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Archive for February, 2012

I was sceptical at first, but a commenter called ‘dog in the street’ first raised it on this thread about Lutfur Rahman’s mayoral advisers here.

After finally getting it confirmed through a council source (Takki Sulaiman’s press office refused to comment), I wrote this in the Sunday Express’s Crossbencher diary column at the weekend.

OH, HOW the mighty are fallen. Labour’s former Justice and later Communities minister Shahid Malik, who lost his seat in Dewsbury in 2010 after it emerged he had claimed £730 on expenses for a massage chair and another £2,600 on a home cinema system, is now scrounging for work at Britain’s supposedly cash-starved councils.

Crossbencher has discovered he is working as an official “equalities” adviser for the controversial Independent mayor of Tower Hamlets, in east London, where he is being paid £200 a day. When we asked the council how he was appointed and for examples of his work, it refused to say, refusing even to confirm he existed.

So, there we are. An ex-Labour minister is advising Lutfur for one day a week on £200.

If someone can find the advert placed for this job, can they please send it me because I’m curious. I’m also puzzled why a council that prides itself on its equalities issues – and which has an army of staff dealing with such matters – feels it needs an extra body.

Malik used to work for the Commission for Racial Equality and was cleared of any wrongdoing with his expenses.

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We had one of those rare outbreaks of co-operation between the Lutfur Rahman Independents and Labour at the full council meeting last night when the 2012/3 budget went through first time but only after a series of Labour amendments were accepted by the Mayor.

I’ll blog more about that later but there was one incident worth mentioning here now: an attempt by the Independents to cut the allowance for leader of the second largest political group – who just happens to be the borough’s best muck-finder, Tory Peter Golds. The way this seemed to come about was actually pretty pathetic.

After Peter had raised issues of probity within the council chamber and dared to criticise a highly paid officer for not standing up to the Nolan principles of transparency, he was targeted by Lutfur’s cabinet. While this rowing was taking place, Lutfur’s mayoral advisers in the public gallery were getting rather excited…you know, in the way that political anoraks do in such a bubble. So much so, that the meeting stopped for a couple of seconds when there was a loud thud: Lutfur’s chief of staff Murziline Parchment had actually tripped up as she ran to confer with the cabinet member for finance Cllr Alibor Choudhury.

A bit later, Alibor tried to introduce an “emergency amendment”. What could it be? Lutfur’s £8.39 an hour boundary review adviser Axel Landin broke into giggles and whispered knowingly to a colleague: “This is going to be brilliant.”

Well, what Alibor, who must have spent months poring over documents to come up with a £1bn budget, was proposing was to use half an hour of the council meeting to debate a £5,000 saving. He wanted to halve Peter’s extra allowance from £10,000 to about £5,000.

Petty and pathetic. And Labour sided with the Tories to boot it out.

The reason I mention this here is because if they were genuinely concerned about saving money they wouldn’t be about to waste far more of our cash on the council’s most lucrative position.

When former chief executive Kevan Collins resigned last year, Aman Dalvi stepped into his shoes as the interim boss. I raised some concerns about his track record, but from what I’ve heard, he’s been doing a good job. But will he last?

Almost completely unknown to people at large, the council has been advertising for a new permanent chief executive on its website here. You have four days left to apply if you fancy the job. But you’ll have to persuade the council’s recruitment consultants, Penna, to get past the first hurdle. Here is the job as advertised on Penna’s website:

People, Place, Pride, Performance…

Chief Executive
Attractive salary
3 year fixed-term contract

…just four of the many attractions of being chief executive in Tower Hamlets, the high-performing urban borough with astonishing diversity, challenges, ideas and energy. It is a borough where local decisions – on housing, regeneration, jobs, education and the environment – resonate across the national political landscape.

It presents a truly unique opportunity for an experienced chief executive with the character, resilience and drive to deliver on uncompromising and ambitious priorities.

For further information and a confidential discussion please contact our retained consultants at Penna: Julie Towers on 07764 791 736 (julie.towers@penna.com) or Jonathan Swain on 07500 961 727 (jonathan.swain@penna.com).

To apply please send a comprehensive CV including referees and salary expectations along with a detailed covering letter setting out how you meet the specification and what experience you can bring to this role.

Closing date: 27th February 2012.

The job description and person specification are here and here.

You’ll notice that it doesn’t specify the salary range. But because I was interested in maybe applying for it myself, of course, I rang Penna this morning…the salary range is between £165,000 and £194,000 a year, including London weighting and travel allowance.

I asked why it was only a three-year contract and they said: “Because it needs to fit in with the mayoral cycle. The next elections are in 2015 and it might be that the Mayor or any new Mayor might want to review things. It will give them an opportunity to rethink. There is a chance to roll the contract on.”

Now, recruitment consultants are normally paid a commission of about 30 per cent of the salary for the position they’re filling, so that works out at some £60,000 down the drain for what could be a temporary position. I suspect that Penna will even get this cash if Aman Dalvi is appointed, which would be absurd.

Perhaps Alibor and the rest of Lutfur’s shipped-in advisers should start looking at the bigger picture before playing playground politics over £5,000.

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Peter Golds, the leader of the Tory group on Tower Hamlets council, has today written a very interesting letter to Mayor Lutfur Rahman in response to his call for the police to investigate allegations of homophobia and racism.

In his letter, he highlights a significant controversy that has been bubbling in the background for some months now. In the six years I’ve covered Tower Hamlets politics I’ve seen the Conservative group being accused in the council chamber of racism several times.

Sometimes it would have been by Labour councillors (led by some now on Lutfur’s benches) and at other times it was by Respect (led by some who are now on Lutfur’s benches). The gist was the Tories were racist because they did not have any Bengali councillors in their number. These accusations always seemed more than a bit cheap, not least because good Bengali candidates were being fielded in elections but the votes went elsewhere.

One of those who used to make such smears was Ohid Ahmed, who of course is Lutfur’s frequently incomprehensible deputy executive mayor.

Well, it seems as though he’s been playing the race card again. In Peter’s letter, which is copied below, it emerges that during a council debate on whether to make changes to the constitution last November (so that Lutfur would be required to answer questions), an angry Ohid pointed at the Tories and seemed to imply that Lutfur was being targeted because he was Bengali.

This seems to be the basic tactic of the Lutfurites: they are putting the myth out there that there is a witch-hunt against Bengalis and Muslims. So much for the One Tower Hamlets rhetoric.

Two months after Ohid’s apparently nasty little tantrum, he delivered a three-line letter to Peter Golds in what amounted to a qualified apology.

Here it is:

A more detailed explanation was sent to Cllr Golds by Lutfur’s bizarrely slavish monitoring officer, Isabella Freeman. However, we are forbidden from knowing the contents of that letter (and Ohid’s defence) because it was marked confidential. I suspect that under the Nolan principles of accountability and transparency for those in public life, Ms Freeman’s decision may well be a touch questionable. I think that under those principles, we need to be told.

Peter is now demanding a full and unqualified apology from Ohid and that if one is not forthcoming he should resign.

Anyway, here is the full text of Peter’s letter to Lutfur:

Dear Lutfur

I was interested to read your blog about council meetings here in Tower Hamlets and that you are calling the police to investigate the “homophobia” that has taken place at meetings. May I thank you for stating that although you disagree with my political stance you respect my tenacity and conviction. This borough would be far better governed if you could persuade those who support you that we may disagree but ultimately respect each other. The appalling behaviour from your gallery supporters (yes I do receive the text messages sent out claiming to be sent on your behalf, about attending and showing support) and some of your administration which equates questioning policy as something approaching hate crimes does you, the council and the borough no good.

However calling the police at this stage regarding the February 23rd 2011 meeting, will not work. Following this appalling meeting, I wrote to the Borough Commander, outlining my concerns in detail. I heard nothing.  In May I raised this with the Borough Commander at Overview and Scrutiny and wrote again copying the original letter. I still heard nothing. I approached the former Chief Executive who informed me, staggeringly, that the “police had found difficulty in contacting me”. Eventually I Met the borough commander and we had a useful meeting. An officer was charged with investigating my letter, by which time six months had passed and nothing could be done legally.

At the 23rd February meeting I spoke to you in the interval about the abuse emanating from one of your close friends, you waved me away. Cllr Tim Archer raised the chaos with the monitoring officer and suggested the police be called in, only to be told that this would affect the reputation of the council. Another councillor went to a police statement and made a detailed statement of the abuse and name calling, which has remained a statement.

In short, as your blog is late in the day no action will be taken about that meeting.

That meeting was not the first incident we have seen in this borough, which degrades the political process and affects us all.

In 2005, the election campaign waged against Oona King, broke political bounds for sheer malice. I have, so far, missed your condemnation of this threatening campaign against the candidate of the party for where you lived.

In 2008 an organisation called Muslims4Ken made a series of false and inflammatory claims against Boris Johnson. It leafleted mosques claiming that Boris had “expressed his hatred against Islam” and also claimed that “he wanted to ban the Koran”. Sadly those who did this remain in your wider circle. The police should have seized the leaflets and prosecuted the publishers under Section 106(1) and 169 Representation of the people Act 1983 and Section 110(6) and (9) of the same Act. The first section covers false statements in attempting to procure support for a candidate and the second regards the imprint, which requires full disclosure of the name and address of the printer and publisher of election leaflets.

Should this happen in May of this year I understand that the police will be more vigilant. I know that you have met Boris Johnson, you may disagree with some of his politics, but I am sure that you would join in rejecting those allegations and for police action to be taken should such a leaflet be published again.

On election day in May 2010 I was personally subjected to a campaign of vilification that caused commonwealth election observers to complain. Men were placed at the entrance to polling stations and every Bangladeshi voter was stopped and told about my Jewish name and the fact that I share a home with another man.  Despite regular complaints from me and the election observers, police officers chose to do nothing and they and the election authorities agreed it was the problem of somebody else and so nothing was done. It would be reassuring for you to inform the police that this behaviour is unacceptable and that those behaving in this fashion should be arrested under existing legislation.

In October 2010 we had the infamous mayoral election, for which comment must be reserved whilst there are pending legal cases.

Let us now turn to the present. Under the Localism Bill the council will be expected to follow the Seven Principles of Public Life as defined by the Committee for Standards in Public Life. These make interesting reading in Tower Hamlets and are:

  • Selflessness Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.
  • Integrity Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.
  • Objectivity In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.
  • Accountability Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.
  • Openness Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands it.
  • Honesty Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.
  • Leadership Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

Openness indicates that as Executive Mayor, you should “be as open as possible” and by any standard, not withstanding the myth of “Human Rights” you should answer questions from elected representatives about decisions you personally make. Remember your cabinet take no decisions, you have reserved all those powers to yourself and therefore they have no responsibility.

It is in this context that the behaviour of your deputy, Cllr Ohid Ahmed, brings his office and that of this council into total disrepute. At the meeting held on November 29th we were debating amendments to the constitution, including enshrining openness into the council constitution. At 10.35pm Councillor Ohid Ahmed, deputy Mayor, was speaking when he pointed to me and colleagues and bawled that this motion had been bought forward

“because he (the Mayor) is Bengali”

Needless to say there was uproar in the chamber and the Speaker immediately shut Cllr Ahmed up. Following the meeting I confirmed the words and the time with the monitoring officer.   The next day there were complaints from a number of councillors,

In any other authority the leader would have suspended a deputy who made such a statement. This was directed not only to councillors but to the gallery and was an incitement to racial hatred. When Diane Abbott made an unfortunate and foolish tweet, Ed Miliband told her, whilst she was on TV, that she apologise or be sacked. However there was total inaction regarding your deputy, until minutes before the January 25th council meeting when your advisor on boundaries (is he paid £8.39 to advise on the boundary between good and bad behaviour?) handed me a three line letter from Cllr Ahmed. On it was written.

“I have already given an explanation for my comments in the last full council meeting.

I did not intend to accuse anyone of racism.

If I gave that impression, I wish to apologise.”

Of course he not only accused members of racism he pointed at them in full view of the gallery. So what is the “explanation”? This was a rambling statement in a letter from an officer marked private which suggested that Cllr Ahmed was posing a rhetorical question. Of course being marked private and from an officer (not Cllr Ahmed) remains private and unknown to his public supporters.

Having got away with this accusation on November 29th, Cllr Ahmed made a similar accusation on January 25th, this time pointing at a different group of councillors.

Once again the response was as predicted amongst his friends and supporters in the public gallery. We have now had two successive council meetings where the deputy executive Mayor has accused other members of racism, whilst playing to the public gallery.

When the police come, this behaviour, along with other problems will be high on my list of matters that should be investigated and action taken. Incitement to racial hatred is not acceptable, and your deputy should withdraw those statements unconditionally and apologise in public. Until he does you should consider his position.

Yours truly,

(Councillor) Peter Golds

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On his blog today, Mayor Lutfur Rahman says this about his adversary, Tory group leader Peter Golds: “I don’t agree with much of Cllr Golds’ politics, but I do respect the tenacity and conviction with which he pursues them.”

Lutfur then refers to Thursday’s Evening Standard spread by journalist Stephen Robinson in which Peter highlights the homophobic abuse he has been subjected to, both in the council chamber and in the borough at large.

Here’s an extract from that Standard article:

On the streets of Tower Hamlets, councillor Peter Golds tends to stick out. For a start, he is a contentedly “out” gay man. In what is now a heavily Asian borough, he is of Jewish origin, and even more unusually, in a neighbourhood where few are proud to be Tory, he is a strident Conservative.

These factors combine so that when Cllr Golds stands up to speak in the council chamber, things can turn very ugly in the public gallery.

“I get the hissing, the calls of ‘poofter’, they shout ‘Zionist scum’ at me,” he says, sitting in his office at the Town Hall. This sort of treatment can be equally disturbing for a lesbian Labour councillor, who is subjected to other strange heckling.

More shocking still than these eruptions from the public benches is that this behaviour is seemingly tolerated, even though Tower Hamlets’s first directly elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, says he is relentlessly intolerant of sexist and racist bigotry.

As Golds said in a formal complaint to the borough police commander, were white skinheads observed yelling abuse at Muslim east Londoners, it would not be tolerated. The worst of the abuse occurred shortly after Rahman’s election in October 2010 but Golds says it continues to this day.

And here is what Lutfur has written on his blog today:

I call on the police to investigate allegations of homophobia in Tower Hamlets

Those with even a passing acquaintance of Tower Hamlets politics will know that myself and Cllr Golds, the leader of the Conservative group, are regularly at loggerheads with each other.

I don’t agree with much of Cllr Golds’ politics, but I do respect the tenacity and conviction with which he pursues them.

I was alarmed therefore to read in the Evening Standard that Cllr Golds had been subject to regular homophobic abuse at Tower Hamlets council events.

I had been aware of alleged comments from a member of the public on the night of the February council meeting last year. But I was unaware that the problem of homophobia at council meetings was as serious as Cllr Golds intimated to the Evening Standard journalist.

Tower Hamlets Council is determined to stamp down hard on homophobia, and any incidents of hate crime. That’s why I have decided to contact the borough commander to request that the police conduct an investigation into the allegations of homophobia at council meetings, or related events.

I am proud that Tower Hamlets Council came sixteenth – as well as being the best London borough and the second best local authority in the UK – in the Stonewall Top 100 Employers 2012, published last week which showcases Britain’s best employers for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff. However, there is still much work to be done in overcoming homophobia.

I look forward to the police response. I will be encouraging the fullest cooperation with their investigation when it commences.

I’m not quite sure what to make about this. Maybe it’s the cynic in me but I wonder if Lutfur is asking us to read between the lines. Does he genuinely believe that Peter has been called “Zionist scum” in the chamber? Is he asking Peter to put that in a police statement? Is he asking for the police to listen to the audio tapes of the latest council meetings?

It’s just curious that he never called in the police when his self-styled financial backer Shiraj Haque was alleged to have hurled hateful abuse last year. As Lutfur says, he was aware of it then but did nothing.

In fact I sat in front of Shiraj while he delivered some of his not-too-subtle brand of prejudice in December 2010. Here’s what I wrote then:

Here are just a few of the things Shiraj bawled out:

“One Mayor, one borough, he will do anything he likes”; “Peter [Golds], get out of the borough, you can rent one of my flats”; “Peter, are you going on a honeymoon with Jim Fitzpatrick?”; and heckling during a discussion on investment strategies, “I can give you a better rate of interest if you invest in me”.

With any luck, the police will interview me as a witness. Let’s see…

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So now we know why Mayor Lutfur Rahman of Tower Hamlets repeatedly refused to answer questions from councillors at the last full council meeting. It wasn’t just because forcing him to speak would infringe his human rights (as John Williams, the council’s head of democratic services, asserted), but it was because he has assembled such a crack-team of latter day Einsteins that they can do the talking for him.

Well, anyway, these are the views of one of those modest intellectual leviathans, the finger-wagging Cllr Rabina Khan and ex-SWP stalwart Cllr Rania Khan.

Here is Rabina’s formal reply to one of the unanswered questions posed to Lutfur. As with all jokes, the punch-line is at the end…

8.3         Question from Councillor Motin Uz-Zaman:

Housing Benefit changes will have a profound impact on our residents and it will lead to some having to leave the borough because the housing allowance will not cover their full rent. Can the Mayor inform the Council the number of meetings he has had with the Minister responsible for these changes to highlight the impact on residents of Tower Hamlets?

Summary of supplementary question from Councillor Motin Uz-Zaman

As no answer has been given, I shall assume there was no meeting.  I do not feel it is appropriate for the Mayor to sit there smiling and not answer the questions.  If he does not want to answer he can take a break and leave the Council Chamber.  The Prime Minister and Mayor of London answer questions personally, why is the Mayor refusing to do so?

Response by Councillor Rabina Khan, Cabinet Member for Housing

Thank you for your question.

The Mayor and I are extremely concerned by the changes to housing benefit.  Almost a year ago as Cabinet Member for Housing I presented a motion to this Council which laid a marker down on this administration’s views on the Coalition’s appalling measures.

We are already seeing the impact of these changes on families in the borough. Some families are already reluctant to move to larger homes due to the housing allowance cap and are choosing to stay in overcrowded circumstances.

These changes will impact across all the services in the council as well as our partner organisations. This is why I have asked our central research team to coordinate a high level and innovative group to collate the impact this is having across all Council and partner services.

I have also had several meetings with organisations such as Shelter, TELCO and Z2K to discuss a coordinated response.  I have also ensured that the Tenant’s Federation are fully aware of the changes and have held workshops with them.

Next month we are holding a congress with key Partners, including RSLs, the Police, Schools, the Third Sector and to look at the impact of this in a holistic way and plan ways we can combat the changes and mitigate the impact to our residents.  This process is to build a coalition of concerned individuals and institutions, who care deeply about the residents of this borough.  We will collect a solid evidence base of the impact across the borough.

We know that millionaire ministers are responsible for pushing through these reforms. They have no idea how most people in this country live. In fact Lord Freud, the minister responsible for benefit change, isn’t even elected.

We will have far more of an impact working together. We will demonstrate that individuals and organisations from across this borough oppose these vicious cuts.  And we do so, not simply on a whim, but because they are damaging our community and our residents.

It is not the case that the Mayor is unwilling to provide answers to the questions asked at Full Council.

At Full Council meetings, the Mayor’s approach has always been to deliver a verbal statement updating members on the progress his administration is making, and then allow his cabinet members to answer questions specific to their portfolios.

We are a strong cabinet, who invest long hours, remarkable intellect and hard work dealing with issues in minute detail on a day to day basis. We are well placed and will continue to answer questions specific to our portfolios.

Just for good measure, Rania repeats the boast later on:

8.8         Question from Councillor Maium Miah:

Can the Mayor inform the Council on whether the Rich Mix Centre has repaid its £850,000 short-term loan, as agreed by Michael Keith when he was Council Leader?

Summary of supplementary question from Councillor Maium Miah

Will the Mayor answer my question?

Response by Councillor Rania Khan, Cabinet Member for Culture

Thank you for your question.

The Legal Department is currently working on this matter, however no repayment has been made as of yet.

At Full Council meetings, the Mayor’s approach has always been to deliver a verbal statement updating members on the progress of his administration, and then allow cabinet members to answer questions specific to our portfolios.

We are a strong cabinet, who invest long hours, remarkable intellect and hard work dealing with issues in minute detail on a day to day basis. We are well placed and will continue to answer questions specific to our portfolios. 

I must have been missing something all these years.

Here is the list of cabinet members:

Rofique’s intellect was such that at an Olympics planning committee meeting some years ago he managed to contribute not a single word in seven hours…and then later tell me it was because he had toothache.
Does anyone else have any evidence of hidden genius? Answers on a postcard, please….

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Mayor Lutfur Rahman has received a late Valentine’s gift: front page billing on the Evening Standard today. I’ve been waiting for the figures on his team of mayoral advisers, but the Standard has beaten me to it.

Here’s the detail of their story and I’ll add my bits underneath.

By Tom Harper and Simon Freeman

15 Feb 2012 

One of the poorest boroughs in London today came under fire for spending £1,000 a day on a personal aide for its mayor.

Tony Winterbottom is an “executive adviser” on regeneration and development to Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets who was ousted from the Labour Party over alleged links to Islamic extremists.

Local government secretary Eric Pickles accused Mr Rahman of wasting taxpayer money. He said: “It is astonishing that one of the poorest boroughs in the country sees fit to squander such colossal amounts of public cash in this way.

“Tower Hamlets seems to be living the ultimate champagne socialist lifestyle, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab. I fail to see the business case for shelling out this money, which should be diverted towards protecting frontline services.”

Tower Hamlets has the worst child poverty in the UK, with 52 per cent of children below the breadline. Campaigners warned planned £70 million cuts to the local budget could cause an “economic and social disaster”.

Mr Winterbottom, 67, insisted he was not overpaid and was “embarrassed to be charging so little”.

Jim Fitzpatrick, Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse, said: “At a time when Tower Hamlets is being buffeted by cuts from central government, every penny is precious and a £1,000-a-day contract seems to be way over the top.” London Mayor Boris Johnson said: “I’d better investigate the circumstances but it sounds like a lot of money to me.”

A former adviser to Labour mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone, Mr Winterbottom won the contract to advise Mr Rahman last October. An investigation by the Evening Standard found the £1,000-a-day deal is with LDP Projects, run by him and his wife, Kathleen, based at his home in Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire.

The consultant works three days a month for Tower Hamlets.

Emma Boon, campaign director of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: “Deals like this for consultants should not be allowed at a time when the rest of the public sector is taking a pay freeze.”

Mr Winterbottom was previously a senior official at the defunct London Development Agency. He was criticised in 2008 after he left on a year’s sabbatical, followed by a £75,000 pay-off and £160,000 top-up to his pension fund. An investigation into the LDA, ordered by Boris Johnson and headed by former financial journalist Baroness Wheatcroft, found a string of failings including “ineptitude” and “massive misspending”.

Mr Rahman became the first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2010. He originally stood as a Labour candidate, but was deselected amid claims about his links with fundamentalist group the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE). He has denied the allegations. He won the poll as an independent backed by Mr Livingstone, and controls a £1.3 billion budget.

Mr Winterbottom, who has also advised Tottenham Hotspur on stadium development, said: “I’m embarrassed the Standard knows I am charging so little. My company has done work in the private sector for a lot more than £1,000 a day.”

He claimed he would not ask for the full amount: “I tendered a bid for £1,000 a day. In reality, I get paid £125 an hour but I have not yet put in an invoice. I wanted them to respect me as an individual so I asked them to pay me a proper price but I’m not going to charge them.

“I’m absolutely squeaky clean. This is not a money-making operation. This is about fighting for Lutfur Rahman who’s trying to do good work.”

A Tower Hamlets spokesman said: “We do not comment on payment of individual employees unless the information is on the council website as part of our responsibility towards transparency.”

I don’t know who’s more arrogant here – the Mayor for allowing this to happen, or Winterbottom for his “Because I’m worth it” comments (no, he’s not).

Both are out of touch, and, I have to say, so is Eric Pickles. He’s been warned repeatedly that the directly elected mayor system of government can have unintended consequences, yet he is still pushing ahead with Super Thursday this November when 11 other authorities will follow the likes of Tower Hamlets and Newham.

Since becoming Mayor, Lutfur has spent a fair degree of time converting himself to semi-royal status. Among other things, he has spent more than £100k on an office revamp, moved the Speaker’s office to a shoe-box and hired a luxury Mercedes for £70 a day.

Then, at the full council meeting last month, he refused to answer any questions put to him by other councillors because he seemed to think he was above such accountability. (Actually, advice was also given by John Williams, the council’s usually excellent head of democratic services, that Lutfur didn’t have to answer questions because there were “human rights issues”. The council has confirmed to me that John said that but it has refused to elaborate what those issues are.)

And in his 16 months in charge, he has also built an army of advisers, with Winterbottom now being the star attraction. Tory leader Peter Golds has been looking into this for quite a while.

I was sent a full list of names a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been waiting to put some numbers against them.

Here’s the list with local government grades, salaries and job descriptions:

1.    Permanent staff or temporary staff covering permanent established posts:
 
- Murziline Parchment (Head of Mayor’s Office)  – LPO8 30 hours p.w. (£57,111 to £59,982 p.a. pro rata)
- Shazid Miah (Mayor’s Community Liaison Officer)  - PO6 (£42,258 to £44,910 p.a.)  
(1 vacant post – Mayor’s Political Advisor)  (PO1, statutory bar at £34,986)
 
2.    Secondees:
 
- Ger Francis (CLC)  – (Comensura temp, PO2 equivalent, £32,532 to £35,055 p.a.)
- Kerry Geeves (D&R) – (PO2) 
- Saiful Ahmed (CLC)  –  (Comensura temp, SO2 equivalent t.b.c.)
- Mazerul Alam (CLC)  – (Comensura temp, SO2 equivalent t.b.c.)
- (Ellie Kuper Thomas based in SPP team)
 
3.    Work experience student (2 week placement)
 
Name removed by TJ to protect identity of under-18 year old .
4.    Mayoral Advisors (NB these are not Council staff but contractors engaged on a part-time basis)
 
- Tony Winterbottom – Advisor on major projects, enterprise and development for approximately three days per month at a cost of £1,000 per day.
- Steven Beckett –  Advisor on surgeries and community consultation for two days per week at a cost of £150 per day  
- Gulam Robbani – Advisor on adult social care and health for one day per week at a cost of £40 per hour 
- Mark Seddon – Advisor on media and communications strategy for one day per week at a cost of £200 per day 
- Mohammed Jubair – Advisor on community media matters for one day per week at a cost of £175 per day.
- Amirul Choudhury – Advisor on small businesses, Olympics and enterprise for a maximum of 40 hours at a cost of £25 per hour
- Suroth Miah  – Advisor on sports and sports participation and improving the quality of life for a maximum of 40 hours at a cost of £25 per hour
- Michael Ambrose – Advisor on youth engagement and sponsorship of youth engagement for a maximum of 100 hours at a cost of £25 per hour
- Shahid Malik – Advisor on equalities matters for one day per week at a cost of £200 per day.
Some of these names are very familiar. Andrew Gilligan write about Murziline Parchment, Winterbottom and Mark Seddon here last year.
Ger Francis is also familiar: he was a leading light in the SWP and Respect: see here.
And Mohammed Jubair is the Mayor’s part-time media adviser. Yes, despite having an expensive press office and East End Life, he also hires his own consultant. So who is Jubair? He’s a reporter for that notorious TV station, Channel S. So, for a couple of days a week he takes briefings from Lutfur and for the rest of his time, he goes and plays at being Chief Reporter on his favourite and most important media outlet. Now, if that’s not a conflict of interest, then I’m not sure what is. It’s almost like hiring Andy Coulson and letting him edit the News of the World at the same time…
I blogged about Gulam Robbani here last week.
If anyone has more information on the other names above, do let us all know – but there is one more personal adviser working for Lutfur…a chap by the name of Axel Landin.
He’s from Camden (for his sins) and he and his similarly politically active brother Conrad believe themselves to be the new Miliband brothers, I am told…
Axel is, I understand, the chap who writes Lutfur’s blog and whose Cambridge undergraduate email address is occasionally copied in on official Mayoral correspondence. Anyway, he’s also picking up some pocket money for his work in Tower Hamlets. Here’s how officers list him:
Axel Landin  – Advisor on boundary review matters at a cost of £8.39 per hour.
Good luck to him, I say – he’s probably the only one of the bunch providing value for money. I’ll deal with the boundary review work later this week.

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As we all wait for Shelina Akhtar to decide whether she has the dignity to resign as a councillor before being automatically barred from office in 28 days’ time, let’s play that ever interesting Tower Hamlets game of Speculation Politics.

One prominent councillor tells me that the “likely runners” in the almost certain Spitalfields and Banglatown by-election are:

Gulam Robbani (Lutfur/Independent)

Tarik Ahmed Khan (Labour)

Abjol Miah (Respect)

Richard Macmillan (Lib Dems)

Matt Smith (Conservative)

If so–and I’d be surprised–it will be very interesting to see how Robbani and Abjol Miah, the former Respect group leader, play this one out.

Robbani and Abol are relative big guns and effectively Lutfur allies: they could end up splitting the anti-Labour vote and letting Labour in. In the last Spitalfields by-election in snowy December 2010, after Lutfur was required to give up his seat when he became Mayor, Respect’s Fozol Miah beat Labour on a 17 per cent turnout. In that contest, there was no Lutfur/Independent candidate.

Traditionally, the ward was controlled by Helal Abbas and Lutfur Rahman. The former still holds one of the three seats, along  with Fozol and Akhtar.

The timing of the election will also be interesting. The more Ahktar strings out her decision on whether to appeal, the closer we get to the London Mayor elections in May. Common sense and the desire to save taxpayers money (the two rarely go together in Tower Hamlets) should dictate that the two elections are held on the same day, which would mean a higher turnout that favours Labour.

In that case, how would Spitalfields voter Lutfur Rahman cast his votes that day? One for Labour’s Ken Livingstone, of course–the latter rules the former–and another for an anti-Labour candidate? As ever, the Mayor will be in two minds…

As for Tarik Ahmed Khan, he is the secretary of Labour’s branch in the ward and the elder brother of Cllr Anwar Khan, who represents Bow West for Labour. He is thought to be a Josh Peck loyalist.

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As the East London Advertiser reports, Shelina Akhtar, who was el;ected in May 2010 for Labour before being kicked out a few months later when she backed Independent Mayor Lutfur Rahman, has been jailed for 16 weeks for benefit fraud.

That’s more than the three month threshhold that in law now disqualifies her from holding elected office.

I don’t know what was her mitigation, who provided any character witnesses, or whether the judge decided to make an example of her because of her position. (I’m on holiday and I’ll have to rely on your reports!)

Here’s the initial ELA account.

Disgraced Tower Hamlets councillor Shelina Akhtar has been jailed after admitting three counts of benefit fraud.

The Spitalfields & Banglatown councillor, 33, of Blackwall way, Poplar was jailed for 16 weeks at Snaresbrook Crown Court this morning after admitting three counts of dishonestly claiming housing benefit and council tax at a hearing last month.

Now for the by-election, which will be a real test of whether Labour can mobilise and command support.

UPDATE 6pm

The East London Advertiser has more details of the court hearing here and copied below:

A Tower Hamlets councillor is still in her job after receiving a three and a half month jail sentence today for benefit fraud.

Shelina Akhtar, a councillor for Spitalfields and Banglatown ward, was given a 16 week custodial sentence, half of which she must serve in prison, at Snaresbrook Crown Court, this morning.

The sentence came after she had pleaded guilty to three counts of failing to notify a change in circumstances, when claiming housing and council tax benefits for a property in Blackwall Way, Poplar.

The court heard that Cllr Akhtar sub-letted her housing association flat for £1,000 a month without permission, while living with her parents and continuing to claim housing and council tax benefits. She also referred a tenant to another housing association flat registered to her sister, Hazera Akhtar, the court was told, and another £1,000 in monthly rent for that flat also went into to the councillor’s bank account. Court charges against her sister were dropped.

Cllr Akhtar falsely claimed a total of £1,085 in housing benefit and £29 in Council Tax during two periods between November 2009 and September 2010.

Prosecuting barrister Michelle Fawcett told the court: “Cllr Akhtar deliberately defrauded the council only months after being elected to the very same local authority despite having been convicted of a similar offence already. She sublet her flat for sheer profit.”

Defence barrister Edward McKiernan urged the judge not make an example of Cllr Akhtar because of her position.

“We have a lot of testimony to say she has been very active in the community and did a lot of hard work as a councillor,” he told the court. He also pointed out that Cllr Akhtar accepted what she did was “unacceptable” and that she had repaid all the money wrongly claimed in benefits to the council.

But sentencing her judge John Lafferty told Cllr Akhtar she had put the reputation of the benefit system in danger by making “hard working” people pay for her benefits.

“We have a benefit system for those who through no fault of their own fall on hard times.”

“You deliberately defrauded the system. As a prominent person you should have lived up to the highest standards.”

Cllr Aktar stood as a Labour councillor for Spitalfields and Banglatown ward but later defected to become an independent and is counted as belonging to Tower Hamlet’s Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s inner circle.

Under the Local Government Act a councillors is automatically disqualified from office if a custodial sentence of more than three months is received.

In a statement the council said: “But that disqualification does not take effect until the opportunity for appeal has expired, which is  28 days after sentence.”

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