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Archive for July 14th, 2010

Over the years, I’ve witnessed some quite jaw-dropping decisions at Tower Hamlets council, but a decision by the Labour administration – yes, a Labour administration – to sack almost the only eight people who have ever made any sense at Mulberry Place wins first prize.

Blink and you might have missed it: a small item here in last week’s East London Advertiser reported that the council is getting rid of eight unfailingly polite switchboard staff. The ELA reported that this would “save” £208,000 and quoted a council spokesman as follows: “The council’s new voice-recognition telephony system has considerably reduced the volume of calls being manually handled by the switchboard team, as residents now have access to a quicker and more efficient service.”

Here’s the fuller story…In November 2009, the supposedly cash-strapped council implemented a new telephone system at a cost of…£5.4million. This bought them 4,000 new handsets and covered 6,000 extensions. It also included the dreaded “automated voice-recognition software”, the gadgetry that drives people so mad that the person eventually answering the call puts down the phone after suffering a torrent of abuse.

The system would be bad enough in Royal Berkshire, but in Tower Hamlets, which is home to rich variety of English accents, it is almost unworkable. The council even admits it failed to test the software with local residents.

Try it for yourself: dial the switchboard on 020 764 5000 and ask for, well, let’s say the ‘press office’ (and why not, as a taxpayer you’ll surely want to know why that department spends more than £1.5million a year producing the weekly propaganda sheet, East End Life).

I tried saying “press office” three times. On the first, I was directed to a Patrick Ahmed in Children’s Schools and Families PFI department; the second I got a Terry Evans in HR; and in the third, I was put through to a Bev Thomas, but in which department she works I don’t know because there was no answer (it was 5.10pm after all).

Each time, I had to go back to the automated voice system, just waiting silently to speak to a human. But now they’re going.

The head of communications at Tower Hamlets is Takki Sulaiman. He’s a former Labour councillor in Haringey, where he was renowned for affectedly clutching his waistcoat Churchillian-style as he spoke. He now earns £100,000. I know he also reads this blog.

So, Takki, can you please explain why you should stay and the switchboard staff should go? And can you explain why it’s appropriate to “save” £208,000 by sacking eight decent people (after spending £5.4million on a faulty system) but at the same time continue to waste millions on communications and a vanity publication called East End Life?

I tried calling you, but the system kept putting me through to the recycling department.

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I’ve never really seen Lutfur as a comedian, but his legal challenge to the Labour party over his omission from the Mayoral shortlist has injected something of a farce into the process.

Following my last post on the John Biggs email, the London Assembly member tells me that went out by mistake. He said he had not authorised it and blamed an “over-enthusiastic” volunteer.

I’m pasting the edited version here, so we can all play spot the difference. What fun.

Dear Friend,

Yesterday, following a complaint,the selection procedure for the Labour candidate for the first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, was suspended by the National Executive of the Labour Party. The NEC will re-interview all the long-listed candidates this Saturday, the 17th July, and construct a new shortlist. I have been invited for re-interview, and informed that the all-member ballot will now take place on Saturday, 31st July. All members will receive a formal notice of this.

Over the past few weeks I have been deeply honoured by the number of people who have offered their help and support. It has been a humbling experience. I want you to know that I remain passionately committed to Tower Hamlets, my home for nearly 30 years, and remain keen to serve as its first directly elected Mayor and, if I win, to become the unifying force Tower Hamlets Labour Party and the wider community needs. Once the new shortlist has been published I will be able to make a decision about how to proceed.

We were just five days from polling day after several weeks of entirely comradely campaigning. I am very proud of all three candidates, myself included, at the way we have conducted ourselves and feel strongly that to re-start the process at such a late stage is puzzling and obviously very disappointing. However, I am happy to stand for selection against any member who is shortlisted, and simply hope for the privilege to be able to do this.

I hope that the process may be resolved satisfactorily but in the meantime I wanted to let you know the situation. If you have any queries, please contact me at this email address or, for a quicker reply, at john.biggs@london.gov.uk or by calling or texting me on xxxx.

Finally, for your information, the press statement issued by the Labour Party on Monday evening reads:

“Following a complaint regarding the procedure to select Labour’s candidate in this autumn’s elections for the first directly elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee has this evening agreed to re-run the shortlisting process.

“The complaint has been looked at carefully. While the Labour Party does not accept that it has any substance, to ensure transparency and fairness to all potential candidates, all long-listed candidates will be re-interviewed by a different panel to be appointed by the NEC.

“A new time-table will be announced in the coming days.”

Yours,

John

UPDATE – 4.10pm

A senior Labour figure–er, make that a very angry senior Labour figure–tells me: “Lutfur’s lot are trying to make out that this is some kind of grass roots uprising against the selection process. Don’t believe a word of it. Actually, it’s a group of businessmen looking for influence and they are promising to back any challenge with money. They’re also saying they’re dong this on behalf of the black and minority ethnic community. Again….wrong. This is about self-interest.”


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This is an email sent to party colleagues by Labour London Assembly and Tower Hamlets mayoral hopeful John Biggs. It was sent following Lutfur Rahman’s legal challenge to the selection process, which I broke here on Sunday evening.

The email and its angry and disappointed tone speaks for itself.

Dear Friend

Yesterday, following a complaint,the selection procedure for the Labour candidate for the first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, was suspended by the National Executive of the Labour Party. The NEC will re-interview all the long-listed candidates this Saturday, the 17th July, and construct a new shortlist. I have been invited for re-interview, and informed that the all-member ballot will now take place on Saturday, 31st July. All members will receive a formal notice of this.

Over the past few weeks I have been deeply honoured by the number of people who have offered their help and support. It has been a humbling experience. I want you to know that I remain passionately committed to Tower Hamlets, my home for nearly 30 years, and remain keen to serve as its first directly elected Mayor and, if I win, to become the unifying force Tower Hamlets Labour Party and the wider community needs. Once the new shortlist has been published I will be able to make a decision about how to proceed.

We were just five days from polling day after several weeks of entirely comradely campaigning. I am very proud of all three candidates, myself included, at the way we have conducted ourselves and feel strongly that to re-start the process at such a late stage is puzzling and obviously very disappointing. I am disappointed that, as appears to be the case, a person or group of people with access to enough money to threaten the Party with legal action it cannot afford if they do not get their way, can hold the party to ransom. However, I am happy to stand for selection against any member who is shortlisted, and simply hope for the privilege to be able to do this.

I hope that the process may be resolved satisfactorily but in the meantime I wanted to let you know the situation. If you have any queries, please contact me at this email address or, for a quicker reply, atjohn.biggs@london.gov.uk or by calling or texting me on xxxxx.

Finally, for your information, the press statement issued by the Labour Party on Monday evening reads:

“Following a complaint regarding the procedure to select Labour’s candidate in this autumn’s elections for the first directly elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee has this evening agreed to re-run the shortlisting process.

“The complaint has been looked at carefully. While the Labour Party does not accept that it has any substance, to ensure transparency and fairness to all potential candidates, all long-listed candidates will be re-interviewed by a different panel to be appointed by the NEC.

“A new time-table will be announced in the coming days.”

Yours

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