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.]


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.






[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.



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?



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?”

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. 



The investigations are piling up in Tower Hamlets. Today, The Times reported on its front page that:

Britain’s first directly elected Muslim mayor has been accused in the High Court of involvement in electoral fraud and illegally smearing an opponent.

Groups of people were paid to gather outside polling stations and persuade voters to back Lutfur Rahman on election day last month in Tower Hamlets, east London, an election petition claims.

The mayor’s supporters are accused of canvassing inside polling stations and accompanying voters to booths where they left election material urging people to vote for him, according to the petition.

Mr Rahman, who was born in Bangladesh, or his team cast postal and other votes in the names of people who were not entitled to be on the electoral roll, and acquired voting papers that they completed in favour of the mayor, the documents claim. If proven, the actions would be against electoral law.

The court documents allege that corrupt or illegal practices were so prevalent that they affected the result of the election. Mr Rahman, an independent social democrat, was the first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2010, winning 52 per cent of the vote. Last month he won re-election in a closer contest, where he received 43 per cent of first-preference votes but beat Labour by 37,000 to 34,000 when second preferences were included.

If the petition is successful, the mayor faces a rerun of the poll. He could be banned from holding office if the High Court finds evidence of electoral mispractice by him. His agent condemned the petition as a waste of time and money. Gerald Shamash, the Labour party’s national solicitor, has been hired by the petitioners, a cross-party selection of local voters.

The petition claims that the Labour mayoral candidate, John Biggs, was wrongly smeared as a racist during the campaign. Deliberately making false statements about an opponent’s character is against election law. Mr Biggs, who is white, was accused of racism for saying that Mr Rahman’s primary focus was the Bangladeshi community.

The Labour candidate, a senior member of the London Assembly and former leader of Tower Hamlets council, said last night: “I was distressed by the accusations, which have no foundation. They were part of a cynical campaign to try to polarise community opinion.”

John Williams, the returning officer for the mayoral election, is also named on the petition in relation to separate allegations. The complainants blame him or his officials for allegedly letting Mr Rahman’s supporters enter polling stations, where they are accused of canvassing voters, accompanying them into polling booths and leaving campaign material around the booths.

It is alleged that the count was impeded by the large number of Mr Rahman’s supporters who attended.

Mr Williams said that the toughest measures were put in place at the election. He said that 84 allegations were passed to police. In most cases no evidence was found but eight were still under investigation.

The petitioners are Andy Erlam, an anti-corruption candidate, Debbie Simone, a Labour candidate who lost her seat by 28 votes, Azmel Hussain, a Labour supporter, and Angela Moffat, a Ukip supporter. The High Court is being asked to break the seals of the ballot boxes to check that votes were correctly cast and counted. A source said that Labour was not party to the petition but did not oppose it.

Mr Rahman’s agent, Alibor Choudhury, said: “All candidates in the mayoral election accept the results. The returning officer and the police pursue all allegations and complaints reported to them. This petition challenging the results does not raise any new issues or evidence.”

The court documents can be read in detail here:

On Iain Dale’s LBC radio show tonight, John Biggs said he supported the petition. Peter Golds, the Tory opposition leader, has made a small contribution to the petition’s legal fighting fund.

The petition has now been served on the Mayor, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Returning Officer; the petitioner’s must now apply to the court to fix a date with an election judge within 28 days.

If a hearing is granted, the first thing that will be asked for, as I understand it, is a recount and new scrutiny over the vote.

Again as I understand it, the allegations of corrupt electoral practices also apply to Lutfur’s agent, Alibor Choudhury. If proved against Lutfur himself, he faces being removed from office. If only against Alibor, then we face a rerun of the election. Alibor and Lutfur strongly deny any corrupt practices.

The other interesting deadline looming is the submission of election expenses by the various parties on June 26. During the campaign, Labour raised collective eyebrows about how well funded Lutfur’s machine was. But I’m sure Lutfur’s submission will suggest his expenditure was within the limits.

This is going to be a busy month for Lutfur and Tower Hamlets. The by election in Blackwall and Cubitt Town is preoccupying the political parties, but there are also various investigations that have the potential to build a head of steam, or running out of puff.

Here are just the ones I can think of:

  • Election petition
  • various criminal investigations into alleged electoral fraud
  • complaints to the police about using ‘fake’ addresses on nomination forms (thoroughly recommend this piece by Andrew Gilligan on Sunday, which refers to Kabir Ahmed, among others)
  • Review by Electoral Commission into the May 22 counting shambles
  • Interim or final report by the PwC auditors ordered in by Eric Pickles last month (deadline June 30)
  • Criminal investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office into the so-called Panorama “whistleblower”

Arch-villain or superhero? Lex Luther or SuperRahman? Take your pick.

If anyone spots orders for Teflon and Kryptonite in the next set of Tower Hamlets supplier payments, you’ll know why.


Pleasing TakkiTo cut a long story short, I was ejected from a Tower Hamlets council meeting tonight and frogmarched out of the town hall by two uniformed security guards on the orders of Head of Communications Takki Sulaiman.

Because I told him he was acting like a prick.

I regret my choice of word. Four letters would have been enough.

He and I have a long history. He dislikes my journalism and I dislike his attitude to press freedom.

I’ve covered Tower Hamlets for nine years now and in that time I’ve seen a gradual erosion in the access afforded to reporters wishing to cover council meetings. That erosion didn’t start with Takki’s management of the communications department, but he has contributed to its acceleration.

He frequently converts press queries to Freedom of Information requests on the spurious grounds that they’d otherwise cause his team (which produces East End Life) too much work.

A couple of years ago, I felt he tried to get me the sack at the Sunday Express by writing to my editor because he objected to me using a scanner in my employer’s office.

And in 2011, he ordered the permanent removal of the reporters’ table that had been a fixture at the very front of the public gallery in the council chamber. After that, the council started reserving seats in the front row for reporters.

This last point is relevant to tonight’s events.

The meeting started at 7.30pm. I arrived some 10 minutes earlier. The public gallery was packed. I stood in the doorway of the council chamber looking for a seat and as is often the case, councillors and others came up to me to say hello.

I saw Takki sitting in a seat not far from the front. There was a space next to him, which he said had been reserved for East End Life. I asked another officer to show me the reserved press seats. She told me Takki had given them all up to members of the public. I asked why. She asked Takki. He told her because I hadn’t responded to an email to say I was coming. I told her I don’t think I ever got an email.

Besides, the council had clearly been expecting me. Here’s the ticket that had been waiting for me in the town hall reception when I arrived:


I was then told I’d have to sit at the back of the public gallery behind a large pillar that obscures the entire council chamber. I told the council officers that that was completely unsatisfactory. By this time Takki had given up his seat for a member of the public.

I then stood at the back of the public gallery in the far corner of the room where I could see (from a distance) the backs of three councillors’ heads.

I started tweeting this and remarked that East End Life had been given a reserved seat. Takki strode over with his iPad. He was logged on to my Twitter timeline. Like many others, he probably enjoys my live tweeting of these meetings. Bless him. He said Laraine Clay, the East End Life editor, was using a crutch and that’s why he’d reserved her a seat. Fair enough (and let me stress as I have on many occasions my deep respect for Laraine). I asked him when he’d sent me the email about reserved seating. He said one of his team had sent it. I said I didn’t get one and that anyway it was irrelevant. As he turned his back to walk away, in a quiet voice, one on one, I told him he was acting like a prick. He asked me to repeat it. So I did. He then asked whether I’d like to be removed from the gallery. I said, ‘Do what you want Takki, I’m trying to report.’

He then hurried off and walked into a wall.

Then a few seconds later, two THEOS (Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officers) approached me. They asked me to leave the gallery. I followed them. Takki was waiting in the corridor outside. He asked me whether I’d called him a prick. I said Yes. He said I’d have to leave the building and the two THEOS walked me to the lift, got in, shook their heads in embarrassment and made sure I left the town hall.

The Evening Standard has covered this tonight. It’s another PR disaster for a council that desperately needs to improve in that department. And caused by the man who runs that department. Ours was a verbal spat between two grown adults – a hack and a spin doctor who are used to trading industrial language. And it comes at a time when there have been attempts behind the scenes to draw the poison from the political situation.

He says in a statement tonight: “This is my workplace, I have a right not to be abused in my workplace. I don’t know any other walk of life where it would be justified.”

Well, let’s try Tower Hamlets politics shall we? Over many years, both he and I have witnessed abuse hurled at councillors from the public gallery, some of it homophobic, some of it about personal appearance.

And in none of those instances did Takki or anyone else ask for people to be evicted.

In fact, the only other time I can remember Takki & Co asking someone to be marched out was last year…when the redoubtable John Wright, a 71 year old Alzheimer’s Ambassador was physically removed from the chamber for having the temerity to film proceedings after Eric Pickles had said ‘Go ahead’.

Anyone spot a pattern here?

PS Oli Rahman was named Deputy Mayor tonight. Congratulations to him. I’ve never heard him swear in my life. Ahem.

This is a guest post by Andy Erlam, who was a candidate for the Red Flag Anti-Corruption party in Bow East on May 22 (he polled 129 votes).

[I've thought hard about hosting this post, and it is in no way an endorsement of the petition. I was asked whether I could publicise it, given this site's audience. Andy Erlam says he would cite various grounds for a petition (which effectively calls on a court to conduct a judicial review of the result/count), including alleged voter intimidation. It would be for an Election Court to decide on any merits. A petition needs funds behind it and there are risks associated with it. Andy can explain directly. The initial costs of £10,000 are being met by Andy and he says arrangements are being put in place to limit any liability thereafter.]


Dear Ted,

I am presenting an Election Petition about the Mayoral Elections to the courts. We urgently need additional voters to sign and formally support the petition. The matter is urgent and I need other Tower Hamlets voters and, ideally, who voted in the 22nd May elections to join the petition.

The initial costs of £10,000 will be met by myself and arrangements are being put in place to limit liability, if any, thereafter.

Please get in touch with myself on 07795 547033 or andyerlam@ymail.com soonest. Petitioners must contact me urgently ideally before end of business Thursday 5th June please.

Witness statements from other voters are also needed and can be gathered later.

Several people have kindly donated to the legal fund. The fund details are as follows:

Account name: Steel and Shamash
Account number: 69524020
Sort Code: 15-99-00

IBAN number: GB48HOAB15990069524020


Solicitors’ address:
Steel and Shamash,
12, Baylis Road
London, SE1 7AA

Please note that in the event of an underspend of the fund, contributors will be repaid their contribution proportionately, or in the unlikely event of not proceeding entirely.


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