Cllr Peter Golds is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council
Welfare changes in Tower Hamlets was always going to be a political hot potato. The Rahman administration on the Council will stop at nothing to suppress fair debate, often using intimidation. For example, during a council meeting in April 2011 my colleague, Cllr Tim Archer established, via a routine enquiry from officers that there were ten weekly housing benefit claimants in Tower Hamlets whose claims exceeded £500 per week.
One family was in receipt of a weekly payment of £1,462, which makes £76,000 per year, were this family to receive this payment on an annual basis. The next day I confirmed this information with our local newspaper, who published a story which was taken up by several national newspapers. April 2011 was the month that benefit changes came into operation and there were similar enquiries made by councillors and the media across the country and many similar stories.
In September 2011, months after the meeting, a formal Standards Complaint was made against me, signed by two of Rahman’s supporters, calling for my suspension from the council. I say signed, because anybody who has seen the complaint, written in undergraduate pseudo legalise, will know that the two councillors concerned could never have concocted it. The Monitoring Officer duly referred it for investigation and a long investigation, costing thousands of pounds, was undertaken. At the end the investigation had to conclude that I had done nothing more than confirm a legitimate enquiry.
Remember no details as to the identity or address of the claimant was given and I had not even raised or spoke of this matter at the council meeting. However, time, effort and of course personal expense was involved in fighting this off. An attempt by me to identify the actual author of
the complaint, even under data access, was ruled out of order by the Monitoring Officer.
Within the borough we have 13,095 households in local authority housing and 27,375 households in accommodation managed by Registered Social Landlords. As such benefit changes will always be controversial.
In late 2012 Lutfur Rahman wrote an unsolicited letter to every council tax payer simply saying that there would be benefit changes. In at least one case the letter was addressed to a name with the word deceased in a bracket after the name. The cost of this letter alone was £38,000. brochures attacking the government and benefit change were produced, banners hung from railings and East End Life went into overdrive.
Cllr Tim Archer wrote to the District Auditor querying the £38,000 cost of the unsolicited letter. After a year he responded and said “Based on my discussions with council officers, review of available documents and the modest amounts involved (you quoted a cost to the council of around £38,000) I consider that there are no grounds for me to exercise statutory audit responsibilities.”
We found it extraordinary that Andrew Sayers, the auditor, responsible for looking after the interest of the taxpayer regards spending £38,000 on an unsolicited propaganda letter as a modest amount. Equally, of course the officers are going to say there is no problem, or as Sir Brian Leveson might say, mark their own homework.
So why on earth is the auditor basing his judgement on the word of officers, who under pressure from the Rahman machine, sign off controversial letters?
In these circumstances the cut in Spare Room Subsidy appeared to be a controversy waiting to happen. The headline in East End Lies (sorry Life) and still to this day on the council website is: Thousands of residents affected by the Bedroom Tax. in May 2013 Lutfur Rahman organised two events to inform the thousands he claimed would be affected by the change. A day of action was organised and stories were promoted about the prospect of mass evictions.
At one point a headline appeared saying that 20 per cent of tenants would be affected, that would be some 8,000 tenants.
The council have now, following a Freedom of Information request (FOI 9414) provided factual answers.
We asked the number of households that have or will be affected by changes in household benefit dubbed the “bedroom tax”.
The answer is 631. Not even 1,000.
We asked the number of residents that have requested to move to a smaller property after having their housing benefit cut.
The answer is 79.
We asked the number of these requests that have been able to meet.
The answer is 15.
We asked the number of residents that have been forced to look for accommodation outside of Tower Hamlets due to a lack of suitable/affordable options within the borough.
The answer is 0.
All that scaremongering, suggesting that thousands of residents could be evicted, and your money as taxpayers spent on brochures, unsolicited letters, public meetings and untruths in East End Lies.
Will the Rahman administration apologise to those who were concerned that they could lose their homes? Will he offer to refund to the taxpayer the thousands that he has authorised to peddle a myth? Will the man who refuses to answer questions at council meetings break silence and suspend his human rights to say why he persisted in saying thousands, when his own officers could have told him the figure of affected tenants was 631 out of 40,000?
It will be interesting to see the reality in other local authorities.