EXCLUSIVE: Campaigning in the Wallington North council by-election in Sutton is well underway, with the Liberal Democrats championing a candidate who has a recent record of business failures that have left his employees and the taxman hugely out of pocket.
Our investigations editor, CARL SHILTON, reports
The Liberal Democrat candidate in the Wallington North council by-election, Barry Lewis, in his campaign leaflets being distributed widely around the ward before the weekend, was demanding government money for extra policing in Sutton.
This from a director of two companies that are in liquidation with a trail of debts – including to the taxman – of nearly £9million.
According to Companies House records, on October 25 last year, the board of Cello Aviation Ltd, of which Lewis is a director, agreed to put the company into voluntary liquidation. The administrator’s statement of affairs shows only £35,000 estimated to be available to preferential creditors, while the total liabilities – what the company owes – are stated at £8.58million. About £4.06million of this amount is shareholder debt.
The company owed £220,000 to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in respect of PAYE, £226,200 for employee redundancy payments, and £153,400 in wage arrears and holiday pay.
A second company of which Lewis is a director, Charter Flight Centre Ltd, was put into voluntary liquidation in November 2018. With just £3,306 in the kitty available to creditors, this company left debts of £246,988. This included £7,334 owed to staff and £1,683 to HMRC.
One local company based in nearby Kingston, Crystal Holidays, was left £130,000 worse off after their dealings with Charter Flight Centre.
Carshalton resident Lewis, 58, is a long-time travel industry businessman who describes himself as a consultant at charterflights.co.uk.
According to his election literature, he has also been a scout leader for 25 years. What is not on his leaflets is that Lewis has been a member of the Liberal Democrats in Sutton only since 2015.
Lewis joined the board of Cello Aviation Ltd on November 8, 2017, in a complex service supply agreement that involved share creation and share swaps between various companies. He and two other directors took a stake in Cello, either directly or through other companies of which they were directors.
A company called Felix Aviation Ltd, run and owned by Lewis and the two others – David Lacy and Craig Bates – was at the heart of the inter-company transactions.
In what might appear to be a serious oversight, according to Companies House records, in the latest available accounts of Cello Aviation Ltd for the 12 months up to March 31, 2018, there is no mention of Lewis nor the other two new directors at all.
Inside Sutton wanted to know, in the candidate selection process which decided that Lewis is a fit and proper person to represent the people of Wallington North, whether the prospective candidate declared these two recent and significant business failures to the panel of Sutton Liberal Democrat worthies.
So we asked Barry Lewis whether he told the Sutton LibDems selection panel that two companies of which he has been a director are in liquidation, with very large debts.
And we asked Ruth Dombey – the LibDems’ leader of Sutton Council – whether she believes that Lewis is a fit person to be charged with setting the borough’s budgets.
Unfortunately for the voters of Wallington North, by the time of publication of this article, neither Lewis nor Dombey had managed to respond to our questions.
And nor is there any mention of Lewis’s business failures on any of the many hundreds of LibDem leaflets that have been dropped through letter boxes in the past week by the likes of MP Tom Brake or Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon. Can’t think why…
The by-election has been called for March 28 following the resignation of LibDem councillor Joyce Melican, due to ill-health.
Wallington North should be a safe ward for the LibDems, with the opposition parties needing to overcome a 600-vote majority based on last May’s local elections. But mounting anger among voters over the shoddy service from rubbish contractors Veolia, the controversial new charges for car parking, the looming incinerator visible in Wallington North, and with a near-5 per cent Council Tax hike coming next month, all will surely play a factor in the campaign.
Whether Lewis declared his insolvencies to Sutton’s LibDems before his selection remains unclear.
But his selection, given his recent business failures, seems to continue a worrying trend for the party in London in in terms of their care and diligence over their candidate selection and councillor conduct.
In Sutton, of course, it was not so long ago that they were fighting another by-election which was called when LibDem councillor Alan Salter was forced to resign, shortly before he was arrested, charged and convicted for multiple cases of fraud involving thousands of pounds taken from a council-funded charity for the elderly. The allegations of a cover-up at Dombey’s council over the Salter case have never really gone away.
More recently, in January this year in Tower Hamlets, the LibDems selected a former close political colleague of thee controversial ex-Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, to run as their candidate in a council by-election.
The selection of Abjol Miah came after he had posted anti-semitic Ku Klux Klan videos, and also made a public denial that the Holocaust took place. Miah was joined in his campaigning by Brake, the LibDem MP for Carshalton and Wallington, as well as Pidgeon, and LibDem London Mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita. Brake maintained that he had no idea whatsoever about Miah’s racist attitudes.
Pidgeon and Benita campaigned in Wallington North a week ago, and Brake was seen in his constituency on Saturday, telling his constituents what a fine councillor Lewis would make. Pidgeon, Benita and Brake probably maintain that they had no idea about Lewis’s business background.
There is, of course, no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Lewis in his role as a director of these failed companies and their transactions. Nor are directors of companies in liquidation barred from standing for public office.
“Business failures can be difficult and unavoidable at times, but this is not a good recommendation for a candidate,” Nick Mattey, the independent councillor for neighbouring Beddington North ward, told Inside Sutton.
“But should the residents of Wallington North be considering electing someone who is part of a company that cannot successfully manage its own financial affairs, and who will have responsibility for millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in Sutton?
“Maybe Barry’s standing for election because he needs the money? LibDem councillors receive on average an eye-watering £19,700 a year each for what is often a part-time job.”
Lewis was nominated on his candidate papers by sitting Wallington North councillors Marian James and Sunita Gordon.
Lewis describes himself as a “local champion”. But Lewis does not live locally in Wallington, but on the Sutton-Surrey borders in Carshalton. Political rivals are already pointing out that Lewis has been “parachuted in” to the ward by the LibDems – an accusation which Dombey’s party in Sutton has been quick to level at opposition parties in previous elections.
Inside Sutton was keen to get Lewis’s own take on his business deals and LibDem selection. We emailed him and Sutton Liberal Democrats with a series of important questions, to which the electors of Wallington North have a right to know the answers.
These included whether he had disclosed his directorships to Sutton LibDems. We asked why the company formations and interactions around Gill Group and his other companies were so complex. And we also asked why he needed to become a director of Cello Aviation if, as according to the boardroom resolution, Lewis and his colleagues were providing “consultancy services”.
By the time of publication, the Liberal Democrats’ candidate in Wallington North had not managed to come up with an answer to any of these questions.
Lewis is one of seven candidates for Wallington North; the others have been declared as:
John Bannon – UKIP
Sheila Berry – Labour
Ashley Dickenson – Christian Peoples Alliance
Charlotte Leonard – Conservative
Gervais Sawyer – Independent
Verity Thomson – Green
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