Public removed from chaotic Tower Hamlets budget debate after shouts of 'racist'

A London borough subject to a government probe over concerns about how it is being run saw its budget meeting “descend into chaos” with security having to remove the public.

Councillors were accused of racism and sexism during the Tower Hamlets council meeting on Wednesday evening.

Women members threatened to leave unless action was taken against onlookers who were “persistently disrupting proceedings with abusive and disrespectful conduct”.

Labour attacked independent mayor Lutfur Rahman for his “bloated” private office, which they argued sees over £1.5 million spent on advisors, assistants and “spin doctors”.

Opposition councillor Marc Francis was shouted down by the public gallery when he criticised the spending.

A member of the public allegedly called him “racist” and when the speaker could not calm down proceeding security had to intervene to remove people.

Female Labour councillors also accused Mr Rahman’s all-male administration of “not listening” when they were speaking.

A recording of the three hour meeting was briefly published on the council’s website on Thursday morning before being taken down and the web page password protected.

A five per cent council tax increase and an almost eight per cent rise in rents for social tenants was signed off by Mr Rahman’s Aspire party.

Mr Rahman said he had presented a “balanced budget”, which includes increasing educational maintenance allowance payments for students from £400 to £600, a £5million investment in waste services, free swimming for women aged over 16 and men aged over 55 and a new “drug squad” to tackle substance abuse.

Labour councillor Sirajul Islam said: “We are deeply disturbed that it took the council’s female councillors to threaten to leave the meeting before action was taken against individuals who had persistently disrupted proceedings with abusive and disrespectful conduct.

“We are proud of the vibrant and lively democratic culture we have in our borough. Whilst plenty of other local councils struggle with resident apathy and disengagement, we are in the enviable position of having a rich culture of public participation in the democratic process.

“The Labour group is not afraid of being held to account by our residents – our meetings are often lively and robust but last night’s proceedings crossed a line.

“The safety of members and officers is paramount and concerns had already been raised with the administration following worsening public conduct and a coarsening of debate at recent council meetings.

“Last night, the speaker lost control of proceedings and the meeting descended into chaos.”

A Tower Hamlets Council spokesman said: “Yesterday’s full council meeting featured a cross party debate and vote on the council’s annual budget.

“There were allegations of inappropriate comments from the public gallery to towards councillors. As a result, the speaker asked a member of the public to leave and the public gallery was subsequently cleared.

“Whilst we encourage healthy debate, providing a respectful environment for the public, councillors, and staff is a priority for the council.”

It follows the Government last week announcing inspectors would be drafted in to the town hall to scrutinize how it is being run under Mr Rahman.

They have been asked to look at a range of issues, including how public money is spent and the “churn” of senior jobs at the authority.

Mr Rahman was ousted as the mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2015 after an election tribunal found him guilty of vote-rigging.He was banned from standing for office for five years. In 2022 he was reelected as the borough's leader along with 24 Aspire councillors.

Councillors described a “tense atmosphere” ahead of the gathering after Tory MP Paul Scully claimed there were “no-go areas” in the borough on Monday.

He later apologised for the remarks.

Following the meeting, Mr Rahman said: “Labour spent most of its time tarnishing hardworking council employees and spreading [misinformation].

“They forgot one important thing: our residents. Meanwhile, not only did we pass our second transformative and balanced budget, we found money to invest even more.”