The LibDems in Sutton have been having problems with charities lately.
After one of their councillors pleaded guilty to siphoning off thousands of pounds from a local charity for the elderly, now election candidates are demanding that a local Muslim group should be investigated over allegations that they may have broken charity laws by providing support for Tom Brake, Carshalton and Wallington’s MP since 1997
Rival candidates have called on the Charity Commission to investigate allegations that a local mosque has broken charity law by actively supporting and raising money for Liberal Democrat Tom Brake in the General Election’s hotly contested Carshalton and Wallington seat.
Charity laws forbid charities from supporting political parties and they are not allowed to make political donations or give other financial support or resources to election candidates.
MCWAS – The Muslim Cultural and Welfare Association of Sutton – is a registered charity that operates a mosque on Ruskin Road, Carshalton. It was formed by Lal Hussain, who also happened to be a Sutton LibDem councillor from 1998 and 2006. Hussain, a past Mayor of Sutton, died last week.
In 2011, Sutton Council handed MCWAS a 125-year lease on a council-owned building, Wentworth Hall, for £225,000 – reckoned to be barely one-quarter of the market rate for a property that might otherwise have generated £1million for the Council Tax-payers of Sutton.
Sutton’s LibDem-run council has something of a track record for letting out public property for less than the market rate to people or groups with LibDem connections: EcoLocal is taking a 125-year lease on The Lodge in Carshalton for £600,000, more than £1million below its market value. Tom Brake is a director of EcoLocal.
When a Sutton Tory councillor, Tony Shields, dared to questioned the rock-bottom price for Wentworth Hall, the local LibDems went berserk. Their leader at the time, Sean Brennan, referred Shields to the Standards Board for England, accusing him of “implying corruption”.
Undaunted by such questioning, Hussain’s MCWAS continues to have a close relationship with the local political party of power in Sutton. In November 2014, just six months before the last General Election, MCWAS held a “Fundraising Dinner for Tom Brake MP” at Wentworth Hall. The £15-a-head curry night was also attended by Paul Burstow, who at that time was the LibDem MP for Sutton and Cheam.
Both Burstow and Brake served in ministerial roles in the Tory-led austerity coalition government between 2010 and 2015.
MCWAS and Brake have failed to confirm or deny whether their curry night made any profit or handed over donations to the LibDems. But the very staging of the event itself appears to demonstrate a political bias and patronage. It seems difficult to argue that what was billed as a “fundraising dinner for Tom Brake MP” was anything other than an event intended to raise money for an MP.
The advertisement for the event, which was distributed online, was branded with the logos of the Liberal Democrats, MCWAS and the Akash Tandoori Restaurant (based on Stafford Road, Wallington).
Photos posted online by MCWAS show a well-attended event, with both Brake and Burstow on the top table.
There is further evidence that MCWAS has promoted the politics of the Liberal Democrats in Sutton.
In May 2014, immediately prior to the local council elections, MCWAS held a meeting at Wentworth Hall attended by Brake and LibDem council candidates. A photograph on the MCWAS website is captioned “Tom Brake MP with Councillors. Lal Hussain MBE with Tom Brake MP and local candidates for the Council elections”.
There’s no sign on the MCWAS website – which is full of pictures of Lal Hussain at various events with Brake, former LibDem leader Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes and a bunch of other LibDems – of any equivalent meeting being held for prospective Tory or Labour councillors to meet members of the mosque. Tory and Labour officials in Sutton say that the mosque has never invited their parties’ candidates to similar events at Wentworth Hall.
As an MP, Brake has often used the facilities at Wentworth Hall for public meetings, including this year, though it is possible that some of these involved renting out its hall at the usual commercial rate.
The MCWAS website shows events such as prizegivings, usually where the vast majority of guests pictured are Sutton LibDems.
This has raised further questions about political bias at the charity, with suggestions that the mosque’s leadership may have been involved in exerting “undue spiritual influence” over worshippers, to persuade them to vote at elections for a particular candidate or party. This conduct is banned under election law.
Other candidates in the Carshalton and Wallington constituency for the 2017 General Election have expressed alarm at the overly close links between Brake and the MCWAS charity, and the mosque’s apparent support for the LibDems.
Tory candidate Matthew Maxwell-Scott, who opinion polls suggest could overcome Brake’s slim 1,500-vote majority in Thursday’s election, said: “I feel more sorrow than anger over this. It bodes ill for the supposed independence of local charities.
“It is clear that Mr Brake and the Liberal Democrats had ongoing support from this supposedly neutral charity in the run up to the 2015 General Election. Urgent action needs to be taken by the Charity Commission to ensure this is not still happening.”
Labour candidate Emina Ibraham said: “It is very important that organisations encourage their members to engage in the democratic process but that we all keep within rules on supporting particular political parties. Of course it’s perfectly OK for individuals involved with those organisations to express a preference in a personal capacity or organise events for the party they personally support.”
Independent candidate Nick Mattey says that charities exist for a specific reason, and by law they must be apolitical.
“It’s becoming a LibDem habit,” Mattey said. “The Charity Commission told me about political interference in Sutton Seniors Forum over a financial cover up. I have repeatedly warned the council about political involvement in local charities but they have failed to heed my warnings.
“The fact that a LibDem councillor who was part of the council’s anti-fraud initiative was convicted of defrauding another charity shows something is seriously wrong.
“These new allegations need to be fully investigated by the Charity Commission and appropriate action taken. It cannot be right if a charity uses its considerable influence to promote one political point of view.”
Neither Brake, the MP for Carshalton and Wallington since 1997, nor MCWAS had responded to questions about their close working relationship by the time of publication.
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