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Who scrutinises the scrutineers?

Cllr Joshua Peck made his usual appearance at the Tower Hamlets Cabinet last night, 4th February. He was there in his capacity as Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny (O&S) Committee – and in that capacity, he made his usual comments about how disappointed he and his Committee were that, after initially promising to come to O&S, Mayor Rahman had had to disappoint them again and send his apologies.  Cllr Peck said he had to assume Mayor Rahman was scared of attending.

At first glance, it is hard to see the attraction for Mayor Rahman in attending O&S.  After all, whenever Labour Party councillors speak to him in the Council or at Cabinet, they – there is really no other word for it – tell him off.  Some of the Councillors sound like Mum, some like a grumpy teenager – and one or two even sound like Matron. But in almost every single case, they give Mayor Rahman a good scolding, from their own superior position.  (Tory councillors tend towards the just plain sarcastic, but that is another story.)

However, Mayor Rahman is made of sterner stuff.  He did point out that his Cabinet members attend O&S regularly, so the Committee is able to question them about the Administration’s work which, as portfolio holders, they know in detail. He added, though, that he had been very disappointed that he had not been able to come to O&S: the circumstances were rather exceptional as he had been busy attending to Election Court matters, as the petition, which the opposition parties seemed to support, was now being heard. Mayor Rahman did not stoop to answer the allegation that he was too scared to go to O&S: we suspect that whatever Mayor Rahman is scared of in this life (mice? spiders? the Daleks?), the sight of Cllr Peck wagging his finger and frowning is not high on his list.

Cllr Peck went on to point out that his O&S Committee had made some points about the Budget. Mayor Rahman asked Cllr Alibor Choudhury to deal with some of these points under item 10 on the agenda, which concerned various financial reports and Cllr Choudhury agreed to do so.

And then a curious thing happened: Cllr Peck left the meeting. At item 8.  He didn’t stay to hear Cllr Choudhury’s answers.  He didn’t stay, for that matter, to hear the other items on the Cabinet’s agenda, items which – who knows? – might have been worth a bit of scrutiny.

Cllr Shahed Ali suffered the collateral damage. He was sitting on the same side of the Cabinet table as Cllr Peck had been sitting on, and Cllr Peck was not in his eyeline.  Understandably, Cllr Ali did not realise that Cllr Peck had gone and began talking to him and had to be stopped by others at the meeting pointing out that Cllr Ali was talking to an empty chair. No councillor likes to be caught talking to an empty chair, but Cllr Ali is not easily embarrassed and had a little laugh and the meeting laughed with him.

Who knows why Cllr Peck left so early?  Who knows why Cllr Peck didn’t want to hear the rest of the Cabinet? Cllr Peck probably knows, so we have asked him and we’ll let you know his reply.  Perhaps he had a pressing other commitment and went off knowing he can catch up on the Cabinet meeting via Councillor TV (or whatever the Council’s recordings are called).

He is not the first Labour Chair of O&S to attend Cabinet for his own report and then leave: this was the practice of his predecessor, (ex-) Councillor Motin uz-Zaman.  For Councillors who are desperate to scrutinise the work of the Mayor, Labour’s disdain for the Cabinet meetings is odd indeed.  They do not seem to take it seriously: perhaps they are just joshing around.

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