Poplar Papers 9 – How Tower Hamlets Council avoids public scrutiny

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That Tower Hamlets Council can avoid public or media scrutiny exposes the lack of oversight by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

The strategy is simple and consists of multiple levels increasingly difficult obstacles that will simply wear out anyone wishing to find out what is going on inside Tower Hamlets Town Hall.

Level 1. Ignoring media requests for comment

Routine email requests to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets Communications Team for comment on any story that might be politically embarrassing to the current Labour administration are ignored. (Well, that’s what has been happens to us for the last two years. Is it just us?)

Andreas Christophorou
Andreas Christophorou

The Communications Team, currently headed by Andreas Christophorou,  presumably thinks this will either (a) delay the story so the news cycle passes it by or (b) the journalist in question will move on to other work and so (c) the story will be forgotten.

Even the Lutfur Rahman media operation under Takki Sulaiman would reply to requests for comment.

OK, the response might be complete nonsense but at least it was a reply.

Well informed

Mr Christophorou must have very good knowledge of what was going on during the events covered by the Poplar Papers as reference to the Edmunds evidence bundle finds him mentioned on page 567 (email 10 August 2016), page 1172 (email 06 September 2016), page 1173 (attendee at Youth Services Project Group meeting 1st September 2016), page 1287 (email 23 December 2016), page 1284 (email 4 November 2026) and page 1286 (email 13 January 2017).

If he was not at these various meetings then his deputy was so he was completely in the loop.

Weird thing is that on at least one occasion Mark Edmunds, the guy actually doing the investigation work, was not at these Very Important Meetings. But the PR guy was. Go figure.

The blanket refusal to engage with with the East End Enquirer or its previous incarnation as Love Wapping extends to social media.

For the last few months there is never any response from any member of Tower Hamlets Labour Party to any tweets from @EastEndEnquirer.

Once or twice one of the less intellectually gifted Labour councillors makes the mistake of poking their head above the social media parapet with results that are, at best, messy. Not of any consequence to this author but it makes you wonder what these people are afraid of?

Level 2 Freedom of Information requests

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives members of the general public and the media the general right of access to information held by public authorities.

On many occasions we have written about the numerous failures of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (LBTH) to abide by the Freedom of Information Act.

It is a criminal act for a local authority to deliberately destroy, hide or alter requested information to prevent it being released. Other breaches of the Freedom of Information Act are unlawful but not criminal.

Wording FOI requests in just the right way to improve chances of getting the information needed is an art form that all investigative journalists play. No problem, that’s just the way the game is played.

Level 3 Block or tamper with FOI requests

When a local authority or any other body subject to the Freedom of Information Act does destroy, hide or alter requested information it steps over the line.

This means that the body in question has employees who will break the law to stop incriminating information being released into the public domain and that it has something worth taking that extra step to hide.

Thanks to Mark Edmunds you can now read his witness statement and evidence bundle on the Poplar Papers documentation site which throw some light on this practise.

And remember that this is taking place in 2016 when Mayor John Biggs is in charge with Chief Executive Will Tuckley.

What motive is there for the Biggs administration to not tell the truth about the Rahman administration?

We are getting closer to explaining that motive but we have some more ground work to do first.

Paragraphs 80 and 81 on page 22 of the Edmunds statement are very revealing and are shown below. The timing of this incident is interesting – after the transfer of Youth Services back into Children’s Services in April 2016.

Did someone believe that Youth Services no longer needed to be shielded from external scrutiny? If so why?

Screen grab from witness statement of Mark Edmunds.

“Paragraph 24.6

80 Following the transfer of Youth Services from CLC back to Children’s Services in April 2016 I became aware that I was being bypassed and excluded from contributing to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. On 6 June 2016 during a conversation with Robin Beattie [Service Head, Strategy & Resources, Communities Localities & Culture] he informed me about several FOI requests received by Council wanting information about the investigations in the Youth Service – which I knew nothing about (#1163). Following this I contacted Ruth Dowden who managed the FOI process who confirmed this was the case and informed me that Kate Bingham was compiling the response (#1164). I then contacted Kate Bingham informing her that I was leading on the Fraud Investigation work and should be sighted on the response before being signed off and provided (#1168). However, on 9 June 2016 I received a strange and noncommittal response from Kate Bingham which did not include the draft responses to the FOIs in question (#1167-1168). I was later informed verbally by Claire Belgard that the responses had been provided and my input was not required.

81 A couple of months later (on 26 September 2016) I was emailed by Claire Belgard requesting my input into another FOI relating to the Youth Service investigations (#1169). However, after reviewing the information drafted by Claire Belgard I redrafted some text as some of the information Claire Belgard had included was incorrect, as the police had previously raised concerns with LBTH about missing information and the detrimental impact this had on the quality of the evidence they been able to gather and review in the course of their investigation (#1172, item 6). However, when I was sent a copy of the final response by Claire Belgard on 28 September 2016 my correction was not included, and I sent an email to her to inform of this (#1174). By this time, I knew that my input into such matters was only required if it supported the views of senior managers, otherwise it would be ignored. Therefore, to protect myself I sent the email to challenge the incorrect information incorporated in the final response. Following this I received no further requests for input into any FOIs.”

And here’s an email from Mark Edmunds reminding people that he was the investigation lead. Seems he was not only left out of meetings.

Screen grab of email from evidence bundle of Mark Edmunds.

We think one of the FOI requests (4797568) is one of ours. The email chain which starts at page 711 of the Edmunds evidence bundle is quite interesting.

On page 460 FOI’s about Rapid Response Team (RRT) vehicle usage is discussed. This is another FOI of ours (we think.)

Bottom line is that anyone who submits an FOI request to Tower Hamlets Council has no guarantee of being given accurate information.

Yes we know this should be reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and now we probably will, but the hurdles placed before residents and journalists will almost certainly be used to hamper any investigation by the ICO.

This worked on the Met Police so…

The Wapping Mole has not made extensive use of FOI submissions during the six years we have been investigating Tower Hamlets Council because we did not want to abuse the system and he was reasonably sure that FOI responses were often not very accurate.

But even Mole was shocked when he first read the witness statement of Mark Edmunds and saw that on page 22 (above) there was clear evidence that FOI responses were being altered to conceal the truth.

Exactly what that truth was we had no idea.

Level 4 Covert FOI system

One odd thing Mole noticed that when he had submitted a FOI request and noted down the number, says 123456, that sometimes in email correspondence the FOI would have an ‘S’ prefix so that it becomes S123456.

To be honest Mole did not worry about this – but he should have.

Because the reason that his FOI request had an ‘S’ prefix was because they were being handled in a separate FOI process within Tower Hamlets Council reserved for ‘Special’ FOI requests from Moley and others.

Our sources tell us that FOI requests in this system were only dealt with by a very select group of council officers who in turn reported to a politician. Which one we do not know.

Once a Special FOI request had been processed the result was sent back to the requestor. However that FOI response was not put into the public FOI disclosure log but somewhere else.

Where nobody would ever find it.

Not exactly open and transparent. We had written on several occasions that the LBTH FOI disclosure log was not fit for purpose. We thought it was just down to incompetence. Seems that is not the case.

The problem now is how to prove that this second covert FOI channel exists? Submitting an FOI is not a great option. Or maybe it is? (Think about it.)

Level 5 Formal Complaints Delayed

As many Tower Hamlets residents know, if they think LBTH has done them wrong they have to exhaust the internal LBTH complaints system before they can submit their complaint to an outside body such as the Information Commissioner or the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.

The weary story of the Cllr. Tarik Khan, Cllr. Asma Begum and the Register of Interests Infinity Loop is a perfect example of how the complaints system is also, at best, unfit for purpose.

Ms. Asmat Hussain is the Director for Corporate Governance and Monitoring Officer at Tower Hamlets Council and as such has to “act as guardian of the democratic process for the Council” including maintaining the register of Members’ interests.

Uh huh.

Long story short is that the Wapping Mole was absolutely convinced that Tower Hamlets Labour Cllr. Tarik Khan had made a false declaration on his published register of interests. This was also of concern because Tower Hamlets Labour Cllr. Asma Begum, Cllr. Tarik Khan’s partner, shares the same declaration of interests. Cllr. Asma Begum is Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Community Safety and Equalities and as such is responsible for policing issues in the borough. She has also recently taken over Youth Services.

Getting nowhere through the usual channels at LBTH Moley submitted a formal complaint which was investigated by Asmat Hussain.

After several months  we finally got a response from Ms. Hussain and it seemed that the extent of her investigative work was to ask Cllr. Tarik Khan if he had done anything wrong, he told her he had not, and that was the end of the investigation.

The LBTH Black Hole

And there that particular issue rests. It has fallen victim to the LBTH Black Hole where information, gravity and even time itself is swallowed up.

You can read about it here on Love Wapping. We did complain to the LGSCO and a very nice lady did a very good job very quickly, but she could not take it further because Mole had not suffered as an individual.

Mole contacted the Met Police who said – you guessed it – that “please make a complaint to the council with regards [to] this matter, they will investigate and refer to the police in the event of a breach.”

Whatever happened to Rishi?

On July 9 2019 Mole published an open letter to some guy called Rishi Sunak MP about this issue. At the time Rishi was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister for Local Government.

Whatever happened to Rishi? Anyone know? Seemed like a nice chap even though he never replied to Moley.

The final paragraph said “Whatever happens in future neither yourself or anyone else in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government can say that you had no idea what was going on.”

Daft Mole may be, stupid he is not.

We hope that all of the above explains why we have had to go to extraordinary lengths to publish this and the rest of the Poplar Papers on the basis that it is a matter of significant public interest to do so.

Add to all the above that many decisions within the Town Hall are made during conversations in corridors (no minutes, no paper trail) and the routine sending of LBTH documents via personal email accounts as mentioned in Mark Edmunds evidence and you can understand why it has been a bit tricky one to tackle.

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