Monday 31 January 2011

Judicial Review Could Have Huge Impact On Newham Cuts

On Friday, service-users of Roma Support Group, who are based on Barking Road, won their judicial review of the decision by the city-wide body London Councils to cut £10 million of funding from voluntary sector organisations in London.

In the High Court, Mr Justice Calvert-Smith held that London Councils’ consultation process was flawed and that they had failed to meet their statutory equality duties. He quashed all the funding cut decisions for the 200 plus projects and he said that London Councils must re-run the process, this time with full equality impact assessments.

In a statement [Word doc], the claimants' brief Louise Whitfield of Pierce Glynn Solicitors said:

"This case establishes that even in the current economic climate, it remains of paramount importance that public sector funding cut decisions are properly assessed for their gender, disability and race equality impacts.

If they are not, public sector funding cut decisions will be unlawful.

London Councils simply did not consider the full effect of their £10 million cuts on the hundreds of voluntary sector groups and tens of thousands of members of the public who would be affected. They will now be required to do so."

If Ms Whitfield is correct (and she is a specialist in claims raising equality issues, so I bow to her knowledge on this area of law) then Roma Support's legal challenge has a potentially huge impact on prospective public sector cuts in Newham. If the council has failed to carry out proper equalities impact assessments in deciding the services it intends to cut, then it may be acting unlawfully.

In the decisions taken so far, is the council really able to demonstrate that it has carefully considered the gender, disability and race equality impacts of cuts it proposes to make? Or are the decisions, as many suspect, arbitrary and uneven?

Friday 28 January 2011

Regime Change - Minus The Aerial Bombardment

It's been amazing to see secular, democratic Egyptians rise up against President Hosni Mubarak - scenting the possibility of regime change, without targeted strikes by US missiles, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians or the imposition of a Western imperial viceroy and his occupying army.

It could still end in defeat, we've no way of knowing. But it's incredibly inspiring - it shows that self-confident state power, governing with no democratic mandate, can be pushed to the point of collapse by ordinary citizens taking to the streets and confronting lines of baton-wielding police.


Check out these amazing pictures of the protests in Egypt (be warned that some a pretty graphic).

And it's because this image from Cairo has received such worldwide attention that I love the design for this poster, which has been circulating online:

This Blog Is Rated '18'

"Under certain circumstances, ", said Mark Twain, "profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer".

Now I'm not much for liturgy, but I do try and keep the blasphemy, sacrilege and general cussing on this site to a minimum. That's why I'm highly amused to discover that one part of this blog - not the whole site, but just the Politics section - has been blocked to local schools and others in Newham council for alleged 'profanity':
I can only assume that it's my distaste for the saintly Stephen Fry that's the cause of this web-based fit of the vapours. Unless, of course, constantly referring to Newham's glorious Mayor as 'The Great Helmsman' is just too vulgar and irreverent...

Thank you to the reader who passed this information on to me, along with the image above.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Newham Council Ignores Mandatory Requirements On Spending Data

At the beginning of December, I wrote about a promise made by Newham council - that in response to the new local authority requirement to publish every item of its spending over £500 by the end of January, it would "comply with the regulations regarding publication of payments set out by Government".

The guidance issued by the Department of Communities and Local Government in September last year says that councils should publish spending on a monthly basis, in CSV format, with the detail of "all individual invoices, grant payments, payments to other public bodies, expense payments or other such transactions", broken down into meaningful expense areas and including supplier names.

The deadline of 31 January is now looming and Newham council has finally managed to place some information online. And guess what? They've completely ignored the mandatory requirement that information is published in CSV file format and instead issued a 115-page PDF file, making it incredibly difficult to analyse. Neither has the council provided a 'licence to reuse', meaning that technically others will need prior written permission to reproduce the data.

It is possible to plough through and find the details, for example, of the council's expensive consultants (look out for the expenditure type 'external advice' and the name 'Kingsgate Interim'), but the local authority has made it as difficult and inaccessible as possible.

Why am I not surprised?


I asked 'Information Governance' at Newham council to explain why their previous commitment had been broken and they promised to get back to me - by 25 February!!!

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Delingpole - The Interpreter of Interpretations

Some highlight's from last night's excellent BBC Horizon programme in which Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse looked at why science appears to be under attack. The following exchange is with the Telepgraph's conservative, dogmatic climate change denier James Delingpole, who "doesn't do science", doesn't read the relevant scientific papers but is instead "an interpreter of interpretations". He's now really angry at being made to look like a complete twat.

Monday 24 January 2011

Eighteen Hundred Strong Petition Opposes Wanstead Flats Plan

As part of the public consultation on the Metropolitan police's planning application for its Olympic policing centre on Wanstead Flats, the Save Wanstead Flats campaign has submitted a petition to Redbridge council opposing the plans - one that has been signed by 1824 local people from the communities around the proposed site.

It is still possible to submit comments in more detail against the planning application via Redbridge council's website - see here for further details.

Coming Soon: Protesting Against Cuts in Newham

Save Newham Services has details of a number of protests coming up in the borough:

Picket in Stratford Old Town Hall
Protest and leafleting outside the Great Helmsman's final “we’re all in this together” public meeting (which starts 6.30).

Valentine’s Day Massacre of Jobs and Services.
12.00- 1.30pm Stratford Shopping Centre
SERTUC Day Of Action with street theatre and leafleting.

March and Lobby of full council meeting
This is the meeting that will set Newham's cuts budget.
Local trade unions have called a demonstration that assembles at Plashet Park at 5.00pm and will march to East Ham Town Hall. (march and assembly point to be confirmed after negotiations with the police).

Street stalls and leafleting for TUC demonstration on 26 March
Stratford / East Ham / Green Street

Sunday 23 January 2011

Tessa Sanderson Threatens Legal Action on Stadium Vote

Now that the finances have been underwritten by Newham council, it seems extremely unlikely that West Ham will fail this Friday to secure their bid to take over the Olympic stadium in Stratford. Lord Coe's opposition to the Spurs plan today is likely to hold considerable sway with the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC).

But it's still unclear whether one OPLC board member, Tessa Sanderson, will participate in Friday's expected vote. Last Wednesday, Sky Sport reported that she had been excluded because of a "personal consultancy contract" with Newham council. A statement from the OPLC said that "this had not been disclosed to the company" and that "Board members are obliged to give declarations of interests, including pecuniary interests, in any matter where there is a potential conflict of interest."

However, yesterday Sanderson threatened legal action unless she is allowed to participate in the decision on the Olympic stadium. She denies a conflict of interest, which appears to relate to her involvement with the Newham Sports Academy, saying:

"My involvement with Newham has been well-documented in the national and local media over the last four years and clearly is in the public domain, indeed you only have to look at my own entry on the OPLC website to see my ongoing involvement".

And indeed it does, although this doesn't mean that the formal contractual arrangements with the local authority, who core-fund the Acadamy, were fully declared. Nor is Sanderson's instance that she can "remain objective and open-minded to the two proposals" really relevant - in a decision as big as this and with so much money involved, the appearance of propriety is just as important as the suitability and experience of Board members to take part in it.

Most people, myself included, had no idea of Sanderson's consultancy and now that the council is about to become either a significant funder or possibly even a joint lessee (see here) of the stadium, her participation in any vote on its future would clearly appear partisan.

UPDATE - 24 January

The OPLC has asked for more time to consider the West Ham and Spurs bids and "there may now not be a final ruling until the end of March". Partly a consequence of the threatened legal action?

Friday 21 January 2011

Friday Updates

Newham Council's loan to West Ham United

Following up on my thoughts on whether this decision might potentially be ultra vires and the coverage on the BBC yesterday: last night the council voted to approve a loan of £40 million to West Ham to support its bid for the Olympic stadium in Stratford.

The Guardian reports that the vote was unanimous, which would be a surprise if true: one Newham councillor I spoke to this week was adamant that he would abstain. I e-mailed the head of 'Democratic Services' at the council today, asking for a breakdown of the vote, but inevitably, there was no response.

The question of whether West Ham eventually takes over the stadium is of less interest than the use of public money - at a time of swingeing cuts - to underwrite the financially stricken club when commercial lenders have evidently refused to do so. I know many Hammers fans would prefer to see the redevelopment of the East Stand instead of a move - although it's not as though Spurs supporters are entirely overjoyed about a move to Stratford either:

North London is indeed "theirs" - and they're welcome to it.

According to the BBC, "a council spokesman refused to say whether it would be liable for the debt if West Ham defaulted, citing commercial confidentiality". I'd imagine it might be of interest to local people to know whether, in five years time, we'll have few local services left after the cuts have hit hard, but instead the controlling stake of a Premier League / Championship football club?

Wanstead Flats - amending the Epping Forest Act

Now that the Home Office has announced that it still intends to create a Legislative Reform order to amend the Epping Forest Act - even though it admits that it has no need to do so - discussions have started about the possibility of a judicial review of this decision. More news soon.

Newham's e-Petition facility

So far, Newham council has failed to confirm that formal permission has been granted by the Divisional Director of Finance and the Executive Member for Finance, Property and Assets for the petition submitted by my employer, apparently the first one requested, to go live.

This is despite promising to do so "no later than 21 January". Not a terribly impressive start to the new electronic era of "listening to and acting on the views of the public".

The imprisonment of Edward Woollard

Having writing about the disproportionate sentence handed down to student protester Edward Woollward, I see that an online petition on this issue has been set up - see here.

Policing The Age Of Austerity

I was asked by the magazine Red Pepper to break out the crystal ball and make a few predictions about the policing of anti-cuts protests in the coming year. This article also appears online here.

Why do we persist in telling ourselves that in Europe, it’s the French and the Greeks who protest whilst the British are too apathetic to take their dissent out onto the streets? Marches and demonstrations have always been an important part of Britain’s political culture and there was little sign of any stereotypical indifference when students braved sub-zero temperatures and snow to march against rises in tuition fees at the end of last year.

There is widespread public support, too, for the principle that a healthy democracy depends upon on the basic right to protest. However, it’s a sad reflection of our lack of collective memory that, not long after criticism of the policing of the G20 summit protests and the death of Ian Tomlinson in 2009, so many people were apparently still shocked by the tactics by the police used against student protesters, especially the use of ‘kettling’ or enforced containment.

Curbs on the right to protest have existed for as long as there have been governments to create them and over the last twenty years, the powers of the police to control and limit demonstrations, often by force, have grown increasingly broad and repressive. What the student protests therefore tell us, if anything, is that despite the pledges made by the Chief Inspector of Constabulary Denis O' Connor in a review into public order policing in 2009 after the G20 protests, very little has fundamentally changed.

In the coming months, this means that anti-cuts campaigners can expect a heavy police presence and a readiness by the police to use their powers extensively at any protest that isn’t firmly contained within a prescribed route – which in London usually means a low impact, ‘self kettled’ stroll through the streets from Embankment to Hyde Park. It’s the kind of restriction that we’d obviously want to avoid, but a risk of sustained police heavyhandedness is that, as Johann Hari suggested in the Independent in December, potential demonstrators may increasingly be frightened off from taking part in anti-cuts protests.

Cuts in police numbers might instead tempt senior officers to ban protests altogether. This was mooted by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson after the tuition fees protests. One police officer, a Sergeant Dan Stoddart writing in the magazine Police Review, has gone as far as suggesting a limit on the size of protests, saying that “having tens of thousands on the streets seems to have become an expensive luxury” and questioning whether ‘modern pressure groups’ need to protest at all when “instantaneous global communications and media… puts any message into the palm of your hand”. If nothing else, this deeply illiberal argument should hopefully provide a sobering warning to those who place such great emphasis on the value of online campaigning.

Then there are the lessons we can learn from the spate of undercover police officers who have recent been unmasked after infiltrating green activist groups. In his interview with the Daily Mail, former undercover officer Mark Kennedy acknowledges that the peaceful climate campaigners he spied upon “had no intention of violence.” However, they were still targeted in the kind of operation normally reserved for drug dealers and criminal gangs, presumably because their campaigns focus on disrupting major economic and business interests such as power stations and airports.

If activism grows against corporate tax-dodgers like Vodafone and Top Shop, which is difficult to police because it invariably involves nothing more than trespass (which is a civil, rather than a criminal offence), might groups like UKUncut start to face the same kind of surveillance and infiltration? It’s far cheaper than intensive public order policing and as I suggested in a short piece for Manchester Mule last year, the government may be persuaded of the benefits of "targeting potential troublemakers” through greater use of intelligence, as a cost-effective way of using reduced police resources.

Finally, those expecting a change in attitudes as, for the first time, cuts hit the police too will almost certainly face disappointment. It’s important to remember that in general, the police do not institutionally share public perceptions of the importance of dissent. Protests are seen as a nuisance, a distraction from the maintenance of order and, as an episode of the Channel 4 series ‘Coppers’ showed in November 2010, demonstrators are often viewed with contempt. The naïve idea that the police can somehow be ‘shamed’ into better treatment of protesters by actively opposing cuts in their numbers – what one campaigner recently called ‘proving our moral superiority; – represents a failure to understand the deep-rooted prejudices against dissent that exist within the culture of the police.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Newham's Loan To West Ham 'At Risk Of Abuse'

The BBC has a fascinating report on tonight's vote by Newham council on its proposed loan to West Ham United - with allegations about the Great Helmsman's style of leadership from at least one councillor that confirms what some of us have been saying for years:

"... the BBC has uncovered aspects of the council's approach that led one financial auditor to warn of a "danger of abuse" of the system.

These include:
  • Crucial documents explaining the bid in detail being withheld from councillors until shortly before the vote.
  • No explanation as to whether the council would be liable for the debt if relegation-threatened West Ham defaulted.
  • A "significant number" of councillors holding reservations - but refusing to speak openly because they are allegedly "afraid" of missing out on lucrative positions.
  • Mayor of Newham Sir Robin Wales declaring dozens of gifts from West Ham, with critics saying his impartiality has been compromised.
All 60 councillors in Newham are Labour Party representatives.

One serving councillor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "A significant number of councillors have reservations.

"There are massive doubts over supposed community benefits."

The councillor continued: "Why are we arranging a loan for a private company? West Ham should go to a bank like everybody else.

"The financial football model is hardly blessed by success."

But not one serving politician will go on the record.

The councillor said: "The problem is the mayoral system.

"People are frightened to go against the mayor. They are frightened of a lack of patronage.

"He's had almost the same executive since 2000 - on £40,000 each. People want a bit of the action."

Anita Shields, an auditor who works with other local authorities to ensure financial transparency, said: "Councillors are afraid to speak out. You have people pushing to get something through quickly.

"This rings alarm bells."

More here

Home Office Responds To Wanstead Flats Consultation

Today a Home Office ministerial statement was laid in the House of Commons by Nick Herbert and in the House of Lords by Baroness Neville-Jones, in response to the department's public consultation on Wanstead Flats. As expected, the ministers' message to the majority whose submissions expressed concern about the proposed police base on the Flats is a commitment to plough ahead regardless of local objections.

The ministers' statement bats away objections to the plans by simply repeating the assurances that have been made by the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Corporation since September 2010. It does, however, acknowledge that the Legislative Reform Order, which will temporarily amend the Epping Forest Act of 1878, is based on a flawed legal interpretation of the legislation that protects Epping Forest and Wanstead Flats. This was pointed out in detail by the Save Wanstead Flats campaign in its response to the consultation. The campaign explained that the Home Office was seeking to remove the 'burden' of a criminal offence, under section 34 of the Act, that no longer exists - and that a Legislative Reform Order was therefore completely unnecessary.

However, campaigners also warned that in the course of the bungled and hasty attempt to overcome legal obstacles facing the Home Office, a fundamental duty of the Conservators of Epping Forest would, perhaps inadvertently, be severely undermined. In reply, the Home Office has completely ignored this warning and says that it considers "that the consultation remains valid and the proposed Legislative Reform Order can proceed".

This means that a draft Order will soon be laid before Parliament for members of both Houses to consider. It also means that everyone who cares about the future of Wanstead Flats needs to start putting pressure on their local MPs, who until now have refused to say almost anything about the proposals for Wanstead Flats or their constituents' concerns.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

"Extraordinary Allegation" Has Implications For Tomlinson Inquest

In May 2009, just after the G20 protests in the City, the Metropolitan Police were accused of using undercover officers as agents provocateurs to incite members of the the crowd to throw missiles at police lines. At the time, the Met's Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson told the Home Affairs Select Committee that this was "an extraordinary allegation" and when pressed on whether there had been plain-clothed officers on duty, there was the following exchange between Tom Brake MP and Commander Bob Broadhurst, who led the policing operation on the day:

Q351 Tom Brake:
Can I ask Commander Broadhurst, please?

Commander Broadhurst:
I was obviously the Gold Commander. We had no plain clothes officers deployed within the crowd. It would have been dangerous for them to put plain clothes officers in a crowd like that. The only officers we deploy for intelligence purposes at public order are forward intelligence team officers who are wearing full police uniforms with a yellow jacket with blue shoulders. There were no plain clothes officers deployed at all.

Q352 Tom Brake: In which case, Commander Broadhurst, can I ask you what explanation there is for two men who I personally saw walking through the police lines where I had attempted to secure the release, if I can put it that way, of a number of people who needed medical attention for instance and not succeeded? What explanation can you give for the fact that those two men walked through the police lines without any form of challenge? Who were they and why were they allowed to walk through the police cordon?

Commander Broadhurst: I do not know who they are. They were not plain clothes officers deployed by me or anybody on the operation. All I would say initially, and you can come back to me later on when I give evidence to you, is that there is an issue around the discretion used by individual officers, the message communicated to those individuals, how they interpret that. It may well be that the people you saw have gone through some officers who have used more discretion than others who are not letting anybody out. That is an issue I need to grapple with in our training and our work on such tactics.

Six months later in November, Broadhurst continued to deny allegations that as many as 25 undercover City of London police had mingled with the crowds around the Bank of England, even though many of us suspected we had seen them. I remember chatting to an activist from Fitwatch at the back of the crowd, near the junction with Poultry and King William Street, when we suddenly realised that we were surrounded by a number of really suspicious men in smart-casual clothes who were edging closer to listen in. From their behaviour, we all thought they were undercover cops and we moved swiftly away.

Today, Broadhurst was back in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee to answer questions about the unmasking of the police spy Mark Kennedy. As a result, the Met was forced to issue a correction to the commander's previous evidence, admitting that covert officers had been deployed "to identify individuals who may be involved in the organisation of criminal activity and to give live time intelligence/evidence as to the protesters' activity".

Confirmation of the presence of surveillance officers would probably never have happened had it not been for recent revelations about undercover operations targeting climate activists. The obvious question to ask is therefore this: now that Broadhurst has unexpectedly been caught lying to parliament about evidence provided by an Lib Dem MP, why should anyone believe the Met's categorical denial that some officers deliberately tried to incite protesters to violence?

Let's not forget that one man, Ian Tomlinson, died on 1 April 2009 in the midst of the G20 protests. His family are still demanding answers and the tactics used by police will form a crucial part of the evidence at the inquest into his death, which starts on 28 March. Any suggestion that plain-clothed police officers attempted to stoke up trouble to create the circumstances for a brutal crackdown on demonstrators - or indeed, anyone who happened to wander within range of police batons - has serious implications for that inquiry.

Does the blame for Tomlinson's death really belong solely on one violent 'bad apple', PC Simon Harwood? Or is there a wider responsibility on the Met and the City of London Police, for apparently letting their officers loose to find ways to batter whoever they wanted to, using whatever means they could find??

Tuesday 18 January 2011

What If Newham's Enron-Style Loan Is Ultra Vires?

This evening Thursday*, Newham council is holding an 'extraordinary' meeting, with the press and members of the public excluded, which will discuss the latest developments in the plan to loan debt-ridden and relegation-threatened West Ham United a huge sum of money. I have to agree with Mike Law, who suggests on his blog that the decision to hold a meeting is an indication in itself that the deal with West Ham is now "done and dusted".

But here's a thought - the deal involves the creation of a Special Purpose Vehicle, the type of shell company that was much favoured by notorious corporations like Enron because of their ability to understate and obscure any debts or liabilities. It's an unusual way for a local authority to conduct its financial affairs. So what happens if the loan to West Ham is subsequently found to be ultra vires?

Are Newham's councillors fully aware that they would then face an increased risk of District Auditor imposed surcharges in the event of a successful complaint? As this scenario was put to me by a neighbour who I know has already been in contact with auditors Pricewaterhouse Coopers about the West Ham deal, I'd imagine a formal objection is almost inevitable.

So perhaps our elected representatives should consider independent legal advice?

* Thanks to everyone who jointed out that the meeting actually takes place on Thursday!

Monday 17 January 2011

Everywhere Is The Frontline!

A great meeting this Sunday - linking climate justice and anti-cuts activism is a very positive move and one that should send any remaining narks within the collapsing police spy network (see Climate Camp statement here) completely over the edge!

Cuts! Climate! Action!
A teach in on climate change and the cuts

Sunday 23 January
1pm-6pm at the School of Oriental and African Studies
Thornhaugh St
London WC1H 0XG

Room B102 in Brunei Gallery Building
Full wheelchair access |Map

Please note this is a change from the previously announced room G51

As governments impose slash and burn austerity budgets, resistance to the cuts is fertile. But what about the connections between the cuts and climate justice? Climate may have dropped down the public agenda but the issues are still alive - and very much related.

Fuel poverty, food price rises, forest and land grabs, an unshaken government focus on fossil fuels and nukes, economic shock therapy for some and subsidies and bonuses for others, are attacking our standard of living and destroying the climate at one and the same time.

Our labour, our past and our futures are being sold to bail out capitalism and wreck the climate that we all depend on.

That's the bad news. The good news is that for many climate justice activists, climate is no longer the frontline of resistance in the UK - Everywhere is the frontline! Like movements in the global South where resistance to IMF austerity and ecological devastation have long gone hand in hand, we have to learn to combine and integrate our priorities and our forces.

This teach-in, including short presentations by experienced researchers and activists, will cover:

  • Bread and butter issues: food, fuel, transport, work and welfare
  • Stopping the cuts: who's doing what?
  • Where is the money going? From bailouts to subsidies to tax evasion, what has the money been spent on and what could it pay for instead?
  • What do we want? The growth, austerity and climate justice debate
  • Turning information into action

Organised by Climate Camp London

Sunday 16 January 2011

Artist Offends The German Police!

From Agence France-Presse (AFP):

BERLIN — A prize-winning lifelike sculpture of a squatting policewoman urinating has whipped up a storm of protest in Germany, where it went on prominent display last week.

The work entitled "Petra" by 27-year-old German sculptor Marcel Walldorf is made of silicone and metal and has pitted public officials against art world aficionados in the debate over what is acceptable in the name of high culture.

It depicts a young female police officer in full riot gear crouching to pee, with exposed buttocks and a small gelatin "puddle" affixed to the floor of the gallery at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden, eastern Germany.

The work entitled "Petra" was completed one year ago and has captured a 1,000-euro (1,328-dollar) prize by the prestigious Leinemann Foundation for fine arts.

"It shows very well the difference between the public sphere and the private sphere," the jury said.

But Saxony interior minister Markus Ulbig, who is responsible for the state's security services, told the German press he was "shocked" by the sculpture, which he branded "an insult to police officers."

The GdP police union also blasted the piece, saying it "breached the limits of artistic freedom."

"There have of course been letters of protest, particularly addressed to the artist," a spokeswoman for the Academy of Fine Arts, Andrea Weippert, told AFP.

But she insisted that the public response had been "overwhelmingly positive".

"People who visit the show are not offended," she said.

She said she was surprised by the attention given to the display of "Petra" in Dresden as it had already been featured in smaller shows in the cities of Berlin and Leipzig.

"The artist is exploring a taboo zone. 'Petra' is not a provocation," she said. "It is an observation of society."

Thursday 13 January 2011

Newham Council Offers New Online Petition Facility

As the result of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 (one I'm guessing most of us missed), every local council in England must provide "a facility for making petitions in electronic form to the authority" This law came into force in March 2010, with the requirement that e-petition systems were set up by December. This means it is now possible to petition Newham council online via its own website.

The Act does, regrettably, allows local authorities considerable leeway to refuse a request for an e-petition, which I'm suspect that Newham council may make full use of, but it "must give reasons for not granting a request to use the facility". Currently there are, um, a total of zero e-petitions available for local people to browse, so the one I submitted today on behalf of my employer, on voluntary sector funding, may well be the first. We're now waiting for the agreement of the Divisional Director of Finance and Councillor Lester Hudson, the Executive Member for Finance, Property and Assets, to agree that it's OK for the petition to go live and hope to hear more by 21 January.

Crucially, the legislation includes a "requirement to debate". This means that all petitions that receive 1000 signatures or more will be scheduled for a debate at a future full council meeting (for at least five minutes, which is almost as long as the whole meeting in July last year) , at which the petition organiser will be invited to speak (also for 5 minutes).

The council says that its online petition facility is part of its "ongoing" but, if it's honest, difficult-to-celebrate "commitment to listening to and acting on the views of the public". So why not take them at their word and set one up yourself, on a local issue you care passionately about?

And if you get turned down - let me know. I'll compile the responses and see how effective the new system really is.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Edward Woollard - Political Prisoner?

There's little doubt that the tough 32-month prison sentence handed down to Edward Woollard yesterday was overtly political.

Woollard, you may recall, is the student protester who threw a fire extinguisher off the roof of Millbank Tower during last November's student protest in London. It was a monumentally stupid and reckless act, one that could have seriously injured or killed someone, but there is no getting around the fact is that, fortunately, it didn't. No-one was hurt, Woollard seems genuinely remorseful, he handed himself in to police and he pleaded guilty.

If, however, the 18-year-old had headbutted, punched, kneed and stabbed someone with a screwdriver and then pleaded guilty, like Simon and Anthony Marsh from Bolton who were also sent to prison yesterday, he might have received a very different punishment. The two brothers were given 12-month and eight-month sentences respectively, suspended for 12 months, along with community service, a curfew and a fine.

Or if, like Dylan Powell from Newport, Woollard had punched someone so hard that it resulted in an operation for a fractured skull - and if he had waited like Powell to the day of his trial to enter a guilty plea - then he too might have been given a 12-month suspended prison sentence. Perhaps if he had admitted to punching someone repeatedly in the face and then stamping on their head, like John Toms of Plymouth, he could have also have got away with 120 hours of unpaid work and a 12-week sentence, suspended it for 12 months because of his previously good character.

But Woollard didn't actually hurt anyone. His misfortune was to indulge in his idiotic 'moment of madness' on a day when the Metropolitan Police were deeply humiliated. His punishment wouldn't have been nearly so disproportionate if he wasn't also part of a series of protests that happened to chance upon a Royal limousine and if he hadn't become the target of spluttering tabloid fury.

As Judge Geoffrey Rivlin made clear at Southwark Crown Court yesterday, the length of the sentence was an act of retribution, a deliberate attempt to send a a very political message to anti-cuts protesters that the courts will come down hard on them in future if they 'abuse the right of peaceful protest', which presumably includes refusing to obey the instructions of the police and resisting brutal and violent police tactics.

Our misfortune, therefore - whether we like it or not - is that this appears to make a posh kid from Hampshire the anti-cuts movement's first 'political' prisoner - for an action that, as the video above clearly shows, horrified most of his fellow protesters.

No, he probably wouldn't have been my first choice either...

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Leak By Council Whistleblower Casts Doubt On Newham Dockside 'Savings'

There is a new twist in the continuing lack of financial transparency surrounding Newham council’s new Docklands headquarters, with news of a leak from a senior council officer to the BBC.

Having spent £111m on Newham Dockside, it emerged in October that the council spent a staggering £18.7m on the cost of the design and décor of its new offices. The local authority claims that by moving staff from 26 other buildings, it will save around £7m per year. However, BBC News has revealed today that the majority of these buildings are either still occupied by council staff or lie empty. They therefore remain a financial burden on local council taxpayers and are almost impossible to sell, due to the parlous state of the property market. The BBC report says that Newham council “has not disputed the accuracy” of the list passed on by its Dockside whistleblower, which includes the following examples:

  • Bridge House - still in use
  • Broadway House - empty
  • Stratford Office Village, several buildings - empty
  • Gable House - empty
  • Forest Gate Housing Office - empty
  • Credon Centre - still in use
  • East Ham Town Hall - still in use
  • Old Town Hall Stratford - still in use
  • Contance Street - still in use
  • Sure Start Offices - still in use
  • Alice Billings House - still in use
  • Cemetery building - still in use by pest control
  • Web Building in Stratford and at the Globe - still in use
  • 5 Beckton Road - still in use
  • Greenhill Centre - still in use
  • Rawalpindi House - still in use
  • Greengate Lodge - still in use
It looks as though even more of the buildings listed as ‘still in use’ may become empty from April as the council seeks to make 1600 of its staff redundant, as part of plans for a drastic 25% budget cut over four years.

So will the move to Newham Dockside have really saved £12m by March or is this a fantasy figure that takes no account of the continuing cost of maintaining the council’s large portfolio of properties? It’s the kind of reasonable question that local people may feel they deserve an answer to. Unfortunately, the chances of getting one from the borough are close to zero - an external and independent inquiry into the purchase of Newham's costly new HQ may be the only way of ever finding out the truth.

Monday 10 January 2011

Sign Up For 6 Billion Ways - Saturday 5 March

A day of debate, films, art music and workshops

Saturday 5 Match
10am to midnight at Rich Mix
35 - 47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA [map]

Across the world, ordinary people are paying the price for crises they are not responsible for. Climate change caused by the rich world is devastating the poor world through flooding and droughts. A financial crisis caused by the greed of the big banks is resulting in unprecedented cuts to public services.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Whether it’s corporations profiting from war, ‘austerity’ hitting the poorest hardest, or sweatshop workers paid a pittance, people are fighting back. From the grassroots to the global, communities and movements are imagining and creating a world where people and planet come before profit, and democracy trumps corporate power.

6 Billion Ways is a day that explores this resistance through discussion, ideas, action and the arts. With speakers and practical workshops for all ages, debates, films, music and art, 6 Billion Ways is your chance to inspire and be inspired, and to make connections with others who want to challenge injustice and inequality, both in the UK and globally.

The programme includes spaces for activists to meet and organise and there will be panel discussions and practical workshops on:

  • Tackling climate change
  • Beating public spending cuts
  • Ending occupations in Afghanistan and Palestine
  • Strengthening democracy
  • Curbing consumerism
  • Fighting global poverty
  • Building activism and resistance
and much more… To register before all the spaces are taken, visit This is from the last 6 Billion Ways event in February 2009:

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Newham's Labour Mayor Borrows Tory Slogan To Sell Local Cuts In Services

Politicians of every party seem to operate using the same public-relations playbook. So it is that Newham's Mayor Sir Robin Wales, who last summer gave himself an inflation-busting pay increase of four per cent rise, taking his salary to £81,029 a year, has borrowed a slogan from the Tories to spin the cuts that will soon affect low-paid council workers and some of the poorest residents in the country.

Echoing David Cameron's ludicrous claim that "we are all in this together", the Great Helmsman is holding a series of one-hour events over three days under the banner of 'Newham Together', in an attempt to sell his case for massive cuts in the borough. Sir Robin wants to make people "understand how council funding has been affected by the national cuts" and to "tell him what services you value". There is no indication that these 'opinion-sharing' events (more like a stern lecture from the Mayor) will make the slightest impact on the decisions that have an impact on local services from April.

If anyone has an hour to kill and wants to give the Great Helmsman a piece of their mind, details of the sessions can be found at

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Ian Tomlinson Inquest To Commence on 28 March

Following a pre-inquest hearing on 21 December, the date for the inquest into the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in 2009 has now been set. It will commence on Monday 28 March 2011 and is expected to last for of 5-6 weeks

The inquest will be conducted by the Chief Coroner, Judge Peter Thornton QC, who replaces the City of London Coroner Paul Matthews. Hearings will take place at the International Dispute Resolution Centre at 70 Fleet Street, London, EC4Y 1EU.

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Further information on the inquest is available on the City of London Corporation's website. Regular updates from the Ian Tomlinson Family Campaign will be posted on the 'Inquest' section of the campaign's website here.

A New Year Of Rebellion

So it's back to work today after two weeks of resting up and recharging. By and large I've given little thought to campaigning over Christmas (hence the lack of blogging).

But now we're into the year when the Tory-LibDem government finally press the advantage they have created in convincing many people that massive cuts are both necessary and inevitable. We shouldn't underestimate their success in shaping public opinion or assume that widespread opposition is assured: people I know are worried, uncertain and looking for signs that a movement is emerging that is prepared to resist the government head-on.

Unsurprisingly, the Labour Party nationally shows little indication that it has the will or energy for a fight and will, in many parts of the country, soon be responsible for implementing the worst of the cuts at a local level. The Coalition of Resistance set up in November looks like a promising start and has a wide spectrum of support, certainly more than the typical attempt by one far-left group to set up a rival organisation, through the National Shop Stewards Network, at a conference on 22 January.

Most intriguing of all is the attitude of the unions, particularly since the election of Len McCluskey as General Secretary of my union, Unite, and his apparent willingness to support the wider anti-cuts movement. It has made the TUC-backed 'March for an Alternative' on 26 March the most important protest in the next three months. It is vital that this is massive, pulling together everyone who is worried and uncertain about the effect of cuts on public services. It can also help to ensure that the unions aren't dragged by serial-compromisers like TUC boss Brendan Barber into a position that an 'alternative' only means anything that won't frightening Labour's new leader.

Massive demonstrations take huge amounts of work, however, as everyone involved in helping to mobilise for the huge anti-war march in February 2003 will recall. That means we all need to persuade everyone we know that this demonstration is worth attending, even though yet another march from Embankment to Hyde Park, one that could easily have no more impact than the 'Put People First' demonstration in 2009, may not seem that appealing.

A million people on the streets of London, however, have the power to stretch the nerves of a fragile coalition government to breaking point. This makes 26 March more than a protest against cuts - it has the potential to become the start of a serious attempt to unseat a government.

That's got to be worth turning up for.

The March for an Alternative takes place on Saturday 26 March, assembling at 11am at Vicoria Embankment

Monday 3 January 2011

Remembering Pete Postlethwaite

One of my favourite actors, Pete Postlethwaite, died of cancer yesterday aged 64.

A passionate campaigner, he starred as The Archivist in the climate change film The Age Of Stupid and threatened to return the OBE he was awarded in 2004 in protest at the government's plan to build a coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent. He had a small role in my favourite film of last year, Inception, and had just completed Killing Bono, due for release in April. But the following clip, from Brassed Off, is how most people will remember Postlethwaite: as Danny, the bandleader of the Grimley Colliery brass band.

Saturday 1 January 2011

Newham Council Fails To Publish Spending Data Online

Happy New Year - and as of today, it should have been possible, as promised, to visit Newham council's website and view all the local authority's financial transactions over £500. Other councils managed to make this information available months ago.

Guidance published by the Department of Communities and Local Government in September 2010 set out in detail how this data should be presented and in November, the council promised in response to a Freedom of Information request that it would "comply with the regulations regarding publication of payments set out by Government".

Bearing in mind Newham's legendary distaste for openness and transparency, however, it comes as absolutely no surprise that, despite having had plenty of time to comply, the council has failed to do so by the start of January.

It now has until the end of the month to get its act together and I'd be reluctant to bet that the council provides information in a format that is accessible to local people. What, one wonders, do they have to hide?

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.