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Archive for July, 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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Shamelessly and ever so scandalously, I’m going to use this site to highlight some of the pieces I do for the Sunday Express. Sorry. Here’s the first:

And here it is copied below:

BRITAIN’S new Olympic site was once a prisoner of war camp for captured Germans including members of the SS and Nazi U-Boat crews, the Sunday Express has discovered.

Confidential documents held at the National Archives reveal that hundreds of German PoWs were held at the east London site during and after the Second World War. They were detained in huts in Carpenters Road, Stratford, just a few hundred yards from where competitors will bed down in the Athletes’ Village in two years’ time.

It was known as Camp 30 and was operational until 1948, when most German prisoners were deemed safe to return home.

The file seen by the Sunday Express at the Public Record Office in Kew, southwest London, details a series of inspection reports carried out by Foreign Office officials from 1945-48. The inspectors had been ordered to assess the mood, morale and the “re-education” of the Nazi captives before deciding whether they could be repatriated back to their homeland.

The documents show that despite being held in the heart of the Blitz-ravaged East End, the prisoners were warmly welcomed by local civilians. Their orchestra was invited to play in nearby Leyton public gardens, they played football against local club sides and were welcomed at council meetings in nearby Chingford.

During December 1947, many were even drafted in to work at local post offices to help with the Christmas rush. The camp was one of more than 600 in Britain. Prior to D-Day in 1944, Sir Winston Churchill had been reluctant to accept PoWs on British soil and most of those captured were instead shipped to huge camps in America.

However, by 1946, a year after the war, the numbers detained in Britain swelled to more than 400,000. Most hardcore Nazis were held in the remoter parts of Britain, but many ended up at Camp 30, including members of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps Panzer brigades, who had been transferred from the US camps.

At its peak, Camp 30, whose main barracks were close to the now under-construction Aquatics Centre, housed more than 1,500 PoWs. They were made to work on nearby farms and help clear the devastation the Luftwaffe had wreaked on London.

However, such forced labour angered the PoWs, documents show. In August 1947, an inspector noted: “In one quarter, the view was expressed that the latest emergency measures taken by the British Government to secure maximum output in England smack somewhat of totalitarianism.”

Six months later, another quoted a prisoner as saying: “Who could like the British after they have retained us as slave workers for three years after the end of a war?”

However, most were said to be relieved to be in the hands of the British and not held by Stalin’s Soviet Union. The prisoners were kept under constant surveillance.

One inspector reported back to the Foreign Office that a group had been overheard plotting “sabotage in Germany and to work up an underground movement in Germany against the occupying powers”. One prisoner caused particular concern—the camp doctor, Hansen Silvester.

“A most unsatisfactory personality,” the inspector wrote. “Born in Copenhagen, he is half Danish and only took up German nationality in 1936. Though ostensibly non-political, he is impregnated with Nazi racial doctrines and is a great believer in the superiority of the Nordic race. He believes in euthanasia and sterilisation. He is a bad influence in camp.”

As well as working, the prisoners had to demonstrate they had shed any Nazi beliefs, which often involved learning English and taking an interest in democracy. Each PoW was graded A, B or C for their political views while huts were classified as white, grey or black.

The barracks in nearby Victoria Park, which will be used as an Olympic training ground, were designated category C and black, which was usually reserved for the SS. While the English lessons were not considered a success because the classes were held close to a fish manure factory —“ the stench of the environs may have had much to do with poor attendance,” an inspector observed—the interest in democracy was greater.

As well as being given radios and German and English newspapers, including the Express, to help learn about the outside world, and they were also taken to meet councillors in Leyton and Chingford, and members of the Methodist Youth Club in East Ham.

In what appears to be the final inspection report, in March 1948, the inspector, a Mr Hamilton, concluded: “With a few exceptions these men will return to Germany balanced in outlook and in the fullest realisation that a Third World War between Britain and Germany in unthinkable. The most important factor in their re-education has been the excellent civilian contacts and this in spite of the fact that the majority of the men have been stationed in the heart of the East End of London.”

Nick Hewitt, a historian at the Imperial War Museum, said: “It is a reasonable supposition that prisoners retained for a long period after the war were considered high-risk.”

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That nothing has appeared on this blog during the last week or so does not mean, of course, that nothing has been going in the unpredictable world of Tower Hamlets politics. Far from it.

Tonight, as Labour members turned up to a hustings in their wacky race to choose a candidate to run for directly elected mayor, instead of enjoying the honour of listening to three of the East End’s greatest orators (er, Sirajul Islam, John Biggs and Shiria Khatun) they were treated to a boring old leaflet. However, by Labour standards, this leaflet was actually rather interesting.

It said that the selection process, which was due to conclude with a one-member one-vote ballot this Sunday, had been suspended…due to a “legal challenge”.

Unsurprisingly, this challenge came from Cllr Lutfur Rahman, the former council leader whom Labour was so keen to keep off the slate. As I wrote here last month, the selection process did have the whiff of a stitch-up…largely over worries that the party had been infiltrated by supporters of one particular man.

I understand that Lutfur’s challenge means that all applicants are now likely to be re-interviewed by a new panel of the party’s great and the good–a process which will draw up another shortlist. This is serious stuff: the last panel included some extremely high ranking figures.

The selection process, largely believed to have been designed to suit London Assembly member Biggs, is now in chaos. As one senior party member told me tonight: “We always manage to screw these things up. just let the membership decide these things. Why not let every applicant be put to the ballot.”

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