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Archive for January, 2012

The East London Advertiser’s Nadia Sam Daliri has the story:

Here’s her report:

A Tower Hamlets councillor has today admitted fraudulently claiming benefits for a second home that she did not live at.

Cllr Shelina Akhtar, an independent for Spitalfields and Banglatown ward, pleaded guilty to three counts of dishonestly claiming housing and council tax benefits for a property in Blackwall Way, Poplar.

She was actually living somewhere else during the time of the offences – which ran for two periods between November 2009 and September 2010 – and sub-letting the first property.

This is the second time the 33-year-old has committed such an offence.

During today’s hearing at Snaresbrook Crown Court, His Honour Judge J Platt indicated that her sentence could be tougher than would normally the case because of her past actions.

He told her: “I make you no promises today. This is the second time you have committed fraud against the state regarding benefits to which you are not entitled. The court needs to know more before deciding on the appropriate sentence.”

Akhtar, of Blackwall Way, was handed 100 hours of unpaid work and ordered to pay £250 costs after being found guilty of dishonestly claiming jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit during a case at Thames Magistrates’ Court in July 2010.

Prosecutor Michelle Fawcett said: “She is a local councillor and the case, therefore, was more serious. This defendant has previous convictions for identical matters.”

The housing benefit falsely claimed totalled £1,085 the council tax benefit £29.

The independent councillor won her seat in the May 2010 elections, where she originally stood as a Labour candidate but later defected to become an independent to work alongside mayor Lutfur Rahman.

Earlier in the day a warrant was issued for Akhtar’s arrest after she failed to turn up at court.

She submitted a doctor’s letter saying she was unwell and therefore unfit to stand trial but the first judge threw it out and threatened to issue a warrant for her arrest if she did not turn up by the afternoon.

The warrant was later withdrawn when Akhtar surrendered herself.

Her sister, Hazera Akhtar, 22, of Glasshouse Fields, Shadwell, faced similar charges but they were all dropped.

She is due to be sentenced on February 6.

Electoral Commission rules state that a councillor will only be automatically barred from office if they are sentenced to three months in jail or more. It is down to Tower Hamlets Council to decide what action will be taken against Akhtar.

Akhtar, who also for some reason spells her name Aktar, works at Tower Hamlets College as a part-time “Youth and Enrichment Worker” for 20 hours a week, according to her register of interests.

The background to her arrest can be traced through this link here. I fully expect Mayor Lutfur Rahman to issue a strongly worded statement condemning her and saying that she should stand down as a councillor. We’d then have a very interesting by-election.

Note, though, I used the word ‘expect’…

UPDATE, Jan 9, 6.45pm

I’ve just had a look at the time-sheets Akhtar (pictured next to the Mayor at last year’s anti-EDL march) has submitted to the council for her work as an upstanding representative of the people. They’re here. She claims to work between 53 and 90 hours a month. Ahem. But what’s really interesting is that despite news of her arrest in November 2010 (at which time we also learned of her previous conviction for benefit fraud), she continued to attend “group meetings” and “mayoral engagements”.

She was expelled from Labour in October 2010, so the only “group meetings” she can refer to are those of the Lutfur Rahman independents. Although they’re not classified as a group, they do meet for “group” discussions on a regular basis.

Last month, she spent two hours at group meetings and six hours on mayoral engagements; in November it was two and five hours respectively; in October, it was four and eight. In total, since December 2010, she has attended 34.5 hours of group meetings and 38 hours of mayoral engagements.

Assuming her claims are true (yes, yes, that is a big assumption), it seems she has been an integral part of Lutfur’s inner circle since she was arrested. That would be an incredible misjudgment by Lutfur, if true.

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On Tuesday, Tower Hamlets will be named in a major report as the local authority area with Britain’s highest rate of child poverty. The Campaign to End Child Poverty has found that 52 per cent of children in Tower Hamlets live in child poverty, as defined by the Child Poverty Act. The measure is derived by looking at median average household incomes and after housing costs are taken into account.There is considered to be child poverty when household incomes are less than 60 per cent of this median.

Bethnal Green and Bow is the parliamentary constituency with Britain’s highest rate at 51 per cent; in Poplar and Limehouse, the rate is 48 per cent (which could be a statistical anomaly).

I mention these statistics because they provide some background to a very good article in today’s Sunday Times by Rushanara Ali, the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.

Here it is:

We know that times are tough and the job market for young people is even tougher, with 1m of them unemployed. Since I was selected as a parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow in Tower Hamlets, east London, in 2007, I have come across many young people, including graduates, desperately seeking work. Graduate unemployment in my constituency was then among the highest in the UK and remains high.

I was told by one parent: “I have three children who have degrees from good universities — but they are having trouble getting jobs.” This was a story that was too often repeated. When I met these young graduates, it quickly became clear that many were making basic mistakes in their job applications and, crucially, they lacked social networks and confidence — which was further diminishing with the knockback of rejection letters from employers.

What these young people were lacking was the “soft skills” required to make the transition from school and college to long-term employment.

My proposal therefore is the establishment of finishing schools that teach manners, communication and presentation — abilities that are fundamental to getting on in the world. Getting a job isn’t just about your grades — you also need to know how to put together a CV, how to dress for an interview and how to behave with employers. These are skills that schools and colleges too often fail to teach.

The model for my suggestion is a scheme that until recently was running in London. Fastlaners was an intensive two-week finishing school that provided a crash course in everything from voice training to teamwork, workplace etiquette to behaviour, posture and dress; employers provided robust feedback and taught graduates the tacit rules and “tricks of their trade” as well as acting as mentors.

The aim was to build graduates’ soft skills, to raise their confidence and self-esteem, to widen their networks and to increase their awareness of the labour market. Fastlaners also encouraged graduates to work with other graduates to provide peer-to-peer support and networks so they could share experiences of what works and what does not. The results were impressive, though sadly the scheme is no longer running because of cuts in charitable funding.

Such projects are particularly important for working-class children.

Social mobility declined in the 1980s and we will not know for many years whether it bounced back under Labour. I hate to say it but on Labour’s watch, while experts say there was some improvement, it will have been at best a modest turnaround.

Sandwiched between the glittering towers of Canary Wharf and the City and close to the Olympic village and the newly opened Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, my constituency should have thousands of job opportunities. And yet the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion recently found that 10% of 16-24-year-olds in Tower Hamlets are claiming jobseeker’s allowance — the highest proportion in the capital.

What is particularly shocking is that despite the rapid expansion in higher education, so little progress has been made. While some working-class children have broken through, those in the middle and upper-middle classes have maintained their dominance of the professions.

In the past few years this situation has worsened. Young people — including graduates — are not making the transition from education to work because there is a radical mismatch between what employers are looking for and the skills these would-be employees have.

For many of my constituents, they were the first generation in their families to go to university and, despite having done well in their formal education, they lack the social capital to help them make the transition into work.

These young people need pre-job-search training to help build the social support and networks that would give them the best possible chance of getting interviews. This support would be crucial in helping them to compete against their middle-class contemporaries — who have many of those resources through family and friends.

We must do better at providing what young people need to get good jobs. As the Fastlaners project demonstrates, this does not always mean long-term training and investment but instead can be accomplished with short, sharp, rapid training and work placements.

While formal education is incredibly important, we should not forget the other skills, experience and networks that help us all to do well and contribute more to society.

 

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Happy New Year to all and sorry for the recent lack of posts.

I know I’m going to be shot at for this (again) but 2012 has started well: well, quite well. Details have just been published here about a good decision taken by Mayor Lutfur Rahman two weeks ago here, but as with many things Lutfur, with there is a sting in the tail.

He has decided against taking the borough’s housing stock back into council control and instead has left it under the management of Tower Hamlets Homes (THH). However, he has also taken political control of the organisation, which is responsible for 22,000 properties, by appointing four of his friendliest councillors to its board. His appointees include someone who has bordered on being unstable in public meetings recently: more on him later.

THH, which was set up as the Arm’s Length Management Organisation (Almo) after the failure of the Housing Choice option a few years ago, has not been everyone’s cup of tea but in my experience as a leaseholder of theirs, they have been excellent. Its chief executive, Gavin Cansfield, and its former leaseholder services manager, Gareth Candlin, have been, or were, much more focused, responsive and productive than the previous council management. I have to stress that that is my own experience and I have no doubt that others see it very differently (THH’s own survey shows that leaseholder satisfaction is only 47 per cent, while 73 per cent of tenants are apparently satisfied: see para 3.2.7 on p5 of this report).

The detail of Lutfur’s decision shows he believes he can make £8.7 million of savings via Tower Hamlets homes over the next five years, and although the model predicts another £180,000 savings if the stock was brought back in-house, that is said to be a “high risk” option.

Lutfur says that although THH has made “improvements” to achieve its two star Audit Commission status, there is “considerable room for further improvement”. He said any restructuring required under a new council model would put £71 million of “decent homes” funding at risk and that the THH model is the one which best engages with residents.

Another person who has been extremely helpful with housing issues in our little neighbourhood in Bow has been Cllr Marc Francis, the once mighty Rasputin of Tower Hamlets politics who has been a little shy of late, possibly because he has had to keep his continuing advice to Lutfur under wraps (Marc remains a Labour group member, you see).

He now has his reward, for he is the only Labour group member to retain his place on the board of Tower Hamlets Homes.

And here is the other side to Lutfur’s move. Prior to this decision, the five councillors on the THH board were Marc Francis, Amy Whitelock, Judith Gardiner, Sirajul Islam and Kabir Ahmed (who was replaced temporarily by Cllr Helal Uddin at the end of November) . These were appointed after a General Purposes Committee meeting last June. As of last month, the attendance records at THH board meetings for the second half of 2011 for Marc, Amy, Judith and Sirajul were, respectively,  50 per cent, 50 per cent, 100 per cent, 20 per cent. Kabir, who is a paid ‘executive adviser’ to the Mayor, failed to attend any.

Lutfur, using his executive powers (and advised by council legal chief Isabella Freeman), has now annulled those appointments as invalid. Paragraph 3.3 of his decision notice says:

The Monitoring Officer has advised that the appointment of councillors under the Memorandum and articles of THH is an Executive matter as it relates to executive functions. Housing Management is an executive function. It would appear that General Purposes Committee [TJ: which is also advised by the Monitoring Officer ] should not have made the appointment recommendations is it made last  May (sic). Accordingly the Mayor is requested to make the councillor appointments set out in recommendation 2.1 (c).

Which are….*drum roll*…..Alibor Choudhury, Kabir Ahmed, Rania Khan and Marc Francis.

So, all Lutfurites. That’s politics, I guess. I think it’s now a certainty that Kabir Ahmed will bother to turn up and it’s good that Marc is still a member. But the appointment of Alibor is a statement of intent. As the borough’s cabinet member for finance, he now has his paws close to the operational budget for the borough’s housing stock.

He’s a bit like Winnie the Pooh is Alibor in that respect. But whereas Winnie was a bit docile, Alibor’s growl is notorious. Let’s hope Marc, who used to be an enemy of Alibor’s in pre-mayoral times, helps to keep him in check.

Anyway, here’s the press release from Tower Hamlets Homes:

The Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, has decided to retain Tower Hamlets Homes as the Council’s housing management provider, following an Options Appraisal. 

Commenting on the decision Mayor Lutfur Rahman said, “Housing is my number one priority and my actions over the past year to increase funding for Decent Homes and deliver my new housing targets demonstrate my commitment to improving the condition and availability of affordable social housing.  Tower Hamlets Homes is a young organisation and having examined resident views and the merit and costs of the various models I believe that currently continuity with THH will sustain my drive to improved housing in our borough.  They have made good progress in the first three years but I am keen to ensure this trend continues, especially given the changes driven through by central government.  This proposal and the changes to the board will strengthen our ability to ensure continued performance improvement and fast delivery of the Decent Homes programme”.

Tower Hamlets Homes Chief Executive Gavin Cansfield said, “I am delighted by this vote of confidence in Tower Hamlets Homes from the Mayor and the Council.  This means we can start 2012 confident in our future as an organisation, and focus on continuing to improve the way we do things for residents and to deliver our vision of providing the best housing services in Tower Hamlets by 2014.”

The details of the Mayor’s decision can be found here.

UPDATE – Jan 4, 4.30pm

I’ve been contacted by a couple of councillors. There is a real worry that these structural changes could damage the reputation of Tower Hamlets Homes with potential development partners. THH is meant to be an “arm’s length” outfit but Lutfur is elbowing his way in. Until his decision on December 21, the THH board comprised 15 members: five councillors, five independents, and five resident members.

As of today, there are just eight on that board. We have the four Lutfur councillors above, no independents and four residents who have been retained on an interim basis. They are Iain Lawson, Ian Fincher, Sheila Beeton and Shamsul Hoque. They will remain as members until the council (presumably Lutfur because housing is deemed an executive function) decides on a new process to appoint new ones. THH have confirmed to me that they do not know the timescale for that process.

The council/Lutfur has also yet to decide on a process for appointing the independent members. Presumably, both the resident and independent members would have to go through an application and interview process.

It would be incredible and highly risky if Lutfur gains control of every member of the board, particularly given some of the friends he keeps.

A THH board meeting has been pencilled in for January 24, the quorum for which would be two councillors and one resident. We do not yet know whether that will go ahead.

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