Leaked reports reveal Labour concerns over Havering businessman and politician
PUBLISHED: 17:00 26 May 2020
Investigation into Woodford mosque row puts pressure on Romford nursery boss Jas Athwal
Two leaked documents have raised more questions about the conduct of Redbridge Council’s leader, who is currently under investigation by his own party.
The documents, from a confidential council investigation, reveal Labour councillors raised concerns two years ago about how the group leadership handled planning.
Labour member Bert Jones – former head of planning – told the independent investigator who wrote the report that he had been “uncomfortable” about comments by leader Jas Athwal.
However, his evidence was deleted from the confidential report after a draft was shared with Redbridge Council and the affected councillors in 2018.
The final report was sent to the monitoring officer, who did not share it with the council’s governance and assurance committee, instead supplying councillors with her own summary of the independent investigation.
The Ilford Recorder attempted at the time to obtain a copy of the report, which cost £6,000, under Freedom of Information laws – but the council refused to release it.
Cllr Athwal – a businessman who runs nurseries in Havering – is currently suspended from the Labour group while Labour HQ investigates a complaint about him.
The Labour Party refused to answer questions about the nature or status of that complaint.
In 2018, investigator Alex Oram, from CH&I Associates, was commissioned by Redbridge Council to investigate complaints by former Labour councillor Aziz Choudhury.
Mr Choudhury, from Romford, had complained about alleged impropriety in relation to two planning applications, and alleged that he and others were bullied by Labour’s chief whip, Cllr Roy Emmett.
Cllr Emmett denied bullying but no formal verdict was reached by the investigator. Mr Oram ruled that the alleged conduct constituted Cllr Emmett acting in a party-political role, not a formal council role, and therefore was beyond the scope of the council-commissioned investigation.
He found that there had been “unwise” and “thoughtless” actions by Cllr Emmett in relation to one planning application, but he had not broken the law or the council’s code of conduct.
However, both Mr Oram’s draft report and his final report, both now leaked online, show that during his investigation, concerns were raised about the leadership’s attitude towards planning more generally.
In his preliminary report, he wrote that Cllr Jones had told him of an encounter with Cllrs Emmett and Athwal.
Mr Oram wrote: “Cllr Jones did...recount a meeting between himself, Cllr Athwal and Cllr Emmett on October 21, 2016, at which he was instructed to become more assertive as chair of the regulatory committee.
“Cllr Jones alleged that he was also told that the Labour leadership wanted him to start voting on all applications (previously he had only used his vote when required).
“Cllr Jones said that he was told in no uncertain terms that if he did not start leading from the front he would lose his position as chair.
“Cllr Jones said that he was also instructed to start providing the leadership direct feedback after meetings, which was not the norm and made him feel uncomfortable.”
This section of the draft was deleted from the final report.
Asked why he had deleted the comment, Mr Oram said: “Our standard practice is to produce a confidential draft version of our report as part of the investigative process. This draft is circulated to all the relevant parties... We invariably make changes to the draft based on that feedback before issuing our final report.
“It does happen on occasion that during an investigation, those involved will make verbal allegations that encompass the conduct of those other than the individuals under investigation. It is not within our power, though, to comment on / pursue such allegations... All I know is that we were never instructed to investigate any allegations against Cllr Athwal.”
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Mr Oram’s final report did include another comment by Cllr Jones, expressing concerns that after Cllr Emmett became chief whip, he started withdrawing members from planning meetings, even though they were available to attend, and substituting them with others.
He told Mr Oram: “It became a cause for concern when members were giving their apologies and not attending meetings for applications that were controversial in their own ward, and yet they would publicly attend other events on the same evening.
“The motivation for this could be a mixture of two things; deliberately substituting people from the planning committee to protect them from emotive controversial applications within their own ward, or carefully choosing councillors who you think will be most inclined to vote the way you want them to.”
When the Recorder contacted Cllr Jones, who represents Chadwell ward, he said he did not wish to comment.
The report stated he had been deselected in his previous ward, Goodmayes, in 2018 after supporting Cllr Choudhury in his dispute with the leadership.
Cllr Jones was named in the report as one of three Labour councillors who made formal complaints to the Labour Party in 2017 and 2018 about the Redbridge group leadership, but said the party had, “ignored their complaints and failed to provide any substantive responses.”
The Labour Party refused to comment on these claims.
In a virtual council meeting last week, Redbridge trade union activist Andy Walker asked Cllr Athwal – who remains council leader despite his suspension from Labour – if he would guarantee the Labour chief whip would no longer be responsible for organising substitutes in planning meetings.
Cllr Athwal refused to answer, saying it was not an appropriate question for the meeting.
“This is Redbridge Council, sir,” he said. “We are here in the interests of our residents and any political questions, you can ask me, but not in an official cabinet meeting.”
Cllrs Athwal and Emmet have been contacted for comment along with Redbridge Council.
BACKGROUND TO PLANNING COMPLAINTS
Cllr Aziz Choudhury complained about Labour decisions regarding two planning applications.
The first was a bid to extend the opening hours of a community centre in New North Road, run by the Hainault and Chigwell Muslim Association.
Cllr Roy Emmett emailed planning chairman Bert Jones the day before the meeting, writing: “[The chairman] and the centre have supported Labour candidates... I’d be grateful if you could do your best.”
Cllr Jones said he felt Cllr Emmett was wrong to send the email, but it did not impact his decision.
Investigator Alex Oram ruled the email was “thoughtless and unwise” but not unlawful.
The second application was to build a mosque and community centre in Mulberry Way, South Woodford.
Emails showed ward councillor Lloyd Duddridge was substituted at the planning meeting by the leadership to distance him from the decision, because the application was “a delicate subject”.
Labour admitted removing Cllr Duddridge for political reasons, which it said was lawful, but denied any predetermination of the decision.
Mr Oram found no wrongdoing.
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