Archive for December, 2010

I’m not quite sure where to start with my thoughts on last Wednesday’s Tower Hamlets council meeting. In the years I’ve covered the goings-on at Mulberry Place, I’ve seen some pretty tawdry and comical moments, but Wednesday’s affair suggested the amateurs had well and truly taken over the asylum. Judging by the horrified expressions on the faces of the council’s senior management team, they thought so, too.

Firstly, allow me to get the important admin details out of the way. I arrived at about 8.20pm – an hour after the meeting had started – and was greeted at the town hall doors by someone who looked like a cop, talked like a cop, but who is paid far more than a cop. He was a Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officer, or better known to many as a THEO. I first wrote about them in the Sunday Express last year, here. Unbelievably, they’re paid £35,000 a year. “Are you here for a reason, sir?” he asked me. Yes, I said, I was there for the council meeting. I told him I was a resident and a member of the press. “Well, I don’t think we can let you in, sir. It’s full.” I smiled and walked past him while he sought advice from a proper policeman. I was let in.

I then had to deal with Amateur Number Two. For some disturbing reason, the council has got rid of the press desk (ie a table) that used to be placed right at the front of the public gallery. There is no legal requirement for the council to give the press a desk, but it is considered best practice. It allows journalists to remain apart and neutral from any barracking in the public gallery; it identifies journalists to the public and to other journalists; and it allows us to see and hear the proceedings so that we can report the meeting to the wider world. All this seems to be lost on the council’s £100,000-a-year head of communications Takki Sulaiman. For the moment, I’ll be generous and assume it’s because he can’t grasp that concept, rather than suggest he is deliberately trying to hinder the work of the press in the interests of the new regime (because, shurely, he wouldn’t do that would he… .)

So when Takki told me there was “plenty of space” for me to sit at the back of the gallery, I smiled and then ignored him. Another far more helpful council officer understood my point and found a seat for me in the second row.

Which is where I had the lovely privilege of witnessing Amateurs Numbers Two and Three. Directly behind me was millionaire housing association tenant and main Lutfur Rahman supporter Shiraj Haque, who, because council chairman Cllr Motin uz Zaman was too weak or terrified to control, spent the entire evening: a) eating crisps; b) playing with and talking into his mobile phone; c) insulting me, Andrew Gilligan and everyone bar Lutfur and his supporters; and d) displaying the kind of political naivety that I’m sure made even Lutfur cringe.

Here are just a few of the things Shiraj bawled out:

“One Mayor, one borough, he will do anything he likes”; “Peter [Golds], get out of the borough, you can rent one of my flats”; “Peter, are you going on a honeymoon with Jim Fitzpatrick?”; and heckling during a discussion on investment strategies, “I can give you a better rate of interest if you invest in me”.

At no stage was he told to shut up. Respect chair Carole Swords may have an opinion on this: she’s currently banned from the public gallery for one heckle too many.

In contrast, Lutfur himself, sitting on the dais next to chief executive Kevan Collins, maintained a semblance of dignity – even as his young four-strong cabinet displayed a mixture of embarrassing inexperience and bungling incompetence. Lutfur needs to have a word with his kindergarten crew and tell them to dodge Labour’s poison bullets, stop the childish name-calling and forget the threatening finger-wagging: they’re meant to be in charge now and they need to earn respect.

But what of the politics, you ask….

1. Lutfur began his opening speech by addressing the large number of his supporters in the public gallery with: “It’s a pleasure to see so many members of my community here.” That raised the eyebrows of more than one councillor.

2. As my fellow blogger TowerHamletsWatch highlights in an accurate post here, Lutfurite cabinet member Oli Rahman revealed he knew other councillors had been submitting supposedly confidential members’ enquiries (ME) on a particular issue. Stupidly, Oli said MEs are not confidential and now his remarks are to be fully investigated. Again, inexperience and incompetence.

3. Labour councillor Carlo Gibbs and Mayor Lutfur engaged in a momentary but intriguing love-in. Both praised and smiled at each other during a Q&A session. Even Shiraj gave Carlo the Emperor’s thumbs-up. Carlo used to work for Jim Fitz and is very much and up-and-coming politician. It might be that he is playing half of the good cop/bad cop routine and wooing Lutfur in, but I doubt it. I think he’s being more sincere. On Lutfur’s election night, Carlo was overheard saying that Labour should work with the new mayor, but he was then shouted down. This is a relationship to watch, I reckon.

4. Abbas does not seem to be suited to the role of Opposition leader. He’s just too quiet and not forceful enough in the council chamber. Labour need to address this problem.

5. A Lutfurite motion calling on all councillors to work with the mayor was soundly defeated. To me, this was a fairly pointless motion, but I’ve no doubt it will be reported widely in the pro-Lutfur sections of the absent Bengali media as a major snub.

6. A brilliantly insightful and important question on council investment strategy by Labour’s David Edgar, who is a highly respected accountant, to Deputy Mayor Ohid Ahmed, who is not, comprehensively exposed the latter’s lack of grasp on finance and his inability to think on his feet.

7. A motion proposed by Labour’s Josh Peck on the over-exploitation of Victoria Park for summertime music events was passed unanimously. (There were 10 gigs there this year, blocking off almost half the park for entire weekends and causing mayhem for locals who were subjected to revellers vomiting and urinating on their properties.) However, the following comments by Lutfur’s cabinet member for culture, Rania Khan, were later described by one Labour councillor as “dog whistle” remarks: “We need to maximise income [and]…I would urge councillors to think about the whole community not just those who are lucky enough to live around the park.” The demographics of the park perimeters are mostly white and Afro-Caribbean.

8. A motion on Bancroft History Library and Archives provided the most dramatic moments of the night. I’ll save my observations on that for another post, except to say here that it exposed deep rancour between former council leader Denise Jones and her party colleague (just) Marc Francis. He  spoke against her with such passion that his voice at one stage faltered and then broke the party whip by voting against a call for Deputy Mayor Ohid to apologise for defaming her and questioning her integrity. Marc lost that vote, but helped secure a council investigation into the Bancroft/Rich Mix affair. As I said, more another time…

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Apologies to those awaiting a post on Wednesday’s full council meeting at Tower Hamlets, but I’ve been a touch busy with my day job. I intend to write a lengthy post about it over the next couple of days – and yes, there is plenty to say about what happened: the meeting was among the most poisonous and uncontrolled affairs I’ve been to.

In the meantime, Tory group leader Peter Golds has asked me to publish a personal statement from him following the bizarre and disturbing comments made by some people on my previous post here. These comments extended to some borderline homophobic insults hurled at him by some senior political activists in the public gallery of the council chamber on Wednesday night (but, as I say, more of that later.)

Here’s Peter’s statement:

It is clear that a number of your correspondents do not understand what an elected politician should or chose not to understand.

I received an enquiry from a resident regarding Medialink and raised that enquiry. This is what councillors do in every local authority up and down the country and of course what Members of Parliament do each and every day.

Before I received a response the head of Medialink telephoned me four times in one afternoon to discuss my enquiry. It was obvious that had been told the details of my enquiry. This could only have come from within the council and breaks all protocols.

Having received the actual response, which was not confidential, I shared it with the original enquiry and Ted Jeory who was also interested in the subject.

I then received increasingly threatening calls and messages from the same person. On Wednesday I met with the council’s Chief Executive and monitoring officer who were quite clear that my enquiry was right and proper and that as the response did not break commercial confidentiality I was entitled to share it.

It should be noted that I have raised many enquiries regarding consultants engaged by the Council, including Verve Communications who once had a very large contract. Strangely no one has attacked me for raising that particular company.

It should also be noted that at council on Wednesday night a member of the administration let slip that he had knowledge of an enquiry raised by another councillor.

There is to be a full investigation into how this is happening.

As a matter of fact on another issue, I have served on many appointments panels. On one occasion I ensured that the panel did not reach a decision until we had women and BME candidates to consider and on another I refused to serve because the assembled panel was entirely male and we would be interviewing women for a position.  I would treat any candidate who submits a dishonest CV in the same way, and in most organisations such a CV is grounds fro instant dismissal.

The attacks of racism against me are puerile and totally wrong.

I am more than happy to engage in debate with anyone, but attacks and lies for people who hide behind pseudonyms and are often the same person deserve to be treated for what they are. Sock puppets is the usual term. The sort of people who used to write poison pen letters, often on green ink.

For those unfamiliar with Verve Communications, it is the PR consultancy that used to run the press office and East End Life at Tower Hamlets Council. It was headed by Lorraine Langham. Following a series of investigations by Peter and me, when I was at the East London Advertiser, a council committee concluded that Verve had been allowed to exploit its position for commercial gain. Ms Langham subsequently left the council and is now the number 2 to ex Tower Hamlets CEO Christine Gilbert at Ofsted.

See here for more info.

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I’ve been sent a copy of Lutfur Rahman’s election expenses, which are publicly available from Tower Hamlets council for a cost of just a few quid. However, the dutiful public servant that I am, and in the spirit WikiLeaks, I thought it would be useful to simply publish them here.

I won’t go into detail about every single penny of his £11,316.69 spend, but instead allow you, dear “army of armchair auditors”, to undertake your own exercises in scrutiny.

To help, this link outlines what details limited companies must include on their invoices.

This is the summary sheet:

And the full document can be found here. Informed comments only, please. Any baseless accusations will not be allowed.

And, in the interests of fairness and balance, if anyone has the expenses for the other candidates, do please email them to me.

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During Lutfur Rahman’s election campaign, strong suspicions lingered about who might benefit from his victory. Certainly, millionaire housing association tenant Shirajul Haque was one name mentioned. After all, I’m told by several sources that he bragged he had underwritten Lutfur’s legal fees during his High Court challenges against the Labour party (something Lutfur himself denies).

I suppose Shiraj is a generous soul: over the years he has also given money to the Labour party and offered cash to the Lib Dems. But as with many businessmen mixing in the political arena, I’m also sure he would want a pay back. And nothing would please him more than to regain control of the annual Baishakhi Mela, the cash cow festival attracting 100,000 visitors in Brick Lane and Weavers Fields every May. Control was removed from his a few years ago after council appointed auditors filed a devastating report about his organisation’s lack of financial control.

So it will be interesting to see who puts in bids and who wins the tender for two tenders that have just been advertised. One, here, is for the “production management” of the Mela on next May 8, the other, here, is for the “creation of the procession” for the Mela.

Here’s a flavour from the tender blurb from the former:

Expressions of Interest to Quote Contract number: CLC3895 Production Management: A Baishakhi Mela in Banglatown Brick Lane Sunday 8th May 2011 Introduction Tower Hamlets is seeking quotes for the Production Management of the annual Baishakhi Mela event. The Production Manager will be responsible for delivering a coherent event plan and risk assessment, site plans, contracting and managing site crew, site managers and safety staff and procuring site infrastructure for up to two sites. The Baishakhi Mela is an annual event celebrating the Bengal New Year with an attendance in the region of 100,000 people during the course of the day and across three main event sites: Brick Lane, Allen Gardens and Weavers Fields and linked via a series of closed roads. The event is one of the key community festivals in the borough and draws an audience from across the UK but focussed on the local Bangladeshi community. Now in its 14th year, the 2011 Baishakhi Mela will take place on Sunday 8th May. Criteria To be considered for this contract you must have relevant experience of managing similar large-scale outdoor community festivals (e.g. 20,000+ audiences) within an urban environment and have comprehensive Health & Safety documentation. Any company unable able to demonstrate this need not apply. Interested suppliers can express an interest via the Council’s e-tendering system (London Tenders Portal) which is free of charge and must allow sufficient time to register (at least 1 working day). Expressions of interest must be made on the following website: https://www.londontenders.org/procontract/supplier.nsf/frm_home?openForm Expressions of interest must be received by 2pm, 10th December 2010. Late expressions of interest will not be accepted. Suppliers who have expressed an interest will be sent quotation documents after the closing date for expressions of interest. The criteria for awarding this contract will be included in the request for quotation documents. The closing date for submitting completed quotation document is 2pm, 7th January 2011. The Council does not undertake to invite all applicants or bind itself to accept the lowest or any tender. The Council will not be liable for any costs incurred in tendering for this contract.

The other organisation whose name was mentioned heavily during of the grinding of the Lutfur rumour mill was Media Link. Many thought it had its eyes on winning more contracts for council publicity – it already has several – and perhaps even the star prize of helping to print and distribute East End Life.
A reliable Town Hall source told me some weeks ago that Media Link had upset some council officers by helping to publicise the official Mayor-making ceremony for Lutfur at the end of October. I was told they had been helping with invitations and the like.
It seems that Tory group leader Peter Golds had also heard these suggestions because he submitted an official member’s enquiry about them. The response to his questions was written by Takki Sulaiman, the not-so-value-for-money £100,000 a year “head of communications” hired by moonlighting Lutfur Ali in March this year. This was his answer:
That phrase “formal role” is interesting. I really doubt that an officer would wish to mislead a member. However, Peter has just submitted some follow-up questions, including a demand to know how his member’s enquiry was leaked to Media Link. See here:

May I know how many existing contracts the council has with Media Link?

May I know how long these contacts have been in place? What they are for and what is the fee? Have any Executive council members, either currently  in office or previously been involved in the appointment of Media Link and if so what declarations have been made?

In addition I am mystified as to the response to Media Link’s involvement with the last council meeting.  I was informed that they were involved. Interestingly, having tabled my question the MD of Media Link contacted me four times on my private mobile number and sought a meeting to discuss “questions I may have”.

I am in intrigued as to how Media Link would have any knowledge of my tabling questions on their council related activities?

I’ve tried calling Media Link, but the number listed on its website (020 7422 0002) is unobtainable, which isn’t really very good for a bespoke communications consultancy. I would also like to ask its bosses under what name(s) they file their accounts at Companies House…because the only two I have so far found listed at their registered address in Myrdle Street, Whitechapel, are Media Link World Ltd and Media Link Training Ltd, both of which have fewer financial assets than I do – and that’s saying something.
UPDATE, Dec 7, 6.30pm
Mujib Islam, who owns, Media Link, tells me he did not help with any publicity for Lutfur’s mayor-making ceremony in October. He also tells me that he found it difficult to secure an invite for himself and that it was only when Cllr Oli Rahman stepped in that he gained access. He says he feels distressed at being dragged into the politics of Tower Hamlets and that he is merely a businessman looking to develop a business that has taken 10 years to build. He says that he has not thought about bidding for any contract for East End Life, both because none is currently available, but also because he does not have that sort of capacity at the moment. He says that he had not met Lutfur until about eight or nine months ago when Shiraj Haque persuaded him to do some work on the Yes for Mayor referendum in May.

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