Archive | August, 2015

Leader Knows Best

27 Aug

by Rachel Collinson

“I know how this vote is going to go. If the motion was ‘the earth is flat’ councillors Rokhsana, Seyi, Kay and Susan would vote 4-2 for it,” thunders Lester Hudson, as he eyes the Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting.
I’m so offended and shocked by this that I can’t help snorting, despite being in the public gallery.

Hudson continues as though nothing has happened. “If the motion was ‘Geoffrey Boycott is useless at cricket’ they would vote 4-2 for it.” Nobody’s laughing this time. His tirade continues: “I sincerely hope this time, common sense will prevail, but I doubt it.”

There is general uproar, and the female councillors who have been the subject of these personal attacks are rightly livid. (Later on I realise that John Gray – also a member of the rebellion against the Robin Wales regime – is spared the vitriol. Could it be that the Y chromosome is a safeguard?)

A chap to my left passes me a sheet of lined A4 notepaper, with “Attendance Sheet” scrawled at the top. There is a name and one signature on it so far. I pass it on without signing.

A few minutes later, an unnamed lady shouts “Has everybody signed the attendance sheet?”

“I’ve never been asked this before as a member of the public in a council meeting,” I say, annoyed. “It doesn’t say on it how the data will be used, so I didn’t.”

“I just need to know who is here,” she replies.

Well, that much is obvious.

This meeting has been called because Newham Council’s Cabinet have seemingly approved a dubious investment proposal without oversight of the Investment and Accounts Committee. Councillors heard about it in passing and were horrified. They have decided to ask the Mayor to reconsider spending £500,000 without due process.

Council Officers will not let members of the public (or even certain councillors) see more details of what’s proposed. All we know so far is that the Cabinet are attempting to reduce payments to the council’s pension fund –  which already has a £238 million deficit – using a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’. We understand that the council is using some of their buildings as security on a risky investment. How do we know it’s risky? Because their financial advisors are warning them against it.

It seems common sense to me that if the proposal were common sense, then the Cabinet would not resort to bending the rules to avoid scrutiny.

What I am seeing in action here is the Labour belief that Leader Knows Best, and democracy is merely a frustrating blot on the master plan. The belief that the people ought to shut up and take their medicine. The belief that is shown up at its worst in the Executive Mayoral system.

This is further confirmed when a member of the public stands up and questions whether the chair should be asking loaded questions of his own committee. The offender, Anthony McAlmont, says that members of the public are not allowed to speak, despite having allowed an earlier question. For some reason this breach of meeting protocol goes unnoticed by the Legal advisor present.

I hear the words ‘p&%$-up’ and ‘brewery’ emanate loudly from elsewhere in the public gallery.

With dogged persistence, the female councillors draft a resolution that no more money should be spent until the investment and accounts committee has had a chance to review the proposal in more detail. In the end, the meeting vote is 5-1 for this motion.

Hudson warns this is a waste of time. What does he know that we don’t?

During this fiasco, I am reminded of the botched Labour leadership elections. You can vote for anything, as long as it’s the right choice.

As if to reinforce this, the Mayor rejects the motion day after.

It would be easy to despair right now. But I’m seeing a new movement emerging amongst the people of Newham. I see it in the snowballing, hopeful tweets about Jeremy Corbyn. I see it in the growing bravery of left-wing councillors against their bullying leaders. I see it in the swelling numbers of Newham Green Party.

And it’s almost reassuring to observe some councillors in utter denial of this growing trend. It means we will win, and soon.

If you’re interested in helping the Green Party challenge Labour’s one party state in Newham, do sign up here. (NB: We have a No Purge Promise™)

Rachel Collinson is acting membership secretary for Newham Green Party, and a former General Election candidate. 

More pensions malarkey

18 Aug

Bankers can’t believe their luck as Newham buys into another crazy scheme

Newham Council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee will meet next Monday (24 August) to discuss the council’s pension arrangements. Not the new scheme for councillor pensions this time, but the fund that pays for ordinary staff pensions.

Despite the current state of the council’s finances and the need to make significant cuts the Mayor has decided to spend up to £500,000 developing an asset-backed ‘special purpose vehicle’ (SPV) to finance its defined benefit staff pension scheme.  The idea is to give the scheme security over some of the council’s property portfolio, thereby allowing it to reduce its cash contributions.

At its last valuation in 2013 Newham’s pension fund was found to have a £298m deficit.

The decision to spend money developing the new asset-backed SPV was made without the agreement of the Investment & Accounts Committee, whose principal purpose is to oversee the council’s pension funds.

Cllr John Gray, who sits on the IAC, has raised concerns about this proposal and one pensions expert described it as “bloody dangerous”:

Have they learnt nothing from the City as to how not to do it? SPV-financing mechanisms were a significant part of what caused the financial crisis. 

[This] feels like they have been sold a pup by some City whizz. And where does this kind of financing arrangement (off balance sheet most likely) end?

Another expert, Judith Donnelly, told Professional Pensions magazine the half-million pound price “sounds excessive” and that

she would not normally expect it to cost that much to put an asset-backed structure in place

The government announced in its summer budget that if local authority pension funds do not pool their funds they will be effectively forced to do so. So any money Newham spends now investigating changes to its pension scheme could be wasted.

After the dreadful publicity surrounding the £560 million of hugely expensive LOBO loans the council has taken out and the stench emanating from West Ham United’s Olympic stadium deal, not to mention the naked self-interest of the new executive pension scheme, some backbench councillors are finally taking a proper interest in what’s going on. As Cllr Gray put it when speaking to Professional Pensions:

We should be extra careful not in invest in such complex products without the highest level of scrutiny.

That is why Overview and Scrutiny have ‘called in’ the decision. The request to do so was made by Little Ilford councillor Farah Nazeer, who also sits on the Investment and Accounts committee:

I am writing to request that you support my application to “call in” the decision by the Executive at the Cabinet Meeting on Thursday 23rd July 2015 (item 5) to spend up to £500,000 of public money on setting up an “Alternative Asset backed Financing for the Newham Pension Fund”.

I believe that this is the wrong sequencing for this decision because the proposal has not been consulted upon and agreed beforehand with the Newham Council Investment & Accounts Committee.

As a member of this committee I am concerned that this proposal may not be in the best interests of the Council nor the staff Pension fund and we might waste this £500,000 if the Committee decide that this proposal is not appropriate. I understand that the alternative asset proposal has significant risks attached to it which I feel merit proper scrutiny. 

It is inappropriate in principal for any such proposal to go ahead without the agreement of the Investment and Accounts committee beforehand.

I request that the Overview & Scrutiny committee should examine the arguments and consider making a recommendation back to the Executive that no further expenditure of public funds is made until the Investment and Accounts committee have had a chance to fully consider the proposal and are made aware of all  the possible costs and benefits of the scheme.

All Overview and Scrutiny meetings are open to the public. Next Monday’s is at 6:30 at East Ham Town Hall.

Love Newham

14 Aug

Swipe right

The Love Newham app takes an unexpected new direction…

No concessions

14 Aug

Freedom of Information request posted on What Do They Know:

I understand that you provide a discount to concessionary groups at leisure centres. I attended East Ham leisure centre recently to register my children and myself for swimming lessons and other activities. I brought necessary proofs but was refused concessionary payments facilities as your staffs confirmed that asylum seekers or asylum support are not included on their system.

Therefore I urgently request you to review your scheme and add extra concessionary groups such as asylum seekers as you actually do for students and those who receive council tax benefits. You are aware that asylum support is offered by the Home Office and as an asylum seeker and his family supported by NASS, we are entitled to free services within the borough. In this particular case, I am not asking you for free services but merely requesting you to add this particular group of applicants in your system to avoid future complications in this respect.

I will be thankful if you could provide me your policy in this respect as I have checked other boroughs which do give concessionary payments to asylum seekers supported by NASS under Section 4 or 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. I am concerned to note that Newham council do not have this in place.

Contrary to the myths peddled by the popular press, life is pretty tough for asylum seekers while their cases are being processed. If this is the result of a deliberate policy decision by the council it is appallingly mean-spirited and petty. If not, it’s something that can – and should – be put right quickly.


13 Aug

Unmesh shopping

Making sure no-one’s listening in

The mayor is famously intolerant of dissent, to the point of paranoia, and it seems that this has now infected those around him.

At the end of a budget briefing session last night at Newham Dockside Unmesh Desai decided to hold a briefing of his own, not on council business but on his campaign to be the Labour candidate for City & East in next year’s London elections.

He asked council officers to leave and then noticed a 17-year old ‘A’ level student who had been shadowing a councillor for the day, getting an insight into how local government works. He insisted she leave as well.

He then said he didn’t want any non-supporters in the room. So three councillors walked out, along with the bemused teenager.

Not exactly a great introduction to local politics, but a perfect illustration of how Newham Labour party works.

Not just the paranoia but the use of council property for party business. The “Desai 4 City & East” campaign should be getting a bill for the room, although history suggests they won’t.

Landlord news

12 Aug

Chowdhury & Noor

Two bits of good news for Newham’s landlord councillors.

Beckon lead councillor Ayesha Chowdhury has added yet another property to her extensive buy-to-let portfolio. The acquisition of 58 Alma Street, London E15 1QA means she now owns 19 homes in the borough.

And the planning case against Plaistow South councillor Ahmed Noor has been closed. He complied with the terms of the enforcement notice served on him at the end of April.

It remains to be seen if further action will be taken against him for operating a private rented property without a licence.

Old jokes home

12 Aug

Sponger caption

One has an ill-defined job, lavishly funded at taxpayers’ expense. The other is the Duke of Edinburgh.

Ultra vires

11 Aug

The Local Government Association has weighed in on the subject of pensions for elected councillors.

It has obtained legal advice to clarify whether a council can make contributions to an alternative pension for its elected members following the changes brought about in April 2014 by the last government that specifically excluded them from the existing local government scheme.

In essence, the advice says they can’t (my emphasis added):

Under the Pensions Act 2008, we consider that councillors generally would be excluded from the definition of those entitled to receive pensions, as they are office holders. They are not workers as they do not have a contract of employment nor any other contract by which they undertake to do work or perform services personally for another party to the contract. This means that Councils cannot rely on the general power of competence under the Localism Act 2011 but must rather have a specific power in order to make such a payment…

… The general power of competence under S1 Localism Act 2011 does not permit a Council to do anything which it was specifically prohibited from doing prior to the Act, or which has been specifically prohibited after the legislation was passed. The changes to the pensions legislation were explicit and postdate the Act.

If Councils do chose to make such payments it is likely that they will be acting in a way which is ultra vires.

Councillor John Gray has contacted Newham’s monitoring officer to express his concern about this. He has also requested to see the internal legal advice provided to the mayor and shared with cabinet prior to their deciding to introduce the new scheme.  As he notes on his blog, this has been refused.

Given that Cllr Gray is a member of the Investment and Accounts Committee, which “looks in detail at how the Council’s superannuation (pension) funds are managed,” this is outrageous. Three other members of the committee are full-time councillors who will potentially benefit from the scheme: Forhad Hussain, Andrew Baikie and deputy mayor Lester Hudson. In any future discussion about executive member pensions they will have the advantage of having seen the advice which is being denied to their backbench colleagues. The chances of an informed debate are slim.

But we know from experience what will happen next. 

In the face of legal advice he doesn’t like Sir Robin will simply commission more. At our expense, obviously.

If this turns into a fight with central government he will lawyer up and the bills will run into tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of pounds They may end up being more than the cost of the pension scheme itself.

So for local taxpayers it’s ‘heads they win; tails we lose.’