Among the most interesting members of the dreadful crew around Lutfur Rahman, the extremist-linked executive mayor of Tower Hamlets, is the council’s assistant chief executive, a woman called Isabella Freeman (above). She is one of the borough’s shrinking band of senior white officials who has not been sacked or decided to leave.
Last year, it can now be revealed, both Labour and Conservative members of Tower Hamlets council overwhelmingly passed a motion recommending disciplinary action against Freeman. It was passed in a secret session of the full council but has so far made no difference whatever to Freeman’s position. It has not even been reportable until now.
Freeman is responsible for the “standards regime,” the code of conduct for Tower Hamlets councillors. Last week in the Commons, under parliamentary privilege, the former local government minister, Bob Neill, told how Freeman and Lutfur’s supporters have “abused” the standards regime to hound the mayor’s opponents and protect him, bringing it into “serious disrepute.”
Anti-Lutfur councillors – including the Labour leader, Josh Peck, his predecessor Helal Abbas and the Tory leader, Peter Golds – have, said Neill, been subject to a “history of vexatious complaints” by Rahman supporters and placed under costly and time-consuming investigations by Freeman for Kafkaesque supposed “offences” which amount, in essence, to “doing what many people would regard as their duty.” What Neill called the most “frankly scandalous” example involves me.
You may remember that my interest in Tower Hamlets began, in March 2010, when I made a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary describing how Lutfur won the then council leadership with the help of the IFE, an extremist Islamic group which wants to turn Britain into a sharia state. (For a full list of Lutfur’s controversies, see here.)
One of Lutfur’s key actions after taking control was to appoint a man with close links to the IFE, Lutfur Ali, as assistant chief executive of the council, its second most important job. We showed the absurdity of this hire by quoting a leaked headhunter’s report of his job interview, which described him as a “marginal,” “limited,” “superficial” and “one-dimensional” candidate who might “struggle intellectually” with the job. The CV submitted by Mr Ali was also leaked, showing he’d given false dates for a previous post and had omitted the fact that he’d been forced to resign from it for breaching the local authority code of conduct. After we revealed his links to the IFE, and after it also emerged that he was moonlighting for a second public-sector employer, Mr Ali was forced to resign from Tower Hamlets, too.
During the making of the programme, in late 2009, we filmed Peter Golds, the Tory leader, holding and reading from these leaked documents. Incredibly, in 2012, almost two and a half years later, one of Rahman’s supporters brought a complaint against Golds for “infringing” Lutfur Ali’s “right to privacy” in this interview and breaching council confidentiality by “leaking” the document to me.
At enormous public expense, Freeman hired an investigator to pursue this preposterous, bewhiskered claim, with a full panoply of interviews, witnesses and statements. Oddly enough, or perhaps not, the one person the fearless gumshoe didn’t manage to hook up with was the key witness, myself.
So I contacted the investigator to point out that the documents were not leaked to me by Golds; that they had in fact been circulating in the public domain since the previous year; that their contents had been referred to in the local newspaper, the East London Advertiser, as early as May 2008; and that even if Golds had been guilty of any disclosure simply by reading them out on TV the year after, the deceits and disqualifications of the council’s second most senior officer were surely not private, but matters of the clearest public interest.
I asked why Tower Hamlets was spending thousands of pounds to defend a long-gone employee who was forced out for essentially cheating it – especially since Lutfur Ali himself had never complained, either to the council or to Channel 4. I asked why this investigation was being launched so long after the supposed offence had taken place. And I also asked why, given something Golds said to me was the basis of the complaint, the investigator had made so little effort to contact me.
Answers came there none – presumably because the answer is that whole farrago was launched for the sole purpose of hassling Mr Golds, a regular thorn in Lutfur’s side, tying him up in legal knots, costing him big money in legal bills, and deterring anyone else from holding the Dear Leader to account too vigorously. Scandalous is almost too weak a word for it.
At the time of writing, despite a formal written statement from me making clear that the key allegation against Golds is false, the complaint against him grinds on. It was rightly rejected by the local government standards tribunal. Astonishingly, Freeman and Tower Hamlets are now considering appealing against the rejection – perhaps they’ll end up at the European Court of Human Rights! In the meantime, Peter Golds is faced with yet more hassle and potentially substantial legal bills. The poor old taxpayer, of course, is picking up the council’s side of the tab, which will not be small.
It is far from the only such example. After a similar case, as I described in 2011, Tower Hamlets suspended its ex-leader, Helal Abbas, following a complaint by an IFE bigwig. Abbas’s offence was to reveal the truth: about how that self-same IFE man – a council employee – had been disciplined by the council for interfering with the 2010 elections. This too was deemed an “invasion of privacy.” Twelve thousand pounds has also been spent on a complaint from the Lutfur camp against the Labour leader, Josh Peck, for walking on the cracks in the pavement something too tedious to describe at length.
As Bob Neill said last week, councillors’ beef with Freeman is not just her zeal in pursuing these ludicrous cases. It’s that, though theoretically a servant of the whole council, she seems rather less willing to pursue perhaps better-founded complaints against the mayor’s supporters – several of whom, as I’ve documented in the past, have somewhat burning questions to answer. Freeman, as he outlined, has also helped Lutfur in various other ways, giving a clean bill to his absurd weekly propaganda newspaper, East End Life, and ruling on at least one occasion that the Dear Leader need not answer questions from councillors – at a council meeting! – because it might breach his human rights.
This alleged bias, essentially, is why councillors from left and right voted to discipline Freeman. The proximate cause was her advice, whose impartiality they strongly dispute, in Tower Hamlets’ ongoing failure to appoint a chief executive. The reason why the vote against Freeman hasn’t come out in public until now shows, however, that the hounding tactic is having the desired effect. No councillor, until Neill raised it under privilege in the Commons, has felt able to risk Freeman’s wrath by talking to me on the record about the subject. They were worried about being subjected to yet another complaint.
As Bob Neill put it last week, Freeman’s behaviour “hardly gives the impression of an unbiased, open and transparent approach.” The council’s antics under her, he says, constitute the sort of “abuse of the system [which] brings local government into disrepute.”
By way of reply to Neill the council claims that Freeman “had no powers to reject [complaints]. It was the Standards Committee [of councillors and lay members] who referred claims for independent investigation. In relation to the substantive allegation of bias in investigating complaints about elected members,12 complaints were referred to [Freeman] in 2011 and 2012. Ten were subsequently referred by the Standards Committee for independent investigation: 4 relating to Independent members, 4 relating to Labour members and 2 relating to Conservative members. The facts show that the Standards Committee has made referrals in respect of all political parties and independents.”
Let me just say that Golds, and other councillors, have provided me with information which quite clearly shows Freeman taking a rather more prominent role in the disciplinary process than this statement claims. I have a feeling you’ll be hearing more about Isabella Freeman.