It’s always a delight when a Freedom of Information request hits the target.
Last February, I wrote this post which listed the small army of personal advisers Mayor Lutfur Rahman had assembled at our expense.
You’ll see there that one his hired hands until that point was a certain Gulam Robbani, who was also Lutfur’s agent in the Mayoral elections in October 2010. He is one of the mayor’s most trusted colleagues, so it was no surprise when Lutfur rewarded him with a consultancy role.
In February, John Williams, Tower Hamlets council’s head of democratic services, detailed the nature of Robbani’s contract. As I blogged at the time, it was as ”advisor on adult social care and health for one day per week at a cost of £40 per hour”.
The following month, I wrote this post raising some strange discrepancies between the amounts Mr Williams said Robbani was entitled to and the amounts he was actually getting paid. I reported that between October 2011 and January 31 this year, he had been paid £13,080 under a renewed contract. I noted that this seemed to imply he was billing for far more than one day a week. I also noted that all this was being paid through Robbani’s company, G Social Care Ltd, which likely meant he was paying a lower rate of tax.
Of course, Robbani’s role as a paid advisor ended at his own request from February 1 when it became clear that the long-running saga of Shelina Akhtar’s benefit fraud would provide him with the chance of replacing her as a councillor in Spitalfields, which he eventually did in April.
I’ve just had the answer to a Freedom of Information request in which I asked the council for all the invoices submitted by G Social Care Ltd in 2011/12. The full disclosure is here.
These invoices are staggering and I suspect they require some kind of investigation by an independent auditor.
The first thing to note is that all the invoices have been approved and signed off by Murziline Parchment, the head of the Mayor’s office at Tower Hamlets. Parchment features heavily in this blog post by Andrew Gilligan in March last year:
Lutfur has just hired Murziline Parchment, who was among Ken’s notorious City Hall “cronies” during his mayoralty and now becomes Lutfur’s “head of mayor’s office.”
Parchment got this new post without any kind of formal recruitment, interview, shortlisting or assessment process. Although not due to start work until April 1, she is already in the office – and already demanding, according to council sources, to see people’s personnel files.
In her City Hall days, Parchment was one of the eight top Ken Livingstone political appointees on vast salaries who proved so controversial (others included the disgraced Lee Jasper, and several members of the Trotskyite group Socialist Action.) Parchment lost her £126,000 City Hall job after Ken lost the 2008 election – but her pain was cushioned by sharing, with the others, a “severance payment” of £1.6 million.
The Greater London Authority Act specifically stated that as a political appointee her employment was limited to the Mayor’s term of office, meaning that she should not have qualified for a payoff – but, as I documented in 2008, Ken quietly changed the rules not long before the election to ensure that Parchment and the others were looked after. With admirable chutzpah, she also managed to score a further £10,400 “consultancy fee” off the GLA after her departure.
Understandably not short of money, she has spent the last couple of years quietly undertaking various Ken-related activities, such as appearing at his “Progressive London” conferences in 2009 and 2010. But now, thanks to Lutfur, Parchment has another lease of taxpayer-funded life.
Here are Robbani’s invoices for Nov 2011 – Jan 2012:
In summary, Robbani was billing himself out (with the express approval of his friend and fellow hired hand Murziline Parchment – something that does raise about question of financial control) at the rate of £360 a day. On each item, you will see he has billed for nine hours work between 10am and 8pm, although on a couple of occasions he invoiced longer hours for attending full council meetings.
In October, he invoiced £1440, in November £3720, in December £1800, and in January, just as he was seeing the Shelina/Spitalfields opportunity arise, he put in his final and most lucrative invoice worth £6120.
But it’s when we get into the detail that things get interesting, especially all his “meetings” with Cllr Adbul Asad, Lutfur’s cabinet member for health. In January, he billed for 17 of that month’s 18 working days (a bit more than the one day a week John Williams said he was entitled to – but maybe John got that wrong, I don’t know).
On January 20, he bills £360 for nine hours work described as “preparation and attending reception for Bishop of Stepney”. Well, this is curious because that reception did take place in the town hall at 3pm that day, but it only lasted two hours. How do we know this? Well, Cllr Asad says so on his time-sheet for that month. See here. So that was some “preparation” the adviser on social care was putting in…
In fact, when you cross-check all the claimed “meetings” with Cllr Asad on Robbani’s invoices, there are rarely any matches at all. On Jan 27, Robbani bills us £240 for a “meeting with Cllr Asad” but there is no such meeting on Asad’s time-sheet. Perhaps Asad has been under-reporting his heavy workload.
On January 31, Robbani was paid £360 for a “Health and Wellbeing workshop”, but on Asad’s time-sheet that appears to have lasted just one hour. Maybe Asad left early..
On January 25, Robbani billed £480 for working until 11pm visiting an African Resource Centre and the Mayfield House Somali Day Centre with Cllr Asad and two others. That took 12 hours’ work apparently. Well, Asad registered just 1.5 hours on his timesheet. Maybe Asad put the decimal point in the wrong place.
On January 18, Robbani’s invoice claims £360 for “cabinet pre-agenda planning on Mela and Shadow Health and Wellbeing board meeting in the evening”. It must have been quite some pre-agenda Mela discussion because Asad tells us Shadow Health and Wellbeing board meeting took just two hours.
And on January 19, Robbani billed £360 for a meeting about the “BRRP mosque with Swan Housing and the council”. Hmm. BRRP is the Blackwall Reach Regeneration Project which will demolish Robin Hood Gardens. That scheme includes provision for a new mosque to replace the existing Poplar Mosque, whose secretary is….Gulam Robbani. So, Robbani was billing the taxpayer £360 to attend a meeting (presumably on behalf of Lutfur, although how that fits in with his brief as a social care advisor beats me) with himself. Some might say that’s a win-win; others might suspect a conflict of interest.
And that’s only part of January’s invoice.
Similar questions arise when you look at the other months. On December 13, for example, Parchment approved a payment of £360 for a meeting with Asad and the Mayor. But Asad has no record of this on his time-sheet.
And have a look at this one from November’s invoice. On Novemeber 2, Robbani claimed £360 for “reading and preparing for cabinet meeting, meeting with Officer and Cllr Asad”. Yes, there was a cabinet meeting that day. On the same invoice, Robbani claims another £360 on Novemeber 22 ”reading and preparing for cabinet meeting, meeting with Officer and Cllr Asad”. No, there was no cabinet meeting that day. Did he simply copy and paste the January 2 entry by mistake? Did Murziline Parchment ask that before she signed it for payment? It appears not.
At the very least it’s carelessness and incompetence. How many more payments are senior officers of the council signing off without checking. Did Chris Naylor’s finance team do any checking? Taxpayers deserve better.
These invoices and Robbani’s contract need investigating.
As a result of this post, at the full council meeting on September 19, Labour councillors succeeded in passing an emergency motion calling on the council’s anti-fraud team to investigate these invoices.