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Tower Hamlets election petitioner Andy Erlam has asked for the following to be published in response to my criticisms of him criticising John Biggs’s response to his original criticism of John. (Deep breath; I think I’ve got that right.)

Here’s his latest statement:

Like every journalist Ted Jeory loves conflict, even where none exists. John Biggs is a consummate politician and obviously relishes robust political debate especially if it leads to the best result. No doubt John is a very capable Member of the London Assembly and of the Police Committee, but he may not be an expert on Election Petitions.

It’s a pity Ted didn’t check some “facts” with me before publication, (we all make mistakes),‎ before giving the wrong impression. The decision to change lawyers was a majority decision.‎ Tower Hamlets First didn’t, of course, field candidates in the European Elections and corruption is less likely there.

The outcome of the hearing at 10am on Monday 28th. July at the Royal Courts of Justice (all welcome) will be decided entirely on the legal arguments put forward by our very able, independent, barrister not on comment made by Ted Jeory, John Biggs, myself or anyone else.

‎It is important that the Election Petition is free, and seen to be free , from national party political interests but instead representative of the entire electorate of Tower Hamlets. The prize is much, much, bigger than narrow party advantage. It’s about whether democracy matters.

What we can not do is accept statements or donations with strings. Everyone now has a primary duty, not to their political party or their mates, but exclusively to the court.  

Incidentally, the many people who have been caught up in wrong-doing have a special incentive to now step forward to make statements. They are protected by the evidence they make to the Election Court, even if they took part in criminal wrong-doing themselves.  ‎The police and the Director of Public Prosecutions can not prosecute anyone using evidence produced in the Election Court, (except if purgery is involved, which is fair enough).

‎All witnesses are thus protected.

My answer to all the critics and “Arm Chair Petitioners” is this: Time will tell who is right and who is wrong.

Rather than engage in conspiracy theories, let’s ask some more questions:

1. Were many council officers told in numerous meetings, where they were treated, to go out and get 100 votes each for Lutfur or else they would be thrown out of their jobs? 

2. Were they told that, if elected, John Biggs would sack them?

3. Is there a senior officer at the Town Hall, apart from the Returning Officer, who has had regular contact with DS Neil Smithson who is leading the investigation into alleged criminal election activity and, if so, for what reasons?

It’s the leadership of Tower Hamlets Council that is in trouble. Further revelations in the Sunday Telegraph and the contents of the PWC report will add fuel to the fire.

None of us are soothsayers but we can be allowed to speculate based on known facts and gut feelings: This time, this time, the entire political establishment in Tower Hamlets will fall. 

Time will tell.

Andy Erlam

andyerlam@ymail.com

If I may be as so bold to comment on article published on my own blog…there patently is conflict and I know from talking to the people involved there has been genuine unease and disagreement about strategy. But I don’t really need to say that do I?

I asked Andy what he meant by “majority decision” over the sacking of lawyer Gerald Shamash (because I’m not sure that was the case). He declined to comment but instead sent a further and probably final statement, which is below.

On the substance, he outlines or suggests some extremely serious allegations, which, until they are backed by proper evidence in court, border on innuendo. The hearing on July 28 will be fascinating. I genuinely want to know whether there is a case for false statement against the Lutfur camp in respect of smearing John Biggs as a racist.

Here’s Andy’s response to my questions:

Dear Ted,

Thanks for inviting me to comment further. 

Just to let you know that I do not wish to comment in detail further on the case.  As you know, the Petition is subject to legal proceedings and the details of the allegations and the evidence will be disclosed to the respondents, Mr. Rahman and the Returning Officer, when they are required to be in the Court. 

I would, however, like to clarify two points made in your most recent blog on 18th July: 

1. Mr. Rahman’s application to strike out the Petition is made on the grounds of its alleged failure to set out in sufficient detail the particulars of the allegations made in the Petition.  The Petition was drafted by Gavin Miller QC, while Steel and Shamash were still acting for the Petitioners.  The strike-out application has nothing to do with any subsequent developments.

2. Whilst it is of course a matter for the court, the strike-out application is being vigorously opposed and I am advised is unlikely to succeed, as the Court has the jurisdiction to order further particulars once the Petition has been presented.

Yours sincerely,

Andy

 

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The four Tower Hamlets election petitioners are due to defend a ‘strike-out’ application (submitted by Mayor Lutfur Rahman and Returning Officer John Williams) before a judge on July 28 but they way things are progressing they might literally be laughed out of court.

For very many people, the shambles around the count, the poison of the campaign, and the unusual campaigning methods used in Tower Hamlets on polling day (unusual to outsiders at least), meant there was a good argument to have a case heard in court. It would help clear the air, one way or another.

But amassing evidence of wrongdoing is a painstaking business and it certainly helps if you have people who have been there before. Gerald Shamash, the Labour party solicitor nationally, falls into that category.

It was he who helped Andy Erlam file his petition with the Election Court last month.

But a couple of weeks ago, he was sacked. Andy decided he wanted a new team. He won’t say why but it may be because Gerald was too expensive or because he took the initiative on certain matters.

Even prior to this, there had already been a degree of tension among the petitioners, whose number include a two Labour party members and a Ukip activist. But the sacking inflamed matters, largely because Andy did not, apparently, consult the others about it.

In the background, they have all been very busy compiling witness statements and there are, as I understand it, some potentially quite interesting pieces of evidence.

But credibility is also a powerful ingredient and that requires calm and sensible statements as to the facts and arguments.

Which brings me to the developing row between John Biggs and Andy Erlam.

Andy kicked all this off last week when he wrote an “open letter” to John urging him to declare his stance on their case. I’m told Andy never consulted John before sending this letter. I blogged about it on Wednesday when I also printed John’s reply to Andy. (In that blog post, I questioned Andy’s claim that up to 15,000 votes in the mayoral election were affected by forgery or intimidation; he now says that was an error and the 15,000 relates both the council and mayoral elections. Quite why the European polls are omitted is unclear.)

I thought, and so did most who read it, that John was pretty clear in his response…that he’d do all in his power to make the case work, including lodging a witness statement.

But in his reply, John also referred obliquely to the Gerald Shamash issue, something few knew about beforehand; I didn’t.

However, this reference seems to have riled Andy and yesterday he sent me another statement by way of reply to John. Again, John wasn’t consulted and he has in turn sent me his reply to that reply.

It’s great having such transparency from politicians and I wish far more discourse was made in public, but I do wonder whether this is the best way of securing the strongest case to put to a judge.

Andy’s (quite lengthy) statement below, I’m afraid to say, does somewhat tilt towards the truther lands of conspiracy theories, particularly over the ballot boxes and THEOs. I hope he doesn’t say that to a judge.

My personal view is they don’t have a hope on proving industrial scale electoral fraud, but if they were to focus their minds and arguments on the issue of “false statement”, ie the deliberate portrayal of John Biggs as a racist, then they have more of a chance. After all, this is what did for Phil Woolas in 2010: he breached s106 of the Representation of the People Act, which says it is an illegal practice to make a false statement about a candidate “for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election”. Funnily enough, Gerald Shamash does have experience of this: he was Woolas’s solicitor.

Anyway, here’s Andy’s reply to John’s reply from Wednesday (and for what it’s worth, you have to admire Andy and the others for putting their money where others’ mouths are by fighting this):

Andy Erlam

Andy Erlam

I find it incredible that John Biggs continues to disbelieve that there may have been an industrial-scale fraud in the Mayoral and Local Council elections on 22nd May, despite mounting of evidence which is steadily accumulating and being turned into statements fit for the court, which is in itself a massive task. Respectfully, I look forward to receiving John’s own promised statement please at the very earliest opportunity, namely this Sunday. It is the least he can do in the circumstances.  

If true, the irregularities are so extensive that a scrutiny will show that the election results can not be relied upon and that a new election for Mayor will have to be held. Where that leaves the local election results is unknown legal territory. It is interesting that the Tower Hamlets Labour Group in the Council has been silent on the subject of the Petition.

Incidentally, there was an important error in my original article. It should have read: “I estimate that between 10,000 and 15,000 votes were forged or affected by intimidation across the Borough in the Mayoral and council elections.”

Is this a “wild” allegation?  We know from Tower Hamlets First sources that each THF candidate was ordered to each obtain 250 postal votes by fair means or foul. Guess which technique was most used?

The reports and statements that we have so far received show that there were very many illegal practices with postal votes across the Borough. I mean bullying, stealing postal ballot papers and opening completed postal ballots, re-sealing envelopes and posting.

Added to that we know from the work of Andrew Gilligan and our own informants that postal ballot applications were made for people not in the UK at the time and for ghost voters who don’t exist. 

Furthermore, there are reliable reports of crowds of THF activists systematically intimidating some voters, mostly Bangladeshi Brits, outside many and possibly most polling stations throughout election day.

There are also numerous reports of people, Bengali women in particular, being accompanied, bullied and intimidated to vote for Mayor Rahman and THF.

Even more allegations have now emerged about the use of council resources and staff in the election by THF and even the illegal access to voters’ private mobile numbers from council records.

At the same time, the police and polling station staff were unable or unwilling to control the situation. It is also alleged that the vast majority of Imans in the Borough told their flocks that to vote other than for Lutfur and THF would be “Un-Islamic”, which if proved is an illegal act.

The stream of allegations is endless and, in fact, the stream is turning into a river and the river a torrent.

John was at the count. Can he have failed to notice the hundreds of THF supporters, the chaotic conditions, the delays and the hugely varying figures in the votes counted in some wards, always changing the results from Labour to favour THF? Did he not see Mayor Rahman take control of the local council counts, often over-rulling the hapless John Williams, who was effectively humiliated as the Returning Officer. This was not chaos, it was organised chaos.

It doesn’t end there. Tower Hamlets Council refuses to answer Freedom of Information requests about the ballot boxes, on the false claim that Returning Officers are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner doesn’t agree, but Tower Hamlets is desperately playing for time.

So LBTH won’t say where the ballot boxes were stored from the close of polls, how they were transported, by whom and whether they were guarded by the police. The lack of transparency and respect for the law of the country beggars belief, but it’s not new and it’s now getting more and more irrational in Tower Hamlets Council.

That leaves rumours to run wild. Some allege that the Theos accompanied the ballot boxes. These Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officers accountable to the Mayor, (the Mayor’s “private army of LBTH policemen”), are not impartial and, if true, their role in the election would be yet another deeply worrying matter. The council is also refusing to say exactly where in the town hall the ballot boxes were stored and whether the rooms were locked and if so, who had access via the swipe cards.

Further concerns have also emerged recently about the robustness of the police investigation currently taking place. It is known that suspected fraudulent votes have not been forwarded to the police and that complaints made to the police have not been followed up. Furthermore, even the very serious allegation that a car-load of postal ballot papers was discovered by the police seems to be being talked away by investigating police, incredible as it may seem. Andrew Gilligan reported that the car bootfull of forms were completed and has verified this fact but the policeman leading the investigations claims that the forms were blank and thus no criminal offences had been committed. It appears that the police are involved in a cover-up whether by inefficiency or worse. Was Andrew Gilligan wrong about Iraq?

And what is the Electoral Commission doing with its near £16 million budget?  Disgracefully, it is looking the other way when it comes to Tower Hamlets. 

John refers to accepting unpleasant results in a democracy. His comparison of Rahman with Thatcher is wholly inappropriate. A far better comparison is with the 2004 US Presidential Election which we now know had very extensive corruption that changed the course of American and indirectly international history. Ironically, Kerry was also a good looser.

The point is that if you live in Tower Hamlets, you don’t live in a democracy. How confident can we be that our votes in the next General Election will be respected? Given the likelihood of a very close General Election contest in 2015, this is of huge significance nationally.

One last point, the very big losers in the catastrophic Mayoral and local elections of 2014 are the Banglashi-Brits in Tower Hamlets. Culture, language, literacy problems, the community power structures, poor housing and difficult individual situations mean that the population is very vulnerable to bullying, intimidation and financial and other pressures. Tower Hamlets First does not represent the Bangali population, as it claims. It is a small clique, like any other, seeking power for its’ own reasons.

Lutfur was a Labour man and wants to be one again. He is a politician bred in the Labour Movement of East London. Presumably he knows a lot of what has happened over the years – the compromises and the errors of Labour and in the forthcoming trial much will come out.

Mayor Rahman, whom I’ve never met and have no personal opinion about, claims many good policies and achievements. Whether these are accurate or not, I can not judge. But what I do know is that the means never ever justifies the end and that, if morality is cast aside, the means become the end.

There needs to be a revolution in politics in the East End. Political corruption has been seen as the norm here for decades. But corruption is not normal. Nor is it unique to Tower Hamlets, it’s just that irregularities here have been so extensive and so arrogantly displayed that, this time, things have gone too far.  

John Biggs knows perfectly well, although he would prefer otherwise, that Gerald Shamash, the Labour Party solicitor, is no longer our solicitor and that Gavin Miller is no longer our barrister and that Francis Hoar is. We do not wish to comment on this decision.

There are two points of principle here. We will not allow any donor, however large, to steer the Petition, nor will we allow any political party to pull the strings.

Given that John Biggs is the likely beneficiary of a re-election, as things stand, I’m surprised that he describes the Election Petitioners as “mavericks”. The dictionary definition of a maverick is: “an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party.” I guess I and the 3 other Petitioners, Azmal Hussain, Debbie Simone and Angela Moffat, will willingly plead guilty to that charge. Only with massive support from the good people of Tower Hamlets can we change the area for good. Further specific allegations must be sent very urgently to us to help us all win the case.

Andy Erlam

Tower Hamlets Election Petitioner

(Personal Capacity)

andyerlam@ymail.com

And here’s John’s reply:

John Biggs

John Biggs

Everything that Andy Erlam says about the election may be true but that doesn’t mean that it is true or that if it is true it is possible to prove that it is true in a court without sufficient evidence. But I am encouraging anyone with evidence of abuses to share this with the petitioners because theirs is a very serious series of allegations and must be properly examined. I am pleased the petition has been lodged in order that the allegations, widely believed to be true, can be examined.

I will be making my experiences known and will make a statement, particularly but not just looking at the allegations of racism levelled against me which I believe were deliberately invented to try to polarise opinion and particularly to encourage BAME voters to back Lutfur Rahman by spreading misinformation. This action was dishonest but also it was an action without principle or regard to the responsibility local politicians have to encourage and foster good relations.

I believe too that there were multiple abuses. But unlike Andy I do not believe in shooting from the hip without making statements that can be shown to be true. And I am also sensitive to the deep sense of victimhood that Lutfur Rahman likes to foster and which allegations without sufficient evidence will nourish. That will be no good for the East End.

In common with Andy, I do believe that the current mayor is bad news for East London. His inward looking culture rooted in patronage says nothing to the future and creates a vacuum while urgent leadership is needed. But I think he will ultimately be defeated by the proper and measured use of evidence and truth.

I do hope the petition leads to a thorough and good hearing and I do believe the result was improperly influenced and manipulated but in order for the truth to be found there must be more light and less heat. There must be a risk that an alternative tactic will achieve the opposite result to that it intends.

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A few weeks ago, Andy Erlam, who stood and lost in Bow East for his Red Flag Ant-Corruption Party in May, launched an Election Petition challenging the result for the directly elected mayor poll.

That petition is being backed by a number of people from various parties and is currently going through the early court processes. The petitioners are having to do the very hard legwork of amassing evidence to present to a judge who must make a decision on whether there is a case to answer.

Yesterday, Andy wrote an open letter to John Biggs asking for him to “publicly back” the petition. Hitherto, John has welcomed the petition and the chance it might give to clear the air.

Andy copied me and other journalists into his open letter. It’s below. You’ll see he says this:

I estimate that between 10,000 and 15,000 votes were forged or affected by intimidation across the Borough in the Mayoral election

I asked him for examples of the evidence he’d gathered to back up that claim. He said that wasn’t possible at this stage because he wanted to protect people’s identities. So I asked him to provide the calculations behind his estimate and how he extrapolated to that number. He still hasn’t answered.

My personal view is that he risks looking silly. The figure of 15,0000 is huge: he’s saying that up to 40 per cent of the 37,000 votes for Lutfur Rahman were as a result of fraud or forgery. That really would be Mugabe-land. It’s also a bit of an insult to Lutfur’s electorate. Well, a bit more than a bit.

Anyway, the open letter has prompted a reply from John Biggs. In it, he uses his strongest language yet.

He, too, feels some of Andy’s claims might be somewhat outlandish, but he strongly believes the election was “bent”.

John goes beyond his previously stated belief that there was widespread postal vote fraud. He now also believes there could have been “organised fraud” in the counting of votes.

He does not state how, but I understand the allegation is this: counters deliberately undercounted John’s votes and over-counted Lutfur’s. Counters count the votes in bundles of 50. The belief is that some counters counted to say 47 or 48 for Lutfur’s votes and bundled them up into a pile of 50; meanwhile, the counters would count to say 52 or 53 for every 50 of John’s votes. So Lutfur’s piles of 50 votes overstated his true position, while John’s understated his. Or so the allegation goes. I understand that some counters were called up on this by party agents and other representatives on the night.

John, in his letter, also confirms he’ll cooperate fully with the petition and appear as a witness.

Here are the two letters.

Dear John,

I am writing to you to ask you to this week publicly back the Tower Hamlets Election Petition that was launched on Friday 13th June.

As you know, there is very deep concern in the community about the legitimacy of the Mayoral and local council elections held on 22nd May and the subsequent chaotic count.  I do understand and admire the fact that you have been a “good loser” in the contest which you were said to have lost by 3,500 votes.

However, there is a growing mountain of evidence which points to the fact that you did not lose, because the election was grossly corrupted by industrial-scale irregularities ranging from “ghost voters”, multiple voting, intimidation at the polling station, the stealing, forgery of postal votes on a massive scale and deliberate miscounting of votes.

On the basis of reports received by me to date, I estimate that between 10,000 and 15,000 votes were forged or affected by intimidation across the Borough in the Mayoral election.

If so, had the election been honest and managed properly, I believe that you would have won by a substantial majority.

As regards the count, the only issue in my mind is whether the chaos was just chaos or whether it was organised chaos.  In 40 years in politics observing elections and counts, including a stint as an official EU International Election Observer in South Africa in 1994, I have never seen such intimidation, corruption and deception in an election and count.  

Furthermore, the Council refuses to say where it held the ballot boxes following the election and a whole series of corrupt ballot papers have been kept from the police. I am now convinced that the current police investigation into cases where there have been arrests is not serious and that the police are simply going through the motions of investigating election fraud.

So the point is, that it is not John Biggs who is the real looser in Tower Hamlets, it is the whole voting population who have been cheated of a fair and democratic election and as such face next year’s General Election with absolutely no confidence that their vote will be honestly and fairly handled. If you continue to sit on the fence, this golden opportunity to clean up Tower Hamlets politics once and for all will be lost. People look to community leaders like you to show a lead when times are tough. Tower Hamlets is not presently a democracy area of Britain.

As you know, 4 individual voters have stuck their necks out for you in launching this Election Petition. We are free from political party influence and have no motive except to see justice down. Now is the time for John Biggs to stick his neck out for us and for Tower Hamlets.

I hope that you will be able to issue a statement this week publicly backing the Election Petition and urging all Labour Party members and all voters to make statements on irregularities that can be used in court. This open letter is designed to open up the debate much further.

Yours sincerely,
Andy Erlam.

 

And this is John Biggs’s reply:

Dear Andy,

I was very busy yesterday and only became aware of your letter when two of the media outlets to whom you had forwarded it asked for my comments! I am therefore replying on the assumption that you will share this reply with the media (and am pre-emptively copying it to one outlet).  This is an important matter and so my reply is quite lengthy, with no apology to those seeking sound-bites.

My position is as follows:

I am a democrat and accept that the result announced by the Returning Officer must be treated as the proper result unless and until it is proved otherwise. To not do so would throw the foundations of democracy into dispute. However, I accept that there is a very widespread unhappiness with the election.

One needs however to be careful and to disentangle the strong antipathy that Mayor Rahman attracts from large sections of the electorate from underlying anxieties about whether the election was fair. By recent analogy, many people of our generation will recall that Margaret Thatcher was massively unpopular and polarising to many people but that she still legitimately won elections. The election, and administration, have both in my view been unhealthily polarising but we must disentangle that from anxieties about whether the election was fair. It is important to make that point.

You raise very serious concerns about the election, which have also been raised by others. My position is that I share most of these. I believe that there was a considerable amount of election fraud, principally but not only centred around the manipulation of postal votes. I am less persuaded about the allegations of intimidation, although conduct around, and in, polling stations was a disgrace.

This feeds however into the next point, which is that, separate from the comprehensive breach of the ‘election protocol’ by one party, conduct at polling stations being just one example of this, the administration of the election, both the management of polling stations and of the count, fell far short of being well-organised. I believe that we may also find that there was organised fraud in the counting of votes, albeit by a minority of those involved. All of these things need to be tested, with evidence. Without evidence they remain mere beliefs.
 
I am also angry about the smear tactics used in the campaign, by the Mayor’s supporters (and by nobody else), against me, as the only serious challenger to the incumbent. Specifically, I am not a racist and I was disgusted by the unprincipled use of this claim to try to polarise opinion and to secure support for the Mayor as a perpetual victim. Life does need to move on from this form of politics and if redress is available by showing that the result was improperly influenced by this claim, knowing it was false, then it should be available.  
 
In other words I think there are comprehensive concerns, and I have shared these, as have other Labour members, with the police, the electoral commission, the council, the media, with yourself and your fellow petitioners and with your legal representative, Gerald Shamash.
 
You ask if I will ‘stick my neck out for us and for Tower Hamlets’. You need to understand that we must respect and work with our democracy and not make wild claims that will damage good community relations and which do not respect the proper democratic will of voters. However, there are continuing widespread concerns, and, short of criminal sanctions, an election court is the only way to test these concerns and I welcome you and your fellow petitioners in making this challenge. I will do all that I can to ensure that the case is properly considered, including making statements, appearing as a witness as necessary, and working with your legal team, and I will do all that I can to ensure that it is, and to encourage others to support you.  I will do so in a way that is respectful of all the people of our borough.
 
There are two final points, which are that to succeed your petition must be supported by an adequate legal team, and that the partnership you seek with me and others needs to be a real one and not a maverick campaign, as it will otherwise fail. Your claims must be based on evidence which can be persuasive in an election court. You need therefore to use a serious legal team which inspires confidence and encourages others to come forwards, and you, working equally with your other three petitioners, must be open and clear with the people of Tower Hamlets, and respectful of all parts of our community, in making your claim. If you do these things, you will attract support and the likelihood that the truth  will be known.
 
John Biggs

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Of all the many redacted documents released last week by Tower Hamlets council was a fascinating letter from the town hall’s “interim monitoring officer”, the Great Meic Sullivan-Gould (for he is indeed very great).

This dragon-slayer arrived at the council with, according to him, a stellar reputation in local government having served with a long list of the country’s finest councils.

The people of Cheshire West and Chelmsford are no doubt grateful for his Travelling Salesman services but for Meic, such praise wasn’t enough. He wanted a crack at the biggest crackpot of them all: Tower Hamlets.

So when the post became vacant in the New Year, having been vacated by Isabella Freeman and her interim successor Mark Norman, Meic offered to help.

He did his research, of course; he read The Telegraph, this blog and Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs.

But why don’t we let him tell the story. Here’s his coquettish email to BBC Panorama reporter John Ware, which was released under FoI:

Interviews Interviews2

There are so many nuggets in here, it’s difficult to know where to start. For someone apparently so well regarded, he is a bit careless.

Forget for the moment his admonishment of Mayor Lutfur Rahman for his a “coup de theatre” (that’s a reference to the little game Takki Sulaiman and Lufur played at the outset of the mayor’s interview with John Ware when they handed the BBC thousands of documents requested two months earlier).

And forget his patronising dismissal of the journalism surrounding Tower Hamlets as “politically motivated” pursued by people “anxious to keep an easy but unfounded ‘Byword for sleaze’ story running”.

But do consider his dismissal of opposition councillors who he describes as “bitterly disenfranchised and largely impotent”. How neutral. You’ll remember he went further on the night of the Panorama programme by taking to Facebook to lavish praise on his boss, Lutfur. That little slip saw him banned from any involvement in the Election count, an astonishing state of affairs for the Monitoring Officer.

And another paragraph in that email might have similar consequences for an Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting on July 22.

At that meeting councillors will be discussing a report by forensic internal auditors on the sale of old Poplar Town Hall.

Andrew Gilligan wrote about it on January 18 here. The building was sold in 2011 for £875,000 to a shell company called Dreamstar, which was established Mujibul Islam, who was a key ally of Lutfur in the 2010 mayoral election. Within months of that sale, the new owners secured under delegated powers a change of use for the building to a hotel.

Peter Golds and many others believed there was a whiff about it and demanded an emergency investigation by internal audit specialists at the accountancy firm, Mazars.

I don’t know why they bothered. Because on their books they already had the world’s best fraud hound.

You see, Andrew’s article a couple of days before Meic started work so he set about investigating it himself. This is what he told John Ware: “I have over the last few weeks reviewed the council’s files on specific property disposals and planning approvals and I have discussed the published concerns…As I told the people who have commissioned your work, I have found nothing to substantiate the concerns.”

Mazars’ final report has just been published here. It’s fascinating and I understand that Team Lutfur, while still of course maintaining clean hands, are furious at the council’s slipshod record keeping on something that was so obviously a hot potato from the outset. Ever so carelessly (ever so), the council has lost key documents and both Lutfur and Aman Dalvi, the council’s director of development, have “no recollection” of allegedly key conversations they are said to have had about the disposal.

The Mazars report should be read in full but as a flavour here’s a summary of their findings.

In March 2008, the council’s then cabinet (led at that time by Labour’s Denise Jones) declares the listed building surplus to requirements and orders officers to examine a possible sale.

In January 2011, three months after he was elected, Lutfur and his cabinet order an “accelerated sale” (between 2008 and 2011, the building had been used by Ian Mikardo school). Bankers from BNP Paribas then estimate it could fetch in those circumstances between £750-£950k. The cabinet decided against waiting for the property market to recover.

In May 2011, the property is marketed by BNP Paribas for six weeks.

In June 2011, 10 sealed bids are received, ranging from £876k in net present value terms to £350k. The Limehouse Project charity had offered £1.2m over 20 years, but that was worth £526k in real terms. All the other bidders were commercial enterprises and one individual. Among them was a £850k bid from Dreamstar.

On July 1 2011, Paribas write to bidders asking for ‘best and final offers’ by close of play on July 8 2011.

On July 11 2011, these best and final offers were opened in the presence of three council officers and two Paribas staff. Mazars find that neither the council nor Paribas have kept the official documents relating to the opening of the bids.

On July 11 2011, the best and final offer from Dreamstar arrives. It is three days late. And it has increased from £850k to £875k.  Mazars state: “The offer from Dreamstar was received late and therefore does not comply with the council’s procedures.” Mazars asked why the bid was accepted for consideration and the council said it would have been ‘remiss’ not to have done so. The council claimed Dreamstar had told them they would be submitting a new bid and that they’d posted it on July 8… . Mazars add: “In addition to accepting the late bid from Dreamstar, we would note that the offer from Dreamstar was not the highest received and therefore the council, by not noting the reason for its decision not to accept the highest offer, has not followed its own policy in regard to accepting the highest offer either.”

On July 12, BNP Paribas advise the council to tell Mr X he is the highest bidder with £876,000 (subject to survey). They suggest telling him to prove he has the finance. They also recommend telling Dreamstar “they have been unsuccessful [and] to focus their attention on Limehouse Library”. They advise naming three other parties they are the “underbidders” in case Mr X fails to come up with the goods.

Throughout August a number of emails bounce back and forth within Aman Dalvi’s team. They are concerned that council delays might cause some bidders to withdraw interest.

On August 24, the council’s “head of valuation and estates” emails Aman to say “the range of returns [ie bids] is very narrow, which looks a bit odd to be honest”.

On August 25, the council’s Capital and Asset Management Board meets (although Aman is not present). The minutes state: “..there will be progress on this [Poplar Town Hall] after [Aman] has met with the Mayor today.” Mazars state: “We spoke to [Aman] who said he was not sure what this reference was made to, and reiterated that he was not present at the meeting when this point was minuted and that he had no recollection of speaking to the mayor in regard to this matter.”

On September 8, the council’s head of corporate property emails Aman Dalvi to say because the bids from Mr X and Dreamstar are so close (£876k vs £875k), they should be invited to a “contracts race” to see who can get to exchange of contracts first.

On September 14, Dreamstar is registered and incorporated at Companies House.

On September 15, Aman emails back to agree the approach.

On September 15, a note is placed on the legal file regarding the contracts race. The note is written by the “Council Solicitor”. It is not known whether this is Isabella Freeman, although the word ‘he’ in the following statement suggests not. The note states: “I said ‘My heart sinks’. How can we possibly have a race for property of this type which we are selling off on a long lease? It’s bound to end in dispute and litigation, all that needs to happen is for one of the buyers to say that that [Council Solicitor] in your legal department sent something out to the other side 24 hours before he sent it to us. However, [Asset Manager] is only doing what he is told, this has come from the Mayor. [Head of Asset Management and Valuation] was listening in and obviously volunteered to take over, so I spoke to him and expressed my doubts, which he didn’t really share, saying he had done contract races before when he was at Lewisham. He said he had made it clear in his report that £876 beats £875, and Aman agrees, but it has come from the very top…”.

On September 20, BNP Paribas invite Dreamstar and Mr X to a contracts race.

On September 29, Dreamstar win the race and contracts are exchanged.

On November 11, sale completes.

On December 6 2011, Dreamstar formally asks the council’s planning department for a change of use and listed building consent on the property to make it into a “boutique hotel”.

On July 3 2013, change of use is granted. Mazars are told the decision was made under delegated powers (rather than go through a publicly held committee) because the application didn’t  trigger 20 or more objections and it didn’t meet various other criteria for that to happen.

Mazars in their final report are at pains to stress that the “sole purpose of this report is to assist the council in deciding what further action it may wish to take in this matter”.

In the event they make six recommendations:

1. “The council should locate the original bid opening sheet to examine what comments were made by officers at the time of the opening and identify what consideration was given to the bid from Dreamstar.”

2. The council should examine what legal advice it sought about accepting Dreamstar’s late bid.

3. The council should consider further interviews with staff and/or members to investigate the matter.

4. Council should consider whether another internal audit of its fixed asset sale processes is needed.

5. The council should consider whether potential buyers of council assets should be provided to make a declaration about any relationships with council members or staff.

6. Council should review the processes for deciding whether such change of use matters should be carried out under delegated powers.

All in all a murky mess.

Dreamstar’s original bid was below the highest bid of £876k. A council officer says the “narrow range” of bids looks “odd”. Dreamstar’s revised bid (after the original bids are opened) increases from £850k to £875k, but it is received late…against the council’s strict rules. Yet it was accepted. The council says it had a duty to secure value for taxpayers.

Crucial paperwork is missing. A council lawyer reports being told that a decision to trigger a contracts race between Dreamstar and Mr X came from Lutfur. Neither Lutfur nor Aman “recall” having any such discussion.

There may well be a series of cock-ups in here that give the perception of conspiracy. But it certainly doesn’t look good and it seems a council lawyer was so concerned they left a potential bombshell of a note on the legal file. That lawyer no longer works for the council but they might be called back to explain themselves.

But then again, we all know that would be a waste of time because Meic has already determined there’s nothing to worry about.

 

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It’s probably a legacy from my days as a member of the “accountants’ union”, but I’ve always had a respect for the worker bees in Tower Hamlets council’s over-stretched finance department. They do a difficult job in very tricky circumstances and they have to deal with all manner of politics from members and senior officers.

But they probably  won’t thank me for highlighting this piece of legislation that may well add to their workload.

Under the Audit Commission Act, every council must for a four week period throw open its books for public inspection. It’s a fabulous piece of legislation that pre-dates the Coalition’s equally excellent transparency agenda. But curiously enough you won’t find any feature about it in the £1.5m pages of East End Life.

Tower Hamlets council, like most other authorities, aren’t that keen for people to know about. However, they are required by law to place a public notice in a local paper advertising the dates when the inspection takes place in a particular year. This year’s advert, for the financial period April 2013 to March 2014, was placed in the back pages of East End Life on June 9…nine pages after that week’s restaurant review, for which a council worker was handed £40 for a nice meal.

Here’s the advert:

Inspection Advert 2013-14

Under this legislation, anyone can ask to see the details of any transaction during the financial year in question. This includes seeing copies of any contract, purchase order or invoice or other supporting documents.

So, if you were so inclined you could ask to see all transactions made for restaurant reviews in East End Life during 2013/14. You could ask for a list of all payments made for these reviews and view all invoices submitted by external contributors or expense claims submitted by staff.

Some issues might still be subject to confidentiality clauses. For example, you won’t be able to ask for individuals’ salaries. You can ask for all salaries in a particular area but you won’t see names attached to them. The Data Protection Act still applies.

However, this legislation allows for far more transparency than the both the Freedom of Information Act and the lists of payments to suppliers that councils must now publicise. So it gives us all a chance to have a look under those redacting pens.

For example, you’ll remember from this post here that when I asked under the FoI Act recently for the invoices submitted by the Champollion PR agency for its work combatting the Panorama programme, the council sent me this:

Panorama Champollion Invoices3

 

 

Under the Audit Commission Act, those black pen marks will have to be removed.

The Act is a potential gold mine of information, but you only have until July 28 to submit questions and follow ups. If you ask for information before then, the council must answer it even if that answer comes after July 28. However, the earlier you ask the questions the better.

And a plea (for the sake of the accountants), be wise and judicious in what you ask for. Fishing expeditions are of course allowed but try to narrow your searches and questions. Think about what you want. For example, you might want to see a summary of all expenses submitted by officers and councillors for “entertaining” (councillors rarely submit such claims by the way). From that summary you might want to drill down into something by asking for copies of receipts for a particular meal. Which restaurant, what did they eat and who did they entertain?

You might want to ask for copies of invoices submitted by a particular consultant or contractor.

It might be a good idea to discuss on this blog what you or someone else might ask. Let’s co-ordinate questions.

For my side, I’ve submitted an early batch of questions on Champollion, the lawyers Taylor Wessing and East End Life’s accounts. I’ve also asked for copies of invoices for Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s chauffeured Mercedes in the period.

And I’ve also asked for any payments made to The Society of the Golden Keys during the year. What’s that, you ask? In March 2012 (I saw this some time ago, but had forgotten about it), the council’s communications department paid the Society £800 for membership fees. I was told it was on behalf of Takki Sulaiman, the £100,000 a year head of communications. I was told he attended dinners/events with the society.

Here’s more about the Society, which is a membership group for hotel concierges in Britain.

The Society of the Golden Keys in Great Britain is thriving. With strict conditions of membership requiring proof of professional relationships with guests and work colleagues, approximately three hundred and thirty concierges in Great Britain now proudly wear the symbol of their status: the Golden Keys lapel pin. Each is revered for his or her professional gravitas, integrity, local knowledge and impeccable recommendations. The Society encourages friendship and camaraderie and the members meet formally each month. The Ladies’ Night Dinner and Dance and the Anniversary Cocktail Party are the social highlights of the year for many of the leading figures in the hospitality industry, as well there are many other events which the society of the Golden Keys help to promote.

The council told me it was important to have membership to boost tourism in Tower Hamlets. Perhaps it does. But it’s only fair that taxpayers know, and that’s what the Act allows.

 

 

 

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There is an argument that the presence of Ukip on the mayoral ballot paper in May helped secure a victory for Lutfur Rahman. Their candidate, Nick McQueen polled some 4,400 votes, a significant proportion of which might otherwise have gone to Labour’s John Biggs.

I don’t really buy that argument but I think even Lutfur’s camp are glad he ran.

What I do think is more likely is that Ukip’s presence in yesterday’s by-election cost the Tories two of their three seats in Blackwall & Cubitt Town.

Here are the results:

LBTH BCT results

The turnout was low and some remarked there were more police and observers from the Electoral Commission than voters at the polling stations yesterday. The count at Anchorage House was, by all accounts, far more controlled than last time, which isn’t saying much.

And it finished at 3am, after two recounts. After a fair amount of confident boasting by some in Lutfur’s camp, his Tower Hamlets First candidates came nowhere close.

The recounts centred on two of Labour’s candidates and Chris Chapman from the Tories. As you can see, only five votes separated second from fourth. At various points, Labour’s Candida Ronald was ahead of party colleague Anisur Rahman, then fortunes switched and finally settled on Candida.

Congratulations to the three winners and particular commiserations to Gloria Thienel who was regarded well as a councillor in the last term. I’m fairly sure that the 200 odd votes picked up each by the Ukip slate cost her a seat.

But that’s democracy. Whether Ukip continue to challenge and engage in council meetings from the public gallery remains to be seen.

And this is how the chamber now looks: Labour 22 seats; Tower Hamlets First 18; Tories 5.

Labour needed 23 for a controlling majority in the chamber and that would have been significant. As things stand, unless Labour are able to persuade Tory boss Peter Golds to defect., we’re probably in for four more years of dysfunctional politics and council business.

I think it’s unlikely Lutfur will be able to entice five Labour councillors to defect. And I think it’s likely that the Tories will join Labour on various votes, but probably not as many as the last time.

Significant matters to resolve include what to do about the vacant chief executive’s position. That’s down to vote of the full council. Team Lutfur will not have their way on that.

And as I’ve said before, having a strong chief executive in place is going to be key in stabilising the council. I think Eric Pickles and co also believe this. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what PwC recommend.

 

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By Sadia Ahmed, 13, of Swanlea School in Whitechapel (and formerly of that other great incubator of current talent, Hermitage Primary School in Wapping)

This is the blurb on YouTube:

SLAMbassadors UK is the Poetry Society’s national youth slam championships, and the longest running youth slam in the country. Students work with top spoken word artists to create their own pieces around the theme of ‘identity’.

Swanlea School in Tower Hamlets worked with poet Joelle Taylor as part of the Tower Hamlets programme, supported by the Tower Hamlets Schools Library Services.

The national finals will be held on October 31 in the Clore Ballroom of the Royal Festival Hall, and feature Kate Tempest. http://slam.poetrysociety.org.uk

 

[Normal service resumes tomorrow with the results of the Blackwall & Cubitt Town by-elections.]

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SEE UPDATE BELOW FOR EXTRA LETTER FROM PwC to DCLG

You’ll probably have heard by now (as I predicted here eight days ago) that Tower Hamlets council is filing for a High Court judicial review of Eric Pickles’ decision to send in PwC to inspect their accounts.

They announced their move yesterday, the day after Eric stood up in the Commons to tell MPs the council had caused a “considerable delay” in the inspection by failing to provide documents.

The full grounds for the council’s court action aren’t (as far as I’m aware) yet publicly available. Lutfur Rahman’s team (advised and encouraged by interim/consultant monitoring officer Meic Sullivan-Gould) believe they have a good case, although they haven’t yet laid it out.

The writ will become publicly available soon enough, but all we have to go on at the moment is a letter written by the Mayor to Eric Pickles yesterday. And that seems to focus on the costs of the audit, which the Government has estimated at about £1million.

That £1million will be borne by Tower Hamlets council, presumably regardless of the outcome.

So you can see there is a game of very high stakes poker here…and it’s not just limited to the politicians. Remember who wrote to the council’s Macavity Cat head of paid service Stephen Halsey in the first place? Answer…Sir Bob Kerslake, who is not only the permanent secretary in the Department for Communities and Local Government, but also the Head of the Civil Service itself.

If LexLutfur/Super Rahman wins, both Eric and Sir Bob will have some pretty serious explaining to do to Parliament. Which is partly why the DCLG said it would “robustly” contest the judicial review yesterday. Another simpler reason might be, of course, that Sir Bob strongly believes the decision was correct.

That said, I thought it would be useful to highlight here in one place all the publicly available correspondence on this issue.

Here are the letters from April 4 from Sir Bob to Halsey and from the DCLG’s Helen Edwards (in charge of the Localism section) to Will Kenyon, the partner at PwC:

bob kerslake, tower hamlets BK to SH 4 April2 PWC - Appoint finalPWC - Appoint final2These letters outline the scope. They say DCLG has received documents suggesting poor governance and suggesting possible fraud. They say PwC has had an initial review and further investigations are recommended. They say a file has been passed to the police and that the Panorama programme on March 31 has also raised further concerns. They say the inspection’s scope will relate to grants, transfers of fixed assets, the council’s publicity, and the way the council enters into contracts.

On the file to the police. We know the Met announced in May that it found “no new credible evidence of fraud”. But those files in DCLG’s possession did contain evidence of possible fraud in relation to the council’s dealings with the Brady Youth Forum. We also know that the council was aware of that alleged fraud in January (following a report by internal auditors Deloitte) but that was only reported to the police TWO months later AFTER Panorama started asking the council questions about it. It’s a good bet that PwC are asking why.

On the Panorama programme. I’m not sure Sir Bob is right to say that Panorama in its broadcast alleged “possible fraud”. It didn’t mention fraud at all. It questioned Lutfur’s governance.

On the scope of the audit, the areas look fairly clear to me, although I can see why the council might be arguing vagueness in relation to the way into enters into contracts. That said, without the keys to those doors, PwC would be pretty hampered.

On costs. Sir Bob tells the council it must pay PwC’s “reasonable fees”. Reasonable is a term loved by judges and lawyers and it means what it is. PwC isn’t allowed to lengthen the investigation merely to inflate its fees. And would it be reasonable to (as the council suggests) place a cap on PwC’s costs? PwC will go where the evidence takes them so this might well explain the frustration felt by council officers at having to produce yet more files as well as overseeing the “excellent” everyday services the council carries out.

Which brings us to the next set of letters.

*UPDATE: Thanks to Mark Baynes of the Love Wapping blog for highlighting this next letter, which I missed from the original post here. It’s a letter from Will Kenyon at PwC to Paul Rowsell, a senior director at the DCLG. In it, Mr Kenyon outlines the delays and gives examples of missing information. It’s a very useful insight into the kinds of questions being asked and paperwork sought. It’s a mind-numbing task and helps explain why auditors are paid so well… . One of the questions appears to relate to an advert placed with five Bengali TV stations, including Channel S, which was later censured by broadcasting regulator Ofcom.

 

140630_-_PwC_to_PR_final

140630_-_PwC_to_PR_final2

140630_-_PwC_to_PR_final3

140630_-_PwC_to_PR_final4

[No doubt, the auditors will also have come across this other example of procurement in Takki Sulaiman's communications department, ie when in 2012 a botched deal to put up banners of the Mayor was given to Fortuna Associates, a consultancy run by Chris Payne who had a few months earlier been a mate of Takki's as the head of advertising for East End Life.] /END UPDATE.

Here’s the letter from Paul Rowsell at DCLG to Stephen Halsey on Monday, June 30.

140630_-_Paul_Rowsell_to_SH_-_final_Page_1

140630_-_Paul_Rowsell_to_SH_-_final_Page_2

This expresses disappointment at the delays caused by the council. It also uses some alarmingly strong language about “material” affects on the “future circumstances at Tower Hamlets council? Is this a first indication/warning that some central government intervention and control is being planned? (The Mr Holme referred to is Chris Holme, the director of finance at the council.)

And this is Lutfur’s letter to Eric Pickles in response yesterday:

Letter to Rt Hon Eric Pickles - 1 July 2014_Page_1

Letter to Rt Hon Eric Pickles - 1 July 2014_Page_2

Just as Eric Pickles may have tried to make some political capital out of the delay to the audit in the Commons on Monday (by triggering suggestions the council was withholding documents, when the reality could well be they just can’t find them quickly enough, or they don’t exist), Lutfur, too, goes down that route.

From his letter we learn there has been a series of other unpublished letters in which the council has been complaining about justification, scope and costs. The great champion of public scrutiny and transparency that is Tower Hamlets council and its mayor say DCLG hasn’t been transparent and that it has failed to answer questions. I think that may have caused one or two ironic giggles at DCLG.

However, on the substance…Lutfur is entitled to ask about costs and cost controls. It would seem unfair if Tower Hamlets council taxpayers were to pick up the tab for any failed governance by its politicians and officers, or none at all. If the PwC report gives a clean bill of health, then surely there must be a clawback from Whitehall. If the report is damning, Pickles would be wise to say DCLG is picking up the tab as he installs emergency measures at the council. Either way, the residents in “one of the most deprived communities” in the UK (as Lutfur says) should not be penalised.

I’m also puzzled why Lutfur has been persuaded to insert into his letter absurd references to “10 million” items of data requested by the PwC. It sounds like a cheap line concocted by interim officers and communication chiefs. Maybe someone should FoI how they calculated 10 million and how long that exercise took them. As Cllr Andrew Wood, an accountant, pointed out here yesterday:

As a qualified acceptant who has been audited many times by PWC, I agree the 10 million separate data items is complete rubbish. There might be one request to provide all invoices paid by the council over the last year which might generate one spreadsheet with millions of cells but downloading it from any normal system only takes maybe a few hours or maybe an overnight batch run.

Takki and co may think this is a headline grabbing line for some press outlets, but it makes the council and the mayor look stupid.

As for what happens next…the council’s writ will be lodged and heard before a judge imminently.

And in the meantime, DCLG will continue its contingency planning. One thought: Tower Hamlets council is still without a chief executive; if the PwC report does come back with major failings, it would seem a perfect opportunity for him to install one. The last time he did that was in 2011 when he approved no-nonsense Jo Miller to run failing Doncaster Council.

Granted, there were much bigger service failures at Doncaster but there were similar dysfunctional politics to Tower Hamlets. Jo is highly regarded in Whitehall and many think she has turned the council around. When her job is done there, might Tower Hamlets be her next challenge?

 

 

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For a council perpetually under the cosh, Tower Hamlets doesn’t exactly help itself in the matter of public perception.

While I and many other journalists are used to being delayed by the Communications and Freedom of Information departments (actually, it sometimes seems they are one and the same), it’s probably not a good idea to deploy similar tactics with Government appointed inspectors.

Last week, I revealed that PwC had asked Eric Pickles’ Department for Communities and Local Government for another month to file their emergency report on transparency and governance.

Some on this blog speculated it was because the auditors had pre-booked holidays to honour. But it doesn’t work like that.

Today, Mr Pickles explained the delay to the House of Commons:

The investigators PwC have informed me the council has considerably delayed the investigation by delaying the provision of key information or simply not providing it at all. This is simply not acceptable and I am consequently extending the period for PwC to report. The cost will be met by the council. Whether the council likes it or not, this investigation will be thorough and comprehensive and I will update the House in due course.

Yes, there’s an element of politics in the language, but given it is PwC itself telling the Secretary of State the delays have been caused by the council, it’s serious stuff.

I have no idea what information the council is failing to provide. It could be a deliberate delaying tactic by the town hall’s lawyers (loose-tongued interim monitoring officer Meic Sullivan-Gould is in charge, so fear not taxpayers!); there’s some speculation they are considering an expensive Judicial Review on the audit.

That could also be the reason why the council is also refusing to supply me and other journalists a key spreadsheet. The day after the Panorama programme, Takki Sulaiman, the Head of Timely Communications, issued a statement to say the BBC had got its sums wrong. He said only £1.6m of the latest grants round had been awarded to organisations which had a Somali or Bengali CEO, chair or applicant. Panorama had accused Mayor Lutfur Rahman of increasing funding to Bengali and Somali groups by £2.1million to £3.6million.

We asked the council for a detailed breakdown of its numbers.

Last week, they refused the FoI request by relying on a Section 22 exemption, namely that the “information is being re-evealuated and it is intended to publish the information through the appropriate channels”. When I called for an explanation, an officer told me they were waiting for the PwC audit to finish because this information was being examined by them.

So I asked Will Kenyon, the PwC partner in charge of the audit, whether he had been consulted about the FoI request/refusal and whether he had asked for the answer to be delayed.

He replied:

As far as I am aware, your FOI request to the council has not been raised with us at any stage, nor has there been any discussion concerning the publication of the information you refer to.

So while the council was exceptionally quick to fire off its “rebuttal” statement in the wake of Panorama, it has been characteristically slow in providing the proof.

And still they complain when people ask “What have they got to hide?”

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England may be out of the World Cup but the summer agony is set to continue for Tower Hamlets council and its residents.

I understand that PricewaterhouseCoopers, the auditors ordered in by Eric Pickles in the wake of the Panorama programme on March 31, have asked for another month to write their report.

They were due to file it with the Department for Communities and Local Government by June 30, but that has now been delayed until the end of July.

That might well be because they have so much more work than at first realised, or because they just need more time to reflect and analyse their findings: they’ve been inundated with information, that’s for sure.

Mayor Lutfur Rahman told BBC London radio’s Eddie Nestor last week:

I don’t believe they will find any serious irregularity in any of our governance, our financial structures or the way we run the council.

If there is any issue here, of course we will look at it and try to learn from it and try to improve on it, but don’t forget, if he was looking for fraud, he will find no fraud.

This seems an implicit acceptance the auditors will find something. Team Lutfur say that’s inevitable: put in a team of highly skilled auditors into any borough for a concentrated period of time and murky details will surface, they say. It’s just a question of seriousness.

I wonder how the council will react. I wonder whether they might even resort to their favourite tactic of hiring expensive barristers and contemplate a judicial review of the decision in the High Court.

Personally, I don’t think the auditors will find any outright fraud (on the whole, they have a good team of senior officers in Tower Hamlets) and certainly the Panorama team never made that allegation. There’s an element of ‘creating goalposts’ within the Lutfur spin camp on this.

I also think there’s an acceptance within his team that they got things wrong in the past four years on the questions of transparency and governance. Lutfur says in his fascinating interview with Eddie Nestor that he has no idea why Tower Hamlets attracts so much bad press. Well, he didn’t really help himself on the questions of perception and appearance, did he? The chauffeured Merc, the prominent associations with rogues and criminals like Shiraj Haque (I’ll be kind and say ‘the former’) and Mohammed Mahee Ferdhaus Jalil (twice the latter), the failure to answer questions in council, the failure to attend hustings etc etc.

He has a much bigger group of councillors to manage this time as well and hopefully they will ensure these matters are addressed. He’ll probably enjoy the challenge.

Here’s the interview with Eddie Nestor: it’s 20 minutes but certainly worth a listen.

As for the council’s commitment to transparency, I leave you with this FOI response they gave me yesterday. I’d asked for all invoices supplied by the Champollion, the expert PR outfit they hired to counter the Panorama programme.

Here are the invoices they supplied:

Here’s the explanation:

In terms of the Champollion contract the Council officers took the view in late January 2014 that in order to ensure the position of the council was clearly represented to the production company and the commissioning organisation, specialist media advice was required.

The in-house media team did not have specialist knowledge about the operation and application of the BBC’s editorial guidelines and were already occupied in managing an existing workload.

A brief was produced and a Record of Corporate Directed Action (RCDA) was signed by all relevant officers to consider the procurement issues involved. Given the short timeframe and the specialist nature of the advice required a longlist of specialist PR firms was identified. Four companies were then invited to apply after receiving a brief and invited to interview.

Section 36 (2)(b)(i) has been applied to the financial elements of both contract and internal discussion between officers on the basis that their disclosure would inhibit the imparting or commissioning of advice subject to the public interest test and information relating to financial and business affairs which could prejudice the Council achieving its obligation to obtain best consideration from the use of its resources and the best value from the procurement process. 

Section 36(2)(c) has been applied to elements of the Champollion contract as the brief point 4 (a specific requirement concerns seeking strategic or tactical advice from the contractor) and point 8 (dealings with the BBC) and this forms part of the internal thinking space of the Council which if it were to be released would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. The Council needs to be able to examine the options. 

Bollocks.

 

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