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Archive for June, 2013

For some years now there has been some discussion among some politicians over the lack of burial space in Tower Hamlets. In fact, like all other inner London boroughs, there is none.

Traditionally over many generations, families have been burying their dead at the City of London crematorium and cemetery in Manor Park, or at the nearby Woodgrange Park Cemetery, or more lately at the Muslim Gardens of Peace cemetery in Hainault.

City of London and Woodgrange are on this map:
Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 08.17.24And Gardens of Peace is here:

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 08.26.12All of them are fairly accessible, not too far from Tube stations and all within easy driving distance. It’s of course a delicate matter, but the nature of cemeteries is that visits are relatively infrequent.

And for many years, some Respect/Lutfurite and Labour councillors have been competing with each other to tell residents (who, we’re told, see this is as a top priority) they’ll find a more convenient “multi-faith” site in the borough.

I last wrote about it here in November 2011 when I highlighted this passage from East End Life:

THE mayor has asked council officers to urgently explore options for a new multi-faith cemetery in Tower Hamlets. 

At a meeting of the council’s cabinet on December 7, Mayor Lutfur Rahman made clear that residents wanted to see options for a local cemetery brought forward for discussion.

Speaking after the meeting, he said: “Local people want the option of having a burial plot within their borough.

“Current arrangement with neighbouring boroughs don’t meet that aspiration. I want all the options on the table so we  can debate them in an open and transparent manner.”

Full details of the meeting on the council website.

Eighteen months on and after spending an as yet unspecified sum on consultants, Mayor Lutfur Rahman has finally realised what everyone knew at the outset: that there is no feasible space in Tower Hamlets.

How do we know this? Because the Mayor has just published a “mayoral executive decision” (these things are very much below the radar: he does not press release them or email them to wider groups of residents).

Instead, Lutfur and his lieutenant in charge of money, Alibor Choudhary, have decided they will spend £3million of our money (cost-cutting crisis? What crisis?!) on acquiring, with the help of an unspecified “charitable trust”, a three-acre plot of land with enough room for 3,000 graves–exclusively for Tower Hamlets residents.

So where is it? According to Lutfur’s decision, it will be to the “north east of Tower Hamlets….just inside the M25”!

So further away than the current options.

Because negotiations are still ongoing, Lutfur has refused to say who the charitable trust is, or where exactly the plot is…but these details will emerge, I’m sure.

At the same time, he has proposed scrapping the current subsidy of £225 that people get for burying their dead at the existing sites. That’s a budget of £30,000, which he has suggested will be ring-fenced to contribute to the running costs of the new cemetery “just inside the M25”.

Now, the City of London cemetery is not in Tower Hamlets but it is quintessentially East End. Generations are buried together there. I’m not sure many of these families will appreciate this.

I suspect that in making this decison Lutfur might well have stirred many of them into doing what they haven’t done for quite some time: get out and vote. And not for him.

Here are the background documents for the decision:

 

 

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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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After the success of last week’s post, here’s the second in the series of interviews with those involved in the struggle by Bengalis for identity in the Seventies and Eighties. Again the interview was done by the fabulous Swadhinata Trust.

Those who know me will know I know this woman quite well. Nuff said. Except to say that she’s a most remarkable lady whose energy and determination shames us all (she’s at the front of almost every protest in Altab Ali Park, as at this one a few week ago: she’s on the right).

IMG00317-20130428-1657[1]

Mrs. Husna Matin

Interview date: 30 _ Jan _ 06

Interviewed by: Jamil Iqbal and Ansar Ahmed Ullah

A remarkable woman, who was not afraid to confront racist skinheads. In one incident she risked her life and ran after some skinheads with sticks in her hand. This happened after the skinheads attacked an elderly Bengali and his son.

Q: Tell us, where you were at wartime, and your experiences of the independent war. 

MHM: My husband was working in Pakistan embassy, in Saudi Arabia before the war. From Saudi Arabia we came to Pakistan that is the West Pakistan, and shortly, in about one month, the war started. We were very worried and anxious, because I had three young daughters. Police were guarding all our (Bengali) homes (in Islamabad, Pakistan) it seemed to us that they were watching us. They have not treated us badly (within the embassy compound), but I was scared about my husband, as he was leaving the home in the morning, we had no assurance that he will return at evening, we were afraid of his life.

We were scared going out wearing our Bengali dress. We did not wear Sarees for four five months, we wore salwar and kamiz, so that they couldn’t recognize us on the streets, if we were Pakistani or Bengali.

husna-matin-with-husband

We could not collect our belongings that were sent from Saudi Arabia, bound to Karachi. We were not thinking of our goods sent from Saudi Arabia, rather we were thinking, how to flee West Pakistan, with our lives. We were scared to listen to the radio, we listened to the broadcast, hiding the radio and taking it near the ears, and lowering the volume, and we were afraid of our life, and always afraid of attack on us.

One of our well-wishers, within the office compound helped us very much, he helped us getting out of West Pakistan. We applied for umra (pilgrimage) visa and went to Saudi Arabia, we left our goods that possibly reached at Karachi seaport at that time. We came to Karachi from Islamabad, we tried to go to one of my cousin’s home, who was a navy officer, but the security forces didn’t allow us. So we stayed at a hotel near Karachi, the next day we got our visa and on the third day flew to Saudi Arabia.

When we reached Saudi Arabia, my husband went to visit his office that is the Pakistan embassy at Saudi Arabia. They arrested him with the false allegation of connection with India. Some of his colleagues working in the embassy helped him and they assured his innocence, and he was released and was kept in the embassy compound. After independence, Bangladesh authority got us out of the compound, and neither the Saudi Arabia, nor the Pakistan authority accepted us.

At the very beginning Bangladesh had no diplomatic tie with Saudi Arabia. India sent a ship to take back the Hajjees, who were visiting Saudi Arabia at that time for Hajj. That ship took us, the 17 families who were in the Pakistan embassy, doctor, nurse and other staff, to Bangladesh. It took 17 days to reach Bangladesh.

We were due to come to Bangladesh on 26th March 1971, we had our ticket confirmed for that date. We went to Pakistan in February from Saudi Arabia, and we had our ticket confirmed on 26th. But my children got pox in the meantime and so we changed our ticket. The family that bought the tickets and returned East Pakistan were killed by the Pakistani army. All the passengers of that flight were killed. We were due to be on the flight.

In Pakistan we suddenly found our home surrounded by the police. We were afraid of life. We had a four band radio, we mainly listen to BBC, VOA and radio China, with huge precaution. We feared that they will be following us from the outside. We were five Bengali families in that building.

We came to Bangladesh, after 3months of independence. We came to Chittagong by a ship. We raised the Bangladesh flag in the ship in March. My children sang the song Amar Sonar Bangla, on the top of the ship. We were informed that the country has been liberated. That produced more trouble for us. The Saudi Arabia government had not recognised Bangladesh

We arrived at Chittagong seaport, but as we arrived there was a low tide so we had to wait another day in the sea for high tide. The custom officers didn’t check us, they left us telling that, Pakistan has destroyed everything in Bangladesh, if you have brought anything that is yours.

We met Mr Moinuddin in Chittagong, he came to receive us hearing the news of our arrival. He showed us the situation in Chittagong. We saw big craters on the surface, which were made by bombings. We were in Chittagong for four days, and then we left Chittagong for Dhaka by air. We were also in financial crises.

After reaching Dhaka, we stayed at the residence of the governor of the state bank, Ijazur Rahman, who was my cousin. The next day my husband went to the foreign secretariat. They told him, all who have returned from different foreign missions of Pakistan, will be provided with their jobs again, but for the next few weeks we have to wait for further notice.

We then came to Sylhet, but we were financially broke, and my cousin helped us. As we were coming to Sylhet, we were unaware of the condition of our homes. We hired a car from the airport, but the car was unable to reach our home, as the roads were badly damaged by bombs. There had been a huge fight between the Pakistani soldiers themselves, (friendly fire) near our home, during the war.

People at home were disconnected from us in the long nine-months, so they were very glad to see us alive and safe again. We stayed at home for two weeks, and then again we came to Dhaka, my husband worked at Dhaka for nine months, and then he was transferred to London. We suffered a lot when we were staying at Bangladesh at that period. We had not enough food, no pure drinking water and no milk for the children, we suffered a lot. There was shortage of essential goods in the market and the prices were very high. At that time we were staying at Dhaka.

In 1974 we all (my children & myself) came to London, and shortly in 1975 we suffered another problem. We lost seven years of saving which my husband earned in Saudi Arabia.

We first came to Surrey and stayed there for one year. And in 1975 we came to London. My husband worked for seven years with the Bangladesh high commission here in UK, and then he left the job. We came to East London on 1976.

Racism in UK in 1980s: In the end of 1976, the skinhead problem started in the UK. There was a lot of Jews around this area. The skinheads gave us a very hard time. The Bengali men were afraid of going out in the late evening. They were troubling the women less, but were attacking the Bengali men. The skinheads used to beat the Bengali men and loot whatever they had on them whenever there was a chance.

Gradually the Pakistani, Indian and the Bangladeshi youths started to form small organisations. They fought back the skinheads. There was big Jewish population around our street. The Jews dominated businesses here in East London. They were the owner of shops. The Jews started to leave the area, and Bengalis started to move into East London.

Q: Can you remember any of the specific incidents of fighting here during the skinheads trouble? 

MHM: Yes I can. One evening, this incident took place in front of our house at Varden Street. One of my neighbours, who lived in house no 30, coming back from London Mosque was assaulted by the skinheads. The skinheads physically attacked both father and son. They were screaming for help, we got out of our house, my daughters got out and took some steel rod and started running towards the scene. The skinheads ran away, leaving the victims, very badly injured. After that police came, we threw our rods on the street, we were afraid of being arrested.

We had no telephone in the area. Someone would have to go to New Road to make a call and you don’t know if you will back home safely. The skinheads attacked many Bengalis on their way back from telephone booths.

Mr. Altab Ali was killed in 1978, and some other people known to us were assaulted at that time. We avoided going out at night. In case of an emergency, like to make a phone call, we never went alone, some one used to accompany me. After that we took a telephone connection in my house. We suffered a lot, it is easy to say now but it was not that easy to face reality then. We lived in this dilapidated house for 14 long years. The house was not properly ventilated and in the winter, chilling air entering the house. There was a shortage of houses in the area.

In the early 80s the authority offered us to choose our own house, we were afraid to move from here fearing of the skinheads. The houses were taken under the GLC and we gave them rent for few years, the rent was £10 for our house. The GLC offered us to sign a contract with them, so that they will pull down the old houses and provide us with new houses in the same road. There were twelve houses in this road, they made it eight. So finally we got our own house. One of the main problems we faced during the late 70s and early 80s was to have a bath. One had to go to bath once a week. We usually bathed on a Saturday going to some public bath.

Q: Was there any organisation of the Bengalis here? 

MHM: We had no Bangladeshi organisation before 1977, but we with the leadership of Lily Khan, formed an organisation in Myrdle Street School. I worked as a volunteer. We arranged a language class for the Bangladeshi women. The organisation still exists.

Q: When did the skinhead leave this area? 
MHM: Skinhead problem was over in 1980-81. Our people started to get organised and started to defend themselves. Slowly they broke up and the problem was solved. We got establish in Britain after 1981. Peter Shore came to my home many times. They (Bengali community activists) had a hostel in Tower Hill, I used to go there if they had any programme and I used to cook for them.

Q: Please tell us about Altab Ali murder and the impact it had? 
MHM: Altab Ali was killed by the skinheads. That was the starting point for the Bangladeshis to get organised. We formed some committees to protect the Bangladeshis.
The Bangladesh Welfare Organisation was established in 1971, and all the people had a common meeting place in our home. We had only one mosque in the whole East London that was situated in a tiny house near the cinema hall, which is no more there. It is converted into car parking space.

Then it was transferred to another place, where all the Bangladeshis from all over the UK, used to gather especially during the EID. From 1985-87 people started to build mosques all over Britain. Every thing has improved now, but we had so gloomy houses in this area that people were not even interested to look at those. We used to fear of getting attacked. We rarely looked at someone while crossing roads, there was the possibility of getting hit by the skinheads. We used to look at the ground when crossing them.

Q: Can you mention about the women organisation? 
I think the first Bengali women organisation was established here in the UK. We used to meet in the organisation and we had our language classes here from 1977. It was due to the courage Lily Khan that we had a women organisation in East London. They went to different places and formed different organisations. Mrs Hasan is one who formed an organisation. Women have more facilities to learn English now. We have classes in Jagonari but women are not coming out. (Delwar Hossain) Sayedi (fundamentalist Jamaat leader (has spoiled the new generation women. They are not willing to learn English.

Q: Are you involved in any party now? 
I am involved with Jagonari, involved in their management. We have three exercise classes every week. Women get some financial supports from Jagonari as well. The young women are benefiting from this financial support.

Q: How did Terry Fitzpatrick and other White people helped you? Did he inspire you to form an organisation for the Bengali people? 
Terry helped us a lot. Farrukh Dhondy from India was with him. He helped us getting electricity connection or water supply connection or things like that. He used to earn some money by helping people.

We supported Labour Party all these years, but after the Iraq war we have left Labour. We are in Lib-Dem now. We have not voted for Labour Party because they have attacked Iraq. We need a Bengali MP now.

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This, from the Tate, is Canaletto’s View of Greenwich from the River (c 1750-2).

A View of Greenwich from the River circa 1750-2 by Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) 1697-1768

Beautiful, isn’t it? The view is from what is now called Island Gardens at the southern end of the Isle of Dogs.

Here’s the photo on Tower Hamlets council’s website.

island-gardens

It’s a public park, or as the council puts it, “this charming riverside park” – part of the green space our our politicians insist is so precious in our borough. It’s also in a World Heritage Site buffer zone, which means anything that obstructs the view is forbidden by international treaty.

Here’s another view:

Island gardens

Now, this one is particularly interesting because at the far left-hand corner of that photo, a parcel of land is now under threat. Someone wants to build on it. Not a visitor centre showing the history of the park and its famous heritage, but a portable cabin, where, according to the applicant, the activities of “peoples of Muslim faith and ethnic minorities will be of primary focus”.

The details of the application are here. The applicant’s own statement is here (more of who the applicant is in a bit). Note the language, the way he seems to have been coached into saying what he thinks is the correct thing. Thus:

To quote sections of it:

The applicant is local community based organization whose primary activities are local based. It has been searching for a base in the locasl area to be a social public provider and extend charitable activities to local communities *(faith and non faith) as a third sector organisation. (sic)

Members behind this local community organization have a diverse background in varies fields and professions as well as wide life experiences and are ideally suited to helping in the formation of a centre serving the general public locally… The active members of the organization are schooled in the UK and abroad and possess a good understanding of British culture as well as social, local government, business and education. Hence they are able to offer support and practical assistance to those most in need in their community in particular. (sic)

The property will allow this organization to offer some of the following services: 1. tuition and homework classes for school children. 2. Teaching cultural subjects such as mother tongue classes, religious instruction etc. 3. Health advice clinics on smoking, healthy eating etc in ethnic languages thus reducing the financial burden on the local council. 4. Provide life skills and employment workshops for the unemployed. 5. Provide advice sessions on domestic family problems such as domestic violence, drug taking etc. 6. Provide a venue for for interfaith and cross cultural interactions. 7. Provide services to the elderly and families

The building will allow the engagement of women of different social and ethical background through the use of a separate hall. This will allow the organization to deliver important seminars and workshops on health, life skills etc to women who would usually shy away from the presence of men.

..There will be space allocated to prayer as it is a requirement for some of those visiting and using the centre to set aside whatever activities they are involved in at times of prayer.

..The applicant, intends to provide meals to the homeless and low cost quality food to other charities. (sic)

Don’t you just love it? I particularly like the bit about herding women into a separate hall because they “usually shy away from the presence of men”. And the bit about doing the teaching in Bengali because that would lower the council’s costs. How very inclusive, and considerate.

The plans also include an area for ablutions. This is a mosque in all but name. Or perhaps a Trojan Horse for a mosque. In a Grade II listed public park that was set aside by its founders for the benefit of everyone.

I rang Tower Hamlets council’s planning department and said I wanted to erect a community centre inside Victoria Park. They said I’d have to submit an application and pay a fee. “But,” I said, “surely you must be able to give me some initial advice? What’s the likelihood of this getting planning permission?”

Highly unlikely, they said, because Victoria Park is designated Metropolitan Space.

So I asked, “But am I even able to submit an application because I don’t actually own the space in the park?”

I could submit an application for anything anywhere, they told me, but that doesn’t mean the owner will give permission to use their land.

Island Gardens is also designated Metropolitan Space. And it’s also listed and owned by the council.

This document was written by the council in 2008. It’s the 10-year “management plan” for Island Gardens.

Here’s some of the introduction:

2.1 Introduction to Island Gardens

Island Gardens is an extremely prominent site on the best known loop of the River Thames, visible from the river and from Greenwich. It is a small gem of an open space, 1.12 hectares (2.77 acres) in size. It is best known and was set aside expressly for its classic views over the river to the historic landscapes, buildings and sights of Greenwich, a World Heritage Site. Local residents and workers and thousands of visitors a year from around the world enjoy the park.

Its finest features are the views across the River and its London Plane trees. The park offers its visitors peace and tranquillity and a chance for quiet contemplation.

The Borough has 125 public open spaces, three quarters of them of 1 hectare or less in size. On average there are only 1.2 hectares of open space per 1000 population, half the national standard.

The recently adopted Open Space Strategy gave Island Gardens a score of 74.9% in the quality audit, a high score for the Borough.

2.3 Site history

In the late nineteenth century the trustees of Lady Margaret Charteris owned the land that is now Island Gardens. The land was leased to the Admiralty, which in turn let it to the Cubitt trustees, with a reservation that no buildings, except certain villa residences, were to be erected without their consent. The Admiralty’s objective was to preserve the site in order to maintain the important views to Greenwich. This was almost the only portion of the area’s river frontage that had not been developed over the preceding fifty years for shipbuilding and the many other industries associated with the docks.

Island Gardens was formally acquired for public open space in 1893 and opened in August 1895. The original purpose of the Gardens was twofold – primarily a vantage-point from which to enjoy the fine architecture and majestic views across the River but also as a recreation ground for local people, adults and children, to enjoy public entertainment and open space. It continues to provide for these two purposes.

So why would anyone waste a planning fee of £1500 on an application that is so likely doomed? Surely, they must have discussed the idea with someone at the council? Maybe someone gave them a wink and nod.

But who is the applicant? His application form is here. It’s a Mr A Hannan of Manchester Road. He doesn’t include his full address, and there’s no mention of the local community “social public service provider” mentioned in his application statement.

In fact, this is Abdul Hannan. He’s one of the trustees of the Tower Hamlets Parents Centre, a charity that earns £120,000 a year. I suspect this is the group behind the bid. The other trustees are:

  • DR HASANAT HUSAIN MBE
  • MR MUFTI AMIN AHMED
  • MR ABDUL MANNAN
  • MR SHAHANUR AHMED KHAN
  • MRS FERDOUS AHMED
  • MR SAJJAD MIAH
  • MR SHAFI AHMAD
  • MR MONIRUL ISLAM
  • MR GULAM MORTUZA

Well, well, well…that last name is ex-councillor G(h)ulam Mortuza. He’s a former Labour civic mayor of the borough and defected briefly to Respect in 2005/6. He founded the Tower Hamlets Parents Network in 1996. He’s also, would you apple and eve it, the elder brother of Cllr G(h)ulam Robbani, a close ally of Mayor Lutfur Rahman and the author of those infamous invoices I detailed here.

[As a result of a comment by TH1 this evening (Tuesday, June 4), I’m deleting the last section of this post. It seems I’ve mixed up two Adbul Hannans. The Abdul Hannan who made this application is listed on the electoral roll for Manchester Road as aged between 35-39 and having lived at the address for 16 years. I’m informed this is a different Abdul Hannan to the one listed as a trustee of the Tower Hamlets Parents Centre. I apologise to all concerned and I’ll continue to look for the organisation behind this scheme.]

Not everything is as it first appears, is it…

…And the same goes for the objections to this proposal. When I was first alerted to this row last week, the headline was about building over the park. But that’s not quite the case.

The area where they want to put their community centre/mosque is, as I said above, in a small corner of the park.

I had a look yesterday. It may well lie within the park boundaries, but it’s not exactly the park. It’s in a walled-off area where the council’s gardeners used to have a storage shed. It’s now not used for anything.

Here it is from the inside:

 DSC_0223

And from the road outside the park:

DSC_0232

And here’s the residents’ objection poster attached to the park gates:

DSC_0229

There have been rumours that this parcel of land has already been sold off by the council and I know the Tories are trying to get that clarified by the council’s directors. If so, it would be a major scandal…but I doubt that’s the case.

However, we should actually be grateful to the slightly disingenuous planning application from Mr A Hannan. It’s clear that something should be done with the site they want to use. And a small community centre isn’t too bad a thing. But let’s make it religion-free, shall we: there are plenty of other places to pray.

And let’s encourage people to mix. What about a One O’Clock Club, a children’s activity centre, such as the one in Victoria Park?

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A few months after becoming an MP in 2010, Nick Boles, the Conservative member for Grantham, wrote a fascinating book, Which Way’s Up. It outlined several policy ideas, a fair few of which have since been picked up by ministers.

Which is not surprising because before he was an MP, Boles was the founding director of the distinctly Cameroon think tank Policy Exchange. He is also an ex-flatmate of Education Secretary Michael Gove, who also helped found Policy Exchange.

Re-reading it recently, I was struck again by one particular proposal – to introduce a US-style pledge of allegiance in British primary schools. Of course, the gut instinct is to recoil at something so ghastly, so American and so unBritish…but when you think it through, it does have an appeal.

And it’s also fascinating that among the admittedly small sample of people with whom I’ve discussed it, those of a more recent migrant background have been most in favour.

As Nick points out in his book (the extract is copied below), the wording would be crucial, but it would not be an oath of loyalty to the Queen, such as that sworn by MPs each new Parliament. Neither would it be compulsory.

But it would instil in people of all backgrounds a “commonality”, as he puts it.

He’s now a Planning Minister, a job in which he has succeeded in upsetting the Telegraph, the Mail and Simon Jenkins with his demands to build more homes for people on Britain’s “green belt”. When I spoke to him last week he said he was still very keen on the pledge idea. The events of Woolwich have underlined a lingering sense of mistrust between communities.

And here in Tower Hamlets, I suspect those feelings are starker at grassroots level than most politicians would have us all believe.

I also spoke to Labour MP Barry Sheerman about the idea last week and his thoughts were equally absorbing. He made a similar suggestion in November 2001, two months after 9/11 when he was chair of the Commons Education Committee. He also remains keen on the idea and supports the call by Nick Boles, but what he would like to see ingrained in pledge is a sense of citizenship. He said he was particularly concerned about the disregard for equal women’s rights in some communities (he cited the grooming cases in Rochdale and Oxford as examples). He said there needed to be an emphasis on that from an early age.

Respect for our nation, a pledge to treat all equally, and respect for all religions and backgrounds…? What would you have in it?

I wrote a piece in today’s Sunday Express here, and it’s copied below. Under that is the extract from Nick’s book.

A US-STYLE pledge of allegiance should be introduced into Britain’s schools as a way of uniting the country’s diverse communities, one of the most influential ministers in Government urged yesterday.

Nick Boles, a close friend of Education Secretary Michael Gove and David Cameron, said the changing face of Britain meant the common bonds that united previous generations had weakened after years of large-scale immigration.

He said it was time to learn from America which has for decades encouraged children to start the school day with a pledge upholding the values of patriotism, liberty and justice for all.

Reciting a simple 10-second sentence from an early age has successfully instilled a “commonality” in Americans regardless of ethnic or religious background, he argues.

Having largely succeeded in the US, which was founded on mass migration, he said it could be part of the solution—and a cost-free one–for an increasingly multicultural UK.
The wording of the pledge would be open for public debate, but as in America, it would not be compulsory to recite, he said.

He would not want it to be a solemn oath of loyalty to the Crown, such as the one sworn by MPs, but he said it could make reference to the Queen and other institutions—and also to themes such as equal rights for women.

He said slightly amended pledges could be used in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to reflect their own national identities.

The brutal murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich 11 days ago, and the anti-Muslim response to it from the likes of the English Defence League, underlined the need for longer-tem action.

He believes when Britain was largely a Christian country populated by peoples of similar races, such “artificial” measures were not necessary, but policymakers now need to be much more assertive about creating unity.

He told the Sunday Express he would like to see the idea introduced if not by the Coalition before 2015, then as part of the next Tory manifesto in two years’ time.

A former flat-mate of Mr Gove and member of Mr Cameron’s inner circle, he is regarded as one of the freshest thinkers in Government.

He founded the Policy Exchange think tank in 2002 and many of his ideas have since become flagship Tory policies.

He first mapped out the idea for a pledge in his book Which Way’s Up, which he wrote shortly after the 2010 General Election as a new backbench MP for Grantham.

Now a Planning Minister, he said diplomatically yesterday: “I stand by the idea and it certainly still has merit but it’s for others to work out if it has some potential.”

He accepts that some might see the pledge as “unBritish”, but a source close to him said: “It would just be a moment that children would get used to.

“It would instill in them, however many the number of first languages in the classroom that they’re in, a sense they’re all part of one thing which is rather great.”

His idea was backed by senior Labour MP Barry Sheerman, who made a similar call as chairman of the Education Select Committee two months after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.

Mr Sheerman said yesterday: “I’m all for setting a number of values that are the commonplace of a decent, civilised society in a modern democracy.

“And absolutely ingrained in that should be the equal rights of women because I think that’s the thing most in danger today among certain societies who don’t believe that equality of women is not unquestionable.”

In his book, Mr Boles wrote: “The process of assimilating and integrating is a crucial first step to restoring a sense of one nation.

“Recitation of the pledge would not be compulsory – that would be offensive to the freedom of speech that is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. 
“But it would not need to be.

“If it were introduced in the first year of primary school and established as a daily convention to which most children and teachers adhered, then it would generate its own gravitational pull.

“In later years, when older children see a refusal to take part as a pleasing act of rebellion, the social norm would be established, its power asserted by the very fact that it triggers teenage revolt.”

The US pledge was first introduced in schools in 1892 and reads: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

This is from Which Way’s Up, by Nick Boles MP:

The process of assimilating and integrating is a crucial first step to retoring a sense of one nation. But the 7 July bombings demonstrate that it can take time for a sense of alienation in migrant communities to manifest itself. People who themselves took the initiative to move to Britain are often more willing to integrate than their children, who were born in Britain but may encounter racism while growing up, and can become confused by the apparent clash between the inherited values of their families’ religion or culture and the acquired values of modern, secular Britain.

Even if future levels of net migration are restrained by some of the policies outlined above, there is still much to do to help the children of everyone who has made their home here in the last forty years feel bound to their compatriots by common values, a shared culture and mutual respect and understanding.

The process needs to start when children first go to school. One of the way the US has achieved a remarkable level of assimilation and integration, despite constant flows of new migrants from a kaleidoscope of countries, is by establishing the convention that all public schools begin the working day with a recitation of the pledge of allegiance. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” they intone.
 
It is time to introduce a similar ceremony in British schools. While the precise wording of the pledge should be left to better writers and philosophers than me, I think we need something more than the oath of allegiance required of MPs and other officeholders, which requires allegiance only to the monarch and her successors. Instead, it should make brief reference to the essential institutions to which we wish all British children to develop an instinctive loyalty (the monarchy, the union and Parliament) as well as vital concepts such as freedom and the rule of law. Children in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could recite a slightly different pledge, referring to their own nation and its democratic institutions.

Recitation of the pledge would not be compulsory – that would be offensive to the freedom of speech that is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. But it would not need to be. If it were introduced in the first year of primary school and established as a daily convention to which most children and teachers adhered, then it would generate its own gravitational pull. In later years, when older children see a refusal to take part as a pleasing act of rebellion, the social norm would be established, its power asserted by the very fact that it triggers teenage revolt.

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