CARL SHILTON reports on the cross-party condemnations for a council by-election candidate who has overseen failed businesses that have left multi-million-pound debts
Barry Lewis, the choice of Sutton’s Liberal Democrats to be parachuted in to Wallington North for the council by-election later this month, has succeeded in one thing already: unifying his political rivals in their condemnation of his suitability for elected office.
Lewis and the leader of Sutton’s LibDems, Ruth Dombey, have refused to answer questions about the candidate’s business background, or about whether the local party exercised due diligence in checking public records, such as from Companies House, to establish whether Lewis is a fit and proper person to seek elected office.
The Wallington North by-election has been called for March 28, after the resignation of LibDem councillor Joyce Melican.
Other parties with candidates in the by-election maintain that they would take greater care over how they select someone to represent the public.
Charlie Mansell, the Sutton Labour official, said, “It is clear that the LibDems have something to answer about their candidate’s business dealings.
“In recent weeks they have had to suspend from their party in the middle of an election a candidate who Tom Brake MP had publicly supported, but who was shown to have supported anti-Semitic statements. The LibDems should immediately issue a statement over the due diligence that they conducted over this current candidate and whether he disclosed his business dealings as part of it.
“They should also state to the public whether they are now satisfied with the standards of their candidate’s business dealings, bearing in mind if elected they will hold a responsible public position concerned with Council Tax-payers’ money.”
That issue, of responsibility for public money, is something which has concerned Peter Underwood, the Green Party’s London Assembly candidate for Sutton and Croydon. Underwood told Inside Sutton: “Voters have a right to expect high standards from people elected to public office. In these times of Conservative Government cuts to local authority funding, the ability to manage finances in a responsible way is especially important.
“Voters should ask themselves whether someone with a history of directing companies into liquidation is the right person to represent them on the council.”
Nick Mattey, the independent councillor in Beddington North, said, “This LibDem candidate is demanding that Sutton Council is given more government money to fund the police. In fact, it’s his only campaign theme. Mr Lewis must know that when a company goes bust owing £220,000 to HMRC, that lost money could have been funding our police force.
“Should we 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 he’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.”
And Tim Crowley, the leader of Sutton Council’s opposition Conservatives, said, “If the company owed the taxman such large sums of money as happened with one of the firms where Barry Lewis was a director, then they must have (a) made a lot of money or (b) taken the PAYE or NI off their employees and not paid it over.
“Running a small company myself and having to manage cashflow, VAT and PAYE, I know how difficult it can be, but I am also very aware when we sometimes get stretched. Businesses do go under. However, I wonder if the LibDems had full disclosure from Mr Lewis when they selected him?”
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Lewis in these company transactions. Indeed, this week, figures within Sutton LibDems confirmed that what Inside Sutton had discovered in the public records was entirely accurate.
Following the publication of the result of our investigation, one Sutton LibDem made statements in online public forums to the effect that Lewis had done no wrong in his buisness dealings, and that his involvement as a director of Cello Aviation Ltd in November 2017 was in some way altruistic, in an effort to save the company from collapse.
The facts of the matter are these: on October 25 last year, Lewis and his fellow directors of Cello Aviation put the company into voluntary liquidation with total liabilities of £8.58million, including £220,000 owed 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.
The LibDems have refused to answer questions about whether Lewis disclosed details of his failed businesses when under-going their “rigorous” selection process.
Tom Brake, the LibDem MP for Carshalton and Wallington, has been notably silent about Lewis since our investigation was made public. Brake was badly embarrassed last month when he supported the LibDem candidate in another London council by-election who turned out to be an anti-Semite, and who was suspended from the party on the eve of polling day.
Carshalton resident Lewis, 58, is a long-time travel industry businessman who describes himself as a “consultant” at charterflights.co.uk.
According to his own 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. With Lewis refusing to answer media enquiries regarding his conduct over his business failures, it is difficult to establish with any certainty what else the LibDems are keeping out of their election leaflets and from the people of Sutton about their candidate.
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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