For five consecutive months James Wharton MP has dedicated a portion of his In Touch leaflets to slurs about me. Anyone would think he was worried about losing his seat.
I have thus far chosen not to respond to these attacks as I prefer to focus on the real issues and concerns facing the people of Stockton South rather than spending valuable time on Mr Wharton’s ill-judged articles.
However it is becoming tiresome now so I am setting out the full facts below – about all of the slurs he has made in print and online, I hope this will be an end to them.
Attack 1 - My position as a Labour Councillor in Liverpool:
In my 30s I left Stockton for work, as so many have to do, having secured a post in Huddersfield which was too far to commute to (although I did try, spending a couple of years living away in the week and coming home at weekends). In 2004 I moved again to Liverpool where in 2006 I was elected to a previously safe Liberal Democrat seat in the Kensington and Fairfield ward with a small majority after a tough campaign. In 2010 I stood again (each term lasts four years) and was proud to be re-elected with a huge majority and considerably increased share of the vote. I became Assistant Cabinet Member for Finance and was later elected as Chair of Finance and Resources Select Committee which carried a special responsibility allowance. This explains why my allowance was more than that of a back bencher.
Allowances are paid as part of the monthly salary run of the authority and are subject to Tax and National Insurance.
In February 2013 I was contacted by old friends and members of the Labour Party in Stockton South asking me to consider putting my name forward for the nomination of Parliamentary Candidate. After a few weeks of discussions with friends, family and political colleagues, I agreed. I was excited about the prospect of representing my home town, where I was brought up and where my family still lived and where I had gone to school, university and entered the world of work. I had also joined the Labour Party in Stockton South in 1992. It was somewhere I could be proud to represent and where I would have empathy and understanding of local issues having a 35 year association.
The process began in May and ended in July 2013 when having beaten the opposition, I was selected as Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Stockton South and made plans to move back home to fight the contest.
Attack 2 – ‘Abandoning’ my constituents in Liverpool to live in Ingleby Barwick
I checked with the city solicitor that I was still eligible to continue in the role if I moved out of the city. They confirmed that I was. So I then held discussions with my co-councillors in my ward, with the elected mayor of Liverpool, with the leader of the opposition and with my residents at several residents meetings about whether I should resign or whether they wanted me to carry on as their councillor until May 2014 when my term came to an end.
I discovered there was no appetite for a by-election. For one thing the council was severely cash-strapped having suffered the worst cuts of any authority in the country and was not keen on the expense of a by-election; the political parties had no desire to engage in a time consuming by-election campaign when they were focussed on trying to manage a very difficult budget. The most important feedback however came from my co-councillors and residents who asked me to stay on for the rest of the municipal year to help support the fight for a new policy to limit the opening of off-licences and take-aways in the ward, and also the fight for a new post office in the area, both very big ward priorities which I was heavily involved in. So it was agreed I would stay on.
In August I moved to Ingleby Barwick. I spent a lot of time and money shuttling up and down the motorway, continuing to attend my council meetings; the meetings of full council and of both the select committees that I sat on as well as the regular residents meetings in the ward. My attendance is a matter of public record. It was and is available on the council website for anyone to check by looking at the relevant minutes. I regularly stayed over night at friends’ homes and was able to stay for several days at a time ensuring I was still on top of local issues. I carried out my casework by email and telephone, just as I had always done.
During that period I was also pleased to be able to speak at the meeting of the council which introduced the new off licence and take-away policy for the ward. Alas the Post office has still not been secured but I get regular updates on progress. And if it is ever opened I will be going over to help cut the ribbon.
In point of fact a councillor may legally attend only one formal meeting in any 6 month period to remain eligible to continue in office, and I could have turned up just once between August and May and still been entitled to my allowance. However, I met my commitments properly.
I was pleased to see a letter in the Gazette in July from Chairs of two of the Tenants and Residents Groups in Kensington and Fairfield decrying these ongoing attacks from my political opponents and confirming that I had continued to attend meetings and speak up for them right up until I stood down in May this year.
Mr Wharton has also seen fit to mention the expenses scandal in the same article as he criticises me. I would like to make it plain that at no time during my 8 years as a councillor did I ever claim any expenses – at all, for anything.
Attack 3 - My living arrangements in Liverpool and Stockton
Early in 2012 I put my house on the market with the view to moving to a cheaper property elsewhere in the city. I finally sold it in the spring of 2013 after a variety of set-backs. By the time the sale finally went through I was committed to the idea of putting my name forward in Stockton South so rather than buy another house in a city which I might potentially be moving away from, I moved instead into a private rented flat. This was in April 2013. The flat was rented on the open market from Venture Housing Association where I was on the board as an independent member. It was one of a small number of private flats the Association had built in my ward, as part of their new Head Office complex, to help fund the development. These flats are available to be rented by anyone, they are not part of social housing and are not offered through the choice based letting system. They are advertised through estate agents and on Right Move etc. I could have rented anywhere but I liked the idea of Venture becoming my landlord, and of becoming a tenant board member too in effect; the flat was also in my ward which was a bonus. My tenancy contract was just the same as any of my new neighbours. No concessions were asked for or given. I did however take the opportunity to talk to the Board about moving into a Venture property so that the tenancy could be as transparent as possible. They said there was no need to discuss it with them or ask them for permission but that they were, in any case, delighted with the news.
In August 2013 after my selection as candidate in Stockton South I gave the flat up and moved to Ingleby Barwick where like many of my neighbours, I now rent a small house. I was running a small marketing business in Liverpool and I have kept some of my clients while networking to find others but my main focus now is on knocking on 42000 doors across Stockton South so I do not earn as much from the business as I once did. I am therefore using the money I made on the sale of my house to pay my way. It’s a big gamble but I think the chance to represent the good people of Stockton South is worth it. If nothing else it should demonstrate my real commitment to representing you in Parliament.
Attack 4 - My position on the board of Venture Housing Association:
The Tory MP said in one of his leaflet attacks that I received £3k* as Vice Chair while claiming to live on Teesside. In fact I retired at the Annual General Meeting in September 2013 just a few weeks after moving to Ingleby Barwick. The Board asked me to stay on for another year but I wanted to give someone else the chance.
In that period I probably earned around £250 net and attended a board meeting in Liverpool in August before retiring at the AGM the following month. I claimed no travel expenses or any other kind of expenses during this period or indeed ever as a board member.
Incidentally when I joined the board the position was unpaid. The Association only began paying its board members following a Governance Review some years later.
*£3k for a whole year, subject to basic rate tax. Ordinary board members (including tenants) receive £2k
Attack 5 - My commitment to the area:
Mr Wharton has repeatedly suggested that I would go back to Liverpool if I were not successful. Indeed he has tried hard to gloss over the fact that I was brought up here and have in fact come home. Why would I move back there again? My work there is finished. My family are here in the constituency, as they always have been, and I love being able to see them whenever I like, my friends are here and my future, whatever it holds will be here too.
I regret having had to spend hours of my time writing long explanations that you should not have needed to read or consider, but if it means an end to the tiresome and nasty coverage from the Conservative MP then it will have been worth it. He says in the September edition of his leaflet that he hopes this is the last story on the whole saga. That’s one thing we can both agree on!