Kelly Tolhurst resigns from Medway Council

Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst has resigned her seat on Medway Council.

Tolhurst, who has represented Rochester West since 2011 and been an MP since 2015, made the decision after being appointed as an Assistant Government Whip earlier this week. She said:

While I am extremely honoured to have been asked to join the Prime Minister’s team as a Government Whip, I accept that after discussions with colleagues and residents it is clear I am unable to carry on with my role as a local authority councillor without conflict.

Working solely as the Member of Parliament for Rochester and Strood, I now have the opportunity to represent the whole of the constituency at the highest level.

I believe that this decision is without doubt the best thing for both the constituency and the ward of Rochester West.

The wording of this statement begs two questions:

  1. If she believes that she “now [has] the opportunity to represent the whole of the constituency at the highest level”, was she not representing the whole of her constituency before?
  2. If she has decided holding two national jobs means she can no longer effectively represent her ward constituents, will her parliamentary and former council colleague Rehman Chishti, who also received a promotion this week to one of the Vice Chairmen of the Conservative Party, come to the same decision and also resign from the council?

In a brief statement, Neil Davies, Chief Executive of Medway Council, said:

I have today received, and accepted, the resignation of Cllr Kelly Tolhurst as ward member for Rochester West with immediate effect. We have begun arrangements to fill the vacancy.

The arrangements begin by advertising the vacancy in the ward. If two electors within the ward write to the Chief Executive asking for the vacancy to be filled, a by-election will be called.

And let’s face it, with a probable slate of six candidates for the contest, getting two signatures will not take long.

Frustratingly, before today, I was in the process of writing a lengthy blog post to start the year by taking a look at next year’s full local council elections (trust me, in context it made sense!).

The introduction to that post will now need to be re-written:

In short, I had updated my projections model to try to predict the level of support for each party in each ward, not in an effort to predict the outcome, but rather to see where each party was likely to win and where the key battles would be fought.

I will now postpone publication of that post until after the by-election, as it will likely give me more invaluable data to refine the projection model.

Meanwhile, the people of Rochester West are looking at another election, making it the eighth vote they will have had since May 2014:

  1. EU Parliament election, May 2014
  2. Rochester & Strood by-election, November 2014
  3. General election, May 2015
  4. Council election, May 2015
  5. Police & Crime Commissioner election, May 2016
  6. EU referendum, June 2016
  7. General election, June 2017
  8. Council by-election, TBC

And although at least one election every year between 2014 and 2019 may not necessarily excite voters in Rochester West, for political geeks like me it makes the start of this year very interesting indeed.

And, of course, Medway Elects will be there for the ride!

The inaccurate reporting of Medway councillors’ allowances

Every year, each local authority is required to collate and publish allowances and expenses claimed by their elected members.

Councillors are entitled to a basic allowance to perform their duties, with additional allowances payable to those who hold special responsibilities (Leader of the Council, Cabinet Portfolio Holder, Mayor, etc.) in recognition of the additional work involved.

All members are also entitled to claim for travel and subsistence, although this usually excludes items such as stationery and phone calls, which are factored in to the basic allowance.

At the end of the council’s financial year, the authority must calculate how much each councillor claimed (if anything) and produce a basic report with a simple breakdown.

Medway Council’s financial year runs from 1 April to 31 March, and allowances are usually published within four months, with the latest being the 2013/2014 report, which was published in August 2014:

Year Date of Publication
2014/15 July 2015
2013/14 August 2014
2012/13 May 2013
2011/12 May 2012

However, given we were now in September and no report had yet been published, last week I submitted an FOI request for the information. On Tuesday, the allowances report appeared on the Council website, albeit looking rushed and possibly incomplete. It wasn’t until I got round to examining it in detail that I realised just how poor a report it actually was.

The most striking detail was that the report had rounded all the figures to the nearest pound. It is, in fact, the first time the Council has not included the pence figures where the amount to be declared was not a whole pound.

Members who served for the whole period were given an allowance of £8,783 exactly, but those who left the Council in May 2015 may not have received £992 exactly. Similarly, those who joined at the same time may not have received £7,815 exactly, and Cllr Kelly Tolhurst, who claims she stopped drawing her allowance “since [her] election to Parliament” may not have received £1,464 exactly.

(As an aside, I have worded the last sentence very carefully, as the fact that Cllr Tolhurst’s basic allowance was markedly different to those of members who left the council at the same time she was elected to Parliament suggests that she had stopped drawing her allowance some time after her election – seemingly to the end of May 2015 – and not “since [her] election”. Whilst there is, of course, nothing wrong with claiming the allowance whilst also an MP (most simply don’t out of principle – or, if they do, donate their allowance to good causes within their ward), her entry in the Parliamentary Register of Members’ Financial Interests could, perhaps, be worded so as not to imply that she stopped claiming her allowance immediately on her election to Parliament and, in fact, stopped on a certain date. But, I digress…)

So, rather than having the exact figures of allowances and expenses claimed by Medway councillors, we have a roughly accurate report which looks something like this:

Allowances

Now, like most people, I am not particularly interested in where Cllr Rupert Turpin went that he needed to claim £5 in travel & subsistence expenses, but I am interested enough to want to know whether the journey cost £4.51, £5.49 or £5 exactly.

Indeed, that no reference is made to the fact that the figures have been rounded means that it is unclear what method of rounding has been used (whether only up, only down or both) and whether the figures have been arrived at by rounding the total for each category or each individual item before addition. After all, if two claims were made for £1.51 and £2.51 respectively, then rounding each individual claim would total £5 (i.e. £2 plus £3), whereas only rounding the total of the two raw figures would produce £4 (i.e. £4.02 rounded down).

Readers may think that I am being pedantic, but I would simply ask this question: how is this report “full and complete” if the Council have employed rounding and created ambiguity as to the exact figures involved?

Continue reading

Rehman Chishti backs vote to leave EU

Gillingham and Rainham MP Rehman Chishti has today come out in favour of leaving the European Union.

Mr Chishti, who also represents Rainham Central on Medway Council, has spent the past few months “speak[ing] to many residents at my MP street surgeries … and I have considered all the correspondence I have received from constituents” in relation to the 23 June referendum.

After a considerable amount of time considering how to vote, Mr Chishti said today that “a clear majority of the views that I have heard were for leaving the EU. I respect that and on balance, after taking these views into account, I will be voting to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum.”

The delay in learning Mr Chishti’s position on the matter has frustrated some journalists and commentators, and there are still a small number of Conservative MPs who are yet to publicly declare where they stand on what is the single biggest vote the UK will face for a generation.

In the 2015 General Election, UKIP’s Mark Hanson received over 9,000 votes in Mr Chishti’s constituency (representing one-fifth of all votes cast), but pressure from the Eurosceptic party ahead of the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner election earlier this month, where UKIP’s Henry Bolton received the most votes in Medway, could not push the MP into making an early decision.

Mr Chishti said “I have kept an open mind on whether we would be better off remaining in the European Union or that Britain would have a better future by going it alone. I have said from the outset that I would take into account the views of my constituents before making my final decision.”

According the Kent Messenger Group’s Political Editor, Paul Francis, there is still a (small) majority of Kent MPs who are backing the status quo:

Rehman Chishti MP calls for inquiry over The Sun’s Gillingham FC hospitality claims

The Sun is reporting today that Gillingham & Rainham MP Rehman Chishti could be in trouble for failing to declare his visits to Gillingham FC on time.

Mr Chishti, who also represents Rainham Central Ward on Medway Council, declared seven free tickets to the MEMS Priestfield Stadium between February and December 2015, donated by Gillingham Football Club and worth a total of £900.

The Sun claim that failing to log all of these visits until 1 March 2016 was a breach of the Parliamentary Rules.

Although he did not comment to The Sun, Mr Chishti did tell KentOnline that:

I am a proud and passionate supporter of my local team and try to attend home matches when I can to cheer on the team.

I had declared all information to the House of Commons Register of Members’ Interests in relation to my attendance at matches and hospitality received by the club in the last year.

The Sun newspaper has raised a point with regards to the timing in making these declarations on the Register of Interests.

I have asked the Parliamentary Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests to look into this and clarify this as an urgent matter.

On 1 March, Mr Chishti declared that he had received hospitality for the following matches:

Gillingham v Sheffield United
7 February 2015
Director’s box ticket with hospitality, total value £100

Gillingham v Notts County
3 May 2015 – though logged in the Register as 2 May 2015
Director’s box ticket with hospitality, total value £100

Gillingham v Wigan Athletic
22 August 2015
Two director’s box tickets with hospitality, total value £200

Gillingham v Doncaster Rovers
5 September 2015
Director’s box ticket with hospitality, total value £100

Gillingham v Blackpool
12 September 2015
Two director’s box tickets with hospitality, total value £200

Gillingham v Bury
14 November 2015
Director’s box ticket with hospitality, total value £100

Gillingham v Burton Albion
12 December 2015
Director’s box ticket with hospitality, total value £100

It is well known that I have not always seen eye-to-eye with Mr Chishti and on matters of policy, but I must point out that he has done nothing wrong in accepting this hospitality, and I fully commend the club for making the local Member of Parliament welcome at the stadium.

However, the question mark arises over the timing of the declaration. The Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members states that:

The House requires new Members, within one month of their election, to register all their current financial interests, and any registrable benefits (other than earnings) received in the 12 months before their election. After that, Members are required to register within 28 days any change in those registrable interests. Such a change includes both the acquisition of a new interest and the ceasing of any registered interest, for example because an employment has ceased or because a holding has reduced in value or been sold.

Chapter 1 Paragraph 2

In terms of hospitality:

Members must register, subject to the paragraphs below, any gifts, benefits or hospitality with a value of over £300 which they receive from a UK source. They must also register multiple benefits from the same source if these have a value of more than £300 in a calendar year.

Chapter 1 Paragraph 22

On a literal interpretation of the rules, it appears as though Mr Chishti has fallen foul of the requirement to declare the hospitality when the value exceeded £300 (such deadline appearing to be 18 September 2015 for the initial declaration, with 8 January 2016 appearing to be the deadline for the final update).

Having now laid out the facts, though, my question is just how much time do the journalists at The Sun have to trawl through the Register to uncover what is (essentially) a minor discrepancy? And, in the long run, does it really matter to anyone in the constituency if this declaration was a little late?

The strict anti-corruption rules are established to stop a (hypothetical) Member of Parliament from receiving a (hypothetical) sum of, say, £5,000.00 from a (hypothetical) green energy company and then voting to block a (hypothetical) coal-powered generator being built. They are not, to my knowledge, in force to prevent a Member of Parliament watching his local football club play on a Saturday afternoon, even if such a ticket is provided free-of-charge by that club.

For interest, I trawled through Hansard from 7 February 2015 to date, and could only find two references to Gillingham Football Club amongst Mr Chishti’s many contributions, being:

Will the Minister welcome the initiative that has been set up in my constituency with support from DWP and the local Gillingham football club, along with Medway Watersports, to provide young people with skills and positive experiences to assist them in securing employment or further training?

9 March 2015

And:

Will the Minister welcome the new apprentice teaching sports assistants coach programme put on by Gillingham football club in my constituency, which is working with primary schools to get more sports coaches into primary schools?

15 June 2015

All very complementary, but not really a material benefit to my beloved Gillingham FC – and certainly not worth £900 of free tickets (says I tongue-in-cheek and certainly not suggesting that Mr Chishti in any way accepted free tickets for any corrupt or otherwise inappropriate reason).

In summary, Mr Chishti does appear to have fallen foul of the rules (as I read them) – although it is worth reiterating that he has written to the Registrar for urgent clarification – and may, indeed, deserve a slight slap on the wrist for doing so.

However, once the matter has been clarified, and any such slap-on-the-wrist has been administered, Mr Chishti must be left to enjoy his (correctly-declared) football at the greatest team in Kent in peace, while commentators can go back to focusing on more important matters, such as discovering where he stands in the EU Referendum debate or supporting his Bills to improve services for people with a mental illness.

Who is standing up for Medway commuters?

Spot the difference:

The Secretary of State will be aware that Southeastern is consistently one of the worst performing and most expensive train-operating companies in the country. Can he therefore explain why it has been given the longest extension—50 months? Can he assure my constituents that the extension is not a reward for failure? What opportunity will passengers have to engage in the process of direct awards as it is finalised?
Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford, Conservative)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. May I also thank him for reducing train fares in the south-east by reducing the retail prices index plus 3% provision to RPI plus 1%? Under the previous Government, Southeastern had RPI plus 3% whereas the rest of the country had RPI plus 1%, and that was exceptionally unfair.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham, Conservative)

The Conservatives, like Labour before them, have failed commuters by continuing the Southeastern rail franchise without competition. One Medway MP, a Conservative, has questioned this decision on behalf of her commuting constituents. Another Medway MP, also a Conservative, used the opportunity for political back-scratching.

Constituents v. Career? I know which I’d prefer from my MP…