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east end life

Bundles of East End Life left in the rain at the Bow distribution depot in 2012 (copyright Ted Jeory)

Is the end in sight for East End Life? It’s been predicted many times before.

But last Friday, Eric Pickles’s Department for Communities and Local Government quietly announced its latest move against 11 councils which continue to publish freesheets more regularly than the Government would like.

Not surprisingly, Tower Hamlets council’s weekly version–which has been the prototype for so many others, which costs far more than the council claims, and which drains vital funds from frontline services–is one of the top targets.

Ministers have given the council until October 9 to respond to their demands the paper should be published no more than four times a year. After that, the department will consider legal action.

Let’s quietly note that the deadline comes the week before Eric Pickles is due to stand up in the Commons and announce the outcome of, and any action arising from, the PwC report into ‘best value’ spending at Mulberry Place. East End Life was part of PwC’s remit.

The letter sent out by DCLG last week is scathing. It says Tower Hamlets is failing to abide by the local government Publicity Code. The council strongly contests this and claims East End Life is popular and serves a public interest. The council says EEL reaches hard-to-reach groups.

DCLG, on the other hand, maintains there are other ways of communicating with such groups and notes the council’s own boasts that broadband access in the borough has risen to 85 per cent.

The government also wants a “flourishing…independent and politically free local media” and argues East End Life works against that. It effectively says East End Life is biased towards Mayor Lutfur Rahman (as it was to the former Labour administration until October 2010).

It says other councils manage perfectly well with quarterly news-sheets, and were there to be any special circumstances in Tower Hamlets, these would justify no more than a couple of extra “special editions” in any year.

The London boroughs of Enfield, Greenwich, Hackney, Hillingdon, Lambeth, Newham and Waltham Forest, as well as Luton, Medway and North Somerset councils have received similar letters.

This is what Local Minister Kris Hopkins says:

Frequent town hall freesheets are not only a waste of taxpayers’ money but they undermine the free press. Localism needs robust and independent scrutiny by the press and public.

Councillors and political parties are free to campaign and put out political literature but they should not do so using taxpayers’ money.

This is the eleventh hour for 11 councils who we consider are clearly flouting the Publicity Code. They have all now been given written notice that we are prepared to take further action, should it be necessary, against any council that undermines local democracy – whatever the political colour.

And here are some extracts of the letter to Tower Hamlets council, the full copy of which I’ve attached below:

The basis of the Secretary of State’s proposal 

Information available to the Secretary of State indicates that the London Borough of Tower Hamlets does not attach sufficient importance to ensuring the lawfulness of its publicity. In January 2013 Ofcom concluded that an advertisement, showing the Mayor associated with the house building programme in the borough, was a political advertisement rather than a public service announcement and so breached section 321(3)(g) of the Communications Act 2003 and the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising. The Secretary of State is not aware of any subsequent acceptance by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets of the unlawfulness of this publicity or any firm public commitment of the Council to ensure the lawfulness of all its future publicity and accordingly is proposing the Direction above in relation to the specified provision on lawfulness. 

The balance which, with the approval of Parliament, the Publicity Code strikes is that the newssheets etc. of principal local authorities should be published no more frequently than quarterly. Moreover the Secretary of State recognises that the great majority of councils already publish their newssheets no more frequently than quarterly, notwithstanding the wide range of groups that display protected characteristics in the areas of many councils. 

Officials from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets wrote to the Secretary of State arguing that following a review of ‘East End Life’ in 2011, the publication was redesigned, TV listings were removed and the publication was made shorter. They also argue that ‘East End Life’ is the most cost effective solution as the weekly publication aims to run on a net-nil budget.

The Council notes that cost effectiveness in one of the seven principles in the Publicity Code, and that advice taken by the Council in 2011 and a finding by the then District Auditor indicated that the decision to proceed with weekly publication was lawful and justified having regard to the provisions of the Publicity Code. The Secretary of State’s provisional view is that these arguments do not sufficiently outweigh the case for as far as practicable maintaining an environment as conducive as possible to the flourishing of an independent and politically free local media, which is an essential element of any effectively operating local democracy. 

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets has not drawn to the Secretary of State’s attention any other special circumstances that could justify a departure from the frequency recommendations of the Publicity Code nor is the Secretary of State aware of such circumstances. Moreover, in any event, the Secretary of State considers it likely that were there to be any such circumstances, these would only justify one or two extra ‘special’ editions each year.

Public sector equality duty 

In considering the impact of any direction on the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ public sector equality duty, the Secretary of State has noted that the Council consider that a printed weekly newsletter is “particularly important amongst those seeking work, older white residents and BME residents”.

The Council also state that there is reliance upon ‘East End Life’ by “key demographic subgroups in the Council’s area which, if there was no weekly publication, would otherwise have limited access to relevant information”. The Secretary of State also notes that the Council state that broadband access in Tower Hamlets has increased to 85 per cent and that the Council “would willingly negotiate a manageable timescale for transition to digital delivery”. 

The Secretary of State recognises it may be the case, as the London Borough of Tower Hamlets have commented, that some groups in the community that display particular protected characteristics, such as age, disability or religion/belief will less readily be able to obtain the information currently circulated in ‘East End Life’ and hence all other things being equal could be adversely impacted.

However, the Secretary of State believes that it is open to a council having such protected groups to effectively communicate as necessary with them about the services and other matters which are the responsibility of the council without publishing newssheets more frequently than quarterly.

The Secretary of State recognises that the great majority of councils already publish their newssheets no more frequently than quarterly, notwithstanding the wide range of groups that display protected characteristics in the areas of many councils.

Moreover, even if there is an adverse impact the Secretary of State’s provisional view is that the proposed Direction would be justified because of the Government’s overriding policy of maintaining across the whole country an environment that is conducive as possible to the flourishing of the independent and politically free local media. Such media is an essential element of any effectively operating local democracy and hence the pursuit of this policy is a high priority.

DCLG explains that publicity by local authorities should:

  • be lawful
  • be cost effective
  • be objective
  • be even-handed
  • be appropriate
  • have regard to equality and diversity
  • be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity

It does not inhibit publicity produced by political parties or councillors at their own expense.

And it says, “On appropriate publicity the Code states that:

Where local authorities do commission or publish newsletters, news-sheets or similar communications, they should not issue them more frequently than quarterly, apart from parish councils which should not issue them more frequently than monthly.

Here’s the DCLG letter to the council’s head of paid service, Steve Halsey.

And here are some more pictures of council waste:

East End Life

Copyright Ted Jeory

East End Life

Copyright Ted Jeory

East End Life

Copyright Ted Jeory

East End Life

Copyright Ted Jeory

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Unknown

The tragicomedy that is Tower Hamlets council keeps on giving.

Yesterday morning the Met Police issued the following statement:

On Friday 4 April 2014 the Metropolitan Police Service received three files of material from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) relating to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. These comprised of material referred to the DCLG by a member of the public and by the BBC Panorama programme.

The files have been reviewed by a team of officers over the past 6 days. In addition, officers have liaised with Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLP (PwC) who are conducting a full and wide-ranging audit of financial matters at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

There is no credible evidence of criminality within the files to provide reasonable grounds to suspect that fraud or any other offence has been committed at this stage. Therefore the MPS will not be investigating at this point in time and believe that it is appropriate for the material to be reviewed further by PwC and DCLG. We will continue to liaise with them should their audit uncover any evidence of criminality.

Which made Lutfur Rahman and his head of communications Takki Sulaiman crow with delight (expect ‘Mayor cleared’ headlines in East End Life and large sections of the Bengali press this week).

Takki was so bursting with joy that he turned into an eve of combat Colonel Tim Collins for the afternoon. Here’s an email he sent to fellow communications chiefs in other local London authorities:

Apologies for the mass email but as you know the battle for hearts and minds starts within the local government community itself!

A small step in restoring trust in LBTH is the announcement by the Met today that there is no credible evidence of criminality or fraud to be found in the Panorama files.

Our statement and the Met’s can be found on our (revamped) website.

http://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/news__events/setting_the_record_straight/panorama/new_statement_-_bbc_panorama.aspx

Our statements on the matter over the last two weeks can be found here-

http://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/news__events/setting_the_record_straight/panorama.aspx

This is a long journey and the auditors will be here for three months. Given the context of the elections we’ve also had to tone down the nature of our comms thus contributing to the challenge.

Regards

Takki

(Bless, he must be really worried about what they think of him.)

And here’s the statement he authorised his communications department to release to the wider world.

Council response to Met Press Bureau statement following BBC Panorama Programme

A statement was issued by the Metropolitan Police Press Bureau on Wednesday 16 April in relation to recent allegations made in the BBC Panorama programme on London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

A council spokesperson said: “The news from the Metropolitan Police is to be welcomed and Tower Hamlets will continue to work with the Auditors and DCLG.”

Let’s pick all this apart.

No allegations of criminality were “made in” the Panorama programme and Takki knows that full well. Yet he allowed his statement to mislead; this served the interests of his political master.

In his defence, however, the Met Police statement on which he was relying was also highly misleading. But Takki knew that was the case as well.

Here’s why.

In his interview with Panorama, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said he would be looking “very carefully” at Panorama’s evidence. So Panorama handed over two files to his civil servants who had already gathered evidence from elsewhere.

Apparently, those two Panorama files contained spreadsheet analysis and other evidence of how the Mayor overturned officer recommendations over grants in favour of Bengali and Somali third sector organisations, plus other matters.

I understand one of those other matters concerned about £11,000 of grants given to an organisation called the Brady Youth Forum.

Panorama started posing questions to Takki about this on March 7. When six days later Takki had still failed to reply (he’s a very busy man, you know), John Ware sent him a reminder with some additional questions.

At that point Interim Monitoring Officer Meic Sullivan-Gould (who was by this time convinced Lutfur was a ‘good guy’) began to take over.

Very helpfully on March 19, he told Panorama that there was an ongoing criminal investigation into the Brady issue. He told the programme makers the council had been notified about a fraud by a whistleblower in the middle of last year and that external auditors from Deloitte had reported back on the matter in January.

The Brady Youth Forum was one of several lines of inquiry which I gather Panorama felt needed more work on.

So they left it out of the programme, even though they knew a Fraud Squad investigation was under way.

So imagine our surprise when the Met said yesterday morning there was no credible evidence of fraud in the Panorama files!

I called the Scotland Yard press office for clarification. At about 5pm they called to say er, yes, there is an investigation relating to the Brady Youth Forum. Doesn’t that make your statement this morning a bit misleading, I asked? Er yes, you have a valid point, they said.

I called Andrew Gilligan to let him know. He blogged about it last night.

The police have now issued a “clarified statement”:

Here it is:

On Friday 4 April 2014 the Metropolitan Police Service received three files of material from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) relating to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

The files have been reviewed by a team of officers. In addition, officers have liaised with Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLP (PwC) who are conducting a full and wide-ranging audit of financial matters at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

There is no new credible evidence of criminality within the files.

Prior to this, a report was made to Tower Hamlets Police on 20 March by Tower Hamlets Council. The report concerned an irregularity with regards to money being awarded to the Brady Youth Forum, in January and April 2013, that was identified by an internal review. This investigation is being carried out by Tower Hamlets CID.

Therefore there are no new MPS investigations being carried out by the MPS as a result of information contained in the three files of material.

Spot the difference?

They’ve inserted the word “new” before “credible evidence”.

Which itself is odd.

I suspect there were two different teams in the Met examining two sets of files.

The file sent by the council regarding Brady Youth Forum was sent to Tower Hamlets CID on March 20 and I’m not sure how much work detectives there had spent on it.

And I’m guessing the files sent by DCLG were handed directly to a team based at Scotland Yard itself.

What’s not clear is whether those possible two teams actually spoke to each other, or compared notes. Had Tower Hamlets CID flagged up their file on the Brady Youth Forum?

Had a Scotland Yard team handed over information from Panorama on Brady Youth Forum to the Tower Hamlets CID team?

When I called up the Met Police press bureau yesterday, I was told they couldn’t find any reference to Brady Youth Forum on their main pan-London database.

They had to go and check at a local level.

I strongly suspect the Met as a whole was in fact in possession of credible new evidence as a result of DCLG’s actions; I suspect there was a lack of communication internally among the super sleuths.

But what’s also odd is the behaviour of the council in all this.

First of all, the Takki Sulaiman has a “setting the record straight” section on the council’s website. This is where he places rebuttals to stories he dislikes or doesn’t understand. You’d think from the title he’d at least strive for some accuracy. Yesterday morning he was very quick to publish the Met Police’s statement there.

Since then, I and others have told him and the head of paid service, Steve Halsey, that that statement has since been clarified. Has the council updated its website? Of course not (as at 5pm on April 17).

But forget for now the misleading statements because that’s just par for the course for Takki Sulaiman, but look again at the Met Police’s clarified statement.

They say they were notified by the council of the alleged Brady fraud only on March 20.

As I said above, Meic helpfully said Deloitte had reported back on the issue in January.

So why had the council waited all that time to go to the police?

It’s worth noting that some details of Panorama’s investigations into this had been contained in the ‘dossier’ taken to Lutfur’s office at the end of January by the so-called “whistleblowing” Bengali researcher.

The council presumably had sufficient evidence to go to the police, but it seems strange that they appeared to sit on it until Panorama began to hint they would be including it in the programme.

I said a couple of weeks ago that the back story to the Panorama programme might prove bigger than the broadcast itself. Watch this space.

Oh, and don’t forget…the auditors from PwC have only just started their work. This is the serious business of it all.

But you’d never have guessed from Lutfur’s latest press release.

Here:

Scotland Yard find “no credible evidence” in Tower Hamlets probe

Mayor Lutfur Rahman today welcomed the announcement by the Metropolitan Police that there was “no credible evidence” to claims of fraud at Tower Hamlets Council.

Mayor Rahman said:

“I have always maintained that there has been no wrongdoing and the Met’s decision that there is no credible evidence and not to investigate these claims is a vindication, however, the public now need to know who brought these allegations, why they were given such credence by the Secretary of State and whether the upcoming elections had any impact on the timing.”

The investigation was apparently based on documents presented to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles by BBC Panorama’s John Ware. Before the broadcast, a member of the programme’s own production team leaked production notes from the film and made accusations of political and racial bias on the part of the programme-makers. This evidence has been legally barred from publication by the BBC.

The dropped investigation is the latest of several inquiries into local democracy in Tower Hamlets that have returned no evidence of wrongdoing. In 2013, the Electoral Commission published a report into claims of voter fraud, investigating around 160 separate allegations and finding no evidence to support any of them.

Mayor Rahman added:

“There is a clear pattern in Tower Hamlets of opposition parties and sections of the media claiming everything from fraud to electoral malpractice to extremist takeovers in an attempt to discredit my administration. Once again, such claims have been shown to be lacking the critical factor of evidence. I hope that with these latest smears dispelled we can turn back to the issues that matter to local people’s day-to-day lives.”

For a lawyer, he does have a habit of talking conflated disingenuous bollocks, doesn’t he? Now even he’s trying to deny there’s a fraud investigation. Maybe his memory is failing him.

By the way, if anyone has any information about council contracts, grants, public money spent on PR and disposal of properties, they can write to PwC at lbth.inspectors@uk.pwc.com.

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