WALTER CRONXITE reports on how the Town Hall allowances scandal does not reflect well on councillors of either of the political parties
Say what you like about George Galloway (keep it polite, please), but he does have one phrase which neatly summarises many people’s view of the duopoly of Labour and Conservatives and the way our politics works (or doesn’t).
“They are two cheeks of the same arse.”
#WadGate, as the scandal of Croydon Tories’ leader Mike Fisher secretly awarding himself a juicy little £10,000 pay rise on the rates has become known, is proving to be a good example of the Galloway maxim.
Croydon’s Labour politicians, quick to condemn Fisher’s highly condemnable conduct, are skating on some thin ice over council allowances. But for the time being, the crisis within the panicked local Conservative party is testing the Tories’ limited political abilities beyond breaking point.
Fisher could lose his position as local Tory leader as soon as tomorrow evening. Fisher’s two “loyal” deputies, Tim Dullard and Cuddly Dudley Mead, have demanded an urgent meeting to determine that Fisher takes the only course of action open to him. There’s little left of Fisher’s political career to salvage, after all.
But in trying to appear decisive and fair, Pollard and Mead have managed to create further problems for their party, and for the increasingly desperate-sounding Gavin Barwell, the MP for Croydon Central who is watching his re-election chances turn to dust before his very eyes.
Barwell tweeted last night that he could not sleep because of his feelings of injustice over the Fisher scandal. “Home for 4.5 hours sleep after a truly depressing day. Waste of time as I’m so angry I won’t sleep.”
It is always hard, when listening to Barwell or reading his statements, to draw any conclusion other than it has been framed with the sole intent of covering his own political backside. So today, Barwell is only angry and sleepless because of the damage that this scandal is doing to his already fading hopes of remaining an MP after next May’s General Election.
Barwell is not blameless in being among the causes of the shit-storm that has engulfed his former colleague and friend of 20 years. Yesterday, in a typically holier-than-though statement which sought to distance himself from Fisher without actually demanding his resignation or the refund of the cash, Barwell said that Fisher was “doubly wrong”, to claim the money and do so in secret.
“He didn’t tell anyone, not even his fellow Conservative councillors I understand…” Barwell said of Fisher’s claiming the £10,000. The use of “I understand” is important here: it suggests that Barwell was briefed by one or more of those Conservative councillors. These would have included the likes of Pollard, Mead and also fellow cabinet member Sara Bashford, who just happens to work in Barwell’s constituency office (why collect one lot of payments from the public purse when you can pocket two?).
But in today’s statement from Croydon Tories’ Two Stooges, Pollard and Mead said, “Following the outcome of the local election held earlier this year, Cllr Fisher informed his former cabinet colleagues that he believed it was possible for any cabinet member serving between 2010 and May 2014 to claim some of the money they had voluntarily not taken whilst in office, if they individually wished to do so.”
This contradicts Barwell’s “understanding”. So was Barwell lying in his statement issued yesterday? Or are Pollard and Mead telling an untruth in their statement today? They can’t both be right.
Barwell may have just illustrated quite how difficult it is to report accurately on events, because the Tory deputies continue their statement to say that although they’d been told of the possibility of making back-dated allowances claims, they hadn’t realised that Fisher had actually gone ahead and done it.
“Whilst senior colleagues were aware that Cllr Fisher believed the possibility existed and that he intended to pursue it, they were not aware that Cllr Fisher had, in fact, already made such a claim pre-election,” Pollard and Mead’s statement said.
This hardly shows Dullard and Cuddly as on-the-ball public servants, either: here is the council leader, raking in a significant extra five-figure sum of council cash, and no one noticed? Oh dear. And they reckon they can be left in charge of a £1 billion-a-year turnover local authority?
Pollard (who has attracted a pitiful 14 per cent of the vote in Inside Croydon’s online poll to determine who should be the next leader of Croydon Conservatives) and Mead (just 3 per cent – or basically a vote from him and Mrs Mead) used their statement to turn the knife in Fisher’s back, calling for an urgent meeting of the group. That can surely only have one outcome.
The Katharine Street rumour mill continues to swirl with versions of what has brought on Fisher’s recent bout of ill-health, and the reasons behind his need to top-up his £53,000-a-year annual allowance, one of the most generous in the country.
Although supposedly a full-time politician, the former council leader’s attendance rate at his Town Hall office had been questioned for some time.
What few outside the clique of local politics realise is that a significant proportion of our councillors’ allowances are used towards funding their campaign activities, by both parties. Labour issued a “contract” to its candidates before this year’s local elections, under which potential councillors undertook to pay over a proportion of their allowance if elected.
In the past, Croydon Tories have expected to receive as much as £200,000 from councillors’ allowances over the four-year lifetime of a council.
It is nothing less than a secret public subsidy of the political parties, tacitly supported by the majority of Croydon’s 70 councillors.
Clearly, Croydon Conservatives are going to struggle to maintain their old levels of income now they are down to just 30 councillors in the Town Hall.
With a diminishing party membership also contributing less through the fund-raising whist drives and coffee mornings staged in Purley and Coulsdon, that could leave the Tories short of a few bob when it comes to producing the next set of Barwell election leaflets.
Undoubtedly, some of Fisher’s allowances as council leader over the years will have gone into the Conservative campaign pot. How much of the 10 grand, we may never know.
But it would be fair to assume that one of the reasons that Barwell and Fisher’s cabinet colleagues have been slow to demand he pays back the loot is because they suspect it may already have been spent. Besides, if Fisher has to re-pay some of his allowances today, then who might be next in line?
And this is where the Labour group, led by Tony Newman with enthusiastic backing from Steve Reed OBE, the MP for Lambeth South, really ought to tread carefully.
Reed has been busy today, sending off letters to the Prime Minister demanding urgent action – a piece of empty, publicity-seeking grandstanding if ever there was, since Mike Fisher’s allowances are somewhere towards the bottom of David Camoron’s to-do list, at the end of page 94, below the NATO conference, the situation in Iraq, and the wholesale disintegration of the Tory party over the issue of Europe.
If Fisher is unlikely to be a priority for his national party leader, nor should he be a priority for the new Croydon Council, either. There is a bigger picture. Much bigger.
After all, £10,000 is small change compared to the crass financial mismanagement on a vast corporate scale over the eight years of Fisher’s Tory-run council. Surely, holding accountable those responsible for running up bills of £240 million on the building of the council’s new head offices, as one example, might be more useful to the people of Croydon than political point-scoring over Fisher’s wallet-lining?
And south London Labour groups’ conduct over councillor allowances is hardly blemish-free, either.
None of this has been mentioned in the #WadGate furore, and nor was it opposed by the Tory opposition. Probably because they’re not opposed to it. Two cheeks of the same arse, remember?
Did Newman’s Labour group opt scrap the allowances system that had been in place under Fisher’s Tories and which allowed him to claim the extra dosh on the quiet? No.
Did they reduce the £1.4 million annual bill for Croydon Council Tax-payers for councillor allowances? No.
Was there any debate about whether this was the correct course of action? No.
What the Labour council did was maintain the status quo, while adopting recommendations from the umbrella body, London Councils, for the setting of council allowances in future – with local authorities having the potential for increases in allowances of up to 20 per cent, and council leaders receiving more than £60,000 a year.
This is not dissimilar to what happened in Lambeth when there was a change of control at that council in 2006. Among the first recommendations when Labour took over there was to almost double the allowances paid to the council leader, from £25,000 to £48,000.
And the name of the leader of Lambeth council in 2006? Steve Reed, of course.
- Tory leader Fisher is caught red-handed with £10,000 pay hike
- Keep it quiet: councillors make allowances for themselves
- And they’re off! Betting hots up on Croydon’s Tory leadership
- View Croydon Council’s Code of Conduct here
- Time for thorough ethical review of Croydon’s governance
- Win a pair of tickets for the new show at the Spread Eagle Theatre
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Coming to Croydon
- Thornton Heath Festival, Sep 7
- Stop the Incinerator Quiz Night, Sep 8
- Tell Me About Your Ex, Spread Eagle Theatre, Sep 9-13
- David Lean Cinema: Camille Claudel, Sep 11
- Warlingham rugby dinner with international Richard Hill, Sep 12
- Soul Symphony Community Choir sessions, Sep 16-Dec 23
- Police question time, LNK at Centrale, Sep 17
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- David Lean Cinema: Chef, Sep 18
- The Complete History of the BBC – Abridged, Spread Eagle, Sep 19-20
- Cinema Ruskin film show, Sep 20
- South Croydon business breakfast, Sep 20
- Open House London weekend, Sep 20-21
- David Lean Cinema: A Night At The Cinema in 1914, Sep 22
- Activity to Work back-to-work workshops, Sep 23
- David Lean Cinema: Jimmy’s Hall, Sep 25
- Streatham Common 6M race, Sep 27
- Fancy dress family funday, Sep 28
- Tree Sides, Spread Eagle Theatre, Oct 2-4
- The Goon Show, Spread Eagle Theatre, Oct 8-11
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Cinema Ruskin film show, Oct 18
- South Croydon business breakfast, Oct 18
- This Was The World and I Was King, Spread Eagle, Oct 23-25
- Albert Einstein – Relativity Speaking, Spread Eagle, Nov 12-15
- South Croydon business breakfast, Nov 15
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
- Choose Your Own Documentary, Spread Eagle Theatre, Nov 21-22
- The Last Sense of Sudden, Spread Eagle Theatre, Nov 27-29
- Ghost Stories for Christmas, Spread Eagle Theatre, Dec 3
- Fog Horn Funnies, Spread Eagle Theatre, Dec 6
- South Croydon business breakfast, Dec 13
- South Croydon business breakfast, Jan 24
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