Tower Hamlets to get back powers from Government commissioners now Rahman corruption years are over
PUBLISHED: 12:56 04 December 2016 | UPDATED: 12:42 06 December 2016
Power is being given back to the controversial Tower Hamlets council two years after Government commissioners were sent in to tackle corruption and malpractice in public office during the Lutfur Rahman administration.
The commissioners took over Town Hall functions in December, 2014, to stop public funds being dished out to dodgy organisations without public accountability in decisions Rahman took behind closed doors.
It coincided with an petition to the High Court which led to him being barred from office and the 2014 election for mayor being overturned for voting fraud.
Now Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has announced a “phased return” of powers to the council—so it can make the final decision on grants to not-for-profit community organisations.
The move has been welcomed by Tower Hamlets’ Labour mayor John Biggs who won the re-run election for mayor last year after Rahman was banned from office.
But the Secretary of State warned that the commissioners who found a “breakdown of democratic accountability” in 2014 would continue to oversee decisions to ensure taxpayers’ money was put to best use.
“The former Mayor was handing out grants against the advice of the council’s own officers,” Mr Javid said. “An Election Court later found evidence of the corrupt practice of bribery.
“Root and branch reforms since commissioners have been in place mean I’m now minded to start a phased return of grant-making responsibility back to the Mayor—but will halt the process if commissioners raise any concerns.
“I won’t restore full powers until I can be sure taxpayers’ money is in safe hands.”
Cleaning up “a rotten borough” to restore public confidence led to an independent inspection ordered two years ago by the Government, which uncovered of a breakdown in democratic accountability and “a significant risk of misuse of public funds”.
Four commissioners led by former Chief Fire Officer Sir Ken Knight were appointed. Their latest report to the Communities Secretary warns that there is still “much more to be done”, but highlights continued progress. All decisions on council grants are now taken at public meetings, which has increased transparency.
Mayor Biggs said: “This vote of confidence shows the progress we’ve made to become more outward-looking and transparent. But we continue to learn the lessons of the past and to repair the damage left by my predecessor.”
He pleaded in evidence to a Parliamentary committee on June 27 for powers to be returned to the Town Hall under his “reformed administration”.
He told MPs: “I half-thought when I was elected that the ‘wicked witch’ was dead and I could be trusted more rapidly to get on with stuff.
“I was disappointed that my existence wasn’t seen as a change of culture—but we’re working on it.”
Things were seriously out of control under Rahman, he pointed out, so the-then opposition parties welcomed the commissioners’ intervention.
“But I felt grubby that it happened,” Biggs admitted. “Powers of the previous executive mayor were so far out of control. He claimed it was ‘an infringement’ of his human rights to answer questions in public, which is rather strange for a politician—to be so shy.”
Rahman at one council meeting refused to answer 21 tabled questions and remained silent, as witnessed by the East London Advertiser. The council’s own scrutiny committee was also powerless to hold him to account because it had trouble getting hold of information and he never turned up to its meetings.
There were allegations of dodgy deals with council property sold off at “bargain basement” prices such as the former Poplar Town Hall just a stone’s throw from Canary Wharf, for just £850,000.
Complaints led to anti-corruption campaigners like Andy Erlam going to the High Court to turf out Rahman.
Now the council no longer defies the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, the Secretary of State has found. One reform was closing council’s weekly newspaper slammed in Parliament as Rahman’s “Pravda propaganda” distributed free in competition with the local press while subsidised out of the public coffers at an estimated £1.5 million a year, plus other costs absorbed in the Town Hall’s general running costs.
The authority has also set up an independent ‘Clear Up’ team to investigate any allegations of improper decision-making still not resolved.
The corrupt 2014 election that returned Rahman to power for his second term was declared void by the High Court in March, 2015. Biggs went on to win the re-run election the following May which gave back control to Labour after five years of Rahman’s autocratic rule.