The battle to try and persuade Newham council to explain how it has actually spent hundreds of thousands of pounds allocated for its ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ programme has been rumbling on since February 2010. In July this, as I reported at the time, a series of specific questions put to the senior officer responsible for PVE, following a meeting in May 2011, had still not been answered. But yesterday, after more than three months, a reply finally appeared: an eighty one word e-mail of more wilful obfuscation.
Up until now, I haven't named the council officer who is stonewalling questions about the council's lack of openness, but considering how insulting and evasive his latest response has been, I feel it only right that I now do so. As council tax payers, we fund the salaries of senior officers after all and, as the campaigner Heather Broke points out in her book The Silent State, the ability of bureaucrats to hide behind anonymity often contributes to an even greater lack of transparency. So anyway... the official in this case is Geraint Evans and he is the 'Community Resilience Manager' within the Safer Newham Partnership Team.
In May, Evans had been asked two questions about the way Newham council had consumed a large chunk of its PVE funding – what had happened to £200,000 for projects in 2010/11, what they were and what their intended outcomes had been; and exactly how an allocated £67,425 in 2010/11 to “undertake a programme of communications and events to improve community cohesion throughout the borough” was actually spent. Unfortunately, my 2010 Freedom of Information request (PDF) had failed to elicit any detail, which makes Evans’ response all the more infuriating:
But sadly, they haven’t been answered. It is impossible to comprehend why these questions couldn’t just receive a straight answer, instead of requiring a trawl through pages and pages of the council’s FOI Disclosure logs. But I have searched through them – and the FOI requests on PVE budgets are my own and they did not answer the specific question on how huge sums of council money were actually spent. That was the point of asking for more detail in the first place – and Evans’ response is nothing short of utter nonsense.
"As for the questions on budgets and spending, I would refer you to the Freedom of Information section on the Newham website, where similar questions have recently been answered".
Evans was also asked about the PVE ‘Channel’ programme, which identifies those who are allegedly vulnerable to recruitment by extremists and then seeks to channel them in a different direction. Newham has one of the largest ‘Channel’ caseloads in the country. In May’s meeting, Evans had dodged the opportunity to confirm the proportion of Muslims caught up in the programme, insisting there is no discrimination and that the council is concerned with all forms of terrorism. We still have no way of checking how true this is, for Evans has found a new and imaginative way to avoid giving an answer, saying:
So despite insisting that Prevent doesn’t target the Muslim community, Evans now insists that Channel has nothing to do with him. How, then, can he claim to know?
“I should also remind you that any questions regarding Channel should be put to the Police, rather than to LBN, as they are responsible for such things”.
Finally, Evans was asked for a copy of the London Borough of Newham’s current strategy document for delivering the Prevent programme locally. A simple request, surely? Sadly not, for the response simply said:
You will note that there is no indication when the new plan might be ready or whether it would ever be made publicly available once it has been finalised. Neither is there what was asked for: not even an invitation to spend hours searching through the council's website for its current strategy document. It's hard to imagine how this reply could have been any more unhelpful.
“LBN are currently working on a new delivery plan."
The only potentially useful information provided was a copy of an external assessment of the delivery of the PVE programme in Newham, conducted by the Office for Public Management (OPM). This report is interesting, for it raises serious questions about why Newham has such a huge PVE caseload, as many of those questioned by OPM felt that Muslim radicalisation in Newham “was nonexistent, limited or ‘moderate’ at worst”. I’ll cover the 108-page document in a further blog post soon.