Tower Hamlets Council grants funding – Introduction

Note: This research has been undertaken completely independently from any other investigations into Tower Hamlets Council grant funding. (We know our place.)

Crikey! What a week for Tower Hamlets! So much going on!

First there was the BBC Panorama programme. Today the Daily Telegraph publishes this story that goes into great detail about… well, guess! Go on, guess! Correct. Mayor Lutfur and the grants scandal.

Then this morning the Egyptian Geese were spotted on the Thames foreshore by Wapping New Stairs!

One week, three big stories

Here at Love Wapping we know our place and so were thinking of running with the Egyptian Geese story. Photos, analysis, interviews with the geese, diagrams, background information. The works.

But then we realised that we had already run the ‘Seagull eating crab’ photos so maybe we were giving too much coverage to East London wildlife? [Not to be confused with East End Life, Ed.]

And the Love Wapping Data Science Team (Journalism Division) also reminded us of something.

Love Wapping has also been looking into the subject of Tower Hamlets Council and the way it doles out grants. Seems that while Panorama and the Daily Telegraph have been doing their thing Love Wapping has been doing it’s thing too.

Good job no one else has been working on this, it could get embarrassing. We might end up with the farcical situation of massed hordes of investigative journalists running around the streets of Wapping, only stopping for a quick snack at the Turks Head.

In fact Love Wapping has been working on this since December 2013. Just after the Greenbankgate kerfuffle started.

Coincidence? No. Just one very annoyed resident trying to work out what the hell is going on in the East End.

Still not a ‘national newsroom’

As Love Wapping is ‘not a national newsroom’ our investigation is slightly less ambitious than that of BBC Panorama or the Daily Telegraph.  They also have nicer biscuits with their tea too.

But we do think we have something interesting to share about the Council.  So if you have any popcorn left from your Panorama party get munching and here we go!

Unlucky canvassers

The three mysterious lady ‘canvassers’ who knocked on my door in November were really unlucky. They must have knocked on hundreds of doors but behind this door lurked someone who was interested in his community, ran a small blog site, was a journalist, earned a living analysing information and was trained in forensic analysis.


Sorry ladies.

Before the fateful knock on my door I had, like most Tower Hamlets residents, heard various rumours about voting irregularities. But I like evidence with my stories so ignored them.

After the knocks on my door I realised what had happened and started doing some digging using my professional skills as a data journalist.  ‘Data journalist’ is just someone who tells stories using data. There is more to it than this but for the moment that will do.

So first place to go digging was the Tower Hamlets website. There is a huge amount of information on the site but it is a complete jumble. It’s as if someone has just dumped any and every document into one big box and there are few labels to say what is inside the box.

I analyse website structures for a living and the Tower Hamlets site is deplorable.  It’s almost impossible to find something if you know what you are looking for. If you don’t know what you are looking for it is no fun at all.

Unless you are someone like me. Someone who is annoyed with Mayor Lutfur and enjoys sifting through mountains of rubbish to find evidence. (And data rubbish mountains don’t smell as much as household rubbish mountains, believe me).

This is a long story so I will keep it to essentials for the moment. Here we go.

By early December I had downloaded and looked at hundreds of documents from the Tower Hamlets website and as much by chance as by skill had found one that looked useful for finding out more about grant funding.

This was a response to a Freedom of Information request, Tower Hamlets reference 9088. You can find 9088 FOI response document on the Tower Hamlets site here (PDF).

And here is a copy I have downloaded:

[wpdm_file id=23]

As with all my other data I needed to get it into a database so had a look at it’s structure. (Yes this is geeky but key to the story. Stay with me!)

On page 32 of this document I noticed that a few rows were a different format to other rows which was really annoying because it meant more work for me. I marked the rows up and downloaded a few more documents.

The next day I looked at my downloaded version of FOI response 9088 and the odd rows had disappeared. I had so many documents I was obviously confused.  An hour or so later I returned to document 9088 and the odd rows had returned.

Which was kind of odd. Unless this was a Harry Potter film.

Wizards in Tower Hamlets?

I have never met J.K. Rowling and have a limited film career so assumed that something other than a wizard’s spell was at work. Even for Tower Hamlets that would be strange.

My confusion lasted for several hours until I realised what was going on.

There were two FOI response documents for one FOI request. With almost the same content. But not quite.

The document I had first looked at and spotted the oddly formatted data was 9088. I had also downloaded another FOI response document from the Tower Hamlets site with the reference 9087. You can find the link to the 9087 FOI response on the Tower Hamlets site here (PDF).

And here is a copy i have downloaded:

[wpdm_file id=24]

The original FOI request was from someone called Martin Berry and you can find it here on the What Do They Know? site.

Dear Tower Hamlets Borough Council,

1.How much money has the council paid in grants and funding to
Islamic charities and organisations in Tower Hamlets in last 5

2.What organisations are they and how much did they receive

3.What were the grants for

Yours faithfully,

Martin Berry

I have no idea who Martin Berry is. But as often happens with FOI requests someone else had requested information that might be useful to me. Less hassle. I wasn’t interested in funding to Islamic charities so the response by Tower Hamlets to Mr. Berry’s request was perfect:

“The Council does not have records of which Organisations are Islamic Charities, however below is a schedule of grant payments made to all organisation made over the last 5 years. We hope this information is useful. “

Great. Lots of data to look at and maybe there was something in the data that would lead me on a trail to find out useful things – maybe even the identity of the Greenbankgate ladies?

But I was still confused as to why there were two FOI responses with two different FOI reference numbers to one FOI request? So I compared documents 9087 and 9088 and realised what was going on.

Two versions of the same original document.

This was a little suspicious as by this time I was hearing more and more rumours about the way Mayor Lutfur and his colleagues dished out grant money. (If you want the bigger picture check out the Panorama documentary ‘The Mayor and our Money” and the Daily Telegraph story.)

Once I had realised I had two versions of one document things fell into place quite quickly:

  • They had different titles.
  • One had a introduction, one not.
  • One was 28 pages long, the other 33 pages long.
  • One was created on 25th October 2013, the other created on 4th October.
  • The two documents  had different authors
  • 9087 was created after 9088

Curiouser and curiouser.

This is all getting a little technical so let us step back a minute and look at what is going on here.

For any FOI request the council gets regarding financial information they will need to run a report on their main computer system, in this case grant funding.

This report is then opened and formatted on an ordinary PC using something like Microsoft Word or Excel and saved as a Word or Excel file.

It’s rarely a sensible idea to give Word or Excel files out to people as they can be changed. Which is not good.

So the thing to do is to generate an Adobe PDF document – these cannot be tampered with so are a true and accurate representation of the original Word or Excel file. I often do this on Love Wapping.

Still with me? No? Oh well.

Here comes the science bit

My analysis showed that on 4th October 2013 one author in Tower Hamlets Council used Microsoft Word to generate the PDF document FOI response 9088.

Then on 25th October 2013 another author in Tower Hamlets Council used Microsoft Excel to generate another PDF version, FOI response 9087.

The original 9088 document contained more information than the 9087 document. In response to the same FOI request. Why?

And why were both versions of the document published on the Tower Hamlets website? Conspiracy? Maybe. Cockup far more likely.

Two Tower Hamlets officers generate two slightly different responses to the same FOI request. Both responses get published on the Tower Hamlets website.

Does this matter? Yes it does. Because if there are two responses to one request under the Freedom of Information Act how do we know which one is truthful?

And how many other documents have multiple versions? Is this just a simple case of human error or is there another reason?

What was the intent of the author who generated the 9087 PDF?  I don’t know. but in the light of the Panorama and Daily Telegraph reports the question needs to be asked.

That’s it for today. But the really interesting stuff is yet to come:

Hopefully I will publish this tomorrow – unless I spot the Egyptian Geese of course. 


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