Posted by: westlancashirerecord | August 25, 2017

Tory LCC Member Suspended After Disclosure of Fine For Overpaid Benefits

The stench of Tory hypocrisy surrounds a Conservative Borough and County councillor who was outed by the Rossendale Free Press  that reported on a Conservative Councillor who had been suspended from his party almost a year after a case involving overpaid benefits. Tory group bosses admitted that Rossendale Helmshore and Rossendale West county councillor David Stansfield has been suspended from the party by the Rossendale and Darwen Conservative Association while an investigation is carried out.

Stansfield was elected to LCC after the offence with 2,066 votes, a majority of 517 over Labour. The story is also reported by the Lancashire Telegraph and the BBC. The Tory group’s bosses would not reveal the reasons for the councillor’s suspension but the Labour group chairman said it was a result of Coun Stansfield being fined £1,000 after being overpaid £4,000 of benefits.

The Free Press reported a week ago how calls were being made for “the identity of an unnamed member of Rossendale Council to be revealed after he or she received the maximum administrative fine possible for claiming benefits they were not entitled to. The story went on to describe how “A councillor who paid a £1,000 fine for receiving an overpayment of benefits was under growing pressure today to identify himself”. Rossendale borough council refused to the name the elected representative a month after the penalty was revealed at a public meeting. Council leader Alyson Barnes and her Labour colleague Sean Serridge called on the individual to admit they are the councillor who paid the fine. She also called for an investigation by the council’s standards committee”.

Tory representative for Greensclough ward Jimmy Eaton said it should remain ‘a private matter’. And there we sniff the stench of hypocrisy. Anyone else could be facing criminal charges?

At the full Rossendale Borough Council meeting on July 12, Whitworth and Healey’s Cllr Serridge asked Cllr Barnes if there were any members who had been penalised for incorrect benefit claims. She replied “I am limited as to what I can say. One councillor has been issued with one of these penalty notices. The value of the penalty was £1,000 and that was levelled in 2016”.

The Lancashire Telegraph asked Rossendale Council to name the councillor concerned. A spokesman said “Unfortunately I’m told we can’t release the name of the councillor due to data protection (the information is third party data). I can confirm the penalty was £1,000 in September 2016. That’s all legal have advised we can say.”

The overpayment is understood to concern council tax benefit. The fine is the maximum penalty available without court action. Cllr Serridge said “I think the councillor concerned should come forward and I do not see this is an issue for the Data Protection Act. It is council taxpayers’ money. The public should know the identity of the councillor who should not be allowed to vote on financial matters. I understand to receive an administrative penalty the person must have admitted claiming in error”.

Cllr Barnes said at the time “I am unhappy we cannot name the councillor concerned and believe this individual should come forward and identify themselves. This reflects badly on all of us so there should be a standards committee inquiry”.

The BBC reported that Stansfield , who represents Helmshore in Lancashire, is believed to have over-claimed at least £4,000. Rossendale Borough Council said he was ordered to repay the money and fined £1,000 last September. Mr Stansfield declined to comment after he was suspended on Sunday “pending investigation”. It followed a statement about his fine in a council meeting. Labour told the BBC it had been alerted to his actions by a council whistle-blower prior to the meeting. Mr Stansfield chose to accept the fine as an alternative to being taken to court, the BBC understands.

Why was Cllr Stansfield not prosecuted? Why has he only now been suspended from the Conservative Party, almost a year after he was fined? The council’s leader, Labour’s Alyson Barnes, is also questioning why Rossendale Borough Council is still refusing to name Cllr Stansfield publically. She said she believes the information is in the public interest and should therefore be made public.

Speaking to voters throughout the mill towns of Rossendale, the situation has certainly raised a few eyebrows. A statement from the Conservatives said: “Rossendale and Darwen Conservative Association have suspended Councillor David Stansfield pending investigation.” The party, along with Rossendale Borough Council, has declined to give any more details despite repeated inquiries from the BBC.

Labour councillor Sean Serridge described Mr Stansfield’s position as “untenable”. “These people are forever banging on about benefit scroungers and benefit cheats, yet there they are, trying to get out of paying their own council tax,” he added. “This despite them earning £27,000 this year from the council tax-payers in terms of allowances. The whole affair really has become quite sinister, and it’s disappointing that David didn’t just own up weeks ago and apologise”. He added that he would be referring the matter to the council’s standards committee. “The Tories locally have done their best to keep this quiet, with some referring to it as a ‘private matter’. It stinks of a cover-up,” he said.

The chairman of the Conservative association would not comment on the claims that Coun Stansfield was the councillor concerned, but said that he suspended him on Sunday over matters relating to standards and the party’s code of conduct. However he said no formal complaint had been made to the association over the matter.   He said “I can confirm that the Rossendale and Darwen Conservative Association have suspended councillor David Stansfield pending the investigation. I can’t specify why the individual has been suspended or why the investigation has been started. There has been no complaint. In any case if any information was brought forward to the party that related to any form of code of conduct of a member in a public office that issue would have to be investigated by the party. A suspension from the party means that they can’t conduct any campaigning, represent the party at any meetings or social events and they would have the whip removed representing the party”.

He said that the suspension is temporary, but can last up to a maximum of eight weeks while Coun Stansfield is investigated by the North West Conservatives. He added “It’s for the association to inform the leaders of council and county, and it’s down to the leaders and their whip in terms of what happens moving forward, however they are relatively restricted in terms of what the individual can do because if they have been suspended from the party they are not allowed to represent the party. I can’t technically suspend the councillor, I can only suspend the member in my authority as chairman. But their whip would be void and if they continue to undergo their duties as a member of a party it would interfere with the investigation. They cannot represent the party”.

Both Rossendale Borough Council and Lancashire County Council  told the Free Press that they had received no notification from the Conservative council groups regarding the suspension of Coun Stansfield. Labour group chairman Councillor Sean Serridge, who called for the benefit fine councillor to be named at the last meeting of the full council, said Coun Stansfield’s position along with that of his wife, Councillor Val Roberts, the new leader of the Conservative group on Rossendale council, were now untenable. He said “The position of both Councillor Stansfield and Councillor Roberts is just untenable. It’s disappointing that David didn’t just own up weeks ago and apologise. Councillor Roberts is clearly very close to this situation, but has failed at her first leadership hurdle. The Tories locally have done their best to keep this quiet, with some referring to it as a ‘private matter’. It stinks of a cover up. I will be referring the whole thing to Standards”.

Rossendale council leader Alyson Barnes also told the Free Press “I think his position appears to be pretty untenable at the moment.”

The Deputy leader of the Tory group, Councillor Annabel Shipley, said “As far as I’m aware nothing has been proven about the person that’s been suspended. To me it’s just hearsay at the moment. This is the first of anything like this that has happened in my time on the council. I don’t know the protocol, I am in the dark really”.


Responses

  1. I’m generally a Conservative voter but can’t vote for them at local level with characters like this and Cllr Moon and others. They are almost all in it solely for themselves.

    • I’m sure many “Conservative-minded” people will agree with you and will wonder at the barefaced sleaze that allows the original crime of public benefit fraud to be hidden long enough for the miscreant to be elected to office to receive yet more public funds. What would his chances of election to LCC have been if the public knew of his fraud? How can a “council” keep secret an offence that would bring any other council tax payer before the magistrates?


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