The Spectator did a piece last year ‘Eric Pickles interview: Multiculturalism is to blame for Tower Hamlets electoral fraud’ – Pickles of course being the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who oversaw the audit investigation through to Lutfur Rahman’s removal from office. One quote stands out as a compelling piece of evidence as to why Pickles began the Tory invasion into the council: ‘It was regarded as a beacon authority’ … ‘When I first arrived I was told I should go and have a look at it because it was a very well run borough’.
So what led Pickles to poke around?
‘There were people like Peter Golds […], people I absolutely trusted telling me things were wrong.’
Almost one year on and the costly Commissioners sent by Pickle’s Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) still remain. While they say their role is to ensure that the council is a Best Value authority, their goals have no distinction between Conservative ideology and Best Value practice.
An example of this would be a letter one Commissioner wrote to Mayor Biggs detailing his concern over the continuation of local paper East End Life, while there had been concerns over the balance of political views expressed within, it was hardly necessary to throw the baby out with the bath water. This has happened because council leaflets and papers are under attack nationwide by the DCLG, and local authorities such as Lambeth have fought to keep them. Mayor Biggs on the other hand has complied with their wishes and scrapped what is undoubtedly a necessary form of outreach to residents, which also in it’s demise resulted in the loss of jobs.
On 17 March 2016, in a letter to the now Secretary of State Greg Clark, Mayor Biggs wrote: ‘The work of the Commissioners in helping us to get to this stage has been helpful, although we are impatient for their intervention to end.’ The Mayor offers bullet points outlining ways to change the authority for their approval, such as an: ‘aim to drive total rental income from £3.5 million in 2015/16 to £4.5 million in 2016/17’ and ‘We are now taking a more corporate approach to procurement’ – music to Tory ears.
The Lead Commissioner, Sir Ken Knight, is only marginally impressed by Mayor Biggs and offers only an ultimatum: ‘It is important not to be overly optimistic about the time required both to do what is necessary and to evidence the embedding of change. Unless this is achieved, it will put at risk exit from the Direction regime’.
Historically, has a regime ever ended itself?
Yet we shouldn’t feel sorry for Mayor Biggs since it has been exposed that Cllr Peter Golds campaigned to his supporters to give Biggs their second preference vote and vice versa. To do a deal with a Tory councillor who has the ear of the DCLG has certainly come at a price, whether it is the cost of Biggs’ principles is debatable – for the taxpayers in Tower Hamlets, it is evident.
The Commissioners sole objective is to see through those Directions outlined by the DCLG. One of which was to appoint a Chief Executive whose responsibilities and power are indistinguishable from that of the Mayor. The previous administration removed this position from the budget, which will cost the council almost £200k annually. In the Directions it stated that should the council not make the appointment before 27 August 2015, it would take them in breach of government directions and may be subject to ‘criticism and enforcement action by the Secretary of State.’
The Commissioners, cutting it fine, called an extraordinary meeting on 26 August 2015 to rally councillors to the chamber to vote for the candidate. However, things did not go smoothly, as for their consideration was a deeply concerning issue surrounding the Commissioner’s preferred applicant, Will Tuckley.
An email sent on 21 August, six days before the deadline, warned the Commissioners and Mayor Biggs that Tuckley was subject to an investigation by the police, regarding misconduct in public office, perverting the course of justice and gross misconduct.
Sir Ken Knight had corresponded with a very high ranking officer of the Metropolitan Police, Assistant Commissioner Helen King, who confirmed that the Met was indeed preparing to submit a report to the Crown Prosecution Service to see if there was sufficient evidence against Tuckley to support a prosecution.
Sir Ken Knight (remember the leading Commissioner), rather surprisingly emailed Mayor Biggs saying: ‘Personally, don’t think this changes much.’
Just to pause here to recap what just happened. The government sent Commissioners to Tower Hamlets Council because a whistleblower said there was corruption. Lutfur Rahman, the executive mayor, was removed from office by a judge on hearsay evidence of election fraud and other bogus claims and has since been cleared by Scotland Yard. The Commissioners are now recommending a chief executive, who they have been contacted by a whistleblower saying Will Tuckley is corrupt. If your head isn’t spinning from the flagrant hypocrisy, one might suggest you check your prejudices by flipping the scenario.
Will Tuckley was once the CE of Bexley Council, and he defended himself in an email during this hiring process describing the whistleblower, Mike Barnbrook, as belonging to a group of people who failed to be elected into office and was simply a ‘vociferous critic of the council’.
Whatever anyone has to say about Mike Barnbrook, the fact remains that he is a retired police officer, who was the complainant against Ian Clement, the former Leader of Bexley Council, who, in his role of Deputy Mayor of London, was convicted of fraud and sentenced to a term of imprisonment. That is not nothing, and this wasn’t the only politician Barnbrook has blown out of office.
The Commissioners at this point had already informed the Secretary of State that a candidate had been selected, this was before the email by Mike Barnbrook informing them that Tuckley was being investigated for gross misconduct. Either too embarrassed to U-turn, or they already knew and didn’t care for favourable reasons, they proceeded to employ someone who could scandalise the borough.
On the day of the meeting, Tower Hamlets Independent Group (THIG) were given an hour to consider these troubling issues. The Tory and Labour councillors inexplicably decided to vote in favour of hiring Will Tuckley, which is a majority, so regardless of how THIG vote, he is their new Chief Executive – therefore, to vote against him would be starting off on a catastrophically bad foot. THIG decided that they weren’t given enough time to make an informed choice, and abstained from voting at the full council meeting.
All in all a very bizarre and troubling episode of Tower Hamlets Council in the Tory-Labour coalition. There was of course other candidates available at the time, so arguably more reasons behind the push to hire Will Tuckley than to just get the post filled.
In the Leading Commissioner’s response to Mayor Biggs’ proclamation that they have fulfilled the letter of the Directions, Sir Ken Knight rewarded the Mayor’s efforts with a patronising paragraph on how ‘it is now possible to see and evidence tangible signs of progress’ which is ‘since your Chief Executive, Mr Tuckley, took up post’. This is later contradicted by criticism that the Mayor has yet to commit ‘delegation of specific powers to the Chief Executive’.
So well done Biggs for hiring the man we told you to hire, now give him more power or we will never leave. If that sounds a little dramatic, let me put it in Sir Knight’s words: ‘Appropriate powers for the LB Tower Hamlets Chief Executive are, in our view, a fundamental change marking the difference between your administration and that of your predecessor which led to the intervention by the Secretary of State.’
In efforts to impress the DCLG and the Commissioners, Mayor Biggs has actioned cutting public services, closing nurseries, closing youth centres – the beast that is the Tory tax pincher is always hungry for more.
Mayor Biggs and his cabinet voted in a highly controversial decision to give pay rises to councillors and the mayor himself, announced at the annual council meeting. All in the backdrop of the closure of some 18 youth centres, which is perfect timing for summer holidays.
THIG members argued against this pay increase at the annual council meeting, although they were outnumbered by the opposition vote. The most insulting of all is the 40 per cent pay increase for Cllr Golds, which is the highest pay rise.
Interesting point in Sir Knight’s letter to Mayor Biggs is this alarming claim:
‘It is also of concern that Commissioners are still contacted by whistleblowers who do not have the confidence to approach the Council direct to alert it to what appears to be credible evidence of wrongdoing and malpractice’.
It would seem that Cllr Peter Golds is still putting in the hours, suppose that pay rise will cover it.