Whitewash fears over council’s new ‘Clean Up Team’ to probe corruption claims

Tower Hamlets Town Hall. Photograph: Chris McKenna (Creative Commons)
Tower Hamlets Town Hall. Photograph: Chris McKenna (Creative Commons)

Tower Hamlets Council is setting up a new team of anti-corruption investigators, but one of the election petitioners who brought down disgraced former mayor Lutfur Rahman says he fears it will be a whitewash.

The council says the team is intended to deal with “any remaining allegations of impropriety or serious concerns” in the wake of the corruption scandals that occurred whilst the former mayor was in charge and which have dogged the Town Hall periodically since then.

Rahman was thrown out of office last year after an election judge found him guilty of illegal and corrupt practices.

But further, unproven allegations of impropriety relating to his time in office have continued to swirl around the Town Hall.

Though a new mayor, John Biggs, has been in charge for over a year, commissioners who took charge of areas including awarding of grants, procurement and publicity when they were sent in in 2014 remain in place.

They were sent in by Eric Pickles, the then Local Government Secretary, following the publication of an independent report that documented claims of chronic mismanagement.

The council says it has now made nearly all changes that were agreed with the commissioners shortly after they arrived to strengthen whistleblowing processes, rebuild residents’ confidence and prevent a repeat of the wrongdoing that occurred on Rahman’s watch.

But it is now inviting anyone, including council staff, to come forward with claims relating to incidents that occurred between October 2010, when Rahman was elected, and 30 June 2016.

A document about the terms of reference for investigators working on what is being termed the Clear Up Project states: “A key aim of the project is to encourage people to identify impropriety covering the above time period that has not been considered to date. An independent Clear Up Team will investigate these allegations.”

It adds: “The team’s work will be led by a programme manager and overseen by a Clear Up Board which will be tasked with appropriately dealing with any substantiated allegations.

“This may include recommending disciplinary action, referring issues to the police and ensuring that the learning from this project informs future council practice.”

However, no details have yet been released about the makeup of the team or the board, or who will lead investigations.

Andy Erlam, an anti-corruption campaigner who was one of the election petitioners who brought down Rahman, said he feared the inquiry would not get to the truth.

He told the East End Citizen: “The idea that a well packaged gimmick with anonymous investigators is going to solve the problem is going to look like a whitewash.”

He added: “If a tenth of what the allegations that we are aware of turn out to be substantiated, it calls for an FBI type investigation of the Town Hall, not a whitewash.”

And he called for “a clean up, not a cover up”.

A notice about the Clean Up Project on the council’s website states that residents or staff with information about alleged malpractice can also contact their local councillor, despite the fact that some councillors in the borough are from the Independent Group, which was in charge, in a different guise, during Rahman’s reign.

Will Tuckley, chief executive of Tower Hamlets Council, said: “We have taken significant steps to improve how we work in order to build residents’ confidence in the council and our processes. Decisions are taken in a more open and transparent way.

“We have already acted on information that has come through channels, including our strengthened whistleblowing process. This is another opportunity for people to raise concerns and we are committed to taking these seriously and investigating them appropriately before the end of March 2017.”

At least one of the commissioners, led by Sir Ken Knight, is likely to be part of the Clean Up Project team.

The council is asking anyone who wants to submit an allegation to email clearupteam@towerhamlets.gov.uk, fill in an online form at www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/clearupteam or write to Clear Up Team, Mulberry Place, Town Hall, 5 Clove Crescent, London, E14 2BG


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