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Archive for January, 2012

The Conservative group in Tower Hamlets has submitted the following motion to be debated at the next council meeting on January 25. (However, they fully expect council legal chief Isabella Freeman to block it even making the agenda.)

Motion on Cllr Shelina Aktar (AKA Shelina Akhtar)

Proposer: Cllr Peter Golds

Seconder: Cllr Tim Archer

This Council Notes:

  • That incidents of fraud and dishonesty in public life in the United Kingdom are relatively rare and that when proven both political parties and the relevant body, whether it be national or local take appropriate action, as was seen in the recent expenses scandal where all parties suspended recalcitrant members.
  • That Councillor Shelina Aktar, who as a matter of record altered the spelling of her name following her election to the council in 2010, was in July 2010 convicted of benefit fraud, under the name of Shelina Akhtar.
  • In January 2012 she pleaded guilty to further fraud and is to be sentenced in February 2012.

This Council Believes:

  • That it is wrong for such a person to vote on matters that would affect the lives and well being of the overwhelmingly law abiding citizens of this borough.
  • That according to time sheets and other information, that Cllr Aktar is a regular attendee of group meetings involving the Independent mayoral supporting members and regularly attends “mayoral engagements” including six hours of such engagements in December 2011.

This Council Resolves:

  • To suspend the membership of Cllr Aktar for this meeting and all other meetings until she is sentenced and further consideration of appropriate action can be made in light of the judicial sentence.
  • To call upon the Mayor to disassociate himself from Cllr Aktar and confirm publicly that she will not be invited to join him on further “mayoral engagements”.

For the record, the Tories have also submitted the following questions for the Members’ question time section:

Cllr Peter Golds

Does the Mayor support the government’s announcement that it will seek to criminalise sub-letting of socially rented property?

Cllr Zara Davis

Why has the Mayor ignored the motion agreed by Full Council in September 2011, which resolved that “Sir John McDougal Gardens, Millwall Park and Island Gardens will remain solely for the use of residents and community groups for the purposes of recreation, leisure and sports?”

Cllr David Snowdon

Will the Mayor please outline what measures he is taking to promote the teaching of history in Tower Hamlets schools?

Cllr Gloria Thienel

Considering the rising incidents of metal theft from public memorials; how many incidents of metal theft from a public memorial in Tower Hamlets has taken place in the last year, will the Mayor please inform the Council what measures he has taken to ensure that war memorials are protected in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets?

Cllr Craig Aston

Will the Mayor provide an update on energy efficiency in the Town Hall building?

Cllr Tim Archer

Will the Mayor provide an update on the progress of the motion agreed by full council on 15 September 2010, to bring the Henry Moore statue back to the borough and explain to the council  why this is taking so long, what meetings/discussions have taken place and will the statue be back in time for the Olympics?

Cllr Dr Emma Jones

How many people sacked from Tower Hamlets employment have accidentally continued to be paid in the past year?

The Tories have also submitted the following other motions:

Education in Tower Hamlets

Proposer: Cllr Zara Davis

Seconder: Cllr Dr Emma Jones

This Council notes:

  • That the Secretary of State for Education has recently approved the creation of three new free schools in Tower Hamlets which will be run by The Constable Education Trust, the Wapping and Shadwell Secondary Education Trust and City Gateway, all of which will open free schools in September 2012
  • That the severe shortage of school places in Tower Hamlets is such that:
    • According to the borough’s own projections, at primary school level an additional 16 form entries are required in Tower Hamlets primary schools between the academic year 2011/12 and 2012/13 to cope with the projected increase in population in the borough[1]
    • At secondary school level, the number of students will increase from 12,987 (2009/10 roll number) to 16,314 by 2020, thereby requiring an additional 110 form entries.[2]
    • It is already the case that for 301 children in Tower Hamlets, the nearest school available to them is so far away that the Council has to provide them with Home-School transport. [3]
    • The number of children requiring Home-School transport on distance grounds has trebled in the last two years, and it is forecasted to increase to 500 pupils in the next three years.[4]

This Council believes:

  • That giving schools independence helps to raise standards, as recognised by a recent OECD report which states: “where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better”[5]
  • That free schools will therefore help to raise standards in Tower Hamlets, both in the free schools themselves as well as in neighbouring schools which will be spurred on to achieve higher standards
  • That free schools will increase the choice available to parents and pupils, with the three new free schools in Tower Hamlets going far beyond the National Curriculum, e.g. the Constable Education Trust Primary School with modern foreign languages; Wapping High will offer an extended school day with 34 hours of teaching a week and the opportunity for a variety of enrichment activities etc.
  • That free schools will also help to alleviate some of the pressure on school places in Tower Hamlets

Therefore, this Council resolves:

  • To welcome and support the creation of free schools in Tower Hamlets, which will be attended by hundreds of pupils from our borough
  • To actively co-operate with and support free schools on matters such as finding premises.

 

Troubled Families

Proposer: Cllr Tim Archer

Seconder: Cllr David Snowdon

This Council Notes:

  • The Coalition Government plans to deal with Troubled Families is a much welcomed step in the right direction.
  • Currently the government spends £9 billion a year on Troubled Families, with only £1 billion a year going to turning Troubled Families around.
  • Each Troubled Family costs £75,000 a year.
  • The London Borough of Tower Hamlets has 1,120 Troubled Families, the highest of any London Borough.
  • This means £84 million is spent each year on Troubled Families in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

This Council Believes:

  •  The creation of a new Troubled Families team at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

This Council Resolves:

  • To support the setting up of a national network of Troubled Families ‘Trouble Shooters’.
  • To work with the Coalition government on this plan and to start to turn around the lives of London Borough of Tower Hamlets residents who live in Troubled Families.

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As I said, we were expecting a strong statement condemning from Mayor Lutfur Rahman his ally, Cllr Shelina Akhtar, the twice convicted benefit fraudster who faces a possible jail sentence….and we got a statement:

Here it is:

Everyone who represents the interests of this community must abide by the highest standards of personal conduct in public life. The council has procedures to follow and I understand that it will await the outcome of the sentencing before deciding what if any further steps it will take against the councillor concerned.

Interestingly, sentencing for Akhtar’s latest crime is on February 6. If that is delayed, or if she receives a sentence that is less than that required to see her automatically disqualified from Tower Hamlets Council, she will be free to vote at the crucial council meeting on February 22 when Lutfur will need all the support he can muster to see his spending plans approved.

Again, if she receives a jail term, which is very possible, I fully expect Lutfur to ask her to stand down. Of course, it’s still up to her…

In the meantime, the council has put out a separate statement:

The course of action open to the council depends in part on the outcome of the sentencing hearing and any appeal. The Local Government Act 1972 (section 80) states that councillors sentenced to a three month custodial sentence or more automatically lose their seat.

And in the background, Tory group leader Peter Golds has been asking Swan Housing what action they will take against their criminal social housing tenant.

Here is what Swan told me:

 

We are aware of the judgment relating to Councillor Aktar and are considering its implications. However, issues relating to the tenancy agreements that exist between Swan and its tenants are confidential and we are not able to discuss these publicly.

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Here’s a press release and two photos issued by Rushanara Ali this evening:

For immediate use

Labour Party Leader, Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP, joins Bethnal Green and Bow MP, Rushanara Ali, on visit to Bethnal Green Academy

Leader of the Labour Party, Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP and Rushanara Ali MP visited Bethnal Green Academy this morning to talk to teachers, staff and students.  They discussed the Shoreditch Citizens’ campaign for a Living Wage, opportunities for young people in Tower Hamlets, and the challenges facing schools and colleges in Tower Hamlets and across the country.

This morning, Rushanara Ali MP, spoke to BBC London about the latest child poverty figures released by the End Child Poverty Campaign, which showed that Bethnal Green and Bow has the highest child poverty figures in the country at 51%.

Rushanara Ali said: “On the day it was announced that Tower Hamlets is suffering the most severe levels of child poverty in the country, both Ed Miliband and I were highly encouraged by the ideas and enthusiasm of local people working and studying at the Bethnal Green Academy.

“Ed has consistently pressed the Conservative-led Coalition on the important issues of opportunities for young people and the squeezed living standards of hard working families.  Our visit to the Bethnal Green Academy has covered extremely positive ground, and I was pleased that we were able to talk about solutions such as the Living Wage campaign and investing in the futures of our young people to ensure we don’t create a lost generation of talented young people.”

Speaking to BBC London about the latest child poverty figures, Rushanara Ali said:

“These figures are very disappointing.  Under the last Labour Government, we reduced child poverty by almost 1 million.  Labour put in measures to tackle child poverty, but now it is creeping back.  It is not acceptable that a generation of children are going to be condemned to poverty because of this government’s policies.  David Cameron’s constituency has 7% child poverty, Nick Clegg’s has 5%, but Bethnal Green and Bow has 51%.  My constituency epitomises this Government’s failure, they are not taking the actions needed to tackle child poverty.  The Government needs to take responsibility and business needs to take responsibility.  This is a call to arms to the business community to work with me to alleviate child poverty in Bethnal Green and Bow.”

Well, at least Ed doesn’t look “too ugly” there, at least.

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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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