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Rumblings over £10,000 lockdown grant to run NE Cambs Tory HQ

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Conservative social clubs across Fenland each received £10,000 as part of a grant scheme set up under Covid – but it was £10,000 to a Conservative association that continues to trouble one councillor.

Cllr John Clark remains critical of the NE Cambs Conservative Association (NECCA) for accepting a £10,000 Covid furlough business support hand out.

Fenland Council leader Chris Boden: “We are not in the habit of always necessarily putting out publicity which I have to say some members might think is party political.” A Freedom of Information request by former leader Alan Melton sheds light on the extent of a council windfall.

Fenland Council leader Chris Boden said that an internal audit process has also been initiated to check our records “and as a council we are of the opinion that Central Government will find no matters of concern as part of their external audit process”.

And he referred to it in his resignation letter from the Conservative group on Fenland District Council and from the Conservative Party itself.

“The Conservative office is hardly a business,” he said. “It only has one part time employee (Cllr Sam Hoy is part time association agent) who is a councillor who continued to receive their allowances of £24,411.64 through the Covid period.”

“The Conservative group has a large cash reserve of some £90,000.

“Our MP Steve Barclay was against the application and receipt of the central government furlough funding.”

Fenland Council confirmed it had paid grants to the following organisations.

It noted that “all of these organisations occupy properties which qualified for small business rate relief”.

In 2020 the council confirmed that £10,000 went to:

  • Whittlesey Conservative Club
  • Wisbech Conservative Club Ltd
  • Wisbech & District Conservative club
  • The Chatteris & District Conservative Club

£10,000 was also paid to March & District Conservative & Unionist Club Ltd as part of the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure scheme.

But at the same time, Fenland Council announced £10,000 had also been paid to NECCA.

It was an issue first raised in September 2020 by independent councillor Will Sutton (himself a former Conservative councillor until he was de-selected but kept his seat at Elm and Christchurch as an independent.

He asked, at a council meeting that month, whether leader Cllr Chris Boden could authorise publication of the different business grants and discretionary grant schemes to be publicised “due to the fact that it is £20,000,000 of public money that has been paid out”.

Cllr Boden responded, according to minutes from that meeting, that “Councillor Sutton is correct, it is public money that has been allocated as part of the scheme, however, there is an implied confidentiality when it comes to disclosure as to who has received that funding”.

Cllr Boden added that as it is public money and with the amount being so large, there is a public interest to ensure those monies have been spent correctly and prior to the first grant process scheme commencing the council were advised that there would be an audit process which would be followed up after the grants had been distributed and that process has commenced by Central Government.

The council leader said that an internal audit process has also been initiated to check our records “and as a council we are of the opinion that Central Government will find no matters of concern as part of their external audit process”.

Right to challenge

Cllr Boden added that if there is anybody who wishes to challenge any inappropriate allocation of funds then they should report it to the Section 151 Officer who will carry out a thorough investigation.

Cllr Sutton said that he had been made aware of various party-political offices across the country who has claimed monies as part of the scheme, which, is in his opinion, is very wrong and he would hope that this is not the case locally.

Cllr Boden stated that under the rules of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), he cannot make any comment on any applications for funding, but he will discuss with officers and report back to members of the council when he has ascertained what his position is to be able to respond.

 

The council leader reiterated that if any member has any knowledge of any improper allocation of grant funding, then they should report it directly to the Section 151 Officer for investigation

The minutes were later to include details of The Local Government Transparency Code which places a requirement on Local Authorities to publish each individual item of expenditure that exceeds £500, this requirement includes grant payments.

“It is therefore the intention of the District Council to publish this information however we are aware that there have been a number of issues with the administration of the Business Grant scheme nationally involving fraudulent applications,” said the response.

“Whilst we remain committed to complying with the transparency code we also have an obligation to protect public money and therefore the data will be published once the Business Grant Scheme is complete and all outstanding applications have been processed and finalised.

“All applications for grants from politically related premises have been processed and finalised.

“To provide additional transparency, there is therefore no reason not to provide that part of the information now.”

What happened next

In February of 2021, Cllr Sutton returned to the issue.

Two meetings ago, record the minutes, he asked about the small business grants to political party offices across the country and in particular the NECCA office.

He said Cllr Boden was unable to give an answer at the time because of GDPR but he came back in writing, and it was appended to the minutes of the last meeting.

“NECCA did receive a grant payment which was legal although Councillor Sutton questioned the morality of it but he asked, given that the government have now given out more money, can Cllr Boden confirm whether or not the local office has received further monies,” record the minutes.

Cllr Boden emphasised that the small business grant fund, which was set up during the first lockdown, had business grants that were given out which were not discretionary, specific rules were set down by Government about whom we may pay and any breach of those rules then we would have been penalised.

Every legal application that came in was paid.

Regarding the current regime, it is similar with the LRSG winter lockdown payment.

There have been 12 payment regimes put into place by central Government, and under that only businesses that are in retail, hospitality and leisure industries are going to quality so he does not know if NECCA have made any application, and if they had then it would be refused.

Cllr Sutton stressed that he understood Cllr Boden was not responsible for choosing who got paid but he still questioned the rules.

He pointed out that various political offices across the country have either refused to claim or given the money back and his understanding is that he believes the MP (Steve Barclay) also thought it wrong to claim.

Cllr Boden concluded by pointing out that “he is at this meeting as Leader of FDC to provide answers to questions regarding FDC and Councillor Sutton needs to write to the organisation concerned regarding this question”.

 

 

 

 

 

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