Gavin Barwell MP, political websites, funding and our apology

In an article posted on this website in the early hours of Friday morning (May 20), we reported the inter-connected funding of local Tory MPs, the Conservative group on Croydon council and the publicly funded, party political jobs of some local councillors.

In respect of Gavin Barwell, elements of the article were unclear and may have suggested that the MP for Croydon Central had not declared all donations which he had received. This was never our intention, and we apologise for any misunderstanding caused. We do not agree that the error merited a threat of legal action which has been made by Barwell, but we are prepared to compensate by offering Barwell a pint of ale in a Croydon public house.

Our errors were genuine mistakes and we are happy to correct them. What follows details the inaccuracies, not only in our article, but also those in the article posted by Gavin Barwell.

Barwell: publishing assumptions without checking his facts

Smell the Coffee

Gavin Barwell was elected as the Member of Parliament for Croydon Central little more than a year ago. Nearly 50,000 people in his constituency voted last May, although less than 20,000 felt called to choose Barwell, who was elected with just 39 per cent of the popular vote.

It was those May 2010 elections, local and parliamentary, which inspired the establishment of Inside Croydon, to reflect some of the rum goings ons in the capital’s most populated borough.

We live in interesting times. In the year before the election, the MPs’ expenses scandal had been exposed by the Daily Torygraph, with another local Tory MP, Croydon South’s Richard Ottaway, found to have made claims for a splendid second home, for having his chimney swept and towards the cost of a £5,300 bed.

Croydon’s Conservatives nonetheless endorsed Ottaway as their general election candidate. To coin a phrase, “Smell the Coffee”.

It was Barwell’s maiden speech in parliament that formed the first posting on Inside Croydon, as the new MP reinforced his home borough’s “reputation for rather unwelcoming 1960s architecture and for crime and anti-social behaviour”. 

Since then, Inside Croydon has observed Barwell’s first year at Westminster with interest, and we have congratulated him more than once, notably on his support for the libraries campaign and his criticism of the council’s badly handled consultation over parking regulations in central Croydon.

Indeed, when Inside Croydon’s editor met Barwell at the Town Hall, he made the point of congratulating the MP on his support for local residents over the behaviour of his former colleagues on the council. Good, fair, honest and hard-working constituency MPs should always be welcomed.

In the past week, Barwell has become agitated by Inside Croydon’s coverage of his close working connections with certain local councillors. Where it is demonstrated that we have misreported something, we endeavour to correct the error as speedily as possible.

At this point, we will let Barwell take up the story of Thursday and Friday’s online activity:

“On Thursday night, the Inside Croydon website written by Labour activist…”

Sorry Gavin. You are wrong. Inside Croydon is an entirely independent website, written by a small group of like-minded local residents. All are volunteers, no one is paid. Unlike you, we receive no public funding or donations from any commercial organisation or political party. We are independent. Our editor is not an activist for any political party.

We look forward to you publishing a prominent correction and full apology, both to Inside Croydon and the local Labour party.

To continue…

“Stephen…” Wrong again, Gav. And you are well aware of the correct spelling of the editor’s name, since you have got it right in the past. But onwards. “… Downes published a post, most of which was about the recent Cabinet reshuffle by Council Leader Mike Fisher. In passing, it referred to the fact that Tim Pollard manages my and the Croydon Conservatives websites and possibly Richard Ottaway’s.”

In the interests of openness and transparency, we interrupt Gav’s account of events here to point out that our naming of Tim Pollard as working on these websites is the only public reference to this fact that we have been able to find. Nowhere on Barwell’s nor the Croydon Conservatives’ websites does it explicitly name the very busy Councillor Pollard as performing this function.

Barwell goes on to quote Inside Croydon’s report, where we wrote: “What Ottaway does state, though, is that his website is ‘funded from Parliamentary allowances’. This is certainly what Barwell is doing.”

Very late on Thursday, via Twitter, Barwell took dispute with this passage. Immediately, we corrected this by carrying an update on the original article – “Gavin Barwell has corrected us, saying that his website is not paid for by public money” .

We also set to work on a second article about wider issues of local Conservative party funding.

Barwell complains that we did not call him to check some details in this second article. We apologise for this, but assumed that he would not appreciate a call at 2.30am, especially since we had as source material the Parliamentary public record which Barwell had himself submitted.

“Inappropriate” public funding of MP’s website

Richard Ottaway, MP for Croydon South: his use of public money to pay for his political website would be "inappropriate", according to the conduct advocated by Gavin Barwell

We are happy to repeat here what Barwell has written on his own website: “My website has plenty of party political content so it would clearly be inappropriate for it to be paid for by the taxpayer.”

This does prompt a couple of questions.

Is it therefore clearly “inappropriate” for his parliamentary colleague Richard Ottaway to have his website paid for by the taxpayer?

And is it therefore also “inappropriate” for the taxpayer-funded content of Richard Ottaway’s website to be displayed, through live links, on the homepage of the local Croydon Conservatives’ website, as run by its webmaster, Tim Pollard?

Barwell goes on to state: “My campaign did not receive a single donation from Lord Ashcroft personally or from any company in which he has an interest.”

Inside Croydon is happy to accept this to be entirely true. It was certainly never our intention to create the impression that Barwell had not properly declared any money he has received.

"Lord" Michael Ashcrof: donated millions to the Tory party. Gavin Barwell was reported to have worked for him as an aide

However, we note Barwell’s careful choice of words: “a single donation from Lord Ashcroft personally or from any company in which he has an interest” (our italics).

This prompts another question for Barwell.

Was his Croydon Central 2010 campaign in receipt of any money from any funds established by “Lord” Ashcroft specifically to assist Tory candidates standing in marginal seats, as we were informed by a Conservative “activist” during the campaign?

We should also re-state here that before the 2010 general election Gavin Barwell was widely reported as working as an aide for “Lord” Ashcroft, having previously been employed as “operations director” at the Conservative party, which received millions of pounds in donations and loans from “Lord” Ashcroft.

Barwell also takes issue with our statement about the errors that were made in the filing of his and Ottaway’s election expenses last year, saying this was “not true”.

The matter ended up in the High Court last November before Mr Justice Silber. As we reported at the time of the court hearing, the judge ruled that sums had been left off the two Croydon Tory MPs’ expenses declarations, but he accepted that this error was “inadvertent”. This is a matter of fact that is in the public domain.

Councillors’ donations to their own party

Barwell then disputes that, despite his own declaration to Parliament, he has received £40,000 from Croydon’s Tory Councillors.

We had published the official account verbatim, and repeat it here:

“Name of  donor: Croydon Council Conservative Group
Address of donor:  Town Hall, Katharine Street Croydon CR0 1NX
Amount of  donation or nature and value if donation in kind: £40,344.
Donor status:  council group
(Registered 7  June 2010)”

In his latest article, Barwell says, “I don’t receive a penny from my former colleagues. They do give money to the local Conservative Party to help pay for the local election campaign and under Parliamentary rules I am rightly required to declare such donations.”

Barwell tells us that the similar £40,000 donation declared by his Conservative colleague Richard Ottaway MP is, in fact, the same donation. “It is the same £40,000 declared twice,” Barwell writes.

This seems to be a very odd piece of accounting practice, but for the record we are happy to accept Barwell’s version of events and apologise for our misunderstanding.

We totalled up other donations made towards Barwell’s campaign funds which had all been properly declared by him on the official record at Westminster. “The implication,” Barwell writes, “is that this is money I receive on top of my salary. It is not. It is money donated to the Conservative Party to pay for leaflets, adverts etc.”

Again, we are happy to accept that this is the case.

We would suggest, in the interests of transparency, that the local Conservative Association’s accounts should be made readily available on their website, so that this spending on leaflets, adverts etc can be easily reviewed. We would recommend all local parties to do the same. Their continued failure so to do will only beg another question: what do they have to hide?

Tory political activist Sara Bashford: she receives more than £60,000 per year in public money as a Croydon councillor and through parliamentary allowances

Barwell then confirms as accurate our report that Croydon councillors Sara Bashford and Eddy Arram both work for him at his constituency office, and that they – together with former councillor Sue Bennett and two others – are all paid through his Parliamentary staffing allowance. In the cases of Bashford and Arram, this public funding of their political activity/constituency work could amount to something of the order of £27,000 per year. Each.

As Barwell says, “There is nothing in the slightest bit unusual about this.”

The real point is that the employment of Bashford and Arram, paid for with tax-payers’ money on top of their already generous council allowances (£45,377 per year from Croydon Council in Bashford’s case) is not widely known, nor is it publicised anywhere on Barwell’s or the local Conservatives’ website.

Is it of public interest? We think so.

Advertisements

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Croydon Central, Croydon Council, Gavin Barwell, Richard Ottaway MP, Sara Bashford, Tim Pollard and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Gavin Barwell MP, political websites, funding and our apology

  1. Anthony Miller says:

    Erm … unfortunately it is your job to check out the details of the story before you go to press.
    MPs have been known to sue for libel for less.
    For example the case of Shahid Malik vs Jonathan Scott
    Which was on the important subject of whether hacks should ring MPs before running stories.
    Although this libel action never reached a conclusion
    I do not think stacking up £300,000 in libel costs before a jury fails to reach a verdict
    Constitutes the kind of mistake I would personally like to learn from.

    If there was anything really dodgy with Barwell’s expenses (apart from what we already know)
    I think it would have been turned up by the
    thebureauinvestigates.com
    (their website seems to have mysteriously dematerialised for the moment)
    Who investigated Barwell for Channel 4 along with 4 other Conservative MPs resulting in the court case.
    Zak Goldsmith was criticised by the Commission …as to the others….
    Well, mostly they sought relief in the High Court which is very expensive.
    So as Groucho Marx would have said “close but no cigar”.
    I think in the case of Barwell the double accounting was accidental rather than by design.

    As Barwell says his election expenses are lodged with the Electoral Commission
    But for detailed records of his returns for the short and long campaigns you would have to go to
    The town hall. Reading and cross referencing all this information is an extremely time consuming
    Exercise which is why hacks club together to do it as creates a huge volume of man hours
    That can often end in a dead end.
    It’s a shame you didn’t go to the BIJ first – you might have saved yourself the bother
    Of trying to duplicate their work. While I admire your enthusiasm …
    ..there’s no point reinventing the wheel.

    Of course there is a bit of a legal loophole in that while campaigning costs during a general election
    Are tightly regulated…. The amount of money you can spend between elections is not regulated so much.
    This is why Ashcroft came up with the idea of having candidates in place in the target seats
    A good two years before each general election.
    Also you can spend money in an individual constituency which is not “for the individual candidate”
    By simply not using their name but making it a party promotion.
    This then comes under the national expenses category.

    Michael Howard did actually try to get along without Ashcroft but it didn’t actually work
    As Ashcroft ended up running a promoting organisation which was still political but outside
    The control of CCHQ so Cameron came to the conclusion that it was better to have the target seats
    Operation inside the party rather than outside… Anyway Ashcroft has stood down as
    Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party now to spend more time writing articles
    About why they didn’t achieve a majority and this is in no way his fault.

    Your point about where party political funding ends and the uses of expenses to allow
    The MP to communicate with his constituents begin is interesting.
    The line has always been extremely blurred.
    And the number of individuals employed by MPs offices has definitely increased substantially
    In the last 30 years… there are positives and negatives to this.
    As to those selected to work for Barwell being Conservatives …well, that’s not really a shock, is it?
    They’re not allowed to employ their own family any more …

    However, I think it is fair to point out that Ottaway doesn’t use his website for party political propaganda
    To quite the level Barwell does his. As Ottaway doesn’t run a blog of promote party events …?
    And also that Andrew Pelling’s (and many other MPs) websites was/were/are funded through
    The expenses allowance too. Mind you the expenses you could claim were much larger in the Pelling/Davies days …
    Cameron abolished the “Communications Allowance” but I believe you can still get some communications
    Through expenses …not sure … perhaps you could investigate.…? I have lost the plot with this one.
    Unfortunately the Labour party are far from innocent in this area either…
    Aficionados of Croydon sleaze will remember Geriant Davies fondness for distributing likenesses of himself
    to voters which is why all mailshots now have a banner on stating taxpayer money
    was not used to fund their production of distribution…

  2. Thank you for correcting a number of the inaccuracies in your recent story.

    One which you haven’t corrected, although Gavin Barwell made it clear in his blog to which you were responding, is your allegations about me charging Gavin – and through him the taxpayer – for his web site.

    Just to make it absolutely clear, I built and maintain Gavin’s site on a completely voluntary basis. Croydon Conservatives do not pay for my time at all; the only charge I make is for the hosting on a commercial web server. I pay the web host and they (the local party) reimburse me. That’s all.

    I also, as you point out, maintain the Croydon Conservatives site, but it is on exactly the same basis.

    So my personal earnings on these two sites are nil. Thus, sadly, retirement to the Bahamas on the proceeds is not going to happen anytime soon.

Leave a Reply