When Iain Duncan-Smith, the works and pension minister in the ConDem government and a former leader of the Conservative party, stands up and opens an address to a meeting by stating that, “obviously”, he is there to support his party’s candidate in the forthcoming Croydon North by-election, you’d expect, quite reasonably, that he would be at a party political event organised and paid for by the Tories and their tax-avoiding friends.
But that IDS was allowed to conduct himself in such a manner last week, on the very morning that the election date was confirmed, at a Croydon Council-organised event – funded with public money – has prompted renewed complaints about the party partisan running of our council by Jon Rouse, the borough’s chief executive.
Tony Newman, the leader of the Labour group at the Town Hall, has condemned the “astounding abuse of public money” by Croydon Council shamelessly providing such a platform for a Tory Cabinet minister.
Council staff, funded from Council Tax receipts, are supposed to be strictly apolitical at all times, but especially so during any election campaigns. Rouse, the £248,000 per year public servant that heads up Croydon Council, is again expected to act as the returning officer at the Croydon North by-election on November 29, the supposedly neutral “referee” in the contest, responsible for ensuring the proper and scrupulously fair conduct of the ballot.
But not for the first time, Rouse’s independence in such matters is being called into question.
Newman called it “politics on the rates” when the high-profile Duncan-Smith used a council-funded event at the Surrey Street Croydon “Conference Centre” to endorse the Conservative candidate, Andy Stranack, whom he introduced to the audience of mainly senior public sector employees.
Stranack used to work at the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank to look into policies of social security and housing benefits that Duncan-Smith set up after “the Quiet Man” was dumped as the Tory leader.
Last week’s event was the “Croydon Congress”, the successor to the Local Strategic Partnership set up for councils to work with other public sector bodies and local businesses.
A complaint is being considered to the Parliamentary ombudsman, claiming abuse of public resources for party political purposes. Close examination will be made of whether any of the costs of the meeting appear in the election expenses of the Conservative candidate.
Rouse will find it difficult to distance himself from allegations of bias: he was on the same panel of speakers as IDS last Thursday. It represents the latest astonishing lack of judgement shown by Croydon’s controversial chief executive.
There was already an unhealthy distrust of Rouse on the Labour council benches, where the CEO is seen as determining much of the Town Hall policy as he dominates Mike Fisher, the low-profile leader of the Conservative group that is supposed to control the council. Labour are particularly doubtful about Rouse’s professionalism and neutrality in the conduct of elections.
Rouse’s refusal as returning officer to allow Labour and Co-operative council candidates to have the party’s rose symbol on the ballot papers in the 2010 local elections is blamed by Labour for their failure to win key wards on the council that year.
The late Malcolm Wicks, the former Croydon North MP, was also critical of Rouse’s insistence on spending public money to hire a non-council venue for the count – Trinity School, where Gavin Barwell, the Conservative candidate in Croydon Central, is the chairman of the school’s governing body. Rouse angrily dismissed the conflict and the need for returning officers to be seen to be neutral.
Rouse seems likely to compromise his neutrality even further just two days ahead of the by-election, when he is due to appear on the same podium with Kit Malthouse, the Conservative Deputy Mayor of London, at the Develop Croydon conference.
Increasingly, Croydon’s best-paid public servant’s position is looking untenable, with calls for his departure growing by the day. But as insiders at Taberner House state – if Rouse goes, who would be left to protect Fisher?
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