The PwC report into Tower Hamlets did not find fraud – the council’s crime is to have defied the big parties and delivered services to our people, says elected mayor LUTFUR RAHMAN
I welcome scrutiny and criticism from all quarters. It is my job to listen to the public, and it is a public right and duty to hold me to account. This can be done through our public meetings, elections, or simply a phone call to my office. But it is concerning to see that duty to scrutinise politicians appropriated for a hypocritical right-wing agenda.
In the infamous 1980s homes-for-votes scandal, when Shirley Porter’s Westminster Tories were handing out houses to rig elections in marginal wards, the BBC Panorama programme prepared to expose them. The Conservative Party blocked them as it was too close to local elections.
We were not afforded that same privilege when a cabal of vengeful local politicians went to Panorama and got a slanderous and unfounded “exposé” produced a few weeks before my election.
Nor was this the first time such things have happened. On the basis of some meetings that I had with a faith forum, meetings also held by all my predecessors, a Dispatches programme was dedicated to my supposed “extremist links.” On the back of this half-baked “documentary,” the EDL rampaged through Tower Hamlets twice.
This provides context to what happened after Panorama, when Eric Pickles sent auditors in. He picked PricewaterhouseCoopers, a firm that donates free advice to the Conservative Party and has been criticised for propping up tax avoidance schemes, presumably assuming that their report would savage my administration.
In fact, while I do not agree with everything in the report, it has attempted to be even-handed, despite pressure from Pickles. PwC has acknowledged it was unable to find fraud or criminality. It points to weaknesses in administrative structures, which we will listen and respond to.
Yet the report has been trumped up and used by Pickles to justify sending in a hit squad of his handpicked agents to “help” run parts of the council.
Muddled threads have been spun together to label me as some backward medieval patron who pours money into the Bangladeshi Muslim community in return for their political support. The truth (and even PwC) tells a different story.
First, I am accused of favouring certain wards based on grants given to boroughwide services that happen to be based in those wards.
Second, I encouraged the use of elected councillors’ and community groups’ local knowledge in decision-making, meaning that some recommendations for funding were not based on bureaucratic guidelines.
Third, I was not responsible for most of the selection process, but approved what was recommended to me based on my general principle — that every organisation which helps our residents should be supported by the council.
Despite newspapers screaming that I sold off a council-owned building to a friend (I didn’t and am horrified by that assertion), the report doesn’t even make such an accusation. Like tens of thousands of others, one of the people involved in the bid for that building supported me in the 2010 election.
There is a great deal more going on here than meets the eye. I was elected twice independently on substantial majorities, and through broad community support was able to defeat national political machines.
The crime of being a community-focused independent in a self-entitled spin-obsessed two-party system is not something the main parties forgive easily. Especially not when their entire national story relies on the notion that there is no alternative to savage cuts, and we have been the only council in England to resist this properly.
The media’s focus on administrative processes elides the most important work councils do — providing services to local people. This has not been mentioned because little fault can be found with our services, even in the context of central government trying to slash them.
We have some of the world’s best urban state schools, the country’s best dementia services, popular services, high happiness rates and even Britain’s favourite parks.
We didn’t do that by bending over for market forces. Instead, we built record numbers of affordable homes as well as new bespoke homes for disabled residents.
We brought back the education maintenance allowance and provided bursaries for our university students. We resisted turning schools into academies and funded youth services and universal free school meals in order to tackle the unacceptable child poverty numbers that sweep across inner-city London.
We absorbed the cost of council tax benefit, we paid council staff the living wage and we bailed out 2,500 families placed at risk by the Tories’ bedroom tax.
In short, we showed that there is an alternative. That’s why our political opponents don’t want to debate politics with us and have to hide behind demonstrably untrue claims of corruption.
Hypocrisy runs rife in this government. From Basingstoke to Trafford, Tory councils face serious allegations of corruption. The Tories’ flagship Big Society Network is being investigated for misusing funds.
The day before our audit the Commons decided to destroy all records of the parliamentary expenses scandal. The government has been widely criticised for protecting affluent Tory authorities from council cuts whilst crippling the poorest local authorities. I will take criticism on board but not from these people.
If Tower Hamlets residents decide to kick me out through a democratic election, I will accept their wishes as I always have.
I am glad to be answerable to the voters, but not to the whims of out-of-touch ministers lashing out following their own failure to connect with the people.