Lutfur Rahman: a defence based on lies

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I’ve been marvelling at last week’s Guardian article by Richard Seymour and Ashok Kumar defending Lutfur Rahman, the extremist-linked mayor of Tower Hamlets. Ashok is the man who celebrated Rahman’s election victory under the headline: “The last outpost of the Raj falls.” There are also interesting things online about Richard which open, shall we say, new windows into his views on racism. With friends like these, etc, etc.

Even by the standards of the Guardian’s reporting of Tower Hamlets – most unlikely to win another Pulitzer! – this is an amazingly dishonest piece. Its 950 words contain by my count at least 18 separate falsehoods, many of them copied directly from council press releases and Rahman leaflets (see above.)

It’s worth going through the claims from the leaflet (and – where different – the article) to deconstruct some of the things we’ll be hearing endlessly from Rahman and his defenders in the weeks ahead. “Judge me by my record,” he keeps saying. Not, presumably, his and his supporters’ cronyism, favouritism, links with extremism, bullying, intimidation, unscrupulousness and general political sleaze but his many alleged policy accomplishments to help the people of Tower Hamlets.

Even some of his opponents half-buy the line that Rahman’s success is due as much to his populist policies as to vote-buying, ethnic bloc favouritism and so on. See what you think once you’ve read this.

Claim: A racist smear campaign has been launched against Rahman.

Reality: This is presumably a reference to my and other people’s reporting. In fact Rahman and his supporters have lost countless complaints to the PCC and Ofcom about my reporting, which has been upheld on every substantive point. In particular, the PCC ruled that it was not inaccurate to describe Rahman as extremist-linked.

The claim of racism is the standard charge made by Rahman against all who question him. But a majority of my sources, including three of those quoted in my latest article, are themselves Bangladeshi.

Claim: Tower Hamlets has “built more council housing than any other council in England or Wales.”

Reality: Tower Hamlets did not build a single new council home last year, according to DCLG figures. Nearly all new social housing in England is built not by councils, but by private developers as part of bigger schemes or by housing associations. Nearly all public funding for newbuild social housing comes not from councils but from Whitehall (or, in London, the Mayor of London.)

Claim: Tower Hamlets “introduced [the] Decent Homes programme to refurbish every council home.”

Reality: Decent Homes is a national programme introduced by the last Government in 2000, two years before Rahman even became a councillor and ten years before he became mayor. It is also paid for by the Government – though that hasn’t stopped Rahman sending thousands of publicly-funded direct mail letters to council tenants, claiming the credit.

Claim: Tower Hamlets is the “only council in the UK to replace the full Educational Maintenance Allowance.”

Reality: When abolished in 2011, the full EMA was worth £30 a week, or £1170 per academic year (39 weeks). Tower Hamlets’ scheme pays a maximum of £400 a year and is in any case due to end this summer (p4 of this PDF).

Claim: Tower Hamlets provides a “£1500 bursary for students attending university.”

Reality: Only 400 bursaries were available – although 800 students from the borough start university each year – and even these were a one-off, given only to students starting in the 2013/14 academic year (p4 of this PDF).

Claim: Tower Hamlets has “introduced free school meals for every primary school child.”

Reality: Free school meals have in fact only been introduced in two of the seven primary years – reception and Year 1.

Free school meals will be introduced for the other primary years only in September. The cost for the the three infant years will actually be met by the Government under its new national scheme, not by the council. The free meals for junior school children (years 3-6) will be funded by the council, but only for twelve months. It is not clear what happens after that.

Claim: Tower Hamlets has “kept full council tax benefit for every recipient.”

Reality: This actually applies only to “most” recipients, according to the council website. And even that is only guaranteed until April 2015, after which it will be “reviewed on an annual basis taking into account the needs of residents, the cost of provision and the funding available.”

Claim: Tower Hamlets was the “first in the UK to introduce the London Living Wage for all contractors.”

Reality: Untrue. Tower Hamlets does not pay the London Living Wage to all contractors, as this officer report (para 8.2) makes clear. A number of authorities, including Tory-controlled City Hall, do pay it to all contractors. Nor was Tower Hamlets even the first in London to extend the LLW to contractors.

Claim: Tower Hamlets is the “only council not to charge for elderly personal care. All provision remains free.”

Reality: Untrue – 32 other UK councils do not charge for elderly personal care.

Claim: “All children’s centres, libraries, leisure centres and youth services remain open.”

Reality: Untrue. In youth services, Tower Hamlets has cut its budget by 65 per cent – double the national average. It is one of only 12 authorities in England to receive an official Government warning about its failure to track young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs).

Children’s centres were restructured in 2011 and the service offered from fewer main sites. According to a quarter-on-quarter comparison by the council’s scrutiny committee, the restructuring resulted in 153 fewer classes, 715 fewer hours’ service provided and 3,372 fewer children using the service.

Claim: Tower Hamlets was the “first council to ban contracts with firms that blacklist trade unionists.”

Reality: The ban in fact applies only to construction firms which blacklist trade unionists. Tower Hamlets was not the first council to ban such contracts – Hull, for instance, acted sooner. The ban appears to have only symbolic effect because the companies involved in the blacklisting say they have stopped doing it.

Claim: An investigation following allegations by the BBC’s Panorama “turned up no credible evidence of wrongdoing.”

Reality: Both a police investigation and a separate Government investigation remain ongoing. See my earlier blogpost for an account of the wholly misleading statement issued (and later corrected) by the Met on this issue.

Claim: The Electoral Commission found “insufficient evidence to prove an offence” of voting fraud in 2012.

Reality: As my detailed post on the issue describes, many of the allegations of fraud were investigated and dismissed not by the Electoral Commission or by the police, but by Tower Hamlets Council – in other words, by people working for Lutfur Rahman. Where the police did investigate, they found “evidence to suggest that offences may have been committed” for at least five – possibly more – allegations. However, their investigation was desultory and made little effort to gather sufficient evidence for prosecution.

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Lutfur Rahman's Muslim favouritism: the evidence

Lutfur Rahman (Photo: PA)

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.”

Study support

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.

Lifelong learning

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.

 

Ken Livingstone and Lee Jasper: a friendship reborn

Lee Jasper (Photo: Julian Simmonds)
Lee Jasper (Photo: Julian Simmonds)

Older readers may remember Lee Jasper, the £127,000-a-year Ken Livingstone race and policing adviser forced out in a cronyism scandal, who came to stand for everything that was sleaziest about Ken’s City Hall. In recent months, despite Ken’s denials, the signs have been growing that Ken, if re-elected, is preparing to do what he promised in 2008 – and bring Jasper back.

Next week, according to emails sent out by the organisers, Ken and Jasper will share a platform for the first time since the scandal, at the May Day rally in Trafalgar Square no less. It will be a major boost to Jasper’s attempts to rebuild his presence on the London political stage. He has started turning up at City Hall, on his old beat, recently disrupting a meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority in protest at the death while under arrest of a man charged with serious drug offences. And Ken strongly defends Jasper, hosting him several times on his LBC radio show and claiming that he has been “cleared” and that various enquiries have found “no evidence against him…no-one has come up with any wrongdoing.”

The truth, alas, is a little different. Jasper was forced to resign after channelling tens of thousands of pounds of public money, for no clear purpose, to a company run by Karen Chouhan, aka “my darling Kazzi,” a married woman who he wanted to “honey glaze,” “whisk away to a deserted island beach” and “cook slowly before a torrid and passionate embrace.”

Millions more went to other organisations run by some of Jasper’s other friends, many of them based in the same small room at a business centre in Kennington and virtually none of them delivering anything in return for the cash. To this day, substantial sums remain unaccounted for.

The main independent inquiry into the affair, by the District Auditor, condemned Jasper’s behaviour as “not appropriate” and “below the standards expected” of a GLA officer. It found that Jasper had concealed his relationship with Chouhan and that there was no documentary evidence to show why the money had been paid to her company. Even Livingstone himself conceded, in an LBC interview on 6 March 2008, that Jasper had “breached absolutely” the GLA’s code of conduct.

I can, of course, understand Jasper’s obsessive need to lie and rewrite history – but Ken’s use of the same tactics is a little more puzzling, and can be explained only if he is planning a future for his ex-race advisor.

Lee Jasper: last post for a while, but a good 'un

I seem to have written rather a lot about Lee Jasper in the last few weeks – sorry – but the following historic event cannot go unrecorded. Tomorrow, at the Friends Meeting House in Euston, Ken Livingstone’s former race adviser will be appearing alongside a woman named Karen Chouhan. For the first time in public, Londoners will be able to re-live The Relationship Which Sunk A Mayoralty.

Until 4 March 2008, as far as the world knew, Mrs Chouhan was just a salt-of-the-earth diversity outreach consultant and professional “visionary” (as she described herself on her Companies House records). And if her companies did seem to receive an awful lot of money from City Hall, while not doing terribly much in return, that was surely just a tribute to her skills at cross-sector stakeholder engagement?

But on that fateful day, thanks to the year’s most embarrassing set of leaked emails, we learned that at the same time as Mr Jasper was signing the City Hall cheques to Mrs Chouhan’s companies, he was also proposing to “honey glaze” Mrs Chouhan, “whisk [her] away to a deserted island beach” and “let [her] cook slowly before a torrid and passionate embrace.”

She wasn’t Mrs Chouhan in those messages either – she was his “darling,” his “gorgeous, wonderful, sexy Kazzi,” – and he was the “General.”  Mr Jasper didn’t declare this relationship, as City Hall rules required. Within four hours of the emails’ publication, he was unemployed, and Ken’s campaign to keep his own job was holed below the waterline, too.

I don’t mention this just to mock – though the temptation is irresistible – but because of the sheer brazenness of the people involved. Tomorrow is another part of Jasper’s renewed bid to make a comeback in public life. The Chouhan incident should remind us all why that is not a good idea.

PS: The event’s hosted by Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote – Jasper’s representative on earth, defender of the great man in various radio and TV studios and himself a former director of two of the Jasper crony organisations, including one of Chouhan’s. Amazingly, Woolley has recently been made a £500-a-day commissioner of the government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission. I know the EHRC has suffered a lot of resignations recently, but really…