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Archive for September 16th, 2012

It’s always a delight when a Freedom of Information request hits the target.

Last February, I wrote this post which listed the small army of personal advisers Mayor Lutfur Rahman had assembled at our expense.

You’ll see there that one his hired hands until that point was a certain Gulam Robbani, who was also Lutfur’s agent in the Mayoral elections in October 2010. He is one of the mayor’s most trusted colleagues, so it was no surprise when Lutfur rewarded him with a consultancy role.

In February, John Williams, Tower Hamlets council’s head of democratic services, detailed the nature of Robbani’s contract. As I blogged at the time, it was as “advisor on adult social care and health for one day per week at a cost of £40 per hour”.

The following month, I wrote this post raising some strange discrepancies between the amounts Mr Williams said Robbani was entitled to and the amounts he was actually getting paid. I reported that between October 2011 and January 31 this year, he had been paid £13,080 under a renewed contract. I noted that this seemed to imply he was billing for far more than one day a week. I also noted that all this was being paid through Robbani’s company, G Social Care Ltd, which likely meant he was paying a lower rate of tax.

Of course, Robbani’s role as a paid advisor ended at his own request from February 1 when it became clear that the long-running saga of Shelina Akhtar’s benefit fraud would provide him with the chance of replacing her as a councillor in Spitalfields, which he eventually did in April.

I’ve just had the answer to a Freedom of Information request in which I asked the council for all the invoices submitted by G Social Care Ltd in 2011/12. The full disclosure is here.

These invoices are staggering and I suspect they require some kind of investigation by an independent auditor.

The first thing to note is that all the invoices have been approved and signed off by Murziline Parchment, the head of the Mayor’s office at Tower Hamlets. Parchment features heavily in this blog post by Andrew Gilligan in March last year:

Lutfur has just hired Murziline Parchment, who was among Ken’s notorious City Hall “cronies” during his mayoralty and now becomes Lutfur’s “head of mayor’s office.”

Parchment got this new post without any kind of formal recruitment, interview, shortlisting or assessment process. Although not due to start work until April 1, she is already in the office – and already demanding, according to council sources, to see people’s personnel files.

In her City Hall days, Parchment was one of the eight top Ken Livingstone political appointees on vast salaries who proved so controversial (others included the disgraced Lee Jasper, and several members of the Trotskyite group Socialist Action.) Parchment lost her £126,000 City Hall job after Ken lost the 2008 election – but her pain was cushioned by sharing, with the others, a “severance payment” of £1.6 million.

The Greater London Authority Act specifically stated that as a political appointee her employment was limited to the Mayor’s term of office, meaning that she should not have qualified for a payoff – but, as I documented in 2008, Ken quietly changed the rules not long before the election to ensure that Parchment and the others were looked after. With admirable chutzpah, she also managed to score a further £10,400 “consultancy fee” off the GLA after her departure.

Understandably not short of money, she has spent the last couple of years quietly undertaking various Ken-related activities, such as appearing at his “Progressive London” conferences in 2009 and 2010. But now, thanks to Lutfur, Parchment has another lease of taxpayer-funded life.

Here are Robbani’s invoices for Nov 2011 – Jan 2012:

In summary, Robbani was billing himself out (with the express approval of his friend and fellow hired hand Murziline Parchment – something that does raise about question of financial control) at the rate of £360 a day. On each item, you will see he has billed for nine hours work between 10am and 8pm, although on a couple of occasions he invoiced longer hours for attending full council meetings.

In October, he invoiced £1440, in November £3720, in December £1800, and in January, just as he was seeing the Shelina/Spitalfields opportunity arise, he put in his final and most lucrative invoice worth £6120.

But it’s when we get into the detail that things get interesting, especially all his “meetings” with Cllr Adbul Asad, Lutfur’s cabinet member for health. In January, he billed for 17 of that month’s 18 working days (a bit more than the one day a week John Williams said he was entitled to – but maybe John got that wrong, I don’t know).

On January 20, he bills £360 for nine hours work described as “preparation and attending reception for Bishop of Stepney”. Well, this is curious because that reception did take place in the town hall at 3pm that day, but it only lasted two hours. How do we know this? Well, Cllr Asad says so on his time-sheet for that month. See here. So that was some “preparation” the adviser on social care was putting in…

In fact, when you cross-check all the claimed “meetings” with Cllr Asad on Robbani’s invoices, there are rarely any matches at all. On Jan 27, Robbani bills us £240 for a “meeting with Cllr Asad” but there is no such meeting on Asad’s time-sheet. Perhaps Asad has been under-reporting his heavy workload.

On January 31, Robbani was paid £360 for a “Health and Wellbeing workshop”, but on Asad’s time-sheet that appears to have lasted just one hour. Maybe Asad left early..

On January 25, Robbani billed £480 for working until 11pm visiting an African Resource Centre and the Mayfield House Somali Day Centre with Cllr Asad and two others. That took 12 hours’ work apparently. Well, Asad registered just 1.5 hours on his timesheet. Maybe Asad put the decimal point in the wrong place.

On January 18, Robbani’s invoice claims £360 for “cabinet pre-agenda planning on Mela and Shadow Health and Wellbeing board meeting in the evening”. It must have been quite some pre-agenda Mela  discussion because Asad tells us Shadow Health and Wellbeing board meeting took just two hours.

And on January 19, Robbani billed £360 for a meeting about the “BRRP mosque with Swan Housing and the council”. Hmm. BRRP is the Blackwall Reach Regeneration Project which will demolish Robin Hood Gardens. That scheme includes provision for a new mosque to replace the existing Poplar Mosque, whose secretary is….Gulam Robbani. So, Robbani was billing the taxpayer £360 to attend a meeting (presumably on behalf of Lutfur, although how that fits in with his brief as a social care advisor beats me) with himself. Some might say that’s a win-win; others might suspect a conflict of interest.

And that’s only part of January’s invoice.

Similar questions arise when you look at the other months. On December 13, for example, Parchment approved a payment of £360 for a meeting with Asad and the Mayor. But Asad has no record of this on his time-sheet.

And have a look at this one from November’s invoice. On Novemeber 2, Robbani claimed £360 for “reading and preparing for cabinet meeting, meeting with Officer and Cllr Asad”. Yes, there was a cabinet meeting that day. On the same invoice, Robbani claims another £360 on Novemeber 22 “reading and preparing for cabinet meeting, meeting with Officer and Cllr Asad”. No, there was no cabinet meeting that day. Did he simply copy and paste the January 2 entry by mistake? Did Murziline Parchment ask that before she signed it for payment? It appears not.

At the very least it’s carelessness and incompetence. How many more payments are senior officers of the council signing off without checking. Did Chris Naylor’s finance team do any checking? Taxpayers deserve better.

These invoices and Robbani’s contract need investigating.

UPDATE

As a result of this post, at the full council meeting on September 19, Labour councillors succeeded in passing an emergency motion calling on the council’s anti-fraud team to investigate these invoices.

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Strictly speaking, this is off the topic of Tower Hamlets but as it concerns transparency in public life, there’s more than a slight relevance. Here’s an op-ed piece I’ve written for the Sunday Express today on some lessons from the Hillsborough cover-up. (I’m going to post some fascinating revelations about what could be a spending scandal in Tower Hamlets a bit later today).

HIGH up in a building towering over East London, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe addressed a conference on the future of policing.

Before him were many familiar faces: senior police officers, policy makers and business professionals, all eager to hear his views on the coalition cuts and the implications for outsourcing and community policing.

The timing of Friday’s Canary Wharf meeting was interesting. 

Two days earlier policing in this country suffered one of its darkest days when David Cameron delivered revelations about the Hillsborough tragedy, so shocking they reduced not only several MPs in the Commons to tears but also some journalists in the press gallery. 

The PM’s sincere words about a cover-up by police and others in high office had landed like dull, heavy blows to the solar plexus, shaking people’s faith in the cornerstones of our democracy.

So sitting there in Canary Wharf I was half-expecting Mr Hogan-Howe, a former Chief Constable of Merseyside, to make some reference to those events of 1989 and to how policing and more pertinently the scrutiny of policing had moved on.

But no, not a word.

Fair enough, I thought, the conference was more about looking forward than back and his speech on the scheduled items was robust, refreshing and well received.

As he was leaving I approached him in the corridor. I wanted to explore whether the Hillsborough cover-up confirmed the suspicions among some that the police would always try to hide their own errors.

If they could doctor the evidence on the deaths of 96 people in a high-profile tragedy was that not playing into the hands of conspiracy theorists who believe it happens all the time, I wanted to ask.

“It was 23 years ago, we should be confident in our policing today,” he said.

A couple of hours later I asked the question to Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty who was at the conference. Her response was more expansive.

She said: “Hillsborough is one of the most horrific stories of secrets, lies and abuses of power in my lifetime and not just the police but all sorts of powerful institutions need to do some serious soul-searching. It also demonstrates the danger of the current Bill going through Parliament to introduce secret courts.

“The last thing we need is secret courts and we’ve just seen how easy it seems to be to cover up huge abuses of power.”

Shami was referring to the Justice and Security Bill that allows sensitive material in criminal trials to be heard in private and is now in the latter stages of Parliament.

Yes, 23 years is a long time ago. Yes, the circumstances surrounding Hillsborough have changed and yes, policing has moved on but has human nature really altered?

In all walks of life there is the temptation to cover your back and in far too many circumstances we’ve probably all seen people trying to lie their way out of errors. In public office the offence is far graver.

Over the past 18 months I and a sadly small handful of other journalists have covered some of the failings of our Family Court system, which until relatively recently was largely closed to the public. 

I’ve spoken to social worker whistle blowers who have been told by their bosses to “sex up” dossiers on problem families so local authorities intent on removing children for adoption purposes can have an easier ride in front of judges.

Leading academics have uncovered fundamental problems in the system of expert witnesses used by Family Courts to assess the mental health of natural parents.

A close British friend of mine had her 14-month-old baby removed from her by a judge in Spain based on the wrongly translated assessment of a junior court-appointed psychiatrist.

In other cases I’ve worked on, pregnant mothers have had to flee the UK to have their babies as they have so little trust in the “secret” court system.

It’s not just courts. Anyone who has had to fight their local council to disclose documents under the Freedom of Information Act will also know just how much our bureaucrats love their work being hidden.

The fact is that transparency works. Tony Blair is to be congratulated for having started the process with the FoI Act… and condemned for later regretting it.

Likewise Mr Cameron’s transparency agenda, which forces public authorities to publish spending transaction details, is another welcome step forward.

Shining a light is the healthiest of medicines when it comes to holding our leaders to account.

Last year MP John Hemming came under fire for breaking a super-injunction secured by footballer Ryan Giggs, who had been having an extra-marital affair.

Hemming is also at the forefront of campaigning for more transparency in Family Courts so is well qualified to talk about secret justice. 

This is what he said yesterday: “Whereas the police who perjured themselves in the Hillsborough case can be prosecuted it is difficult to prosecute people who lie in secret courts. The evidence in secret courts is unreliable.”

The ramifications of Hillsborough are huge. Cover-ups have happened and the blame process begins but one of the greatest lessons to be learned, especially for the police, is that the long arm of the people’s law will always get you in the end.

 

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