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Archive for January, 2015

There was a little bit about this in the press this week, but I was expecting more.

Let’s stress at the outset that the timing of the Electoral Commission’s decision to publish its report on vote fraud three days ago, given the Tower Hamlets election trial is due to start on Monday, was purely coincidental.

But because it honed in on the issue of potential fraud in British Bangladeshi communities, it made for particularly interesting reading.

Here’s the press release issued by the Commission:

The Electoral Commission has today laid out what is being done to prevent electoral fraud ahead of the May elections, including work by Returning Officers, the police and Crimestoppers.

The watchdog has also published two research reports – by NatCen and academics at the universities of Manchester and Liverpool – and a briefing paper on electoral fraud, fulfilling a commitment it made as part of its review of electoral fraud last year.

During this review the Commission heard anecdotal evidence and views that raised questions about whether fraud was more likely to be committed by, or in support of, candidates standing for election in areas which are largely or predominantly populated by people from British Pakistani or British Bangladeshi communities.

This raised concerns about whether people in these communities were able effectively to exercise their right to vote and participate in elections on the same basis as other voters in the UK. As a result, the watchdog commissioned further research with members of the public and political activists in eight demographically similar areas; four with histories of allegations or actual instances of fraud and four without.

Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission, said: “Proven cases of electoral fraud remain rare, but it is important that no-one underestimates how serious it is when it does occur. We have long known that, when fraud is committed, candidates and campaigners are the most likely offenders and voters are the victims. The research we have published today confirms this.

“The research also provides a useful insight into some of the particular issues faced by voters in some British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi communities, and how these can be tackled. Although clear plans are in place to prevent and detect fraud ahead of the elections, there is also a challenge to campaigners. They must ensure their behaviour builds trust with all voters, and all those involved in elections must make it a priority to communicate what is and what is not acceptable behaviour at election time.

“As we approach the election, it’s important that anyone who has evidence of electoral fraud reports it to the police in their area, or, if they want to do so anonymously, contact Crimestoppers.”

What the research shows

A summary of the research findings is below, but further details are available in the briefing note or in the reports themselves.

Strong community networks provide valuable support to people, but they may also be vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous campaigners.

There can be low levels of public awareness about what is acceptable campaigning activity and what is electoral fraud.

Voters in some British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi communities can be unsure where to report concerns about electoral fraud.

Low levels of literacy or a lack of English skills can exacerbate electoral fraud vulnerabilities.

Reduced activity by political parties in some areas, together with a reliance on kinship networks or those perceived to be “community leaders”, may also exacerbate vulnerabilities by focusing on winning the support of voters as a single group rather than as individuals.

The Commission has also set out today how it is working with the police and local authorities to support their plans to prevent and detect fraud ahead of the May elections. Further details of these actions can be found in the attached briefing note.

Action ahead of the May 2015 elections

The Commission, Police, Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers have different roles in relation to electoral fraud but are working together to ensure robust prevention and detection plans are in place ahead of the May elections. This package of measures includes:

Guidance on electoral fraud for police forces – this was published in November by the College of Policing, with support from the Commission.

Partnership with Crimestoppers – The Commission is working with Crimestoppers to make sure that, although the police should be the first point of contact to ensure concerns about electoral fraud are swiftly investigated, if people are worried about revealing their identity, they can contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. A translation service is available for those whose first language is not English.

A national seminar for specialist police officers – the Commission will join specialist police officers in February to help them prepare ahead of the elections, and exchange knowledge and strategies.

The Code of Conduct for Campaigners – The Commission will be making campaigners / parties aware that they must follow this agreed code.

Materials for police and local authorities – The Commission is making these available in a variety of languages for police and local authorities to use to let voters know what electoral fraud is, how to report it, and what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable campaigning.

Monitoring postal voting during and after the May 2015 elections, to identify whether there is scope to further improve security processes.

Longer term work

Some issues raised in the research are already being looked at by the Commission:

Voter ID –We recommended in January 2014 that there should be a requirement for electors across Great Britain to present an acceptable form of identification prior to voting at the polling station by no later than the 2019 European and English local government elections. We are currently considering how to develop a proportionate and accessible scheme for verifying the identity of electors at polling stations, and expect to publish our detailed proposals by the end of 2015.

Postal voting – New security measures for postal voting were introduced for elections in 2006, and voters now need to give ‘personal identifiers’ (their signature and date of birth) when applying for and casting their postal ballot. In addition, the introduction of individual electoral registration (IER) in Great Britain in 2014 further limits the scope for fraud in the postal voting process. Under the new system voters need to have their identity verified by providing a date of birth and a national insurance number. IER therefore makes it much harder to create fictitious electoral register entries, which could be used to commit postal voting fraud. The Commission is continuing to monitor campaigner behaviour and has not ruled out the need for the law to be changed to make it an offence for campaigners to handle any postal voting materials.

But this press release omits many other solutions proposed by the academics. Let’s hope they’re won’t be ignored.

The research was carried out by four academics from Liverpool and Manchester universities. Entitled ‘Understanding electoral fraud vulnerability in Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin communities in England’, the report was based on 37 interviews with community and political activists in eight local authorities where there was a high concentration of voters from those groups.

It’s not clear whether Tower Hamlets was one, although it’d be surprising if it wasn’t.

One of the main issues they found was the existence of influential kinship networks that can help deliver what some call bloc votes, ie ” male elders” calling the shots, telling family members how to vote. In essence, the researchers blamed political parties and activists for exploiting these rather than placing too much fault on the voters themselves.

They also said these closed networks often result in the selection of poor political candidates, ie the elders choose puppets in their circles who then get the bloc vote.

“These networks tend to be…hierarchal and patriarchal, which may undermine the principle of voters’ individual and free choice through a range of social pressures such as respect for the decision of elders at its mildews extreme, through to undue influence where in some instances access to individual ballots of women and adult children can be refused by elders,” the academics note.

The report is 55 pages long, but its executive summary and its conclusions are particularly interesting.

Although Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission, says in her quotes above that proven cases of fraud are rare, the academics suggested the actual level of fraud might well be under-reported – in part because those defrauded may not know they have been.

They write: “In some areas where fraud allegations have not been raised, the local activists do not feel they receive enough support to combat fraud, especially from the police and local political parties.”

However, they suggest there is hope. They think the elders through generational change will lose their influence and that younger people are “reported to be resisting the influence of their kinship networks”.

Fast forward to p44 of the academics’ report here and you see a raft of proposed solutions.

For example, on voter registartion (which applies all voters of course):

..our first recommendation is for a system of automatic voter registration (or at least an opt-out system) where at point of contact with NHS, and/or any government service, the individual is prompted to register/asked to opt out.

And there are others which didn’t merit a mention in the Electoral Commission press release, and which may or may not have relevance to Tower Hamlets and the impending trial next week. I’ve italicised those I found more interesting.

  • Stricter and more transparent guidelines to political parties and candidates on postal vote handling as the Electoral Commission has already proposed
  • The information whether a person has a postal vote should be included in the secrecy of voting – ie activists and parties should not be allowed to collect this information;
  • Tightening the rules on voting at polling stations by increasing the radius safe from political pressure, enforcing the law already specifying that the tellers must not be present in the polling station.
  • Introducing some form of identification to cast a vote.
  • To compensate for the increased difficulty of voting, new registration laws should be introduced to either automatically enrol voters, for example via other points of contact with the state, or create an opt-out system.
  • Given the weakness of parties as inclusive agents for political participation, the government and local government must fund more direct voter information, registration and turnout efforts at the individual voters in these communities.
  • Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers should receive greater and ring-fenced funding in areas where additional needs are present to deal with severe under-registration, lack of knowledge of eligibility or poor English language skills.

The academics hope the following cultural changes should take place:

  • Political parties should take a greater responsibility for not accepting the bloc vote delivered or promised by community leaders
  • Political parties should aim to strengthen their support for diversity of elected representatives. Widening access to standing for elected office to all minority groups, regardless of whether the candidate’s ethnicity matches those of voters, should be one of the parties’ main objectives.
  • Both parties and communities should strongly encourage women of all ethnicities to participate more in politics, including making this participation easier for women and more relevant to their daily lives.

I suspect Richard Mawrey QC, who is due to preside over the Election Court at the Royal Courts of Justice from Monday, will have read this report with some interest.

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Apologies for the lack of posts: I’ve been settling into a new job.

It’s full council tomorrow night and it’s likely that the two commissioners, Sir Ken Knight and Max Caller will be there for a bit of midweek comedy. I’m sure everyone will try to be on their best behaviour but at some point councillors are bound to visit the playground.

One subject which might provoke a reaction is Rich Mix, which is based in what traditionalists call Bethnal Green but which is increasingly known (incorrectly) as Shoreditch.

Rich Mix opened as a £26m arts and cinema centre in 2006 with a specific remit to tap into artistic interests in the Bengali community. From memory, I think it launched with a working display by an artist from Dhaka who was assembling an old car in full view of the public. Art can be a bit like that..

Rich Mix relied on various strands of public funding, including from Tower Hamlets council and the Arts Council. It was very much a Labour project, driven by the likes of Oona King, Michael Keith and Denise Jones…and a certain Mayor of London Ken Livingstone.

One of the early board members in fact was a certain Lutfur Rahman when he was cabinet member for culture under Denise. I don’t remember and I can’t find any record of him ever opposing or being critical of the project back then.

I did. The place was a management disaster in its early days. Its business plan was flimsy and it had bosses who loved spending other people’s money.

In fact Rich Mix was the subject of one of my early posts on this blog in 2010 when I quoted an article I’d written for the East London Advertiser in January 2006 about the initial teething problems.

It’s worth reading that piece from nine years ago again because it provides some background for a row that I think will feature tomorrow.

Here’s what I wrote in 2006:

SERIOUS concerns have been raised about the financial viability of a major new national arts centre that is due to open in the East End later this year.

The Advertiser has obtained a secret report revealing that the Rich Mix Cultural Centre, which is being built in Bethnal Green Road, needs extra taxpayers’ help to meet soaring costs. Tower Hamlets councillors have been asked to top up loans to the project and some are now deeply worried the borough’s £3.5m investment in the £26m centre is at risk.

They are angry that costs have spiralled and are concerned more money is being sucked into what could become a huge white elephant draining the public purse for years to come. One councillor has branded the project ‘scandalous’ and a ‘bottomless pit with no proper business plan’. But his claims have been angrily rejected by the centre’s bosses.

The prestigious arts complex, whose board members include former Bethnal Green and Bow MP Oona King, is seen as crucial for the regeneration of the deprived area around Brick Lane. Concentrating on ethnic cultural projects, it will house BBC London, a three-screen cinema, art galleries, a Sunday market place and music and dance studios.

Ms King dubbed it the East End’s ‘very own Tate Modern’ and it is Mayor Ken Livingstone’s flagship arts project.

With most of the six-storey structure completed, designers are currently working on the internal fittings with the centre due to open in the spring. However, the project, run by the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation and funded by backers including Tower Hamlets council, the Arts Council, the London Development Agency and the Millennium Commission, has been dogged by delays and cash problems.

A new management team was put in place last year and since then cost controls have improved markedly, but some councillors still fear a future financial crisis.

It is expected that by the time the centre opens, Tower Hamlets taxpayers will have paid into it some £3.6m. The council has also pledged a further £300,000 to contribute towards the annual £4.6m running costs in the first three years of operation.

Bosses at the centre are currently trying to attract sponsors but if crucial income from the centre’s cinemas fails to materialise, a council loan of £850,000 could be at risk.

In a confidential report for last week’s council cabinet meeting, Chris Holme, head of resources, wrote: “It will take robust cost and income management to prevent the centre falling into deficit on an annual basis.

“Failure to generate levels of income identified will have a significant impact on the sustainability of the centre.”

However, Lib Dem councillor John Griffiths said: “The whole thing makes me want to cry. Because the foundation itself is the accountable body for the project, there’s no proper scrutiny of the spending. They keep coming back to us asking for more money, but I’m really worried we’re walking right into a debt trap here.”

But Nick Kilby, chief operating officer for the centre, described the councillor’s remarks as political posturing. “There are no substance to them at all. This is a well-run project, costs aren’t out of control and there is no crisis. This is a terrifically exciting project and we look forward to persuading the councillor how it will benefit the East End.”

I’ve changed my mind about Rich Mix.

I suppose it was inevitable that such a politically driven project would become a political football but there does seem to be something spiteful and illogical in the way that Lutfur’s administration appears to be hounding the organisation to a point where closure is a real risk.

For the past four years, the council has been pursuing legal action (at an undisclosed cost: maybe we’ll be told tomorrow night how much) to try and force Rich Mix to repay that initial £850,000 loan. In that legal process Rich Mix argued it was in fact owed another £1.6million by the council as part of an agreed s106 planning gain fee from a nearby development.

The parties went to court and a judge ruled partly in favour of the council late last year on what some might say was a technicality. Because the wording of the s106 agreement deal was so vague, it was unenforceable.

The upshot is that Rich Mix has offered to repay the £850k in instalments. For whatever reason, Lutfur has demanded it be repaid in one go.

The East End Review, an offshoot of the Hackney Citizen, wrote a decent piece about the issue here.

That article was based on an interview with Rich Mix’s chief executive Jane Earl. Jane is a former chief executive of Wokingham Borough Council who has strong views on good governance. She’s the reason I’ve changed my mind about Rich Mix (and I’d have her as one of the Tower Hamlets commissioners).

She’s made Rich Mix sensible, popular and relevant.

The area has changed massively and maybe this part of the problem. As I said, it’s no longer regarded as the old Bethnal Green; this is now hipster country and it will eventually spread into the southern stretches of Brick Lane. Maybe it’s better to embrace and accept than be a bunch of King Cnuts.

Here’s one event that’s worth seeing next month, for example.

Rich Mix

Perhaps Lutfur should attend.

Or perhaps his “cabinet member for culture”, Cllr Shafiqul Haque (another former Rich Mix director when he served under Denise), should go. He’s paid an extra £13k a year on top of his £10k a year basic allowance for doing that job.

But apart from pocketing his cash and posing in the odd photo looking at a book, I have absolutely no idea what he does or what he’s done. I can’t wait to see him explain that tomorrow.

Culture? What culture? Is there actually a council culture strategy?

Here’s a thought for the council: get Rich Mix to write one for the borough. I bet they could easily do it for £850k… .

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Happy New Year to everyone. May it bring harmony, peace and joyous ringing of bells throughout the borough!

I wrote on December 11 that Cllr Shahed Ali, Lutfur Rahman’s cabinet member for street cleaning and waste management (I always think of Tony Soprano when I hear that term), had been arrested for alleged vote fraud in Tower Hamlets.

The Met Police had arrested him at his home address early in the morning and told him he was being investigated for “multiple voting”. He was released on bail until a date this month.

Scotland Yard has now confirmed that Shahed will face no further action. They have investigated the complaints and his explanations and Shahed has no more questions to answer.

As for what actually happened, that remains a mystery: it’s not clear whether the police are continuing their investigations.

It’s a fact that Shahed was registered at two separate addresses; it’s also a fact that two votes registered to him were used.

But remember, he is completely innocent.

He is now able to get on with his job in a cabinet whose members are beginning to complain among themselves about being toothless puppets for Lutfur’s executive office.

And I understand that it’s not just Lutfur’s cabinet members who are wondering what their jobs are (note that although they complain, they’re still happy to pocket their £12k a year extra ‘special responsibility allowances’). His backbench ‘Tower Hamlets First’ councillors, who include the likes of Abjol Miah, are also grumbling.

During Lutfur’s last administration, he did not hold a single group meeting with his team of councillors. This was all explained away by arguing they weren’t really a group, but merely a collection of like-minded independents.

However, since May they’ve been an official group (thus collecting the public money that flies their way). Yet, I’m told, despite promises by Lutfur to hold them, there still hasn’t been any group meetings.

Perhaps Lutfur has been too busy. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t rate many of his councillors that much. Either way, they’re not the actions of a mayor who’s trying to address doubts about governance.

His next big meeting is cabinet on Wednesday evening when one of the major issues up for ‘discussion’ is a new 16-year waste management contract, which is currently run by Veolia.

A public tender will soon go out for a 16-year deal worth £26million a year in total, i.e. £416million over the life of the deal.

On Wednesday, Lutfur’s cabinet will have to agree the principles of what to ask for in the tender. It seems that officers are recommending any new contractor “provides their own depot” for the dust-bin lorries. You can view the cabinet paper here.

Currently, the lorries operate from a council owned depot in the borough, but the town hall is proposing to withdraw any publicly owned property for that use because it’s all being earmarked for housing development.

The likely consequence of this that any new contractor will have to drive trucks in every day from outside the borough. So if they drive in from Rainham, for example, where there are large depots, they are sure to get caught up in the horrendous westbound morning traffic on the A13.

And that of course will mean delays, missed collections and higher costs.

Surely there’s a brownfield site that can be laid aside instead of reserving it for what would amount to 20 or so ‘affordable’ 2-bed flats.

The question is: should housing considerations trump all others?

Which brings me to a press release issued by Tory Canary Wharf councillor Andrew Wood over the Christmas period.

It concerns the site of the old City Pride pub on the corner of Marsh Wall and Westferry Road in Canary Wharf. In 2008, it became one of the most expensive pubs in the world when it was valued at £32million.

It was demolished a few years ago and in October 2013, developers secured planning consent for a 75-storey skyscraper. It would be the UK’s second tallest residential building and house 984 luxury apartments.

For they will all be luxury flats. The council seems prepared to accept that it just won’t do to have any affordable housing there; instead, they want the developer to build flats for the cleaners and other unworthy plebs well away from their building.

Not only that, the council says this skyscraper is so important (it will earn the borough up to £10million in s106 planning gain payments) that any existing resident in that area who complains about loss of light can simply forget it.

From the council’s cabinet papers, the developers have complained that a number of pesky neighbours have threatened an injunction against their project on the grounds that it would affect their lawful “right to light”.

Under the law, only a local authority can over-ride someone’s human right to light.

So the council has stepped in to help. It is proposing to acquire the property rights from the developer, then over-ride residents’ right to light, and then transfer the property rights back to the developer.

It seems pretty cynical, to say the least.

We’ll find out on Wednesday whether Lutfur thinks this is worthy use of these powers.

 

Here’s Cllr Wood’s press release:

Mayor Lutfur Rahman to acquire the property rights to the 2nd tallest residential building in the UK in order to circumvent resident’s legal rights (as well as giving two fingers to Eric Pickles).

Tower Hamlets Council has announced its intention (see attached PDF) to acquire the land at City Pride and Island Point on the Isle of Dogs, London E14. City Pride if built would be the second tallest residential building in the UK at 233 meters high, 984 apartments and 75 storeys.

The Council would then apply its powers under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to break neighbouring residents right to light. Under English Law properties older than 20 years own the right to light and if a neighbouring building overshadows residents living spaces they can either negotiate a settlement or they can block that development. Only the Council can legally break that right to light but only if it owns the property. This was first introduced to allow Councils to develop public infrastructure and was then used in the City of London i.e. the ‘walkie talkie’ to allow major office development to progress. Industry professionals have expressed surprise that a Council would do it to allow a purely residential development and they are not aware that such a power has been used elsewhere in a residential as opposed to business area. The Council would do this in return for £9.5m of s106 cash contributions and the delivery of 187 social housing units off-site at Island Point.

Tower Hamlets Council claim that the social, environmental and economic benefits of allowing City Pride to be built outweigh the disruption caused to local residents. This is despite Tower Hamlets Council employing an external consultant, LUC, who recently recommended that any development whose density exceeds 3,000 habitable rooms per hectare not be allowed, City Pride would be 5,803 rooms per hectare making it the densest developments in the country. The London Plan recommends a limit of 1,100 rooms per hectare.

Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government recently appointed two external Commissioners who will be responsible for approving any property disposals made by the Council. They are however not responsible for approving property acquisitions and as the deal is likely to be a back to back deal they will be faced with a fait accompli, the Council has already agreed a decision leaving them with no choice but to acquiesce as it is not in the Councils interests to retain ownership of the land. There is no evidence that they have been consulted on this issue yet.

In addition from Monday 5th January 2015 Tower Hamlets Council is supposed to be consulting residents of the area on the South Quay Masterplan, a development plan intended to guide future development of the area which includes the City Pride site (an area which will include 7 of the 12 tallest residential buildings in the UK and an increase in population from 2,932 people to 22,964 on one road). However rather than waiting to consult residents on whether City Pride delivers public benefits it has short circuited the process by announcing a decision in advance of that consultation starting. This is why Commissioners were appointed to try and improve transparency.

The Mayor, Lutfur Rahman will formally announce the decision in Cabinet on Wednesday 7th January 2015.

The Wharf newspaper reported this story here.

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