spring. However, the project, run by the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation and funded by backers including Tower Hamlets council, the Arts Council, the London Development Agency and the Millennium Commission, has been dogged by delays and cash problems.

A new management team was put in place last year and since then cost controls have improved markedly, but some councillors still fear a future financial crisis.

It is expected that by the time the centre opens, Tower Hamlets taxpayers will have paid into it some £3.6m. The council has also pledged a further £300,000 to contribute towards the annual £4.6m running costs in the first three years of operation.

Bosses at the centre are currently trying to attract sponsors but if crucial income from the centre’s cinemas fails to materialise, a council loan of £850,000 could be at risk.

In a confidential report for last week’s council cabinet meeting, Chris Holme, head of resources, wrote: “It will take robust cost and income management to prevent the centre falling into deficit on an annual basis.

“Failure to generate levels of income identified will have a significant impact on the sustainability of the centre.”

However, Lib Dem councillor John Griffiths said: “The whole thing makes me want to cry. Because the foundation itself is the accountable body for the project, there’s no proper scrutiny of the spending. They keep coming back to us asking for more money, but I’m really worried we’re walking right into a debt trap here.”

But Nick Kilby, chief operating officer for the centre, described the councillor’s remarks as political posturing. “There are no substance to them at all. This is a well-run project, costs aren’t out of control and there is no crisis. This is a terrifically exciting project and we look forward to persuading the councillor how it will benefit the East End.”

I’ve changed my mind about Rich Mix.

I suppose it was inevitable that such a politically driven project would become a political football but there does seem to be something spiteful and illogical in the way that Lutfur’s administration appears to be hounding the organisation to a point where closure is a real risk.

For the past four years, the council has been pursuing legal action (at an undisclosed cost: maybe we’ll be told tomorrow night how much) to try and force Rich Mix to repay that initial £850,000 loan. In that legal process Rich Mix argued it was in fact owed another £1.6million by the council as part of an agreed s106 planning gain fee from a nearby development.

The parties went to court and a judge ruled partly in favour of the council late last year on what some might say was a technicality. Because the wording of the s106 agreement deal was so vague, it was unenforceable.

The upshot is that Rich Mix has offered to repay the £850k in instalments. For whatever reason, Lutfur has demanded it be repaid in one go.

The East End Review, an offshoot of the Hackney Citizen, wrote a decent piece about the issue here.

That article was based on an interview with Rich Mix’s chief executive Jane Earl. Jane is a former chief executive of Wokingham Borough Council who has strong views on good governance. She’s the reason I’ve changed my mind about Rich Mix (and I’d have her as one of the Tower Hamlets commissioners).

She’s made Rich Mix sensible, popular and relevant.

The area has changed massively and maybe this part of the problem. As I said, it’s no longer regarded as the old Bethnal Green; this is now hipster country and it will eventually spread into the southern stretches of Brick Lane. Maybe it’s better to embrace and accept than be a bunch of King Cnuts.

Here’s one event that’s worth seeing next month, for example.

Rich Mix

Perhaps Lutfur should attend.

Or perhaps his “cabinet member for culture”, Cllr Shafiqul Haque (another former Rich Mix director when he served under Denise), should go. He’s paid an extra £13k a year on top of his £10k a year basic allowance for doing that job.

But apart from pocketing his cash and posing in the odd photo looking at a book, I have absolutely no idea what he does or what he’s done. I can’t wait to see him explain that tomorrow.

Culture? What culture? Is there actually a council culture strategy?

Here’s a thought for the council: get Rich Mix to write one for the borough. I bet they could easily do it for £850k… .

Happy New Year to everyone. May it bring harmony, peace and joyous ringing of bells throughout the borough!

I wrote on December 11 that Cllr Shahed Ali, Lutfur Rahman’s cabinet member for street cleaning and waste management (I always think of Tony Soprano when I hear that term), had been arrested for alleged vote fraud in Tower Hamlets.

The Met Police had arrested him at his home address early in the morning and told him he was being investigated for “multiple voting”. He was released on bail until a date this month.

Scotland Yard has now confirmed that Shahed will face no further action. They have investigated the complaints and his explanations and Shahed has no more questions to answer.

As for what actually happened, that remains a mystery: it’s not clear whether the police are continuing their investigations.

It’s a fact that Shahed was registered at two separate addresses; it’s also a fact that two votes registered to him were used.

But remember, he is completely innocent.

He is now able to get on with his job in a cabinet whose members are beginning to complain among themselves about being toothless puppets for Lutfur’s executive office.

And I understand that it’s not just Lutfur’s cabinet members who are wondering what their jobs are (note that although they complain, they’re still happy to pocket their £12k a year extra ‘special responsibility allowances’). His backbench ‘Tower Hamlets First’ councillors, who include the likes of Abjol Miah, are also grumbling.

During Lutfur’s last administration, he did not hold a single group meeting with his team of councillors. This was all explained away by arguing they weren’t really a group, but merely a collection of like-minded independents.

However, since May they’ve been an official group (thus collecting the public money that flies their way). Yet, I’m told, despite promises by Lutfur to hold them, there still hasn’t been any group meetings.

Perhaps Lutfur has been too busy. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t rate many of his councillors that much. Either way, they’re not the actions of a mayor who’s trying to address doubts about governance.

His next big meeting is cabinet on Wednesday evening when one of the major issues up for ‘discussion’ is a new 16-year waste management contract, which is currently run by Veolia.

A public tender will soon go out for a 16-year deal worth £26million a year in total, i.e. £416million over the life of the deal.

On Wednesday, Lutfur’s cabinet will have to agree the principles of what to ask for in the tender. It seems that officers are recommending any new contractor “provides their own depot” for the dust-bin lorries. You can view the cabinet paper here.

Currently, the lorries operate from a council owned depot in the borough, but the town hall is proposing to withdraw any publicly owned property for that use because it’s all being earmarked for housing development.

The likely consequence of this that any new contractor will have to drive trucks in every day from outside the borough. So if they drive in from Rainham, for example, where there are large depots, they are sure to get caught up in the horrendous westbound morning traffic on the A13.

And that of course will mean delays, missed collections and higher costs.

Surely there’s a brownfield site that can be laid aside instead of reserving it for what would amount to 20 or so ‘affordable’ 2-bed flats.

The question is: should housing considerations trump all others?

Which brings me to a press release issued by Tory Canary Wharf councillor Andrew Wood over the Christmas period.

It concerns the site of the old City Pride pub on the corner of Marsh Wall and Westferry Road in Canary Wharf. In 2008, it became one of the most expensive pubs in the world when it was valued at £32million.

It was demolished a few years ago and in October 2013, developers secured planning consent for a 75-storey skyscraper. It would be the UK’s second tallest residential building and house 984 luxury apartments.

For they will all be luxury flats. The council seems prepared to accept that it just won’t do to have any affordable housing there; instead, they want the developer to build flats for the cleaners and other unworthy plebs well away from their building.

Not only that, the council says this skyscraper is so important (it will earn the borough up to £10million in s106 planning gain payments) that any existing resident in that area who complains about loss of light can simply forget it.

From the council’s cabinet papers, the developers have complained that a number of pesky neighbours have threatened an injunction against their project on the grounds that it would affect their lawful “right to light”.

Under the law, only a local authority can over-ride someone’s human right to light.

So the council has stepped in to help. It is proposing to acquire the property rights from the developer, then over-ride residents’ right to light, and then transfer the property rights back to the developer.

It seems pretty cynical, to say the least.

We’ll find out on Wednesday whether Lutfur thinks this is worthy use of these powers.

 

Here’s Cllr Wood’s press release:

Mayor Lutfur Rahman to acquire the property rights to the 2nd tallest residential building in the UK in order to circumvent resident’s legal rights (as well as giving two fingers to Eric Pickles).

Tower Hamlets Council has announced its intention (see attached PDF) to acquire the land at City Pride and Island Point on the Isle of Dogs, London E14. City Pride if built would be the second tallest residential building in the UK at 233 meters high, 984 apartments and 75 storeys.

The Council would then apply its powers under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to break neighbouring residents right to light. Under English Law properties older than 20 years own the right to light and if a neighbouring building overshadows residents living spaces they can either negotiate a settlement or they can block that development. Only the Council can legally break that right to light but only if it owns the property. This was first introduced to allow Councils to develop public infrastructure and was then used in the City of London i.e. the ‘walkie talkie’ to allow major office development to progress. Industry professionals have expressed surprise that a Council would do it to allow a purely residential development and they are not aware that such a power has been used elsewhere in a residential as opposed to business area. The Council would do this in return for £9.5m of s106 cash contributions and the delivery of 187 social housing units off-site at Island Point.

Tower Hamlets Council claim that the social, environmental and economic benefits of allowing City Pride to be built outweigh the disruption caused to local residents. This is despite Tower Hamlets Council employing an external consultant, LUC, who recently recommended that any development whose density exceeds 3,000 habitable rooms per hectare not be allowed, City Pride would be 5,803 rooms per hectare making it the densest developments in the country. The London Plan recommends a limit of 1,100 rooms per hectare.

Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government recently appointed two external Commissioners who will be responsible for approving any property disposals made by the Council. They are however not responsible for approving property acquisitions and as the deal is likely to be a back to back deal they will be faced with a fait accompli, the Council has already agreed a decision leaving them with no choice but to acquiesce as it is not in the Councils interests to retain ownership of the land. There is no evidence that they have been consulted on this issue yet.

In addition from Monday 5th January 2015 Tower Hamlets Council is supposed to be consulting residents of the area on the South Quay Masterplan, a development plan intended to guide future development of the area which includes the City Pride site (an area which will include 7 of the 12 tallest residential buildings in the UK and an increase in population from 2,932 people to 22,964 on one road). However rather than waiting to consult residents on whether City Pride delivers public benefits it has short circuited the process by announcing a decision in advance of that consultation starting. This is why Commissioners were appointed to try and improve transparency.

The Mayor, Lutfur Rahman will formally announce the decision in Cabinet on Wednesday 7th January 2015.

The Wharf newspaper reported this story here.

Abul Hussain

Abul Hussain

In September 2010, I highlighted the following comments on the Facebook page of Abul “Abz” Hussain, who was at that time a member of the National Council for George Galloway’s Respect party.

Abul Hussain 2010 1Abul Hussain Facebook 2010Quite rightly, a day after my blog post, Respect expelled Abul from their party. Their statement was published here.

Within a year, however, Abul was appointed as a Justice of the Peace, ie a magistrate. He still sits at Stratford magistrates’ court. He helps decide if people are guilty or innocent, and what sentences to pass.

I’d noticed he was a magistrate earlier this year when he was becoming vocal in his support for Lutfur Rahman on Twitter. His Twitter account contained a link to his private internet marketing business, a site on which he helped to promote himself by stating he was a JP.

The Judicial Office’s Code of Conduct for judges and magistrates is strict on avoiding conflicts of interests–commercial and political.

It is also strict on the use of Twitter and social media. It advises judges and magistrates to be extremely careful.

I questioned Abul about this in a Twitter exchange last month. He denied any wrongdoing but quickly removed from his business website any reference to his role as a JP.

I’d completely forgotten he was the same Abul Hussain kicked out of Respect for anti-Semitic remarks in 2010.

Andrew Gilligan remembered.

He ran this in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph. I can only assume the Judicial Office was unaware of his past when they let him sit on judgement on others in 2011.

It would be astonishing if we were not asked to explain himself now.

Here’s the Sunday Telegraph story in full:

A man expelled from George Galloway’s Respect party for racism and anti-Semitism is serving as a magistrate in London’s most multiracial borough.

Abul “Abz” Hussain describes himself as a “follower of David Icke,” the conspiracy theorist who believes that the world is ruled by a race of giant lizards and that global leaders, including George W. Bush and the Queen, are the descendants of extraterrestrial reptiles.

On his Facebook page, Mr Hussain, a British Bangladeshi, condemns “ignorant” people who “want me to ‘integrate’ into a decadent [Western] lifestyle.”

As a sitting Justice of the Peace (JP) at Stratford magistrates’ court in Newham, east London, Mr Hussain is called upon to enforce British law, a key tenet of the society he appears to question. Sitting with two other magistrates, he passes verdicts and sentences in most criminal cases, with the power to impose up to six months’ imprisonment. More serious cases are also first heard by magistrates, who can grant or deny bail.

A resident of neighbouring Tower Hamlets, Mr Hussain is a strong supporter of Lutfur Rahman, the borough’s extremist-linked independent mayor, who was re-elected by a narrow margin in May.

During the campaign, Mr Hussain stated on Twitter that Tower Hamlets had been treated by the Labour Party as the “last outpost of the British Raj” and added: “I’m definitely not a racist but I’ll admit to voting on racial lines… this is a show of BD [Bangladeshi] strength to Labour HQ!

He claimed Bangladeshis were treated by Labour as “colonial subjects” and said the borough under the party was a “collection of bantustans”, artificial states created by the apartheid regime in South Africa to segregate black people. A recent entry on his Facebook page shows a man hitting a woman with a mallet.

As a member of the national council of George Galloway’s Respect Party, a council candidate and joint general secretary of the local party, Mr Hussain took a major role in Mr Rahman’s previous election campaign in 2010, organising canvassers and meetings for Mr Rahman, who was removed from Labour after The Sunday Telegraph exposed his links to an extremist Islamist group, the Islamic Forum of Europe.

Respect did not run a candidate of its own and supported Mr Rahman. Mr Hussain also appears to have been one of Mr Rahman’s nominators for the mayoralty.

However, Mr Hussain was expelled by Respect two weeks before polling day after posting in a Facebook exchange: “You know the world’s coming to an end when a Jew accuses you of being of his kind… I should have put u on that convoy to Gaza, could have traded the Jew with the Israelis to let the aid through.”

Despite Mr Hussain’s expulsion, he was appointed a magistrate in September 2011.

A spokesman for the Judicial Office confirmed that Mr Hussain was a serving JP and said: “Any allegations about a magistrate’s conduct would, in the first instance, be investigated by their local advisory committee. If they felt there was evidence of misconduct it would be referred to the Judicial Investigations and Conduct Office (JCIO).

“Should the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice then find that a magistrate has brought the judiciary into disrepute, a number of sanctions are available including removal from office.”

Mr Hussain did not respond when contacted.

Judge Richard Mawrey ruling on Tower HamletsRichard Mawrey QC, the Commissioner of the forthcoming Tower Hamlets election court hearing, yesterday overturned a decision to hold the trial at the Town Hall and ruled it must be heard instead at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand.

He ruled it will start at 10am on February 2 in Court 38.

It is an early victory for the four petitioners, who are led by Andy Erlam and represented by barrister Francis Hoar.

Another judge at a preliminary hearing had previously rejected their request for it to be heard outside Tower Hamlets and had recommended the town hall.

However, in a written ruling yesterday, Mr Mawrey said the town hall could not be considered a “neutral venue”.

He said there was now “considerable hostility” in the borough to the arrival of Eric Pickles’s commissioners.

And he noted that George Galloway and Ken Livingstone had made “very public calls for campaigns of harassment to be directed against what they describe as interference with the democratic process”.

At a rally last month, Livingstone called for Lutfur’s supporters to protest outside the homes of the commissioners.

All this has been clearly observed by Mr Mawrey.

He said a “considerable” volume of evidence/allegations against Mayor Lutfur Rahman and Returning Officer John Williams had now been placed before him.

He stressed he had made no judgment whatsoever on the veracity of the allegations.

However, he said the allegations included suggestions there was a significant body of support for the mayor in the town hall–where an election petition would normally be heard.

He wrote: “The witness statements include a body of evidence to the effect that the Town Hall staff contains a significant body of political supporters of Mr Rahman whose conduct in the past is said to have gone well beyond what is permissible in the case of local civil servants. There are also allegations (which may or may not be well founded) of Town Hall staff having been involved in (or at least complicit in) active electoral fraud.”

He also revealed in his written ruling that the Metropolitan Police had been present at the recent confidential scrutiny of the Mayor’s vote at the Royal Courts of Justice. He said the police were conducting their own investigations into electoral fraud.

This time, it seems it’s all being taken much more seriously.

Here is Mr Mawrey’s explanation in full. Paragraphs 7-12 are particularly interesting.

NOTE: In the interests of conversational debate, I am going to allow comments on this post BUT please do not ascribe any guilt to any individual. Keep the discussion around the general issues of the election petition and the venue. I stress that allegations have been made, all of which are denied and are yet to be tried. Comments will be moderated.

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE M/350/14

QUEEN’S BENCH DIVISION

IN THE MATTER OF THE REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE ACT 1983

AND IN THE MATTER OF A MAYORAL ELECTION FOR THE LONDON BOROUGH OF TOWER HAMLETS HELD ON 22 MAY 2014

BETWEEN:

(1) ANDREW ERLAM

(2) DEBBIE SIMONE

(3) AZMAL HUSSEIN

(4) ANGELA MOFFAT

Petitioners

-and-

(1) MOHAMMED LUTFUR RAHMAN

(2) JOHN S WILLIAMS (RETURNING OFFICER)

Respondents

DIRECTIONS ORDER No 7: 19 DECEMBER 2014

REASONS (not part of the order)

1 I have confirmed with the Rota Judges that the powers conferred on an Election Commissioner under the Representation of the People Act 1983 (‘the 1983 Act’) s130(5) entitle a Commissioner to order that the trial should take place outside the electoral area under s 130(6). Such an order may be made if the court is ‘satisfied that special circumstances exist rendering it desirable that the petition should be tried elsewhere’.

2 I appreciate that an application was made to Mr Justice Supperstone for an order under s 130(6) and that on 31 July 2014, he dismissed that application. I have read his judgment on that occasion which sets out the grounds on which the Petitioners were then contending that the trial should take place outside the Borough and the reasons why the Judge rejected those grounds and refused the order. Having considered that judgment I would say, respectfully, that I entirely agree with it and that it was the correct decision to be made on the limited grounds and the equally limited evidential material before the court on that occasion.

3 The position today is entirely different from that which was before Supperstone J in July. The parties’ cases have been fully pleaded and a very considerable volume of evidence has been served.

4 May I emphasize at this point that I have, as yet, seen and heard none of the witnesses and I have formed no conclusions on the evidence whatsoever. At this stage of the proceedings the allegations made by all parties in their witness statements remain allegations, to be proved or disproved at trial. Insofar as I have taken those witness statements into account when making this decision, I have in no way prejudged their reliability or veracity. My approach is to treat the allegations on the basis that they might be true or they might not.

5 In general the most likely venue for the trial of a petition challenging a local authority election is the authority’s Town Hall. It is not the inevitable venue and I have tried other petitions (notably Birmingham) in some other building within the electoral area. In this petition, however, the Town Hall was put forward as the most suitable venue and I shall approach the question by considering that venue first.

6 As the parties are aware, I have been uneasy about the Town Hall as a venue from an early stage. This case differs from the norm of local authority petitions. Historically, local election petitions have concerned events in a single ward (occasionally two wards as in Birmingham in 2005). In those circumstances, the Town Hall of the Borough represents both a convenient and a relatively neutral venue. Here the challenge is to the election of an executive mayor whose headquarters is inevitably the Town Hall itself. Even were feelings not running as high as they are here, there must be grave doubts as to propriety of a petition to unseat an executive mayor being tried in his own Town Hall.

7 This case is unusual in that there are persistent and highly publicised allegations that witnesses, in particular witnesses for the  Petitioners, have been subject to intimidation of themselves or their families both within the Borough and, indeed, in Bangladesh. Certain of the witness statements have been served with the names and addresses of the witness redacted and there is a possibility that I shall be asked to make witness anonymity orders. As said above, I cannot and do not at this stage decide whether these allegations are well-founded but it would be irresponsible to discount them and to decide the venue in a vacuum. 

8 I have also to look at the question of intimidation in the context of the allegations, supported by witness statements, of widespread voter intimidation at the polls. These allegations also cannot be ignored. I fully appreciate that the first Respondent denies the allegations of intimidation and denies that, if it did occur, it can be laid at his door. None the less the evidence submitted does raise at least a triable issue as to intimidation.

9 Furthermore the Town Hall cannot realistically be regarded as a neutral venue. The witness statements include a body of evidence to the effect that the Town Hall staff contains a significant body of political supporters of Mr Rahman whose conduct in the past is said to have gone well beyond what is permissible in the case of local civil servants. There are also allegations (which may or may not be well founded) of Town Hall staff having been involved in (or at least complicit in) active electoral fraud.

10 In this context, though I accept that it is not yet evidence in the case and may never become so, these allegations find considerable support in the PwC report commissioned by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. It would do little to enhance the view of the court as a neutral and impartial venue if it were held in a venue which is perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be staffed by people who are, to put it neutrally, partisan. There would be legitimate fears that the staff might obstruct or identify vulnerable witnesses and, whatever precautions are taken, the security of documents would always have a question mark over it (however unjustified that might turn out to be).

11 When the matter was before Supperstone J the concern raised was of disorder at the trial and the Judge pointed, quite rightly, to the powers of a Commissioner to enlist the assistance of the Police. Events have, as said above, moved on somewhat. It is no longer primarily a question of maintaining an orderly trial. If that were the only concern, I would not be revisiting the earlier decision. The fact is that the position of the Metropolitan Police has become more complex, as it is no secret that the Met is conducting its own enquiries as to potential criminal offences committed in the course of the May election (hence the involvement of officers at the Scrutiny) and has been further dragged into this case by the allegations made on both sides of witness intimidation. Nor can I overlook that the case itself does involve criticism (which, as I say, may be entirely unfounded) of the involvement of the Met in policing the election itself. Thus the issues raised before Supperstone J have been overtaken by the subsequent history of this petition.

12 An additional change of circumstances arises from the Secretary of State’s publication of the PwC report and his appointment of commissioners to take over certain of the functions of the Council. Those commissioners have already started work at the Town Hall. The appointment of the commissioners has been met with considerable hostility in certain areas and I cannot overlook the fact that, at a rally attended by the first Respondent, certain of his high-profile political supporters such as Mr Ken Livingstone and Mr George Galloway MP made very public (and much broadcast) calls for campaigns of harassment to be directed against what they describe as interference with the democratic process.

13 This might be mitigated if the Town Hall were otherwise a suitable venue for a trial but it is not. I carried out an inspection last week and the facilities are simply not appropriate for a lengthy trial. The only available courtroom is the Council Chamber. This cannot really be converted into an acceptable courtroom. It has fixed desks which are not convenient for a three-party case, especially one with copious documents. There is no real space for a ‘witness box’. Everything would have to be cleared out for Council meetings. There are no practicable rooms for the judge’s retiring or for the parties’ legal teams. More to the point, the Council Chamber is in the heart of the office area with the staff problems already referred to.

14 For all these reasons I have ruled out the Town Hall as a venue.

15 I indicated at an early stage, when the Petitioners raised their objections, that the parties should attempt to find possible alternative venues within the Borough. The Returning Officer and his solicitors have made considerable efforts to find an alternative venue and I made a tour of the four venues they had located. None of them was remotely suitable and some of the problems involved in the Town Hall as a venue would have applied to those venues even if they had been suitable.

16 I have thus, with great reluctance, come to the conclusion that there are here the kind of special circumstances envisaged by the 1983 Act and that the proper course is to order the trial to be held in the Royal Courts of Justice.

17 Supperstone J remarked, quite correctly if I may say so, one of the reasons for holding election courts in the electoral area concerned is to allow local public access to the court. This is fair as far as it goes but it must be seen in context. When the rule developed in the nineteenth century public transport was much less available and much less affordable than today. In any event, the rule itself does carry its own limitations. In my experience, petitions challenging the election in a ward of the council are heard centrally (often in the Town Hall) which in a large electoral area (Birmingham is a good example) may be several miles away from the ward concerned.

18 The RCJ are, of course, situated in the City of London which is the borough immediately adjacent to Tower Hamlets. If the contested election had been in, say, Merton or Enfield, then the difficulty of the citizens of the borough attending court would be a significant factor. The RCJ may be considered one of the easiest places to get to by public transport in central London and I cannot see any appreciable hardship involved in the citizens of Tower Hamlets attending a trial there.

19 I have therefore liaised with Mr Evans of the Elections Office and he has secured the use of Court 38. It is a large court and its position in the West Green Building will obviate many of the problems attendant on use of a court in the main building.

20 I realise that this may cause some inconvenience to the Respondents but I am satisfied that the interests of a fair and publically transparent trial require the move to be made.

_

21 Finally I should wish to record in these reasons my thanks to Mr Emyr Thomas of the second Respondent’s solicitors for his part in locating and inspecting the alternative venues.

Richard B Mawrey QC

Commissioner

This is the Written Ministerial Statement from Eric Pickles in the Commons today. It explains why the Commissioners have been sent in and gives his opinion on the representations made by Mayor Lutfur Rahman and Tower Hamlets council on the PwC report.

In short, Eric says: “It is disappointing that there is a culture of denial in the mayoral administration about its systematic failures.”

Here’s the statement (I’ve underlined and put in bold font what are considered the key sections).

I would like to update hon. Members on a series of steps we are taking to improve the quality of local government services and ensure value for taxpayers’ money.

London Borough of Tower Hamlets

On 4 November, I informed the House that I was satisfied, having considered the report of the inspection by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC) of Tower Hamlets Council, that that Council is failing to comply with its best value duty, and proposed to statutorily intervene to secure the Council’s compliance with that duty.

I gave the Council until 18 November to make any representations it wished on the inspection report and my proposal for intervention, and I sought and received from the Council certain undertakings not to take further specified actions on grant making, appointment of statutory officers, and transfer of property to third parties, until I had reached decisions about the use of my intervention powers.

I have now carefully considered all the representations that the Council has made. I have also considered afresh the PwC inspection report and the report the Election Commission published on 1 July 2014 into the elections in Tower Hamlets, and I have had appropriate regard to other representations that I have received about my proposed intervention.

I remain satisfied that the Council is failing to comply with its best value duty. It is disappointing that there is a culture of denial in the mayoral administration about its systematic failures.

As I said in my previous statement: “Localism requires local accountability and local democracy. Municipal corruption undermines the local checks and balances that are vital in a democracy and essential in mayoral systems with their concentration of power. We cannot risk such corruption”. But this is not just about the money. The abuse of taxpayers’ money and the culture of cronyism reflects a partisan community politics that seeks to trade favours and spread division on the rates. Such behaviour is to the detriment of integration and community cohesion in Tower Hamlets and in our capital city. This remains my view.

I have concluded that it is both necessary and expedient for me to exercise my intervention powers in the Local Government Act 1999 as I have proposed, and accordingly, I have today given the Council the necessary directions under section 15(5) and 15(6) of the 1999 Act to implement the proposed interventions.

These are centred on putting in place until 31 March 2017 a team of Commissioners to oversee or exercise certain of the Council’s functions. It is open to me to review this in the light of the progress made by the Council to secure compliance with its best value duty. I have nominated Sir Ken Knight to be the Lead Commissioner. Max Caller CBE has also been nominated  as a Commissioner, and I will announce a further Commissioner in due course.

In summary, the specific intervention measures are as follows.

(1) To require the council

to draw up and agree with the Commissioners within three months from the date of the direction a strategy and action plan for securing the Council’s compliance with its best value duty (to include as appropriate complying with the specific requirements set out below), and to submit this to the Secretary of State;

to prepare under the direction of the Commissioners and submit to the Secretary of State at 6 monthly intervals thereafter until 31 March 2017 a report on progress against the strategy and action plan;

to undertake as a matter of urgency a recruitment exercise, under the direction of the Commissioners, with the aim of making as soon as practicable, permanent appointments of suitable persons to the positions of the three statutory officers (Head of Paid Service, Chief Finance Officer, and Monitoring Officer);

until 31 March 2017 to obtain the prior written agreement of the Commissioners to (a) any dismissal or suspension of a statutory officer; and (b) any proposed appointment or designation of a replacement;

until March 2017 to obtain the prior written agreement of the Commissioners before entering into any commitment to dispose of, or otherwise transfer, to third parties, any real property other than existing single dwellings for the purposes of residential occupation;

within 3 months from the date of the direction, to prepare a fully costed plan for how the Council’s publicity functions can be properly exercised and agree that plan with the Commissioners; and until 31 March 2017 adopt any recommendation of the Commissioners with respect to that plan or to publicity more generally;

by 1 February 2015 to prepare and implement an action plan, in consultation with the Commissioners, to achieve improvements in the Council’s processes and practices for entering into contracts, and until 31 March 2017 to adopt all recommendations of the statutory officers in relation to the processes and practices to be followed in relation to entering into contracts, unless the Commissioners’ prior written agreement is obtained not to do so.

(2) The Commissioners to exercise until 31 March 2017 all functions of the Council relating to the making of grants, including responding to Freedom of Information Act requests in respect of grant payments, with the Council providing at the request of the Commissioners its views on proposed grants.

(3) The Commissioners to exercise until 31 March 2017 the Council’s functions of appointing persons to and removing them from the posts of Electoral Registration Officer and Returning Officer for Local Elections (this will also apply to their general election duties).

The Council will be required to comply with any instructions of the Commissioners in relation to the exercise of those functions for which the Commissioners are responsible, and  to provide the Commissioners at its expense with such services, amenities and administrative support as the Commissioners may reasonably require, and with access to the Council’s premises, documents, and to any employee or member as appears to the Commissioners to be necessary. The Council will also be required to pay the Commissioners’ reasonable expenses and such fees as I determine.

Intervention was not a decision taken lightly, however I could not allow the overwhelming evidence of the serious failings within Tower Hamlets to continue unchecked. I do not accept the Mayor’s representations that the problems in the Council can easily be put right.

Residents need to know that decisions are being taken properly in an open and accountable way. The Commissioners I am appointing are experienced and talented professionals who understand that transparency and accountability are vital to the functioning of local democracy.

Local government transparency

The Coalition Government has taken many steps during this Parliament to place more power into citizens’ hands to increase democratic accountability and make it easier for local people to contribute to the local decision making process and help shape public services. Transparency is the foundation of local accountability and the key that gives people the tools and information they need to play a bigger role in society.

In October, we issued the Local Government Transparency Code 2014 and have made it a legal requirement for local authorities to publish much of the data specified in the Code. Today, we have taken another step forward in ensuring that local people have key information to hold public bodies to account by publishing a Transparency Code for smaller authorities.

Under the new local government audit regime smaller authorities will be subject to the transparency requirements laid out in this Code in place of routine external audit. The Code will require the on-line publication of information that provides taxpayers with a clear picture of authorities’ activities, spending and governance, improving the ability of communities to hold local public bodies to account.

The Transparency Code for Smaller Authorities applies to parish councils, internal drainage boards, charter trustees and port health authorities with an annual turnover not exceeding £25,000. Published initially as recommended practice, we intend, subject to Parliament, to make the Code mandatory by the start of the 2015-16 financial year and will offer support to this local government sector to help authorities comply with these requirements.

Backing locally-supported joint working

There are many ways that local authorities can work together to save money and improve services, but there is equally no one-size-fits-all model either. The Dorset Fire Authority and the Wiltshire and Swindon Combined Fire Authority have formally made representations requesting a merger. We have today published a consultation paper on their proposals.

Contrast to the last Administration, we do not believe in top-down restructuring. Nor do we agree with the current proposals of the HM Opposition to force more mergers. The botched FireControl programme is a prime example of how such restructuring is expensive and distracting. Rather, we will support locally-led partnerships, where there is genuine support from all members of the local community, and the consultation will test this local support.

Improving support arrangements for local councils

It is important to have in place the most effective arrangements to help councils across the country to continue to improve and reform – essential if they are to deliver sensible savings.

Councils have a right to expect services designed to support them are the best they can be, provide the support they need and provide best value for money.

In 2015-16, we intend to provide grant of £23.4 million to the Local Government Improvement and Development (formerly IDeA) to deliver effective support to councils. This will be accompanied by robust scrutiny to ensure that every pound spent by them is spent appropriately and on providing direct support to councils. We expect of them the same standards and value for money as we expect of councils delivering frontline services, and we expect them to be transparent with councils about how they have spent the grant and the services they deliver to support councils.

The Coalition Government’s policy is to open up budgets to competition wherever possible. We intend to explore how the budget given for improvement services can be opened up to competition with contracts in place for 2016-17, allowing councils, council groupings, think thanks, mutuals and other interested parties to bid for such funding, and drive further best practice in local government.

At last. Two of the three Commissioners to be appointed by Eric Pickles to run parts of Tower Hamlets council arrive for work this morning.

They are Sir Ken Knight, who will be the lead Commissioner, and Max Caller. The third will be announced in due course.

Both Sir Ken and Mr Caller are heavy-hitters.

Sir Ken is the better known nationally, while Mr Caller has a huge reputation as a local government Mr Fixit man: he was in charge of Hackney council from 2000-04 when that authority was being transformed under special measures.

First, Sir Ken:

s300_ken_knight

He’s currently a director of his own consultancy company, Ken Knight Consulting Ltd, having retired from the fire service.

He has a distinguished career. He oversaw the London Fire Brigade as London Fire Commissioner from 2003-07, including during the July 7 terror attacks.

Since that stint ended in 2007, he has worked on a number of high profile projects for central governments, both in the UK and abroad. In Britain, he worked until last year as the Government’s first Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser.

He wrote the Rising to the Challenge report on the 2007 floods and was in charge of the review into the Lakanal House fire disaster in Camberwell in 2009.

And last year, he completed the cost-saving review of England’s 46 fire authorities, which found £200million could be saved.

You can see why ministers like him. Unions have a different opinion. How Lutfur Rahman and he will get along is anyone’s guess. However, Lutfur’s mentor Ken Livingstone did once have a legal run-in with him in 2007.

Here’s an extract from Sir Ken’s Linkedin profile.

Sir Ken Knight linkedinThere is more on his own website, here, which states he is the independent chairman of the board of Exova, a large company specialising in providing fire safety materials. I can’t find his name on Exova’s website so that might be an old listing.

He is also one of the Queen’s Deputy Lieutenants for London, so he will probably know Commander John Ludgate, the Deputy Lieutenant for Tower Hamlets who does a fabulous job of looking both bemused and amused during council meetings.

And so to Max Caller.

Max Caller

In this interview here, he talks about how his career started off as a sewer inspector in the underbelly of London. So fantastic training for the current situation in Tower Hamlets.

Actually, I think he will be great for the borough: he’s a former chief executive of Hackney, Barnet and Haringey councils and he’s been an election observer in Albania. What more do you need…

The Government’s biography of him states:

Max Caller CBE has amassed 33 years experience in London boroughs with the majority at Chief Officer level.

As Chief Executive of Hackney, he managed the transition of the authority from the worst in the country to one of the fastest improving.

As Chief Executive of Barnet he introduced a cabinet form of governance and an effective scrutiny system, which was one of the models for subsequent legislation.

Max was appointed the first Regional Returning Officer for London for the 1999 European elections, was Deputy Chief Counting Officer for the UK wide Alternative Vote referendum and has been involved in electoral pilot arrangements on an all-postal/electronic counting system for borough and mayoral elections.

He has also served as a short term observer for OSCE overseen elections in Albania and Montenegro and as a Commonwealth observer for elections in Kenya and Ghana.

Since April 2010 he has been chairman of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England.

He grew up in South Wales and is an engineer by background. He’s also on the advisory board of Norwood, a leading Jewish charity whose president (in the interests of transparency) is my employer (until Friday), Richard Desmond.

Here’s an extract from Eric Pickles’s press release issued this morning:
The team will, with immediate effect, take control of grant making within the council, will approve any sale or disposal of property and will agree a plan for publicity after independent inspectors PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) concluded the Borough was failing in its best value duty in these areas.

The PwC report, published on November 4, severely criticised how grants were handed out to organisations which failed to meet basic criteria for public funding, property was sold without proper process and taxpayers’ money was spent on political advertising for the Mayor.

The authority, under the direction of the Commissioners, will have three months to prepare a strategy and action plan setting out how it will comply with its duty to act openly and transparently, serving all of its communities fairly and securing value for money.

The Commissioners, due to be in place until 31 March, 2017, will drive forward the action plan, updating the Secretary of State every six months on progress.

Secretary of State Eric Pickles said: “Intervention was not a decision taken lightly however I could not ignore the overwhelming evidence of the council’s failure, and allow this to continue unchecked. I do not accept the Mayor’s representations that problems are easilhy put right.

“Residents need to know that decisions are being taken properly in an open and accountable way. The Commissioners I have appointed are experienced and talented professionals who understand that transparency and accountability are vital to the functioning of local democracy.

Lead Commissioner Sir Ken Knight said: “We are determined to restore faith in how Tower Hamlets operates. Local people deserve a council that not only makes decisions in an accountable and transparent way but also with the benefit of all residents in mind

“Today marks the start of a long but necessary journey to ensure public confidence in the council is restored, community cohesion maintained and that Tower Hamlets is no longer a by-word for poor governance.”

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