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My apologies for being relatively quiet over the past few weeks. Normal service will resume pretty soon.

In the meantime, here’s an update on the PwC report.

Earlier this week, Jim Fitzpatrick asked Eric Pickles in the Commons for an update.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The Secretary of State commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct an examination of the finances of Tower Hamlets council. Tower Hamlets council will be paying for that audit. Will the Secretary of State update us on how long it will be before the auditors report?

Eric Pickles: We are talking in terms of a matter of days. I understand that the consultants have finished their report, but the facts will have to be checked with Tower Hamlets, and only when that process has been completed will I be briefed on it. I shall then have to make a “minded” statement, because Tower Hamlets will obviously have the right to respond before I make a final statement to the House.

Actually, Eric “misspoke” slightly when he said a “matter of days”.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has just issued a statement detailing the next steps.

As the council’s head of paid service, Steve Halsey, announced to staff this week, PwC’s team of up to 25 inspectors have now “withdrawn” from the town hall.

Their fieldwork was completed on September 8. They are now into the fact-checking phase. This means extracts of the facts contained in PwC’s draft report are being sent to interviewees (ie Mayor Lutfur Rahman and officers etc) for fact-checking.

It is expected this process will take 10 working days. Responses and comments will have to be returned to PwC by September 25.

The report might then have to be amended; while this phase has in theory no time limits, it’s unlikely to take more than two weeks. The report will then be sent to both Eric Pickles and the council.

Pickles will then consider what action, if any, he will take. He’ll probably make his decision within 24 hours before issuing a statement to the Commons. The PwC report will also be published at that point.

It is expected this statement and publication will take place in the week beginning October 13.

What actions might Eric take? Well, certain “direct functions” might be removed from the council and instead placed under the direct control of the Secretary of State, or independent commissioners appointed by him.

In other words, special measures. This might well be the grants or procurement processes, for example…but that’s purely my speculation.

Many in Tower Hamlets, including within Lutfur’s camp, believe Eric will at least impose a new council chief executive and relieve the clearly overworked Stephen Halsey from his head of paid services duties.

Camp Lutfur, and some senior Labour figures, also doubt whether the PwC report will, beyond installing a new chief executive role, contain anything more than a few rapped knuckles over processes.

This language tends to downplay the importance of following “processes” in local government spending decisions…

Jim Fitzpatrick and Lutfur’s team are also openly worried and critical of the potential £1million cost of the PwC report. As things currently stand, those costs will be charged directly to Tower Hamlets taxpayers.

It is inconceivable this will happen in reality. If the report finds governance failures, it will surely be sensible politically for Eric to announce that Whitehall will pick up the tab: why should innocent Tower Hamlets taxpayers face the double-whammy of suffering poor governance AND the cost of detecting them?

Meanwhile, Lutfur seems to be carrying on oblivious. Over last few weeks he’s been concerned with the important matter of choosing his next chauffeured car.

Nine days ago, this Volvo V60 Estate D6 AWD Plug-in Hybrid 5dr (Price £49,975) was seen in his town hall parking spot.

Mayor car[1]

A Toyota Prius hybrid (as I predicted here in May) has also been seen in that space.

A council spokesman said:

We are currently exploring  a range of transport options to assist the Mayor in his duties. As part of this process the more efficient and environmentally-friendly hybrid cars are being considered as a potential option.  

A car is necessary because the Mayor seeks to maximise his accessibility to the electorate by going to them rather than requiring them to come to the Town Hall. 

Most recently the Mayor trialled a more environmentally-friendly Volvo hybrid D6 for three days, at zero cost to the taxpayer.

But when I asked what other cars he’d tried out, Takki Sulaiman’s press office told me to submit a Freedom of Information request.

Which says something about attitudes towards openness and what they consider the “best value” for taxpayers’ money.

PS.. Sadly, I wasn’t at last night’s full council meeting, which didn’t fail to live down to its usual standards. Lutfur and his Tower Hamlets First party staged a walkout rather than debate why the council has spent money applying for a judicial review on DCLG’s decision to send in PwC. All councillors were apparently told by interim monitoring officer Meic Sullivan-Gould they risked jail should they breach the Contempt of Court Act in debating the issue.

The East London Advertiser’s Mike Brooke has the full story.

And here is the full text of DCLG’s statement today:

Update 11 September 2014

Inspection of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets: concluding stages

In April inspectors from PricewaterhouseCoopers were asked to look into serious allegations of governance failure, poor financial management and fraud.

PwC have now substantially completed their inspection fieldwork and are in the process of producing their report.

PwC has today (Thursday 11 September) sent certain factual information, which they may include in their full report, to Tower Hamlets Council for fact-checking.

Where individuals have given information in interviews which may be referred to in the report, PwC will also be sending relevant information to that individual by the end of the week.

The council and individuals receiving this information will have 10 working days to comment to PwC on its factual accuracy.

All this information has been provided by PwC on a strictly confidential basis solely for the purpose of this fact-checking exercise.

From Thursday 25 September PwC will be considering all the comments received, and finalising their inspection report, which must include any matters identified where the council has not complied with its statutory best value duty.

As required by statute once PwC has finalised its full report, it will then send a copy of that report to the Secretary of State and to Tower Hamlets Council.

Once the Secretary of State has received the report, he will give it careful consideration. Subsequently, in due course, he intends to exercise his statutory power to publish the report, and to make any statement he considers appropriate to Parliament.

If the Secretary of State is satisfied that Tower Hamlets Council is failing to comply with its best value duty, he may exercise his powers of statutory intervention. Statutory intervention may take a number of forms including directing a council to take any action that the Secretary of State considers necessary or expedient to secure its compliance with the best value duty, or directing that certain parts of the council’s functions be undertaken by the Secretary of State or by a person – for example a commissioner – appointed by him for that purpose.

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Remember these invoices I was sent by Tower Hamlets council under the Freedom of Information Act?

Panorama Champollin Invoices2 Panorama Champollion Invoices3

They were submitted by Champollion, the PR specialists hired by the council’s £100,000 a year head of communications, Takki Sulaiman. They were brought in because he and colleagues felt they were incapable of producing a media strategy to deal with the Panorama programme in March. They needed help.

The invoice totals were redacted because the council felt it had to protect its own and Champollion’s commercial interests.

Well, thanks to the wonderful Audit Commission Act, which allows people to investigate how their taxes are spent, I’ve been able to obtain the non-redacted copies.

Here:

Champollion invoice Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 21.21.00

So £26,970 + £14,174 = £41,144.

Actually, there was a third invoice from Champollion but because that was submitted after the financial year end on April 30, it falls outside the scope of the Audit Commission Act. We’ll have to wait until next year for that.

Still, not bad for a few weeks’ work. I’ve also obtained the contract between Champollion and the council. The contract commenced on February 14 and was signed by Kim Catcheside, a Champollion director and formerly the well-known BBC education and social affairs correspondent.

The brief sent out in January by the council to PR companies intending to bid for this goldmine stated:

A documentary is being made about Tower Hamlets and the Mayoral system by an investigative team commissioned by the BBC. The programme has been in development since at least June/July 2013 but we first became aware of the project in October. It has proved hard to engage with them and the council is keen to ensure accuracy and balance in the final product. It appears the team want to make their documentary and add on an interview with the Mayor at the end. The precise focus of the documentary is being gleaned from other organisations rather than the documentary team. An interview is likely in mid to late February and a tour has been offered and accepted.

At the back of the contract is a schedule of Champollion’s proposed fees.

Here:

champollion fees

Kim Catcheside was the director assigned to the project. The proposal was that she would be charged to the taxpayer at an hourly rate of £250, or £1,750 for an eight-hour day. That’s about £455,000 for a 270-working day year. (That’s not Kim’s salary, of course.)

My new documents show that part of Kim’s £250-an-hour work was to spend some time coaching and preparing Mayor Lutfur Rahman for his interview with Panorama’s John Ware.

Here:

 

champollion briefing

How very kind of them, you’ll notice to offer a “Champollion graduate” to the Tower Hamlets press office…at the rate of £500 a day. £500 a day equates to a fee of £135,000 a year. They must have some pretty talented graduates on their books. Maybe Takki should sign up if he has a degree.

You’ll also see that part of Champollion’s brief was to attend meetings with the council’s legal team.

Well, that team, headed by Meic Sullivan-Gould, had also decided it didn’t have the expertise to handle Panorama and ensure what the BBC is required to do anyway, ie adhere to its own charter.

So Meic commissioned City lawyers Taylor Wessing. Their brief also included handling the so-called Panorama “whistleblower”, who is now under criminal investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office. They also spent many hours examining the dossier she “obtained” from Panorama and which she passed to the mayor’s office in (probably) late January.

Thanks to the Audit Commission Act, I’ve also obtained the invoices from Taylor Wessing, its contract with LBTH and various other incredibly interesting back-up details.

Here are the invoices:

So that’s £36,922.72 + £40,170.74 + £3,179.72 + £1,651.52 = £81,924.70.

Here’s part of the brief Meic supplied to bidders in January (after they’d been handed the leaked dossier, of course):

TW brief

But Taylor Wessing were ever so kind when it came to costs.

Here’s a section from a letter sent by their Trademarks, Copyright and Media Partner, Niri Shanmuganathan, to Meic.

 

TW costs

So the partner charged £408.76 an hour; Tim Pinto, the “trademarks copyright and media senior counsel” charged £330 per hour; and the trainee was charged at a mere £156 per hour. All plus VAT.

They even charged LBTH for reading my blog! Which is free. At least someone’s making money from it.

I write all this, and there’s more to come, because any Tower Hamlets elector has the right to object to the council’s accounts. You have the right to dispute these invoices if you feel they are not valid or properly commissioned in some way.

In summary, the council paid at least £123,068 to Champollion and Taylor Wessing to try and stop/limit the damage from a half-hour Panorama documentary. 

The council’s Audit Committee meets on September 16 when the external auditors will meet officers and councillors to discuss the draft accounts. Any objection should be raised then. I’ll dig out the email and post it here tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the wait for the PwC report into LBTH continues (at a cost of £1million…).  

 

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Sometimes you just have to despair.

I was told this morning the black shahada flag that was taken down from the gates to the Will Crooks estate in Poplar on Friday morning is now back up.

I’m told this followed an angry estate meeting on Friday when wiser heads warned that re-erecting it would be provocative and bound to cause trouble.

I’m told ex-Respect councillor Dulal Uddin, who appeared on a strange Newsnight account of the affair on Friday (when there was no mention of the anti-Semitic abuse directed at me and Guardian journalists the previous evening), was the key agitator behind its return.

Dulal was one of the more unremarkable councillors during his stint from 2006-2010, but I’m told he’s desperate to get back into the council. There are some who believe he’s using this row for his own ends.

I understand that Sister Christine Frost, the community activist who asked for the flag to be taken down, is furious her actions were reported as “Christian nun tears down flag”; her actions were not faith-related but potential trouble related. I understand she disagrees with it being back up. I understand she’s concerned the issue is being exploited by politically motivated adults who don’t even live on the estate.

Whatever the motives, this is a stupid and dangerous move.

I understand that Chief Inspector Gary Anderson, of Tower Hamlets police, was present at Friday’s estate meeting. That meeting ended with a unanimous resolution to:

  • re-erect the Shahada, but with explanations in English below for ‘non-Muslims’. It would say it’s a flag that affirms the Islamic faith.
  • that all meet for five minutes to pray for peace in silence (all faiths and none)
  • they do some “conflict resolution” work with young people
  • to meet again on Monday

Some quick thoughts (I have a lunch date I need to make).

1. If they want a flag, why not settle for the Palestinian flag? Flying an Islamic flag (that experts say on a black background has jihadist overtones) sends the message this is a religious conflict.

2. This is a Tower Hamlets Homes estate. It is publicly owned. The council has ultimate control and ownership. Why is THH allowing political/religious flags to be flown from public property where people of all faiths and none live? How does that square with inclusiveness?

3. Mayor Lutfur Rahman asked for the flag to be taken down on Thursday night. Surely, he’ll have to follow that through.

4. I’ve not heard one apology from any of the leaders of the Will Crooks estate for the anti-Semitism. It’s not even mentioned in a statement I know they’ve distributed to people.

Fail all around.

More later..

UPDATE, 6pm, August 10 – Flag removed again (after police called)

The agreement of Friday’s estate meeting was, according to someone there, to re-erect the flag somewhere in the estate so long as it was accompanied by a translation of the shahada. That meeting agreed to meet again tomorrow to decide when and where it would go up.

However, last night someone broke that agreement. Key figures on the estate believe Dulal Uddin and others were agitating for it to go up again before tomorrow’s meeting.

I’m told that Sister Christine Frost rang the police this morning to tell them the flag was back up. That’s why, as Cllr Andrew Wood reported in the comments section of this blog, Ch Insp Anderson was there today.

In fact it was Ch Insp Anderson who supervised the removal of the flag again this afternoon.

Sister Christine has asked Lutfur to ensure that no religious flags are allowed in public places such as that estate. She wants to foster inclusiveness there.

Before the flag was removed again, Poplar and Limehouse MP Jim Fitzpatrick issued this statement:

“If the black flag is indeed a religious symbol and not a jihadist one, it should be displayed in a religious building and not on public property. The Mayor should instruct his officers to remove it as he did on Friday.”

In the meantime, and before Lutfur was aware of Jim’s intervention, the mayor had ordered it again to be removed. He has also asked the council’s youth service to conduct some “serious engagement” work on the estate to ensure the youth (and probably some adults) fully understand the issues.

I’m also told the estate caretakers have been told to look out for flags on their morning rounds, and remove any that have been hoisted again.

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Black flag PoplarThe Guardian today reported on an incident at the Will Crooks estate in Poplar High Street last night when journalists and a “passer-by” were sworn at by a group of youths.

The group was guarding a black flag they’d erected over the gates to the estate. The flag, which bore Arabic lettering, was believed by some who live nearby to be the ISIS flag.

Experts from the Quilliam Foundation have since assured me it was not. They say it is the shahada, the Islamic testament of faith, superimposed on a black flag. They think the message is: it’s your Islamic duty to support Muslims in Gaza. It is also said that by using a black, which is the colour of war in Sunni Muslim traditions, the message has jihadist overtones.

But I suppose it’s intent that matters. Who put these youths up to it? Did anyone? Are they actually thinking about what they’re doing?

I’ve also heard it argued that this is “Lutfur’s legacy”. The argument runs that by so frequently shouting racism and Islamophobia, he and his team have encouraged (unwittingly or not) an angry, unbalanced outlook. It’s said his decision to raise the Palestinian flag at the town hall last month increased this fervour.

While I think the town hall flag decision was unwise in a borough like Tower Hamlets (I understand his reasons, but I think there were other ways to demonstrate solidarity), I’m not sure he can be blamed for the current outbreak of anti-Jewish hatred. I suspect it’s been there a while.

I also think Lutfur has a good record in this area. He issued a strong statement after last night’s incident, which you can read below. (UPDATE AT 4.30pm: I’m told his office is also trying to calm the situation this afternoon: I hear the youths are being encouraged by some elders to erect more flags. Watch this space.)

That said, we need far more of this firm language. These kids/idiots quite possibly don’t even realise how prejudiced they are. It’s as if they’ve lacked firm parenting or teaching on the issue. And let’s be clear, this is not an attempt to smear all youths in Tower Hamlets. But there seems to be a terrible silence towards those who hate from those who should know better.

Lutfur needs to lead on tackling this. Perhaps special inter-faith task forces are needed to teach in mosques, schools and colleges…about anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim hatred.

Anyway, here’s the piece I wrote for the Express website today about my experiences at the Will Crooks estate last night. (The community activist I refer to is Sister Christine Frost: I bumped into her this morning just after she’d removed the flag.)

I WAS told this morning by a community activist in east London to be kind in this article to the Bengali Muslim youths who threatened violence last night…and who told me to “F*** off Jew, you’re not welcome here.”

So let me state her well-meaning view that they’re “good boys” and that they’ve been raising much money for the victims of the terrible violence in Gaza.

My wife, a Bengali Muslim herself, disagrees.

She thinks they’re a “disgrace”, both to their families and to their shared community.

My wife is always right.

Until a few days ago, the gates to the Will Crooks estate in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, were adorned with posters calling for an end to the siege in Gaza.

Flying atop the gates was the flag of Palestine.

poplar estate

Then someone–and it’s important to find out whom–had the bright idea of replacing that flag with what many in the area took to be something more sinister.

I received a tip-off about it last night. I was told the black “ISIS” flag was flying there. I was sent a dark grainy photograph but it was difficult to make it out.

So I stopped by the estate on my way home.

With no wind, only a few Arabic letters were visible on the flag. I took out my phone and started taking pictures from different angles.

A few shouts were thrown my way. A group of five or six youths approached me. They asked what I was doing.

Just taking pictures, I said.

I asked them to explain the black flag. They said it represented their Muslim faith. Then they asked for £5. “It’s our flag, we charge people for taking pictures,” they said.

I tried to keep it light-hearted: I joked I was a good photographer; they should be paying me £5.

A few more youths, all of them mid-late teens, a couple a little older, joined the group.

Then one stared at me.

“Are you a Jew?” he asked.

I’m not. I have a large nose; I fitted his stereotype.

I glared back at him. “What if I were? Would that be a problem for you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “F*** off Jew, you’re not welcome here.”

I looked at one or two of his mates. “Your friend wants to be a bit careful using language like that,” I said.

Another one, apparently more sensible, told him off. This older one then asked whether I was “the police”.

I asked him whether I looked like police. He said I did. I told him if I were, I’d probably be arresting his mate for what he just said.

“You wouldn’t have the balls, man,” he said. “The police don’t have the balls to arrest us.”

The crowd around me had grown again.

“Are you a journalist?” another asked.

Now, I’ve been covering Tower Hamlets for nine years. I’m well known among political activists, and to some I’m a target. A crowd outside the venue for the notorious Tower Hamlets council election count in May started yelling at me when they recognised me walking home.

So on this occasion yesterday, I answered: “What if I were, would that be a problem?”

They said it would be. “We don’t want journos here. They call us terrorists.”

I didn’t count, but I think there were some 15 youths around me by this stage.

Then an older man appeared. He told me to leave for my own safety. He said I was inflaming tensions. “Mate, there’s going to be an incident if you stay,” he warned.

I told him they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with anti-Semitic abuse, that they needed to learn intimidation wouldn’t work.

So I told him I was staying.

Then another (white) man appeared. He had a professional camera and took a few photos of the flag. The youths surrounded him; they demanded his camera. They wanted to delete his photos.

The photographer was from The Guardian. Their reporter, Rajeev Syal, appeared next to me. We know each other.

The youths asked who he was. He told them he was a journalist.

“Ah,” they said, pointing at me. “So you are a journalist.”

Then one voice, then several: “F*** off Jews. We don’t want Jews here, f***k off Jews.”

The three of us then headed for the photographer’s car, parked just down the road. They followed us.

More abuse, more demands for the camera, then warnings of violence unless we left.

We left.

The Guardian reported an abridged version of the story this morning. I’m the “passer-by” mentioned in that article.

There’s been some debate whether the black flag was that of ISIS, or merely a symbol of the ‘shahada’, an affirmation of Muslim faith. It was probably the latter.

However, most agree that placing such symbols or words on a black flag has violent jihadist overtones; replacing the Palestinian flag for that one was a provocative act.

About five minutes’ walk away from the Will Crooks estate is the Tower Hamlets town hall.

There last week, the borough’s directly elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, ordered the flag of Palestine be raised as a “humanitarian gesture of solidarity” with Gaza.

His decision created national headlines.

Some applauded his principles; others worried his action would stoke the fires of division, that his example would somehow legitimise hatred among those less able, or willing, to spot the difference between the policies of an Israeli government and the views of the British Jewish community at large.

But to the mayor’s credit, when he heard about the incident in Poplar last night, he asked council officials to have the black flag taken down.

In actual fact, the flag was removed before they arrived this morning… by the community activist I mentioned earlier.

FLAG REMOVED

However, Mr Rahman said: “I will not stand for anti-Semitism or any other form of hate in this borough.

“I am deeply concerned by media reports of abusive language and will be liaising closely with the police on this matter.”

The bigger, troubling question for him, however, is does he have a problem with a significant section of the youths in his borough?

It may well be that yesterday’s incident was just local hooligans looking for a cause and identity, and acting territorially on their estate.

But I think there’s probably more to it than that. They seemed to want a Jew-free zone.

The conflict in Gaza has unleashed what I think has been latent anti-Semitism in the minds or far too many in Tower Hamlets.

A few years ago, I was called ‘Ted Jewry’ by one former councillor.

He later apologised.

But social media, particularly during Ramadan, when the violence in Gaza was at its peak, was awash with pro-Hitler prejudice against Jews.

The terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Zionist’ have been used interchangeably as a form of abuse.

And all this from sections of a Muslim community that has quite understandably felt aggrieved at rising levels of Islamophobia directed their way in recent years.

Every year, a delegation from Tower Hamlets marches to a nearby mural in Cable Street to pay homage to the Jews and anti-fascists who stood firm in 1936 against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.

The East End defeated anti-Semitism in that battle.

Now, it must beware of its rebirth.

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UPDATE at 11.30am: The flag was removed this morning as police arrived at Mulberry Place to discuss concerns raised with them by the Jewish community. There had been worries about inciting hatred…this in a borough that has a No Place for Hate policy. Full story on Express.co.uk here.

This is a Guest Post by Cllr Shahed Ali, Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s cabinet member for environmental services. He has been a passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause for many years and was at the forefront of yesterday’s decision to raise the Palestinian flag at the town hall. That decision by the mayor was backed by the Labour group at a full council meeting last night. (As always with guest posts, by hosting them, I’m not necessarily endorsing them.)

 

shahed ali, palestinian flag, town hall, tower hamletsThe UK and USA governments trot out the same excuses: “Israel has a right to defend itself, it needs to protect its citizens.” But as always with the media, whether that is the BBC or Sky News, this is not the full story. The military onslaught by the fourth largest military power supposedly targeting Gaza is so brutally disproportionate and indiscriminate that it makes it impossible not to view Israel’s actions as nothing short of war crimes against humanity.

Four Israeli citizens have died from these ­primitive rockets, with approximately 50 Israeli soldiers killed fighting on the ground. Compare that to the death toll in Gaza? Of the 1,200-plus already killed, more than 80 per cent are ­civilians, mostly women and infants. Israel brands them terrorists but it is acting as judge, jury and executioner in the concentration camp that is Gaza.

What happened to the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis is appalling. But you would think those atrocities would give Israelis a unique sense of perspective and empathy with the victims of a ghetto. Where can these people escape to when Israel is bombing hospitals, places of worship and even UN schools acting as ­shelters, where exactly is it safe to flee to?

I was born and brought up in London. I grew up learning, being taught in secondary school, about the story of Anne Frank during Nazi Germany. I grew up reading the book and also watching the movie series ‘Holocaust’.

I recall these memories very fondly and close to my heart. This history of Nazi genocide upon the Jewish people brings a wave of emotion and tears to my eyes, and rightly so.

That is the reason why my IQ does not allow me to comprehend just how such atrocities can now be committed upon the Palestinian people in this day and age – the ideology to the denial of rights, dispossession and expulsion of the “indigenous population of historic Palestine”?

No doubt many will and have already questioned and criticised Mayor Lutfur Rahman for the decision to fly the Palestinian flag at a British public Town Hall. I say this to those who say Palestine is not an issue for Tower Hamlets:  it very much is because we do not want the UK to become a breeding ground for young people who feel they have no choice but to express their anger and frustration for injustice by participating in military conflict abroad, whether they are Muslim, Arab, Jewish or Israeli.

Hamas is wrong to continue its DIY rocket attacks. But as Channel 4’s Jon Snow said this week: “If you strangle a people, deny them supply for years, extreme reaction is inevitable.” One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Tory Party chairman Grant Shapps is wrong to state we should not intervene on foreign affairs in the Middle East. It is we the people who vote to elect our government. Thousands of people have marched the streets of London and capital cities around the globe in solidarity against this injustice.

Foreign policy is most certainly in our interest and of concern to the British public. The attacks which took place on 7/7 cultivated from disgruntled British citizens in response to our foreign policy in the Middle East. Israel’s indiscriminate attacks upon civilian lives and our government turning a blind-eye will not solve this dispute.

They will just continue to create another generation of hate-filled Palestinians and others around the world, determined to fight against the injustice of being occupied, oppressed and slaughtered. The media is quick and correct to demonise British Muslims who choose to go abroad and participate in conflicts. But the same demonization should not be excluded to British Israelis who have also equally chosen to go abroad and participate with the Israeli Defence Force – both are wrong and both should be condemned.

I am extremely proud to be a member of Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s cabinet today at Tower Hamlets Council. I salute him for the courage he has demonstrated by agreeing to fly the Palestinian flag in solidarity with the hundreds of innocent children who are being slaughtered as we speak.

The British public cannot be a silent witness to this carnage one minute longer. Our government and the world must force Israel and Hamas to end this endless cycle of death, or we risk death and destruction much further afield to just the Holy land.

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Given the heat and potential significance of the sale of Poplar Town Hall, it was a bit surprising to see just one member of the press at the specially convened Overview and Scrutiny committee meeting in Mulberry Place last Tuesday: me.

And yes, I got a seat.

And I also won a minor battle with the council’s communications department, who had initially told me I wasn’t allowed to film the proceedings. The committee’s chair, Cllr Josh Peck, agreed to my request, although because at least one (anonymous) senior officer objected, filming the officers’ contributions, including that of development director Aman Dalvi, was banned. A battle for another day.

I apologise in advance for my iPhone camerawork (you try holding one steady for an hour), and the discussion is just about audible with the sound turned up. I’ve had to compress the quality so it can go on YouTube.

I’ll introduce the characters in a bit, but first a bit of background.

You’ll remember that Poplar Town Hall on Woodstock Terrace, E14, was sold in November 2011 to Dreamstar Ltd, a company reported by the Telegraph to be part-owned by Mujib Islam. Mr Islam, the chief executive of Medialink, is the registered owner of Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s campaign website, lutfurmayor.com, and has admitted helping Lutfur to become mayor in 2010.

Dreamstar bought Grade II listed Poplar Town Hall after a rather unusual purchase process for £875,000. Within weeks Mujib applied for a change of use on the building from B1 (community/educational) to C1, which meant it could become a “boutique hotel”. It is thought this change of use, which he finally secured in 2013 (under planning officers’ delegated powers–no committee needed apparently), means the property is now worth millions.

Understandably, there have been allegations of cronyism, and worse.

Tory leader Peter Golds demanded an investigation in January 2014. Among the matters he asked for in the motion passed by full council was a valuation report to show what the building was worth in 2011, and what it would have been worth if it had been marketed as a hotel.

It is that last aspect which is troubling people.

Auditors from the Mazars accountancy firm produced a final report this month. Actually, unknown to opposition councillors, they did produce an interim report in February but somehow the council executive managed to kick that stick of dynamite to this side of the mayoral election. Funny that.

I wrote in detail about the Mazars report earlier this month, here. To say it raised a number of serious questions is an understatement. They found that key records on the bid process had either gone missing or didn’t exist at all; that a council lawyer predicted it would end in litigation; and that Dreamstar’s final bid was not only late (and therefore should not have been accepted, but also it was not even the highest. They also found evidence to suggest the mayor himself was involving himself in the actual sale process, which would be highly unusual. And much more.

The report was damning.

But when two of their senior managers appeared at the committee on Tuesday they provided what Lutfur will regard as a killer line to those accusing him or his administration of fraud.

They said:

“If we thought there’d been any dishonesty, we’d have reported to this to the police or external auditors. There’s a big difference between a few missing records and dishonesty.”

I apologise to Lutfur because as I was taking notes at that stage, I wasn’t actually holding the camera. So he’ll never be able to watch that moment.

However, I suspect more than a couple of the committee members weren’t convinced. And it was clear on Tuesday night that even non-political/lay members of the committee (who were actually the stars of the show) thought there had been at least some negligence, perhaps wilful

So here’s some more relevant background. Poplar Town Hall was first mooted for sale in March 2008 under Denise Jones’s leadership of the council. At a cabinet meeting in March 2008, one of the proposed options for sale and marketing was a small scale hotel.

However, nothing further happened until January 2011, three months into Lutfur’s mayoralty. In the intervening three years, the property was used as a temporary venue for the Ian Mikardo School. That use was coming to an end and Lutfur’s cabinet member for finance and resources, Alibor Choudhury, was concerned about the costs of securing a potentially empty building.

So in January 2011, Lutfur’s cabinet discussed the latest situation. Officers produced a report (as an update to that March 2008 decision) saying they estimated the value of the building at £1.5million. Officers were told to proceed for a quick sale.

Officers asked bankers from BNP Paribas to carry out a marketing exercise. Paribas valued the site at £750k-£950k. The offers that finally came in from bidders in June 2011 fell mostly within that range, although Mazars noted one officer remarking the narrow range of the bids looked “odd”.

Mazars also noted that none of the bidders, including Dreamstar or its shareholders, declared any interests with respect to the administration’s officers or elected representatives.

At Tuesday’s hearing, we were not, sadly, graced by the mayor’s presence. In fact, Josh told the committee he was still awaiting answers to a series of emailed questions.

Meic Sullivan-Gould, the interim monitoring officer, showed up and declared everything was fine. But he still got his knuckles rapped when he admitted he and other officers had “forgotten” to carry out the work demanded by Peter Golds’ January 2014 council motion. He said he and other senior officers had “overlooked” it, that they’d been unable to determine whose responsibility it was.

Sullivan-Gould also said the council would be able to claim a slice of the windfall profits Dreamstar will make from converting the building to a hotel, although no negotiations on that have yet taken place.

Aman Dalvi, the development director, also showed up and seemed to feel the pressure under some pretty intense questioning.

But the strangest exchanges came when Alibor Choudhury took centre stage. He does have an unfortunately bizarre manner when he’s performing in public, as this memorable “black cardigans” exchange showed earlier this year.

He may regard the committee’s motives on this subject as purely political, but he really should maintain the moral high ground and treat the body with a little more respect. Perhaps he’s copying his boss’s attitude.

His performance oozed contempt for almost every single person questioning him, so much so that he must have misheard or misunderstood the questions; otherwise, he seems to have told outright lies.

Several times he was asked if he knew any of the people who’d submitted bids for Poplar Town Hall. And repeatedly, he said No. “Absolutely, categorically not,” was his first answer. He then tried to explain he was unable to answer fully because Josh hadn’t put an actual name to him. Bafflingly, Josh was banned by the committee’s lawyer, David Galpin, from mentioning Mujib Islam by name, even though it’s a fact he was at least a director of Dreamstar, it’s a fact that Dreamstar owns Poplar Town Hall, it’s a fact he was named in the Sunday Telegraph, and all this is documented at Companies House and via other open sources.

Mr Galpin said he could only be named in a closed session of the committee, from which the press and public are banned.

And because we were banned from seeing those further exchanges, all we have to go on at the moment is Alibor denying in general terms that he knew Mujib, a man I thought he’d at times worked closely with in the 2010 election campaign.

Oh well, I’m sure that will come out in the wash..

Whether the committee will conclude there was any dishonesty or abuse of process is yet to be seen, but I think they’ll have an easier job saying value for money was not obtained on this historic property.

The two stars of last Tuesday night’s hearing were probably the two lay members: Nozrul Mustufa and the Rev James Olanipekun. They’re both parent governors in the borough. And they both asked the best questions of the night.

Nozrul was visibly incredulous and angry that neither the mayor nor any of his cabinet bothered to ask the obvious question at the outset of the sale; namely, what could the property have fetched if it was sold as a possibly hotel. He pointed out that this was in 2011, a year before the Olympics and when “hotels were popping up all over the place” in Tower Hamlets.

Nozrul said this is what we elect councillors and mayors to do: to ask these questions.

Alibor at first tried to argue his way out of that hole but then realised he couldn’t. So he blamed BNP Paribas. How responsible.

The full exchange lasts for 32 minutes; I think the best bits start just after 16 minutes with Josh and Alibor’s argument. However, the anoraks will want to view the whole lot.

I’ve also transcribed the exchanges from about 16 minutes onwards below. It all helps to give a full record.

As for the people you’ll see…by this point the two Mazars accountants had left, so their seats are empty; Meic is just to the left of the frame and he comes into shot towards the end. Straight ahead is Josh Peck, with David Galpin on Josh’s left. On Josh’s right are two other officers, the three Tower Hamlets First councillors, Maium Miah, Abjol Miah and Suluk Ahmed.

On the right as you look, you see the opposition councillors: Labour’s John Pierce, Denise Jones and Asma Begum; then Tory Cllr Craig Aston, the Rev James and Nozrul.

Alibor is right in front of the camera, with his back to us.

Here’s the video:


And here’s the selected transcript:

Josh Peck: Did you know any of the people who submitted bids for Poplar Town Hall?

Alibor Choudhury: Absolutely, categorically not.

JP: really?

AC: …give me an assertion.

JP: You don’t know any of the people who submitted bids for poplar town hall?

AC: Test me, throw me a name. I’ve told you no.

JP: I’m not going to bandy names around.

AC: That’s ok, I’ve told you no.

JP: Your evidence to us is that you knew no one who submitted bids for poplar town hall.

AC: Back in 2010, 2011..when the bids were being marketed and when the bids had come in, I did not have a clue

JP: That’s not the question I asked you.

AC: You were asking about the people and I’ve told you already, I didn’t know any of the people.

JP: You don’t know anyone who submitted…?

AC: Well name me a name, give me a name, it might jog my memory

JP: There’s a clear allegation in the media that someone pretty closely associated to the mayor [and..] his campaign ended up purchasing the Poplar Town Hall.

AC: You can’t use the media; in the media, they say that you cost the council £26,000 recently for rejecting Lovebox’s licence, which they got overturned in court. £26,000 of our money, taxpayers’ money. Now, if we go by the media, there’s a lot of things I can say to you, and you can say, so please be factual and stick to council records.

JP: I’m asking you a question; there’s an allegation in the media that names an individual and I’m not going to name that individual in open session..

AC: You have to, you have to; otherwise I can’t answer the question. Cllr Peck, it’s like sending me to a dark room and you know..

JP: Ok, we’ll go into closed session after this and we’ll go through some names.

AC: We don’t need to…this is public…Ted has every right to know. I think you should give us the name then test me. So I can then answer properly can’t I.

JP [turns to head of legal services David Galpin]: Mr Galpin, are you happy for us to name individual names?

David Galpin: I am concerned about it in open session, only because it concerns personal data from a third party; I don’t know who that third party is, so for that reason I’d be concerned about it.

AC: He’s concerned but it’s not illegal and I think journalists here have a right to know who this individual is. You don’t know how I will answer; it might be music to your ears, Cllr Peck. We don’t know.

JP: I’m asking you a general question about whether you knew, whether you know any of the people involved in the bids for Poplar Town Hall. You’ve said ‘no’ repeatedly, so that’s fine.. .

AC: Yeah.

JP: So we can take that answer from you.

AC: But you seem to know otherwise, you seem to be probing me thinking you might get a different response if you chuck a name at me, so why don’t you chuck a name at me.

JP: Given what I’ve read in the papers recently and given what I know, I am surprised..so we’ll leave it at that.

AC: What kind of interrogation is that?

JP: Do you know if the Mayor knew anyone who submitted bids for Poplar Town Hall?

AC: Give me a name and I’ll tell you..

JP: Did the Mayor know any of the people involved..?

AC: As far as I’m aware….No.

JP: As far as you’re aware, the Mayor knew no one who bid for Poplar Town Hall?

AC: Unless you give me a name, Cllr Peck, it’s very difficult for me to answer that question.

JP: We’ll go into closed session later. Did you declare any interest in the process?

AC: I wasn’t involved in the process apart from the decision-making part in cabinet

JP: Did the Mayor declare any interest in the process?

AC: I’m sure he would have if he’d had an interest….We’ll have to check our records

JP: Are you happy that a public building sold for £875,000 could now become a boutique hotel worth millions of pounds?

AC: I’m not sure I’ve got an opinion on that really.

JP: Any other questions?

Nozrul Mostafa: You’ve made reference that the £1.5million was an..estimate….at some point the value from BNP Paribas..was up to £950,000. When that was eventually founded (?), was there no question asked why the value was so low?…I know the officers made that decision; at some point cabinet, even the Mayor, I can’t believe the cabinet didn’t know that this building was going to be sold for X amount of pounds.. below even if it was an estimate and not a valuation..Ok, what is the reason why it was so much off the mark…even if the answer was that that was an estimate up in the air. Was that question ever asked: why are we selling it so cheap compared to the estimate? No one, not even the mayor or cabinet even raised it?

AC: It did come back to cabinet. We had the update report in January saying…that we needed to progress and officers would do that, and officers would report to the mayor at some point in time

NM: And in January, that valuation from Paribas would have been there?

AC: With all due respect, I think I’ve answered this already. We were satisfied that the decision made by officers on the basis they made those decisions, that decision was good enough for us. We were satisfied; therefore we did not question it.

Rev James Olanipekun: How closely does Resource and Development work together, given the fact they should be working in tandem?

AC: There is a relationship, Reverend. Resources and asset management work very closely together especially when it comes to disposals because disposals yield money and money comes into our coffers, which then forms our budget or the financial activity of the council..so there is clearly a hand in glove relationship.

JO: Given your submission, isn’t there the necessity to ensure true value for money?

AC: There has to be a degree of trust; these are our officers, they are experts in their profession; we rely on their advice and guidance. We have our political knowledge; we have the grassroots intelligence that we bring to the table. But ultimately, it’s about working together with these officers about coming to an understanding. And I believe we got there. Our job is to challenge officers as well, don’t get me wrong, we’re elected to advocate and represent our communities and challenge officers when the need arises but I felt it was robust enough and it got us where we needed to be. Otherwise the building could be empty still now, bleeding us hundreds of thousands.

NM: That’s the reason why I was asking. As an elected member, I find it quite disheartening that any councillor wouldn’t challenge their officers with reference to the price that they were selling it or marketing it for. This £1.5m was an estimate, but it was out there. That’s what the cabinet decision was based on to sell it. Now when it came, as the Cabinet lead member for resources, it was £1.5million and there’s a discrepancy there..why were no questions asked?

AC: There’s a simple answer to that.

NM: But was the question asked?

AC: There was a guestimate of £1.5million; at the time, the market determined we weren’t going to get that, you’ve got your eight hundred or whatever it was thousand pounds. That wasn’t because officers didn’t try, or the process was flawed, or anything else. Everything was there to ensure we would get the maximum. Clearly we didn’t achieve the £1.5m guestimate..

NM: Was the question asked? You keep saying guestimate? Was the question asked: it was at cabinet for £1.5million; I could understand if the answer came back that that was a guestimate, and that’s the answer, that’s fair enough..

AC: Let me put it another way…

NM: You keep saying the question wasn’t asked and you didn’t know.

AC: ..Say wed said this wasn’t enough and put it on the market again, and re-market it and revalue it, it doesn’t really help our situation does it? Given that officers clearly demonstrated they’d tried to get us the maximum value for that property, and the circumstances were what we foudn ourselves in at the time, we felt that would suffice. You keep asking me about questions, we could question…

NM: With all due respect, with 2012 coming up..in 2008, we had this policy of this being a hotel. This was marketed as an educational as a B1 use, which wasn’t a hotel use. I can’t believe there wasn’t anyone who asked for a valuation if this is being changed to a hotel, what would the valuation would be? I’m not sure if Paribas did that…

AC: ..that was after the fact though..

NM: ..they valued it at £850-£950k ..

AC:…that’s ‘as is’ though..

NM:…yes, as is…with a B1 use. With the Olympics around the corner, that we were having, did no one ask whether there was an element of this from 2008 when it was marketed as a hotel bid, what would the cost be as a hotel use?

AC: Fist of all, I’m not sure whether officers pre-empted it would be a boutique hotel at that time. It was marketed as a former town hall that had a range of uses, for education and community as one, and given that they followed their noses when it came to getting that valuation. If they’d have pre-empted it was going to be a hotel then who knows? But correct me if I’m wrong, the hotel proposal came after the sale.

NM: I’m saying with the various criteria that were there, I’m trying to understand why weren’t different scenarios put out there. If this happens at C1 use, if this has a B1 use, if this has a D1 use, these are the price valuations we get can get for this town hall. I know the planning application came in afterwards and it was agreed by whoever made that decision…My point is when Paribas gave the valuation why was it just valued at a B1 use and educational use? Why weren’t whatever permuations there could be, this is what it should be marketed as?

AC: We used highly skilled professionals to give us the best value for that property and to do whatever necessary to achieve that. Clearly, if you’ve found a weakness in that, we should take that to BNP Parnabus, Barnabus, Paribas, or whatever they’re called. I can’t sit here and preempt the future and assume things. We had to work with what we had; we had to work with an asset as is. And our job is to make that asset didn’t become a burden or a liability for the council. And that’s my job.

NM: Well, personally, we vote for councillors and cabinet members to ask these questions of their officers, so ultimately..it’s up to you to ask these questions and like I say, the bottom line is…it’s relevant it went to a hotel use afterwards, there was a hotel element when it first went to cabinet for disposal in 2008. I can’t understand why – given there were hotels popping up all over the place, in Commercial Road, on Cambridge Heath Road, Holiday Inns, hotels were coming everywhere–that we didn’t have an element where Paribas..well, I’m just going over it again.

AC: I think you’ve got a valid point. It’s a learning curve. Next time, we might not use BNP Barnabus, Paribas, because if they’re that useless and made oversights of that nature, maybe a recommendation that comes from this is that we strike them off and not use them again.

JP: One of the questions we asked of BNP Paribas is whether they’d been passed a planning brief that included a possible hotel use and they didn’t think they had.

AC: I can’t answer that, I’m not aware of that at all.

 

 

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When I was sent this yesterday I thought it must be a fake or a joke. It’s certainly not the latter.

It’s the latest attempt at comedy from Tower Hamlets council’s in-house joker, the Interim Monitoring Officer Meic Sullivan-Gould.

He likes Facebook, does our Meic, and he seems a happy-go-lucky sort of guy. And at least he has good taste in international rugby teams (Wales).

But I’m not sure how well his latest offerings on social media (during the Panorama programme in March, he attacked the Mayor’s critics) will go down with the hard-pressed taxpayers of Tower Hamlets. Or his colleagues, or Mayor Lutfur Rahman and his team, come to think of it.

Screen shot 2014-07-24 at 12.27.47I’m not sure what rate he’s being paid as a contractor at Tower Hamlets council but his predecessor, Isabella Freeman, took a salary of £121,000. I suspect Meic would consider himself worth far more than that.

He’s lucky to be in a position where he can afford a new car, even if it is a crappy BMW Z4 (08 reg, worth about £10k). The vast majority of people who pay his wages (or, according to Meic, who paid for his car) can only dream of buying one. According to Tower Hamlets Food Bank, 70 per cent of all households in the borough survive on an annual income of less than £20,000.

So although I’m sure he meant no harm with his little jest (and he probably had a little bet it’d be reported – I’m told his toy is in the town hall car park today), it is a little crass.

In fact, it seems it’s a little tradition of his. Here’s his Facebook offering from March 2013, when he was taking the contractor’s shilling at Cheshire West and Chester council:

MSG

Such a scream.

Incidentally, he also wrote this on Facebook after last month’s Tower Hamlets council meeting, when I was ejected.

MSSG

Thanks Meic!

(By the way, I will be blogging about the Overview and Scrutiny meeting on the sale of Poplar Town Hall on Tuesday, when there were some quite entertaining exchanges between Meic and the chair, Josh Peck, and between Alibor Choudary and almost everyone else… .)

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