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Archive for June 17th, 2013

Channel 4’s Dispatches likes Mayor Lutfur Rahman. I’m not sure it’s mutual though.

As part of an investigation that aired tonight into wasteful council spending across England, a C4 team (aided by the OpenWorld news agency in Hanbury Street) did a spot of secret filming on our mayor to see how he uses his £35,000 a year chauffeured black Mercedes.

It broadcast three clips, two of which showed the car collecting him from his home in Old Montague Street in Spitalfields.

After one collection, he is taken to a mosque a mile-and-a-half away (not the East London Mosque) for a function. On the way back, possibly hungry, the Merc is shown parked up for a short while in a bus lane on busy Whitechapel Road.

Here:

DSCN0278[I’m not an expert on the moving traffic regulations that are so frequently picked up by the council CCTV penalty cameras in that area, so can someone please enlighten us whether stopping to drop someone off (even outside of bus lane hours) is an offence?]

We’re then told by C4 that Lutfur spends 90 minutes presumably having lunch at Zaza’s Grill.

In the last clip, we see Lutfur’s driver (a longstanding and very friendly council employee), outside Lutfur’s home and grabbing a bundle of dry cleaning – shirts and suits – from the back of the car for Lutfur.

Here:

DSCN0276The mayor was then taken to a memorial function, we’re told.

The presenter, Antony Barnett, then says on one occasion they saw the mayor being picked up from his home by his Mercedes and driven to the East London Mosque just around the corner. Barnett then times how long it would have taken to walk there: 2mins 39secs.

By way of explanation and justification, the ever-comical council press office said the car was value for money because it’s a “fixed rate fee” of £70 a day which means there is no cost from “waiting times”.

So that’s all right then.

The press office then said the C4 film was “not representative” because they had picked only three out of the 60-70 public engagements the mayor attends each week.

Barnett said in the broadcast: “They (tower Hamlets) told us that Mr Rahman is a practising Muslim and attends mosques to promote social cohesion. On one occasion, he was attending a funeral.

“Tower Hamlets told us that the mayor had already loaded his laundry in the car when he was dropped off at his in-laws on the previous day. They also told us that the mayor’s wife had transferred his dry cleaning from her own car to the mayor’s car the previous night. The driver had merely given the mayor the dry cleaning.”

Which in plainer English is: “The dog ate my homework.”

The arrogance of the man is still astonishing.

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For a flavour of where the Tories are aiming their fire at next Wednesday’s full council meeting, here’s a list of their questions and motions (I haven’t been sent the other groups’ lists yet).

How Q7 from Tim Archer is answered will be interesting given the current chaos and controversy in Island Gardens.

And by the way, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles says we can now film and record the meetings. So expect instant YouTube hits. And I wonder if this will force Lutfur to actually answer these questions. Let’s see…

1 – Cllr Zara Davis

In the Mayor of London’s ‘2020 Vision’ for the city, he cited the City Fringe as an opportunity area.  What collaboration between the Council and the Mayor’s office has already taken place, and is planned to take place, to develop a cohesive vision and generate jobs in this area?

2 – Cllr David Snowdon

How much was has been spent over the past year within the Mayor’s Office on Communications and Marketing related activities?

3 – Cllr Peter Golds

How many staff are employed in the Communications and Marketing Team at Tower Hamlets council? 

4 - Cllr Gloria Thienel

Given the prolonged disruptions caused by roadworks on the Isle of Dogs, what is the Mayor doing to ensure that utility companies complete works within a reasonable period?

5 – Cllr Dr Emma Jones

What are the Council’s plans for alterations to Wapping Woods?

6 – Cllr Craig Aston

Evidence has been given to me indicating Tower Hamlets Homes leaseholders are being charged £135 each time bulk waste is collected from their estates. Can the Mayor give me an explanation why this is?”

7 – Cllr Tim Archer

Can the Mayor please reassure us that he would oppose any plans to build on Sir John McDougall Gardens, or develop the park in any way not in keeping with its status as a park.

Motions for Full Council – 26th June 2013

Motion 1

Proposed by Cllr Peter Golds

Seconded by Cllr David Snowdon

This council notes that the Government have supported Tower Hamlets with £77million of additional funds for the Decent Homes Programme, £350 million for the Schools Building Programme and is supporting the Blackwall Reach Regeneration Project with public money.

The council also notes the proliferation of banners, hoardings and unsolicited letters/leaflets with airbrushed pictures of the Mayor implying that he has personally provided this funding.

The council therefore reminds the Mayor that he should use public money for public service rather than self promotion.

Motion 2:

Proposed by Cllr David Snowdon

Seconded by Cllr Craig Aston

This Council notes that the 4th August 2014 will be the one hundredth anniversary of the commencement of the First World War.

Tower Hamlets, in common with the rest of the country, suffered grievously during this conflict which saw the deaths of thousands of local people in the front and in the 103 German Bombing raids that were launched on London and Britain.

The Council requests the Mayor to provide details of his commemorative programme for 1914 will be and how this will be undertaken in the Borough.

Motion 3:

Proposed by Cllr Tim Archer

Seconded by Cllr Gloria Thienel

This council notes the increasing commercialisation and encroachment on the Borough’s parks.

This Council notes the increasing concerns of residents from Bow, The Isle of Dogs, Bethnal Green and Wapping about the future of their parks as community open spaces in an increasingly densely populated borough.

The Council calls upon the Mayor to introduce and approve an updated strategy that will be adhered to, preserving our parks and open spaces for future generations.

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Earlier this year, former Local Government Minister Bob Neill made a devastating attack on what he and many others believed was a repeated abuse of the standards regime at Tower Hamlets council. Andrew Gilligan wrote an excellent account of it here.

At the top of Bob’s hit list in his Commons criticism was the council’s monitoring officer, Isabella Freeman. He said she’d been biased in the way she handled complaints about councillors from other councillors. In particular, he said, she’d favoured complaints from the Lutfurites against the mayor’s enemies, Peter Golds and Joshua Peck. She and the council denied this was the case.

During that debate in January, there was also mention of the Localism Act, which has provided reform of the standards regime across England. Every council is now scrambling around to appoint a designated “independent person” who must be consulted during any disciplinary investigations.

This person will be absolutely key in ensuring there is no abuse. As such they have to be heavy-hitters and, of course, independent of not only councillors but also the monitoring officer.

So how is this independent person appointed? Well, the Localism Act provides some general rules, but allows some discretion. Random searches of the processes followed by other councils suggests that the position is advertised, a longlist is drawn up by senior officers, which is then reduced to a shortlist by a panel of councillors who then conduct interviews and make a recommendation to the full council. Surrey County Council used that process, which can be seen here.

In Tower Hamlets – the authority cited by senior MPs as having brought the previous standards regime into disrepute – they used a different method.

In our borough, Isabella Freeman, who, remember, is currently suing her own employer, couldn’t help getting more involved.

The post was advertised (twice – the first effort had no response) in East End Life and one other unspecified local paper; 12 applications were received and a shortlist of three was drawn up; and those three were then interviewed by four councillors (there should have been five but one was ill) and three non-members.

These others were Matthew Rowe, who chairs the Standard Advisory Committee; Barry O’Connor, the “interim independent person” and who whenever I saw him in his former role as chair of the Standards Committee was as useful as a chocolate teapot, and….Isabella Freeman.

Each of them had a vote. So the monitoring officer, whose in this respect will be to persuade consult the independent person about launching an investigation, had a say in who that person would be. That doesn’t exactly look good.

That said, the panel of seven have voted by a majority of 5-2 that the new Independent Person for Tower Hamlets should be Elizabeth Hall. They have also nominated her reserve to be lawyer Ezra Zahabi.

So who are they?

Well, Elizabeth Hall is a genuine heavy-hitter and someone who will, I’m sure, treat the kinds of vexatious complaints that have been emanating from Lutfur’s camp with the contempt they deserve.

She lives in Tredegar Square and although retired from the Financial Services Authority (where she was a compliance expert on consumer products), she has a list of roles that puts most of us to shame. She is chair of the Parochial Church Council of St Mary’s in Bow (the one in the middle of Bow Road), is a senior figure in the Church of England lay hierarchy, is chair of the excellent Bow Arts Trust, is a member of Poplar Harca’s audit panel, and is part of the great and the good of Queen Mary University’s non-executive council. Until it was abolished by the Localism Act last year, she was also a non-executive director of the Standards Board for England.

And ironically, she also had a run-in with the council over a planning matter at her house two years ago when she forgot to get listed consent before sprucing up the steps of her house.

Here’s the biography on the Queen Mary site:

item85221

Elizabeth Hall retired in March 2006 after more than 10 years in the Financial Services Authority, working mainly on consumer protection and public awareness. Elizabeth continued as a consultant until 2009 on an FSA project under the National Strategy for Financial Capability, aimed at raising the financial understanding and confidence of consumers.

The early part of Elizabeth’s career was as a civil servant, initially as a press spokesman in several departments including 10 Downing Street and the Leader of the House. Later she spent three years as Labour Attaché in Brussels. After leaving the civil service Elizabeth had several other jobs, one of which was as Director of Development of the University of Aberdeen, then planning for its 500th anniversary.

Elizabeth has lived in Mile End since the mid-90’s, and has been active locally. Elizabeth is the lay Chairman of Bow Church PCC, planning for its 700th anniversary just before the 2012 Olympics. She is a member of the Court of Royal Foundation of St Katharine, at Limehouse, a member of the Finance and Audit Board of Poplar HARCA, and Chairman of the Bow Arts Trust. Elizabeth has been a member of the Standards Board for England since 2006, and of the Bar Standards Board, working on the professional regulation of barristers. At Queen Mary, Elizabeth is a trustee of Queen Mary Students’ Union and of People’s Palace Projects.

I’ve no idea what political affiliation she has, if any, but she can’t be a member of a party under the terms of engagement.

Less is known about Ezra Zahabi, who lives in a trendy area of Bethnal Green, but the council has provided the following biography:

Zahabi-Ezra.ashx

Ezra Zahabi is a qualified solicitor, specialising in regulatory law with a London legal practice.  Ms Zahabi has professional experience in examining claims of misconduct and identifying issues that require further investigation; and a keen interest in contributing to the maintenance of high ethical standards in local institutions.  She is a Tower Hamlets resident of more than ten years’ standing.

Both nominations will be voted on by the full council next Wednesday.

The draft report produced by council officers is pasted below:

1.        SUMMARY

1.1      A key element in the new standards regime introduced by the Localism Act 2011 and incorporated into the Council’s own arrangements with effect from 1st July 2012, is the appointment of at least one ‘Independent Person’ who will provide advice to the Council on any allegation it is considering, and may also provide advice to a member facing an allegation who has sought the views of that person.

1.2      The Independent Person(s) must be appointed following a public advertisement and recruitment process and his/her appointment must be confirmed by the majority of Councillors at the full Council meeting.

1.3      In accordance with transitional arrangements introduced by Regulations issued under the Localism Act, the Council on 18th June 2012 appointed Barry O’Connor, former Independent Chair of the Standards Committee, to serve as the interim Independent Person.   By law this interim appointment may run only until 30th June 2013 and from that date onwards the Independent Person may not be someone who has served as a member, co-opted member or officer of the authority within the previous five years.

1.4      The Standards Advisory Committee on 12th July 2012 agreed a process for advertisement and recruitment of an Independent Person and Reserve Independent Person.  That process is now complete and this report recommends the Council to make the appointments.

2.         RECOMMENDATIONS

2.1      That Ms Elizabeth Hall be appointed as the Independent Person with effect from 1st July 2013 for a term of office of three years.

2.2      That Ms Ezra Zahabi be appointed as the Reserve Independent Person with effect from 1st July 2013 for a term of office of three years.

2.3      That the Independent Person’s remuneration be set at the level of £117 per matter on which they are required to provide advice as set out at section 6 to this report.

3.         BACKGROUND

3.1      The Localism Act 2011 requires the Council to adopt a new Code of Conduct consistent with a number of principles set out in the Act, and arrangements for dealing with any alleged breach of the Code.

3.2      The arrangements adopted by the Council must include provision for the appointment by the Council of at least one Independent Person.   The statute states that the Independent Person must be appointed through a process of public advertisement and appointment by a positive vote of a majority of all members of the Council (not just of those present and voting).  The Act sets out specific statutory prohibitions on who can be an Independent Person and excludes previous and current members and Co-optees, their relatives and close friends.

3.3      The Independent Person must be consulted by the authority before it makes a finding as to whether a member has failed to comply with the Code of Conduct or decides on action to be taken in respect of that member. They may be consulted by the authority in respect of a standards complaint at any other stage.  Independent Persons may be invited to attend meetings of the Standards (Advisory) Committee, but are unlikely to be co-opted onto the Committee.  Instead their role is one of consultation in respect of any investigation of an alleged breach of the Code before the Council takes a decision in relation to the allegation.

3.4      The Act provides that the former co-opted Independent Members of Tower Hamlets’ Standards Committee, together with members and officers of the authority, cannot serve as Independent Persons for a period of 5 years.  However, transitional measures included in the Localism Act 2011 (Commencement No.6 and Transitional, Savings and Transitory Provisions) Order 2012 allow a local authority, if it so chooses, to appoint a person who is currently the Independent Chair or an Independent Member of the existing Standards Committee as its ‘Independent Person’ for an interim period extending no later than 30th June 2013.  Accordingly the Council agreed on 18th June 2012 that to provide continuity, the former Chair, Barry O’Connor, would be appointed as the Independent Person from 1st July for a temporary period until the recruitment process was complete.

4.         A RESERVE INDEPENDENT PERSON

4.1      As stated previously the Independent Person may be consulted by a member or co-opted member of the Council against whom a complaint has been made.  This causes some problems, as it would be inappropriate for an Independent Person who has been consulted by the member against whom the complaint has been made, and who might as a result be regarded as prejudiced on the matter, to be involved in the advisory role at the investigations stage of that complaint.

4.2      The Act gives discretion to appoint one or more Independent Persons, but provides that each Independent Person must be consulted before any decision is taken on a complaint which has been investigated.  Accordingly, there would appear to be little advantage in appointing more than one Independent Person or the process will be unwieldy.  The Standards Advisory Committee has therefore agreed that a Reserve Independent Person should be appointed who can be consulted in the event that the Independent Person is unable to discharge the function for any reason.

5.         RECRUITMENT PROCESS

5.1      The Council on 18th June 2012 agreed that the Monitoring Officer be authorised to make arrangements to advertise for, and together with an panel drawn from the Standards Advisory Committee in accordance with proportionality to take the necessary action to appoint, an Independent Person and a reserve Independent Person, whose appointments shall be confirmed by the Council.

5.2      The Standards Advisory Committee on 12th July 2012 agreed a recruitment process to include the advertisement of the position, initial longlisting of applications received by the Monitoring Officer, Chair of Standards Advisory Committee and Interim Independent Person, interviews by the proportionate panel of members and finally a report to the Council and confirmation of appointment(s).

5.3      The advertisement was placed as agreed in late September 2012 but no applications were received at that time.  A subsequent advertisement in April 2013 in East End Life and another local newspaper, accompanied by publicity to local community groups and businesses, was more successful and 12 applications were received.

5.4      The standard of the applicants was high and the longlisting panel identified five candidates for consideration by Members, of whom three were shortlisted for interview.

5.5      The interview panel comprised of Mr Matthew Rowe (Independent Chair, Standards Advisory Committee); Councillors David Edgar, Judith Gardiner, Motin Uz-Zaman and Zara Davis (Councillor Abdul Asad was unfortunately unwell and sent his apologies for absence); the Interim Independent Person and the Monitoring Officer. 

5.6      The panel met on Tuesday 11th June 2013 and interviewed the three shortlisted candidates.  The panel agreed that Ms Elizabeth Hall and Ms Ezra Zahabi should be recommended for appointment and by a majority vote of 5-2 proposed that Ms Hall should be appointed as the Independent Person and Ms Zahabi as the Reserve Independent Person.

5.7      Further information on the two successful candidates is set out below:-

Ms Elizabeth Hall

Elizabeth Hall is currently vice-chair of the council of Queen Mary University (voluntary position), where she is also independent chair of the Research Ethics Committee and a member of the Audit and Risk Committee.  She has continuing active involvement with the Bar Standards Board, Standards and Quality Assurance Committees; the Church of England; and a range of local charities and third sector organisations.  Ms Hall was previously a non-executive director of the Standards Board for England until its abolition in 2012.  Prior to her retirement she had a successful career with the Financial Services Authority.  She is a Tower Hamlets resident and a former Chair of Governors of St Paul’s Way School.

Ms Ezra Zahabi

Ezra Zahabi is a qualified solicitor, specialising in regulatory law with a London legal practice.  Ms Zahabi has professional experience in examining claims of misconduct and identifying issues that require further investigation; and a keen interest in contributing to the maintenance of high ethical standards in local institutions.  She is a Tower Hamlets resident of more than ten years’ standing.

6.         REMUNERATION

6.1      As the Independent Person is not a member of the authority or of its Committees or Sub-Committees, the remuneration of the Independent Person does not come within the scheme of members’ allowances and can therefore be determined without reference to the Independent Remuneration Panel.  It may however be relevant to consider the level of payments that the Panel has recommended for related functions previously.

6.2      The London Councils Independent Remuneration Panel report of 2010 recommended, in relation to Standards Committee independent members, that the annual payment to the Chair and Members of the committee should be based on an estimate of the number of meetings anticipated, which should be used as a multiplier of the co-optees’ allowances proposed of £256 and £127 per meeting respectively.   This is broadly in line with the rates paid in Tower Hamlets (240 and £117 per meeting respectively.).

6.3      Initial research shows that most London Boroughs which have determined the matter are proposing to pay the Independent Person an allowance of up to approximately £1k p.a..  As the workload for the post will vary depending on the number of complaints the Independent Person is required to advise on, it is suggested that an allowance of £117 per matter is paid.

APPENDIX A

INDEPENDENT PERSON:  ROLE DESCRIPTION

Under the Localism Act 2011, the Council must promote and maintain high standards of conduct by members and co-opted members of the authority. To this end the Council has adopted a Code of Conduct for Members and has agreed arrangements for dealing with any allegation that a member or co-opted member has breached the code.

In accordance with the requirements of the 2011 Act, these arrangements include the appointment of an Independent Person to advise on breaches of the Member Code of Conduct.

The Independent Person will:

–       Be available for consultation if an allegation of breach of the Members’ Code of Conduct is received by the Council.

–       Liaise as necessary with the Council’s Monitoring Officer to consider complaints against Members and offer his/her impartial views on the case, including any investigations undertaken.

–       Advise the Council prior to any decision to investigate an allegation or complaint relating to whether a member has failed to comply with the Code of Conduct.

–       Attend meeting of the Standards Advisory Committee and/or its sub-committees as required

–       Contribute to any review of the operation of the standards arrangements and complaints procedure established by the Council under the provisions of the Localism Act 2011.

The Independent Person may:

–       Be consulted by the Council’s Monitoring Officer in respect of an allegation against a Member in other circumstances.

–       Be consulted by a member or co-opted member of the Council against whom an allegation or complaint has been made.

The views of the Independent Person will be considered by the Council’s Standards Advisory Committee, who are responsible for recommending on the outcome of any complaints and any remedial action.

PERSON SPECIFICATION

The Independent Person will possess the following attributes, to be assessed through an application and interview process:

–       Personal integrity and honesty

–       A keen interest and commitment to maintaining high standards in public life.

–       A wish to serve the local community and uphold local democracy

–       An interest in and awareness of the functions of local government relating to ethical governance, in particular the role of elected Members and the relevant Codes of Conduct.

–       Independence, impartiality and experience of exercising sound objective judgements in relation to complex matters

–       Excellent questioning, analytical and evaluation skills in order to advise whether a breach of the Code of Conduct or complaint should be investigated.

–       A commitment to promoting equality and an awareness of the issues affecting a diverse community in an inner London borough

–       Excellent communication skills in particular the ability to provide clear rationale for advice and to explain decision making when required.

–       Experience of dealing with private and sensitive issues, exercising discretion and maintaining confidentiality of information received.

–       Flexibility to deal with urgent requests.

–       Aged 18 or over and with a mature and sound temperament

The Independent Person will not be:-

–       A Member, co-opted member or employee of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets; or have held such a post within the previous 5 years.

–       A relative or close friend of such a person; or

–       An active member of a political party.

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