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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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During an interview with Sadiq Khan last Thursday, the day before he launched a booklet he edited for the Fabian Society on policy ideas for London, I asked him about the contrasting approaches to community cohesion followed in Newham and Tower Hamlets.

As well as being Shadow Justice Secretary, the Tooting MP is also Shadow Minister for London. He ran Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign and  during 2014 we may well get strong hints (and more) that he is Ed’s favourite for Labour’s next candidate for Mayor of London.

Officially, Sadiq hasn’t declared himself, but it’s all but certain he will. In the meantime, he’ll be in charge of co-ordinating Labour’s council campaign in London for May and Tower Hamlets is top of the party’s hit list.

He’s a big fan of Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales, as are many in Labour’s top team judging from the amount of policy ideas they seem to be adopting from him.

As I disclosed here in April, Sir Robin has City Hall ambitions of his own….but but but… . Sadiq describes him as a “good friend” and he asked him to write a chapter for the booklet Our London. His piece was on the potential power of local councils to help create jobs: not in the way that Tower Hamlets has traditionally done by using public cash to create non-jobs, but by training up youngsters and encouraging businesses to hire them through a scheme called Workplace.

Since Sir Robin outlined his ambitions to me in April, he’s been fairly low key on the subject. I suspect that’s because he now sees himself as a future driving force deputy/chief of staff…to Sadiq Khan. A Labour version of Sir Edward Lister, as it were.

Sadiq is also more impressed with Sir Robin’s attitude towards community cohesion, particularly compared with the Lutfur Rahman model in Tower Hamlets. During our chat, I raised the issue of Tower Hamlets council funding free Bengali Mother Tongue classes for kids whose grasp of English isn’t often up to scratch. He was shocked. Such finite public money should be used for English lessons, he said.

He also said he was not particularly in favour of using grants for mono-ethnic projects and events: that if taxpayers’ money was to be offered, there should be some demonstration of inclusiveness to people of all backgrounds. Clearly, public money being used for things like Eid in the Square or London-wide Diwali celebrations would be exceptions.

These mirror Sir Robin’s thoughts, as he outlined on this blog here.

Anyway, all this is b way of background…and because it’s of relevance to Tower Hamlets, I thought people might be interested in reading the interview I did with Sadiq, which was published on Express Online yesterday.

I tried to explore his personal background, what shaped him…suffering racism as a kid in London in the late Seventies and early Eighties certainly had an effect, as it had on so many in Tower Hamlets.

FOR football mad youngsters growing up around Wandsworth, southwest London, the question of which team to support isn’t usually the hardest decision they’ll ever make.

But in the early Eighties, Chelsea weren’t much good. And neither were their fans the most welcoming group to teenagers of Pakistani heritage.

Which is why Tooting MP Sadiq Khan, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary and an aspiring Mayor of London, is a passionate and lifelong Liverpool fan.

One of his elder brothers did go to the Shed end at Stamford Bridge, but he and his friends were so appallingly attacked and abused, supporting Chelsea just “wasn’t an option”.

He says he feels uncomfortable talking about his experiences of racism–some of them violent–but they have clearly helped shaped him, first as a leading human rights lawyer, also as a Wandsworth councillor, then as an MP and minister, and now as a yet-to-be-confirmed challenger for London’s City Hall in 2016.

Today, he launches a fascinating pamphlet of essays that he’s edited and entitled ‘Our London – The Capital 2015’.

In some ways, the pamphlet is groundbreaking: it’s been sponsored by both the City of London and Unions Together, the political campaigning arm of 15 trade unions.

As one MP joked, “that’s harmony”, but the collection contains thoughts from a number of leading London lights, including from Baroness Doreen Lawrence, the recently ennobled mother of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

Khan’s own chapter is on housing (“housing, housing, housing” should be Labour’s solution to poverty, he argues) but almost all of them tap into the theme raised by Labour leader Ed Miliband in his own foreword: the cost of living crisis.

Arguably, that crisis is greater in high cost London than anywhere else.

The pamphlet is something of a Labour vision for London: more housing, a London minimum wage, new tunnel and bridge crossings for the east of the capital, more grassroots access to the booming arts scene, greater representation of ethnic minorities in the Metropolitan

Police, and more harmonious community cohesion are just some of the ideas explored.

But who would deliver them for Labour?

MPs David Lammy and Diane Abbott are known contenders, as is Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales, but when Sadiq Khan was made Shadow Minister for London 11 months ago, it was a strong hint he was the leadership’s favoured candidate.

In fact, Sir Robin, who has written an essay for the pamphlet and whose policies have been admired by Labour HQ, might well end up as Khan’s deputy.

Does he want the job, though? Of course he does, but he won’t confirm it.

“I’m happy in the Shadow Cabinet, but if the ball comes my way, I’ll certainly play it,” he says.

But what would he be like as the capital’s most powerful man and London’s first Muslim mayor.

Unlike current incumbent Tory Boris Johnson, or his Labour predecessor Ken Livingstone, he doesn’t seem to have an ego that mirrors London’s massive scale.

Yet a more thoughtful, subtle and softer approach is perhaps just what is needed after years of division and bombast.

Now 43, he grew up the son of a bus driver in Earlsfield and has lived in the Tooting area all his life.

He is married to a fellow solicitor and has two daughters, both of whom went to the same state schools as their parents.
And the fact that they haven’t had to endure some of the racism he suffered when their age is to him a mark of how much London has changed.

“Things have definitely moved on in the sense that the sort of name calling [I experienced] would not be tolerated and schools are now far, far better at stamping it out,” he says.

“There’s much more a zero tolerance now. My big brother used to go to Stamford Bridge a few times and was given a hard time. They used to have this this thing called The Shed. And if you were a person who looked like my big brother–Asian–you weren’t welcome there.

“People we know suffered really bad racial abuse. They were beaten up and all the rest of it, so because of their experience of Chelsea, at that stage, I wanted nothing to do with Chelsea.

“Supporting them really wasn’t an option for me.”

Asked about his own experiences, he says: “I feel uncomfortable talking about these sorts of things because I don’t want younger people of ethnic origin to feel discouraged, but when I was growing up you’d often suffer racial abuse, verbal abuse name-calling, people driving past and spitting on your car.

“It didn’t happen all the time but it wasn’t unusual, so you’d be playing football in the park, and somebody would call you the P word. You’d be walking down the road or on the estate, you’d see a group coming along; the sensible thing to do would be to cross the road and just to avoid it, so you became street wise and you’d learn ways of avoiding trouble if you could.

“That said, I can look after myself. We knew how to look after ourselves if we got into a fight. I’ve got six brothers. It wasn’t an issue about being a coward and running away but it was about being sensible. Life’s hard enough as it is without looking for trouble.”

“It was part and parcel of life in those days, hearing about someone being attacked or beaten up. That’s why the murder of Stephen Lawrence had such an impact on people like us because we feel the ripples.

“There but for the grace of God that could’ve been me, it could have been my brother.”

Does he suffer racial abuse now?

“In recent times, not to my face. One of things that happens when you become middle aged and you wear nice clothes and you drive a nice car is it doesn’t happen so much, but I still know which estates to avoid and how to be streetwise.”

As mayor, he would be responsible for overseeing the Metropolitan Police Service whose struggle to recruit and retain ethnic minority officers is known to be a concern for Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe.

Khan has similar concerns. “Do we really want a London where people feel like second class citizens because of the colour of their skin?” he says generally.

While he believes abundant and genuinely affordable housing, including private rented accommodation (which he wants regulated) is the key to social mobility and poverty, community cohesion is also a key theme.

“Community cohesion is not gobbledegook,” he says. It’s vital.

He argues for more “community hubs”, places such as playgrounds, local football clubs and schools where people of all backgrounds and faiths actually mix and learn about each other.

The earlier the mingling starts in life, the better.

What he would not want is public money directed to projects that encourage a mono-ethnic identity and introspection.

In Tower Hamlets, where many young Bangladeshi children struggle with English when they first attend primary school, grant money is used to subsidise free Mother Tongue classes to teach them Bengali.

He himself is fluent in Urdu but is adamantly against such policies: “When you have finite resources, that money should be used to teach them English.”

Khan, regularly goes to Hyde Park Corner to watch the soapbox Sunday orators, is not shy of a debate.

But will he fulfil his dream for London? As one of his Labour colleague points, his 2010 election slogan in Tooting was “Yes we Khan.”

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