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Archive for April, 2013

I first wrote about the Coalition’s irritation with East End Life in October 2011, when I wrote:

I think the Government is a touch fed up with East End Life and Tower Hamlets Council’s defiant little attitude to how it spends our money – and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see all these town hall publications brought under some form of new statutory footing that properly governs how often they can publish.

And so it has come to pass.

On the day Margaret Thatcher died on Monday, Eric Pickles signalled the end for East End Life (hat tip to David Boothroyd). Eric Pickles has launched a four week consultation aimed at putting town hall publications on a statutory footing.

The proposals would give the Government the power to make directions to councils they believe are abusing their duty to communicate with residents via overtly political publications. They would do this upon evidence that councils were not complying with the Publicity Code for local government…and it would be enforced, if necessary, by court order.

Here’s the announcement from Eric Pickles, who, surprise, surprise, has singled out dear old Tower Hamlets for special mention:

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles proposes a toughening up of rules governing local authority publicity.

The Secretary of State today (8 April 2013) announced his intention to legislate council publicity rules in order to preserve a strong, vibrant and independent local press.

Although required to comply with the ‘Code of recommended practice on local authority publicity’, brought in by this government, Mr Pickles is seriously concerned about a rogue number of local authorities who continue to flout the rules and abuse taxpayers’ money by publishing “political propaganda”.

In the broadcast media, regulator Ofcom recently concluded that the London Borough of Tower Hamlets had breached ‘The Communications Act 2003’, the ‘UK Code of Broadcast Advertising’ and the ‘Code on local authority publicity’. However there are no such restrictions which stop political advertising in print.

The consultation, launched today, is seeking views on how best to frame the new legislation to stop politically contentious advertising campaigns, municipal newspapers and the hiring of lobbyists by councils.

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said:

“Some councils are undermining the free press and wasting taxpayers’ money which should be spent carefully on the front line services that make a real difference to quality of life. It should not, under any circumstances, be used to fund political propaganda and town hall Pravdas and yet a hardcore minority of councils continue to ignore the rules despite public concern.

“The line in the sand is clear, publicity material straying into propaganda clearly crosses that line, and this legislation will stop this disgraceful misuse of public money, which damages local democracy and threatens an independent, free and vibrant local press.”

This is a victory for local Tory leader Peter Golds who has been begging Whitehall to intervene for years.

The full details of the consultation are here.

But for ease of use, here they are (points 9 to 14 are the most interesting):

Introduction 

1. The government is consulting on proposals to protect the independent press from unfair competition by introducing legislation providing the Secretary of State with powers to make directions requiring one or more local authorities to comply with some or all of the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity’s (the “Publicity Code’s”) recommendations.

The Publicity Code 

2. Section 4 of the Local Government Act 1986 provides that the Secretary of State may issue codes of recommended practice on local authority publicity. That section also provides that local authorities must have regard to any such code that is applicable to them when taking decisions on publicity. 

3. On 31 March 2011 the Secretary of State issued a new Publicity Code, a copy of which is at the Annex to this paper. This Code replaced earlier Publicity Codes that were applicable to local authorities in England. It was issued after both Houses of Parliament had approved a draft of the new Code, this draft being prepared following a public consultation initiated in September 2010, and reflecting recommendations of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s Inquiry into the Publicity Code undertaken during the first Session of this Parliament. 

4. The new Publicity Code applies to all local authorities in England specified in section 6 of the 1986 Act, and to other authorities in England which have that provision applied to them by other legislation. These local and other authorities include county and district councils in England, London Borough councils, parish and town councils, national parks authorities, the Broads Authority, and the Manchester Combined Authority. 

5. The origin of this new Publicity Code is the Coalition Agreement, ‘Our Programme for Government’, commitment for the government to “impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers” and the general election manifestoes of both Coalition parties. Such unfair competition, funded by the local taxpayer, can prove damaging to the continued sustainability of local, independent, commercial newspapers that are an important element of effective local democracy. 

6. The new Publicity Code therefore, includes specific guidance about the frequency, content and appearance of local authority newspapers, including recommending that principal local authorities limit the publication of any newspaper to once a quarter and parish and town councils limit their news letters etc. to once a month. 

The new Code also represented a major reshaping of the earlier Codes, for clarity grouping the guidance under 7 principles. These principles are that local authority publicity should be lawful, cost effective, objective, even-handed, appropriate, have regard to equality and diversity, and be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity.

7. Underpinning this new Publicity Code is the recognition both that good, effective publicity aimed at improving public awareness of a council’s activities is entirely acceptable, and that publicity is a sensitive matter because of the impact it can have and the costs associated with it. It equally reflects the government’s view that local authorities should focus their resources on frontline services, reducing resources expended on publicity such as newspapers, and above all that it is wholly inappropriate for taxpayers’ money to be used to pay for material that could be perceived as political or competing with the independent press and media.

What we are proposing and why 

8. Where local authorities comply with the recommendations of the Publicity Code, local taxpayers can be confident that any of their money spent by their council on publicity is being used appropriately; and local independent newspapers – important contributors to sustaining a vibrant local democracy – will not be at risk through unfair, taxpayer funded, competition. Whilst the majority of local authorities comply fully with the Publicity Code’s recommendations, it is a matter of concern to the government that there are still cases where this is not so – for example, continuing cases where there are weekly publications of council newspapers, or concerns about the political character of a council’s publicity. Local taxpayers and electors should be able to be confident that the statutory framework for local government provides an effective safeguard against any council using taxpayers’ money inappropriately or acting in a manner potentially damaging to others – the independent press – who have important roles in a democratic society.

Proposals for giving greater force to the Publicity Code 

9. Accordingly, in the Structural Reform Plan for the Department for Communities and Local Government the Government has included a commitment to give greater force to the Publicity Code by putting compliance on a statutory basis. The Plan indicates the intention to introduce legislation providing the Secretary of State with a power to make a direction requiring compliance with some or all of the Publicity Code’s recommendations to protect local commercial newspapers from unfair competition from municipal publications. To fulfil this commitment and intention, the government is proposing, at the next convenient legislative opportunity, to legislate as described below. 

10. This legislation would provide the Secretary of State with powers to make directions requiring one or more local authorities to comply with one, some, or all of the Publicity Code’s recommendations. It is proposed that a direction could apply to a single named authority, to a number of named authorities, to all authorities in a particular class, or to all authorities to which the Publicity Code applies. In this context the reference to authorities includes both local authorities and those other authorities to which the Publicity Code applies. 

11. It is proposed that the Secretary of State would be able to issue any such direction whenever he considers it appropriate to do so. The Secretary of State may, for example, consider it appropriate to direct a particular council to comply with some specific recommendation of the Publicity Code because from the information available to him he considers the authority is not, or there is a risk that it might not, comply with that recommendation, compliance which the Secretary of State considers important. Equally, the Secretary of State may for example issue a direction requiring all or a class of authorities to comply with one or more recommendations, compliance with which the Secretary of State considers to be particularly important. 

12. It is envisaged that prior to issuing a direction, the Secretary of State would be required to give notice to the authority or authorities in question of his intention to issue a direction to them. This would give the authorities an opportunity to take any action they considered necessary to prepare for such a direction, or to make representations to the Secretary of State as to why in their opinion a direction should not be issued. In the case of a direction to all or a class of authorities, the notification could be given to such representatives of the authorities concerned as the Secretary of State considers appropriate. 

13. A direction would be given in writing to the authority or authorities in question. The direction may, but need not, specify the time for compliance and / or the steps that the Secretary of State considers necessary for the authority or authorities to take in order to secure compliance with the Publicity Code recommendations concerned. A direction could be withdrawn by the Secretary of State. Where a direction applied to a category of authorities, the Secretary of State would take such steps as he considered necessary to bring it to the attention of the authorities concerned. 

14. Once a direction had been issued, enforcement of any continued failure by an authority to comply with the recommendations concerned would be through any interested party obtaining a court order. 

Questions 

• Views on the proposed legislation are invited, and in particular do consultees see the proposals as fully delivering the commitment to give greater force to the Publicity Code by putting compliance on a statutory basis?

• If there is alternative to the power of direction, how will this meet the aim of improved enforcement of the code? 

• This consultation invites evidence of the circumstances where the code was not met and the implications of this on competition in local media.

Who we are consulting 

15. We are consulting the Local Government Association and the National Association of Local Councils. This document is also available on the Department for Communities and Local Government web site at https://www.gov.uk/dclg and we will be drawing it to the attention of all principal councils in England, the Newspaper Society and local newspapers. It is open to all to make representations on the proposals, which will be carefully considered. 

16. Responses to this consultation must be received by 6 May 2013. A response form is attached at the end of this consultation document and is saved separately on the DCLG web site. 

You can respond by e mail to:

mark.coram@communities.gsi.gov.uk

When responding, please ensure you use the words “Publicity Code consultation 2013” in the e mail subject line 

Or write to: 

Mark Coram

Publicity Code consultation 

Council Conduct and Constitutions Team

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Just a short post, but worthy of one in itself.

I asked Lutfur for his views on Labour’s selection of John Biggs for Tower Hamlets mayor next year.

Here’s his statement:

John has a lot of catching up to do, he’s been out of touch with Tower Hamlets politics for some fifteen years and a lot has changed. We’re yet to see if he can adapt to the radically different climate in local government. 

Personally, I think he made his contribution in the nineties and I can’t see that he’s got anything new to offer.

I have always believed that the split with the Labour group was about values and principles. There are clear dividing lines between John and the progressive left and we’re hoping that’s what the campaign will focus on.

The people of Tower Hamlets need a radical progressive vision for the future and look forward to Labour abandoning their destructive policy of opposition, at any cost, that has seen them work hand in glove with the local Tories, at the expense of local people; and work with me to fight off Cameron-Osborne’s war on the poor and vulnerable.

So, as I predicted in my last post, he’ll portray Biggs as out of touch and policy ideas may well come into it (although how they influence people’s voting patterns is another question…).

UPDATE

John Biggs has made this reply on Twitter:

@TedJeory Residents don’t want to see politicians trading insults they want to know what we stand for. I Look forward to having that debate.

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So barring any huge surprises from the Tories (and I hear they may well be lining up a good candidate), it will be Lutfur versus John Biggs for the Tower Hamlets mayoralty come May 2014.

The “Merc” versus the Morris Minor, if you like.

Actually, I’m not even sure John drives a car so it might be a culture shock should he be triumphant and see the princely wealth of resources Lutfur would have amassed for him in Mulberry Place.

This contest could well be the most interesting fight in local government next year.

Biggs, a former council leader, ousted in 1995 by colleagues who still have (or, as some say, think they have) a fair degree of sway locally (Michael Keith etc). He then went on to make a name for himself as the London Assembly’s biggest ankle biter, first as a thorn in the side to an Independent Mayor Ken Livingstone (although he was a loyal ally when Ken rejoined the Labour fold), and then as an attack dog on Boris Johnson, who I’m told, both likes him and his bulldog sarcasm.

When the Tower Hamlets mayoralty was up for grabs in 2010, John saw it as his chance to have one last Big Job in politics (Westminster was never for him), and when the London Labour party anointed Helal Abbas amid the chaos of the Lutfur (non)-selection that year, he may well have thought his opportunity had gone forever.

However, Abbas’s defeat reopened the door, but how will he fare against an opponent who seems increasingly impervious to mainstream criticism and scrutiny and who is raiding precious council reserves to fund a re-election campaign?

It will boil down to ideas, charisma, resilience and that hardy Tower Hamlets perennial: race.

During this last Labour selection contest, a former deputy leader of Tower Hamlets council, Jalal Ahmed, distributed what was even by this borough’s standards one of the most poisonous and loaded character assassination pamphlets I’ve seen. The document was full of personal history between the two men and as it was also full of libels I won’t reproduce it, but it demonstrated the extent to which people will go to smear a rival.

I wasn’t in Tower Hamlets in the Nineties so I’m not familiar with the details of that period, but the accusations in the document bore no resemblance to any of the conversations I’ve had with John since he started snapping at me in 2006.

But the document was perhaps a clue as to how the next 12 months will unfurl: “What’s he ever done for the Bengali community?”

Maybe his many Bengali admirers, including London Assembly member Murad Qureshi, or Cllr Abdal Ullah, or even, once-upon-a-time, a certain Lutfur Rahman, or indeed Ken Livingstone, may like to answer that.

When Len Duvall, another Labour London Assembly member, announced at Stepney’s Positive East building last night that John was the party’s new candidate, there were barely 30 people in the room. The earlier than expected announcement had caught many of the activists–still down the pub or in the nearby coffee shops–by surprise. As such, the applause was surprisingly muted. Perhaps, most of those there at that time were supporters of Rachael Saunders, understandably disappointed by losing a close race.

It was close and for the record, here are the results:

Round 1: Rachael Saunders 261, John Biggs 257, Helal Abbas 207, Sirajul Islam 26.

Round 2 (after Abbas and Sirajul eliminated and second preference votes redistributed): John Biggs 328, Rachael 319.

Two narratives are being peddled about this. Firstly, that Rachael had benefited from a “bloc” vote controlled by Lutfur, who, the theory goes, perceived her as his least dangerous opponent, or as someone who could knock out Biggs in the first round. And secondly, how can Biggs be the “unity candidate” when he was the first choice of barely a quarter of the party membership: that the Labour party is now split like never before, that there will be further defections to Lutfur’s camp and we will see a contest fought on Bengali versus White next year.

On the first, as one of Rachael’s backers put it to me, it must have been galling for many to see a young white woman do so well: she couldn’t possibly have amassed that much support all by her little self. While there may have been some strategic voting go on by some (who knows how many), given that Lutfur trounced Abbas last time, why wouldn’t he have ordered his mates to get him selected again?

And on the second…well, it’s deal time. As Josh Peck is standing down as group leader in May, Labour have a vacancy to fill. Yet the party now finds itself in the odd position of having a leader locally who is not a councillor. Biggs will have to be the boss but outside the group: he will have to get involved in strategy decisions and on how to take on Lutfur and his cabinet over the next year.

No doubt some will question how he can remain an Assembly member, which is a full time job, and find the time to do “council” work. But his answer will surely be that most councillors have full time jobs anyway. It is possible that a selfless Labour councillor could resign to allow him a seat for the next year, but while it would be fun to see him in the chamber, I don’t think a forced by-election would be an appropriate use of our money.

So that means he needs a close ally to fill Josh’s shoes, someone who can straddle the different factions and someone who may eventually become his deputy mayor. Abdal Ullah is certainly up for such a role and maybe, after all these years, his time has finally come. Having a Bengali on the “ticket” would certainly help John.

Abbas would also tick the boxes, perhaps more so given his experience and strong showing in the selection process. But would he be interested?

Perhaps Rachael is the most deserving, but as this is Tower Hamlets, having two whites run the party would create an obvious opportunity for Lutfur’s race-obsessed groupies.

Cllr Shiria Khatun maybe??

And how John manages the Labour group will be intriguing. I can’t see him stomaching the covert alliance with the Tories that has proved so effective for Labour. Imagine what Boris would say to him…

But how will Team Lutfur attack Biggs, though? After all, for the past two years, his supporters have often pointed out that Biggs was also an injured party in the 2010 selection process. And as he hasn’t been part of the Labour group that they so bitterly criticise in the council chamber, that line of attack isn’t open to them either. Maybe they’ll say he’s been out of Tower Hamlets politics for too long: that would be an irony.

Heaven forbid, will it actually come down to policy ideas?

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The Tower Hamlets Labour group has just released the following press release (I’m waiting for a statement from the council):

Labour councillors are pressing for an investigation after a break-in attempt on the Leader of the Labour Group’s office last month after the lock was found jammed following an attempt to force the door.
 
The incident occurred over the weekend of the 9th and 10th March, only days after the Council’s Budget was amended by Labour councillors. Had access been gained many of the Labour Leader’s confidential documents would have been accessible, including budget plans and constituent casework.
 
The office is located on the 1st Floor of the Town Hall in an area restricted to the Mayor and councillors and their staff as well as senior Council officers raising concerns that whoever attempted to access the office may also have managed to gain access to a restricted area on the 1st floor.
 
Leader of the Labour Group, Cllr Joshua Peck, said: “I have written to the Council’s Chief Officer to request that a full investigation is undertaken and that the attempted break in is reported to the police.
 
“This is not the first time politicians’ offices have seen break-in attempts. The Council must take steps to protect councillors’ offices and make sure nobody has access who shouldn’t.”

UPDATE, April 3…5.20pm

The council has just told me there is no CCTV in that part of the town hall and that there is no “conclusive evidence” of a break-in. As such, they say the police will not be called. Here’s the council’s statement:

“An investigation has been completed and no conclusive evidence was found to confirm that a break-in had been attempted. The door was unopened but the lock could not be used and has now been replaced. We are currently considering options as to how security, in that particular part of the building, might be improved.”

This is becoming a familiar refrain!

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