Stockton’s Tory MP James Wharton has become embroiled in a row with organisers of a clothes bank – outside his constituency.
Mr Wharton, MP for Stockton South, said there was “more than a hint of party politics” about the launch of the County Durham Socialist Clothes Bank “six months before an election”.
> There’s “more than a hint of party politics” behind the need for such ventures too. It stems from political decisions made by the Tory party.
I don’t think people who need to use it will be doing so as a political gesture… they do so because they have no other choice.
“This is as much about making statements about politics as it is about doing good things,” he told a local TV news station.
“I welcome one, I’m not convinced about the other.”
But his comments have landed him in trouble with the Durham Unite Community, whose members coordinate the clothes bank.
Unite Community is a non-industrial section of the Unite union “created to empower people outside the labour market to use the trade union values of solidarity and collective action to improve their own and others’ situations”.
Members said Mr Wharton had “shamed himself” with his comments.
Said a spokesperson:
“To seek to undermine the huge amount of voluntary effort spent by our members getting the clothes bank up and running in order to score cheap political points is unacceptable.
“Helping out fellow human beings in times of need, as our members are doing through the clothes bank, is something that politicians of all parties should be applauding rather than cynically trying to denigrate their efforts in the way James Wharton MP has done.”
Mr Wharton said he did “support all well intended community efforts”, but said he wondered why “they also need to issue highly political press releases to go with them”.
> Because it is a political issue ?
He hit back: “There are six months to go until the election and sadly it appears the unions are going to be fighting a particularly nasty and personal campaign.
> And the Tories wont, of course. They’ll just be happy to be judged on their humanitarian record…
“Hijacking good causes to launch their attacks is particularly shameful.
> More shameful than being the architects of the situation that necessitates things like food and clothes banks ?
“All I can ask is that if any of the left wing unions issue statements about me which concern or worry anyone in Stockton South then people who read them consider contacting me for the truth before drawing conclusions.”
> firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to ask him anything…
I think the story was summed up neatly by a comment by Guy S :
George Osborne urged super-rich Tory backers at a lavish black-tie gala to fund a campaign in a vital North-East constituency.
The knife-edge Stockton South seat – where Conservative James Wharton has a wafer-thin majority of 332 – took centre-stage at the dinner in Knightsbridge, central London.
Mr Wharton introduced the Chancellor at the event, organised by the secretive United & Cecil club, believed to have raised at least £130,000 for party coffers.
In return, Mr Osborne is reported to have told the guests: “Does anyone realise the significance of the number 332?”.
After explaining 332 was the size of Mr Wharton’s majority, the Chancellor is said to have urged guests to recognise it could only be defended with their financial support.
One source at the dinner, costing £250-per-head, said: “He said we need money to save James and others like him.”
The United & Cecil club is controversial because critics see it as a vehicle for getting around rules to ensure donations to Westminster candidates are transparent.
The Electoral Commission requires the identity of any donor giving more than £1,500 directly to a political party to be declared.
However, donors funnelling money through “unincorporated associations” – such as the United & Cecil club – need only be identified if they give more than £7,500 in any calendar year.
One calculation is that the United & Cecil club has donated around £300,000 to the individual Tory associations since 2010 – mostly in key seats, such as Stockton South.
However, the Conservatives hit back by arguing Labour is bankrolled by the trades unions and that all donations through its clubs comply with the rules.
The Northern Echo asked Mr Wharton to comment on the attention given to his constituency at the gala dinner, but he declined to do so.
Tory sources have previously suggested the Stockton South MP – a “fantastic campaigner on the doorstep” – is not on its 40-strong list of candidates in ultra-marginal seats who will receive extra help.
David Cameron attended his birthday celebrations earlier this year and invited him to Chequers last month.
Other guests included representatives from the global PR firm DDA Consulting, the wealth management company Killik & Co and the property firm Mayfair Estates.
One Tory MP present, Andrew Bridgen, said: “We can’t go to Len McCluskey for another million. This is how we do it.”
Source – Northern Echo, 17 Oct 2014
> Is there a General Election on the horizon or something ? The Tories are getting all concerned about the North East…
Growing the economy in the North of England and closing the wealth divide with London and the south east was one of the major themes of the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.
George Osborne, the Chancellor, spoke repeatedly about backing the North in his keynote speech at the conference.
The focus may seem surprising given that the party has few MPs in the North East.
Guy Opperman in Hexham, Northumberland, and James Wharton in Stockton South are the party’s only North East representatives in the Commons, although Tories believe they have a chance of taking Liberal Democrat-held Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, at the next election.
But William Hague, the former Foreign Secretary regarded as unofficial deputy leader of the party, pointed out to journalists that there were many more Conservative MPs in the North West and in Yorkshire.
Mr Osborne, who represents a constituency in Cheshire, even told the conference: “I am also the first Chancellor for almost forty years to represent a constituency in the north of England – and I can see the risk of our capital city’s dominance.
> Yorkshire and Cheshire are quite different from the North East. That’s exactly why they do elect Tories.
“It is not healthy for our country or our economy.”
He pledged: “Let us choose today to make reducing the gap between north and south, London and the rest, one of the central ambitions of the next Conservative Government.”
And he highlighted the Government’s plan to create a “Northern Powerhouse”, saying: “The answer is to build up the rest of our country. To create a Northern Powerhouse of the cities across the Pennines.”
The Chancellor’s plan is to turn the North into an economic powerhouse rivalling London by investing up to £15 billion on local transport links, picking a scientific speciality for universities to become world-leaders in, possibly building a high speed line across the Pennines, linking the North East and North West, and giving cities more autonomy and cash – if they agree to transform local government by introducing directly-elected mayors.
Mr Hague insisted the party was on course to win in the North.
He said: “At the last general election we made a major breakthrough in the North – if you take the North as being Yorkshire, the North East and North West. We went up at the last election from 19 MPs in the North to 42. That was a huge expansion, including in the North East of course, where we gained Stockton South.
> And… and… oh, just Stockton South, then ? Along with Hexham, that’s a really huge expansion in the North East.
“I hope we can add to that – there will be seats we will be targeting in the North including the North East.”
Major announcements at the conference included plans to freeze working-age benefits – including benefits received by working people on low salaries – for two years.
This means cutting benefits in real terms, because of the effects of inflation.
Conservative leader David Cameron, in his conference speech, announced plans to raise the income tax personal allowance to £12,500. This would take one million more workers out of income tax entirely and give a tax cut to 30 million more, Mr Cameron said.
An estimated 51,000 North East workers would pay no income tax at all because of the change. Many others would pay less tax.
> Isn’t this because wages are so poor to start with ?
Mr Cameron also announced plans to raise the threshold at which people pay the 40p income tax rate from £41,900 today to £50,000.
It means a tax cut for many people earning above-average salaries. Mr Cameron said the 40p tax was supposed to be for the rich, but it’s currently paid by some senior nurses, teachers and police officers.
But critics pointed out that the Conservatives had failed to explain how they would pay the £7 billion cost of cutting tax.
Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said: “Nobody will be fooled by pie in the sky promises of tax cuts in six years’ time when David Cameron cannot tell us where the money is coming from.
“Even the Tories admit this is an unfunded commitment of over £7 billion, so how will they pay for it? Will they raise VAT on families and pensioners again?”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 05 Oct 2014
> Well, its understandable – these places north of Watford are all the same, aren’t they ?
David Cameron mixed up his Teesside and his Tyneside as he took to the airwaves to talk up economic growth in the region.
The Prime Minister frequently used examples of economic activity in Tyne and Wear – including investment from companies like Hitachi and Nissan – during an interview with BBC Tees.
Oh his third mention of the Tyne, BBC Tees presenter Lisa McCormick intervened.
“You keep mentioning the River Tyne, that’s not our region Prime Minister,” she said.
“I’m sorry, we are the River Tees, does that mean that you’re forgetting about us?”
For a moment Mr Cameron seemed flustered as he paused.
“Oh, I thought I was doing – oh no absolutely not,” he replied.
“I mean, if I look specifically in terms of the Tees Valley, we’ve got £90m from our local growth fund to boost economic growth.”
It might have been a swift recovery from the PM – but it was not quick enough for some.
Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland‘s Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop seized the chance to attack Mr Cameron.
“In isolation this may just seem like a somewhat silly mistake, yet over the last four years we’ve had a Tory peer calling the region ‘desolate’, frequent misspellings of Teesside in official Number 10 letters, and now the Prime Minister himself can’t even take the basic cue of appearing on BBC Tees to get the hint that our river is the Tees and not the Tyne,” he said.
“This just highlights how David Cameron is out of touch and completely uninterested in places like Middlesbrough, Stockton, Redcar, Hartlepool and East Cleveland.”
UKIP’s North East MEP Jonathan Arnott also took the opportunity to bash the PM.
“This is not just embarrassing for the Prime Minister but also what’s left of the Conservative party in the North East of England,” he said.
“Whilst unemployment figures are going down elsewhere around the country, ours are still going up.
“Perhaps if he knew which area he was talking about, people might have more confidence that he actually cares about local people.”
Defending Mr Cameron was Conservative MP for Stockton South, James Wharton.
“No excuses, but I suspect he was doing a round of local interviews one after the other and these things can happen,” said the MP.
“I will be reminding him when I next see him not only how great Teesside is but of all the things this government has done for the south of our region, from bringing Hitachi to the return if steel making and the announcement of over £90m in local investment only a few weeks ago.
“I am proud of our record of delivering for this area and I am sure the Prime Minister is too.”
The chairman of the Redcar Constituency Liberal Democrats, Councillor Josh Mason, added:“The slip-up by the Prime Minister does not take away from the fact that since 2010 our area has received over five times more government investment per year than it did under the previous Labour government.
“It remains more important than ever for us to keep pushing for more investment and banging the drum for Teesside to ensure it remains on the government’s radar.”
The Prime Minister’s office declined to comment.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 25 July 2014
Campaigners are calling for four councils to “get around a table” and discuss moving Yarm into Yorkshire.
It comes after voters in the market town gave an emphatic “Yes” to the idea of transferring Yarm from Stockton to Hambleton Council.
More than 89% of voters who took part in a poll on Tuesday over the future of Yarm’s local administration said they would prefer the town to be under Hambleton’s control.
Only around 11% favoured staying under Stockton Council.
The Yarm 4 Yorkshire campaign claim Stockton Council has ignored people over issues such as parking and housing.
Stockton Council said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on the results of the poll until Yarm Town Council had an opportunity “to fully consider the results” or the Boundary Commission asked it “to look into the matter further”.
But one of the organisers of the poll, Chris Johnson, said it was time for the four councils who would be involved in any transfer – Stockton, Yarm, North Yorkshire and Hambleton – to get together “and work out what, if any process, would be done”.
One of the campaigners admitted today they did not even know if Yarm would be better off in Hambleton.
But Mr Johnson explained: “The way forward now would be for the four councils to sit down around the table. Those details would then come out. This is just the first step on the way.”
He said they had also contacted the Local Government Boundary Commission for England in the hope that the “resounding result” would indicate to them “a failing of democracy”.
The result is not legally binding as Government consent would be needed for the town to be transferred to North Yorkshire
Critics say the proposal is unlikely to be introduced.
The turnout for the poll, which was funded by Yarm Town Council and organised by officials from Stockton Council was 25%.
The chair of Yarm Town Council, Peter Monck, branded the poll “a waste of time”, saying: “You can’t claim a victory when 75% didn’t vote. At £4,000 it’s not a good use of council money at all.
“If Stockton Council say they aren’t going to do anything, that’s it – it won’t go any further.
“Even if Stockton Council were to agree to it, it’s a long drawn out process, Hambleton would have to agree and then it would go to the Boundary Commission.”
Labour Leader of Stockton Council, Councillor Bob Cook, said: “For our part, we would reiterate that Stockton Borough Council delivers a huge range of very high quality services from which all of our residents can benefit, no matter where they live.
“Residents’ surveys consistently reveal these services enjoy very high satisfaction levels which show the majority of residents value and appreciate the council’s contribution.
“Of course, like all councils there are times when we have to make difficult decisions and we absolutely understand that people have strong views on issues such as parking and on planning applications for new houses.
“These issues would have to be addressed by whichever local authority had responsibility for Yarm.”
Yarm borough councillor Andrew Sherris, Conservative, said: “We need an open and honest debate with all the information presented on a level playing field without any of the political interference experienced recently with hundreds of letters being sent out to residents.
“The level and quality of service delivery is paramount, particularly for the elderly and more vulnerable members of our Community.”
UKIP councillor Mark Chatburn added: “Critics of this will point to the fact that four out of five residents in Yarm either voted ‘no’ or didn’t even bother to vote. Put in those terms it sounds less convincing than the polling results would suggest.”
James Wharton, MP for Stockton South, said of the result: “People are clearly fed up with Stockton Council riding roughshod over Yarm. This result should act as a wake up call and our Labour run council needs to listen or they will lose ever more support.”
Louise Baldock Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Stockton South, said the result “came as no surprise”, but added: “I am concerned that people as yet know nothing about what a move into a different council authority would mean for the delivery of vital services.”
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 28 May 2014
Stockton councillors have been accused of “lining their own pockets” after voting not to cut special allowances that would have saved the authority around £26,000 a year.
But the Labour leader of the authority Councillor Bob Cook defended the decision to keep the £3,350 allowance paid to committee vice-chairs – saying they had an important role within the council.
An independent panel which looks into councillors’ allowances had proposed, among other recommendations, the scrapping of the vice chair’s allowance.
The special responsibility allowance (SRA) of £3,350 is paid to vice chairs on top of the basic councillor’s allowance of £9,300.
But at this week’s full council meeting Cllr Cook put forward a motion with the Labour group to keep the vice chair allowance.
A Conservative move to defer a decision to give time for councillors to discuss the motion properly was defeated by a combined vote of Labour and Ingleby Barwick Independents.
UKIP, Lib Dem and Billingham Independent councillors proposed the scrapping of the vice chair SRA, but that was also defeated.
Maureen Rigg, Lib Dem councillor for Eaglescliffe, said: “The excuse given by one Labour speaker after another was that we needed to get on with the job of saving money.
“Not one of them could explain how paying a group of people over £26k per year saved money.”
James Wharton, the Conservative MP for Stockton South, accused the ruling Labour group of “lining their own pockets” at a time when the council has had to reduce its expenditure significantly, leading to redundancies and cuts in services.
“The ruling Labour group in Stockton Council is running a £7.5m surplus, is increasing residents’ council tax yet again and complains about having to make difficult decisions cutting back services,” he said.
“Most residents will be absolutely disgusted to hear this decision.”
But Cllr Bob Cook defended the motion, saying if you were going to have vice chairs then they should get extra responsibility payment.
“Along with the chair of a committee they work as a team,” he said.
“If the chair can’t be at the meeting you have the vice-chair to cover.”
He said councillors took another step towards achieving the authority’s pledge to reduce members’ allowances by 15% by April 2015 at the meeting, agreeing to freeze the basic allowance and reduce all SRAs from 2015/16.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette 02 May 2014
Benefit claimants in the North-East and North Yorkshire have been hit harder by Government’s ‘bedroom tax’ than any other region, a new study has revealed.
The report, by Oxfam and the New Policy Institute (NPI), warns that wide-ranging cuts are changing the shape of welfare support at a time when rising prices are making it harder for families to make ends meet.
The study, Multiple Cuts For The Poorest Families, found 28,000 of the poorest households in the region are being hit by the bedroom tax and are £12.80 per week worse off, with around 3,000 at least £20 a week out of pocket.
As a result, job seekers, carers, single parents or those with a disability or illness who are unable to work are being pushed deeper into poverty, it said.
North Durham MP Kevan Jones (Labour) said the record use of food banks was a clear indication that not only the unemployed, but also those in low pay, are being forced to rely on charity to survive.
He said: “In the year 2014 it is a national scandal. It is a situation where they are forcing people to move who have lived in the same homes for many years. The Government is treating people’s home as commodities rather than homes.”
But cuts to council tax benefit are more widespread in the region, where 103,000 of the poorest households have seen a cut in their cash payments.
These households now have to pay around £2.40 per week in council tax, a charge they were previously deemed too poor to pay.
The worst off are those 40,000 households who have seen both cuts in their housing benefit and their council tax benefit.
North-West Durham MP Pat Glass (Labour) said: “People who have never been in debt before are now in debt.
Renters in the private sector have also seen their housing benefit slashed too, through cuts to the Local Housing Allowance.
The research estimates that this has affected 29,000 of the poorest households in the area, costing them around £7.80 per week.
Mark Goldring, Oxfam chief executive, said: “This is the latest evidence of a perfect storm blowing massive holes in the safety net which is supposed to stop people falling further into poverty.”
In London, where the population is two-and-a-half to three times greater than the North-East, around 34,000 of the poorest households are being hit by the bedroom tax.
On average they are £20 per week worse off, the highest cut of any region, and around 7,000 are being hit by at least £25 per week.
But cuts to council tax benefit are much more widespread in the capital where 240,000 of the poorest households have seen a cut.
Geraldine Kay, chief executive of Derwentside Homes, the social landlord which manages former council housing stock in the north-west of County Durham, said: “The North-East has been disproportionately adversely affected by welfare reforms compared to all other regions with the exception of London for a different reason.
“In London the issue is the extortionate cost of housing, to buy or to rent, exceeding the benefit cap.
“In the North-East it is the ‘bedroom tax’ that is causing particular hardship as our housing stock is dominated by two and three bedroom family homes with very few flats and apartments.
“There are simply not the smaller properties for people to downsize into and tenants are caught in the ‘bedroom tax’ poverty trap.”
Conservative Stockton South MP James Wharton said hundreds of thousands of people are on waiting list for homes while hundreds of thousands more have properties bigger than they needs, which are paid for by the taxpayer.
He said: “The housing system this government inherited was in need of major reform and by paying for what people need, rather than over the odds, the taxpayer can get people into the right sized homes and free up properties for those in desperate need.”
> Except… that doesn’t work. Surely he’s grasped the fact by now ?
Source – Northern Echo 22 April 2014
Producers of controversial reality TV show Benefits Street have turned their attention to Stockton – just weeks after sizing up locations in Middlesbrough.
Cameras from the Channel 4 show – which previously painted an unflattering portrait of a Birmingham street – were filming for two days on Dixon Street, Stockton.
Stockton South MP James Wharton has written a letter to the programme makers urging them not to choose Stockton – and Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham has written to residents saying they would be “exploited” by TV crews.
Mr Wharton has written to Love Productions saying he was “concerned that your programme will further perpetuate some of the unjustified, negative stereotypes often attributed to our area, by those who have no knowledge of it”.
Mr Cunningham posted letters through all residents’ doors, saying: “Anyone who saw any of the first series will have seen how the programme makers aim to exploit people, their families and community and the problems and challenges they face – just to entertain other people. I think it will be largely negative with people in the area stigmatised.”
But residents have mixed views –
Dad-of-two Brian Hayes, 26, said: “I said that I wouldn’t mind, as long as it shows how hard it is for people on benefits to get a job.
“I am desperate to work to earn money for my family but it’s hard.
“Being on something like Benefits Street is degrading but if it helped me get a job then I’d have them down here.”
> But should you have to degrade yourself just to get a job ? The hoops you have to jump through already are bad enough, do you really need to pander to lowest common denominator “entertainment” as well ?
Brian has set up a Facebook page about the issue.
He said: “The truth is, 70% of the people on this street don’t want to be here. More than half the people work. There are a lot of people working to try and make Stockton a better place and the worst bits don’t need to be picked out and shown.”
> But they will be…bet you anything.
Gillian Chester has worked at the Dovecot Street Corner Shop, on the corner of Dixon Street, for 10 years, and thinks producers would focus on negatives.
She said: “I don’t think it will do any good. The first series just picked out the worst parts, and I doubt they would show all the people on the street who work.”
Gina Westwood, who has lived on Dixon Street for 14 years, said: “I think it’s all been blown out of proportion, really.
“The cameras were here for a screen test, but I heard they’ve been to five different streets in Stockton. But apparently Dixon Street was the friendliest.”
The first series of Benefits Street, filmed in Birmingham, saw nearly 2,000 complaints to Ofcom, but it gave Channel 4 the highest viewing figures since 2012 and the rights for the show were sold across the world.
Sources – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette 15 April 2014
Northern Echo 15 April 2014