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The following is another guest post by Chris Dunne, the former head of Langdon Park School and now fighting to save the acclaimed Tower Hamlets Youth Sport Foundation. His first post on this blog can be read here. In this article he attacks Labour councillors for their failure to attend a public meeting on the issue. One, Cllr Abdul Mukit (MBE, lest we forget) – the cabinet member for sport – was apparently sitting in a cafe around the corner while it was going on. Given his record of claiming questionable expenses at Spitalfields Housing Association, I’m not surprised.

[As an aside, and in other news, Rachael Saunders, the deputy mayor, has quit. She, like Josh Peck, Amy Whitelock-Gibbs and Shiria Khatun, has also decided her time is now up in Tower Hamlets politics. None of them are standing for re-election next May. And these were the sensible ones. Mess? Certainly. More on that in a separate post.]

By Chris Dunne (pictured)

governance-sub_01When Mayor John Biggs was asked in the council meeting on July 19 if he had a seconder for his motion – to dismantle the Tower Hamlets Youth Sport programme – I thought he was just being facetious when he claimed, “I think I’ve got 20 seconders”. Given the deafening silence coming from the ranks of Labour councillors, both then and since, it seems he wasn’t kidding.

As a former headteacher I have always tried to behave well in public, but the shameful way the matter was subsequently treated in the Chamber I believe fully justified my telling the Mayor and his ‘seconders’ on the Labour benches that they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

It wasn’t the mayor’s fault that council rules barred councillors from asking me questions, but he certainly took full advantage of it. With no possibility of our countering his statements, Trustees and staff of the Foundation were forced to sit and listen to the mayor grossly distort the truth about the Tower Hamlets Youth Sport Foundation and in many cases to say things that were totally untrue.

Which is why we organised a public meeting and debate on the evening of Sunday July 30. Everyone, especially the mayor, was invited. The Opposition parties were well represented. Cllr Rabina Khan and Cllr Ohid Ahmed both attended and spoke very supportively of the programme, as did Elaine Bagshaw, representing the Liberal Democrats. The meeting was very well attended, including by many youngsters, and dealt exhaustively with all the issues. It had been scheduled to finish after an hour and a half at 7.30pm, but instead ran over two hours, when we had to call a halt only because the Foundation’s manager Chris Willetts and our Cricket Officer, Jahid Ahmed, had to leave to take a busload of youngsters to the West Midlands for a cricket residential.

You can imagine how disappointed everyone was that not one single Labour councillor thought it was important enough to attend the meeting. The mayor had had to pull out during the day because of family commitments, but not one of his ‘seconders’ was apparently ready or willing to take his place and defend the Labour decision to dismantle the borough’s youth sport programme. Not even Cllr Abdul Mukit, in whose own ward the meeting was taking place and who is the Cabinet Lead Councillor for sport!

I have to say I share the outrage felt by some Labour Party members who told me they encountered Cllr Mukit in a café round the corner from the meeting when they were on their way home. For not one Labour councillor to turn up was, I believe, simply disrespectful to the thousands and thousands of young people who are going to have their life opportunities severely curtailed by the mayor’s disgraceful decision, a decision publicly supported by all Labour councillors in the Chamber on July 19.

It is simply not good enough either for them to hide behind the excuse that the meeting would have been used to play party politics.

Abul Hasnath, who presents a community affairs programme on a British-Bangladeshi TV channel, independently chaired the meeting. He and I both asked everyone to focus their contributions on the provision of life opportunities for young people (many of whom were present to help them do just that) rather than on personalities or parties.

I made a point of saying that THYSF has operated under two administrations, two mayors, three chief executives, and very many directors/officers. I said clearly that I did not believe politicians of any party, nationally or locally, stood for election in order to do bad things for their electors.

I also specifically said that I did not believe John Biggs would deliberately say things that were untrue. As a hard-working mayor he relies on many people to give him accurate information about issues like this. I said that somewhere along the way he must have been given the inaccurate impressions referred to in our evidence folder or told things that were not true and, understandably, may have believed them to be true.

We have given the mayor and every councillor a fat folder of hard copies of the evidence to demonstrate the distortions and untruths I spoke of earlier.

In essence we are saying to the mayor and his councillors that:

  1. He was totally wrong to claim there has been a serious decline in the number of schools subscribing to our service. We are working with almost 60 schools in the borough, not the 34 the mayor claimed.
  2. The Mayor’s claim that we have been running deficits (plural) is flatly contradicted by the 4 years (out of 5) that we in fact ran small surpluses, which we have itemised year by year.
  3. The Mayor’s claim that the Trustees of the Foundation had refused to produce a Business Plan is untrue. We submitted a lengthy and detailed Business Plan, but this was rejected by the council.
  4. The Mayor claimed in the Chamber to have an ‘alternative plan’, and all the Labour councillors supported it. No one has yet seen this plan, or at least if they have they haven’t shared it with us. It certainly won’t be based on a borough sports strategy, because the only one of those that exists we wrote ourselves. 

 

There Is Still A Way To Solve This Problem – If There Is The Political Will

It is important to note at this point that the clock is ticking pretty fast. The redundancy process is already under way –  conducted unsurprisingly by Council officials at the Town Hall, despite the mayor’s repeated attempts to hide behind the excuse that “it’s the school that’s making them redundant”.

There is however, despite the lateness of the hour, an honourable way forward if the mayor and his councillors want to grasp it.

The mayor has repeatedly claimed he had appointed a consultant to help us write a Business Plan. That of course was not true. What is true is that both I and another Trustee had separately written to him to ask him to do exactly that. Neither of us received any reply to this request.

The consultant the mayor is referring to has however now had the opportunity over the last two months to learn exactly how our operation runs and how it is financed and would as a result be in a very good position to give such sound advice to the mayor.

In a face-to-face meeting since the Council meeting, I asked the Mayor to honour that original claim of his ‘retrospectively’, by asking the consultant to advise him directly on what he regards are the feasible options, if any, for saving the core of our youth sport programme. I am pleased to say that he firmly agreed to do just that. We now await confirmation that this has happened and to consider the outcome.

What is already clear of course is the advice of another consultant, commissioned by the council, has given on the question of youth sport provision in Tower Hamlets. Asked to compare expenditure on youth sport with other similar boroughs, his report said (my emphasis)

Local authority finance outturns for sports-related functions suggest that LBTH maintains expenditure comparable to other boroughs. Given that as of 2012 responsibilities for delivery of youth-focused sport programmes has been distributed across LBTH and the newly formed THYSF, benchmarking data suggests therefore that LBTH has relatively higher spend for the more limited sports functions it delivers (primary focus of adult sport and physical activity) when compared to other boroughs.

This context suggests that where there is any amendment to functions and budgets for delivery of youth and adult community sport functions across LBTH and THYSF, consideration should be made of the apparent relative high spend on a more limited sport remit compared to other boroughs – and therefore future delivery should consider appropriate allocation of funding to community work as currently delivered by THYSF. Future delivery may therefore be through either taking back functions or commissioning services as appropriate.

Or to put it even more simply, “you spend most of the money you do spend on sport on adults, because you have devolved responsibility for youth sport to THYSF, and if that organisation doesn’t exist you will need to either start doing it and paying for it yourselves or you will have to pay someone else to do it for you”.

My question to the mayor is a simple one – about value for money, or ‘bang for your buck’ as the Americans would have it. It’s this:

“Since this issue will cost the Council whatever happens, why not spend the money positively, attempting to save a hugely popular and highly successful organisation, rather than waste it negatively on staff redundancies, giving money back to schools that they have already paid for this financial year, and then trying to provide, and pay for, a third-rate patching up exercise after you’ve watched it die?”

That wouldn’t be getting value for money for borough residents. It’d be hugely wasting it. And people like me would be reminding everyone of that – at every opportunity and right up to the next elections.

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On April 16, 12 days after Eric Pickles sent PwC to Mulberry Place, Takki Sulaiman, Tower Hamlets council’s £100,000 a year head of communications and marketing (and publicity), wrote this in an email to me:

Maybe those who followed your lead may regret they rushed to judgment about LBTH and our processes? Meanwhile we get on with the business of running services – and working with the auditors.

I’ve been looking forward to publishing those words today.

It’s always easy to jump to judgment with Tower Hamlets council. Some of the “damning report” headlines that appeared across the media this morning were quite probably pre-planned.

I said in my last post I’d reserve judgment until I’d gone through some of the details and listened to the exchanges in the Commons.

Well, the exchanges among Tory and Labour MPs were universally damning, there’s little doubt about that. My prize goes to Ealing MP Steve Pound, who can always be relied upon for vivid language. He said the mayor’s office was responsible for a “foul, fetid, reeking stench” emanating from wonderful Tower Hamlets.

Eric himself was also up there. “There can be no place for rotten boroughs in 21st Century Britain,” he said…(to which Tim Minogue, the editor of Private Eye’s Rotten Borough column, tweeted: “Is that a threat?”)

But what of the substance of the report itself?

There was no knockout blow, but I have to say, the more you read the details, the more damning it is.

The tone suggests the PwC auditors were shocked by what they found.

The council and Mayor Lutfur Rahman are today trying to downplay its importance. They claim “no criminality or fraud” was found and that council processes had already picked up much of the PwC findings.

Pull the other one.

To paraphrase Takki, maybe he and Lutfur may regret they rushed to judgment about the journalists investigating and reporting on Tower Hamlets.

Lutfur, whose hopes of returning to Labour are now dead, may also regret the day he decided to “reform” the way grants were decided at the town hall. One of his early decisions as mayor was to abolish the Grants Panel, an open committee of councillors that published in full the background papers for their decisions, and replace it with a behind-the-scenes committee of mates and officers…with himself having the final say.

I warned at the time this was a mistake and I included it in a lecture to delegates at the Centre for Investigative Journalism in 2012. It was also the area I advised the Panorama team to go hunting when we first met in the summer of last year.

As it happens, the PwC report is a full vindication (not that one was needed) for the Panorama programme.

It’s worth noting this statement today from the BBC and Films of Record, the production company behind the Panorama programme:

We welcome the findings of the report. Panorama’s investigation uncovered serious concerns about the use of public money, and today’s report vindicates the strong journalism we have continued to defend amid inaccurate commentary and misinformation surrounding the programme. 

John Ware, Panorama reporter, said: “Even before transmission of Panorama, the Mayor insisted there was no merit in any of the very serious questions I and my colleagues at the BBC and Films of Record raised over his approach to governance. He said our motivation could only be explained by racism and Islamophobia. This was manifestly never the case and today’s report shows our journalism was 100% justified.”

Before we get into the detail of some of the report, let’s get a few other statements out of the way.

From John Biggs:

This is a shameful report that shows a disregard for proper, transparent, accountable decision-making by the current administration. If money has been allocated to preferred organisations or areas of the borough then it follows that others have missed out.

The Mayor cannot dismiss this damning report by independent auditors as an attack by his political opponents as he always has done until now. He now has nowhere to hide and should think very carefully about whether his actions are compatible with remaining Mayor.

Labour group leader Cllr Rachael Saunders:

Cllr Rachael Saunders, Leader of Tower Hamlets Labour Group said:

“Labour demands the highest standards of probity in our elected representatives, and this damning report vindicates the decision to expel Lutfur Rahman from the Labour Party.

Councillors in Tower Hamlets have been fighting unjust grants allocations and opaque, rotten decision making since Lutfur Rahman was thrown out of the Labour Party and stood as an “independent” Mayor.

Earlier this year we sought to start a recruitment exercise for a Chief Executive – we do not currently have one. Lutfur Rahman has chosen not to co operate.

Now PwC has called into question the adequacy of the council’s governance arrangements. It is a cause of sorrow and shame for this great borough that Luftur Rahman as Mayor has taken us to the point of government intervention.

He should consider his position. Tower Hamlets deserves better.

And Lutfur Rahman:

We need to be clear that there was no evidence of fraud or criminal activity identified in the PwC report published today.

All governance issues identified in the PwC report have already been highlighted by our internal processes and are being rectified accordingly.

Given that Tower Hamlets Council is one of the highest performing local authorities in London, and the wider UK for service delivery to our residents, I am surprised at the Secretary of State’s comments today in the House of Commons.

I believe that there is a huge disparity between the detail of PwC’s report and the level of the Secretary of State’s comments. We will be responding to Mr Pickles in due course.

This certainly sounds as if those clever lawyers at Tower Hamlets are urging some kind of legal challenge.

I think they and their masters would be wiser to pipe down, take the medicine, and get on with the business of governance. And prove to the Commissioners who will soon arrive to oversee parts of the authority that they’re semi-competent.

So what’s actually happened?

Eric Pickles was scathing in the House today, and he clearly enjoyed himself. Politicians like taking action, no matter how much they say they don’t.

Based on the PwC findings he’s proposing to appoint three Commissioners to oversee the distribution of grants, the sales of properties and council publicity.

The Commissioners will also oversee the recruitment of three senior positions on a permanent basis: a new chief executive, monitoring officer (bye-bye Meic Sullivan-Gould) and a new chief finance officer.

None of these positions is currently filled on a permanent basis, and that, according to the PwC, has been part of the problem.

In Tower Hamlets it’s easy to become immune to some of the goings-on. We’ve seen them time and again for far too long. But for newcomers, the situation is surely shocking.

So it’s not good enough for the mayor’s supporters to downplay important process failures or to suggest similar discrepancies would be found in a £1m audit of any other local authority.

As The Guardian’s political editor Patrick Wintour reports:

Pickles plans to dispatch three commissioners to administrate grant-giving, property transactions and the administration of future elections in the borough.

The commissioners, who will be answerable to Pickles, will be in place until March 2017 and are tasked with drawing up an action plan to improve governance in the council, including the permanent appointment of three senior council officers including a chief executive.

Pickles said his direct intervention was against everything he believed in, but he said the report, conducted by the accountancy firm PwC, showed the directly elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, had sown division and should bow his head in shame at the report’s findings. Executive power had been left unchecked and misused, he added.

…Pickles said the report painted “a deeply concerning picture of obfuscation, denial, secrecy the breakdown of democratic scrutiny and a culture of cronyism risking the corrupt spending of public funds”.

He proposed that all Tower Hamlets grant-making, property disposals and publicity functions be sanctioned by the commissioners. In an attempt to reduce the threat of electoral fraud in the 2015 general elections, Pickles also announced that the appointment of electoral registration officer and returning officer are to be exercised by the commissioners.

He added that he wanted the council’s written agreement within 24 hours that they would not appoint an officer or make any grants pending the start of his intervention package.

He said grants had been distributed without rationale, any clear objectives, monitoring, transparency and with officer recommendations systematically overruled.

He pointed out that across mainstream grants by the council, 81% of officer recommendations were rejected, and more than £400,000 was handed out to bodies that failed the minimum criteria to be awarded anything at all. He added that Poplar town hall had been sold against official advice to an individual who had helped the mayor in his electoral bid.

The report is almost 200 pages long and I’ll do a series of write-ups over the coming days.

It is also likely to have cost more than £1m to produce. I had been expecting Eric to announce DCLG would pick up the tab, but he said the burden must fall on Tower Hamlets taxpayers.

That’s surely unjust–and a mistake politically. It gives Lutfur’s team an attack line. The politics of martyrdom plays well in Tower Hamlets, after all.

Would this report, had it been published before the election, persuaded many Lutfur voters to desert him? My instinct is not many, and I do wonder whether Rabina Khan might now be emboldened to go after Rushanara Ali in Bethnal Green and Bow in May.

In fact, there are some Lutfurites pondering the possibility he himself may resign and call a Mayoral by-election to re-establish legitimacy. I doubt he would.

As I said, more on the detail tomorrow.

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This will be submitted by the Labour group to the full meeting of Tower Hamlets council on November 27:

Motion on Centenary of WW1

Proposer: Cllr Sirajul Islam

Seconder: Cllr Rachael Saunders

This Council Notes:

–       That 2014 will mark the centenary of World War One.

–       As time passes the personal memory of this event diminishes.

–       This was the first major conflict of the modern era in which civillain communities were attacked and this included Londoners.

–       Remembrance Sunday represents a unique and important point each year where we commemorate all of those who have and continue to fight for our country, especially those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

–       We should also note the sacrifice and suffering of civilian communities.

This Council Believes:

–       It is important to our sense of community and legacy that the memory and knowledge of those events is never lost.

–       It is an important part of our cultural heritage to remember and share in the great history of our country and the contribution of East Enders.

–       That an appreciation of the decisions of the past gives us a better understanding of the world.

–       That the centenary presents an opportunity to share in collective commemoration of the role of East End communities.

This Council resolves:

–       To note the contribution and sacrifice of East Enders, both as civilians and as members of our and our allies Armed Forces.

–       To call upon the Speaker of the Council to work with the Head of Paid Service to organise a high profile commemorative event for next year’s World War One centenary.

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Here are the list of questions the Labour group will pose to Mayor Lutfur Rahman at next Wednesday’s full meeting of Tower Hamlets council.

None of them will be answered by him of course.

Denise Jones has an intriguing angle.

Councillor Question                                    

Cllr Rachael Saunders

Is the Mayor prepared to be honest about how his re-election campaign is being funded?
Cllr Carlo Gibbs Why has the Mayor suspended the community chest and transferred the funds to the community events fund?
Cllr Shiria Khatun Why has enough not been done to reduce ASB on the brownfield estate in my ward?
Cllr Abdal Ullah What has the Mayor done about the decimation of Safer Neighbourhood police teams?
Cllr John Pierce What has the Mayor of Tower Hamlets done to improve cycle safety in the borough? 
Cllr Denise Jones Does the mayor agree that fraud has no place in our politics?
Cllr Ann Jackson Can the Mayor enlighten us on the allocation of social housing in the Olympic park on a per borough basis and the rationale used for allocation?
Cllr Joshua Peck What assessment has the Mayor made of the supply of large family homes (over three bed) in the open market in the borough and what does he plan to do to ease the shortage to allow growing families to stay in the borough?
Cllr Anwar Khan What is the current vacancy rate in each of the borough’s town centres?
Cllr MA Mukit How many incidents of anti-social behaviour in Weavers over last year?
Cllr Marc Francis Can the Deputy Mayor and Lead Member for Community Safety services tell us what action is being taken to improve the safety of residents in Fish Island using the Hackney Cut and Hertford Union canal towpath?
Cllr Zenith Rahman Why does the Mayor think almost 20,000 incidences of anti-social behaviour in one year is acceptable? If he doesn’t, why hasn’t he acted?

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Tower Hamlets has a brand new political party to vote for.

Lucky us. It’s called Tower Hamlets First.

electoral commission
As opposed to Tower Hamlets Last, which is the usual strategy of the people behind this new venture….the dear Mayor of Tower Hamlets and his group.

It was registered with the Electoral Commission on September 19, with Lutfur Rahman as party leader (missed that party election vote), and Cllr Alibor Choudhury nominated as Treasurer and nominating officer.

They’ve also registered a few catchy tag lines to use alongside Tower Hamlets First.

Thus we have ‘Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s Team’, ‘Lutfur Rahman’s Team’, Lutfur Rahman’s Progressive Alliance’, ‘The Mayor’s Team’, “Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s Independents’, ‘Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s Community Alliance’ [note the use of the word ‘community’], and ‘East End Independents’.

I’m not sure he’ll be able to use the word Mayor in any official tag line during an election, but let’s see.

But what’s also interesting about this is that he’s now on an official footing as as far as declaring donations go. Until now, there’s been no trace of how he’s been funded, or who his backers have been.

For example, I asked his people who funded his huge iftar party to celebrate Eid in August, but answer there came none. Ditto the various leaflets and newsletters he sends out en masse.

I suppose the truth is that ever since he was elected that dark night in October 2010, he’s been gearing up for re-election. And why not?

We’ve already seen his (ab)use of the Localism Act to dish out grants to friends at the borough’s many mosques and monocultural community groups. Today, another £242,000  was handed out. It includes another £18,000 to the Osmani Trust.

The Osmani Trust is a major “youth” organisation in Whitechapel with links to the IFE. And it was a large group of mainly excitable young men from that organisation who turned up at the town hall for the last full council meeting in September when they spent the evening whooping, hollering and hurling insults in Bengali at Labour and Tory councillors.

That was also the same evening Tory councillor Gloria Thienel was insulted as “Susan Boyle” by an angry, glaring man sitting next to me.

And it was also the same meeting that at long last the cameras were allowed to roll during the debate.

You can watch it all for free here. At 50 minutes in you can even watch the single time the Mayor spoke throughout the entire three hour meeting.

Momentously forgettable.

Lutfur

But was memorable was the laying on the table of Lutfur’s IFE card. (The Islamic Forum of Europe is based at the East London Mosque and is considered a Jamaat e Islami group which favours an Islamic Republic of Bangladesh. It was this group which was the focus of the Channel 4 Dispatches programme in 2010 when accusations were made by Jim Fitzpatrick and others – I appeared in to substantiate claims made to me to this effectby serving councillors – that they had infiltrated the council and the Labour party. Ultimately these claims led Lutfur’s expulsion from Labour.)

At 1hr 25mins in, you’ll see during a motion on the recent trip to the Tower Hamlets border by the English Defence League, Lutfur’s main man Alibor rise to speak.

Alibor

He proposes an amendment to the main motion, thus:

I propose that we accept the IFE as a progressive organisation that we will aim to engage.

Well, Labour weren’t expecting that.

Deputy Mayor Ohid Ahmed then spoke:

We praise the East London Mosque stewards and we know that their organisation is the IFE.

Labour’s Rachael Saunders is a little taken aback. She can see the elephant-trap, so she says she has “no idea whether the IFE is progressive” (when she clearly believes they’re not).

Lutfurite Kabir Ahmed adds his tuppence, saying “it’s important that we thank the IFE”. He then blames Jim Fitzpatrick for portraying them as anti-Tower Hamlets Islamists. He adds:

The EDL have picked up on this and they repeatedly reference it so it’s important to state such messages were incorrect and the council hasn’t been taken over and infiltrated.

Hmm. Let’s rewind.

In 2009, I interviewed Habibur Rahman, the then president of the IFE. He confirmed Alibor was an IFE member/activist.

But Alibor failed to mention or declare that when setting out his amendment. You see, the IFE already have a man at the top of the council. We now have conformation that Dispatches and JIm were right. thanks, guys.

And then at 1hour 35mins, the wonderfully colourful Lutfa Begum (another Lutfurite) jumps out of her seat to give us more revelations:

IFE do lots of jobs for Tower Hamlets local people. They are working with local GPs, local NHS, local schools. They are working with teachers.

Working with Tower Hamlets school teachers, are they?

Remind yourself of what Andrew Gilligan wrote after his Channel 4 Dispatches:

In fact, our reporters found, the IFE is a secretive, fundamentalist political network, dedicated, in its own words, to changing the “very infrastructure of society, its institutions, its culture, its political order and its creed … from ignorance to Islam.”

Back to Alibor. A bit later on, after some goading from Labour, he also said the SWP and Unite Against Fascism were “progressive organisations that we should aim to engage”.

Respect to him. He’s come out and said what we all knew.

But they’ve now shown their election strategy. This is what they are saying repeatedly to the Bengali press and TV channels: Labour and Jim Fitzpatrick brought the EDL to Tower Hamlets and it is only the Mayor Lutfur the Martyr who is standing up to them, with much thanks to the dear IFE.

They are trying to shift the goalposts and make the IFE appear mainstream.

And it’s a strategy that’s currently working among the Bengali population.

Labour, which managed to water down the amendment to thank all groups who helped block the EDL (including the police: in Lutfur’s version they weren’t mentioned – it was if they believed the IFE stewards were the police) and John Biggs need to shape up.

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