Tower Hamlets Council Transparency Commission begins work

Many things have changed in Tower Hamlets since the democratic election of a directly elected Mayor a couple of months back.

First radical change was the democratic election of a directly elected Mayor.

Second radical change was no photographs whatsoever of the new Mayor in East End Life this week. None.

Seems the cult of personality that has dogged East End politics for several years is dead. And good riddance.

Mayor Biggs is taking transparency very seriously and has already published a list of his engagements, an unprecedented step for the borough.

The most important initiative he has started is the establishment of a Transparency Commission to look at how the inner workings of Tower Hamlets Council can be made more visible to residents.

Here is the official release Tower Hamlets launches Overview and Scrutiny Transparency Commission (OSTC).

If this is done properly it will both make the current administration more accountable to the electorate and prevent any future administration from perverting the system for their own purposes.

Cllr. John Pierce, the Chair of the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny (O&S) Committee, is leading the Transparency Commission and Love Wapping was flattered to be asked by Cllr. Pierce to attend an O&S meeting a few weeks back to give our views on how the Council could operate in a more open manner based on our experience of spending a couple of years trying to work out what the last one was doing.

Because of the importance of this invitation LW hired a coach to take the entire LW team along to the meeting, although the Wapping Mole insisted on travelling by DLR.

LW had the honour of speaking alongside Ted Jeory who summed the change of culture at the Town Hall in this tweet: “After 10 yrs covering LBTH, tonight got 1st invite to address a council meeting instead of being evicted. Helping new transparency commission.”

Ted spoke first and you can find details of his presentation at Trial by Jeory. For the record LW completely agrees with Ted’s views.

After the master, the apprentice

LW’s presentation focussed on the way that the Council’s data could be made more easily accessible to residents, investigative geeks and ‘Armchair Auditors’ in general.

Data sounds and often is really dull. But in the context of Tower Hamlets Council ‘data’ means around £1.1 billion of public money. You could buy several Mercedes-Benz dealerships for that sort of cash and probably have change for an old town hall.

‘Open Data’ is data that anyone can access, use and share. Anyone. Simple idea, very powerful in practice.

Love Wapping’s four Open Data recommendations for Tower Hamlets

  1. Open Data Payments to Suppliers payment thresholds
  2. Open Data endpoint identification
  3. Presentation of council data
  4. Identification of Local Election Candidates and their proposers

1. Open Data – Spending

Currently every local authority is required by law to publish all Payments to Suppliers over £500. While this is useful and has been the basis of the majority of LW’s data investigations into grants payments recent events have shown that this threshold is too high.

  • LW recommends that Tower Hamlets Council should publish all payments to suppliers above £100.
  • LW also recommends that the threshold for publication of credit card payments should be £10.

2. Open Data – End Points

Another fundamental obstacle to shining a light on Council payments is determining exactly who a payment was made to. Sound silly? Not really.

LW’s data investigations into payments to charities and other third-sector organisations were often hampered by the simple fact that many of these organisations are registered as both a Limited Company with Companies House and as a charity with the Charity Commission.

There is nothing unusual about charities operating in this way.

The problem occurs when Payments to Suppliers data is published and the organisation that is being paid is only referred to by name.

In May 2014 LW used the Osmani Trust as an example of the different names one organisation might use (Tower Hamlets grants funding – why the numbers don’t add up).

It should be emphasised that by using Osmani Trust as an example there is absolutely no allegation of wrong doing of any type by Osmani Trust .

As LW said at the time:

“Of the 170 payments 82 were ‘Voluntary Association’ expense type, 24 were ‘Third Party Payments – Voluntary Associations’ and 15 ‘SLA Services Received’ plus the other 17 categories. Again a large organisation with varying payments coming in from Tower Hamlets Council so all fair enough.

But these payments are to three different suppliers, the Osmani Trust, Osmani Development Trust and Osmani School. Osmani Trust – same as Osmani Development Trust or different? Osmani School – same organisation as Osmani Trust / Osmani Development Trust or different?”

LW has also found at least one instance where two different organisations

with exactly the same name operate in the same part of Tower Hamlets doing

similar work.

LW’s recommendation is that for every supplier payment in Payments to Suppliers data published by any council (including Tower Hamlets) must be identified by a unique identifier, i.e. company registration number or charity number.

By doing this the data really does become Open Data because everyone knows where payments come from and where they go to.

Not rocket science is it?

In January 2014 our MP Jim Fitzpatrick helped LW bring this small but fundamental issue to the attention of the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in response to Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency – Government Response to Consultation (PDF) (PDF), specifically Appendix A p43–44 Grants to voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations ‘Information Title’.

How geeky is that?

Thanks very much to Jim for getting DCLG on the case with this.

3. Presentation of Council Data

So let’s assume that Tower Hamlets Council will soon be publishing all Payments to Suppliers over £100 and credit card payments over £10 and each payment can be linked to a specific business or charity.

Great – but it’s still all numbers.

The essential next step is for Tower Hamlets Council to provide residents with the tools to examine these numbers. Lots of local authorities and government organisations all over the world are doing this already. Here are some examples:

Employment possibilities

Once this data is released by Tower Hamlets Council there is the additional benefit that it can create jobs.

Many government organisations organise ‘hackathons’ – groups of programmers are invited to attend an event where they come up with whizzy ideas to turn data into useful information such as the Open Data Manchester Hackathon or this one organised by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), National Audit Office (NAO) and Parliament.

And of course Tower Hamlets has a huge number of programmers and inventive tech people right on its doorstep in Shoreditch and Silicon Roundabout.

Handy huh?

It’s all about power

All the problems in Tower Hamlets politics over the last few years come down to one thing.


Abuse of power is why grants were paid to organisations on the basis of patronage not need.

The desire for power is why voters have been intimidated.

And the way to get power is to get elected.

But just who have Tower Hamlets voters been electing?

4. Election Candidates

Every candidate should have a unique ID organised on a UK wide basis so votes can see which parties any given candidate has belonged to over time.

Additionally it should be possible for borough residents to fully and accurately identify the persons who are ‘proposers’ and ‘seconders’ of any given candidate.

All too often Love Wapping has written articles highly critical of Tower Hamlets Council so it gives the entire editorial team great pleasure to write something positive for a change.

All eyes will now be on the new administration to ensure that they deliver on their promises.

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