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Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 20.27.42Shortly before Ramadan in 2008, then Lib Dem councillor Stephanie Eaton fired off a complaint to those in charge of council committees about a memo they’d sent out asking members to change their eating habits. Back in those pre-austerity halcyon days, councillors were given free snacks to help them endure the messy business of part-time democracy: biscuits, tea and coffee were served at the side of the room. It was all very civilised.

But the memo in August 2008 requested committee members to refrain from gorging on food until the breaking of the fast during the forthcoming month of Ramadan. This, the memo said, was out of respect for Muslim councillors who may be fasting.

Stephanie, who I think later regretted speaking out (for the fuss it caused nationally) but not the point of principle, said on behalf of her group at the time: “We fervently believe that the rules of any one religion should not be imposed upon others.”

Many, including Muslim councillors, applauded her. It was seen as a mistake by do-gooding non-Muslim council officers.

I think it’s fair to say that there’s no other borough in Britain that is more sensitive to observant Muslims than Tower Hamlets.

A quick glance of the calendar of council meetings, for example, shows that many have been scheduled to start earlier during this past month of Ramadan.

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Yet there remain those who wish to exploit whatever perceived or minor insults they can for sad political reasons. Or even create insults for the same end.

Next Wednesday, it is Mayor John Biggs’s first proper full council meeting and the list of papers for it has just been published. They include a list of tabled questions to him from councillors.

This is what Cllr Ohid Ahmed, Lutfur Rahman’s former deputy mayor and someone who fancies the main role for himself in 2018, wants to ask.

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Throughout London and elsewhere these past four weeks fasting Muslims and non-Muslims and others have shared offices without even the slightest hint of tension or friction or breakdown in “basic etiquette” as people have simply got on with their daily lives. Some have fasted, most haven’t. Some in the latter group will have politely asked their colleagues if it’s ok to eat in front of them. The replies are likely to have been ‘Of course! Thanks for asking.’

Indeed, this has undoubtedly been the case in Mulberry Place itself.

AMOhid-AhmedBut there will always be those wanting to whip up or fabricate friction. I suppose someone or some people must have moaned to Ohid for him to learn about this meeting, but his language – is the stuff of parody.

“I believe morning breakfast [what other breakfast is there?] was offered…with much pomp and grandeur [what?? was it served by Royal butlers??] to the behest [I think he’s picked the wrong word here] of those who were observing their faith and those who felt left out and demotivated and somewhat belittled by the event taking place when they are obligated to fast.”

It’s the kind of stuff you see in exaggerated whip-lash claims. Or OTT constructive dismissal cases.

So what was this event that “belittled” people anyway? Well, it was work. More than 1,000 employees were asked to turn up to work.

As it has been explains to me, it was the Senior Management Development Conference. Lutfur used to hold it for fewer people in Mile End but this year Biggs and the council top team switched the venue to the Troxy and extended the invitation to 1,000 staff members, some 20 per cent of the workforce. It was aimed at informing the staff about developments at the council and listening to their feedback.

It lasted from morning until late afternoon, apparently and simple food was served for those who wanted or needed it. Sandwiches during the breaks/lunch, and tea, coffee, orange juice, biscuits and other snacks on arrival.

I was told speeches from Sir Ken Knight, the chief Commissioner, and John Biggs went down well. The latter was apparently cheered when he said there would be no more chauffeured mayoral car.

And I was also told (but I haven’t checked) that there was also an 80 per cent satisfaction rate from a survey at the end of the meeting.

Earlier this week, I was at the Arbour Youth Centre for an Iftar hosted by the committee there and by St Dunstan’s Church in Stepney. Many of the congregation of that church, as well as the rector, the assistant priest and the wardens, attended having themselves fasted throughout the day so they could share the breaking of the fast with their friends in Stepney’s Muslim community. (At one point John Biggs turned up to say hello before moving on to another Iftar elsewhere).

It was harmonious, sharing, respectful and friendly. I wish Ohid had been there. I suspect many in the Muslim community will find his cheap attempt at entrenched identity politics embarrassing.

In the meantime, below are the other questions for next Wednesday’s meeting. They are the usual mix of sycophantic, silly and sensible. I’ll let you decide which is which.

TO RECEIVE WRITTEN QUESTIONS FROM MEMBERS OF THE COUNCIL

And Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim readers. Don’t hoot your horns too wildly tomorrow…but then again why not!

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Last week, the Guardian’s Dave Hill speculated that Tower Hamlets First might field candidates in the forthcoming general election.

 

The article said:

For some time it has been thought likely that candidates from the local party led by Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman might stand in the borough’s two parliamentary constituencies, challenging Labour incumbents Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick. It’s been confirmed to me by a reliable source that this is indeed a definite possibility. There is no love lost between Rahman and Labour, on whom he and his allies have inflicted several defeats. Could Labour come unstuck in the East End?

Then this:

Names previously chattered about as THF runners are councillors Oliur Rahman (no relation), who is Rahman’s cabinet member for economic development, and Rabina Khan, who is his cabinet member for housing. They are generally regarded as two of the mayor’s most able lieutenants. They might not run at all and, if they do, it will be a big upset if they win. But Labour is well aware that they could not be easily dismissed.

The deadline for nominations for the general election is Thursday and it’s my understanding from sources within the Tower Hamlets First fraternity that Oli Rahman will definitely not stand against Jim Fitzpatrick in Poplar and Limehouse, not because he doesn’t want to fight Labour, but because he holds Jim himself in high regard. Those close to Oli may even help Jim with his campaign.

In Bethnal Green and Bow the story is slightly different, as I understand it. Rabina Khan is apparently chomping at the bit to stand against Rushanara, but it’s considered highly unlikely that Lutfur Rahman will let her go for it.

The verdict from Election Court Commissioner Richard Mawrey QC is unlikely to be delivered before Thursday and this is considered too complicating a factor. Another factor is that Tower Hamlets First, that shambolic mirage of a party, would only have 29 days to prepare an election campaign…and to establish something more than a “virtual bank” to fund it. The third factor is that they know Rushanara Ali is safe: she’s been working the doors hard for the past five years.

In any case, there could well be another general election campaign later this year if the mathematics of a hung parliament prove too difficult. THF might well feel that would be a better target, especially if Lutfur is cleared in his court case. They might have more of a story to tell then.

Cabinet reshuffles

Two other names who have apparently been jockeying for position in a potential THF raid on Bethnal Green and Bow are former Respect leader Abjol Miah and ex-deputy mayor Ohid Ahmed. Come next month, when Lutfur (if he’s still in office, of course) decides who’s in his next cabinet, the fortunes of these two men could change dramatically.

There is pressure on Lutfur to drop Ohid and bring in Abjol. Well, that’s the gossip anyway. Dear Cllr Selfie, Mahbub Alam, is also hoping for a position as cabinet member for social media, but I think he’s likely to be disappointed.

Not that cabinet positions matter of course, apart from the cash they earn for their incumbents. As I’ve written before, in Lutfur Land the power resides in the kitchen cabinet. This frustrates his colleagues and it has created divisions.

Throughout Lutfur’s first term from 2010-14, he did not once hold a group meeting of his then independent councillors. I’m told the same has been true since last May with the onset of Tower Hamlets First: there hasn’t been a single group meeting. He clearly doesn’t like being in environments where he can be questioned. It’s such an odd set up.

Commissioners

We still have only two commissioners, Max Caller and Sir Ken Knight. Eric Pickles’ department maintains its search for a third but this has so far been unsuccessful. – as have been the attempts so far by the other two to ensure the council appoints a permanent chief executive. In this, they have been frustrated by Lutfur’s efforts to make the current head of paid service, the charming Stephen Halsey, the permanent boss.

So much so that they wrote to Pickles last month to express their frustrations (in the most diplomatic language, of course). Eric has since replied to say he will give them extra powers to push this task along unless the council can supply reasons to him by next Monday saying why that won’t be necessary.

Meanwhile, the Commissioners say they have approved the approved the appointment of a new monitoring officer and a new chief financial officer. The swashbuckling motor-loving motor-mouth incumbent Meic Sullivan-Gould applied for the former.  But he didn’t get it. Drueni o’r fath, as they say in the valleys. Hwyl fawr!

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At last. Two of the three Commissioners to be appointed by Eric Pickles to run parts of Tower Hamlets council arrive for work this morning.

They are Sir Ken Knight, who will be the lead Commissioner, and Max Caller. The third will be announced in due course.

Both Sir Ken and Mr Caller are heavy-hitters.

Sir Ken is the better known nationally, while Mr Caller has a huge reputation as a local government Mr Fixit man: he was in charge of Hackney council from 2000-04 when that authority was being transformed under special measures.

First, Sir Ken:

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He’s currently a director of his own consultancy company, Ken Knight Consulting Ltd, having retired from the fire service.

He has a distinguished career. He oversaw the London Fire Brigade as London Fire Commissioner from 2003-07, including during the July 7 terror attacks.

Since that stint ended in 2007, he has worked on a number of high profile projects for central governments, both in the UK and abroad. In Britain, he worked until last year as the Government’s first Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser.

He wrote the Rising to the Challenge report on the 2007 floods and was in charge of the review into the Lakanal House fire disaster in Camberwell in 2009.

And last year, he completed the cost-saving review of England’s 46 fire authorities, which found £200million could be saved.

You can see why ministers like him. Unions have a different opinion. How Lutfur Rahman and he will get along is anyone’s guess. However, Lutfur’s mentor Ken Livingstone did once have a legal run-in with him in 2007.

Here’s an extract from Sir Ken’s Linkedin profile.

Sir Ken Knight linkedinThere is more on his own website, here, which states he is the independent chairman of the board of Exova, a large company specialising in providing fire safety materials. I can’t find his name on Exova’s website so that might be an old listing.

He is also one of the Queen’s Deputy Lieutenants for London, so he will probably know Commander John Ludgate, the Deputy Lieutenant for Tower Hamlets who does a fabulous job of looking both bemused and amused during council meetings.

And so to Max Caller.

Max Caller

In this interview here, he talks about how his career started off as a sewer inspector in the underbelly of London. So fantastic training for the current situation in Tower Hamlets.

Actually, I think he will be great for the borough: he’s a former chief executive of Hackney, Barnet and Haringey councils and he’s been an election observer in Albania. What more do you need…

The Government’s biography of him states:

Max Caller CBE has amassed 33 years experience in London boroughs with the majority at Chief Officer level.

As Chief Executive of Hackney, he managed the transition of the authority from the worst in the country to one of the fastest improving.

As Chief Executive of Barnet he introduced a cabinet form of governance and an effective scrutiny system, which was one of the models for subsequent legislation.

Max was appointed the first Regional Returning Officer for London for the 1999 European elections, was Deputy Chief Counting Officer for the UK wide Alternative Vote referendum and has been involved in electoral pilot arrangements on an all-postal/electronic counting system for borough and mayoral elections.

He has also served as a short term observer for OSCE overseen elections in Albania and Montenegro and as a Commonwealth observer for elections in Kenya and Ghana.

Since April 2010 he has been chairman of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England.

He grew up in South Wales and is an engineer by background. He’s also on the advisory board of Norwood, a leading Jewish charity whose president (in the interests of transparency) is my employer (until Friday), Richard Desmond.

Here’s an extract from Eric Pickles’s press release issued this morning:
The team will, with immediate effect, take control of grant making within the council, will approve any sale or disposal of property and will agree a plan for publicity after independent inspectors PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) concluded the Borough was failing in its best value duty in these areas.

The PwC report, published on November 4, severely criticised how grants were handed out to organisations which failed to meet basic criteria for public funding, property was sold without proper process and taxpayers’ money was spent on political advertising for the Mayor.

The authority, under the direction of the Commissioners, will have three months to prepare a strategy and action plan setting out how it will comply with its duty to act openly and transparently, serving all of its communities fairly and securing value for money.

The Commissioners, due to be in place until 31 March, 2017, will drive forward the action plan, updating the Secretary of State every six months on progress.

Secretary of State Eric Pickles said: “Intervention was not a decision taken lightly however I could not ignore the overwhelming evidence of the council’s failure, and allow this to continue unchecked. I do not accept the Mayor’s representations that problems are easilhy put right.

“Residents need to know that decisions are being taken properly in an open and accountable way. The Commissioners I have appointed are experienced and talented professionals who understand that transparency and accountability are vital to the functioning of local democracy.

Lead Commissioner Sir Ken Knight said: “We are determined to restore faith in how Tower Hamlets operates. Local people deserve a council that not only makes decisions in an accountable and transparent way but also with the benefit of all residents in mind

“Today marks the start of a long but necessary journey to ensure public confidence in the council is restored, community cohesion maintained and that Tower Hamlets is no longer a by-word for poor governance.”

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