Our Sutton reporter, BELLE MONT, has gone digging into the 10,500 probable reasons behind the prolonged absence from council meetings of LibDem cage-fighter Callum Morton
With local elections less than five months away, the Liberal Democrats, who have enjoyed the benefits of a virtual one-party state in Sutton for 20 years, have been counting the possible costs of defeat.
Having lost their previously iron-like grip on one of the borough’s parliamentary seats, Ruth Dombey, the LibDem council leader, knows that it is essential for her party’s political future in the borough to retain control of the council for another four years, and with it around £3.3million of public money doled out over a four-year term to councillors in the form of “allowances”.
And Dombey also knows that by-elections, even in the LibDems’ safe wards, are not something which will necessarily help that cause.
Sutton’s LibDems survived a by-election in Carshalton, when one of their senior councillors, Alan Salter, was forced to stand down before he had his collar felt by the Old Bill. Ultimately Salter was convicted of defrauding a local old people’s charity of tens of thousands of pounds. One of Salter’s fellow trustees at the charity at the time of the fraud was Brenda Dombey, Ruth Dombey’s own mother.
Dombey may struggle to be able to claim ignorance of the reasons behind the prolonged absences from council affairs of Callum Morton.
Morton is The Wrythe councillor with a penchant for cage fighting. It has been public knowledge (via the councillor’s own LinkedIn page and other social media) since August that he took a job working 120 miles away in Bath for the LibDem MP there, Wera Hobhouse.
Dombey played dumb about her absentee councillor for long enough that now it is impossible to hold a by-election: vacancies on a council which arise within six months of planned local elections are held over until polling day.
That doesn’t do much, though, for the people of The Wrythe who, when they elected Morton, thought he would be representing them through to May 2018. Meanwhile, Morton can either do the decent thing and resign now (rather than continue with the pretence that he is an active councillor), or choose to enjoy a further four months trousering his Sutton Council allowances (he’s on the basic £10,500).
Before he worked for Hobhouse, Morton had been a member of Carshalton and Wallington MP Tom Brake’s staff. But like Dombey, Morton seems to suffer from forgetfulness when it comes to important matters of conduct, such as the time that Morton voted in favour of handing a £1million property discount to a charity of which his employer is a trustee.
In 2015, LibDem-run Sutton Council agreed a long-term lease with environmental charity EcoLocal for The Lodge in Carshalton at just £600,000. Brake is a trustee of EcoLocal.
Sutton had had the landmark building valued as then worth up to £1.7 million on the rapidly rising London property market.
Among the Sutton councillors who took the decision on the Lodge deal were Morton and Manuel Abellan, who both worked in Brake’s office and handle his correspondence and publicity. They seriously claimed that they never bothered to declare any interest in the sale of The Lodge to EcoLocal because… there was no interest to declare.
More recently, Morton has been a member of Sutton Council’s scrutiny committee. Not that he often bothers to turn up (Morton has attended three scrutiny meetings since 2015).
The chair of Sutton’s scrutiny committee is Pathumal Ali who collects an extra £12,500 a year on top of her £10,500 for the four meetings a year.
Why did she not alert her committee colleagues that one of its members had gone AWOL?
As is common practice among all party groups on local councils, Sutton’s LibDems hand over a proportion of their councillor allowances to party campaign funds.
It’s a rarely mentioned public subsidy of their political activities.
In Sutton, there’s around £840,000 paid out in councillor allowances each year. The LibDem councillors each hand over 10 per cent of their allowances, which over four years amounts to something like £220,000 – a handy fighting fund.
So, at least since August, Morton has been receiving council allowances while rarely being seen at council meetings. He probably has not forgotten to contribute to Dombey’s campaign fighting fund, though, to help the LibDems get re-elected in May.
“Dombey was obviously not concerned with this misuse of tax-payers’ money,” says Beddington councillor Nick Mattey, a former LibDem (until he got kicked out for whistle-blowing).
“If she was concerned about it, she would have insisted that Morton resign. By doing nothing she gets the money for her LibDem leaflets, and by keeping quiet about Councillor Morton’s disappearance, she has avoided a ward by-election.”
The Sutton LibDems are not the only ones who partake in this form of democratic deceit: in Croydon, the Tories pretended that Sara Bashford was an “independent” councillor after she got herself a politically restricted job in the Cabinet Office. Bashford only resigned as a councillor after the six-month cut-off in November, so deliberately avoiding a by-election. Croydon Tories, and their Labour colleagues on the council, kept the matter quiet.
But hey… what does any of that matter in the cause of serving the public interest?
After all, it was only recently that Ruth Dombey tripped along to Buck House with her old mum to collect an OBE, awarded for “services to local government”.
“Self-service” might have been more accurate.
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