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Although Tower Hamlets voted Remain by 68 per cent to 32, the numbers should have been far higher, argues Cat Overton. While campaigning, she detected fears about immigration among ‘white working classes’ and beliefs among British Bengalis that Brexit could deliver more non-EU migrants for local businesses. She says Labour needs to do far more to reconnect with its grass roots.

Cat Overton is a lawyer and Labour party campaigner. She is also chair of Wapping Labour and Treasurer of the Tower Hamlets Labour party.

This is her guest post:

Cat OvertonIt is, admittedly, not something you hear uttered very often, but the EU is close to my heart.

I attended the European School of Brussels from primary school through to sitting the European Baccalaureat leaving exam. My identity is European as well as British, this dual identity I had always felt to be compatible and complimentary.

Like so many Londoners, my cultural identity is multi-layered. So for me the Brexit vote feels like a personal tragedy as well as a tragedy for our country and our local community.

Londoners are in shock and are angry. People living here from other EU countries are variously wondering what their future holds and whether they are still welcome here. A (albeit somewhat far-fetched) petition is circulating calling for the Mayor of London to declare London independent from the rest of the UK.

City workers are fearing for their jobs, following announcements by JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and HSBC that they may be relocating thousands of jobs to the continent. If realised, this will of course have a knock-on effect on our local economy in Tower Hamlets, in addition to the more obvious impact on Canary Wharf.

[The sheer scale of the Brexit challenge is mind-boggling. We will have to see whether Boris has the guts to pull the pin from the grenade that Cameron has dutifully handed to him by triggering Article 50, or whether he will somehow find a way of wriggling out of it. There could even be a second referendum. Remember we have not yet “left” Europe, despite the loose words of pundits and politicians alike. The referendum may have been an exercise in democracy but it is not binding on Parliament.]

But turning the focus more sharply on Tower Hamlets.

In the build-up to the Brexit vote, Tower Hamlets was listed as the tenth most pro-European local authority in the country. Sociologically, this was presumably because Tower Hamlets has a very young demographic, with many young professionals, a high graduate population and many liberal-minded residents working in the creative industries. Much of the local population could be described in ‘journo-speak’ as “cosmopolitan”.

It is a place where people from all over the world and from all over Europe live and work side by side and it feels to me like a culturally open place. It is forgotten that there are also massive levels of poverty, social deprivation and overcrowding. Nevertheless, there are opportunities here that are not necessarily enjoyed by the northern Labour heartlands.

In the event, Tower Hamlets did vote to Remain. However, London lost the tug-of-war with the rest of England, partly because of unexpectedly high turnouts in Labour northern and midlands heartlands that voted heavily for Leave, but also because the Remain vote in London was not large enough to counterbalance the haul of Leave votes in those areas.

Tower Hamlets voted 67.5% (73,011) for Remain, 32.5% for Leave (35,224). By contrast, the high watermark was Lambeth where 79% voted to Remain. Turnout in Tower Hamlets was 64.5%. So turnout in Tower Hamlets was high compared to other elections, but Remain needed it to be significantly higher.

In the tenth most pro-European local authority, Leave still managed to secure a third of the votes. One in 3 people who voted in Tower Hamlets voted for Leave. Of course, many of those 35,224 Leave voters will have been Conservative or Ukip voters who could finally express their euroscepticism explicitly at the ballot box. But many of the Leave voters will also have been Labour voters.

Our two local Labour MPs firmly backed Remain, as did the Labour Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs and the newly elected GLA member Unmesh Desai. And yet thousands upon thousands of Labour voters in Tower Hamlets voted for Leave.

The following observations are unscientific and based solely on my anecdotal experience as a campaigner who went out on the doorstep many many times during the referendum campaign:

1. Some of the white working class residents who we spoke to, typically over the age of 50, were very clear they would be voting Leave in order to lower immigration, whether immigration from outside the EEA or internal EU immigration. Time and time again I heard that their children and grandchildren had been forced to move out of Tower Hamlets due to pressures on housing caused by migrants. Others spoke of their wages being under-cut by EU migrants.

2. Again, anecdotally, there were apparently several splits in the British Bengali community. During the course of the campaign some activists spoke by way of hearsay of Priti Patel meeting the owners of catering companies telling them that if we left the EU it would be easier to secure UK visas for chefs from Bangladesh. We later heard on the doorstep that if internal EU immigration were to fall, it would perhaps be easier to bring others in from Commonwealth countries. We Labour activists campaigning for Remain (many of them themselves British Bengali) tried to persuade voters on these issues. It was unclear how successful we were being with that endeavour. [Note from Ted: Cllr Oli Rahman, leader of the Lutfurite Tower Hamlets Independent Group also voted Leave, according to his Facebook page.]

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 17.35.35

3. Closer to the day and on polling day itself, others splits appeared to be emerging. We noticed that previous Respect voters were telling us they were voting Leave. An articulate young man candidly told me that, whilst he believed that Remain was in the national interest, the economic meltdown that a Brexit vote would herald would prove to be his young family’s best chance of moving out of a council flat and buying their own home.

So unscientific as they may be, these anecdotal observations as a Labour campaigner in Tower Hamlets suggest a not dissimilar dynamic to what was happening in the working class communities in the northern and midlands Labour heartlands.

There can be no doubt now that Labour has a massive uphill battle to reconnect with its grassroots supporters. Labour is fighting for its very survival. Forces have been unleashed that appear to be out of control. But we have to carry on in the face of national despair and fight for the values we believe in and for the communities that we are in politics to serve.

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One of the accusations regularly chucked the way of Newham mayor Sir Robin Wales is that he buys off the support of his Labour colleagues by giving them all paid jobs.

In Tower Hamlets, there are 23 Labour councillors (out of 45 in total), so they control the town hall.

At Wednesday night’s full council meeting, the Labour group will nominate (and so highly likely vote through) paid/Special Responsibility Allowance posts for, er, all 23 of its councillors.

And of course, as my last piece detailed, all these will in some way receive a pay rise.

The proposals agreed at the recent AGM of the Labour group are:

Cabinet/Mayoral advisors: Helal Uddin, Dave Chesterton, Denise Jones

Chair of Development: Marc Francis

Chair of Licensing: Rajib Ahmed

Speaker of the Council: Khales Uddin Ahmed 

Deputy Speaker: Sabina Akhtar

Chair of Overview & Scrutiny Committee: John Pierce

Scrutiny Lead Members for Labour: Amina Ali (Development & renewal); Clare Harrison (Chair of Health Scrutiny); Abdul Mukit Chunu MBE (Resources).

Chief Whip and Chair of the new General Purposes, Appeals and HR Committee: Danny Hassell 

Chair of Audit Committee: Candida Ronald

Chair of Pension Committee: Andrew Cregan

And the Cabinet members remain the same, so:

Sirajul Islam: Housing management and performance (and statutory deputy mayor)

Shiria Khatun: Community safety and deputy mayor

Rachael Saunders: Education and children’s services, and deputy mayor

Rachel Blake: Strategic development 

Asma Begum: Culture 

David Edgar: Resources

Ayas Miah: Environment

Joshua Peck: Work and economic growth

Amy Whitelock Gibbs: Health and adult services

Mayor: John Biggs

That Cllr Chunu Mukit MBE, formerly the chair of Spitalfields Housing Association’s audit committee, is to be given a scrutiny lead for resources, eg examining the way money is spent and how expenses are claimed, is of particular note. Senior Labour figures are full aware of this. Watch this space.

 

At Lutfur Rahman’s first full council as mayor in October 2010, the East London Advertiser reported the following:

Lutfur Rahman will not have appreciated that his first matter of council business last night (October 27) as the borough’s new mayor was a £10,000 cut to his salary.

Appearing at the first council meeting at the Town Hall in Mulberry Place since his election, he spoke of his pride in his new role in front of over 100 supporters in the public gallery.

Tower Hamlet’s first-ever directly-elected mayor also rewarded his campaign manager, Ohid Ahmed, by appointing him as deputy mayor but will wait until November 11 to announce his cabinet.

Mr Rahman’s joy at the occasion soon turned to dismay though as he accused the council’s Labour Group of pettiness in putting forward an amendment to cut his annual salary from £75,095 to £65,000.

The amendment to a constitutional report, which also limits the number of paid advisers the Mayor can employ, was passed by the council.

Mayor Rahman said: “It saddens me on the first day that we indulge in this kind of petty politics.

“During my two years as council leader I was the only leader in this council’s history that took a 25 per cent pay cut for the year.

“Let me say, I don’t do this for money but let me remind you I have given up a successful legal career and a partnership in a legal firm.

“What drives me is will and the urge to serve. I am happy with whatever I am paid.”

The mayors of Hackney, Lewisham and Newham earn salaries of between £75,000 and £78,000 a year.

Speaking to the council, Labour councillor Josh Peck, chairman of the working group which put forward the constitutional report, said there had been an ‘oversight’ after the report was originally agreed in August.

At an internal Labour meeting in September, members narrowly voted to increase the salary for the full-time role to £75,000 but Mr Peck told The Advertiser today this shouldn’t have been included in the report because it was not agreed by other parties.

Last night, Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem councillors all voted in favour of the amendment.

But Independent councillor Oliur Rahman, one of the ‘gang-of-eight’ councillors expelled from the Labour Party for backing Lutfur Rahman’s mayoral bid, said: “This can only be a petty and cynical response to losing an election.”

Mr Peck replied that the lower salary was set before mayoral candidates were selected and said the new mayor proposed a salary of £32,000 before he was shortlisted.

He said today: “£65,000 is the right salary, it is a good salary.”

This coming Wednesday, the full council will in Item 11 debate the pay arrangements for elected representatives over the coming year.

In an email to councillors eight days ago, Mayor John Biggs explained the proposal from the majority Labour group (which is likely to pass).

This is the proposed table of pay:

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 11.13.49

[Since his email, proposed pay rises have been suggested for the Speaker to £10,000 and for the Deputy Speaker to £5,000.]

First off, let’s have these facts in our minds: 1) deep Government cuts affecting frontline services; 2) pay for most local government employees is proposed to go up by just 1% this year; 3) councillors’ pay has remained frozen for a number of years; 4) some councillors rely on their allowances as sole (declared) income (not a good thing); and 5) very many councillors work extremely hard, while others do not.

Under these proposals, there will be inflation-busting pay rises for everyone. Basic pay for all councillors will go up by 5.3%. Oli Rahman would see his Special Responsibility Allowance for being leader of the THING go up to £11,300 (7.5%); and Tory leader Peter Golds would have a 40% jump in his SRA from £5,709 to £8,000. The total pot paid to councillors for all these roles would rise 6%.

But most of the political backlash will no doubt focus on John Biggs.

As I’m sure you’ve already spotted, the proposed mayoral salary goes back to the figure slashed by Labour more than five years ago – to £75,000. He has announced he accept only half that rise this year (to around £70k), and will take the rest next year if progress has been made. And although he’s entitled to £11,300 as a majority group leader, I think I’m right in saying he doesn’t take that.

The likes of Oli will also point out that John’s pay rise comes just a week or so after the loss of his salary for being a GLA member.
I think this is a difficult one. Pay at some levels of local government is outrageously poor; at others it’s ridiculously high. The council has just recruited a new head of communications, for example, at a salary of around £100k. Many believe that’s way too high, while others believe it needs pitching at that level to attract good candidates. But whatever the merits of that salary, should the executive mayor’s post, done properly, be valued almost a third lower?

I asked John to justify the rise in the context of cuts and value for money. His answer below is damning of his predecessor’s work ethic (something that is echoed among senior officers). This is what he told me:

Because of the stand-off between the former mayor and council there had been no proper review of allowances for some years. The proper time for such changes is in my view in the period immediately following the elections but this was missed. 

I am proposing a number of changes to committees and structures and as a part of this a short review of allowances. I have informed and involved the opposition leaders in these discussions. The main change is to update the general allowance paid to all members.  Increases are also proposed for those holding Special Responsibilities (SRAs), and for the Mayor.

If agreed the Tower Hamlets allowances will become fairly average for London and our Mayor would remain the lowest paid. If the Council agreed the change to my allowance I would only take half of it, with the other half next year provided we have made further progress in sorting the Council out.

As a further consideration for members, particularly those who rely on their allowances for a significant part of their income, it is worth noting that the Government recently banned members from membership of the pension scheme, which included employers contributions of over 10% on top of their allowance. This loss is partially also reflected in the updating of allowances proposed.

As far as the cuts argument is concerned: there is never a good time to agree allowances, but all are within or below the range suggested by an independent panel for all London councillors, whose report guided us. However, the increased cost of about £46,000 should be considered against the saving of about £300,000 in the costs of operating the Mayor’s office, and the mayors allowance compared the the scrapping of the chauffeured car, which saved about £30,000 a year.

A comparison with council staff is tempting but is based on soft foundations – whereas for example many council officers receive increments, promotions or upgrading, plus an annual increase in most years, elected members have no such opportunities and do not have secure employment as councillors, while making in most cases great personal and career sacrifices. It’s quite right that these are tough times but the proposals are a recommendation and up to the Council to agree or reject.

As regards my workload and whether I am worth a reasonable pay that is for others to judge, but I work at least 80 hours a week, am at my desk by 7.15am most mornings, getting home normally after 10pm. As an indicator, I read and respond to about 1000 emails a week, with more than this dealt with by my office. The council is in a worse state than I had expected – beyond the headlines of the misbehaviour of the previous mayor a whole number of key decisions had been missed, in an outrageous failure of leadership.  Were it not for the superb effort and commitment of many of our officers we would be in a far worse state. 

I anticipate working at this level for the foreseeable future. The previous Mayor on the other hand, as far as I can tell, rarely appeared before the afternoon, generally failed to keep appointments, never sent emails on official business and appears to have ‘kicked the can down the road’ where leadership was needed.

Those who said he was a hero should more accurately perhaps have scored him as a zero. And the borough will take some time to recover. It takes serious and dedicated effort to do that.

An executive mayor is full time job. If he had more hair, John I’m sure would say he’s a L’Oreal mayor (“because I’m worth it”.) Is he? What do you think?

He’s going to get a lot of flak for this – and as it was Labour which cut Lutfur’s pay, he knows where to point the finger of blame…

Personally, I think if he does the job well, he deserves it. I have more concern over SRAs paid to other councillors, and it will be interesting to examine who gets which posts for the coming year and then to check their attendance records thus far.

One thing I’ve noticed over the past 11 years covering Tower Hamlets is how easy it is to find some kind of link in national political rows to the politics of east London.

Today, the Mail on Sunday carries a story on comments made at a Palestine Solidarity Campaign hustings in Ealing in February 2015.

It quotes Rupa Huq, then the parliamentary candidate for Ealing Central and now its MP, telling the audience that a Labour government “could probably” ensure Britain apologised for helping to create the state of Israel in 1948.

The story says this is the latest episode in Labour’s anti-Semitism row.

It’s not been a good couple of weeks for Rupa Huq. Ten days ago, she unwisely went on to the Today programme in an attempt to defend Naz Shah over her anti-Semitic Facebook postings. She told Radio 4: “If it is career destroying it seems we are entering a phase where its trial by Twitter. As far as I know Naz Shah did not write antisemitic tracts or anything, she pressed ‘Share’ on a picture which was idiotic and foolish.

“I do think this does demonstrate the perils of social media. As far as I understand, this is before she was an MP, before she was a candidate even. She shared a post on Facebook. It’s easy to click those buttons.”

It’s not only the perils of social media. As Rupa is learning, it’s also the perils of speaking in public, on the hoof, on matters about which you’re not fully briefed, where anyone can record you, and particularly if those knowledge gaps include Palestine and Israel.

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 12.35.55I first met Rupa in 2007, when she was up against the likes of Lutfur Rahman, John Biggs and Rushanara Ali in Tower Hamlets trying to secure the Labour candidacy for Bethnal Green in Bow. She wrote a short diary piece (left) about her experiences for me at the East London Advertiser at the time – and asked it be headlined ‘Diary of a Nobody’.

She struck me then as being slightly naive about the poisonous waters of Tower Hamlets politics and I was relieved for her when she failed to beat Rushanara.

I’m not sure some of that general naivety has completely disappeared.

As a direct result of the Mail article (which, at her insistence, this morning changed the words ‘should apologise’ in its headline to ‘could apologise’), she has received some pretty vile hate mail by email.

This one has been forwarded to the police:

“Get out of my country you ugly racist cu*t! Ugly, smelly Muslim vermin.”

I won’t name the person who emailed this, but let’s look at what prompted him to send it.

In the article, Rupa was quoted in this context:

Answering a question about whether an apology should be made, Ms Huq said: ‘1948, that happened under a British government. To my mind, an apology – yes. You could do one. A Labour Government could probably get that through.’

She added: ‘But it sounds a bit Tony Blair to me though, and we all know what happened to him.

Ms Huq – whose sister is the former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq – told The Mail on Sunday that the remarks she made did not reflect her actual views.

‘I don’t think that, those aren’t my views,’ she said. ‘I was answering a question. I went on later to say that there shouldn’t be an apology.

‘I have supported Labour Friends of Israel events and am a signatory to the We Believe In Israel charter.’

The video clip of the meeting is here:

Rupa told me today that with Angie Bray, the Tory candidate, declining to attend the February 2015 meeting, she was ‘probably the most right wing person there’ and was frequently jeered. She said she felt a little bit out of her depth on the specifics of questions raised.

She said the candidates were asked ‘Should the UK apologise for Israel?’ This was her answer in full:

“On the question of the historic legacy… I mean I said at the beginning that it’s a long, long history – you can trace it back to BC. I mean I think you’re referring more specifically to 1948 that happened under a British government? To my mind… an apology… Yes you could do one…. a Labour government could probably get that through, but it sounds a bit Tony Blair to me though, and we all know what happened to himHe did apologies for the Irish potato famine in 1998 amongst other things but he was pilloried. I mean you couldn’t make it up.

“But yeah, it would be possible to do an apology, but I think what’s more important is to move forward and to make sure that Palestinian people can live in peace in an independent state of their own, I think that’s what we need to focus on. I mean an apology – yeah you could do that, it might be symbolic but for the future we want a viable Palestine.”

So a bit more nuanced. She is a strong supporter of the two-state solution and strongly supports Israel’s right to exist. No doubt she’ll get vile emails from the other side now.

However, for the wellbeing of her own political career, she’d be well advised to stick to subjects on which she is a master of detail from now on…and stay away from the media for a while.

I may well be a bit late with this and apologies for that but as I’ve done in previous elections, here’s a live open blog for you to feed back observations on turnout and any other shenanigans in Tower Hamlets (and Newham?) today.

And thoughts on candidates and voting tactics.

Over to you.

Update at 7.20pm:

As the reader who sent me this image of Labour GLA candidate Unmeah Desai says: “A picture can tell a thousand words.”


Behold, wearing the shades..that’s ex-Respect group leader and ex-Tower Hamlets First member, the one and only, the martial arts king, Cllr Abjol Miah. Has he now joined Labour??? We must be told…

The night John Biggs was finally elected mayor last June, a number of senior councillors from all parties chatted to me about ways in which the borough could now move forward.

The one word I offered up in every conversation was ‘transparency’. There needed to be a culture change, not just from the Lutfur Rahman years but also from the decades before that.

This wasn’t just about the elected mayor answering questions at council and scrutiny committee meetings, nor being more open in the way grants decisions were made. But more a change in mindset at every level; a need to encourage councillors and officers to invite scrutiny.

LBTH Councillors' Portraits - 28May14

So credit to Labour’s John Pierce (pictured), the chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, for establishing last July a new Tower Hamlets Transparency Commission which included the likes of Tory leader Peter Golds.

And of course credit to John for inviting me and Mark Baynes of Love Wapping to offer our thoughts and advice at one of his early sessions.

I tweeted this at the time:

Mark, an expert in open data and data analysis, wrote about this last August in an excellent detailed post here. His thoughts centred on essential technical issues about how data should be presented in a clean and readable way.

For example:

Love Wapping’s four Open Data recommendations for Tower Hamlets

Open Data Payments to Suppliers payment thresholds

Open Data endpoint identification

Presentation of council data

Identification of Local Election Candidates and their proposers

1. Open Data – Spending

Currently every local authority is required by law to publish all Payments to Suppliers over £500. While this is useful and has been the basis of the majority of LW’s data investigations into grants payments recent events have shown that this threshold is too high.

LW recommends that Tower Hamlets Council should publish all payments to suppliers above £100.

LW also recommends that the threshold for publication of credit card payments should be £10.

For my part, I made clear my well known views on grants, spending, registers of interests and Freedom of Information, as well as making some other points.

For example, I suggested the council publish on the home page of each councillor (the one where they include their contact details) the total amounts they are paid in allowances and expenses. I said this should include not only their current fees, but also the total amounts paid to them since the last election.

Taking John Biggs’s page as an example, you currently see this:

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 15.30.08

As you can see, there’s nothing about his salary. It should be the first thing on the list.

I also told the committee that Tower Hamlets now had the chance to become a beacon for transparency. The council’s image was mud in this regard and things could only improve. Handled well, it could set the standard for local government generally.

Having given our thoughts, Mark and I were told we’d be kept informed throughout the process and until the commission’s report was published.

So it was a bit of a surprise and a little disappointing to learn when I Googled the “Tower Hamlets transparency commission” late last week that the report had already been presented without any fanfare at all to the mayor on Jan 29. Another search revealed a small press release had been sent out on February 5. Neither Mark nor I were included in the distribution list.

This is what the press release said:

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 14.54.14

Sparkling it most certainly was not. I think the statistics issued on tractor production by the Communist Party of the USSR had more passion and news sense.

So no surprise not a single mainstream media outlet has picked up the relatively good news.

The council is currently recruiting for a new head of communications to replace my old mate Takki Sulaiman who is now upsetting the hacks of Aberdeen. The job is offering a £100k a year salary, which should attract someone with a top background in local government comms. According to the Appointments Committee, the interviews will be held on March 31. The new person will have the chance to help transform the image of Tower Hamlets, but they will need an understanding of what’s gone wrong.

But more on that another time – let’s look at the transparency report itself. It’s here. There is regular reference to the Mayor’s Transparency Protocol announced last November. That protocol says:

The transparency protocol sets out a series of pledges from the Mayor:  

• The Mayor will take all decisions in public through Cabinet, and where this is not possible, a clear reason will be provided to explain why

• The Mayor will be open to the public, scrutiny and opposition questions at all public decision making forums

• The Mayor will create more opportunities, through public meetings, for residents to ask questions and raise concerns

• The council will involve residents and Councillors in consultation at the earliest possible point in any policy or decision making process

• The council will make information available to the public and all Councillors in a timely and easily accessible format

• The council will actively communicate with residents and respond to queries positively

Cllr Pierce in his foreword to his own report says:

The ambition of the Overview and Scrutiny Transparency Commission is to move Tower Hamlets Council forward to enable it to become a beacon council for openness, transparency and accountability.

This agenda is paramount if the Council wants to regain the trust of our residents while turning around our reputation.

It was right for the cross-party committee, which holds the council and decision-makers to account, to establish a commission to begin this journey. Our goals and recommendations set out the building blocks needed.

It has become clear we need to create an organisational culture, led by senior management and the Mayor, which values and presumes openness. I welcome the Mayor’s transparency protocol, and the commission’s recommendations enhance this work.

The challenges for the council in the coming years are unprecedented. We need to enhance the role of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee to support the council to meet these challenges, along with the requirements of the Best Value Improvement Plan.

With this, transparent open data is essential for accountability, and providing access to our data can empower individuals, the media, civil society and businesses to achieve better outcomes for themselves and for our public services.

Tower Hamlets Council’s motto is ‘from great things to greater’. So let’s aspire to set the gold standard for local government transparency.

 

And its first section says this:

 

Summary

Key Goals

  • Make the council a beacon for openness, accountability and transparency by the end of 2017-18
  • Enhance the role of Overview and Scrutiny to enable greater openness, accountability and transparency in 2016-17
  • Publish all data by default wherever possible by the end of 2016-17

Recommendations to achieve key goals

To make the council a beacon for openness, accountability and transparency by the end of 2017-18, the Commission recommends that:

  1. The Mayor considers additions to his Transparency Protocol to include actions to create an organisational culture, led by senior management, which values and presumes openness. This should include explicit support for whistleblowing.
  2. The Mayor extends his Transparency Protocol to include required conditions for the use of individual mayoral decisions.
  3. The council implements a protocol governing the use of planning pre-committee briefings with applicants present, and includes materials used and any outcomes in reports to the development committees.
  4. The new process for deciding on the spending of planning contributions is open and transparent, and includes some resident involvement.
  5. Information on spending of planning contributions is publicly and easily available delineated by ward, and sent to members, with regular progress reports to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee.
  6. The council increases opportunities for community engagement in democratic processes, including by:
  • Exploring holding committee meetings in a variety of venues more amenable to the public in different parts of the borough;
  • Providing plain English summaries of items on upcoming committee agendas via the council’s existing communications channels, and reporting these afterwards;
  • Making Council and Cabinet webcasts viewable from the Council’s main social media accounts and on popular video hosting sites such as YouTube;
  • Exploring options for remote and electronic participation in committee meetings, such as offering live streaming and tweeting, and allowing questions via social media;
  • Enabling e-petitions on the council’s website; and
  • Allowing the public to propose items for Overview and Scrutiny workplans.

7. The new Community Engagement Strategy, and changes planned under the Mayor’s Transparency Protocol to the consultation process for policy development and service change, takes account of the findings of the Commission’s consultation.

8. New localised consultation forums allow a key role for ward councillors.

9. Licensing and planning teams explore the feasibility of enabling the public to sign up to receive weekly email bulletins detailing applications received, consultation arrangements, and the status of existing applications, at ward level. They should also:

  • Explore utilising social media and text alerts in relation to consultations; and
  • Use plain English as far as possible in communications, and include guides to technical language that cannot be avoided.

To enhance the role of Overview and Scrutiny to enable greater openness, accountability and transparency in 2016-17, the Commission recommends that:

10. The council undertakes a full review of its Overview and Scrutiny arrangements, and amends these as necessary.

To publish all data by default wherever possible by the end of 2016-17, the Commission recommends that:

11. Officers undertake a full review of compliance with the requirements of the Local Government Transparency Code, and take any action required to secure this compliance on a regular basis.

12. Officers explore approaches to achieving three-star status for all relevant information required to be published by the Local Government Transparency Code (as applicable) within six to nine months; and assess the feasibility of achieving five-star status for different categories of data published by the council on an ongoing basis, in the longer term.

13. The Mayor’s Transparency Protocol is extended to include exploring the feasibility of publishing all of the information recommended in part 3 of the Local Government Transparency Code.

14. In the short term, the council develops a frequently-updated online hub of information accessible from the council homepage, including all information required by the Local Government Transparency Code, as well as additional categories of information suggested in the body of the Commission’s report.

15. In the longer term, the council explores the costs and benefits of regularly publishing all of its data, with exceptions, as recommended in the Local Government Transparency Code.

16. Officers explore options to allow the public to access data published by the council
via user-friendly, visually appealing and easily-navigated interfaces, using Redbridge DataShare and Bath:Hacked as benchmarks.

17. The council appoints an open data champion for each directorate.

18. Progress on implementing the above recommendations supporting open data is reported to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee on a six-monthly basis.

So an awful lot of fine words and theory. We’ll have to wait and see how it works out in practice (something the new head of comms will have to play a major role in).

As for the question of councillor allowances, there is sadly just a single mention of that in the report. It says on page 22 that not only is the council is already publishing those details, but that it is already doing more than required.

The council has a dedicated transparency webpage to access this information, which also links to other information not specifically required by the Code, including the council’s log of Freedom of Information requests and responses; details of allowances paid to members since 2010; and business rate charges for premises.

 

Which kind of misses the spirit of reform.

But so you can see what the council does actually publish in this regard, go to this page and select any year.

I clicked on 2013/14, which gives you this:

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Which doesn’t give a councillor’s first name and so makes an independent Google search of them more difficult if not useless (we have an ‘AR Khan’, and ‘AR Khan’ and an ‘R Khan’ for example); and nor does not it explain or link to what the Special Responsibility Allowance refers to.

And neither does this list include the value of other benefits received by councillors, such as laptops, mobile phones, call charges, and borough wide parking permits.

Were I a councillor running the commission, this would be the first thing I fixed.

Charity begins at home, as they say.

Today is International Mother Language Day, which according to Wikipedia “is a worldwide annual observance held on 21 February to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism”.

Wikipedia adds: “International Mother Language Day has been being observed since 2000 to promote peace and multilingualism. The date corresponds to the day in 1952 when students from the University of DhakaJagannath University and Dhaka Medical College, demonstrating for the recognition of Bengali as one of the two national languages of East Pakistan, were shot dead by police near the Dhaka High Court in the capital of present-day Bangladesh.”

So in Tower Hamlets in particular in the UK it is a significant day, one that is celebrated by several events such as the laying of flowers in Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel.

I’m only into my third lesson learning Bengali and all I can do so far is offer a few basic greetings, say ‘I don’t understand’, and count to 30…which at my pace is long enough to utter the kind of sigh we all thought was disappearing from Tower Hamlets.

One of the songs people sing on this day is…well, instead of me explaining, let’s refer to the council’s own ‘cultural walk’ leaflet for ‘Banglatown and the Bengali East End‘, which states:

In February 1999 the United Nations declared February 21 World Mother Language Day. At midnight on 20 February (Shahid Dibosh) the Language Movement is remembered in a solemn ceremony in the Park – to which the Bengali community comes to lay wreaths. Abdul Gaffar Choudhury, journalist and freeman of Tower Hamlets, wrote the well-known Martyr’s Day song Amar bhaier rokte rangano Ekushe February which is sung at the ceremony.

Abdul_Gaffar_ChoudhuryAbdul Gaffar Choudhury, 81, as might be expected of someone  honoured as a Freeman of the Borough, is famous and highly respected.

He also has a Wikipedia entry, which outlines his long career as a journalist and columnist, the last 41 years of which have been based here in the UK.

Today, he was due to appear at the Whitechapel Idea Store for a panel discussion on the Language Movement alongside a couple of academics and Mayor John Biggs.

This was the advert put out by the council ahead of the event:

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But when we arrived, visitors were met by this:

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The extremely courteous Idea Store manager told me that council bosses had cancelled the event after a “reassessment”. He explained that senior managers had at the last minute decided Choudhury’s presence on council property for such an event was not consistent with council booking policies and procedures.

People could sing his song but not hear his words.

Why? Because a complaint had been made by some in the Tower Hamlets community that he had made “defamatory remarks” about Sylhetis (who form by far the vast majority of Bangladeshis in the East End), including Lutfur Rahman and twice convicted insurance fraudster Mahee Jalil Ferdous. And that were the Idea Store event to go ahead there would be “violence”.

Seriously. A threat of violence was made and the council kowtowed.

At this point, I declare an interest. My brother-in-law, Ansar Ahmed Ullah, a man I respect deeply, had been one of the people organising another event in honour of Gaffar Choudhury, for yesterday at the council owned Brady Centre. That was also cancelled. I would normally stay clear of the often problematic politics of Bangladesh on this blog but this episode has broader implications and lessons for everyone to digest.

The row centres on an interview Gaffar Choudhury gave during a chat show on the British Bengali television station Channel i some weeks ago.

According to his enemies, Choudhury, regarded as a Dhaka intellectual, is supposed to have deeply insulted Sylhetis in London by implying they were illiterate and uneducated. He is supposed to have used the phrase “from langol to London”.

One councillor who had no axe to grind on either side told me: “A langol is what farmers use to cut the rice harvest, a knife-like object. So people interpreted his comments as him trying to say Sylhetis are uneducated rural peasant farmers who have suddenly been lifted from their rice fields and dropped into civilised London and don’t know how to behave.”

Gaffar Choudhury and his allies insist he meant no such thing. They say that throughout his life he’s been supportive of Sylhetis and they have always been there for him in times of trouble. They say he was actually praising Sylhetis by saying it was they  who have been upholding the traditions and heritage of Bangladeshis in Britain, and not the educated classes who should have done so.

I understand he was particularly critical of Lutfur (guilty electoral offences) and Mahee Jalil (twice convicted of insurance fraud and founder of Channel S TV) and one or two other self-described unelected “community leaders”. Which is possibly why a great fuss then made.

Even hardened Tower Hamlets politicos have been taken aback by the reaction. They have told me there is politics at play, not just the usual Swami League/Bangladesh National Party spats, but also among those seeking a mayoral power play in Tower Hamlets.

So out came the Tower Hamlets Activist Handbook and a long and angry rally was booked last month at the Water Lily to whip up the masses in Mile End. Former Labour councillor Motin Uz-Zaman was there, as was Ohid Ahmed, Oli Rahman, the latter two apparently appealing for a reasonable response. Others demanded boycotts of Gaffar Choudhury.

Then word got out that the council had invited their Freeman to the Whitechapel Idea Store for Language Day.

So the Greater Sylhet Council UK, one of Lutfur’s favourite rabble rousers, decided to tell Tower Hamlets council what a mistake they were making.

Here’s an email they sent to the council to warn of a violent reaction if the event went ahead.

Dear Judith,

I got an information from the authentic sources that you have organised a programme for the International Mother Language Day at the White Chapel Idea Store on Sunday 21st February.

You have invited Abdul Gaffar Choudhury as a panel member for this event. I would like to inform you that Mr Abdul Gaffar choudhury made a defamatory remarks about our Sylheti Bangladeshi community, founder of chanel S & other community leaders on live TV talk shaw on 12th December.

He also made anti religion remarks in Newyork. Few weeks ago 700 people attended to a protest meeting at the Water Lily,Mile End Road,London E1 against Abdul Gaffar Choudhury.

In this meeting Journalists,community leaders,religious leaders including ex councillor Matinuzzaman,Cllr oliur Rahman,cllr Ohid Ahmed delivered the speeches.

They have called to boycott Abdul Gaffar Choudhury from all events of the community.

we are going to take a legal action against him. Our community are so upset and furious against him. If you allow him to come at the Idea Store, there will be a public disorder, protest and could violence.

so our humble request to you please do not allow him to come at the Idea Store.

please let me know your decision regarding this matter.

Nurul Islam Mahbub,Chairperson,Greater Sylhet Council UK

Kalam M A T Choudhury,Secretary,Voice For Justice UK

I’m not quite clear what Gaffar Choudhury is supposed to have said in New York but apparently it was something scholarly to do with the literal derivation of the word Allah.

However, some people allowed themselves to get upset by it. The Jamaat-e-Islami party, which has links to Tower Hamlets of course, put out a press release at the time saying this.

..his comments and remarks have emanated question whether he is a Muslim or not. It is the duty and obligation of every Muslim to raise voice against his derogatory statement about Islam and religious features.

According to the Daily New Nation paper in Bangladesh, another fundamentalist organisation there went further by calling for his execution. Here:

The Secretary General of Hefazat-e-Islam Allama Zunaid Babunagari in a statement said: “Gaffar Chowdhury has turned out to be an atheist. He can’t bear the identity of Muslim anymore if he does not repent and accept Islam again.”

He also demanded capital punishment of the expatriate Bangladeshi writer. He warned that a tougher movement would be launched against the government if it does not take punitive action against the atheists like ex-Minister Abdul Latif Siddique and columnist Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury.

I’m not sure if Tower Hamlets council was aware of these death threats hanging over him when it originally invited him to speak at the Idea Store for today’s event. I’d like to think they were: it would show they were championing free speech in the face of religious fascism.

But instead, after they received another threat of violence, they kicked their Freeman into touch. They told his supporters that his presence on a council property would not be conducive to community cohesion.

Here’s an email sent by new chief executive Will Tuckley to Ansar Ahmed Ullah, the organiser of yesterday’s cancelled Brady Centre event:

Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your request to book the Brady Centre on 20th February. I am writing to inform you that the council will not accept the booking for the proposed event.

The decision has been taken after careful consideration, and was guided by our terms and conditions of hire. This document makes clear that the council has complete discretion to determine whether to accept a booking and  includes a criterion that, “as a general rule, premises will not be available for public meetings with political, religious or any other content where the matters for discussion are…..controversial or sensitive in anyway or which may breach community cohesion”.

In making its decision, the council does not make a judgement on any individual.  The decision was informed by an assessment of risk that the proposed event, taking place in a council building, may have become controversial or impacted on community cohesion.

I would like to apologise for the way this matter has been managed.  In particular, I  am  aware that a staff member at the Brady Centre incorrectly advised you, prior to this booking request being considered in accordance with the council’s procedures.

I think Will Tuckley, who I’m told has been impressing everyone he deals with, was in more than a tricky position on this. But I don’t think he was well-advised or fully informed.

And once he’d taken that decision, it would have been difficult for Biggs (even if he had been so inclined) to overrule his new chief exec.

It’s quite likely they were advised by people with vested interests, politically and/or religiously. Perhaps the standing and credibility of those who whispered in their ears might now be lower as a result.

No chief exec or mayor wants to be known for banning free speech, especially after threats of violence.

Meanwhile, here’s Abdul Gaffar Choudhury’s song for Language Day.

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