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Archive for June 24th, 2014

England may be out of the World Cup but the summer agony is set to continue for Tower Hamlets council and its residents.

I understand that PricewaterhouseCoopers, the auditors ordered in by Eric Pickles in the wake of the Panorama programme on March 31, have asked for another month to write their report.

They were due to file it with the Department for Communities and Local Government by June 30, but that has now been delayed until the end of July.

That might well be because they have so much more work than at first realised, or because they just need more time to reflect and analyse their findings: they’ve been inundated with information, that’s for sure.

Mayor Lutfur Rahman told BBC London radio’s Eddie Nestor last week:

I don’t believe they will find any serious irregularity in any of our governance, our financial structures or the way we run the council.

If there is any issue here, of course we will look at it and try to learn from it and try to improve on it, but don’t forget, if he was looking for fraud, he will find no fraud.

This seems an implicit acceptance the auditors will find something. Team Lutfur say that’s inevitable: put in a team of highly skilled auditors into any borough for a concentrated period of time and murky details will surface, they say. It’s just a question of seriousness.

I wonder how the council will react. I wonder whether they might even resort to their favourite tactic of hiring expensive barristers and contemplate a judicial review of the decision in the High Court.

Personally, I don’t think the auditors will find any outright fraud (on the whole, they have a good team of senior officers in Tower Hamlets) and certainly the Panorama team never made that allegation. There’s an element of ‘creating goalposts’ within the Lutfur spin camp on this.

I also think there’s an acceptance within his team that they got things wrong in the past four years on the questions of transparency and governance. Lutfur says in his fascinating interview with Eddie Nestor that he has no idea why Tower Hamlets attracts so much bad press. Well, he didn’t really help himself on the questions of perception and appearance, did he? The chauffeured Merc, the prominent associations with rogues and criminals like Shiraj Haque (I’ll be kind and say ‘the former’) and Mohammed Mahee Ferdhaus Jalil (twice the latter), the failure to answer questions in council, the failure to attend hustings etc etc.

He has a much bigger group of councillors to manage this time as well and hopefully they will ensure these matters are addressed. He’ll probably enjoy the challenge.

Here’s the interview with Eddie Nestor: it’s 20 minutes but certainly worth a listen.

As for the council’s commitment to transparency, I leave you with this FOI response they gave me yesterday. I’d asked for all invoices supplied by the Champollion, the expert PR outfit they hired to counter the Panorama programme.

Here are the invoices they supplied:

Here’s the explanation:

In terms of the Champollion contract the Council officers took the view in late January 2014 that in order to ensure the position of the council was clearly represented to the production company and the commissioning organisation, specialist media advice was required.

The in-house media team did not have specialist knowledge about the operation and application of the BBC’s editorial guidelines and were already occupied in managing an existing workload.

A brief was produced and a Record of Corporate Directed Action (RCDA) was signed by all relevant officers to consider the procurement issues involved. Given the short timeframe and the specialist nature of the advice required a longlist of specialist PR firms was identified. Four companies were then invited to apply after receiving a brief and invited to interview.

Section 36 (2)(b)(i) has been applied to the financial elements of both contract and internal discussion between officers on the basis that their disclosure would inhibit the imparting or commissioning of advice subject to the public interest test and information relating to financial and business affairs which could prejudice the Council achieving its obligation to obtain best consideration from the use of its resources and the best value from the procurement process. 

Section 36(2)(c) has been applied to elements of the Champollion contract as the brief point 4 (a specific requirement concerns seeking strategic or tactical advice from the contractor) and point 8 (dealings with the BBC) and this forms part of the internal thinking space of the Council which if it were to be released would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. The Council needs to be able to examine the options. 

Bollocks.

 

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