ELN COMMENT: A spirit of constructive governing broke out at Tower Hamlets Council on 27th July 2022 – the first scheduled full Council meeting since the election (the AGM in May dealt only with formalities).
It was so different from Directly Elected Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s first Administration in 2010, when Labour had a majority of councillors but lost the mayoralty – and gave us a master class in how to be a sore loser. We endured five years of sneering and derision from the Labour benches – culminating in the Borough’s two Labour MPs asking the Tory Government to step in and taking over running the Council in place of the elected Mayor. This time Labour’s councillors are in opposition. At first they seemed subdued, as if uncertain how to face up to their comprehensive defeat in May’s election. It didn’t last.
The meeting began at 7pm with formalities. The new Speaker announced that he had become a Dementia Friend (see our report here) and that he has chosen The Tower Project, and particularly its work on autism, as the charity he will be supporting during his term in office (well done, Shafi – that’s welcome recognition for this excellent charity).
Chief Executive Will Tuckley then had his moment in the spotlight with some official announcements. He warned that Covid is coming, and we should all have flu jabs. The Council has had two inspections since its last meeting. One was into the Youth Offending Service which had unfortunately issued a negative report (to which the Council returned later in the meeting). The other was an unannounced inspection by Ofsted into parts of Children’s Services: their report should be out at the end of August, but it seemed that it should be fairly positive.
Councillors then heard from two petitioners, before the Mayor gave a report and the Leader of the Labour Group – Cllr Siraj “Teflon” Islam – gave a reply. The Mayor spoke well but was perhaps trying to cover a little too much ground. The Labour Leader had little to say but said it well. This is where objective issues intervened to disturb the good mood.
The next items on the agenda were the party motions (one from Aspire and one from Labour). The Aspire motion noted Directly Elected Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s winning Manifesto and proposed that its pledges should become official Council policy – and this is where it started to go wrong for Labour.
We saw the first heckling as Labour began picking holes in the Manifesto – suggesting they might have done a better one (why didn’t they, then?) or that they were disappointed that all the pledges had not yet been delivered in full, three months after the election. The Aspire motion was duly passed.
The Labour motion was then taken, and Labour had another go at telling Mayor Rahman what to do – including demanding the Mayor Rahman reverse some of John Biggs’s cuts from the last Labour Budget. The motion fell, and the Rahman manifesto is now the bedrock of the Council’s policy objectives rather than Labour’s amendments to its own budget priorities.
The Council churned through the Annual Reports of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, the Standards Advisory Committee and the Corporate Parenting Board – each dealing with what these bodies had done last municipal year. This left two major items on the agenda: questions from Councillors to the Administration and motions from Councillors: quarts which were never going to fit in the pint pot.
Questions began with an Emergency Question from the last Tory standing, Cllr Peter Golds. He asked Mayor Lutfur Rahman to comment on the recent discovery of a cannabis factory on the Isle of Dogs – operating in the abandoned police station. It was a gentle full toss, and Mayor Rahman responded with a neat cover drive condemning the rise in crime which had occurred under the previous Administration and promising joined up thinking to tackle crime in the years ahead. As the clock ticked on and the moon rose, the meeting reached another crisis.
Procedural manoeuvres in the dark
Aspire put forward a procedural motion to “change the order of business”. This would suspend the discussion of Questions and move instead to Aspire’s emergency motion on the report into Youth Offending Services. The motion said the Report, “presents a serious failure in the Council’s handling of crime and youth services over the past seven years.”
Labour protested. Cllr Asma Begun complained that there had been no prior discussion of the Report – e.g., at Cabinet – and the Council should delay debating the motion. Cllr Marc Francis, a man who knows his own priorities when he sees them, said that if Aspire Councillors wanted to discuss this emergency motion, they should withdraw all questions tabled by Aspire Councillors, let Labour questions be taken, and then discuss the Report in whatever time was left.
However, Aspire won their procedural motion, and their emergency motion was discussed, along with a detailed amendment from Labour. To be fair, Labour only said it was premature to discuss the motion – not premature to discuss their amendment.
Seconds later, Aspire were at it again. They moved a further change in the order of business, asking the Council to discuss a motion tabled by Cllr Saied Ahmed, Cabinet Member for Resources, on Council finances. This second procedural motion was passed, and the Council went on to discuss what was arguably the most important motion of the evening: the revelation that the Council’s accounts had not passed their annual audits for the last six years.
Follow the money
Cllr Ahmed proposed that the current Administration take swift and transparent action to get the audits cleared up and to find out what on earth was going wrong with the Council’s financial systems.
Labour bleated like a field of new-born lambs who have lost their mothers. They said they had built up the Council’s reserves during their seven years in office; and that they had passed a Financial Improvement Plan just months ago; and that rather than find out what has been going wrong, Mayor Rahman should MAKE the auditors sign off the accounts (how? Go visit them and say “grr”?). The Aspire motion passed, and we shall doubtless hear more on this topic.
Learn from the masters
You can only wonder how the new Aspire Group of councillors found out about how to move procedural motions to change the order of business in order to prioritise discussion on the most important items. You just have to think back to the October 2010-May 2014 Administration. Labour Councillors had a majority on the Council, though they had lost the mayoralty. Labour Councillors moved changes in the order of business almost every time a Tower Hamlets First motion was about to be discussed. The Labour Party prevented councillors who supported the Directly Elected Mayor from discussing motions they had tabled over most of the lifetime of the Administration. That was even when the motions were quite routine and uncontroversial. This time the order of business was changed so that the Council could discuss two reports which have revealed serious problems: these issues needed to be aired.
The plot unravels
Once the motions were over, the Speaker asked councillors if they wanted to extend the meeting for a further 20 minutes, which would be spent on taking questions from councillors. By then the meeting had been going on for nearly three hours, and councillors declined. Some of the questions were squeezed into the last ten minutes of the scheduled time.
One was from the voluble Cllr Francis. The Housing Association landlord of a couple of estates in the ward he represents had essentially shut down their repairs service. This is clearly very bad news. The said Cllr Francis had been, in previous times, an avid supporter of Labour’s “stock transfer” process which set the hapless residents of Bow East (and many other wards) on the road to this mess.
Given this serious news, you might have thought that Cllr Francis would be on the blower to Cllr Ahmed pdq, asking the Cabinet Member to sort this out – or even popping into the Town Hall to look for him. But no: Cllr Francis – having, he said, emailed someone and not got a response – tabled a question at full Council. As his turn came, Cllr Francis asked Cllr Ahmed to sort out the problem – and invite him, Cllr Francis, to any meetings Cllr Ahmed might have about the issue with the miscreants. Cllr Ahmed said yes, that was cool.
Cllr Francis (Question 4) then apologised to Cllr Abdal Ullah (Question 6) for the fact that the time his own question had taken meant that Cllr Ullah’s question would not be reached. Cllr Ullah’s question was a thinly disguised dig at Mayor Rahman’s opposition to Labour’s unpopular “road closures” policy.
Cllrs Francis and Ullah then took matters into their own hands – or voices. No longer addressing the Speaker (the convention at a Council meeting), they called out to the cameras which film the Council meeting for the Council website. They appealed to the “public watching at home” to note how questions from opposition parties were not being taken. The Speaker chided them gently, pointing out that all questions tabled in the agenda but not reached during the meeting receive a written answer after the meeting. In effect, all questions tabled by all councillors from all parties on the Council are all answered. The councillors were not listening: they had lost the plot, and they were not going to waste time looking for it.
Thus the first substantive meeting of Tower Hamlets Council since the iconic May 2022 election ground to a halt. The Aspire team came across, for the most part, as calm and competent. It was Labour, with its large proportion of new councillors, who seems to be on less sure ground.
And of course there was one person whose presence was no longer felt at this meeting. Former Executive Mayor John Biggs was no longer being his jocular self on the top table – and nor was he in the public gallery. After the May election, Biggs promised to watch Directly Elected Mayor Lutfur Rahman “like a hawk”. Hawks are known for their excellent long-distance vision: perhaps Biggs was keeping his promise from his eyrie in Wapping.
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Tower Hamlets Council 27th July 2022
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