West Ham Labour cancels meeting

1 Apr

Wenborne and Hedley

The CWU Postal Engineering Branch delegate to West Ham CLP (left, obvs.) in his other job.

West Ham Labour party cancelled its monthly general committee (GC) meeting last week, after rival motions were proposed on the matter of antisemitism in the party. One affirms “our solidarity with the Jewish community and the Jewish Labour Movement as antisemitism in the UK continues to rise and is found within our own party.” Another confirms the CLP’s “implacable hostility to all forms of racism, anti-semitism and Islamophobia, and its determination to fight them in all their manifestations.”

But a third, proposed by the Postal Engineering Branch of the Communications Workers Union, “refutes the allegation that Labour is antisemitic” and

rejects the current atmosphere of hysteria, denunciation and rush-to-judgement over antisemitism that is now being stoked by certain existing and ex-Labour MPs and amplified by the mainstream media…

…too often, accusations of anti-semitism are blown out of all proportion; use distorted comments or quotations taken out of context; or are levelled against those who are making justified criticism of the unjust treatment of Palestinians by the current Israeli government.

The motion continues: “This relentless focus on antisemitism is diverting the public’s attention… and side-lining other forms of racism such as Islamophobia and other prejudices against immigrants.” It alleges that allegations of bullying in the party are “a cynical tactic by those Labour MPs who have become unpopular with their local members because they are unwilling to democratically represent them.”

This all follows an ill-tempered episode during the February GC meeting when the guest speaker Dr Bob Gill, who had been invited to speak on the NHS, made a comment in which he suggested that allegations of antisemitism within the Labour Party were ‘fake’ and ‘a distraction.’ Formal complaints have been made about the conduct of certain delegates following those remarks. Arguments continued at the Executive Committee two weeks later.

Local party officers took advice from London region before deciding to cancel the meeting, telling delegates “if we simply debate these we are in danger of repeating the events of February, rather than moving forward in a more positive manner.”

The CWU postal engineering branch delegate to West Ham GC is also the chair of Newham Momentum. Last September, the group hosted a meeting with Chris Williamson MP, as part of the latter’s Deselection (sorry, ‘Democracy’) Roadshow. Williamson was later suspended from the Labour Party over remarks he made about, er, antisemitism.

Disclosure: I am a member of the Labour Party in West Ham. I am not a member of the General Committee.

Hat-Tip to Jewish News for their original coverage of this story

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East Ham United

3 Mar

East Ham CLP AGM

When I blogged a couple of weeks ago about East Ham CLP’s AGM I suggested rival factions, specifically Newham Momentum and those still loyal to the former mayor, would be “putting together slates and cooking up deals to ensure that the ‘wrong people’ don’t wind up in charge.”

This clearly hit a nerve and Newham Momentum responded on their own blog, claiming this was just “rumours and misinformation spread by local Blairites.” The secretary of Newham Momentum added

“Ours is a broad and democratic Party. Newham Momentum is always willing to work with those comrades who genuinely respect this proud democratic tradition and are willing to work with us to combat cuts in local services whilst campaigning for the election of a radical, socialist Labour Government under Jeremy.”

So what actually happened?

Pretty much exactly what I predicted. Very few of the main officer positions were contested. Once Tahir Mirza had secured the chair on behalf of Newham Momentum, other candidates started to drop out, leaving right-wingers Lakmini Shah and Mariam Dawood to pick up the posts of vice chair (campaigns) and treasurer, while Momentum’s Syed Taqi Shah became secretary.

The full slate of elected officers

Chair: Tahir Mirza
Secretary: Syed Taqi Shah
Treasurer: Cllr Mariam Dawood
Vice Chair Campaigns: Cllr Lakmini Shah
Vice Chair Membership: Cllr Moniba Khan
Women’s Officer: Sophia Naqvi
Youth: Azka Rasool
LGBT Officer: Victoria Mitchell
BAME Officer: Cllr Sugathan Thekkepura & Asad Shan (Job Share)
TULO: Cllr Pushpa Makwana
Political Education: Tariq Hussain

After the meeting the new chair tweeted

I am very thankful for East Ham CLP to elect me as a Chair and all of us very determined to take @jeremycorbyn vision forward, every single officer elected is true socialist

And West Ham CLP membership secretary Mehmood Mirza chipped in, saying

@jeremycorbyn supporters win landslide @easthamlabour CLP after almost 2 1/2 years of special measures, thanks to all the delegates who supported the left candidates, congratulations to @TahirMirza01 Chair CLP & @SyedTaqiShah1 to be secretary,@moniba27 Vice Chair Membership.

One view is that this is “a diverse officer team consisting of pro-Corbyn Left and other local activists.” A more realistic assessment is that it’s a stitch-up that is politically unsustainable. After years of mismanagement under Sir Robin and his crew, East Ham members deserve better.

The AGM also selected delegates for the London regional conference Tahir Mirza, Victoria Mitchell and Cllrs Ayesha Chowdhury and Sasha Das Gupta.

After the meeting formally closed there were three guest speakers. MP Stephen Timms and London Assembly member Unmesh Desai spoke unchallenged, but Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz was rudely interrupted twice by the chair in an attempt to cut her her short. She ploughed straight past him. Which may be a metaphor for the next couple of years in Newham Labour politics.

East Ham AGM announced

14 Feb

After a hiatus of more than two years, East Ham CLP is going to have a meeting. And it’s an annual general meeting to boot!

All 10 of the branch (ward) parties held their own AGMs late last year, under supervision of the London regional office. Local officers and general committee delegates were elected and now – at long last – the CLP is going to elect its own officers.

The agenda has been circulated

East Ham Labour Party – Annual General Meeting 2019

The Trinity Centre, East Avenue, London, E12 6SG

Monday 25 February 2019

Registration from 6:30pm. Meeting to start at 7pm.

  1. Introductions & apologies for absence
  2. Election of CLP Executive Officers for 2019/20 (at least half (7) must be women)
    • Chair
    • Vice Chair
    • Vice Chair Membership
    • Secretary
    • Treasurer
    • Women’s Officer
    • Policy Officer
    • BAME Officer
    • LGBT+ Officer
    • Youth Officer
    • Disability Officer
    • TU Liaison Officer
    • Political Education Officer
    • Social Media Officer
  3. Election of up to 4 Regional Conference delegates (at least half (2) must be women)
  4. Nominations for Regional Board
    • Chair
    • Vice Chair
    • Women’s Officer
    • Disabilities Officer
    • Ethnic Minorities Officer
    • LGBT Officer
    • 2 CLP Reps from Section 5 – City of London, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Barking &
      Dagenham, Havering & Redbridge (at least one must be a woman)
    • 2 NPF Reps (at least one must be a woman)

No doubt rival factions are busy putting together slates and cooking up deals to ensure that the ‘wrong people’ don’t wind up in charge.

There was evidence of this at a number of the branch AGMs. At the Manor Park ward AGM an alliance between Momentum and Sir Robin’s former allies, led by former deputy mayor Ken Clark, backed a mixed slate of Momentum and right wing candidates and effectively blocked supporters of the new mayor. 

This unholy alliance was born at the council Labour Group AGM back in May. Momentum-aligned councillors were elected as Group chair and chief whip, while the Walesite old guard held onto the chairs of Council and overview and scrutiny. Subsequently the same coalition has voted together to push for the referendum on the future of mayoralty to be held at the same time as the London elections in 2020, against the wishes of both Rokhsana Fiaz and Sadiq Khan. It is also jointly campaigning against plans to reform the Every Child a Musician programme.

It is worth keeping an eye on East Ham. While the two camps may be happy to ally for now to keep the mayor’s supporters out, there is a bigger prize in prospect and both factions want to grab it for themselves. At some point parliament will vote on new constituency boundaries, with the likelihood that one or both of our sitting local MPs will have to re-apply to be the candidate . One of the safest seats in the country will soon be up for grabs. It could all get very messy.

 

Newham Transformed

13 Feb

New blog post from Cllr Daniel Blaney (East Ham North), on Rokhsana Fiaz’s first budget and the “change of direction after Robin Wales”:

“The Mayor [of Newham] has set out a clear ambition for housing in Newham, with a particular focus on increasing social housing stock in the borough.  This will require significant Council capital investment to complement the £107 million Greater London Authority grant under the Building Council Homes for Londoners programme.”  That is the introductory paragraph of a paper at the December 2018 meeting of Newham’s Cabinet, approving a business plan for Newham’s “Housing Revenue Account” – the obligation to account separately for Council-owned social housing.  Its technical material, and language quoted is a little dry, but perhaps it illustrates best the political change emerging from the replacement of Sir Robin Wales as Mayor in May 2018 with Rokhsana Fiaz.

The February 2019 budget is new Mayor’s first budget.  She and her cabinet colleagues regularly tout this as a ‘transitional’ budget, clearly frustrated it doesn’t in itself demonstrate the sum of the political ambition, but marks a significant change of direction. A more radical, transformative 2nd budget is to be prepared over the next twelve months.

In reality, the housing aspects of this first budget are already radical and transformational. The fact that the “Housing Revenue Account” business plan is being transformed, is a demonstration of the role of actual council housing in the new Mayor’s priorities, both in terms of investment by building new council housing, and in investment in existing stock, improving the housing of existing tenants in their current homes.

There’s much more detail in the full post, covering free school meals, the London Living Wage and changes to funding the Every Child… programme.

Good stuff.

Repairs and Maintenance

15 Jan

This morning Newham Council published the papers for its extraordinary meeting next week on the mismanagement of the repairs and maintenance service.

Anyone who takes the trouble to read the report will be appalled by the scale of financial and project mis-management, which has resulted in a loss of AT LEAST £8.78 million.

The vast majority of this was in the RMS Highways Services, in particular after it started to undertake the work on the Council’s Keep Newham Moving programme in early 2016. Poor practice was also found in other areas, but RMS was – overall – financially viable; the £8.78M overspend was caused by using external contractors to deliver the Keep Newham Moving programme at a higher cost than the price agreed with RMS.

Keep Newham Moving was one of the previous mayor’s flagship initiatives, supposedly a ‘prudent investment’ of the council’s resources to improve the lives of residents. It was a ten year, £100million capital programme to “improve the quality of roads, footways and street lighting in Newham…”

The council decided to put the work through RMS, on the grounds that this would deliver “efficiencies of around 25-30% as compared to the previous contractor.”

Clearly, this was a risk, but it was agreed that a Risk Register (a common tool in project management) would be compiled with the Cabinet Member for Building Communities, Public Affairs, Planning and Regeneration (Cllr Ken Clark) and the Mayoral Adviser for Environment & Leisure (Ian Corbett, who is no longer a councillor). This would be monitored and updated throughout the life of the project.

So £100 million was allocated to RMS despite there being no evidence they could manage the work and no serious assessment of how they could outbid Conways by 30%. It turned out they couldn’t:

[The] significant overspend of £8.78m was a result of RMS under-pricing its Keep Newham Moving Highways activity and then failing to manage contractor costs resulting in increased capital costs to that originally budgeted for. This was a very serious and significant mismanagement of public money. None of the investigations found sufficient evidence of criminal activity to bring proceedings but the Council remains willing to consider any further evidence brought to its attention.

The report describes how RMS managers avoided proper financial controls by splitting invoices so they fell below the procurement threshold and within the level of authority granted under the Scheme of Delegation. The accounts were seriously misrepresented, so that it appeared RMS was making a profit, when in fact it was running a substantial loss.

It is worth noting that although RMS was an in-house service it was being considered for outsourcing under the previous administration’s Small Business Programme or (CSSB, as it was known). This programme looked to outsource Council services into Council-owned companies.

RMS operated with significant autonomy over the management of its accounts, payments to staff and contracting with external businesses ostensibly for it to work on a “commercial” basis as part of Mayor Wales’s CSSB outsourcing programme.

Whether their ability to operate in this fashion was explicitly supported or encouraged by very senior officers and by a Mayor / Cabinet member decision or whether it simply evolved through weak internal controls is unknown. It is also possible that this was an element of the CSSB outsourcing programme encouraging services to begin to operate with a more commercial mind set as they were progressing towards outsourcing.

On 2 February 2017, approval was given by Mayor Wales to outsource RMS following an options appraisal. This was later suspended and RMS didn’t rejoin the programme. Rokhsana Fiaz abolished the CSSB programme following her election in May 2018.

Timeline

  • 2011 RMS was brought in-house. It carried out repairs to Newham’s housing stock. 
  • 2014 (Oct) RMS started taking on highways work from external company Conways on a two year pilot (no evidence of evaluation/review of pilot being carried out)
  • 2016 (Feb) Cabinet commits to (mainly) borrow £100m to ‘Keep Newham Moving’ delivered by RMS which it states is 25/30% cheaper than Conways. Cllr Clark and Corbett are lead members and named as agreeing and monitoring risk register (this is before two year pilot due to end)
  • 2016 to 2018 RMS is unable to deliver work itself and is subcontracting out work resulting in it being charged more than they were receiving per job (and definitely not making 25/30% savings)
  • 2017 RMS misrepresents 2016/17 accounts
  • 2017 (June) Whistleblowers make allegations, resulting in an internal investigation
  • 2017 (July) External auditors (Mazaars) appointed
  • 2017 (Aug and Dec) Mazaars reports does not find any criminal fraud
  • 2018 (Jan) QC advises insufficient evidence to meet criminal fraud
  • 2017/18 RMS overspent by £8.748m in 2017/18 accounts (in highways contracts; housing repairs is profitable)

So, where in all of this was the Audit Board?

In the 2017/18 financial year RMS was only discussed once. As appendix 1 (Chronology) makes clear, requests by councillors for an update were regularly fobbed off. Finally, inNovember 2017

Briefing and documents presented by internal Audit in closed session [of the Audit Board]. Chair LH [Lester Hudson] declined requests for further discussion at meeting. Concerns raised and recorded in minutes by Cllr’s Paul and Fiaz that item could not be debated

Lester Hudson was both Cabinet member for Finance and, simultaneously, chair of audit board. This is generally not regarded as best practice in local government finance.

Audit Board finally got to discuss RMS in March 2018 and the minutes have now been published, with some redactions to protect whistleblowers. They show councillors were absolutely furious about what had gone on. As a footnote to the minutes notes

At this stage in the proceedings, Cllr Paul resorted to expletives and offensive language to underscore the point he was making, informing the clerk he could minute his comments “in any way you like”.

and Cllr Julianne Marriott stated that

… in her view, the Audit Board was complicit in the failings of the Council as there had not been a meeting of the Audit Board since November 2017. If the Audit Board was not meeting on a regular basis, the public could not have any confidence that Members of the Board were holding the Council to account on their behalf, as residents.

It is hard to argue with that assessment.

In May the new mayor commissioned the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) to conduct a financial health check on the council (report). It found

There is a lack of Member involvement in financial reporting and budget control; Audit Board is non-decision making. Overview/Scrutiny has had almost no impact

This is no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention over the past few years.The Olympic stadium ‘investment’, the unbudgeted cost overruns on the East Ham Town Hall campus project, Newham Collegiate 6th Form, the London Pleasure Gardens fiasco, sleight of hand over the funding of ‘free school meals’… the list goes on.

Despite attempts to distract attention elsewhere, all of £8.748m overspend happened during administration under Sir Robin Wales – which included his cabinet member for Finance (and chair of audit) Cllr Lester Hudson and the Statutory Deputy Mayor and lead member for the £100m Keep Newham Moving Cllr Ken Clark. If either of them has any sense of shame or decency they’ll stand up next Tuesday, apologise for their failure and resign.

I’m not holding my breath.

Season of Goodwill

14 Jan

Back in December the Newham Recorder reported that a number of senior managers in Newham council’s repairs and maintenance service (RMS) have been suspended and sacked for gross misconduct amid a catalogue of claims about financial malpractice.

It’s worth reading the Recorder piece in full, but some of the ‘highlights’ include:

  • Staff claiming allowances of up to £14,000 and separately for overtime which they may or may not have worked, including one claiming for up to 66 extra hours a week
  • One person caught making payments of £800 a day to an external consultant
  • Companies being issued fuel cards for Newham’s Folkestone Road depot to fill up with, leading to fuel costs soaring into the millions
  • Bonus and incentive payments dished out to plumbers and carpenters worth three times their basic salaries
  • One supplier carrying out bathroom fittings at triple the expected rate
  • Allegations of parts and equipment, including expensive pumps, being bought by RMS employees with council money and given to external contractors who would then re-charge the council to deploy them
  • An £8.7m overspend in just one part of RMS in the 2017/18 financial year
  • £423,770 paid in bonuses and incentives to 10 operatives in six months

This all happened on Sir Robin Wales’ watch and, entirely predictably, the former mayor tried to deflect the blame onto his successor, saying

“I am surprised that, seven months after taking office, and a full year after she became aware of the problem, the current Mayor has not commenced criminal prosecutions or announced that there is insufficient evidence to proceed.”

Equally predictably, Sir Robin’s supporters wasted no time in attacking his successor. Cllr Ken Clark, who was his statutory deputy mayor and held the cabinet portfolio for ‘Regeneration, Planning, Building Communities and Public Affairs’ emailed Rokhsana Fiaz, copying in all councillors:

Thank you for your email on the coverage of the RMS in the Newham Recorder.

Indeed the Recorder seems to know more about this situation than anything councillors are being told by this administration. Why do councillors find out via a third party when you should be reporting to labour members in the first instance and not as an afterthought.

Your constant blame of the previous administration – of which you were part – is noted. You blame the previous mayor for not sharing in full the historical details of this matter but in this same email you state you are unable to share full information with all of us due to ongoing investigations. Can’t you see how hypocritical this is. Don’t you realise that the same restrictions you are under now applied to the previous mayor during his tenure or are you just being deliberately obtuse.

It’s no good blaming fellow members for holding back information when you are in the same boat yourself. It seems unbelievable that your fellow cabinet member for finance, Cllr Paul, who held the housing brief in the previous administration and who would be likely to know the most about this matter did not bring you fully up to speed months ago.

As a former member of the audit board you were privy to confidential information not in the public domain or available to other councillors.

Indeed I don’t know what officers have told you since you took office but I do know that as information is finally being released by officers into the public domain there seems little reason to avoid a police enquiry. Why don’t you call for one now?

I hear you are in the market for blunt emails at the moment so why don’t you put your money where your mouth is, stop pretending that the former administration is to blame for officer fraud, stop pretending that as a previous member of the audit and scrutiny boards you didn’t have a voice on council matters, and start taking responsibility in the job you now have. It’s time to call for a police enquiry into RMS and the way officers have behaved.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

His fellow Manor Park councillor, Salim Patel, also chipped in with his own seasonal message to all councillors:

Dear colleagues,

It is with deep concern for us all to learn of the massive scale of alleged corruption at Newham Council which has only been revealed as a result of the persistence of journalistic investigations by the Newham Recorder. Many of my residents have now raised this issue with me directly, so I wish to make my position on this matter very clear.

The revelation that over £9m of Newham tax-payers money was fraudulently siphoned off by some corrupt Council officers is completely unacceptable. It is also unacceptable that elected Councillors only found out about the sheer scale of this through the local press and that Council officers were investigating themselves. All these issues have been rightly highlighted by Councillor Clark and I understand that RMS has been discussed for some time at the Audit board but in private session, and with no visible outcome.

It is clear that over the past 18 months, Councillors have not been fully briefed on the scale of the allegations and the internal Council investigation. It is also clear that some Council officers have chosen to deliberately keep the full details hidden from members, even though we are the democratically elected representatives of the people of Newham. It also brings to light the question as to whether Council officers should have been allowed to investigate themselves in the first place when the crime was so huge.

Therefore and due to the severity of the matter, I am asking that the Metropolitan Police and the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) be asked to intervene immediately to properly investigate, charge and bring to justice the perpetrators of this massive fraud of local residents money.

We know that Councillor Terry Paul had direct involvement with and executive responsibility for housing which covered this service area, during the time when this huge criminal endevour is alleged to have taken place. That’s why its important that Councillor Paul immediately step aside from any current executive responsibilities, to ensure public confidence in the investigation and that it is totally free from even the perceived threat of any interference.

In the meantime, as elected Councillors we have a duty to work together to ensure the Repairs and Maintenance Service continues as a fully reliable public service, that the backlog of repairs are completed and that the service is fully protected from any threat of fraud in future.

Finally, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

All of which overwrought and hysterical nonsense prompted the mayor to respond (link added):

Comrades – thanks for your respective emails which I have noted, alongside today’s anticipated Newham Recorder article which followed the unsurprising email sent last night.

You’ll have received my previous Members briefing sent a short while ago, so please refer to the CIPFA report and its comments about RMS (slide 24) – namely: ‘Major issue over financial control in the repairs and maintenance division, RMS; Led to an overspend of £9m in 2017/18 due to poor pricing of highways work’.

What that means is that the majority of overspend actually happened in Highways NOT housing Services. Yes, the role of all executive members at the time yes should be examined; but be clear precisely whom; alongside the role of the then Statutory Deputy Mayor who would have been privy to issues emerging with RMS (including private executive discussions) and the non-statutory Deputy Mayor who was lead finance and chair of the Audit Board at the time.

Instead of the histrionics, I’ll remind colleagues of the old adage that before jumping to conclusions get the facts right.  That has been the process that we have undertaking since May: a judicious and exacting process of interrogating information being provided by officers including independent experts, during which period a live investigation relating to the range of allegations has also been taking place. The final phase of investigations are near conclusion and any ‘jumping ahead of that’ could risk any future legal proceedings we may be able to proceed with. Rest assured we are on top of this and as I said previously a major announcement will be made about this in the New Year as well – which was always the plan because this was an area being looked into by CIPFA. This will include providing members with a full briefing and an opportunity to discuss the issues.

That aside, I will address other points in the two emails in the New Year, but large parts of what you both set out below are inaccurate. The issues relating to RMS happened before May 2018 and rightly serious questions should be raised and action should be taken to ensure that this never happens again. This is precisely what is happening now because we have and are putting measures in place in a service area that has always been part of the council  – just badly managed like a lot of things we have discovered eight months in and which we are keeping members updated on.

All – kindly note that I’ll be asking Cllr John Gray who is now leading on RMS oversight; plus Cllr Zulfiqar Ali as the cabinet lead responsible for shaping up Highways with Cllr James Asser to help me coordinate the RMS briefing session on my behalf in the New Year. So keep an eye out for details and direct any further questions about RMS to Cllr John Gray in the first instance from here on in.

Thanks.

So, despite an obviously coordinated effort to fit up Cllr Terry Paul due to his brief tenure as mayoral advisor for Housing, it turns out the biggest part of the problem was in Highways. And who had that in their portfolio, including the £100 million ‘keep Newham moving’ programme? Cllr Ken Clark. Whoops.

One person we haven’t heard from in all of this is the former cabinet member for finance and audit board chair, Cllr Lester Hudson. If anyone should be able to shed light on the massive failure of financial governance and control it would be him.

The police are now involved and an extraordinary meeting of the council has been called for 22 January, with a single agenda item: RMS. I am told councillors have already been briefed and that the report which will be discussed is due to be published tomorrow. 

The meeting will be at the Old Town Hall in Stratford, and theres’s plenty of seating for the public. I’ll be there.

 

Note: the original version of this post incorrectly said Cllr Terry Paul was briefly the cabinet member for housing; he wasn’t. He was Mayoral advisor for Housing and responsible for housing repairs. He was not a member of Sir Robin’s cabinet.