Archive for June 10th, 2012

As one councillor said to me last week, why is it that everything seems to come back to Tower Hamlets?

I already know Eric Pickles’s Department for Communities and Local Government keeps a close eye on the borough and now, with the Baroness Warsi affair, I suspect Downing street will as well.

Last Sunday, the Sunday Telegraph’s excellent investigations editor, Jason Lewis, broke the story that the Tory chair had failed to declare her dealings with an Abid Hussian, her husband’s second cousin. She had taken him on a Government trip to Pakistan July 2010 shortly after becoming joining the cabinet. At that time, both owned shares in a small Yorkshire food company, Rupert’s Recipes, but she failed to declare that.

Warsi apologised, said it was an oversight and then detailed another meeting the pair had both been at in Pakistan the following year. Whether she has been completely candid about the full extent of her dealings with Abid is something a Downing Street investigation will probably consider. Certainly the photos of their meetings suggest Abid more than a mere coincidental spectator.

Here he is with her, for example, in Lahore in July 2011.

He seems to be some form of political fixer for her on Pakistani affairs…when he’s not doing his day job at Tower Hamlets council, that is. And this is where it starts to get really interesting.

I’ve written this piece for the Sunday Express today – better to read it online as it was only placed on p29 of the print edition – and I’ve pasted it at the end of this post below.

As Jason Lewis discovered last week, Abid earns about £60,000 a year as the “third sector and external fund manager” at the council. Originally from Yorkshire, he seems to have dabbled and debated with Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir as a student before later getting a job with the Doncaster New Deal for Communities housing regeneration scheme. He left that post in 2003 when he got a more senior role at the £56million Ocean NDC under its then chief executive Matin Miah. One of the key board members on the NDC was Alibor Choudhury, now Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s cabinet member for finance.

A couple of years later, the council began a major push on the Housing Choice initiative, which was farming off for free many large estates to housing associations in the name of regeneration. None was bigger than the Ocean and the council and the NDC selected Sanctuary housing association as its preferred partner. Abid was a major backer of the Sanctuary move and gained a reputation for being pretty persuasive, in a charming way.

Then MP George Galloway warned there would be “no sanctuary with Sanctuary” and the vote, amid concerns of fraud, went against the council. Abid stayed with the NDC and became the interim chief executive from late 2007 until it was eventually wound up in late 2009.

At that time, Lutfur Rahman was the council leader and his assistant chief executive was the one and only Lutfur Ali. It was Lutfur Ali who oversaw the selection of a new job, the “third sector and external funding manager”. It was advertised in November 2009 at a local government grade of LP08. Friends tell me these grades would normally be politically restricted, although they do depend on the nature of the work. I’ve no idea if Abid’s job is as such and the council won’t tell me.

If it is politically restricted, then he would have had to declare any political activity with Baroness Warsi and quite likely with the Pakistan Muslim League N (UK). Again, the council declines to comment on this.

However, there are more interesting aspects to this.

In March, Lutfur Rahman abolished the longstanding and cross-party Grants Panel and assumed full executive control. The author of the proposal for this move was Abid Hussain. See the cabinet paper here. The grants system is one of the most important elements of political control. The usually small community groups which apply for the annual £3.5million of funding can be important to councillors in their own wards in terms of building networks of votes. There have been concerns in the past about the way this money is doled out: you’ll remember I highlighted one here earlier this year (about free extracurricular Bengali lessons for all children).

Under the Grants Panel system, officers would assess the applications and make recommendations to the Grants Panel for councillors to decide. Lutfur’s move means that these recommendations will be made to a new board controlled by Lutfur. It is Abid Hussain who is in charge of presenting those recommendations to that board.

That puts him in a very special position.

And Lutfur is likely to think he is special. After all, in August 2010, during his campaign to become Labour’s candidate for mayor, I’m told it was Abid who arranged for Lutfur and his deputy Ohid Ahmed to “gatecrash” (as one councillor put it to me) a meeting in Walthamstow where David Miliband was present as part of his then leadership campaign. Abid lives in Walthamstow and is friendly with Labour councillors there. If Abid’s job is politically restricted I’m not sure he should have been getting involved like that…

As ever, don’t be shy in sending me more information and here’s the piece I’ve written for today’s Sunday Express, which contains more colourful (and, in a sense, admiring) descriptions from senior council figures about Abid Hussain.

THE Downing Street probe into Tory chairwoman Baroness Warsi is likely to examine her association a businessman-cum-middle ranking council officer who colleagues jokingly call the “Arthur Daley of Pakistan”.

The Sunday Express has learnt that Abid Hussain, a second cousin of Lady Warsi’s husband, regularly boasts about his connections to her and to senior figures in Pakistan.

An inquiry ordered by David Cameron last week will consider whether Mr Hussain, 42, had styled himself as a form of informal special adviser to Lady Warsi on Pakistani affairs.

Mr Hussain, 42, is regarded by colleagues at Tower Hamlets Council in east London, where he works as a £60,000 a year grants manager, as “charming, clever and canny” but they also joke he is like a “wheeler-dealer” notorious for name-dropping and frequently talking “extremely loudly” on his personal mobile phone.

While there is no suggestion of impropriety, they claim he wields far more influence than his relatively junior job title suggests because he is close to the regime of the borough’s controversial independent mayor, Lutfur Rahman.

Mr Hussain is now said by friends to be “very worried” after the revelations of the past week.

The Prime Minister has ordered his officials to investigate whether Lady Warsi broke the ministerial code by failing to declare her business interests with Mr Hussain when she took him on a Government trip to Pakistan shortly after she joined the Cabinet in July 2010.

At that time, the pair were both shareholders in Rupert’s Recipes, a small Yorkshire food company.

Lady Warsi apologised to Mr Cameron last week but insisted there had been no financial motive or wrongdoing for either of them.

However, she is facing further questions. 

In her letter to the PM, she detailed “in the interests of transparency” another meeting she and Mr Hussain attended in Pakistan in February 2011, but explained they had been there on separate delegations.

Photographs show Mr Hussain as one of the trip’s key figures, lavishing praise on his relative and gently guiding her through a crowd of admirers.

Five months later, they attended another meeting in London at which key Pakistani leaders were also present and at which Mr Hussain also played a prominent role.

Reported to be a former member of Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, he is now an activist in the more secular and influential UK arm of the Pakistan Muslim League N party.

He also has interests in a number of UK business ventures.

The Sunday Express and senior councillors have asked whether he was required by his bosses to declare his business and political interests and, if so, whether he has done so.

The council said it would not comment on any employee but added: “We do have mechanisms to look into matters of public interest.”

Calls to his office were answered by weary-sounding colleagues last week and he has failed to respond to questions posed by email.

Mr Hussain is known to be highly regarded by Mayor Lutfur Rahman and is also close to ex-Labour peer Lord Ahmed, another Rahman ally.

He moved to east London from Yorkshire in 2003 after quitting the Doncaster New Deal for Communities housing regeneration scheme for a more senior role at the Ocean New Deal for Communities. 

He was later interim chief executive before the organisation was wound down in late 2009 when his experience won him his current role.

Only months after taking up his non-partisan council job, sources say Mr Hussain played a part in Mr Rahman’s mayoral campaign by taking him to see David Miliband for an opportunistic photo at a friend’s house in Waltham 
Forest, east London.

Mr Hussain is now a key player in an ongoing controversy at the council.

Last March, Mayor Rahman abolished the “inefficient” cross-party grants committee and now controls the £3.5million annual pot of grants. 

Mr Hussain will be responsible for assessing applications and making recommendations to the mayor and a new board.

One councillor said: “Anyone who meets Abid soon knows he’s close to Warsi.”

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