Posts Tagged ‘brandon lewis’

The Government clearly has its eye on Tower Hamlets. Three weeks after Eric Pickles sent PwC inspectors to Mulberry Place, former Local Government Minister Bob Neill asked this in the Commons on Monday:

Robert Neill: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government pursuant to the answer of 3 March 2014, Official Report, column 694W, on polling stations, what assessment he has made of the effect of foreign language translation by local authorities on integration of non-English speakers into their communities. [190554]

And this is how Brandon Lewis, Bob’s successor at the Department for Communities and Local Government replied:

Brandon Lewis: In March 2013, my Department published new guidance for local authorities outlining how councils should stop translating into foreign languages. As outlined in the written ministerial statement of 12 March 2013, Official Report, column 5WS, such translation weakens integration; discourages communities from learning English; undermines rather than strengthens equality goals; harms community relations; and is an expensive waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when councils need to be making sensible savings. It is disappointing that councils like Tower Hamlets have disregarded that guidance, and reflects broader issues with the dysfunctional governance and divisive practices of the council.

I would add that in light of previous instances of electoral fraud, including impersonation in polling stations, postal voting irregularities and allegations of improper influence, Ministers in this Department have concerns about the practice of allowing foreign language translators/interpreters inside polling stations. The privacy of the ballot must be protected and voters inside a polling station should not be subject to any pressure or influence to vote in a particular way. In that context, the integrity of the ballot box and of the local democratic process requires independent and transparent scrutiny in polling stations by polling agents, council staff, the police and, indeed, passing members of the public who are also voting. This is undermined by polling room administration being conducted in foreign languages.

Takki Sulaiman, the council’s head of communications, authorised this statement as a response:

The council wants to ensure as many people as possible exercise their democratic right in the elections in Tower Hamlets on May 22 and in such a diverse borough this includes consideration for those who may struggle with the English language.

Data from the 2011 census states that the single largest ethnic group in Tower Hamlets is Bangladeshi at 32% of the population, followed by White British at 31%. The council provides written instructions in polling stations in both English and Bengali and at least one Bengali speaker will be available in each polling station to help anyone who does not understand the voting process. These staff have undergone enhanced training to ensure the integrity of the polls are upheld. They are strictly there to explain the process of voting and if necessary the content of the ballot paper. For example, they cannot point out a particular candidate even if they are asked to; instead they have to read out the entire ballot paper.

The enhanced training for polling station staff is one of several measures voluntarily introduced by Tower Hamlets to ensure free and fair elections. The council has gone further than any other council in London by producing a tough new protocol for all those involved in the elections and only last week the Electoral Commission praised our Returning Officer and the police for the anti-fraud measures they have taken in the run-up to polling day.

Earlier this month, Tory opposition leader Cllr Peter Golds wrote to the Electoral Commission to say this:

I am writing to express my concerns about the possible use of “interpreters” in polling stations within the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in the May 22nd 2014, local elections. There are a number of reasons regarding this that are likely to result in serious electoral concerns at these elections.

The Electoral Commission’s existing advice in this area is that “returning officers may employ staff for the purpose of translating or interpreting in polling stations”. This is dangerously untransparent and presents a risk of undue influence by those employed as interpreters.

There is a justifiable public concern about what interpreters tell electors. The use of minority languages in polling stations prevents presiding officers and anyone else including election officials and other voters who does not speak a particular language from knowing whether the advice given is appropriate or is an attempt to influence the voter. It will be extremely difficult to know whether the interpreters are informing or advising the electors they are assisting.

In Tower Hamlets, this has been an ongoing problem. In 2008 Ken Livingstone was defeated in the London Mayoral election after eight years in office. However, this was not so in Tower Hamlets, where there were remarkable swings to him, not least in the Weavers ward where the following incident took place at the Virginia Polling station. 

    • A council employed election official was pointing out the position of Ken Livingstone on the ballot paper to Bengali women and then checking the paper after they had voted to ensure that it “was correct”. He was not removed until mid afternoon after repeated complaints had been made to the local Returning Officer and the possibility of Bengali speaking electors threatening a showdown inside the polling station.

I have read evidence from other parts of the country that this situation has been observed ranging from Twickenham to Halifax.

Significantly the Weavers by election held on this day, also resulted in a very unusual result. The gain by the Labour candidate Fazlul Haque, of the seat from the Liberal Democrats. This was quite extraordinary in view of the massive loss of council seats sustained across the nation by the Labour Party that same day.

Ballot papers are already designed to make it as easy as possible for people to identify the candidate of their choice, with the candidate’s name, party, and an identifying party logo all printed in large print. There is information in voting in different languages within polling stations. One has to question if an elector cannot identify a candidate based on all this information, how they are in a position to cast a vote.

One may also ask how many interpreters in a borough such as Tower Hamlets would be required. Bengali, Somali and the full range of European languages are spoken locally. Who would decide what languages and where?

The voting process itself is more or less universal. I have witnessed elections in a number of different countries. The elector gives their name, receives a ballot paper, marks the ballot secretly in a private booth and then places the ballot paper in a sealed ballot box. What assistance is required in a process as simple as this?

Tower Hamlets has a long and unfortunate history of electoral malpractice, which has rarely, if ever, been properly investigated. There is already an atmosphere of mistrust regarding the electoral process in this borough, born of too many years of inaction by the authorities. Local politics is increasingly fractured on ethnic and religious lines and a proposal such as this can only further damage community cohesion.

Unnecessary interpreters compromise the validity and transparency of the poll, and I urge the commission to reconsider this decision which will only add to the electoral concerns of residents of this borough.

The mayoral election in Tower Hamlets uses the second preference voting system and not many people, including fluent English speakers, understand it. I even had to explain it to the Tower Hamlets Ukip bosses when they announced they were standing a couple of months ago. For example, do you have to cast a second preference? Answer: No.

So I can understand that questions will be asked in the polling station and it is surely better to have the answers explained clearly and fully in a language they understand.

However, where do you draw the line? Does the council believe there are so many Bengalis living in Tower Hamlets who would struggle to ask a question about voting in English and who would struggle to understand an English answer?

Well, surely it must to justify its decision.

In which case, that is symptomatic of a much wider failure of policy and returns us to this section of Brandon Lewis’s answer:

such translation weakens integration; discourages communities from learning English; undermines rather than strengthens equality goals; harms community relations; and is an expensive waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when councils need to be making sensible savings.

Yet in Tower Hamlets, Mayor Lutfur Rahman still happily rubber stamps tens of thousands of pounds of council grants to fund free private Bengali Mother Tongue classes to youngsters who already struggle in English.

Far from being a Great Champion for the Bengali community, he’s like a bad parent handing out sugar coated sweets, with no brave and bold long term thinking at all.

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This post was updated on Saturday, October 19, following a demand from Mark Seddon, the “media adviser for Mayor Lutfur Rahman”. See bottom of post.

Robin de Peyer of the East London Advertiser has the story:

A town hall chief earned £115,000 for 46 days’ work, prompting a government minister to accuse Tower Hamlets Council of paying him “footballer’s wages”.

The council, which is facing budget cuts totalling £100million over three years, has been criticised by local government minister Brandon Lewis after it paid its interim chief executive £2,500 a day during the stint last year.

Aman Dalvi’s role ended after just six weeks, but he received his year’s salary at taxpayers’ expense. He then landed another top council job, earning an extra £119,000 as a corporate director for development and renewal.

His total publicly-funded remuneration package for the financial year 2012/13 – published in a public council document – topped £256,000 once pension contributions were added.

Mr Lewis said: “The fact that the chief executive of Tower Hamlets can be paid more in two weeks than the average household in the borough earns in a year is astounding. Paying a council official the same rate as a premiership footballer is an outrageous waste of taxpayers’ money.”

The average household income is less than £30,000, according to a council-backed report. Mr Dalvi was appointed as interim chief executive after councillors could not agree on a permanent candidate for the job. The position has since been scrapped as the town hall tries to trim its £1.2billion annual budget.

A spokesman said: “The council has complied with its statutory requirements in the preparation and publication of the annual accounts. We will not be commenting further.”

Mr Dalvi could not be reached for a comment.

In fact, there’s a fair bit more to it.

The figures are taken from the council’s Audit Committee report on September 26. The relevant page is 113.

Here’s a screen grab from it.

tower hamlets council, aman dalvi

Aman, who is close to Mayor Lutfur Rahman remember, was appointed interim chief executive on September 26, 2011. Prior to that he was the director of ‘development and renewal’. When he stepped up, the council promoted someone else his development job on a temporary basis.

So in the financial year 2011/12 (April 6, 2011 – April 5, 2012), Aman was paid the best part of six months for his development job (about £64k) and a further £90k as interim chief executive, ie about £155k in total. But there’s no note in the 2011/12 accounts to explain that.

For the next financial year, it’s substantially different.

The 2012/13 accounts state Aman earned £115k as interim chief executive, a role he performed until May 21, 2012. As Robin reported, that’s £115k for 46 days’ work in that financial year. He then returned to his development job, for which he earns £131k a year.

Whereas his rate of pay for 193 days’ work as chief exec in 2011/12 was £466 a day (equivalent to about £170k a year), in 2012/13, that jumped to £2,500 a day.

It just doesn’t add up. If he’d remained on his £466 daily rate, he should have earned about £21,400 for those 46 days.

He seems to have earned some kind of bonus worth about £94,000 in 2012/13 (ie £115k – £21k). (And if that is the case, the accounts are misleading – I wonder whether this was discussed during the audit process.)

But what was the ‘bonus’?

In January of this year, Robin reported this:

A corporate director at Tower Hamlets Council has been named as the recipient of what is believed to be a six-figure compensation payout after settling a discrimination claim with the Town Hall.

Aman Dalvi, who is corporate director for development and renewal, brought the claim against the council and Labour group leader Cllr Joshua Peck in September after Labour councillors voted to block his appointment to the chief executive position at the Town Hall.

But Mr Dalvi – who earns more than £125,000 per year in his role at the council – settled the claim in December at an estimated cost of around £100,000 to the tax-payer.

A statement released by those involved said: “Following agreement between the parties Mr Dalvi’s Employment Tribunal claim against the Council and Cllr Joshua Peck has been withdrawn and dismissed by the Employment Tribunal.”

The dispute arose after Mr Dalvi failed in his attempts to replace former chief executive Kevan Collins, who left the £195k top job in July 2011.

Despite enjoying the support of Mayor Lutfur Rahman, Mr Dalvi was unsuccessful in his attempts to take the job after Labour and Conservative councillors blocked the move.

The council had then faced the prospect of intervention from Town Hall trouble-shooter the Local Government Association after an exodus of senior officers caused concern over its ability to function effectively.

But at a behind-closed-doors vote last Wednesday councillors unanimously agreed to approve the extension of acting head of paid services Stephen Halsey’s contract until after the 2014 Mayoral election.

So now we have the proof that his pay-off was about £100k.

What was the dispute? In February, I wrote this post when I reported that Aman and Josh Peck had had a private row during the process to appoint a permanent chief executive. Josh had been concerned that Aman was too close to Lutfur, that he was too malleable, particularly over nominations and appointments to external regeneration bodies.

Add in Isabella Freeman’s questionable legal advice to councillors during this appointment process (more about her delightful deal at the Homes and Communities Agency very soon) and the entire episode adds up to a costly shambles.

Over the next few months as Lutfur steps up his re-election campaign, we’ll hear a lot about his One Tower Hamlets bollocks, how he has been “progressive” and how he repelled the EDL, but the fact is he’s a terrible man manager, one who has cost taxpayers a small fortune in payoffs to senior officers.

In 2008, he effectively sacked Martin Smith at a cost of some £300,000. Aman Dalvi got a £100k bonus for being Lutfur’s failed first choice when Kevan Collins jumped ship, and then there’s all the headhunter fees thrown down the drain.

I suspect he’s wasted around £500,000 on top level personnel issues. Or to put it another way, that’s 1,250 of the £400 educational maintenance allowance grants he boasts as his proudest achievement.

PS Here are two more screen shots of the council’s accounts for your interest.

This one shows the number of staff earning more than £50,000.

accounts salaries

And this one shows the breakdown of the £8million paid out in redundancies to 320 staff over the past two years.

redundanciesScandalous, really.

UPDATE: October 19

A few people people have called or emailed to say they think this post is “unfair” on Aman Dalvi. They assure me he’s a professional, that he’s been hard-done by and he was handed a £100k payout because he merited it.

Well, he gets paid £131,000 a year, which is quite a lot of money. He was warned by those with experience of these matters that he wasn’t suitable for the job of chief executive, yet, encouraged by Lutfur (for whatever reason) he chose to apply.

He then chose to sue the council, ie the taxpayer. I haven’t seen the detail of the legal arguments, but in my view, there would have to have been an egregious slur on his integrity to warrant suing a council he admitted in his own private and public offerings was suffering from financial problems.

Greed seems to have got the better of him. He could easily have made his legal point, if there was one, then handed back the money.

I’m not the only one who will now be scrutinising his actions from now on.

One of those to contact me was Mark Seddon, the famous journalist and former editor of Tribune, who is now Lutfur Rahman’s £55,000 a year communications guru…(a fact never disclosed when he does newspaper reviews on BBC Sky News).

mark seddon

This was his email on Thursday.

The East London Advertiser has withdrawn a story which made the claim that a former chief officer of the council, Aman Dalvi OBE, had been paid £115,000 for 46 days work.

The request is that you immediately do the same.

The claim is simply untrue. Unfortunately, for legal reasons, Mr Dalvi cannot speak to you, in order for the record to be set straight.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Seddon
Media Adviser to the Mayor Lutfur Rahman

This was my reply:

Perhaps you can demonstrate how what I have written is untrue?

As you know, I’ve expanded on what the ELA wrote. I’m q happy to update the blog with your response, but I’m currently happy that I’ve simply reported what’s in the accounts with some additional fair questions.

Can I also please ask why you are acting as spokesman for Aman Dalvi? I thought you were the media adviser to the mayor. How is this your remit?

He then repeated his original email without answering those other questions.

The East London Advertiser did withdraw its article, which was, as I demonstrated, misleading, but it then replaced it with this more accurate version.

Since then, however, MailOnline regurgitated the original piece adding further inaccuracies, prompting this warning to national newspaper newsdesks today:

Information has been published in some media outlets relating to Mr Aman Dalvi an employee of the Council. The details published are not accurate. 

In particular and by example only, there is the suggestion that Mr Dalvi was paid £2,500 per day as an interim chief executive which is incorrect. 

Continued publication of the alleged figure earned by Mr Dalvi and other factual inaccuracies is damaging. This is unacceptable and the Council is seeking advice from its lawyers.

While I agree with the council sending out this warning, what is not acceptable is the threat to spend more taxpayer money on another legal fight of its own making.

Aman chose to have a gagging clause preventing him from commenting…because he bagged a large payoff. And the council’s press office failed to guide the East London Advertiser when its journalist approached them with the outline of its original story prior to publication.

They really do create their own horrible mess.

No wonder Mark Seddon felt compelled to go outside his remit and appoint himself spokesman for a poor (well, not so poor) senior council officer…

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