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At first sight, this one is straight from Comedy Central. Greece is in a bit of a pickle. It’s had a bit of a problem with corruption, and with how its politicians spend public money.

So who better to call in for a bit of advice than a special hit squad from Tower Hamlets?

Here’s a tweet from Stepney’s Tower Hamlets First councillor Mahbub Alam.

Yes, that’s Deputy Mayor Oli Rahman, two of his cabinet colleagues, Shahed Ali and Shafiqul Haque, as well as Mahbub, sitting there facing Greek MPs in Athens two days ago. Thanks to Alam, here are some other photos from their trip: CBBS0BmWQAAgzYe CBCwM2UWQAA-hr0   CBB0OnlWAAAXolu       CBDX7FOUQAAqWe-

CBGAlNMW4AAvkXj   CBGAlNQWwAEbUns

Where to start? As Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs editor Tim Minogue remarked on Twitter last night….wtf. First, the hat. In the first picture above, it’s resting on the head of the deputy mayor, Oli Rahman. He says it was a gift from George Galloway. George_galloway_011 Indeed, he does look like a mini-George and Oli was once upon a time one of his Respect councillors in Tower Hamlets. In fact I’m told that Oli, like George, has also taken to cigars. I’m not sure if he’s started wearing leotards yet, but you never know. galloway-big-brother There are other links to Galloway with this trip as well. In that fourth picture above, showing a tasty meal in Athens on Thursday night, you can see sitting at the far end of the table on the left hand side as we look at it, Kevin Ovenden. A socialist philosopher mathematician, he was for very many years the left hand side of Galloway’s brain (the right being the slightly more creative Rob Hoveman).

Kevin has been in Greece for some time and is no doubt excited by the rise of the Syriza party there, but I’m assured this Tower Hamlets delegation was not his doing. It was all Oli Rahman’s idea, Oli told me this morning. He called me from a Greek train slightly distressed after one of their wider group had just been robbed of their wallet.

So why are they out there and who’s paying for it? When asked about the latter on Twitter last night, Mahbub (who has a fondness for travel, especially if it’s supported by public money..), had this to say:

HaringeyThey flew out on Thursday and are due back tomorrow. Also with the four Tower Hamlets councillors is Haringey’s Labour councillor, Isidoros Diakides (left), who is co-chair of the London-based Greek Solidarity Campaign. There are also officials from the NUT and Unison with them, including the Tower Hamlets council branch secretary John McLaughlin

Yesterday, they all met a group of Syriza MPs in Athens, the party’s head of international affairs, a local mayor and a member of the Greens. As one Tower Hamlets politico said to me yesterday, it’s difficult to understand who exactly is advising who.

However, while it’s easy and perfectly reasonable to mock and laugh, there is a serious side to this. Greece has a serious problem with racism and a growing one with fascism. Golden Dawn are neo-Nazis.

Last year, there were cries of “scandal” after a Greek court acquitted two farmers of shooting 28 Bangladeshi migrants who had been claiming back pay for their strawberry picking work. Very good accounts of the story are here and here.

Oli told me this morning there are some 700 Bengali businesses in Athens alone, many of which are struggling with the austerity measures. Oli thought that most of the Bengalis in Greece did not have Greek passports, merely indefinite leave to remain there. I asked whether any those he had met there wanted to come to the UK. He said if some were “given the possibility to, they would come”. However, he added many others simply wanted to pursue a life in Greece.

He said the Greek MPs and the Greek Bangladeshi Chambers of Commerce wanted to hear about how the racism of the Seventies and Eighties in the UK had been defeated. Oli said the MPs were amazed and impressed that people of an Asian immigrant background had conquered such prejudice and were now running a major London authority. “They were fascinated about that,” Oli said.

I asked Oli what he’d been most impressed with so far and he highlighted a movement set up by Syriza MPs called ‘Solidarity for All’. Each Syriza MP donates 20 per cent of their salary to it for humanitarian causes such as food distribution.

That’s wonderful, I said. I asked him whether he and other councillors in Tower Hamlets would do that, ie donate 20 per cent of their allowances to such causes. At first he said the deprivation in Tower Hamlets was nowhere near the scale of Greece. I pointed out there were food banks crying out for money. I said he’d be setting a fine example.

And then I think he got it. He said he would add a line to a motion he’s already submitted on the issues in Greece for the next council meeting. That should be an interesting vote.

So something good might well come from their diplomatic efforts. Overall, good on them for going.

On a lighter note, I asked Oli if he’d heard anyone using the word “malaka” around him. “I don’t speak Greek, mate,” he said, “but I think so, yeah.”

This is what it means.

Bless.

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Oliur Rahman

Cllr Oli Rahman manning a PCS picket line in Stratford today

The below piece is on the Express website here.

THE Deputy Mayor of the controversial east London borough of Tower Hamlets was yesterday marched from his civil service workplace after concerns about his political activities.

A security guard was ordered to ban Councillor Oliur Rahman from entering the Job Centre Plus office in Stratford, east London, where he works as a benefits adviser.

His bosses at the Department for Work and Pensions said he could no longer perform the role, one he has had for 14 years, due to hypothetical concerns about political neutrality.

They claimed his high profile role in Tower Hamlets politics meant he was more likely to be recognised by people he dealt with in the job centre, even though he works in the neighbouring borough of Newham.

The DWP argued Mr Rahman was at risk of being accused of political bias in his day job.

It said this risk had increased following his appointment as deputy to Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman, who is currently the subject of Government and national media attention.

Mr Rahman’s bosses said they were acting on the direct advice of the Cabinet Office, which yesterday confirmed it supported their decision.

They said he was being transferred to a non-frontline role away from jobseekers at another office in Stratford.

Their stance and the decision to call in a security guard triggered a blazing row at the Job Centre yesterday.

It caused Mr Rahman, who is also an official at the PCS union, so much stress that he vomited and hyperventilated.

His bosses were so concerned they called an ambulance.

Paramedics treated the councillor but he declined to go to hospital.

PCS officials believe the DWP is “politically targeting” Mr Rahman.

He was today manning a picket line at the Job Centre Plus in a campaign against Government cuts.

Yesterday’s events were the culmination of a long-running dispute.

He has worked for the DWP for 14 years and has been a councillor since 2004.

Until 2010, he worked at the Poplar Job Centre in Tower Hamlets but he was then moved to Stratford after a complaint from an opposition party which claimed he could be trying to exploit his job for political purposes.

He has served in Lutfur Rahman’s cabinet since October 2010.

It is understood no complaints have been received about his dual role in that time.

However, DWP became increasingly worried.

According to Mr Rahman’s supporters, his bosses tried to transfer him out of London altogether.

Mr Rahman opposed the proposal and wrote to the Civil Service Appeal Board.

On October 28 last year, the board ruled in Mr Rahman’s favour.

It told the DWP that were he to be re-elected as a councillor in May 2014, he should be allowed to stay in his frontline role in Stratford.

After his re-election as a Tower Hamlets First party in May, his boss Lutfur Rahman made him his deputy.

The DWP believes his “elevated role” as deputy mayor of a borough receiving so much attention nationally has created a tipping point.

His bosses sought renewed guidance from the Cabinet Office, which has now told the DWP it can overrule the Civil Service Appeal Board decision.

When Mr Rahman objected to the proposed back office transfer earlier this month, the DWP suspended him–a decision it rescinded just days later following advice from HR professionals.

However, the department’s bosses continued to insist he move to the new role.

Mr Rahman is now understood to be consulting lawyers.

His friends also point out that the national attention on Tower Hamlets Council is not of his making.

They say it is largely due to a decision by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who ordered Government inspectors to examine the borough’s finances last April.

In a statement, Marjorie Browne of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said: “For the best part of four years Mr Rahman feels he has been subjected a series of targeted behaviour from the senior management of the Job Centre Plus (JCP) without any foundation or complaint from any clients.

“He feels politically targeted for simply being a councillor and politically active within Tower Hamlets.

“The fact that senior management from the JCP are going against their own Civil Service Appeal Board’s decision says everything one needs to know about this case.”

A DWP spokesman said: “Every day our Job Centre Plus staff are successfully helping people into work.

“It’s important that they remain politically neutral, which is why we can’t have elected politicians in frontline roles.”

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said it “supported” the DWP decision and added: “The Civil Service Code requires all civil servants to act with political impartiality, and to comply with any restrictions laid down on their political activities in line with the Political Activity Rules.”

Mr Rahman said he was unable to comment.

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I changed the photo at the top of this blog a few weeks ago, and it wasn’t just because Len McCluskey and his Unite union were then hot news nationally. I was also intrigued about what he was up to in Tower Hamlets.

Just why was he beginning to hang about with Mayor Lutfur Rahman (and the lovely champagne prosecco socialist/millionaire housing association tenant/champion of workers’ rights Shiraj Haque)?

Yes, I’m sure Len was 100 per cent sincere when he felt compelled to visit the East London Mosque to express solidarity with the Tower Hamlets community in the wake of the Lee Rigby murder, but once a deal-maker, always a deal maker.

Perhaps Lutfur had the answer.

In February, a Lutfurite cabinet member Oli Rahman proposed an amendment to the budget that would divert funds from council reserves to a new community centre in Shadwell.

Here’s the text of that amendment:

This Council Resolves:

1. To allocate the one-off funding in the following areas allocated from funding already set aside in the budget for third sector grants :

This Council Resolves:

1. To extend provision in the borough for those without formal qualifications and effected (sic) by welfare cuts by committing £65,000 to the establishment the new Unite Community Centre in St George’s Town Hall.

2. This is a partnership between the council, Unite – Europe’s largest trade union and Barclay’s (sic) Bank.

3. The Unite Community Centre will offer:

• Education courses, employment and welfare advice services and community events.

• It will run three Skills for Life courses a week, and each will hold three sessions a week.

• Over the course of the year it aims to have 300 learners take Skills for Life courses.

• Based on this, and the provision of non-accredited ESOL, art and photography courses, and cultural events, the centre expects 50 unique visitors a week.

The minutes of that meeting show that Lutfur accepted this amendment and that it formed part of the overall deal between Labour and the Independents. The minutes also show that no councillor declared any interests. Presumably, this means that no councillor is a member of Europe’s largest trade union…

And the next we hear of this little proposal is on April 30. Hidden away in the murky and unsearchable section of the council website that details the mayor’s executive decisions (isn’t it interesting that Lutfur uploads only scanned documents there, unreadable by Google…), we are told that £64,000 of our tax money has indeed been given to Unite, a political organisation that is overtly campaigning to bring down the Coalition government, and, as some would have it, covertly manoeuvring against Ed Miliband as well.

But it surely can’t be legal to transfer public money to political outfits, I hear you cry. Well, Tower Hamlets council insists it’s all entirely acceptable.

The full details of the background to this decision are here.

We learn that it is for a new “community centre” in the basement of council-owned St George’s Town Hall in Cable Street, Shadwell. We’re also told that the money is part of a matched-funding deal between Unite, Barclays and the council. Unite is contributing £140,000, the council £64,000 and the public-spirited bank £60,000.

The benefits the money will generate for the local community justify the arrangement, the council says. The document explains: “Residents from all communities will be encouraged to use the centre, as its principle (sic) aim is to reduce unemployment across all sections of the borough… . This project is of particular interest to the borough…given Unite’s experience in running entry-level courses, integration of employability skills into educational courses and given its wide relationships with employers.”

Helpfully, the report adds:

Screen shot

And the justification from legal chief Isabella Freeman:

Screen shot 2

The document says anyone needing advice can get it. And as well as advice on how to get a job, you also get advice on how to sign up to Unite.

The Unite Community Centre is also a Unite recruiting office. The staff are all very friendly, but also very enthusiastic about their employer. The office is stuffed full of leaflets on the negative effects of Coalition cuts and how to join and fight these.

Unite 1

Unite 3

One man who’s been in there said he was encouraged to join during a discussion on how the centre could help him. A “Unite community membership scheme” offers membership for those not in paid work for 50p a week.

unite 4

There’s no such thing as a free lunch is there?

I’m sure the training is great and beneficial, but why should tax money be used to subsidise a recruiting office? Perhaps the TaxPayers’ Alliance should put in a bid to train council officers how to save cash.

A second Unite Community Centre opened in Barnsley in June, but I can’t trace any use of public money for that. I understand more are on the way.

Unite gets to expand its membership and that expanded membership increases the size of its bloc vote within the Labour party.

But in London, does Unite have a different agenda? There’s been some talk of George Galloway running for London mayor and we know that Lutfur is close to Respect.

I wonder if this deal between Len and Lutfur is part of some pro-Galloway plan.

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