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Security called in to break up verbal fight during annual budget meeting with public gallery cleared

An East London council’s annual budget meeting had to be adjourned on Wednesday evening (28 February) while security cleared out the public gallery because of heckling and ‘inapporopriate comments’ towards councillors.

During Tower Hamlets Council’s full council on Wednesday 28 February, female councillors had reportedly threatened to walk out of the meeting unless action was taken against those who were being disruptive.

The annual setting of the budget is one of the most important days on any local authority’s calendar and must be approved at full council before the new financial year begins on 1 April.

Labour councillor, Marc Francis was criticising the Aspire Party’s budget plans for 2024/25 when he was heckled and screamed at from the public gallery and was allegedly called a ‘racist’.

A verbal argument broke out and security had to intervene and remove members of the public from the room.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands the footage showing the altercation is currently being reviewed by the council and is not available to watch back on the council’s online webcast.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first full council since it was announced last week that government inspectors will be looking into how the council is being run under the mayor, Lutfur Rahman and the Aspire Party.

The borough’s only Green councillor, Nathalie Bienfait, said: “The meeting left me feeling very shaken, I was really not expecting to see that level of near violence.

“I was quite shocked, especially given the context that the inspectors from the government were in the room witnessing it all.”

Councillor Sirajul Islam released a statement on behalf of Tower Hamlets Labour Group, and said: “The Tower Hamlets Labour Group condemns the abuse and chaos that plagued [Wedensday’s] budget meeting.

“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.”

Cllr Islam added: “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 and cabinet meetings.”

After the meeting, Mr Rahman posted on X: “Labour spent most of its time tarnishing hard-working 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.”

A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Council said: “[Wednesday’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.”

They added: “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.”

After the public gallery was cleared, the meeting carried on and councillors were asked to vote on Aspire’s proposed budget, as well as voting on amendments from the Labour Party and the Green Party.

Aspire, which has a council majority, had its budget passed and both Labour and Green’s amendments were outvoted by Aspire councillors.

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