Over the next few weeks, this blog will be setting out in detail the truth about Lutfur Rahman, the extremist-linked mayor of Tower Hamlets, and the full evidence against him. I should stress that, over the last four years, all our material about Lutfur and his extremist allies has survived literally hundreds of complaints to Ofcom and the Press Complaints Commission.
Rahman’s supporters make two main defences: first, that in the words of the Guardian’s Dave Hill, “if Rahman has sinned, how many others are doing so all day, every day in ways that, in the end, differ if at all only in the means and detail?”
To the contrary, this series of blog posts will show that what is happening in Tower Hamlets is on a completely different plane from normal political behaviour. (What is it with Dave, who has embarrassing form as Ken Livingstone’s chief media poodle? Has he some psychological need to act as a public excuse-maker for the least scrupulous politicians he can find?)
The second defence, inevitably, is to claim that all scrutiny of Rahman is racist – again, without any factual basis. Instead, as I show below, it is Rahman who is practising racial and religious favouritism and it is his ethnicity that has saved him from scrutiny. Any council led by a white politician responsible for even half of what Tower Hamlets has done would by now have been picked apart by the media and placed under official investigation. But many journalists and officials are afraid of being branded racist for criticising Rahman.
Finally, however, following the BBC’s Panorama on Rahman this week, it looks as if the dam is breaking. A Government investigation is now looking extremely likely. In the days ahead, I will describe the kind of things it should be about.
We start today with the evidence which shows how the Rahman adminstration’s grant-giving in many areas strongly favours Muslim groups, even though their presence in the borough is actually falling.
First, some facts about the ethnic and faith makeup of Tower Hamlets. According to the 2011 census, its largest single ethnic group is white – 45.2 per cent of the population. Bangladeshis make up 32 per cent – down from 33.4 per cent in 2001. Muslims make up 34.5 per cent of Tower Hamlets people – again down, from 36.4 per cent in 2001.
You wouldn’t know this from the makeup of Lutfur Rahman’s ruling cabinet, which is 100 per cent Bangladeshi and Muslim, or from his grants. In 2012, the council changed its policy to ensure that “the decisions for all awards over £1,000 were to be made by the Mayor under his executive authority”.
After that time, as both the BBC and I have catalogued, there was a clear diversion of funding away from secular bodies serving the whole community to faith-based or religious groups serving only sections of the community. As councillors on Tower Hamlets’ cross-party scrutiny committee put it, “new, untested organisations with no track record of delivering for the community” suddenly sprang up, paid substantial sums for often ill-defined projects. As I will describe in future posts, several of these very well-funded new projects appear to be based in people’s private homes. Several involve individuals with close personal connections to Lutfur Rahman.
There are a number of grants programmes with which we will deal in turn.
Community faith buildings support scheme
This is a new £2 million fund invented by Lutfur Rahman to pay money to religious buildings. No other council in Britain does this, or anything like it. Of the first £600,000 awarded, the only round announced so far, £388,000 (64 per cent) went to Muslim faith buildings.
Some places got grants without even having to say what they wanted them for – for instance, the Bow Muslim Cultural Centre got £10,000 for work simply described as “to be confirmed.” Let’s hope they think of something to spend it on soon, shall we?
Many of the recipients were in no need whatever – such as the East London Mosque, which got £10,000 for “professional fees” even though it has an income of more than £1 million a year. The East London Mosque is the home of Lutfur’s key backers, the extremist Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), whose front organisations have received millions from the council under various programmes.
Community events and community chest schemes
Rahman has created funds that organise pre-election events and reward his supporters and potential supporters with public money. Of the £593,512 granted, at least £327,645 (55 per cent) has gone to Muslim organisations.
Grants (listed here and here) included a total of £37,195 to several groups closely associated with the IFE. A further £32,500 of public money has been paid to UK-based Bengali-language newspapers, media organisations and TV stations – influential with Rahman’s electorate – which have given the mayor fawning coverage.
Other grants included £1,800 to an Islamic religious teachers’ organisation for its annual day out to the Isle of Wight and £1,500 for a “festival of sneakers.” Someone else has bought themselves a coffee machine on the public dime. In a number of other cases, as with the faith grants, the council hasn’t troubled even to agree what it is paying for before it hands out the dough.
Rahman’s own officers and the council’s cross-party overview and scrutiny committee strongly objected to several of the awards, but the mayor brushed them aside, saying (in a written decision – he’s refused to answer any questions on the issue) that “although officers may come to the view that an application is poor and/or that it should not receive funding, there are from time to time cases where, when taking account of wider circumstances, projects are worth supporting in view of the perceived potential community benefits” (Page 5 of this PDF).
At its meeting on 7 January, members of the overview and scrutiny committee said that the grants were “not benefiting the Borough as a whole” but were “being directed to certain areas in the west of the borough where the Mayor had the majority of his vote.” The Bengali areas, they meant. Two maps, published by the committee, of the chosen locations for the grants make this favouritism starkly clear.
The pre-existing, and much larger, “mainstream grants” programme, too, has been changed to favour Rahman’s client groups, as the council’s own documents admit. Several key elements of the programme are affected. The full list of grants is here.
Older people’s lunch club programme
Of the £907,180 given to run lunch clubs for residents over 50, £515,280 (57 per cent) was allocated to Muslim organisations, to lunch clubs described by the council as exclusively for Bangladeshis or Somalis, or to clubs which from their own publicity are aimed at an exclusively Muslim clientele.
As the council’s own equality impact assessment admits (p5 of PDF), 22 out of the 34 lunch clubs funded (65 per cent) are targeted at ethnic minorities, even though 60 per cent of the borough’s over-50s are white and only 23 per cent are Bangladeshi. There was an increase of nine ethnic minority-only lunch clubs from the previous funding round, and “a reduction in lunch clubs for the general population, which primarily impacts the white British, Irish and non-Bangladeshi or Somali ethnic minority population”.
Community and economic engagement
Of the £1,235,000 in grants for community and economic engagement, £858,500 (70 per cent) went to Muslim organisations. Beneficiaries included the IFE front, the Osmani Trust, which received £80,000.
Children, schools and families
Of the £526,000 in grants for children, schools and families, £334,500 (64 per cent) went to Muslim organisations. Beneficiaries included two IFE fronts, the London Muslim Centre and the Osmani Trust, which received a total of £140,000.
As the council’s own documents admit (p3 of PDF), “this funding stream primarily supports Bangladeshi and other BAME [ethnic minority] communities.”
Of the £207,850 allocated in grants for study support schemes, £130,750 (63 per cent) went to Muslim organisations.
Mother tongue classes
Of the £313,486 in grants for mother tongue lessons, £296,016 (94 per cent) was allocated to Muslim organisations. The neighbouring secular borough of Newham spends money on teaching recent immigrants to speak English. Lutfur’s Tower Hamlets spends money on teaching people not to speak English.
Youth and Connexions services
Of the £667,000 in grants for youth and “connexions” (career advice) services, £437,500 (66 per cent) was allocated to Muslim organisations. Beneficiaries included the IFE front, the Osmani Trust, which received £130,000.
Of the £156,000 for lifelong learning, £87,000 (57 per cent) was allocated to Muslim organisations.
In only a handful of programmes in the grants portfolio, mainly those handed out under national guidelines such as the early years nursery grants, do Muslim groups not take the lion’s share of the funding.
It may be argued that Bangladeshis, in particular, are a poor community who need more help than others. They do – but in the past, as is still the case elsewhere in east London, that help was provided by long-established secular organisations with a strong track record of delivering for all communities, not organised into faith or race silos and not operating out of individuals’ private homes.