On Thursday night, the Inside Croydon website written by Labour activist Stephen Downes published a post, most of which was about the recent Cabinet reshuffle by Council Leader Mike Fisher. In passing, it referred to the fact that Tim Pollard manages my and the Croydon Conservatives websites and possibly Richard Ottaway's. It then said:
"What Ottaway does state, though, is that his website is 'funded from Parliamentary allowances'. This is certainly what Barwell is doing".
Except I am not. My website has plenty of party political content so it would clearly be inappropriate for it to be paid for by the taxpayer. It is funded by Croydon Conservatives. There is an imprint on the home page that makes this clear. Had Stephen contacted me to check his facts before posting, I would have been able to reassure him on this point but he didn't bother. Pretty shoddy journalism.
I contacted him via Twitter and he posted this supposed apology, which contains a series of further untruths.
"We already know that some of Barwell’s constituency expenses in the run-up to last year’s elections were paid by one of Britain’s biggest (legal) tax dodgers".
I presume from comments later in the post that Stephen is referring to Lord Ashcroft. My campaign did not receive a single donation from Lord Ashcroft personally or from any company in which he has an interest (in the interests of transparency, Croydon Conservatives did receive a donation from a company in which he has an interest in the run-up to the 2005 General Election when Andrew Pelling was our candidate). Stephen has checked who we did receive donations from - he lists them later in the post - so he is accusing me of receiving money and not declaring it, a criminal offence.
"Barwell failed to file required accounts on his election expenses".
Also not true. My return of election expenses was submitted on time. It subsequently turned out to contain two small administrative errors. We successfully applied to the Court for relief. As part of this process, we had to inform all the people who stood against me. None of them objected.
"Barwell’s old colleagues on Croydon Council...are bunging him more than £40,000".
I don't receive a penny from my former colleagues. They do give money to the local Conservative Party to help pay for the local election campaign and under Parliamentary rules I am rightly required to declare such donations.
"Funnily enough, Croydon’s Tory councillors are equally generous with the Croydon South MP, Richard Ottaway, who receives a similar wedge of money. So that’s a total of more than £80,000 a year for the Tory MPs, funded by Mike Fisher’s merry band at the Town Hall".
No Stephen it is not. Richard and I share a local Conservative Party - there aren't seperate Croydon South and Croydon Central Conservative Associations - so we both have to declare the same donations. It is the same £40,000 declared twice.
"In all, a total of more than £60,000 in donations, all legitimately paid, and received by Barwell on top of his MP’s salary".
Again, the implication is that this is money I receive on top of my salary. It is not. It is money donated to the Conservative Party to pay for leaflets, adverts etc.
Had he bothered to check these claims with me before publishing, he wouldn't have made these mistakes.
Let me clear up two other matters.
Stephen refers to the fact that Cllrs Sara Bashford and Eddy Arram both work for me in my constituency office. He asks if any other Croydon Conservative councillors work for me. The answer is no. I employ three other people - Sue Bennett, a former councillor; Katrina Jones, a Croydon resident who I didn't know prior to her applying for the job; and Jennifer Clark, who doesn't live in Croydon (she works in my Westminster office). He also asks whether these people are volunteers, employed by the Conservative Party or paid for out of my Parliamentary staffing allowance. The answer is the latter. There is nothing in the slightest bit unusual about this. Malcolm Wicks has - I don't know if he still does - employed Cllr Alison Butler and Cllr Alisa Flemming. Richard Ottaway employs Cllr Lynne Hale. Given that a significant chunk of MPs' casework is Council related and councillors have relevant experience of dealing with such casework, it is hardly surprising that many MPs chose to employ them.
Finally, Stephen implies that Tim is making lots of money on top of his councillor's allowance by doing my website. That isn't the case at all. He doesn't charge Croydon Conservatives a penny for his time, only for the cost of hosting the website on the server.
Stephen says he wants Inside Croydon to be "an evolving mass of news and views, information about where you live and work that is interesting, stimulating, and which ultimately offers you a voice in your community". Croydon would benefit greatly from such a website. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear that Inside Croydon is in fact an unpleasant political attack website. Stephen has never made any effort to contact me to check claims he is making before he publishes. If he doesn't correct the clearly defamatory claims in this latest post he will be hearing from my lawyers.
The leadership of the local Labour Party may wish to make it clear whether they condone this kind of activity. We could get a Conservative activist to set up a similar site and start making the same kind of accusations against them but is that really how we want to do politics in Croydon?