An explanation of why the media are so interested in the Poplar Papers

A very good tweet from @Kunta87320006 today asking a basic but fundamental question about the current #PoplarPapers story concerning the claim for unfair dismissal that Mark Edmunds is bringing against Tower Hamlets Council.
“Can someone please explain to me what we are looking for in these allegations. The CPS, Met. Police and city police found nothing, spending 1.6mil. honest query?”

LW promised to try and answer so here we go! (As ever with this case LW has to be cautious with what we write for legal reasons as the case is still ongoing, now adjourned until December due to an overrun of its original time slot.)

Q: “What are we looking for?”

We are looking for the truth. Sounds a bit melodramatic but that is what it comes down to. Every resident of Tower Hamlets I have spoken to about these issues does not believe the police investigations provided our borough with justice. Or even came close. Those ordinary citizens who have been directly involved in researching allegations of politically motivated corruption and other wrong doing in the borough know that justice has failed us all.
The reason we are looking for the truth is that we all have a right to know. Simple as that. Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest boroughs in the UK with one of the highest levels of child poverty in Europe. That people allegedly diverted public funds into their own pockets – or those of their mates – when many children do not have enough to eat is morally indefensible.
In addition to the issue of money going astray (and we are talking millions of pounds, not £100 here or there) is only part of the corruption. There is the possibility of systemic failures in the way Tower Hamlets council works which means that services have failed.

Disclosure Barring Service failures

Let’s look at just one example of this, the alleged breaches of normal practise with regards to checking staff with the Disclosure Barring Service (DBS). The Disclosure and Barring Service helps employers make safer recruitment decisions and prevent unsuitable people from working with vulnerable groups, especially children.
Individuals who are found guilty of either a crime by the courts or of a serious disciplinary offence by a local authority, possibly leading to dismissal, have this recorded on their central DBS record so that if they apply to other organisations this information would be available to their potential employer.
It is worth noting that part of the work of Youth Services is to implement the government’s PREVENT strategy the purpose of which is preventing children and young people from being drawn into terrorism.
The witness statement of Mark Edmunds contains allegations that:

  • With regard to the Youth Service for some time there were no DBS processes in place and so individuals were employed to work with children without any background checks and so ‘posed serious risks to children and young people and the Council.’
  • As a consequence those dismissed from LBTH for serious wrong-doing (e.g. fraud and circumvention of Safer Recruitment Procedure) were free to apply for other roles with children, young people and vulnerable adults as they had not been referred to the DBS to consider barring them from working with these groups.
  • LBTH Human Resources department requested DBS references be removed from investigation reports.
  • As a result of his investigations Mark Edmunds listed 10 individuals for DBS referrals but was then blocked by a senior manager at Tower Hamlets Council from seeing his own referrals. Why?
  • It is alleged that one of the reasons for DBS checks not being undertaken was to contain the ‘bad news’ about Youth Services. Mr Edmunds believes this was an attempt to contain the Youth Service investigations so that no external organisation or bodies became aware of the seriousness of the issues being uncovered.
  • An investigation into a Prevent Coordinator found him to have falsified information against a community-based organisation (in his official capacity). Despite this and evidence that he had circumvented Home Office PREVENT funding rules he was not disciplined, left LBTH on a settlement agreement and was not referred to the DBS. The police reported they would no longer work with this individual. He later joined another London council as its PREVENT Coordinator and now works for a LBTH Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO).
  • In another case it was discovered that an individual who had been initially dismissed in 2011 for serious offences and was deemed unsuitable to work with children had still not had his DBS record updated after four years.
  • In another case a Youth Service employee worked with children and young people for over a year after circumventing the Safer Recruitment Procedures (i.e. by working without having a valid DBS certificate due to his criminal history although this was known to his managers in the Youth Service). However, rather than an investigation being carried out and a referral made to the DBS as procedure required the individual entered into a settlement agreement with the Council for £12,000 on 24 July 2014.

These and other allegations about DBS checks amount to safeguarding failures of the most serious kind and must be thoroughly investigated.
The above list of DBS specific allegations is not comprehensive.

And there’s more

Other allegations in Mark Edmund’s witness statement include (but are not limited to):

  • Falsification of time-sheets by staff
  • Submission of false pay claims
  • Submission of illicit funding proposals
  • Staff hired without interview
  • No Internal Audit checks of Youth Service credit card use for three years
  • Large sums of money paid to fictitious organisations based on them having a bank account and a borough address
  • Procurement irregularities involving the commissioning of external services
  • Council officers under investigation claimed they were close to elected Council members
  • Protracted delays between officers under investigation being suspended and their disciplinary hearing dates meaning some were in receipt of full pay for over a year.
  • The fictious Shade Consultancy was created and operated as a prototype for further corrupt practise.
  • Manipulation of grants system
  • Numerous Youth Service staff bypassed Human Resource procedures and directly enrolled on unapproved and expensive courses – some being reported as full-time and costing £8,000 each
  • Cheque payments to fictious organisations
  • Responses to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests by journalists into Youth Services were doctored

Isolated cases?

How widespread is the corruption alleged to have been in Tower Hamlets Council in addition to Youth Service? Mr Edmunds believes that as well as his investigations into Youth Services being blocked there was a distinct lack of interest within the Council to look at possible wrongdoing in other parts of the organisation.
He specifically mentions these departments:

  • Finance
  • Drugs and Alcohol Action Team (DAAT)
  • Rapid Response Team
  • Internal Audit
  • Human Resources
  • Legal
  • Communities, Localities and Culture (CLC)
  • Children’s Services
  • Adult Services
  • Development and Renewal (D&R)

Which is pretty comprehensive.
Please remember that the allegations above only relate to DBS checks with Youth Services. Just one function in one small part of the Council.
LW staff have been spending many days simply trying to map the full scope of what we have been told, let alone investigate further. When we get our map done we will publish it here. Many of the allegations correspond to issues we have identified during the last six years investigating the activities of Tower Hamlets Council.

But what’s the point?

Coming back to the original question by @Kunta87320006 – if the Metropolitan Police and the City of London police have found nothing which the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) believes is good enough to mount a prosecution what’s the point of Love Wapping and other national and regional media outlets such as The Times, Private Eye, Archant and the Evening Standard reporting on this?
Several reasons.

  1. Much of what Mr Edmunds alleges has never been in the public domain before
  2. The level of detail and cross-referencing of allegations has never been made public until the Employment Tribunal case was heard
  3. The possible extent of the allegations has not been previously known
  4. His allegations may well explain why, when the police came looking for clues, they did not find much

John Biggs was re-elected as Mayor of Tower Hamlets because of his promise to not tolerate corruption or wrongdoing in any form and that his administration would be a ‘beacon council’ of open and transparent local government.
LW knows that his administration is in no way open and transparent – closed and opaque is more like it. However that in itself, while not to be applauded, is no indication that anything untoward has taken place while Mayor Biggs has been in office.
It is slightly odd that Tower Hamlets Council has refused to provide either the media or the two borough Conservative Party councillors with the 2,000 page evidence bundle held by the Employment Tribunal.
The immediate consequence of this is that various national, regional and hyperlocal media organisations have joined together to challenge the decision to not provide them with the documentation now known as the ‘Poplar Papers’ (because we couldn’t think of anything catchier!).
The media, including LW, do have the 50 pages of Mark Edmunds witness statement. All the information above has been taken just from those 50 pages. (The statement is still not public domain otherwise we would have published it for you all to read.)
Could it be that the 2,000 page evidence bundle contains information that no amount of reputation management can contain?
We don’t know. But we intend to find out @Kunta87320006. After all, it’s what we do.
Because the public – that’s you – has a right to know.
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