Friday, October 26, 2007

A most perplexing matter

Richard Benyon MP (Conservative) made a statement in the House of Commons on 9th October regarding the leader of Newbury Town Council, Councillor Ian Grose (Liberal Democrat) and an invitation to a “welcome home” reception for returning troops. The speech is covered in Hansard here and on Newbury Today here, here and here.

In response to a question, Ian Grose made this statement at Newbury Town Council last week, which is recorded in full in the draft meeting minutes here:

Richard Benyon’s statement in the House of Commons about me and my supposed lack of support for the troops who have been on operations abroad is completely untrue. The record needs to be set straight.

I fully support our troops when they are deployed on any operation, at home or abroad, or on training or exercise anywhere in the world. He would have found this out very quickly if he had bothered to contact me, which he hasn’t. He has instead chosen to rely on an internal council e-mail from me to the Mayor’s office, on which he has put an entirely false interpretation.

Mr Benyon directly accuses me of not being prepared to recognise the efforts of our troops by providing public funding for a reception. He is completely wrong. Newbury Town Council has provided taxpayers’ funds through its civic budget for the Mayor to use for just such purposes. As I pointed out in my email, adequate funding for the reception already exists, and only awaits the Mayor’s say-so.

I worked for many years in direct support of military personnel and operations at home and abroad, and have the highest respect for serving and retired military personnel. There is a clear distinction between support for the failed war in Iraq (Britain's part in which, incidentally, would never have happened had it not been for the headlong Conservative enthusiasm for it in 2003) and supporting both our troops in the field, and their families left behind. I am just as able to draw that distinction as Mr Benyon is.

The Newbury Weekly News this week has a further report which is also on Newbury Today. It adds an intriguing twist to the matter. In answering questions about his role in forwarding to Richard Benyon MP an internal council email (which initiated the episode), the Mayor of Newbury, Councillor Adrian Edwards (Conservative) is recorded as saying, amongst other points, these three things:

1. That he (Adrian Edwards) didn’t speak to Richard Benyon about the email concerned prior to the 9th October Commons statement. “He (Edwards) said he received “no comment” from the MP either verbally or in written form”.

2. “Mr Edwards said that Mr Grose had made it “quite clear” that he supported the idea of a welcome reception."

3. “I was very surprised when he (Mr Benyon) made a comment like that”, Mr Edwards is recorded as saying.

It therefore appears that what has happened here is this. Richard Benyon received an internal council email. The email clearly gave the council leader’s backing for the reception for returning troops. It said, in terms, that the reception should be covered from the council's civic budget. This has always been the process since the council was established in 1997. There are sufficient funds in this budget for a sumptuous reception with wine, canap├ęs, Town Crier in full ceremonial garb, use of the august surroundings of the Council Chamber etc etc. The wrong conclusion seems to have been drawn from an irrelevant personal side remark made later in the email.

If Mr Benyon had checked the situation with the council leader or the Mayor (it seems from the remarks in this week’s NWN), or indeed, anyone with a basic grasp of council finance, he would have been put straight. Instead, Mr Benyon went and made his statement to parliament.

It is very puzzling as to why he did this. I don’t think this matter should be left where it is at the moment. Given Adrian Edwards’ remarks in the “Newbury Weekly News” this week it would appear that the ball is now in Richard Benyon’s court. Even the Mayor of Newbury, a stalwart dyed-in-the-wool Tory, is saying that the council leader supported the reception, which implies that, therefore, Mr Benyon's statement to parliament was completely wrong. The time would appear to be ripe for Mr Benyon to acknowledge this and put the parliamentary record straight.

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