YOU’RE elected as the mayor of Tower Hamlets, and there’s someone in the High Court telling you what to do, and MPs are threatening to hold an inquiry into how you’re running things.
There was a time when John Biggs probably thought things like that only happened to Mayor Lutfur Rahman. This morning he has woken up to find it is happening to him too.
On Bank Holiday Monday, The Times newspaper ran an article claiming that Tower Hamlets Council had placed a British born, white, five year old girl in foster care. It claimed to have read a Social Services report which said that the child was unhappy with the foster carers who were Muslims and observed Muslim behaviour at home, in contrast to what the young girl was used to.
Other newspapers and media picked up the story – all expressing outrage and no one questioning whether the allegations were true. Neil Carmichael MP, former Tory Chair of the Education Select Committee, said that the Committee should look into what had happened. The Committee had been considering fostering before the General Election cut its work short.
By Tuesday, the case was in court – a hearing which had been planned before the case broke in the papers. The Judge essentially over-ruled Tower Hamlets Council, ordering that the child be taken away from foster carers and be placed in the care of her natural grandmother – and ordering the Council to conduct an investigation into how the placement had occurred and why it had been sustained. The Times was triumphant. No one asked the paper why they were reporting confidential Social Services reports.
This leaves John Biggs tackling two problems this morning.
•First, he has to acknowledge that he presides over an Administration which allowed Children’s Services to fail. Ofsted inspected Children’s Services in January/February 2017 – eighteen months after John Biggs was elected in 2015. Its report, issued in April, found that Children’s Services were inadequate. The Council’s initial response to the report was to say that they were working hard to correct errors in running the service made by John Biggs’s predecessor as mayor, Lutfur Rahman. That will not do.
The fact is that the last Ofsted inspection, two years into Mayor Rahman’s Administration, found that Children’s Services were adequate and the Ofsted inspection 18 months into John Biggs’s Administration found that they were inadequate. John Biggs has to explain why he, the Cabinet Member responsible and the Cabinet as a whole were not aware of the extent of the problems in Social Services and why they were not tackling these in public – not least because of Biggs’s commitment to run an open and transparent Administration. Biggs may criticise his predecessor – Ofsted criticised the political leadership of the current Council, including the Cabinet Member responsible, whose resignation from the Cabinet John Biggs has recently accepted.
•Second, John Biggs has to recognise that after Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s decisive election victory in the mayoral election in October 2010, there was a concerted and racist campaign to undermine him, as a Muslim mayor. This was largely run and supported by those newspapers and political forces which had an interest in playing the race card, but it was also embraced with delight by the Labour Group, and its then Leader (who went on to preside, as Cabinet Member, over the “inadequate” Children’s Services).
The same forces that ran an anti-Muslim campaign against Rahman are now running an anti-Muslim campaign against Tower Hamlets. Any target will do in a storm. If they came for Lutfur Rahman in the morning and you did not speak out, they will come for Tower Hamlets in the afternoon. John Biggs needs to mount a robust and public defence of Tower Hamlets and its approach to multiculturalism and equalities.
The case has allowed other Tower Hamlets politicians to speak out.
Leader of the Council Conservative Group, Cllr Peter Golds, appeared to agree with The Times, telling the Daily Mail, “This case raises some troubling questions about the suitability of at least one of our foster parents and the judgement of Tower Hamlets’ children’s services.”
Cllr Ohid Ahmed, mayoral candidate for The Independent Group of Councillors in Tower Hamlets, said, “The interest and wellbeing of our vulnerable children must be paramount.” He added that the article in The Times, “is highly offensive to many Muslims and borders on pandering to racism and religious discrimination… This is, by any measure, irresponsible reporting.”
Cllr Rabina Khan, Leader of the PATH Group of Councillors in Tower Hamlets, said, “John Biggs has got to get a grip. He needs the support of a competent Cabinet to run an efficient Administration He needs to understand multiculturalism and apply it. He needs to defend our population from the dog whistle attacks of the worst parts of the press.”