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Archive for October 25th, 2011

Apologies if this has already been reported in any of the local media outlets that claim to cover Tower Hamlets council, but while looking for details of another topic I stumbled across this little gem in the minutes of the town hall cabinet meeting of September 7.

The only news I can find of it was in the Local Government Chronicle, whose reporter Rachel Salmon wrote this pre-meeting article on September 5:

Tower Hamlets mulls £75k webcast system

5 September, 2011 | By Rachel Salmon

Tower Hamlets LBC is considering spending £75,000 on a webcasting system after banning members of the public from photographing, recording or filming its meetings.

In February, the authority amended its constitution preventing members of the public and guests from recording meetings but vowed to webcast all public council meetings within 48 hours, but it has yet to implemented the pledge.

A meeting of the cabinet on Wednesday is set to look at three options:

*Using existing CCTV equipment to implement a “basic, low quality service” that could be delivered within existing budgets;

*Upgrading the existing system, employing “pan-tilt cameras” and “ambient microphones” to improve sound and picture quality at a one-off cost of up to £75,000; and

*Contracting out the webcasting at a cost of £25,000 a year, which would allow meetings to be streamed live and would typically offer sub-titles and links to explanatory materials such as presentations and reports.

The cabinet report describes the system of fixed video cameras and microphones in the council chamber as “old and unreliable”.

Conservative opposition group leader Peter Golds has previously criticised the council’s failure to webcast its meetings.

This proposal to webcast council meetings was in many people’s views essential to improving transparency in Tower Hamlets. It had been agreed by a vote of the full council in February. The webcasting would not only allow the wider public a peek at the decision-making process but also a look at the poverty of the council debates. As with all scrutiny, it promised to be a catalyst for change.

However, Mayor Lutfur Rahman,his non-executive deputy Ohid Ahmed and their willing accomplice, Isabella Freeman, the council’s chief legal officer, had different ideas. Ohid, in particular, probably because he is the least comprehensible most misunderstood elected politician in Britain, shuddered at the thought.

Because February’s council motion had some minor cost implications, the final decision on how to proceed rested with Lutfur’s and Ohid’s cabinet. I’ve no idea what views, if any, Cllr Shahed Ali expressed at the September 7 meeting but given my previous conversations with him about transparency, I’d be extremely surprised if he spoke out against the proposal.

Contrary to the LGC report above, the cabinet considered not three options but four. Option 4 was to ignore the will of the council and carry on having meetings without the full glare of the public.

The minutes of that meeting are revealing. I’d never really thought of Ms Freeman as a conspiracy theorist before but it seems to have thought that the dark arts of tampering on YouTube would be used to ruin the clean image of Tower Hamlets… . Here’s the relevant section from the minutes:

Ms Freeman, Assistant Chief Executive (Legal Services), at the request of the Mayor, in introducing the report, summarised the key points contained therein:

· Drawing the attention of the Mayor/ Cabinet to the assessment of the positives / negatives of the four options set out in Section 6 of the report and budgetary considerations set out in Section 8.

· Advising that were the Mayor to agree Option 3 “full webcasting service” there would be a need to examine the security of this, such as the potential for editing or tampering with the footage on You Tube; and also a need to train councillors so it was used effectively.

So while all over the world, tyrants are brought down thanks in part to media such as YouTube, in Tower Hamlets it’s considered an evil and an excuse to suppress democracy. If these minutes are correct, she ought to be ashamed.

And here’s the rest of the minutes, which show the suddenly cost-conscious Ohid Ahmed’s intervention. It seems someone suggested that Option 3, the best option costing £25,000 a year, should be funded by reallocating some cash from the East End Life department and the Mayor’s Lutfurmobile Mercedes but Ohid was having none of it. Here’s the minute:

An alternative option was proposed that the Mayor/ Cabinet agree Option 3 “full webcasting service”, set out in paragraphs 6.8 to 6.13 of the report, with the associated costs resourced by the reallocation of funding used to providethe Mayoral car and maintain communications posts within the Mayoral Office.

Councillor Ahmed, Deputy Mayor, emphasised that in the context of current financial constraints facing the Authority additional expenditure necessary to implement recording or webcasting Council meetings could not be justified.

And here’s Lutfur’s contribution:

The Mayor, considered and rejected the alternative option proposed, and in relation to recommendation 2.1 agreed Option 4 contained in paragraph 6.14 of the report, noting that this decision made it unnecessary to consider the subsequent recommendations 2.2 and 2.3.

Decision

That in relation to future recording and/or webcasting of Council meetings, Option 4, as set out in Section 6 of the report (CAB 034/112), be agreed.

Sometimes we use the word “disgrace” too much in relation to Tower Hamlets politics – but this is.

Those wanting to read the full council report and its descriptions of all four options can do so here.

UPDATE – 7.50pm

I mentioned above that I would have been very surprised if Lutfur cabinet member Cllr Shahed Ali had spoken out about against webcasting. Well, apparently he did. I’m told he said it was an opportunistic move by Labour.

One of the reasons I would have been surprised was because at a full council meeting in September 2007, when he was a member of Respect, he and his then party colleague Dulal Uddin proposed the following motion:

11.7    Motion submitted by Councillor Dulal Uddin regarding webcasting of Council Committee Meetings

Proposed by: Councillor Dulal Uddin

Seconded by: Councillor Shahed Ali

This Council Believes:

It has a duty to involve all members of the public to access the various council committee meetings we hold in the Town Hall.  However, due to the location of our Town Hall, it is extremely difficult for persons to make the strenuous journey to this remote location, particularly those with physical disabilities.  Accommodation facilities are restricted to 30 persons in the public gallery although we have a growing population of approximately 200,000.

This Council further believes:

Every individual has the fundamental right to play an equal role in society, and this council must as a priority pro-actively address identified needs to ensure all persons have equal access to the work of the Council.  The facility to enhance transparency through the simple cost effective process of ‘web casting’ meetings is achievable

This Council resolves to:

Agree to web cast Council committee meetings subject to a cost evaluation.

This Council instructs:

(a)   Officers to immediately proceed to investigate the mechanics of providing web casts of Council meetings.

(b)   Officers to provide a costing forecast for this provision to be completed before the Cabinet meeting prior to the next full Council meeting.

(c)  Democratic Services to identify these costs within their budget for the Municipal year 2007/08.

Due to time constraints, this motion was never debated, not at the September meeting nor again two months later in November, nor at one in February 2008.

I’m more intrigued than ever to know why Shahed seems to have U-turned on his political principles when not so long ago he believed: “Every individual has the fundamental right to play an equal role in society, and this council must as a priority pro-actively address identified needs to ensure all persons have equal access to the work of the Council.  The facility to enhance transparency through the simple cost effective process of ‘web casting’ meetings is achievable.”

Over to you, Shahed…

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