Archive for December, 2011

Following the mayor’s (mostly failed) complaint to the PCC, it looks as though it’s Lutfur Rahman Week over at Andrew Gilligan’s Telegraph blog.

I’ll update the links on this post as and when Andrew releases more details, but I thought it would be a good idea to open up this blog for comments on his findings (the Telegraph blog is often clogged up by more ill-informed nutters than even this one).

Yesterday, he wrote about Cllr Shahed Ali’s tax affairs. It seems as though Shahed, who collects about £23,000 a year for being a cabinet member councillor in Tower Hamlets, might have engaged in that notorious Phoenix tactic of winding up one company and starting another…but leaving HM Revenues and Customs out of pocket to the tune of £25,000. When I tweeted this yesterday, Cllr Oli Rahman, who is also in Lutfur’s cabinet, replied:

Over £25 billion in public money is still owed to the tax payer. What did AG say about that?

I pointed out that Andrew had in fact written about it: that the £25billion is made up of these little pots of £25k. Oli has so far failed to respond to that.

Today, Wednesday, he has added more detail to the story that I broke here last week, that Helal Abbas had been suspended from the council following a complaint from IFE bigwig Hira Islam. Andrew has read Hira’s complaint…and reveals that Hira himslef was actually disciplined by the council last year.

Over to you.

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Two of the stories that had most impact while I was at the East London Advertiser have now, thanks to the journalistic gods who like our world to be balanced and in harmony, coalesced into one.

On October 4 2007, we ran this front page:

(The typo, if you’ve spotted it, wasn’t my fault!)…This story had an impact in many ways and it left wounds which have healed only relatively recently. The thrust of it was a plan (the council disputed that word: they said it hadn’t achieved the requisite level of research at that point to merit being called a ‘plan’) to reuse Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park as a multifaith burial ground. That would have entailed digging up some 350,000 bodies buried there between 1841 and 1966 when the cemetery was closed. After a huge backlash, both locally and nationally, the plan was kicked into the long grass. For the time being at least.

A year earlier, on October 5, 2006, we ran this story:

After we ran this story, the council (mainly then press head Lorraine Langham who is now operations director at Ofsted) condemned us and Lib Dem councillor Stephanie Eaton, who did much to expose this scandal, of scaremongering. The council had forgotten to consult the Health and Safety Executive over a housing development it had granted permission for on The Oval in Bethnal Green. That error was not exactly minor because the proposed development, on which construction had already started, was right next to Britain’s biggest gasometers by the Regent’s Canal. The omission caused a major row between the HSE and the council. The HSE opposed the plan but the council then offered a compromise: it suggested putting signs up at the back of the new flats saying, “No smoking and no barbecues”. Seriously. The courts also considered the omission serious and the permission was eventually overturned (Ms Langham never did apologise to us).

The last time I looked, the development was still half-built, going nowhere and in limbo.

Two weeks ago, East End Life carried a brief item on page 3. Headlined “cemetery discussion”, it said:

THE mayor has asked council officers to urgently explore options for a new multi-faith cemetery in Tower Hamlets. 

At a meeting of the council’s cabinet on December 7, Mayor Lutfur Rahman made clear that residents wanted to see options for a local cemetery brought forward for discussion.

Speaking after the meeting, he said: “Local people want the option of having a burial plot within their borough.

“Current arrangement with neighbouring boroughs don’t meet that aspiration. I want all the options on the table so we  can debate them in an open and transparent manner.”

Full details of the meeting on the council website.

Well, when you go to the council’s website for that cabinet meeting on December 7, there is not yet anything about the cemetery discussion.

I understand that the matter was first raised at the Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting the night before when Cllr Sirajul Islam, who suffered the devastating loss of his 14-year-old daughter Aniqua in 2006, had questioned why the new open spaces strategy contained no details about a cemetery in the borough. The committee chair Ann Jackson then raised it with Lutfur at his cabinet meeting the next day.

There was then some discussion about what had been happening to various plans on this issue in the past couple of years. It was then noted that the council was looking at a “commercial site” as a possible solution.

I understand that the commercial site they’ve earmarked is – yes, you’ve guessed it – the half-built development by the Oval gasometers and possibly land around it.

This is an issue that has had traction in Tower Hamlets for many years now. Tower Hamlets is not unique among inner London boroughs in having no working cemetery: in fact, none do. In east London, families must trek to Manor Park, Hainault, Redbridge and various other sites to visit graves.

This is a delicate one….but I’m not sure it’s right that taxpayers’ money should be spent buying land in these austere times.

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The following is a guest post by Dan McCurry. Dan is a former chair of the Bow Labour party who provided the photograph for the masthead on this blog. He is a criminal defence legal adviser who grew up in the East End where is his late father was the vicar of St Dunstan’s in Stepney. Lime many others, he found the mayoral election campaign process difficult and he switched his support for the various candidates more than once. The following are his views, not mine, and they were first aired on the Labour Uncut website yesterday. However, given Dan’s activism in the Tower Hamlets Labour party, they’re worth repeating here.

Honour and shame in Tower Hamlets

by Dan McCurry

We used to be proud of spreading our ideas around the world. Now we are confused about how we explain our identity to the people who have settled here.

The problem is that we need to understand their culture and identity, before we can explain to them our own. With 3,000 honour crime complaints to the police last year, maybe this is the issue that we’re failing to comprehend.

It would help to understand what happened in Tower Hamlets last year, when the Labour party collapsed in on itself over the selection of Lutfur Rahman as candidate for mayor.

It started out as a conversation about secularism. But we didn’t know it was about secularism, because in school we learn everything there is to know about Martin Luther King, but nothing about Martin Luther. We know about the rights of minorities, but not about the separation of church and state.

This was in the days when Muslims were considered to be either moderates or extremists, with nothing in between. This perception was encouraged by the fact that the extremists got more airtime, but also due to the taboos about race and religion that suppressed debate about community, but allowed debate about terror.

The row was mostly, but not exclusively, between Cllr Helal Abbas and Cllr Lutfur Rahman. Abbas was not devoutly religious, but Lutfur apparently was, and this is where Lutfur’s increasing clout in the community came from. Including all places of prayer, there are about 40 mosques in Tower Hamlets and most of them see Lutfur as their man.

When Lutfur was first elected as a councillor, he was the apprentice of Abbas. Abbas didn’t complain that Lutfur brought the mosques’ vote with him, but when Lutfur struck out on his own, Abbas was furious. He denounced Lutfur’s religious connections, speaking of the global reaching tentacles of the Islamic forum for Europe, an organisation based at the east London mosque, and supportive of Lutfur.

In east London, all politicians of all parties, seek to tap into faith organisations. When the doors of one are shut, they go knocking on another. Those who condemn these organisations tend to be the ones who have run out of doors to knock on.

The scrutiny of Lutfur’s connections to the east London mosque began when a journalist called Ted Jeory arrived at the local paper. For years councillors had complained that they could never get anyone from the East London Advertiser to cover town hall meetings. Now they were complaining about this guy who kept turning up.

Rather like the way that Arab dictators began by condemning Al-Jazeera, Tower Hamlets councillors quickly switched from condemning, to briefing, Ted Jeory. According to Ted, the briefings came from anyone who was ambitious, and included every candidate who would later stand in the mayoral selection. Others, such as the MP, Jim Fitzpatrick, were fearful that Lutfur could muster enough Labour votes to replace an incumbent.

The fact is that Lutfur was on good terms with religious people across a spectrum of opinion, but he wasn’t a conduit for evil. He just didn’t realise that Labour people consider Islam to be authoritive, and not sharing the same values as us. In the fine line that a Muslim politician must walk, in a British political career, Lutfur was too far on the Bangladeshi side. However, this needs to be put into perspective. It’s not as if he was hanging out with suicide bombers.

The rumours about extremist connections continued and reached a high point when Ted’s reports were picked up by Andrew Gilligan and broadcast in a C4 Dispatches film, where Jim Fitzpatrick took the controversy to a new height by alleging a plot to infiltrate the Labour party with Muslim extremists, “rather like militant infiltrated Labour in the 70s and 80s”.

It sounds like a ridiculous now, but at the time the country was paranoid following the 7/7 bombings and ready to believe anything. Meanwhile, Labour head office was becoming increasingly nervous about what was happening in Tower Hamlets. The persistency of the rumours began to turn even rational minds.

In May 2010, Tower Hamlets had a referendum for a directly elected mayor, resulting in a mandatory six month time-frame for an election. Seeing an opportunity to bypass his isolation within the party, Lutfur ran in the open Labour party selection for mayoral candidate, and easily won, but a report attacking Lutfur, from Abbas, and also one from Cllr Bill Turner, was presented to the NEC and, without committee members having time to read them, a vote was taken to rule Lutfur out as candidate.

Although John Biggs came second in the selection vote, the NEC gave the slot to third place Abbas. They may have feared that they would have been labelled as racist, if they gave the candidacy to a white man.

In response, Lutfur tore up his Labour membership card and announced his intention to run as an independent against Abbas. The two old friends were now sworn enemies and it would be for the electorate to decide who would win. Lutfur did.

In Bangladeshi village society there is little in the way of transparent rule of law. The community is governed by honour and shame. As a system, it seems to work in Bangladesh, but when transferred to the UK, we see both the good and the bad.

We see a low crime rate, juxtaposed against a high perversion of the course of justice, as victims are pressured to drop charges. We see strong family life, juxtaposed with school girls disappearing from the roster, without notice or explanation. We see a moralistic society, where alcohol is shunned. Yet when youths gather in groups on street corners to drink alcohol, as an act of rebellion, they will eventually face severe and violent retribution, from the “community”.

The lack of transparency undermines the justice done by creating other injustices. This is brutally demonstrated when false rumours are spread against individuals who have displeased someone in the community. I first saw this phenomenon when Oona King backed the Iraq war and the community turned on her with the most astonishing slander. She was alleged to be a Mossad spy, who wanted to criminalise the veil and remove halal food from school menus.

The fact that such rumours are unbelievable is beside the point. This kind of attack is a referendum against an individual. If the rumours catch on, then the community consensus has turned against that person. If the rumours fail, then the individual has the respect of the community. However, the attack on Oona was less to do with Iraq and more to do with a consensus in the community that it was time for a Bangladeshi to be MP, and that the MP should be a man.

The allegations against Lutfur are different to the rumours about Oona, in that the target audience was the white community. The Labour party had unwittingly become a part of the system of honour and shame, and had no understanding of the issue to help them cope. The result was division and misery.

Today, Tower Hamlets politics is deeply divided. Every time the two sides of the council meet to agree on working together, the agreement is then sabotaged by Labour people who want to see Lutfur kept permanently out of the party. The bitterness amongst Lutfur’s people is plain and highly visible. They now attack the Labour councillors in return.

So deep are these divisions that Lutfur refuses to sit on the committee that will hire the new chief executive for the local authority. The Labour group has a majority on this committee, but no chief executive is going to take the job without the cooperation of the mayor. Catch 22.

Meanwhile, in the party, with Lutfur gone, there is a lack of good Bangladeshi activists who can make future councillors. It is unrealistic that any of the current Labour councillors would win against Lutfur at a future mayor election. The Bangladeshis see him as a victim, while the white people continue to see him as the Labour bloke.

The situation is bogged down and tragic. If Lutfur was to reapply to join the Labour party, it is likely that he would be readmitted, but he point blank refused to. As far as he’s concerned, he is a victim in all of this. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has washed his hands of the situation with no explanation as to why.

Shakespeare described the battle scene in Macbeth: “As two spent swimmers that do cling together and choke their art.”

The image of both sides drowning is apt.

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Yesterday, MP Barry Gardiner told me that “this is the first glimmer that Dow has some shame” about what is happening in Bhopal. He was referring to their decision to waive their sponsorship rights over the 2012 Olympic stadium wrap.

Here is the story from today’s Sunday Express.

DOW Chemical last night agreed to ­remove all its branding from Britain’s Olympic stadium in what was hailed as a victory by campaigners furious at its links to a disaster in India.

The US corporate giant said it was agreeing to the “vision” of the 2012 Games by waiving its sponsorship rights to place its brand on a controversial fabric wrap for the stadium.

However, its hopes of dampening the row received a blow after the Sunday Express found it had been in talks with the Olympic Park Legacy Company about partnership deals in what will become the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park after the Games. The Queen has close links with India and the park is being named for her Jubilee.

Dow was made a sponsor of London 2012 by Lord Coe’s organising committee (Locog) in August. 

Since then the Sunday Express has led coverage of growing anger in Britain at the move.

Dow spokesman Scott Wheeler said: “The agreement between Dow and Locog was limited to branding of five ‘test panels’ that were to be removed in the months before the Games and were not part of the final design.

“In mid-summer, Locog and Dow discussed Dow deferring the rights to these five panels to allow free and full execution of the design as determined by Locog. Dow agreed to this to support Locog’s and London 2012’s vision for the stadium wrap.”

The Sunday Express understands an unnamed artist now working on the wrap insisted on “artistic integrity”, which meant not using Dow’s logo.

MP Barry Gardiner, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on India, said: “This decision at last indicates Dow is showing some shame and that can only be positive. But we also hope any attempt by it to have a long-term involvement in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park are abandoned.” 

The legacy company said it had been in talks with all sponsors “as a matter of course … to understand their commitment to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park after the Games.”

It is not clear what Dow’s involvement might be but a source said “sponsorship”. 

Dow did not comment.

It owns Union Carbide, the company that owned and ran a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, where a gas leak in 1984 killed thousands of people in the world’s worst industrial disaster.

Dow never owned or operated the plant in Bhopal and bought Union Carbide in 2001 after the Indian Government had agreed a $470million settlement in 1989.

However, the firm continues to face lawsuits over compensation to victims. It says remediation of the plant is India’s responsibility. The Indian Olympic Association will write to Lord Coe to register its protest.

This is not the end of the story. There are still some major questions to answer around the procurement process for this wrap. Last week, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport told me that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was directly involved in the comprehensive spending review decision to drop the wrap from the original ODA budget in October 2010. He had been told by Locog that a sponsorship deal was “likely”. Had Dow, which had become an IOC sponsor only three months before that decision, already expressed an interest? These are questions that can now be asked in Parliament and possibly by a select committee investigation.

It has been, and remains, a murky affair that has highlighted the tawdry links between corporate sponsors and the so-called Olympic ideals. Dow is trying to rebrand itself as an icon of “sustainability”, whatever that means. As I’ve written before, Dow undoubtedly does do some positive work, but it should be noted that it has never contributed a penny to any medical appeal in Bhopal. It wants to invest in water purification plants in India, but not in Bhopal where one is desperately needed.

There is something deeply troubling about Dow piggybacking the London Games, which have made a great play of allegedly remediating a former industrial site in east London, when there is such a sinister reminder of its Union Carbide subsidiary’s own legacy still polluting groundwater and maiming children in Bhopal.

When we look at the bigger picture, the real villain in all this is the International Olympic Committee, which gobbled up Dow’s sponsorship money in July 2010. From that moment, Locog was in a difficult position, although it would have been good to have seen Lord Coe show some of the backbone he demonstrated as an athlete, when he was a sporting here of mine.

It is that deal with the IOC which will allow Dow to use the (tarnished) Olympic symbols in its marketing. What we have to watch out for now is a) whether its “sector exclusive” marketing rights allow it to display its brand anywhere else in the Olympic Park; b) how many VIP tickets will it have; and c) any continuing involvement the company may want after the Games (I understand they have discussed some sponsorship deals with the Olympic Park Legacy Company).

Today’s news is a victory but it is not the end.

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Former Labour council leader and defeated mayoral candidate Helal Abbas was suspended from Tower Hamlets council on Monday after a complaint by a leading figure in the Islamic Forum of Europe.

I don’t have the full details, but I understand that council employee and IFE member Hira Islam had complained that Abbas had broken the Code of Conduct when he cited his name in the document he sent to Labour’s National Executive Committee during the notorious candidate selection procedure last September. That document, you’ll remember, was used as the basis for removing Lutfur Rahman from the party’s shortlist, which itself resulted in Abbas being installed as Labour’s candidate.

The relevant text relating to Hira Islam in that document is here:

12. It was when he became Council leader that I began to suspect Luthfur [sic] Rahman’s involvement in the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE). This is a fundamentalist organisation which is gradually infiltrating the Labour party… Some of his actions led me to believe that he was being influenced by the IFE. Hira Islam, a Team Manager with the Council was seen to offering and negotiating positions on Luthfur [sic] Rahman’s cabinet. He is a prominent member of the local mosque and is suspected of being a member of the IFE. I challenged Luthfur [sic] Rahman about this saying it was improper to meet Labour councillors with someone who had a prominent role in the local mosque. That individual Hira Islam, was also an officer of the Council and should not be interfering with the political process. For me that was the confirmation of Luthfur [sic] Rahman’s links with IFE… He has never clarified the position on record nor has he ever disputed his links with IFE.”

Hira, a longstanding member of the Labour party who has previously refused to deny those claims, apparently complained to the council. The complaint was then referred to the council’s Standards Committee. Abbas argued strongly that this was entirely a Labour party matter.

I understand that the committee was made up of two independent members (ie non-councillors – I’m not sure who yet) and one councillor. That councillor was Respect’s Fozol Miah. Some question this: they point out that Fozol supported Lutfur in the mayoral election campaign and that like Abbas he is also a member for the Spitalfields and Banglatown ward, hence, they say, a conflict of interest and political bias. I’m told Fozol lobbied the two lay members quite hard to uphold the complaint.

And that is exactly what they did. Last week, they ruled that Abbas had broken the code. He was handed the judgement last Friday. Their decision was to suspend him as a councillor for one week and if he didn’t apologise within that, he would be suspended for four weeks.

He refused to apologise and he immediately lodged an appeal with the Standards Board for England. Instead of waiting a few days to hear whether that application to appeal had been accepted, Tower Hamlets suspended him on Monday. I’m told the Standards Board accepted his application today and his suspension has been, well, suspended.

Now, I don’t know the full details of Hira’s complaint so if anyone has it, do send it to me. But I am aware that this is not the only complaint in the Standards Committee pipeline. Other opponents of Lutfur have similar cases pending. There is a belief that this is a deliberate tactic. We’ll have to see.


UPDATE – December 23, 11am.

I have received the following statement from Cllr Fozol Miah:

In your blog you make a number of  claims that are inaccurate in general but most importantly you have accused me of ‘a conflict of interest and political bias’ and have falsely stated that I ‘lobbied the two lay Members quite hard to uphold the complaint’.  Both of these allegations are manifestly untrue and have been published to the world at large with reckless disregard to whether what is said is true. You did not contact me or make any effort to establish the facts before publishing.  I consider that these comments are defamatory of my position as Councillor as they are intended to ridicule me in my office as Councillor and damage my reputation in the community.

I am a Member of the Council’s Standards Committee and was selected to be on the hearing panel that considered the complaint against Councillor Abbas the facts of this you have incorrectly reported.  I consulted officers about whether there was any personal interest that I should declare in this case and I was told there was not.  Being a ward councillor is not a conflict; I have acted with the utmost integrity in my role on standards and have no personal conflict with Councillor Abbas. Had officers advised me that there was any conflict then I would have been happy to step down. 

The Members of the Committee at the closed meeting carefully considered the case on its merits.  Councillor Abbas admitted that he had disclosed confidential information relating to an employee which was in breach of the Code of Conduct for Members. The Panel received independent legal advice on the relevant law and cases and considered quite carefully the penalty that should be imposed for this admitted breach.  I most certainly did not lobby the panel for a stronger penalty; it was in fact the Independents who felt that it was a very serious offence and should have been a more serious penalty but were content to give a penalty of one week suspension if there was an apology.

He has also demanded a retraction and an apology.

I have asked him whether he was happy with the outcome of the meeting, whether he agrees with the recommended penalty, whether he tried to persuade any panel member to be more lenient, what his personal recommendation in the deliberations and whether he agreed with the proposed four week suspension or whether he suggested something less.

I’d also like to know whether he is a member of the IFE, whether he supports them, whether he has any other links to them (given that his former leader George Galloway said IFE were an integral part in the rise of Respect), whether he personally knew Hira Islam, and whether he declared any such links to the Standards Committee or sought advice from officers prior to that meeting.

If I have made Fozol a figure of ridicule in the community, then I apologise unreservedly. I look forward to more of his contributions to council meetings in the future.

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It’s always curious to see how my profession works. On November 8, I wrote this silly article, headlined “River Monster Alert”, for the Sunday Express:

Probably because it was buried on p27, only a few “weird and wonderful” websites and the East London Advertiser followed it up.

However, yesterday the same story with the exact same quotes I’d got from Mike Wells, was the main lead story on page 3 of The Sun no less. Even page 3 girl Amii, 25, from Birmingham, felt compelled to comment in the News in Briefs section:

AMII says: “It’s a worry to hear that a snake or alligator could be on the loose killing geese near the Olympic park. I’m reminded of the late, great conservationist Steve Irwin who said, ‘You can touch a stick of dynamite, but if you touch a venomous snake it’ll kill you so fast it’s not even’ funny’.”

Since then, the story has been picked up by the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Huffington Post, the BBC, LBC Radio and many others.

I don’t know what the moral of all this is; perhaps it’s that I’m first for bollocks.

UPDATE – Dec 14, 8.50pm

The Guardian’s Dave Hill tells a commenter on his blog thinks the mystery is solved: otters. See here.

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Following a suggestion made on this blog, the leaders of the Lib Dems, Labour and Respect parties in the host Olympic borough of Tower Hamlets have joined Mayor Lutfur Rahman in writing to Lord Coe to ask him to drop Dow Chemical as a sponsor of the 2012 stadium.

Only Peter Golds, the Tory group leader, has declined to add his name. To have done so would have gone against his party whips at Westminster. I suspect his private views are like many others on this issue: incredulity that Coe has made such a pact.

Here is the joint letter, the first of its kind under Lutfur’s mayoralty.

Dear Lord Coe,

Re: Sponsorship of Olympic Games from Dow Chemical

As leaders of the political parties on Tower Hamlets council, we are writing to you to request that LOCOG reconsider the decision to accept sponsorship for the Olympic Games from Dow Chemical, which took over Union Carbide which was responsible for the appalling loss of life at the time of the explosion and bears some responsibility for the continuing suffering in Bhopal.

We find it strange that due diligence failed to establish that there is continuing anger and concern directed towards Dow Chemical as the successor company. We also find it difficult to believe that you were unaware of the strength of feeling locally and internationally over the issue.

Tower Hamlets is one of the host boroughs for the London Olympic Games, and we are delighted to be closely involved with what we hope will be an enormous success. Our borough is also as diverse as it is multi racial, with many strong political and cultural links to the Indian sub continent.

We all hope that in the light of widespread public concern and protest, that you insist that LOCOG revisits its decisions to allow Dow Chemical to sponsor the event as soon as is practically possible.

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