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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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JOhn Ware, panorama, bbc, lutfur rahman, tower hamlets Having been partly involved in the making of tomorrow night’s Panorama documentary on Mayor Lutfur Rahman and Tower Hamlets, it’s more difficult to judge what its impact will be (it’s a 30 minute programme and lots has been left on the cutting room floor).

From what I know, I think it’s a very measured, balanced and fair investigation and I suspect Communities Secretary Eric Pickles will take some action as a result. The programme exposes serious inadequacies in the checks and balances of a directly elected mayoral system, particularly when there’s a context of dysfunctional party politics.

Although pretty much every theme of what will be broadcast tomorrow will not be new to readers of this blog, there will be some disturbing details of what’s been going on behind the scenes. It’s clear a number of senior officers have had major concerns about process and decisions. To the wider national audience that Panorama is aimed it, the entire story will be worrying.

I’m not going to give anything away about the broadcast (except to say Lutfur may regret his decision to be interviewed), but I think the bigger story, in the short term at least, will be the background to the production itself: accusations of racism against the BBC and a so-called journalist betraying highly confidential sources (and then absurdly, in my view, claiming to be a whistleblower).

Lutfur Rahman’s council has spent tens of thousands of pounds (we don’t yet know the final figure) on City lawyers Taylor Wessing and PR outfit Champollion, whose remit was to suppress the programme. Over the past few weeks, they, Lutfur and the council’s interim monitoring officer, Meic Sullivan Gould, have tried to badger the BBC into pulling it at every opportunity.

This culminated last week in a letter to the BBC’s Director-General Lord (Tony) Hall (who, having seen the programme with the corporation’s editorial high command, gave it the thumbs up judging it to be fair and impartial).

Their main argument has been that the BBC should not be engaging in the sort investigative journalism that might affect the outcome of an election so close to an election. Which is a curious argument indeed.

They have also argued the production was biased from the outset and that its primary aim was to unseat the Mayor. And surprise, surprise (given what we know about the tactics of Lutfur’s people in this regard), they’re again playing the race card.

Instead of me doing the talking, here’s the statement Lutfur himself issued last night (after it became clear the programme would be aired):

BBC Panorama whistle-blower reveals racist and Islamophobic programme

Criminal investigation underway as BBC Panorama whistle-blower reveals racist and Islamophobic programme on Tower Hamlets

You may be aware that BBC Panorama is due to air a programme about Tower Hamlets next week.

I believe the programme is being used for political campaigning and electioneering purposes just weeks before local and Mayoral elections in May.

A dossier passed to us by a BBC whistle-blower has revealed it to be in total breach of the BBC’s editorial guidelines as a public broadcaster.

It has clear racist and Islamophobic overtones targeting the Bangladeshi Muslim community in Tower Hamlets.

The BBC and the undercover production company, Films of Record, have also been referred to the Information Commissioner and there is now a criminal investigation underway.

Sadly this programme is already being used for political campaigning by politicians from Tower Hamlets Labour Party and promoted by right wing journalists.

The BBC’s targeting of our borough is nothing short of a direct intervention in the outcome of an election.

I’m proud that with your support I have been able to deliver some of the most progressive policies of any council in the country, whether that’s building the most homes; supporting our young people; providing free school meals to all primary school children; protecting our heritage; looking after our elderly or improving our environment.

I’ll let the people of Tower Hamlets judge my record in office – not by a programme with a clear political bias, broadcasting for Tower Hamlets Labour Party.

Here is my 3 years in office report – Transforming Tower Hamlets: Three Years On.

You can also watch this short counter documentary for an alternative perspective on the Panorama programme http://vimeo.com/90422433.

So let’s look at this “whistleblower” accusation.

First, here’s the BBC’s response:

“The BBC emphatically rejects any suggestion that its investigation into Lutfur Rahman’s administration was either politically or racially motivated. We can confirm that there has been a breach of data protection at an independent production company working with the BBC on a Panorama investigation as a result of unauthorised disclosure by a former researcher on the production team, in breach of her obligation of confidentiality. This breach includes material relating to the programme’s confidential sources. Our primary concern is to protect our sources and we are urgently investigating the matter. We have also notified the ICO.”

Now the background.

In January, Panorama reporter John Ware and the production company Films of Record (it’s a production company, not an undercover production company) hired a young Bengali broadcast journalist student). At her interview, she was highly critical of Lutfur Rahman and his administration.

They got her to do some research on some of the third sector organisations they were investigating as part of the programme’s focus on taxpayer grants. She was also asked to do some translating and she’d also been keen initially to do some undercover work.

She was only with the team for four days in mid-January and on the last day she was given access to a shared but restricted computer file.

After she started demanding more money, the team let her down gently and said thanks but no thanks. But then some six weeks later, the team were dropped with a bombshell. A dossier containing a significant amount of confidential material had been taken from the shared drive and handed to Mayor Lutfur’s office.

It is thought the council had this dossier for a number of weeks before their lawyers Taylor Wessing disclosed it to the BBC and Films of Record. This is important to note.

How this dossier was accessed is not yet fully clear. I understand the BBC is satisfied as to the involvement in handling the “dossier” of certain paid individuals in the Mayor’s office. Inquiries by the Corporation are progressing.

As to whether there is a criminal investigation into the BBC/Films of Record, my understanding is that is manifestly not the case. The BBC has told the Mayor this but he seems to have ignored it. Both the BBC and Films of Record quite rightly notified the ICO as soon as they were aware of the data breach. Note my point re the council’s actions above.

In my view, the journalist they hired should be ashamed of herself. She apparently claimed she had become concerned about the nature of the programme, that it was somehow trying to bring shame on Britain’s Bangladeshi community. Whether any pressure was exerted on her from external sources, I don’t know. I do know that many, many Bangladeshis are terrified about speaking out in public for fear of vilification in their own community. They’re quite happy to talk to journalists in private but very rarely go on the record. The few that do are brave.

What also galls is that this journalist now claims whistleblower status for betraying whistleblowers. It’s my understanding that she made not one attempt to raise apparent concerns about the programme with any of the Panorama team. As a journalist, she would have known the BBC has in place strict and confidential channels for such concerns.

As for the other allegations in Lutfur’s press release….

Panorama was ‘politically motivated’: Rubbish. Their methods were exemplary; the team knocked down weak hypotheses at every stage. They were rigorous and judicious.

Panorama has been Islamophobic: Rubbish. Lutfur Rahman (by even his own admissions and boasts) is a highly public and controversial figure. He boasts he’s Europe’s first directly elected Mayor, he invokes Islam and Allah in his speeches and he boasts that he’s the first to put such high priority on faith buildings. His support is drawn almost exclusively from one community, the Bangladeshi population in Tower Hamlets. There is undoubtedly a strong public interest in scrutinising him and his policies.

Mayor Rahman is also putting it about that John Ware is a Zionist Islamophobe who targets Muslims. Rubbish. They’re claiming this is ‘proved’ because the BBC paid out libel damages from a previous investigation of his in 2006 into the charity Interpal. Well, actually, that documentary led to a Charity Commission reprimand for Interpal. The libel damages were incidental to the main story: they were paid to a man whose face had not been blanked out on a photograph featuring one of their main subjects.

Whether or not tomorrow’s Panorama proves to be a game-changer in Tower Hamlets on May 22, I don’t know.

But the evidence has been submitted to Eric Pickles who now says this:

“There is a worrying pattern of divisive community politics and mismanagement of council staff and resources by the mayoral administration in Tower Hamlets. I will carefully examining the evidence provided by Panorama’s thorough investigation and will consider the appropriate next steps, including the case for exercising the legal powers available to me.”

In the meantime, Lutfur is publicising this 26 minute attack video on Panorama (quite how it was funded or who made it hasn’t been disclosed, but it features a number of useful idiots)…it’s all the fault of the ‘right wing’, you see.

Enjoy the warm-up (and oh, by the way, I gather that John Ware found the council’s head of communications Takki Sulkaiman to be one of the most manipulative press officers he’s ever dealt with in a long career in journalism…which I can’t disagree with: he should have stuck to politics.)

 

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