Sunday 30 June 2013

Mahmoud Sarsak's testimony should make Brent Council think again on the Veolia contract

Following the denial of  the Lib Dem's democratic right to put a motion on Veolia and Palestine at the Brent Council meeting on Monday there was an event that should make Brent's Labour councillors think again.

The Palestinian footballer and human rights campaigner Mahmoud Sarsak brought greetings from 'the people of Gaza under siege and Gazan prisoners and Jordanian prisoners in Israeli jails' when he spoke to an attentive audience at the Willesden Green Pakistan Community Centre..

Mahmoud, whose hunger strike attracted international attention, said that the illegal occupiers of Palestine wanted to oppress and discredit any Palestinian talent in any field. Israel wanted persuade people that it was a cultured place in contrast to Palestine. Palestinians wanted to share their culture with other nations as a way of supporting their humanitarian cause.

He described the Israeli strategy as one of imprisonment, exile and ultimately death. Following his arrest on July 22nd 2009 when, replete with the necessary pass, he was crossing Israeli land to the West Bank to take up a place in a local football team, he was imprisoned.

Mahmoud described the prison as:

A graveyard for the living where they kill people's dreams 

He was placed in tiny cell and  interrogated  for 45 days and allowed very little sleep. Tortured both physically and psychologically he had been tied by arms and legs to a chair and subjected to 15 hours uninterrupted interrogation. One technique was to expose prisoners to extreme cold via an open refrigerator. He described how some prisoners fainted were then revived and returned to the freezing conditions, others made seriously ill were taken to hospital and after recovery returned for further interrogation.

Another technique was what Mahmoud referred to as 'the banana' after the shape made when hands were tied to legs and  and the prisoner left for hours. All this was an attempt to get prisoners to confess to what they hadn't done in order to justify the arrests to the international authorities.He said that he had been subject to other tortures but 'these were too ugly to speak about in a public meeting'.

Speaking calmly and with dignity, Mahmoud said. 'They tried to get me to confess but I hadn't done anything'. The detention by Israeli intelligence had taken place under 'illegal fighter' laws of the Israeli Justice system aimed at Lebanese and Hezbollah fighters which were not recognised internationally.

Mahmoud said that bizarrely the Israeli authorities wanted to convince people that he was not Palestinian and not a footballer - but a Lebanese fighter.

Pausing and surveying the hushed audience Mahmoud said, 'When you go to jail you are exposed to human suffering you would never imagine'.

He described how he had witnessed the interrogation and intimidation of 14 or 15 year old children which was clearly against international law. He said:
Children should be protected and enjoy childhood and an education. For Palestinian children it is a different story.
Remarking that children are resilient and would survive to have a future, Mahmoud said that older prisoners were neglected, became ill and were slowly dying. It was very painful to watch helplessly as your brothers slowly died, deprived of the painkillers that would have been available outside jail.

Mahmoud movingly described the death of his cellmate of 9 months from stomach cancer. He had called the doctor repeatedly but each time the doctor had said it was just 'stomach ache'.  After his death the Israeli media had said it was a case of suicide. A case of kidney disease had been refused admission to hospital and there was currently the case of a prisoner with abdominal cancer that was worrying Mahmoud because it appeared that the international community would not do anything to help the victim:

Mahmoud said:
Outside jail you hear stories...inside you see them. You are treated as a number. You have no right to a family or care. No right to socialise. Some prisoners have been in solitary confinement for 11 or 14 years without ever talking to another human being.
After seeing this with my own eyes I had to do something myself. Not just sit - I had to act. This is where the story of my hunger strike began.
When I started comparing my freedom outside with my life inside jail I had to decide whether to live in jail without dignity and probably die or die with dignity. I decided I had no choice but to go on hunger strike, especially when denied the truth.  
I nearly lost my health but nothing compared (after his release) with getting my freedom and seeing my mother again. 

Despite what the international community knew about Israel's abuse of human rights, including bombing football stadia in Gaza in 2009 and 2012, its apartheid against its own citizens and restrictions on who Palestinian teams can play, Uefa had 'rewarded' Israel with the right to hold the Under 21s event, Mahmoud told the audience.

He had taken part in the campaign to 'Show Israel the Red Card' to stop Israel holding the Under 21 finals, as a footballer and a humanitarian, using many strategies and trying to explain the history behind the issue. Since the 1917 Balfour Declaration Palestine has been bleeding. The UK and USA have helped Israel extend their state on Palestinian land and 'denied us our freedom, culture and heritage'.

Israel was trying to kill hope amongst the young and talented but this will not work -  hope can never be killed. Mahmoud  said 'the world has forgotten not just me but 5,000 prisoners' and cited the example of Norway's actions as one that other countries should follow.

As chair of the meeting I thanked Mahmoud saying:
As long as there are courageous, empathetic and insightful people like you to testify, hope will never be killed. I hope your message will be heard not just in this small community centre but throughout the world. We are privileged to have heard you speak this evening.

Friday 28 June 2013

Brent Lib Dems protest at being gagged by Brent council officers

Press release from Brent Lib Dems:

 In an unprecedented move Brent councillors were on Monday (24 June) blocked from discussing a properly tabled motion put forward by Liberal Democrat councillors.

The motion, proposed by Willesden Green councillor Ann Hunter, sets out concerns about Veolia’s activities supporting Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory which are considered by the United Nations to violate international law. Veolia has a record of building and operating a tramway and bus services which discriminate against Palestinian residents.

Veolia is currently on the shortlist for Brent’s public realm contract. If successful the company will receive tens of millions of pounds to run waste and recycling, street cleaning, grounds maintenance and burial services on behalf of Brent Council and BHP.

The Liberal Democrats want the council to be able to take into account the record of companies which are involved in violations of human rights when deciding who to give business to.

Brent Council already takes a stance on ethical issues when procuring some supplies – for example it has decided to be a Fair Trade borough and encourage the purchase of fair trade goods. The Liberal Democrat group believes it is a logical extension of that principle that when buying services the council should be able to exclude companies who break international law or violate basic human rights.

Councillor Hunter said:

Earlier on Monday evening we honoured Nelson Mandela, a man with a great record of fighting discrimination, promoting truth and reconciliation, and an inspirational advocate  of freedom of speech. Mandela has always been utterly forthright in his condemnation of any system which divides people by race. That is what this man stands for and why we honour him.
In Brent we are proud to be a borough where residents from all different backgrounds live, work and travel together We are truly a rainbow borough.
Veolia shares in the building and running of services which Palestinian residents are not allowed to use. Just imagine if on our way into London we had to divide: Asians on one bus or tube, White British on another, Jews on another and Afro-Caribbean residents on another. 
Of course, here that would be illegal. We should not put local taxpayers’ money into the pockets of companies which act in this way.

Councillor Paul Lorber, Leader of the Liberal Democrat group, added:

I am shocked that council officials intervened to prevent us even discussing this issue. It has been lawfully debated elsewhere. Councillors are elected to speak out for the residents of Brent. If the Labour party or council officers wanted to put forward a different view they should have had the guts to do so in open debate instead of trying to stifle the democratic process.

Is this Ikea or the Civic Centre?

Brent Town Hall Council Chamber
Characteristically, as befits their attitude to Brent's heritage, councillors barely registered that Monday's Council Meeting was the last to be held at Brent Town Hall (formerly Wembley Town Hall) before the move to the Civic Centre.

The ballroom dancers having their last dance at the Town Hall on the same evening seemed more aware of the significance of the occasion and I encountered several couples later that night, in dishevelled finery, swaying gracefully, if rather tipsily as they went home from the Paul Daisley Hall for the last time.

I had a look behind the scenes today at the councillors new quarters and I must confess that the Ikea style furnishings seemed to lack solidity compared with the oak wood panelling and aged wooden desks of the old Town Hall.

The great atrium and imposing staircase of the Civic Centre lead through to halls and offices in 'the drum' which have an overall colour scheme of grey and actually seemed quite poky in comparison with the Town Hall. The grey, spotted carpet, in the councillors' office area, already looked grubby and stained in places, but is perhaps awaiting an industrial deep clean. The Council Chamber carpet is  a rather loud turquoise.

The Civic Centre Conference Room/Council Chamber - councillors' offices are behind the translucent panels
There is no public gallery as such but these are seats for officers and public
The replacement for the Paul Daisley Hall - ballroom dancing?
Into the grey zone - a committee room
The Labour Group's Office

The Mayor's Parlour
There is also a sort of members' common room furnished with armchairs but little else at present. I have only seen the staff offices from a distance but I am sure for many workers this will represent an improvement in working conditions compared with the old buildings they have vacated, and that is to be welcomed. The hot desking does not appear to be popular and open plan offices with the boss sitting amongst the workers may not be to the taste of some.

There will be a live video feed of council meetings but I hope that will not mean a restriction on the public being able to sit in the council chamber to observe meetings in progress. The broadcasts are unlikely to challenge the supremacy of East Enders although there is potential for Cllr Zaffar Van Kalwala to become a cult hero on the internet.

The Wembley Library was a welcome centre of colour and activity and some students I spoke to liked it but were worried about the difficulty of getting there compared with the Town Hall Library. They also lobbied for sound barrier glass between the main library and the children's library!

The food at the Melting Pot restaurant was tasty and reasonably priced but I was shocked when I asked for a glass of tap water to go with my lunch that 'We don't have tap water'. A Civic Centre that boasts its green credentials must surely rectify that as soon as possible if it is to escape ridicule.

Christine Gilbert to head up Brent Education Commission as school improvement changes take place

Last week I briefly attended the farewell party for eighteen or so people who are leaving Brent's School Improvement Service, including Faira Ellks who has led the service for many years. Some had accepted early retirement, others redundancy, some have set up a consultancy and a few had been employed by Brent schools who will sell their expertise, such as Reading Recovery,  to other schools..

As I looked on I reflected on the years of experience and expertise in the group that has done so much to improve Brent schools, that will be lost as a consequence of this cull. Yes, a core service will remain but its quality is uncertain and yes, Brent headteachers have formed a Brent Schools a Brent Schools Partnership to support each other, but its quality is untested.

Interestingly these concerns were echoed by Rebecca Matthews, the new interim head of School Improvement, at the Brent Governors Conference this week. She said that the BSP raised issues that include:
  • lack of clarity on aspects such as accountability and leadership
  • the capacity among senior leaders of schools to undertake the tasks involved
  • the threat to a school's own standards when its senior leaders are engaged on collaborative activities with other schools
  • measuring and evaluating the impact of such interventions
  • engaging all schools so that they looked beyond themselves
As someone said at the farewell party, 'Schools won't know what they are missing until it is gone'.

Matthews also outlined the challenge of Ofsted's new emphasis on all schools being rated Good or Outstanding and the potential of a sudden drop in the rating of schools rated 'Good' under the old Ofsted criteria when inspected under the new framework, particularly if they had been coasting or facing new pressures since the previous Ofsted.

The authority itself faces the challenge of diminishing resources both human and financial which means a reduced core School Improvement team and the challenge of dealing with the mixed economy of school categories - maintained, academy, free - with lack of powers over the latter.

Rebecca Matthews said that as a consequence of diminishing resources a new core offer to schools would be made which would include:
  • A closer focus on 'need' rather than a universal offer
  • A lighter touch with 'secure' schools with the bulk of support going to schools in need of improvement
  • Brokering school to school support arrangements
  • Regular meetings to judge and recognise progress rather than once a year meeting
  • An emphasis on the speed of improvement
To address the wider challenge facing the authority a short-term Education Commission for Brent would be set up. Interestingly in the light of the appointment of Sara Williams as acting director of Children and Families, this will be headed up not by her but by the council's Interim Chief Executive, Christine Gilbert (former head of Ofsted) and Robert Hill from the University of London Institute of Education. They would look at the context of the performance of Brent schools, examine inspection evidence, visit schools and take evidence from stakeholders, including governors. They would identify the 'scope for innovative support for improvement' and work with the BSP and Teaching Schools on a sustainable shared model.

The Commission will report in November 2013.

In a way this can be interpreted as the authority attempting to claw back responsibility for  school improvement from the group that set up the BSP. With Ofsted and the DfE focusing on the role of local authority's when their area's schools are under-performing the LA has to demonstrate that it is proactive.

Cllr Michael Pavey, lead member for Children and Families, had a Q&A session,  in a candid reply to a question from me why Camden had managed to keep the maintained sector intact but Brent hadn't, said that the authority had 'allowed the best schools to walk away' and now faced losing 'our failing schools because of government legislation'.  He repeated his belief that the imposition of an Interim Excutive Board and academisation was the only viable solution for Copland High School because it was failing its pupils and the local authority did not have the resources to support it.. When asked about how Copland had been allowed by the local authority to get into that state he said, 'I can't say. That was before my remit'.

Unfortunately the situation at Copland, and precisely that last question, is likely to put Brent Council's school improvement arrangements under the Ofsted and DfE microscope. However, it also raises questions about the government policy where foundation schools, academies and free schools have autonomy with reduced powers of direct intervention by the LA whilst that at the same time they have an overall responsibility for the education and well-being of children in the borough.

Pavey agreed with a governor who said that governors had not been involved in the development of the Brent Schools Partnership despite having a strategic responsibility for school improvement, and should be better represented on the Brent Schools Partnership.  Only one place on the headteacher dominated management committee has been allocated to governors.

Interestingly,in his workshop, Luca Salice, Vice Chair of Camden Schools Forum, discussed the imposition of  IEBs by the local authority, not as a way of bringing about academisation, as in the Copland case, but as a way of the LA preventing a school academising against the wishes of teachers and parents.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

NW London NHS: If it's not an accident or an emergency, where should I go?

Guest blog by a Brent (would be) NHS user

Recently I have begun to feel that I might resemble a cod fish which has evolved to become smaller than its ancestors, so that it could slip through the holes in trawlers’ nets in order to avoid being made into fish fingers. Inadvertently I seem to have evolved into a life form that slips through the mesh of the NHS in North West London in 2013, albeit with less positive consequences that is the case for the above mentioned fish.

One of the several ailments that afflict my legs causes them to swell, then, if the skin breaks, fluid can seep out. About a year ago I had an outbreak but this problem which was effectively treated by the nurse at my local GP practice. For a while this entailed wrapping the leg in several layers of bandages which had to be changed about every two days since the leakage soon soaked through the dressings. Gradually the leg healed up and the leaking ceased, I was then able to treat myself at home with creams and a stocking bandage.
This self-medication worked well until about a month ago, when the leaking started up again. I tried to apply layers of more absorbent bandage myself, but my efforts weren’t very effective and the leg seemed to leak more and more. 

I rang my GP surgery but they couldn’t make an appointment for me for a week, but my bandages were soon both falling off and soaking wet, so I sought treatment elsewhere. I went to an NHS “Walk-in” Centre, about five miles from my home. The nurses there did what they could, but said that the “Walk-in” Centre did not keep a sufficient stock of bandages to treat cases such as mine and advised that I should be seeing my GP.

The temporary bandaging just about held out for four days until I was able to see the GP nurse again. The sopping bandages were removed and replaced with more extensive bandaging, but this too was wet through within a day, to the extent that one of my shoes was filling up with fluid whilst the bandaging was slipping down my legs, but the next GP appointment that I could now get was in six days’ time, so I decided that fresh bandaging was needed.

I looked at a full page advert from the NHS in free magazine posted to me by my local council. It was headlined “If You Are Unwell, Choose The Right Place to Go” (NHS Brent Clinical Commissioning Group  p.8 Brent Magazine, June 2013).  This ad detailed the various NHS services provided locally, but also emphasised the message: “Choose Well: Only Use A&E in an Emergency”.

I had already been to the GP and the Walk-in Centre, so I tried ringing up the Urgent Care Centre at a local hospital, (Central Middlesex), which was mentioned in the NHS advert. When I described my problem, I was told that the Urgent Care Centre was not the appropriate place for me and that I should go to the A&E in another hospital (Northwick Park in Harrow) as the local A&E in Central Middlesex was now “appointments only”.

This contradictory arrangement which might seem to imply that a patient should be clairvoyant enough to know of an emergency before it happened to them, placed me in a quandary. Harrow A&E is a fairly difficult journey, I could, I suppose, have phoned for an ambulance, but I did not consider my condition, no matter how unpleasant it was, to be an emergency and I did not want to waste the time of ambulance crews and A&E staff in dealing with it. So I was effectively house bound for about three days until my GP appointment came up. Luckily, I had enough food at my home to last out, otherwise I might have gone to the A&E for lack of groceries, rather than for any medical reason.

The GP treatment, when I got it was adequate and I have l also now been referred for specialist treatment, so I make no blanket criticism of the NHS, but there do, locally, at least seem to be some gaping holes in its net.
Recently I have seen and heard, media coverage that suggests that A&E’s can no longer meet the demand placed on them by many people presenting with non-urgent conditions, and it could be that such pleading might cover for pressure caused by A&E closures, when no adequate service for non-emergency cases, such as mine, seems to be in place.

I know that there a places in the world where there have never been ANY health services and I know that currently, in other parts of the world (like Greece and parts of Spain), previously adequate health services are being systematically destroyed by mad neo-liberal austerity policies. So my whinges, as a relatively affluent, educated British urbanite, are minor; but someone more disabled, and/or less articulate, and/or with less access to transport, might find things far, far worse than I did. Public adverts advising people to use services that don’t really exist are annoying at the best and potentially dangerous at worst.

Pus is squeezed from Brent's democratic deficit boil

Democracy, or the lack of it, featured strongly at Monday's council meeting. At the beginning of the meeting Keirra Box,  who hit the local and national headlines by pursuing missing Lib Dem councillor Rev David Clues down to his home of six months in Brighton with a pile of e-mails and letters from constituents that he had not answered, turned up to take his seat in the council chamber. The argument was simple - someone had to represent the residents.  When she questioned Paul Lorber, Lib Dem leader, after the meeting about when Clues would resign  he accused her of 'writing disgusting articles in the press' rather that recognising she was an angry disenfranchised resident.

Earlier Cllr  Lorber had attacked the Labour group for their failure to ensure proportionate representation on committees (membership being allocated according to each party's proportion of council seats) and also for the Council Leader's power to decide which opposition councillor to put on some committees.

On Monday the Labour voted for statutory members of the Brent Health and Wellbeing Board to consist of:
Five elected councillors, with voting rights, to be nominated by the Leader of the Council. Four councillors will be Executive members from the majority party. The fifth member will be from a opposition party. 
I am sympathetic with Lorber's criticism. This not only gives Labour a huge majority but excludes non Executive Labour councillors AND enables the Council Leader to nominate the opposition councillor. Similar issues occur with the Brent Housing Partnership, Brent Council's rather less than arm's length social housing provider.

All councillors need to be involved in policy making and there are some positive precedents for joint work on drugs, gangs, prostitution, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. Surely democratic principles should recognise that the ruling party or the Executive is not the source of all wisdom and that other members have much to contribute?

Substantial inbuilt majorities on committees where the real decisions have been made behind closed doors in the ruling group's pre-meetings means that real debate takes place outside the public arena and that the committees function as rubber stamping machines. Opposition members are powerless and backbench Labour  members do their lobbying in private.

There have been some changes at the Brent Connects local forum level (but only in some areas of Brent) which through Any Questions? style panels have brought about some more debate and today at the Brent Governors' Conference Cllr Pavey had a refreshingly open Q&A session with delegates, asking at one point, 'Tell me what Brent Council does badly, what are we doing wrong?'

However we need action at the Council decision making level to increase accountability and transparency and provide real participation.

Cllr Jim Moher on Monday, in putting forward a constitutional change, said that in the past Chief Executives and Senior Officers had too much power and had swept aside objections from members. However at the same time he supported the Council's decision to employ Christine Gilbert for an additional year when she had not been appointed by councillors and Muhammed Butt refused to give any information on the pay-offs to the previous Chief Executive and Finance Director. 

In addition of course Monday saw the barring of discussion on the Lib Dem's motion the issue of human rights in Palestine and Veolia's complicity in supporting illegal settlements in the occupied territories.  Veolia is in line for a 16 year £250m public realm contract in Brent - of course the motion should have been debated.

There is much that is wrong and if it is not put right many able people will decide that they can make a real contribution and create real change elsewhere and public cynicism about politics will deepen.

Monday's meeting was not a good advertisement for democracy or for local government.


Lucas: 'Weak and discredited' Chancellor condemning UK to a bleak future

The UK is being condemned to a 'bleak future' of yet more austerity and deprived of the huge benefits of the jobs-rich green economy by a 'weak and discredited' Chancellor, said Green MP Caroline Lucas today.

In the Comprehensive Spending Review announcement to the House of Commons earlier today, Chancellor George Osborne set out plans for £11.5bn more cuts to government departments for 2015-16 - as well as committing to further investment in high carbon infrastructure such as roads and shale gas.


This government's broken austerity policies have fundamentally failed to get the UK's finances in order and improve people's lives, yet George Osborne has today chosen to condemn Britain to more of the same even beyond the next election.

With Ed Miliband now accepting the government's spending cuts for 2015-16 and supporting a cap on welfare spending too, any chance of the main parties challenging the austerity myth has been eradicated.

The failure of mainstream politicians to properly represent the British people and to hold to account the most incompetent Chancellor of modern times represents nothing short of a political crisis.

The way to address the deficit is not by further cuts to public services, including tightening the financial stranglehold on local authorities, or failing to get people into work and arbitrarily capping welfare spending regardless of need.

It is to invest in jobs - borrowing money based on record low interest rates - mount a serious crackdown on tax evasion and avoidance, and bring forward green quantitative easing to deliver investment directly into the infrastructure we urgently need for a more resilient, stable economy."

And yet again the Chancellor has rejected one of the best ways to create jobs in all areas of the UK - a programme to make all homes super energy efficient, funded by the recycling of carbon tax revenue received by the Treasury.

Research shows that such a programme would be far better for job creation than his alternatives and deliver urgently needed reductions in carbon pollution, help end fuel poverty and drive down household energy bills too.
Osborne claims that he is unwilling to 'make the children of the future pay for the mistakes of the past', yet by ignoring the warnings on climate change from the international scientific community, economists and environmentalists, he is doing exactly that.

Last night, President Obama outlined the urgent need to act on climate change and the benefits this would bring the American people in terms of manufacturing, jobs and protection from the impacts of climate change.

By committing the government to reckless spending on polluting high carbon infrastructure such as roads, airports and shale gas instead of investing in the jobs-rich green economy through, for example, renewable energy and energy efficiency, George Osborne is denying the British people those same huge benefits - and a more positive vision of the future.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Community protest as police lose CCTV evidence of unprovoked racist attack in Willesden

Guest blog by a group of concerned local residents:

At 5.20am on Sunday 9th June, 5 white men pulled up in a black luxury car near Willesden Bus Garage on the High Road and attacked two young men of African descent, who had just got off a bus from central London.

One managed to avoid being punched in the face and was separated from the other, who was punched to the ground and kicked repeatedly.

Three witnesses across the road shouted out and ran across to his defence; the men got into their car and drove off shouting. The victim was taken by the police to hospital with bruises under his eyes and later had a broken tooth removed.  One of the witnesses, Robin Sivapalan, a local trade unionist met him later at Northwick Park hospital and brought him to his house to recover.

On chasing up the incident later that day with police at Wembley, Robin was informed that the case had not yet been allocated to an investigating officer, nor had it been logged as a racist attack. He stressed to the police officer that the assault could well have been far more damaging had there not been an intervention from the public, that the attackers posed a threat to all Black people - not just the particular victim in this case - and that this was possible backlash to the Woolwich incident.
Robin and the victim went to a local business where they were shown the CCTV footage which caught the entire attack, with the car, from two cameras and they informed the police that the evidence was available.
 It took till Thursday for the police to call the victim, and the investigating officer failed to reply to any of the messages left by Robin. By the following Thursday the CCTV footage had been lost. The police had been told that they were welcome to collect the recording equipment themselves while the footage was still retrievable.

The police attended the business on Wednesday 19th and discovered one set of footage had been deleted. They only collected the recording equipment and called in witnesses after DS Williams had been informed by Robin that the second set of footage had also been lost and that he would take the matter further. On Tuesday 25th June the police issued an appeal for witnesses via the Kilburn Times providing the wrong time and location of the assault, with no mention that it was a racist attack.

The case has been brought to the attention of Aslam Choudry, Brent Council’s Lead member for Crime Prevention and Public Safety, also a councillor for Dudden Hill where the incident took place. He has raised it with the police Borough Commander Matthew Gardner and the Council Leader, Muhammed Butt.
Local residents in Brent are holding a picket at Wembley Police Station, 6pm, Thursday 27th June, calling for meeting with the Borough Commander that will provide accountability for this failure to act. 

A spokesperson for the residents said:
We don’t believe this is an isolated incident of hate crime in the area. At Brent Council’s commemoration of Lee Rigby, the Borough Commander proudly informed us that there had been no recorded incidents following Woolwich, yet we can see here how the police fail to treat these attacks as hate crimes and are happy to lose the evidence when it handed to them on a plate.
With a spike in Islamophobic and racist attacks around the country, it is shocking that in a Borough where the majority of us could face such an attack, the police can display such complacency and disregard for our concerns. This is exactly the form of institutional racism that is in the media again this week, with the discovery of the police’s attempts to smear Stephen Lawrence’s family.

Christine Gilbert confirmed as Brent Interim Chief Executive for another year

Brent Council last night approved the extension of Christine Gilbert's appointment as Interim Chief Executive until after the elections in May 2014.  See my previous story LINK

The move was opposed by Paul Lorber, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition, who said that there was no reason why the appointment of a new CEO should not be made not. He declared that he did not accept the reasoning behind the officer's report which argued that a delay would provide stability and safeguarding of the Council's reputation over the period of the move to the Civic Centre and the May 2014 local elections.

He said that the interim appointment had been made by officers in consultation with the Leader of the Council and that members should be fully involved if a candidate capable of working with any prospective leader were to be appointed. He also said that the new post holder should be on the council's payroll rather than have his or her salary paid into a private company.

Labour's majority, assisted by the vote of Barry Cheese who appears to be a semi-detached Lib Dem at present, ensured that Christine Gilbert, wife of ex-Labour MP and Minister Tony McNulty ensured kept her Brent job along with her second job with Haringey Council.

Officers gag debate on human rights and Veolia at Brent Council meeting

As Lib Dem councillor Ann Hunter commented last night it was ironic that on the evening that Brent Council bestowed  the  Freedom of Brent on freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, councillors were denied the freedom to put a motion on the issue of Veolia's complicity in the illegal occupation of Palestine.

Hunter quoted Mandela's statement that 'our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians' and later asked what Mandela would have made of a situation where, at the end of the council meeting, he was greeted by the horrific sight of  the 'rainbow' group of councillors being  shepherded into separate buses for African, African Caribbean, Asian, Jewish or white buses. That was what happened to Palestinians on the segregated buses run by Veolia in the occupied territories.

The Lib Dem motion that was not allowed to be debated read:

Council notes that:

  •  the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, contravene international law.

  • the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council adopted on 14 April 2010 expresses grave concern at: “The Israeli decision to establish and operate a tramway between West Jerusalem and the Israeli settlement of Pisgat Zeev, which is in clear violation of international law and relevant United Nations resolutions.”

  • Veolia is a leading partner in the CityPass consortium contracted to build and operate this tramway.

  • Veolia placed recruitment advertisements for tramway operatives in 2010 discriminating against the recruitment of Palestinians by requiring Hebrew “at a mother tongue level” and “full army service/civic service” which is undertaken by very few Palestinians.

  • Veolia is also supporting illegal settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory with other services: namely running bus routes that discriminate against Palestinians and link illegal settlements in the Occupied West Bank to Israel and owning and operating a 33 hectare landfill site, Tovlan in the occupied Jordan Valley, which takes refuse from illegal settlements in the West Bank and from Israel. 
  • that a written parliamentary answer from the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, on 23rd May 2012 stated that “a company may be excluded from a tender exercise, for example where a company … has committed an act of grave professional misconduct in the course of their business or profession.”

This Council therefore recognises that Veolia’s involvement in these activities amounts to complicity in violations of international law and constitutes grave misconduct in the course of Veolia’s business under any reasonable interpretation of that term.

Council calls on the Leader and Chief Executive not to sign or allow to be signed any new contracts or renewal of any existing contracts with Veolia or any other company complicit in breaches of international law so long as taking this action would not be in breach of any relevant legislation.

Council notes that acting on this call would not contravene the provisions of the Local Government Act 1988 because no reliance is being placed in this resolution on any of the prohibited non commercial matters set out in section 17(5) of the 1988 Act. Further, as there is nothing in the Local Government Act that prohibits the Council from making the decisions called for in the resolution it would be unlawful for the Council to falsely exclude those matters from consideration when making a decision about  contracting with Veolia, given the discretion that the Council is required to exercise under Regulation 23 (4) (e) of the Public Contracts Regulations 2006.

Councillors Hunter, Lorber, Hopkins and Hashmi

As Ann Hunter pointed out this is a very similar motion to that approved by Labour's Brent Central General Committee. The officer's letter repeated the stone-walling statement used to refuse information to Bin Veolia in Brent campaigners which is issued to anyone communicating with the council about the issue:

Dear Councillor

I am writing to advise you that the proposed Liberal Democrat Group motion on Veolia which was circulated to members on Friday cannot be debated and voted upon by the Council at its meeting tonight.

As you may be aware, advice from counsel has been sought in relation to arguments concerning the involvement of certain companies in the Veolia group in various enterprises linked to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.  The clear advice is, amongst other things, that there are no grounds for excluding Veolia ES (UK) Limited from the current procurement of the Public Realm contract on the basis of “grave professional misconduct” in accordance with Regulation 23(4)(e) of the Public Contracts Regulations 2006.

Motions which are illegal, improper or irregular are not permitted and in consequence it will not be appropriate to debate or vote on this Liberal Democratic Group motion.
Kathy Robinson
Senior Solicitor
Labour Mayor Bobby Thomas confirmed that the Labour group had received similar advice when  they wished to discuss the issue. However, when Paul Lorber, Lib Dem group leader tried to move a motion to suspend standing orders to discuss the basis of officers' advice he was accused of hypocrisy in an incandescent outburst by Muhammed Butt, Labour leader of the Council, who accused him of hypocrisy because when leader of the council he had 'happily signed a contract with Veolia'.  Butt dismissed the suspension of standing order move as 'frivolous'.

Lorber argued that elected councillors should challenge the officers' advice.  He had sought the basis of the ruling and had asked for a copy of the counsel's advice but officers' had failed to provide any evidence. He said that the issue had been debated in many councils across the country but officers had deemed councillors not capable of making a decision on the issue. Mayor Bobby Thomas lost his temper and began shouting at Lorber when Lorber suggested that Labour councillors were being invited to vote down the suspension of standing orders without hearing any information on what the challenge was about.

To a cry of 'Mandela - freedom of speech' Labour voted down the motion to suspend standing orders.

Michael Pavey reneges on anti-academy promises

Cllr Michael Pavey, only months into his new job as Brent's lead member for children and families, tonight reneged on his promises of opposition to academies made when he was standing for the position.

Making a statement at the full Brent Council meeting he  said that Gladstone Park Primary  was not a failing school, has suffered a blip, and results were improving. It was a shame that it was being forced to become an academy and instead it should have been supported in its improvement strategy. He welcomed the Parents Action Group campaign and commented that this was' community action at its very best' BUT he respected the governing body's approach to the CfBT.  He said. 'If we have to have an academy these are the sort of people we should support'. He went on to say  that this was the time to 'bury the hatchet.' (referring I think to both Copland and Gladstone Park).

On Copland he said that he was pleased to announce that the DfE had approved the council's application to impose an Interim Executive Board headed by Grahame Price of St Paul's Way School LINK and said that there had been a 'terrible situation' at Copland with two thirds of the lessons inadequate and it had been failing the most vulnerable pupils. After the IEB the next step in the 'radical surgery' that the school required was academy conversion.

No sign of any fightback on forced academy status and what amounts to the privatisation of our schools and their removal from local democratic accountability.

Monday 24 June 2013

Brent Council should heed Mandela on the Veolia issue

This evening, as Nelson Mandela is reported to be in a critical condition, he will be honoured at tonight's Brent Council meeting with the Freedom of Brent.

It is hard today to remember that Mandela was not always a popular figure in this country and weas denounced as a terrorist by Margarter Thatcher whose government continued to sell arms to the apartheid regime.

A previous Labour Council in Brent, back in the 1980s, attracted controversy for supporting divestment from South Africa and boycott of companies that were alleged to support the apartheid regime and doubtless faced  opposition from council officers. They bravely stood up to the criticism and used every strategy in the book to implement the policy.

Now Palestine is as important a moral and human rights issue as South Africa was then and the present Brent Council has been asked by more that 2,500 people to support the Palestinian human rights struggle by removing Veolia from the current £250m Public Realm procurement. Campaigners accuse Veolia of  'grave misconduct' in its activities in the occupied territories of Palestine which provide infrastructural support to illegal Israel settlements.

President Nelson Mandela himself said at an event celebrating the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People::
The so-called ‘Palestinian autonomous areas’ are bantustans. These are restricted entities within the power structure of the Israeli apartheid system."

I have come to join you today to add our own voice to the universal call for Palestinian self-determination and statehood. We would be beneath our own reason for existence as government and as a nation, if the resolution of the problems of the Middle East did not feature prominently on our agenda.

When in 1977, the United Nations passed the resolution inaugurating the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, it was asserting the recognition that injustice and gross human rights violations were being perpetrated in Palestine. In the same period, the UN took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years, an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system.

We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.
Bishop Desmond Tutu after visiting Palestine said:
I have been to the Occupied Territory and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of apartheid.
As the Council honours Mandela tonight they should consider the Veolia issue in the light of their own history and that of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Mark Steel has them rolling in the aisles at the People's Assembly

Sunday 23 June 2013

People's Assembly generates hope but this must result in action

It was always going to be hard to enable as many voices as possible to be heard in a gathering of more than 4,000 people but yesterday's People's Assembly got close. Central Hall, marquees outside and the Emmanuel Centre down the road were buzzing with ideas and viewpoints, as well as simply heaving with people.

Much more united us than separated us, this included a deep dislike of the Coalition and the Conservatives (there was laughter when the caption maker misheard a quote and described Tories as 'worse than Birmingham' instead of vermin)and there was a determination to not only describe what was wrong but to provide hope that together we could bring about change.

Although many wanted to see trade unions take a lead, and there were calls for a general strike, there was also an emphasis on community organisation and resistance, and providers and users of services such as health, social work and education working together.

I attended the sessions on 'climate change and jobs' at which Caroline Lucas spoke (clip above), 'protecting public education'; and 'democracy and decision-making-fixing our broken political system' at which Natalie Bennett ran a workshop.

Caroline Lucas's call for renationalisation of the railways received enthusiastic applause as did her statement that capitalism was incompatible with solving the climate crisis.

In the education workshop speeches from the platform were interspersed with batches of one minute contributions from the floor. I managed to get a rather incoherent one minute plug in for a 'Reclaim Our Schools' movement made up of teachers, parents, governors and school students and that seemed in line with Christine Blower's (NUT) suggestion of a Reclaim Education campaign. It was important to resist and challenge efforts at divide and rule.

Throughout there was a thread of argument about the crisis in democracy, representation and accountability and this came together in the sometimes chaotic democracy workshop where issues of electoral reform, community organising, local people's assemblies came together and many were introduced to 'jazz hands' for the first time. (Hands are waved in the air silently to express approval rather than clapping).

Discussions and debate continued in the nearby cafes, pubs and restaurants afterwards and are due to continue at local people's assemblies in the future as well as a student assembly in November. It will be important not to lose the momentum, enthusiasm and hope as well as to refine and spread the emerging ideas.

Palestinian footballer's experience should galvanise Brent Council to act on human rights

Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak will be speaking at the Pakistan Community Centre in Willesden  Green on Thursday to share his experiences with local people, as Brent Council sticks to its decision to refuse to exclude Veolia, a company that aids illegal occupation of Palestine, from a lucrative contract worth more than £250m over 16 years.

Sarsak lost half his body weight in a hunger strike that lasted 92 days fighting for human rights in his homeland. His courage and determination should bring it home to Brent Council, a council with a noble record of campaigning against apartheid South Africa decades ago, that they too should make a stand.

The people of Brent do not want their taxes and Council Tax to be used to provide profits to a company that  also profits from  illegal abuses of human rights.

Saturday 22 June 2013

Dawn Butler backs General Strike at People's Assembly

Poster for the General Strike in Oakland, California 2011
I understand Dawn Butler, former Brent South MP,  surprised Brent Labour Party members at today's People's Assembly by appearing to back a General Strike against the Coalition's anti-welfare and austerity measures.

Intervening in the workshop on 'The economics of anti-austerity, jobs, investment and tax justice', at which former Brent East MP Ken Livingstone was one of the speakers, she apparently asked the audience for a show of hands for a General  Strike, and despite catcalls from the audience,continued to press her case and state categorically that she was justified in disagreeing with the Labour leadership.

This swerve to the left by one of the candidates for the Brent Central Labour nomination surprised many present. One of her potential opponents for the  candidancy is Kate Osamore, Tottenham activist and member of Unite, who is said to be backed by Livingstone and, if she agrees to stand, likely to be the candidate of the left in Brent.

Osamore was present at the Assembly chairing the workshop 'Immigration is not to blame - countering racism, Islamophobia and the far right'.

Patrick Vernon who is actively campaigning for the nomination managed to combine attendance at the People's Assembly with an appearance elsewhere to press the case for June 22nd to become a public holiday,Windrush Day, to celebrate multicultural Britain.

Friday 21 June 2013

People' Assembly schedule - June 22nd 2013

I will be joining  more than 4,000 others at the People's Assembly at Central Hall, Westminster, tomorrow. I hope that this will mark a watershed in the fightback against austerity in the UK.

This is the schedule:
10:00 - 10:45
Location: Great Hall
Opening plenaryFeaturing: Owen Jones, Frances O'Grady, Mark Steel, Stephen Morrision-Burke
Chairs: Sam Fairbairn, Romayne Phoenix
11:00 - 12:15
Location: Great Hall
Featuring: Andrew Murray (Unite, Stop the War), Rosa Curling (Leigh Day), Danni Paffard (No Dash for Gas, UK Uncut), Anita Halpin (NUJ)
Chairs: Rachel Newton (People’s Charter), Stephen Reid (The Intruders, UK Uncut)
Location: Lecture Hall
Featuring: Cllr Liz Wakefield (Brighton and Hove Council, Green Party), Liz Davies (Housing Barrister and Chair of the Haldane Society), Carole Vincent (Waltham Forest Bedroom Tax Campaign), Jacob Wills (DIGS, Hackney private renters group), Eviction Resistance Network, SQUASH
Chair: Pilgrim Tucker (Unite Community)
Location: Library
Featuring: Faiza Shaheen (nef), John Hendy QC (Institute of Employment Rights), Luke Hildyard (High Pay Centre), Kelly Tomlinson (Unite), Frank Morris (blacklisted construction worker)
Chair: Nick McCarthy (PCS)
Location: Marquee 1
Featuring: Heather Wakefield (UNISON), Matt Wrack (FBU), Barbara Jacobson (Barnet Alliance), Murad Qureshi (GLA member), Debbie Wilkingson (Yorkshire Ambulance Service)
Chair: Andy Richards (Brighton & Hove UNISON)
Location: Marquee 2
Featuring: Jeremy Corbyn MP (Labour), Salma Yaqoob, Lindsey German (Stop the War), Tariq Ali
Chair: Kate Hudson (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament)
Location: Library
Featuring: Diane Abbott MP, Guy Taylor (Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants), Mohammed Kozbar (British Muslim Initiative), Sabby Dhalu (Unite Against Fascism)
Chair: Kate Osamor (Unite)
Location: Emmanuel Centre
. Featuring: Mark Barrett (Peoples' Assembly Network), Natalie Bennett (Green Party), Loz Kaye (Pirate Party UK), Richard Bagley (Morning Star), Naomi Colvin (City Reform Group), Corinna Lotz (Agreement of the People, Campaign for a 21st Century Constitution), Bill Greenshields (People's Charter)
Location: Marquee
Featuring: Robin & Partridge, Kate Smurthwaite, Sir Ian Bowler MP, Chris Coltrane, Stephen Morrison-Burke, Roger Lloyd Pack
2:15 - 3:30
Location: Great Hall
Featuring: Sam Fairbairn (People's Assembly co-ordinator)
Location: Lecture Hall
Featuring: Christine Blower (NUT), Adriano Merola Marotta (Sussex Occupation), Aaron Kiely (NUS), Alex Claxton-Mayer (school student)
Chairs: Vicki Baars (NUS), Alex Kenny (NUT)
Location: Library
Featuring: Ken Livingstone, James Meadway (nef), Ozlem Onaram (University of Greenwich)
Chair: Heather Wakefield (UNISON)
Location: Emmanuel Centre
Featuring: Ken Loach, Dot Gibson (National Pensioners Convention), Eve Turner (Health and Welfare Campaigner), Young Legal Aid Lawyers
Chair: Fred Leplat (Coalition of Resistance)
Location: Marquee
Featuring: Ellen Clifford (DPAC), Hector Wesley (BARAC), Colin Wilson (Queers Against the Cuts), Anita Wright (National Assembly of Women), Mark Serwotka (PCS), War on Welfare Petition
Chair: John McInally (PCS)
3:45 - 5:00
Location: Great Hall
Closing plenaryFeaturing: Mark Serwotka, Len McClusky, Francesca Martinez, Rania Khan, Christine Blower, Tony Benn, John Rees, Zita Holbourne
Chairs: Steve Turner (Unite), Vicki Baars (NUS)


Agenda for Monday's meeting of Brent Council - the last at Brent Town Hall

Brent Council meets at 7.30pm on Monday at Brent Town Hall. It will be  preceded by a special meeting to confer the Freedom of Brent. This will be the last Council meeting at Brent Town Hall. The next Brent Council Executive meeting will be in the Boardroom at the Civic Centre.

The agenda below includes the decision on continuing Christine Gilbert's interim Chief Executive position until after the 2014 local elections:

5. Report from Muhammed Butt  the leader of the Council LINK 
6.Questions from the Opposition and other Non- Executive Members
Questions will be put to the Executive
7. This report provides a summary of the work of the Overview and Scrutiny Committees in accordance with Standing Order 14 and covers the period since last reported to Full Council in January 2013.

8. This report sets out – through its attached appendix – a proposed revision of the Borough Plan for 2013 – 2014. The Plan and its detailed targets have been the subject of consultation with Executive Members and Partners since March 2013.
Additional documents:
9. On 11 March the Executive agreed the Wembley Area Action Plan for public consultation and then, subject to Full Council approval, to submit the draft Plan to the Planning Inspectorate for Examination.  In light of the consultation three relatively small amendments are proposed to enable a sound draft Plan to be formally submitted. Full Council is asked to approve the amendments set out in paragraph 3.3 below and to agree the Plan be formally submitted.  The draft Plan is attached as Appendix 1.
Additional documents:
10. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 requires that the Council appoints a Health and Wellbeing Board, the membership of which is largely set out in statute. The purpose of the Board is to assess the health needs of the Brent population and produce a strategy to address those needs and to encourage the provision of integrated health and social care services.
11. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 and the Local Authority (Public Health, Health and Wellbeing Boards and Health Scrutiny) Regulations 2013 which came into force on 1 April 2013 make some changes to the Council’s health scrutiny role and the Council now has a choice about how those functions are carried out by the Council.
12. This report is in two parts; the first part sets out changes recommended following a detailed review of certain parts of the Constitution; most particularly delegations to officers, operation of Full Council, and call in arrangements. The second part addresses recommended changes of a more administrative nature and those arising from changes in the law.
Additional documents:

13. This report concerns the proposed timescale for the appointment to the Chief Executive post and consequential interim arrangements.
14. Motions
To debate any motions submitted in accordance with Standing Order 45.
15. Urgent business
At the discretion of the Mayor to consider any urgent business.