Sunday, September 24, 2017

#Lab17 Thank you Southern Rail

This is something you don't hear that often. Or rather thank you to the Southern Rail workers in Brighton station who found my suitcase this morning that I had stupidly left behind on the train yesterday evening on route to Labour Party conference. 

Labour Party Conference 2017 #Lab17


I arrived last night in Brighton for conference and started badly by managing to leave my suitcase on the train. By the time I realised and ran back to the station (apologies for ignoring colleagues on the way) the train was on its way back to Bedford.  My conference credentials as a Labour Councillor had also not arrived in time so I had to queue at the conference office to get a replacement. 
This all meant I was late for the London Party reception and arrived in scruffy jeans and tee-shirt also missed the speeches by Mayor Sadiq Khan and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP. 

It was good to see Sadiq and other Labour Councillors, MPs and activists at the reception and catch up on the serious political issues of the day (aka gossip and rumour mongering). 

Afterwards we went for a meal and later drinks with fellow Newham activists. 

As usual I will try and post on conference fringes and speeches as and when.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Sign. Share. Scrap. UNISON’s petition calling on the government to scrap the pay cap

UNISON’s petition calling on the government to scrap the pay cap is getting close to the 100,000-signature mark.
Over 73,000 people have signed the petition on the government website in less than two weeks; if it reaches the 100,000-mark the government will be under significant pressure to debate the issue and scrap the cap.
UNISON is aiming to reach 100,000 signatures by 1 October, when the Conservative Party conference starts.
You could help reach the magic number by sharing the petition with your friends and family, and of course signing it yourself if you haven’t already.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Trade Unions in Trump’s America: Many Threats, Some Opportunities

 Yesterday evening I attended a meeting of SERTUC International Committee at Congress House.

One of the guest speakers was Professor Iwan Morgan who gave an excellent presentation on Trumps America.

Click on page link to read here

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Former Olympic Stadium Stratford report by Cllr Conor McAuley to his ward

Councillor’s Report to Custom House Branch Labour Party September 2017.

Former Olympic Stadium Stratford

I have been approached by a few Party members concerned about the stories they have seen in the local press about the apparent loss of the £40 million Newham Council investment in the stadium, prior to West Ham United Football Club moving in.

Members have asked me how and why Council came to invest such a large sum of money in the stadium and is the money really lost?

There was extensive discussion prior to the Olympic Games in 2012, as to the future of the Stadium once the games were over. There were two extraordinary meetings of Newham Council in November 2011 and March 2012 at which this was discussed. (I was prevented from taking part in these debates as I was a member of the Olympic Delivery Authority’s Planning Committee and it was deemed that I might have a ‘prejudicial’ interest in the matter – so I took no part in the decision making).

Under the heading ‘Securing a Community and Regeneration Legacy for the Olympic Stadium’ members of the Council agreed to create a company ‘Newham Legacy Investments’ to which it would lend £40 million. This company would then enter into a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) with the Olympic Park Legacy Company for the purposes of managing the legacy of the Olympic Stadium and island site around the stadium. The £40 million would then be invested into this new partnership.

Outside of the Council there has been much debate as to why it was necessary to invest £40m into a stadium which would be used primarily by West Ham United, a wealthy Premiership football club owned by two multi millionaires.

The Mayor has argued ‘This is not just for a Premier League football club, this is for community benefit. If it was purely about the football club I could not justify doing this’.’We are not sacrificing anything for this. We are doing prudential borrowing but we cannot use this borrowing for anything else and it does not affect our borrowing capacity or what we can spend. It has no negative impact’.

He said.

"Of course this is not entirely true. We could have used the money to invest in other community priorities like social housing or refurbishing some of our now closed community centres (like the Upton Centre). Sir Robin was also quoted as saying; “even on the most disastrous figures, even if everything goes wrong we still make a profit on this. The risk is really, really minimal.”

So where is the money now?

It is shown in the Council’s recently published accounts as an ‘Impairment’ totalling £44.4m of a Long Term Debtor in one of the Council’s group undertaking, Newham Legacy Investments Ltd. 

‘These charges are subsequently written-off to the Capital Adjustment Account.’

The Mayor and one or two other councillors are arguing that an ‘impairment’ is not a ‘write off’ but they are contradicted by the very next line in the accounts which states that these charges are subsequently written off.

I am appalled not only by the loss itself but by the fact that we had to study the annual accounts to find this information.

Such a fanfare was made about the original investment, one might think that the Council was seeking to bury the loss.

It tends to remind me of the £4.3+ million lost in the Council’s investment in 2012 in the London Pleasure Gardens project that was supposed to animate the Silvertown Quays area south of the Royal Docks. The Council lost every penny of this investment and it even had to pay the winding up costs of the company.

As I understand it, Newham’s Overiew & Scrutiny Committee has never looked at this loss, so I doubt their commitment to look at the Stadium debacle,

The Council’s draft accounts will be discussed further at the Council’s Audit Board on 27 September. It could be a difficult meeting.

Frankly I believe the whole Stadium deal deserves a proper scrutiny by an independent agency. Perhaps Mayor Sadiq Khan can deliver this.

Cllr Conor McAuley

20/09/17

(John Gray - This is a huge issue also to my constituents - I posted sensible concerns about this issue by Cllr Rachel Tripp here"

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Newham Council Motion on slaughter in Myanmar

As reported here I was really pleased at this debate and the unanimous decision of full council to support.

"MOTION REGARDING THE CURRENT SITUATION IN MYANMAR

PROPOSER – CLLR SALIM PATEL

SECOND – CLLR MAS PATEL

That Newham Council,

- having regard to the Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: Situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar, 29 June 2016

• - having regard to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948,

• - having regard to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966,

• - having regard to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966,

- having regard to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol thereto,

Having taken note of,

- The serious human rights abuse and violence against Rohingya communities and refugees by the Burmese military.

- The fact that the Rohingya continue to suffer from persecution, arbitrary detention, torture, forced displacement, abuse, and severe legal, economic, social and religious discrimination in Burma/Myanmar

- The arbitrary deprivation of their citizenship

- The impunity that continues to prevail in the cases of crimes and atrocities against them

- That over 150,000 Rohingyas remain in more than 80 internal displacement camps in Rakhine State, with limited access to humanitarian aid, while more than 100,000 others have fled by sea or land, often at the hands of human traffickers, to other countries over the past years; whereas many Rohingya refugees lost their lives in sinking boats or by being pushed back into the sea; whereas several thousands of Rohingyas are reportedly trapped in crowded wooden boats in inhuman conditions and urgent need of assistance in the region;

- That over one million Rohingyas live as refugees or migrants outside Burma/Myanmar; whereas Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Thailand are the countries to which the largest numbers of Rohingyas have fled; whereas many of them are not recognised and protected as refugees, live and work illegally with no documentation, and are victims of violence, exploitation, exclusion, marginalisation, and extreme poverty;

Calls upon the British government to,

1. Condemn in the strongest possible terms the recent attacks on the Rohingya by the Burmese military and the killing and forced displacement of thousands.

2. Reiterate its deepest concern about the plight of the Rohingya and call for regional and international mobilisation to provide them urgent assistance;

3. To expresses its deep concern about the continued anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence in Rakhine State and in other parts of Burma/Myanmar;

4. Call upon the government of Burma/Myanmar to put an immediate end to all forms of violence, persecution, arbitrary detention, torture, forced displacement, abuse and discrimination against the Rohingya;

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

REMINDER - Grenfell Tower: The anatomy of a disaster & the future of social housing in London - Newham Fabians 20 Sept 2017

REMINDER: Tom Copley, GLA lead on Housing speaking this Thursday 20 September 7-9pm at Eat 16 Cafe, St Luke's Community Centre, Canning Town, E16 1HN

Agenda

1. Welcome & introductions

2. Talk: Grenfell Tower & the future of social housing policy with guest speaker Tom Copley AM, Assembly Member and Labour Housing Spokesperson at the GLA

3. Audit Report

4. West Ham CLP GC delegate election- Those wishing to stand should email the secretary at least seven days before the meeting. As per our constitution these names will also be sent to the national Fabian Society. We are still waiting to be affiliated with East Ham CLP after which we will be able to elect a delegate for East Ham.

5. AOB & Date of Next Meeting

Monday, September 18, 2017

Newham Council Motion on Antisemitism (passed tonight)

I was really pleased that this (amended) motion was passed at the Newham Council meeting on Monday. I spoke in favour as did (pictures) Cllr Rokhsana Fiaz OBE, Cllr Neil Wilson, Cllr Anamul Islam, Cllr Clive Furness & the Mayor Robin Wales.

There also was an excellent motion on the slaughter in  Rohingya & other minorities in Myanmar which I will post. Also passed unanimously.

"This Council expresses alarm at the rise in antisemitism in recent years across the UK. This includes incidents when criticism of Israel has been expressed using anti-Semitic tropes. Criticism of Israel can be legitimate, but not if it employs the tropes and imagery of antisemitism.

This Council therefore welcomes the UK Government’s announcement on December 11th 2016 that it will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, making Britain one of the first countries in the world to adopt it. This definition has also been adopted by the Labour Party and featured in the Labour Party’s Race and Faith Manifesto (page 12) published during the 2017 General Election. The IHRA definition defines antisemitism as thus:

This Council notes that:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.

Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

Antisemitic acts are criminal when they are so defined by law (for example, denial of the Holocaust or distribution of antisemitic materials in some countries). Criminal acts are antisemitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.

Antisemitic discrimination is the denial to Jews of opportunities or services available to others and is illegal in many countries.

This Council welcomes support within the Council for combating antisemitism in all its manifestations.

This Council hereby resolves to adopt the above definition of antisemitism as set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and pledges to combat this pernicious form of racism through awareness raising and education; and through engagement with the range of Jewish opinion on how best to address antisemitism in addition with all communities that live in Newham.

This Council also condemns all forms of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and sexism and we commit to fighting against them".

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"The Stadium Loan" and Questions to Council Meeting



See below today's blog post by Newham Council Cabinet member, Cllr Rachel Tripp, on the controversy regarding the "The Stadium loan". Also, my questions on this subject that have been sent to the Newham Full Council meeting being held tomorrow. 

"Rachel writes…Introduction

I want to write a blog post here about the Olympic stadium, because I want residents in Forest Gate North to be able to have one place where they could read the facts, and to know how they are being represented, all laid out clearly in one place.

Without wanting to sound worthy, I’m also writing this because it’s so important for public bodies and the people who work in them to be transparent. I am a cabinet member at Newham, and I take that seriously, but I am also one of your elected representatives in Forest Gate North, and I don’t feel I would be doing my job properly if I wasn’t always trying to be open, even when the topics are challenging and feelings run high.

Timeline

Last week (Thursday 7th September) there was a cabinet meeting at 5pm. That afternoon before the meeting, I read on social media that the £40m loan that the Council made to the Olympic stadium had been ‘written off’ and that this formed part of that cabinet report and was being decided that evening.

I assumed that this must be in the agenda item Medium Term Financial Strategy, a report which is regularly updated and sent to Councillors. This report gives a commentary and information about where the Council’s finances are.

But in fact the report that contains the reference to the stadium loan is not one that was on the agenda for that evening. It is in the Draft Statement of Accounts 2016-17, which is due to go to the next Investment and Accounts Committee later this month. The draft statement of accounts which contains the reference is here.

The bit of this report that is particularly relevant is on page 12 which reads, ‘Impairment totalling £44.4m of a Long Term Debtor in one of the Council’s group undertaking, Newham Legacy Investments Ltd. These charges are subsequently written-off to the Capital Adjustment Account (Note 26)’

I was extremely concerned when I read this, as were many other residents. This was the first time I had seen this kind of assumption made about the Olympic stadium loan.

The Council’s statements

The Council has subsequently released a statement which I will reproduce in full here, saying:

“The council’s draft accounts for 2016/17 were first published on our website on 3 July and were then open to the normal period of public scrutiny until 11 August. These draft accounts are currently with our auditors for their review. The finalised accounts are due to be considered at a scheduled meeting of our Investment and Accounts Committee on 20 September.

“Our draft accounts, which are subject to change and approval, show a prudent, responsible and regulatory compliant treatment of a Council loan related to the London Stadium. The loan is shown, for accounting purposes, as currently ‘impaired’, or damaged, due to the current financial performance of the Stadium. It is not a write off of the loan.

“The financial performance of the Stadium in its first full year of transformed operation is a matter of public record and it was widely anticipated that the first full year of trading would be particularly challenging. Newham Council is working with the Greater London Authority, the London Legacy Development Corporation and our other Stadium partners on a range of options to improve the financial performance of the Stadium. The future value of our loan, and its treatment in our accounts, is directly linked to that future performance.”

end of statement

Other information given to journalists said:

1. The £40m loan is a repayable one over 40 years.

2. The Mayor of London has commissioned an independent review into the London Stadium and that to inform this work, all partners in the stadium are looking at options to improve commercial performance.

3. There has been a successful summer programme in the stadium, including three major concerts and World Championship Athletics and Para Athletics.

4. Newham residents have enjoyed benefits as a result of the council’s investment in the form of ticket giveaways. This includes 5,000 free tickets to West Ham United’s Carrbao Cup game on 19 September against Bolton Wanderers. These tickets are being issued to residents through community neighbourhoods, community groups, a ticket ballot, and to volunteers and staff.

Other information

I have subsequently also been told that:

– impairment is an accounting term and is not a write-off. If a substantial loan were to be written off, it would come to Mayoral Proceedings, which is a public meeting with a paper.

– there is a precedent for this, as during the financial crisis, loans made by Newham to Icelandic banks were ‘impaired’ by 100% but were subsequently revalued as the position changed, and were paid off.

– there are commercial negotiations ongoing which are currently confidential, and more information will be released as soon as an agreement is reached.

What happens next

This information takes us up to now. So I also wanted to set out clearly here what I think should happen next.

Firstly, I’m surprised that this is the first we’ve heard that there was doubt about the value of the loan. Although I have heard various conversations about the profitability of the stadium, and ways in which this could be improved (the costs attached to moving the seat going is a relatively well known barrier to making money, just for example), previously the information about the loan has been what a good deal the Council has.

To summarise my understanding of this, we borrowed the money at a relatively low rate of interest, and have loaned it to the Stadium who pay us a commercial (higher) rate of interest. This means that we get back: the original investment, the difference in the two interest rates, the community benefits (community days, free tickets for residents) and also 30% of the profits in perpetuity. Although this loan has been controversial, I have always been assured that the terms of the deal were beneficial to us.

Secondly, I mentioned transparency above, and I think transparency is even more important when the topic is controversial. The impression given here, rightly or wrongly, is that the information has been hidden, and I think this is a great shame. I’m surprised that there wasn’t more explanatory text in the accounts document, and am even more surprised that the term ‘written off’ was used without anyone realising that if the accounts use these words, then residents reading it may – not unreasonably! – not understand the financial term ‘impairment’ and assume that the loan has indeed been written off. So I think we need more public information (where it’s possible to publish it, and recognising that commercial negotiations do sometimes need to be confidential for reasons that are entirely right) so that financial decisions and changes to financial circumstances can be not just published, but explained and understood.

Thirdly, I need to learn more about the loan, which increasingly appears not to be a loan at all but more akin to an equity share, despite having been consistently referred to as a loan. Apparently, the difference this makes includes the terms under which the interest is payable. Generally on a loan the interest is payable whatever happens. With our loan/equity share, I understand that interest payments are only made once the stadium is profitable.

Other considerations

For fairness, there are a few other things I need to point out which are points that have been made to me.

The investment that Newham made in the stadium was key in ensuring that it would become a multi-use venue in its own right, and not fail after the Olympics. Having a venue like this in Newham, bringing sporting and musical and other events into Newham, is really important to the borough and very positive in terms of employment, place-making, sporting opportunities, visitors, and much more.

Although no one else has made this connection, I also keep remembering the O2, which started life as the entirely ill-fated Millennium Dome, referred to with seeming certainty as a white elephant, but now reimagined as a thriving music venue. Obviously I understand that the analogy is not perfect, but it does show what can be done.

Also, I think it’s worth re-emphasising that since I have become a councillor in 2014, the Newham budget has been cut by around 30%. It’s difficult to overstate what an enormous impact this level of cuts has had on local government across the UK, and the signs of it are everywhere, from libraries closing (not in Newham, thankfully) to the increase in street homelessness. Local authorities are making commercial decisions and in many cases are making capital investments in order to secure longer term income so that they can continue to provide services.

The money invested in the stadium is capital investment not revenue, and was borrowed by LBN in order to invest. So while it’s still public money, and important to remind ourselves of the vulnerable people the Council has a duty to support, it’s not the case that, for example, ‘that £40m could have been spent on social care’. Also, the consultation that we held in the summer 2015 about makings savings was about cuts to our revenue, so this was absolutely not a consultation asking residents what they wanted to cut in order to fund the stadium.

I’m also reminded that previous investments the Council has made have been successful. The building at Dockside, for example, has risen in value significantly, whereas at the time the purchase of it was also controversial with strong feelings expressed against it in some cases.

Summary and conclusion

Overall for me the things that need to happen now can be summed up into: the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘what now’ . The ‘what’ being the money – when do we find out more, was it a good investment, can we be assured that the money comes back, what further information do we need? The ‘how’ being how this information was and is communicated, and the ‘what now’ being, well – obviously – what happens next.

The joint meeting of the Audit Committee and the Investment and Accounts committee (which approves the accounts) is due to take place on the 27th September. The Council’s statement above refers to the 20th, but this date has since been changed. I’ll attend it, and report back here as to what is discussed. This is the next important date, but it is not within this committee’s gift to ‘decide to write off’ the loan. The impairment is an accounting term which should reflect current financial values and assumptions, and should be a neutral not a political decision. It will nevertheless be interesting to listen to the discussion of the accounts, and find out more.

Along with all my colleagues, I will do my very best to get all the information I can, and will share whatever I’m able to. I have spoken to the Mayor already, and will do so again, and am going to sit down with my colleague Lester Hudson who is the political lead for Finance to talk to him. I should point out that although this blog post is mine (and I’m responsible for any errors in it) I am certainly not the only council member who wants to find out more. Here in Forest Gate North, we have a blog, and many of our residents are on social media, so it makes sense for me to share this here. Other councillors are doing the same things, but off line and in different ways.

As ever, I am happy to discuss any part of this, and will answer any questions that I’m able to. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I won’t release or leak confidential information but I will always be up front about what I am and am not able to share.

I really hope this post is useful".

Next my (John Gray) questions to Full Council
Stadium impairment & write off
Dear Kim (LBN Chief Executive)

This question is to Mayoral advisor on Finance Cllr Lester.

1. I am writing as a Newham Councillor about the “impairment” and “write off” of £44 million in (NLI) Newham Legacy Investments (page 12 in draft statement of accounts 2016/17).

I was very disturbed to have only found out about this while reading the accounts and that Councillors/Investments & Accounts were not told beforehand that there were any problems or issues with our investment in the NLI. Please explain why this was not done?

2. What is your opinion on our NLI investments and our potential liabilities? For example do we know how much money E20 Stadium LLP has lost this financial year, if so how much and what is the projection for year end. 

Have we made any other loans to the NLI or E20 stadium LLP ? If so what has happened to them. 

Including what has happened to our £5 million South Park investment and confirm that it has been invested in accordance with the report approved by the full Council.

Regards
Cllr John Gray

(hat tip picture Evening Standard)