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Archive for February, 2014

Pleasing Takki

I was at the annual Private Eye/Guardian Paul Foot Awards for investigative journalism last night and naturally the conversation with some of the most celebrated names in the profession turned to Tower Hamlets.

They’re all aware of what a basket case it is and how badly served its residents have been over the years by far too many councillors and officers.

What some weren’t aware of was the culture at officer level to try and close down journalistic scrutiny.

In the same way that Labour did for so many years, Lutfur’s administration seems to have successfully muzzled the influential Bengali media (and if Alibor Choudhury is reading this, I mean the British Bangladeshi media). The grant money and other council cash he’s chucked their way has probably helped. So too has the hiring of Channel S reporter Mohammed Jubair to work as his part-time adviser on “community media” (the job title is interesting: Jubair doesn’t have any contact at all with the East London Advertiser).

But there’s another issue. The frequency with which Takki Sulaiaman, the council’s £100k a year head of communications, rings the Advertiser to yell at impudent journalists is legendary, staff there tell me. He’s become something of a figure of fun there.

This is nothing new in Tower Hamlets. A few months after I joined the Advertiser and started investigating the council in 2005, one of Takki’s predecessors, Lorraine Langham (now the chief operating officer at Ofsted) called my editor at home and whispered to him that I was working every Saturday at the Sunday Express. She wondered whether I was in breach of my contract. My editor, the fabulous Malcolm Starbrook, put her straight: I’d already got permission to do those shifts. He was furious she had tried to get me sacked.

In 2012, the council’s then chief lawyer Isabella Freeman (now at the Homes and Communities Agency) sent me a series of erratic and poorly spelled emails and letters in which she threatened to sue me because I had likened her to an ostrich. She also seemed to determined to shut down this blog.

But what the hacks at last night’s do were most concerned about was a letter sent by Takki to my editor at the Sunday Express, Martin Townsend, in November 2012 in the run up to the Leveson Inquiry. They suggested I publish it here, which is what I’ll do.

Regular readers will remember this story I ran in October 2012 about a headhunter’s report that had been leaked to me on Murziline Parchment’s application to become council chief executive. The report was damning and suggested she was nowhere near able at that stage to do the job. The reason I published it in full (and after careful consideration) was because she was later recruited as the extremely important ‘head of the mayor’s office’ working directly for Lutfur Rahman. Her experience working for Ken Livingstone at City Hall probably helped her.

It was a classic case of public interest journalism, but Takki was incandescent. They had no legal case, so they very sneakily went to my editor to try and get me sacked.

The letter laid out a load of trumped up charges on the Editor’s Code (none of them remotely stood up), sinisterly raised the work of Leveson, and claimed I was blurring the lines between my job at the Sunday Express and this unpaid blog.

As our lawyer and my editor said to Takki in reply, there is no boundary. The blog is part of my journalistic toolkit (which frequently provided stories for the Sunday Express).

Takki had even gone to the length of checking the watermark on the scan of the leaked document I’d posted on this blog: he’d seen it had been created using ‘terryscanner’, which is a network name for a scanner allocated to my former and now retired Sunday Express picture editor, Terry Evans.

The letter was received with disbelief and hilarity. There was a discussion about whether we should even reply, but we did do, telling Takki in the politest possible terms to back off, get real and stop trying to muzzle the investigative journalism that has helped several articles and news items/documentaries in the national and broadcast media.

We didn’t hear from him again. But he’s a busy man at moment and with the election coming up, I hope he keeps it together.

Here’s the letter.

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One of the features of Lutfur Rahman’s divisive administration has been the readiness of his low-grade lieutenants to chuck around the word ‘racist’. I’ve documented this far too many times on this blog to list them again now.

It’s also been clear the past few months that this would be their strategy in the lead up to May’s mayoral election. And having grown up in the swamp, they know that mud can stick.

They’ll probably find some way to label me racist for even saying that, but I’m not.

You see, my wife and her family sometimes call themselves Bangladeshis; more frequently it’ll be Bengalis. All the time, of course, they also say they’re British. And at other times, when they’re describing someone who’s white, they’ll say they’re ‘English’.

All terms of common parlance. And they’re the most lovely, open-minded family I know (and yes, I would say that, but it’s true.)

Unlike the dimwitted muck-rakers who pretend they’re campaigning for a One Tower Hamlets, ie Lutfur’s Tower Hamlets First crew.

Lutfur was always described to me by those who knew him better as an empty vessel. It seems that vessel now poureth over with poison.

How so?

See this press release from Lutfur’s campaign manager Cllr Alibor Choudhury.

John Biggs: Dividing the East End

Labour Mayoral hopeful reported to Equalities and Human Rights Commission over inflammatory and divisive comments

Pressure was today mounting on Tower Hamlets Labour Mayoral hopeful John Biggs after he was referred to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for remarks made on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme

The complaint, by Cllr. Alibor Choudhury of Tower Hamlets First, refers to a statement made by Biggs on 22 September 2013.

Attempting to refute claims of institutional racism in the Labour Party, Mr Biggs said: “All of the Mayor’s Cabinet are Bangladeshi and his primary policy focus has been the concerns of one community, the Bangladeshi community.”

Cllr. Choudhury said: “First off, the makeup of the Mayor’s cabinet is a result of Labour’s policy of non-cooperation. Secondly, John might want to think of me as a foreigner, but I was born here and am as British as he is. Thirdly, policies like free homecare, bringing back EMA and building the most affordable homes in the UK benefit everyone. John’s remarks are untrue and inflammatory and are doing lasting damage to community cohesion in the East End.”

The comments reported to the Commission are the latest in a long line of racially charged comments by the Labour Mayoral hopeful. In 1998, he campaigned against the creation of Banglatown and in 2013 his dog-whistle claims on housing were picked up and gleefully used as propaganda by the EDL who marched on the borough just a couple of months later. More recently, one of his Labour colleagues accused him of having a problem with outspoken Bangladeshis.

Cllr. Choudhury added: “Biggs’ slogan is ‘Uniting the East End’ but with far-right ‘patrols’ on our streets and bomb threats to the Town Hall and East London Mosque, his remarks are doing the opposite. Residents have tried to get him to explain his comments and have been ignored, so there’s no other option but to report him to the EHRC.”

Very kindly, Alibor also sent us the letter he’s written to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

Dear Commissioners,

I have been an elected councillor in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets since 2006, and currently serve as the council’s Cabinet Member for Resources, serving alongside the directly-elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman.

I’m proud that in Lutfur, Tower Hamlets has elected Britain’s, and Europe’s, first BAME directly-elected mayor. He is standing for re-election this coming May. Sadly, however, the local Labour Party, who are currently in opposition on the council, appear to be centring their campaign to unseat Lutfur on racial grounds.

Appearing on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show on 22 September 2013, the Labour mayoral candidate said, “all of the mayor’s cabinet are Bangladeshi and primary policy focus has been the concerns of one community, the Bangladeshi community.”

This is worrying on a number of levels. First, I am one of those cabinet members. I may be ethnic-Bangladeshi but I was born and brought up in Britain, I have always lived here, and I am as British as Mr Biggs is.

Second, there is a clear appeal to racial prejudice, which is deeply irresponsible, particularly given the backdrop of tensions around the EDL march that had taken place weeks before the programme, and constant negative press coverage around the local Bangladeshi community and Muslims.

On 25 September, three days after the broadcast, the East London Mosque was the subject of a bomb threat and police were called. On 26 September, a suspicious package arrived at the Town Hall. It is very possible that these sinister incidents were the work of extremists whipped up by Mr Biggs’s outburst.

Even if there is no direct link, Mr Biggs should know that his position as a London Assembly member gives him a prominent and influential public platform and that as such, he should choose his words responsibly.

Third, that there are no white members of the mayor’s cabinet is not of his own choosing. When Lutfur stood as an independent candidate following the Labour Party’s suspension of his candidacy – on the basis of allegations that were never put to him and later proved to be false – a large number of Labour councillors supported him. Those who were ethnic-Bengali were expelled from the Labour Party, whereas those who were not were permitted to remain.

On winning the mayoral election, Lutfur wrote to all Labour councillors – white and non-white – inviting them to apply for cabinet positions. But Mr Biggs’s party colleagues ordered all Labour councillors to refuse the offer or be expelled from the Labour Party. This is the reason why there are no non BAME cabinet members.

Apart from anything else, I was hoping that Mr Biggs would have something more constructive to observe about me and my fellow cabinet members, rather than crass complaints about the colour of our skin.

I truly believe that the reason for such messaging is that the Labour Party feels it has lost the ethnic minority vote to Lutfur and therefore needs to appeal to a section of the electorate who resent Bangladeshis and Muslims’ involvement in local democracy and civil society, and who do not normally vote.

Such sentiments are fuelled by hysterical newspaper articles branding this multicultural borough ‘Taliban Tower Hamlets’ and ‘Sharia Zone’, and of course the false allegations famously made by Labour Party figures that Lutfur had been ‘brainwashed by Islamic fundamentalists’.

It would not be the first time such a strategy has been adopted: you will be all too familiar with Phil Woolas MP’s racial smears against the Liberal Democrats after he lost much of his ethnic-minority support base to that party following the Iraq war.

I trust that you will share my grave concern over these deeply unappetising and irresponsible election tactics. I write to you now because my analysis of the opposition’s approach has been reaffirmed by further developments in recent days, which have seen a Far-Right racist party, British First, mount intimidating vigilante patrols outside the East London Mosque, a serving opposition councillor accuse his party leaders and Mr Biggs of racial prejudice, and the party’s election organiser telling the public that the way to remove the mayor from office is to get more non-Bangladeshis to vote. I am happy to release the evidence of these incidents to you as you require.

My foremost concern is the community cohesion in this borough. Its sure destruction should not be a price any legitimate party is willing to pay in return for winning an election.

I very much hope that you will look into this situation carefully, and I look forward to a prompt and thorough response.

Yours sincerely,

Councillor Alibor Choudhury

Cabinet Member for Resources
Shadwell Ward

CC: The Labour Party National Executive Committee Chair Angela Eagle
The Labour Party BAME National Executive Committee Chair Kamaljeet Jandu
Greater London Authority Monitoring Officer

Well, this is a bit thick really. And remember, Alibor is the cabinet member for finance. And not only does he in private call himself Bengali/Bangladeshi (he has to me many times and never British Bangladeshi, because that goes without saying), but he also signs off grants galore for groups whose names suggest Bangladeshi-only.

Only last week, for example, he and the Mayor handed out a ‘Third Sector Award’ to the Bangladesh Football Association, which has also received tens of thousands of pounds in council funding under Lutfur and Alibor.

The Bangladeshi Youth Movement, seen in this document here, also received grants aplenty. There are many other examples.

Hey, and what’s this we see in the Tower Hamlets Strategic Plan for 2013/14, authored by the Mayor himself: an action point for the Deputy Mayor, Ohid Ahmed…”Implement action plan for improving drug and alcohol treatment recovery rates across the borough, including for younger adults, Bangladeshi women, people with disabilities and LGBT residents. (March 2014)

Well, perhaps Alibor has referred himself to the EHRC.

As for suggesting John Biggs has somehow sinisterly prompted bombs to arrive in Tower Hamlets…well, Alibor is no stranger to violence. Perhaps it’s time he can explain how he got that six inch scar on his neck.

Every time I’ve asked John Biggs about Alibor’s past experiences with the gang-ridden Ocean estate, John has always declined to say anything. You see, Alibor was once John’s protege: John mentored him onto a straighter path and helped him see the potential power of politics as a force for good.

Perhaps he’s forgotten those lessons.

Actually, I think he needs a bit of love, a nice big cuddle. When you see him knocking on your door next, give him a squeeze.

Alibor

In the meantime, here’s John Biggs’s response:

Lutfur Rahman’s smears are an insult to true victims of racism

Labour have today responded to a disgraceful press release which was issued by Lutfur Rahman supporter Cllr Alibor Choudhury unfoundedly accusing Labour’s candidate for Mayor of Tower Hamlets of racism. The press release made sweeping and baseless accusations and stoking racial fear amongst voters.

At the same time another Rahman supporting councillor took to twitter falsely claiming that if elected John Biggs planned to use his powers to scrap the “Banglatown” ward name which is a point of significant pride in the Bangladeshi community. Cllr Choudhury was also promoting his statement on Facebook openly referring to John Biggs as John Bigot.

The attack was described by Labour as a “desperate tactic” and said that “baseless cries of racism for political gain are an insult to anyone who has actually suffered true racial abuse.”

Labour drew attention to positive nature of Biggs’ campaign including the cross community support it enjoys. They highlighted that whilst Rahman’s supporters were intent on spreading baseless smears and character attacks Biggs was focused on speaking with local people and announcing policies which will help all residents such as free school meals for all primary school pupils. Over the last two weeks Labour councillors and John Biggs have announced a multitude of policies including:

– Free school meals for all primary school children
– A 24h out of hours noise service at weekends
– Working towards building 1,000 new council homes after the current administration built only 15.
– New measures to tackle drug dealing on estates
– Creating a new private lettings agency to cut out rip off charges for private renters
– Bringing the popular borough fireworks display back to Victoria Park

Leader of the Labour Group, Cllr Sirajul Islam, said: “Let’s be clear about this, John Biggs is no racist. John Biggs has devoted his life to serving all the people of East London. This vicious character attack is nothing more than a desperate tactic from a party who know they are losing the battle of ideas.

“Whilst John Biggs is pledging to provide free school meals for all the borough’s primary school children, all Lutfur Rahman and his supporters can do is cry wolf. Their shameful and baseless cries of racism for political gain are an insult to anyone who has actually suffered true racial abuse.”

John Biggs, Labour candidate for Mayor of Tower Hamlets said: “I am extremely disappointed by this misleading, divisive, and inflammatory outburst from supporters of the current Mayor. I’m going to run the type of campaign Tower Hamlets deserves – one about ideas for how to make life in our borough better.”

In a joint statement MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Rushanara Ali, MP and MP for Poplar and Limehouse Jim Fitzpatrick MP said: “We are utterly appalled by this behaviour. Tower Hamlets is, and deserves, better than these bullyboy politicians who resort to lies and character attacks. Labour have been clear from day one that we want this election to be about uniting Tower Hamlets, the policies that will improve peoples lives and the best person to serve all communities. Instead with over two months to go Lutfur Rahman is resorting to baseless, divisive smears and attacks.

“If Lutfur Rahman thinks Labour is standing against him because of his race then he needs to get real. The reason John Biggs is standing is because he passionately believes in uniting all communities in Tower Hamlets and with a strong unified Labour team he can bring the change the borough needs. The current Mayor just isn’t up to the job and is clearly more interested in his own self-promotion and wasting public money than helping the people of Tower Hamlets who will see through these inflammatory accusations for what they are: a desperate attempt to divide based on the politics of fear.”

“For over 30 John Biggs has worked tirelessly, fighting the fascist BNP and EDL and uniting communities across the borough. The diversity that runs through our party is represented by the fantastic slate of council candidates that will be standing side by side with John, as we will be, throughout the campaign and onward.”

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Mayor Lutfur Rahman has form when it comes to supplying judges with court references for convicted criminals.

In 2011, as reported here, he wrote a lovely letter on behalf of minicab driver Zamal Uddin who was awaiting sentence for molesting a female passenger in Hoxton. Unusually, in that instance, the mayor wrote to me to explain himself.

zamal-uddin1

He said he’d been duped by Uddin’s family, that he thought he was being convicted of driving without a licence. Well, I guess we’re all human and we all make mistakes, even a fully qualified lawyer whose job is to pay attention to such detail.

It’s happened again, although this time I’m pretty sure Lutfur knew what he was doing.

Whenever I’m asked to give lectures about Tower Hamlets, I always cite this story: of how Mahee Jalil/Mohammed Ferdhaus, the boss and founder of Channel S television was kidnapped outside his Walthamstow office, bundled into the boot of a car, driven across London and hanged from the ceiling by his ankles while being tortured with scolding water poured over his testicles. He was then released by a sympathetic kidnapper and dumped by the side of the North Circular.

Of course, Mahee Jalil isn’t any ordinary businessman. He’s a crook. In 2008, he was convicted of a car insurance fraud and served time in jail.

It was after he reemerged from prison that he was given a Kray style treatment by an angry husband. This experience apparently made him see the light.

But he remains a powerful figure. He founded Channel S and although he still has (or had until recently) his own show, his name no longer appears on any legal documents connected to the station. This is convenient. Channel S was put under new management shortly before Ofcom’s latest ruling against it (more here).

Lutfur’s people, and Labour, are desperate to appear on Channel S. It’s the one media outlet that matters. This is why Lutfur hired at the public’s expense its reporter Mohammed Jubair to work as his media adviser (while still working for the station!); it’s why Tower Hamlets council gives it £10,000 a year for an annual awards show that is anything but One Tower Hamlets.

In short, the cowboy TV channel founded by crooked Mahee has been extremely friendly to Mayor Lutfur Rahman.

So the least Lutfur could do by way of thanks (and undoubtedly from some genuinely held conviction Mahee had changed his ways) was to try and help get his latest sentence minimised, this time for money-laundering some £500,000 from another car insurance scam. This money laundering took place while Mahee was on bail awaiting his previous sentence. He must have been so contrite.

I’ve not yet seen Lutfur’s full reference letter and no one from the council (which says it wants to tackle crime) wanted to comment yesterday.

However, Peter Golds has written to the council’s head of paid service Steve Halsey demanding a full investigation into the town hall’s links with Channel S. I can’t help thinking the council is bringing itself into disrepute.

Here’s the piece I wrote for the Express yesterday.

The photo is taken from Mahee’s last interview with Lutfur Rahman, which was uploaded on to YouTube in November last year, when the mayor was fully aware of Mahee’s latest predicament. (I’m going to moderate comments on this thread to ensure there is no reference to any other ongoing legal proceedings).

Lutfur_ferdhaus-460480

ONE of Britain’s most controversial mayors provided a glowing court reference yesterday to a convicted insurance fraudster who was then sentenced to three years in jail for money laundering.

Lutfur Rahman, the directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets Council in east London, praised Mohammed Ferdhaus’s “instrumental role” in promoting Britain’s Bangladeshi community just minutes before he was sent to prison for the second time in six years.

Mr Rahman’s letter of praise made reference to Ferdhaus’s work with Channel S, an influential satellite TV station for British Bangladeshis and which has been warned by Ofcom for broadcasting biased coverage of the mayor’s policies.

Ferdhaus is the channel’s founder and was until recently a regular presenter.

He interviewed Mr Rahman, an independent who was expelled from Labour in 2010, on the channel as recently as last November.

Despite a previous jail sentence for insurance fraud, Ferdhaus has been named as one of the most powerful Bangladeshis in Britain.

However, a judge at Southwark Crown Court yesterday said another custodial sentence was the only possible outcome for his latest crime, laundering the money from a £1.9million crash for cash insurance scam.

Ferdhaus, 40, who is also known as Mahee Jalil, grinned as his sentence was read out and waved at supporters in the public gallery, saying “thank you” and “see you  soon”.

He helped flush funds generated by a team of fraudsters led by his brother, Mohammed Samsul Haque, 26.

Haque, together with five other men, had already been sentenced to a total of more than 12 years in prison.

More than 120 bogus insurance claims for luxury motors including Mercedes, Jaguars and BMWs were engineered by Haque through his company, Motor Alliance.

Cars were trashed at crash for cash drinking parties at Haque’s garage in Tottenham, north London, the court heard.

The gang rammed the vehicles into each other blocking out the noise with blaring music, before finishing the job with baseball bats.

Between November 2005 and October 2008, a series of London-based accident management firms were used as a front to hide their activities.

They also persuaded other drivers to provide their licence details to back up the insurance claims in return for small amounts of cash.

The firm raked in around £1.17million in profits from the scam, which was unearthed after police raided Motor Alliance and found 64 files relating to insurance claims in the boot of a silver Mercedes.

Ferdhaus had a “background” role in the firm and was involved in the scam between July 19, 2006 and October 31, 2008.

The media mogul tried to pin the blame on his innocent middle brother, Abdul, and maintained his innocence on the day he was due to stand trial in July last year.

He was jailed for 18 months in 2008 for conspiracy to defraud in respect of an almost identical earlier insurance scam between 2002 and 2003.

The businessman was on bail awaiting trial at the time he became embroiled in the later fraud.

Ferdhaus had suffered post traumatic stress disorder after being kidnapped at gunpoint outside his TV station offices in Walthamstow, east London and issued with a £250,000 ransom demand.

When he refused to pay his assailants they tortured him, hanging him upside down and pouring boiling water on his head, before threatening to rape his daughter.

He continues to endure psychological difficulties as a result of the ordeal in May 2011, shortly after he returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca, the court heard.

But sentencing, Judge Anthony Pitts said: “The proceeds of the fraud Motor Alliance received was something a little over £1m.

“Payments from the proceeds of the fraud were put into your account or accounts controlled by you.

“The proceeds of the fraud received by you was £500,000.

“It wasn’t proceeds which you suspected might be proceeds of fraud but of course which you knew were the proceeds of fraud.

“You are a highly intelligent man, there is no doubt about that and I have read a lot of good things about you.

“Of course you have suffered post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety and depression.

“But money laundering is a serious offence.

“You were close to the source of the fraud and you dishonestly handled £500,000.

“This offending by you is so serious that even given the lapse in time, largely for which you are responsible, an immediate custodial sentence of some length must be passed.”

Shaven headed and wearing a black jacket, grey sweater and jeans Ferdhaus bit his nails and held his head in his hands as he sat in the glass-enclosed dock during the hearing.

But he appeared cheerful as the sentence was passed, thanking the judge and giving a thumbs up to supporters in the packed public gallery.

He grinned and waved, telling them “thank you” and “see you soon” as he was led down to the cells.

Ferdhaus was also banned from being a director for 10 years.

Mark Milliken-Smith QC, defending Ferdhaus, said of his kidnapping: “The fact that he suffered post traumatic stress disorder is hardly surprising given the physical and mental ordeal he was subjected to.

“What happened to him in May 2011 was a very, very significant and life changing experience.

“This is a changed man.”

Ferdhaus received a glowing references, including the one from Mr Rahman, who described him as playing an “instrumental role” in promoting the Bangladeshi community through Channel S.

He has a “real desire to help others” and is a keen philanthropist in particular supporting those affected by natural disasters, the court heard.

“He has a selflessness which one doesn’t naturally associate with an individual concerned with personal greed,” Mr Milliken-Smith added.

Ferdhaus, from Brentwood, Essex, admitted possessing criminal property.

Samsul Haque, of Maida Vale, west London, was given five years in October 2011 after he admitted conspiracy to defraud between November 13, 2005 and October 16, 2008.

His lieutenant Rosul Yusuf, 33, was jailed for four years, while Shalim Miah, 29, received two years behind bars and Halimur Rashid, 28, was jailed for 15 months.

Nazruislam Muhammad Rahman, 32, and Noveed Akhtar, 40, both of whom were named in bogus claims made by Haque’s gang were given 12 month sentences suspended for 12 months.

Paul Ellis, 37, who pleaded guilty to providing six driving licences to Haque was given a six-month sentence suspended for 12 months.

Ellis and Rahman were ordered to carry out 100 and 140 hours of unpaid work respectively.

Today, Councillor Peter Golds, the leader of the Tory opposition in Tower Hamlets called for a council investigation into the town hall’s links with Channel S.

The council and the mayor declined to comment.

There is no suggestion that Lutfur Rahman had any involvement in the insuranceor money laundering scam.

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I don’t quite get what your alternative was: to cancel the 4,000 homes?

 

—(By way of explanation, the above was my attempt to leave a comment on Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s blog but of course he doesn’t like engaging in public discussion so the comments function has been disabled. I seem therefore to have “reblogged” his post onto my blog, so please leave your comments for him below.)

Mayor Lutfur Rahman

John Biggs is desperate to get elected. So desperate that he’ll knock down any of the borough’s achievements despite the national and international recognition we’ve gained.

In the last 3 years Tower Hamlets has received £50m in “New Homes Bonus” cash from the government- more than any other local authority- and topped every league table for house building. But Biggs is insulting the intelligence of local people by claiming we’ve only built 15 homes – not 4000.

That’s a big difference so how does he come to this figure? Simple, he moves the goalposts and applies a different definition of “housebuilding” to Tower Hamlets than that used by the whole of the rest of the country. He doesn’t attack Newham, who boast about building 2,000 new homes by the same measure we use, or even Mayor Boris Johnson who has aspirations to build 150,000 affordable homes across London.

But I…

View original post 110 more words

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photo-2
I’m a bit late with this news but it merits recording, not least because it reminds us just how closely linked Tower Hamlets is to the City of London whose the borders still contain pockets of deprivation.
Friday before last, Cllr Shiria Khatun was made a Freeman of the City of London. It’s a rare honour (although more common than I’d thought: some 1,800 people a year are granted the privilege) and one which dates back to 1237.
It was carried out in a court room at the Guildhall, where her guests included councillors Sirajul Islam, Rajib Ahmed, Helal Abbas and Bill Turner. Toynbee Hall chief executive Graham Fisher and David Goodhart, the Demos director and author of The British Dream, were also there, as was Munsur Ali, the chief executive of the Limelight Film Awards, whose new film Shongram about the aftermath of the 1971 War of Independence in Bangladesh is being shown at a private screening at Rich Mix tomorrow evening.
The ceremony itself lasted only a few minutes and was all quite fun, albeit slightly strange. It was conducted by Murray Craig, the Clerk of the Chamberlain’s Court, who I think fancies himself, with some justification, as a stand-up comic. In fact, it was all perfectly civilised and pleasant, but I must say I much prefer the violence and poison of the Tower Hamlets council chamber.
Contrary to popular legend, Shiria does not now have the right to drive sheep across Tower Bridge, but she does have the right to draw her sword within the City boundaries.
There’s more about the tradition here
One of the oldest surviving traditional ceremonies still in existence today is the granting of the Freedom of the City of London. It is believed that the first Freedom was presented in 1237.
The medieval term ‘freeman’ meant someone who was not the property of a feudal lord but enjoyed privileges such as the right to earn money and own land. Town dwellers who were protected by the charter of their town or city were often free – hence the term ‘freedom of the City.
From the Middle Ages and the Victorian era, the Freedom was the right to trade, enabling members of a Guild or Livery to carry out their trade or craft in the square mile. A fee or fine would be charged and in return the Livery Companies would ensure that the goods and services provided would be of the highest possible standards. In 1835, the Freedom was widened to incorporate not just members of Livery Companies but also people living or working in the City or there was a strong London connection.
The Freedom in the City today is still closely associated with membership of the City Livery Companies. Visit the Livery page for an insight into the fascinating history and modern role of the Livery.

Modern Freedom

Today most of the practical reasons for obtaining the Freedom of the City have disappeared. It nevertheless remains as a unique part of London’s history to which many people who have lived or worked in the City have been proud to be admitted.

Prior to 1996, the Freedom was only open to British or Commonwealth Citizens. Now, however, it has been extended globally and persons of any nationality may be admitted either through nomination or by being presented by a Livery Company. There is a long standing tradition of admitting women.

The City of London is keen to maintain the Freedom as a living tradition. The Freedom is open to all who are genuinely interested and invited or born to it. The City Freemen are a very broad cross-section of the population​.

photo 2Sorry, I’ve been a bit of a tease, haven’t I? The question you’re all asking is, ‘Why?’
Well, for the past couple of years, Shiria has been working with residents on the Portsoken estate which is in the Aldgate area and so within the City boundaries. In fact, it falls within the ancient Ward of Portsoken.
She’s been helping families, and women in particular, who are suffering isolation and mental health issues. She’s also been helping the City Police and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) carry out the Prevent agenda of the Government’s counter-terrorism and extremism policy.
This has impressed elected figures in the City, two of whom Deputy Henry Jones and Common Council member John Fletcher. This is what John sent me by way of explanation:
I have known Shiria for more than two years, since when she has been working with residents in the Portsoken estate. Her role is very crucial when it come to engaging with residents on improving health as well as promoting and signposting them on to other services.

Shiria has been working with the ‘hard to reach’ residents, mainly women whose English is not too good. She has done an amazing job in reaching out to them and as a result these women are now participating in activities as well as volunteering.

Shiria has gone the extra mile by working with the City Police Prevent Team on engaging with women and families on how to engage with Prevent. As a result, Shiria went on to become the chair of the Shanaz Network which was set up by Acpo and the Home Office. It is the first network giving women all over the UK a platform to unite against terrorism of all kinds.

Shiria was nominated on to the network by the City Police Prevent Team. She does this on a voluntary basis and it’s in addition to her work with the City residents and her role as a Tower Hamlets councillor. She has gained the respect of residents and the City Common Councilmen and Aldermen here in the Ward of Portsoken as well as other City wards.

Shiria has contributed immensely to improving health of residents through engaging with them and facilitating activities that residents want to do. Shiria’s hard work and commitment to the residents of the City has resulted in us awarding her the Freedom of the City which she deserves.

And here’s Shiria’s own explanation:

I am really honoured and privileged to have been nominated for the Freedom of The City of London. I have been working with residents of the City for the last two years via Toynbee Hall.

The City is truly a fascinating place. It’s not all about the corporate industry, there are some amazing people living there too. Walking around the City you get to see some of the historical buildings that still exist as well as new emerging glass type office buildings.

My work involves working with residents of the Portsoken estate (previously many years ago was part of Tower Hamlets).

When I first came to this estate two years ago I was amazed to see how residents co-existed with each other in harmony. Neighbours supporting and helping each other as family members would. As it’s a small ward/estate, the majority of the residents know each other well and this makes it easier to know who’s who and what’s what.

You might be asking where the issues are? Well, there are significantly high health issues and this is where my role comes in to place. Working with residents and City of London departments I have been trying to reduce health issues/inequalities affecting residents of Portsoken. What are some of the health issues you ask? Well, like the neighbouring borough Tower Hamlets, residents of Portsoken have/are experiencing something similar such as diabetes, heart disease, physical inactivity and mental health problems.

I must say it is impressive how the City of London has been supportive of its residents in Portsoken to reduce those health issues. Through key interventions there has been a visible reduction in physical inactivity. For me this is rewarding knowing that I have been able to help many residents to better their lifestyles through healthy eating, exercise and the many other interventions on offer.

I decided to go even further by giving up some of my extra time beyond my working hours to work with the City of London’s PREVENT team, who nominated me on to the Shanaz Network which was initially set up by ACPO and the Home Office approx two years ago (I have only been involved with the network since last November). It is the first network of women from all over the UK countering terrorism and radicalisation of all forms.

The women on the network like myself have been nominated by local/regional PREVENT teams. I am the Chair of this network.

Now you’re probably asking where I find time to attend/deal with Shanaz Network business? Well I take annual leave for all this; yes, I do because I feel this is an important piece of work and for the first time we now have a platform for women to come together and have their say.

After all, who better than women to know what’s happening in their communities and how best to keep it safe? I was invited to attend the last Extremism Task Force meeting where I made my contribution.

As stated before I am honoured to be awarded Freedom of The City of London. My family, friends and colleagues have shown immense enthusiasm and support.

photo 2-3

Shiria with City of London Clerk Murray Craig

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Not many words needed for this campaign video, really: watching is everything, seeing is believing.

(Andrew Gilligan and I star at about 8 minutes in, secretly and evilly conspiring talking to each other about how the next four years would be storyville.)

Enjoy:

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