“The Woodsman”: Conservative councillors throw out motion to have him reinstated #toryfail #woodsman

At last night’s Council Meeting I moved the following motion (see item 13):

“The Council welcomes the demonstration of public support for reinstating The Woodsman in St Martin’s Square, recognises the talent and generosity of Dave Chapple in giving “The Woodsman” to the people of Basildon, and commits to its restoration and reinstatement in St Martin’s Square at the earliest practical opportunity.”

I regretted that no administration had looked after “The Woodsman”. However, I pointed out that “The Woodsman’s continuing neglect, taken together with what they had done to other pieces of public art and Cllr Tony Ball’s comments on the funding of “Progression”, showed that the Conservative Party in Basildon (not nationally) had a clear position: they are not supportive of public art. I said that this seemed inconsistent with their Conservative colleagues at County Hall, their own press release and survey – and the public response on Facebook to “The Woodsman”. (I pointed out that “The Woodsman” had more than ten times more friends on Facebook than Stephen Metcalfe, the Conservative PPC, on his campaign page – and that the page for “The Woodsman” had only been running for a few weeks.)

The public survey is very interesting.

As you can see, response was low.  220 people offered an opinion. (I’ll state it again, despite the Council saying this survey had wide coverage, I saw nothing and so didn’t take part.) However, whilst it does show that 74% of people thought “The Woodsman” should be replaced, it also showed that a majority of people wanted a piece of public art in St Martin’s Square: either “The Woodsman”, another piece by Dave or a newly commissioned piece of public art. Just to be clear, I say a majority as if you take the totals for “The Woodsman”, “King Edgar’s Head” and a new piece of public art you get 130. That is 59% of 220 – a majority. Sadly, though, I suspect this survey was just another cynical manipulation of figures to present the result they wanted: “The Woodsman” gone and purple squid lights installed instead. (They are actually going to be putting the Town Clock where “The Woodsman” used to be. It’s a marvellous and unique piece of engineering, as Cllr Horgan said, but surely it should be put back in the Town Centre – where it was designed to be?)

Whatever people’s views on public art in general, I made the argument that “The Woodsman” was different: made from material from Basildon, made in Basildon, by an artist from Basildon, in front of people from Basildon and then handed over to Basildon – for free.

Finally, earlier in the meeting, Cllr Ball, talking on another item, had said that his Conservative Council was a listening administration and that they would hear what the people wanted and then deliver. I concluded by reminding the Council of what he had said, pointing out that 162 people had said take “The Woodsman” down in their consultation – but more than 1500 people were now asking for it to be put back. The people would be waiting for him to listen and deliver.

The Conservative Councillors commended Dave Chapple on his work. However, during the meeting I was accused of electioneering, making politics out of “The Woodsman”, and was told that the Conservative administration would take no lessons on support for public art as they had repaired the “Mother and Child” fountain.  I was also told that that Dave had always wanted to see “The Woodsman” in Wat Tyler. They had consulted the public – and the public had asked for it to be taken down (all 162 of them).

The motion was defeated with every single Conservative Councillor present voting against – the three Liberal Democrats and the Labour Councillors present voting for.

I am a little wrung out with it all now to be honest. How sad to think that we are in this mess because no-one could be bothered to put a bit of teak oil on “The Woodsman” as Dave had requested.

I didn’t know Dave and I don’t know his family. I know one or two of his friends, but not very well. I simply want to see the “The Woodsman” repaired and restored and put back on display, either in St Martin’s Square or a suitable location that is actually in the town, not tucked away like some unofficial sculpture museum (graveyard?).

Let’s hope that the years of neglect have not left it damaged beyond repair.

And if they are not going to put him back, at least listen to what the majority of respondents were telling the Council in that survey: they want a piece of public art there.

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Basildon Arts Forum launched… and Old Man Stan on the fate of “The Woodsman” #woodsman #toryfail

Exciting news from Basildon’s artistic community.

The first “Basildon Arts Forum” is to be held at St Martin’s Church Hall, Basildon Town Centre on Monday 1st March at 7pm. Anyone interested in seeing a thriving artistic community in Basildon is welcome. As spaces have to be limited for health and safety reasons please drop an email to Liz Grant if you are intending to come: lizzy_grant@btopenworld.com.

Also, in the best traditions of anti-establishment art, the irreverent Old Man Stan has decided to share his views on the fate of “The Woodsman”. He really is the most incredible creation, sort of like Alf Garnett crossed with Statler and Waldorf and “Grandad Trotter”. I hope that those it lampoons remember that satire in Britain has a handsome pedigree – and take it in the spirit of Fousgasse and Hogarth.

Or at least Spitting Image.

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Motorboat Museum closure makes the news – will the Council listen? #basildon #toryfail

It is good to see that the local and regional media have been taking an interest in the Motorboat Museum, even if Basildon’s Conservative-controlled Council is no longer bothered what happens to the nation’s foremost collection of motorboats. Interestingly, the Council have confirmed to me that they made no effort to find a private sponsor and set aside no money to promote the museum (the budget for promoting it came out of the general countryside services promotion budget – so I guess it didn’t get very much).

Most of us would not have much time for the excuses made by a company that complained about falling sales having not advertised its products, so it strikes me as a little rich for the Council to complain that visitor numbers were falling when they did nothing to tell people the museum was there!

Before going on, I think I should make it clear that I see this as a matter of political will and prioritisation – and not something that is the responsibility of a countryside services budget already stretched to capacity. To that end I think it appalling that in the coverage I have seen, no administration councillor has seen fit to defend this decision publicly, instead choosing to hide behind officials and spokespersons.

It is probably all too late, at least in terms of saving the collection in Basildon, but this local and regional media coverage has been impressive.

Sophie Edwards had a good piece in the Echo which featured George Sawyer, the former world record holder who lives locally and who is a member of the Friends of the Motorboat Museum. He sums it up very well:

“He said: “If the collection is broken it will be a disaster.

“Basildon has really lost something. This museum was the only one of its kind in the world, which traced the history and evolution of motor boats.

“Hopefully the museum won’t be lost altogether, even though it will be sadly lost to Basildon.””

I was rather less measured, not least of all because I am fed up of tip-toeing around issues which are too easily dismissed as a minority issue or of limited significance:

““I don’t believe the council has invested any serious effort in maintaining the integrity of the collection.

“I have nothing against taking funding from Government for a new green education centre.

“However, if the council was bothered enough, it could have sought to preserve this nationally-significant collection.””

ITV’s London Tonight programme visited Basildon yesterday and spoke to George and Nina Sawyer at the museum. Whilst it is not on their main website, ITN sells clips of its footage and you can see it as a preview on their page.

And today, John Hayes featured the fate of the Motorboat Museum on BBC Essex’s prime-time “Drive Time” programme. The three minute feature on the Motorboat Museum is exactly 43 minutes into the programme.

Until the end of last year, school kids on their curriculum museum visits could see examples such as the Fairey Huntress, the boat that James Bond and Tatiana Romanova use to escape from SPECTRE at the end of From Russia With Love.

That is one of the most iconic chase sequences in any Bond film and I remember it fuelling many a childhood secret agent fantasy.


I am left wondering sadly how on earth Basildon Council can rationalise that the preservation of a nationally-significant collection like this simply doesn’t matter any more.

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Cameron’s Conservative Party, Con-coctions and Torydiddles: Tories dump environment despite pledges [The Fib List No. 3] #toryfail

In June 2008, David Cameron opened a speech with the following words:

“Today, I want to tackle an argument that seems to be as cyclical as the economy. The argument that when times are good, we can indulge ourselves with a bit of environmentalism – but when the economic going gets tough, the green agenda has to be dropped.

“According to this argument, protecting the environment is a luxury rather than a necessity – and it’s a luxury we just can’t afford in an economic downturn. I want this generation to be the one that bucks that trend: to be the generation that finds a way to combine economic, social and environmental progress.”

In what I imagine was a shot at critics who thought that the huskies and the cycling (with his papers in the car behind) were a stunt, he made the following  very firm statement:

“Today I want to make my position on this absolutely clear. We are not going to drop the environmental agenda in an economic downturn.”

At a press conference this morning David Cameron gave a list of ten reasons to vote for the Conservatives.

The environmental agenda did not feature at all.

The green agenda has been dropped. Completely. And, ironically, as Britain continues to teeter along the brink of recession.

Spend a moment looking at those two documents and then tell me Cameron’s long-term critics weren’t right. Cameron’s environmental credentials have been exposed as the cynical exercise in hoodwinking they always were.

This should ring alarm bells across the South East, and particularly in Basildon and Thurrock, where the threat to our green spaces and natural environment is ever-present. With DP World’s recent announcement that they will be deepening the Thames to allow the largest cargo ships in the world to dock at the proposed London Gateway port, voters should now be clear that making sure developments like this – which are important for jobs and regeneration – don’t wreck our environment is not a priority in any way for Conservatives.

Back in October last year, at the Tory conference, Cameron called for more leadership on the environment:

“And to be British is to have an instinctive love of the countryside and the natural world. The dangers of climate change are stark and very real. If we don’t act now, and act quickly, we could face disaster.

Yes, we need to change the way we live. But is that such a bad thing? The insatiable consumption and materialism of the past decade, has it made us happier or more fulfilled?

Yes, we have to put our faith in technologies. But that is not a giant leap. Just around the corner are new green technologies, unimaginable a decade ago, that can change the way we live, travel, work.

And yes, we need global co-operation. But that shouldn’t be difficult. It just takes leadership, and that’s what we need at the Copenhagen summit this December.”

By contrast, a recent survey of Tory PPCs by ConservativeIntelligence (!) revealed what looked like a shocking gulf in thinking between prospective Conservative MPs and David Cameron’s leadership team. Reducing Britain’s carbon footprint was their lowest priority. Even protecting the English countryside from over-development, something Tory councillors have been preaching for years, was way down the list of priorities.

Then, following ‘Climategate’ and the sceptics’ even more outrageous and very public manipulation of scientific evidence (i.e. flatly denying it), public opinion has shifted on global warming. The BBC recently reported a drop of 8% in the numbers believing it is taking place.

Does Cameron show the leadership he demands, attemting to lead public opinion rather than follow it? No, like his candidates, he limps on behind, dropping environmental commitments that might dent his chances.

When it comes to the environment, David Cameron has been playing us for fools for a long, long time. His environmental commitments were just the latest in a long line of rebranding exercises, designed to get votes by saying whatever people want to hear.

The 75% of people who understand global warming is taking place should stop giving him and his party the benefit of the doubt and take a long hard look at the evidence.

Cameron and the Conservatives cannot be trusted on the environment.

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Cameron’s Conservative Party, Con-coctions and Torydiddles: Anger as Tories increase teen pregnancies (The Fib List No. 2) #toryfail

In a decimal point slip of breath-taking ineptitude, David Cameron’s Conservative Party proclaimed an increase in the number of teens getting pregnant in Britain’s most deprived areas that was hugely in excess of the official figure.

Yesterday, the Tories published a document on Labour’s “Two Nations” that, as well as serving as a vehicle for cribbing Lib Dem policy such as the pupil premium, loudly proclaimed that 54% of Britain’s poorest teenage women became pregnant before the age of eighteen. The document, issued in David Cameron’s name, laid responsibility for this 54% increase squarely on the shoulders of Gordon Brown and his Government.

The actual figure is 5.4% – and this latest row comes just ten days after the Tories were lambasted by Sir Michael Scholar, the head of the UK Statistics Agency for misusing crime figures in a way that could damage public trust in official statistics.

So how did the Tories make such a stupid mistake?

The first question is did they? A cynic might assume this was a deliberate ploy, designed to fuel the prejudices of traditional Tory voters whilst inflating a general sense of outrage at the country’s moral breakdown. It would certainly fit with the apparent Tory habit of manipulating statistics for sensational political effect.

More likely, though, it was cock-up. In that case, one has to ask how on earth such a blatantly ridiculous statistic made it past the combined fact-checking powers of the Shadow Cabinet, their advisers, the Tories’ Parliamentary Research Unit (who I assume was asked to check it) and the Conservative Party Press Office – especially when David Cameron put his name to its foreword.

The frightening thought is that perhaps they are that out of touch with the country that they simply passed it over, shaking their heads as they collectively “tut-tutted”, assuming it was true.

An increase of 5.4% is nothing for Labour to be proud of.

Britain is regularly reported as having the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe. The most recent figures for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts the rate of teenage births in the UK at 24.8 births per 1000 women aged 15-19. (Note – this is teenage births. Pregnancies would be higher – and this statistic does not account for births in teenagers under 15.)

A 2001 paper by Alice MacLeod, published in the British Medical Journal said:

“In England reduced rates of teenage pregnancy have been found to be associated with proximity to youth family planning clinics.”

The lack of access to proper advice would be consistent with a more recent YouGov survey for Channel 4 that found that almost a third of teenagers want more sex and relationships education.

The experience of other European countries, who have equally sexualised societies (and arguably more-so), but more comprehensive education about sex and relationships, is that rates of teenage pregnancy are lower. For instance, there has been controversy over proposals to end the parental opt-out of sex education in English schools once pupils turn fifteen (currently parents in can opt their children out until the age of nineteen), yet no such opt-out exists in most European countries. (There is an interesting comparative paper available from the National Foundation for Educational Research which, unfortunately, doesn’t include Britain, but does look at the way sex education is structured elsewhere in the world.)

Teenage pregnancy is an issue that needs tackling with proper understanding – firmly, calmly and compassionately. That isn’t achieved when you are electioneering from the campaign scrimmage, trading the misery of broken lives for the votes of “Disgusted of Tumbridge Wells” with utterly wrong information.

Concoction or cock-up, it doesn’t leave you with any confidence about the Tories’ real commitment to tackling social deprivation beyond their election re-branding.

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Cameron’s Conservative Party, Con-coctions and Torydiddles: internal party democracy (The Fib List No. 1) #toryfail

Look at the websites of local Conservative parties the length and breadth of the United Kingdom and you will find the following claim:

“the Conservative Party is now the most democratic political party in the UK”

From Chipping Barnet to Epping, from Maidstone to Aberdeen, Tory websites flaunt the party’s democratic credentials.

Democracy is a term derived from the Greek terms dêmos and krátos: people and power. You would therefore reasonably expect that, if you were a member of the most democratic party in the UK, the constitution and mechanisms of the party would enshrine decision-making power with its members.

Interesting then to read the following in the Daily Mail (not usually a paper regarded as hostile to the Conservative Party):

Mr Cameron, frustrated in his attempts to change the male, middle-class image of the Conservative Party, took emergency powers last month which allow him to impose short-lists of ‘suitable’ candidates on reluctant local party activists.

Until then, local associations had been allowed to make their own broad selection of possible candidates and send a short-list to Conservative Central Office for approval.Inevitably, Central Office would add some of their own candidates for the final list, but at least the local party had some say in the matter.

But under the new emergency powers, Central Office can impose its own short-list on any local association, leaving longstanding members with no say whatsoever.

This draconian  measure has incensed local party members up and down the country, triggering a wave of protests and resignations which is in danger of spilling over into a civil war with devastating implications for Mr Cameron.”

This is clearly a very particular and expert understanding of democracy shared by David Cameron, the Conservative Party and Kim Jong-il (the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).

But perhaps that is just candidates and, with a General Election approaching, perhaps we should cut Cameron some slack if he thinks his party doesn’t yet look right and instead decides to act decisively. Of course, you might think it a little hypocritical for an Eton-educated millionaire white male Conservative to be fixing selections because the likely candidate of choice of local associations isn’t representative of modern Britain, and it doesn’t say much about his confidence in these local associations, but perhaps I am being ungenerous.

So what of policy? If the Conservative Party is the most democratic in the United Kingdom (“and possibly the Western World” if you listen to bonkers Maidstone and the Weald) you would expect a robust mechanism of participation where members decide policy.

Er, no.

Have a look at the agenda for the last Conservative conference. When it comes to policy, members are excluded from decision-making. They receive presentations, hear speeches and get to take part in panel-discussions. Things looked up in 2006 when, with polished politico-spin, they announced a “Dragon’s Den-style” session:

“Tory candidates mimic the TV series by pitching their policy ideas to Ms Widdecombe and other ‘dragons’.

There will also be Who Wants To Be A Millionaire style ask-the-audience electronic votes on conference motions.”

Admirer as I am of Mrs Widdecombe, she isn’t the first person who springs to mind when I think of modern Britain. Anyway, the reality wasn’t quite so straightforward. Conservative Home had the real story:

“At the end of the session, conference will vote for the policy they would most like to see included in the Party’s policy review and the winner will be entitled to make a submission to the policy review panel.”

That’s it folks… You get a chance to vote on what you would like to see included (not decide) – and the winner will be entitled to make a submission to the policy review panel!

Whoa! Careful! Ordinary members might end up making a submission to a review! One at least.

Contrast that with the Liberal Democrats.

Candidates are selected by local parties. One member one vote. Simple. Democracy in action. (The Liberal Democrats openly share their full constitution on the web.)

Policy is made by its members. Local parties submit motions. Local parties elect delegates. The delegates vote. Simple. Democracy in action. The full process is laid out on the party’s website.

Cameron is attempting to make the appeal that they are not the same old Tories. The mendacious claims on local Tory websites across Britain will do nothing to give people confidence that his are people who say what they mean.

They don’t.

As a footnote, take a look at the Conservative Party website.

Notice something?

There is no obvious search function. You see exactly what they want you to see and nothing else – no rooting around to find out what you want to know. Be in no doubt – this is a party of centralisers and controllers who place a premium on slick presentation and encourage creative input only so long as it doesn’t rock the Cameron boat. “We know better than you” is a sentiment that Conservatives cannot shake, no matter how hard they try.

Don’t say we weren’t warned.

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“The Woodsman”: Chance for Council to decide? #woodsman

Those who are interested in “The Woodsman” may wish to know that at the next Council meeting (18 February 2010 at 6pm) I will be moving the following motion for discussion:

“The Council welcomes the demonstration of public support for reinstating The Woodsman in St Martin’s Square, recognises the talent and generosity of Dave Chapple in giving The Woodsman to the people of Basildon, and commits to its restoration and reinstatement in St Martin’s Square at the earliest practical opportunity.”

It is the last item on the meeting’s agenda – and the agenda is a very long one as it will also deal with setting the level of Council Tax (there is therefore a danger that it might not be reached).

The Council meets in the St George’s Suite and it is a meeting open to the public (public question time is the first item on the agenda – questions have to be submitted in writing three days before (the deadline is usually regarded as 10am on Monday).

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In defence of Neanderthals: a reader writes

In my recent post ““Progression”: ‘extraordinary attitudes’ that did for “The Woodsman”?” I questioned why “Basildon’s Conservative Party acts like a Neanderthal collective when it comes to  public art?”

This prompted one irritated reader to point out by email that this comparator was unfair to Neanderthals. As I explained in my response, I had actually worried about that myself, but decided that, on balance – and after a careful read of Wikipedia on the subject of the Neanderthal the issue of artistic activity in Neanderthal society is still significantly contested enough for me to err on the side of cliché.

However, upon reflection, the fact that it is even contested suggests the possibility of its existence in Neanderthal society in a way that could not possibly be true of Basildon’s Conservative Party.

Read for yourselves:

“How dare you make such allegations in your Blog!

I refer to your posting of 3rd February in which you liken the Basildon Conservative party to a Neanderthal collective.

I speak on behalf of that extinct community which continues to receive a negative image as a result of ill-considered remarks such as yours. For many years Neanderthals have been treated as sub-human simply because of the physical appearance of their skull. For years they were thought to be stupid and dumb as no hyoid bone had ever been found, indicating that they had vocal chords. And then twenty years ago, in 1989, a Neanderthal skeleton was found with the hyoid bone intact, and suddenly anthropologists deigned to grant the Neanderthals the power of speech – but they were still considered to be ignorant.

The trouble is that time has a strange effect on artefacts, and Neanderthal artefacts are 50,000 – 60,000 years old. Some years ago a carved bone was found in a Neanderthal cave. And last month there was the discovery of Neanderthal “make-up” artefacts in southern Spain suggested that they were “capable of symbolic thinking”.

It seems that we started off with a negative image of the Neanderthal and only concede that they have positive aspects when there is archaeological proof. I believe that Homo neanderthalensis was as civilized and cultured as the Homo erectus of 50,000 years ago. At least the Neanderthal’s left some artefacts behind by which we can judge them. The way the Basildon Conservative party is going, there will be nothing left of Basildon’s culture 50,000 years hence!

May I therefore request that when seeking a comparator in future, you do not impugn the reputation of the Neanderthals by associating them with the Basildon Conservative Party.”

However tongue-in-cheek it might sound, the point is a valid one. As the BBC is demonstrating in conjunction with the British Museum (see “A History of the World in Objects – a brilliant idea from the BBC”), our history is told through ordinary objects. We regularly impune Neanderthals for a lack of sophistication, based on little more than cartoon caricature and a lack of physical evidence.

Read more on the story of the Neanderthal ‘make-up’ containers.

Read more on the story of the discovery of the Neanderthal ‘face’.

Prehistoric art is a subject I’ll return to at a future date. In the meantime, suggestions for a more appropriate comparator to Basildon’s Conservative Party would be welcome.

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And yet more pointless municipal vandalism…

Sometimes a picture says all that can be said. For some reason, Conservative-controlled Basildon Council has decided to rip out the relatively recently constructed features that distinguish St Martin’s Square. When the bid to the Government for money for new lighting was discussed, this wasn’t. (Nor were the design and placement of the lights, but that’s another story.)

When Em’s family visited for the first time they commented on how pleasant and unusual that part of St Martin’s Square looked. How sad that this is the last picture I took of it.

Demolishing St Martin's Square

Demolishing St Martin's Square

I can’t help feeling that these Conservative councillors care less and less about the area and more and more about building some lasting concrete (!) legacy. Exactly the criticism they made of previous Labour councillors. Is it any wonder that people give up in despair?

Rooting around on the Council’s website I found the notice to tender for the contract. Strangely, there is no information in the appropriate section to say who got the contract. To that end, concerned residents might wish to be aware that the tender has just closed for further works to Compass Square (I believe Compass Square is the area immediately in front of the Bascentre). I wonder if the Council will say who has secured that?

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Lord Hanningfield: suspended from Conservative Party; resigns as Leader of Essex County Council; faces criminal charges #essex #conservatives #hanningfield

Paul White, known to most as Lord Hanningfield and leader of Essex County Council, is to face six criminal charges under Section 17 of the Theft Act 1968 (Section 17 is the part of the Act that relates to “false accounting”).

He, along with three Labour MPs (Elliot Morely MP, David Chaytor MP and Jim Devine MP), have been summonsed to appear at the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court at 2pm on 11 March 2010. The maximum sentence that could be applied under Section 17 is seven years’ imprisonment.

As these cases have been investigated by the police, the authority responsible for prosecuting is the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Interestingly, although defence lawyers for those charged have raised the issue of Parliamentary privilege, the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC is clear in his statement that “the applicability and extent of any Parliamentary privilege claimed should be tested in court”.

Parliamentary privilege is an ancient privilege granted to parliamentarians, however the extent of its protection is both widely misunderstood and fiercely contested. When the Speaker made a statement to the House of Commons on 3 December 2008, regarding the arrest of Damian Green MP and entry into his offices, he reminded Members of Parliament  that, according to Erskine May (Parliament’s authoritative companion guide to procedure), parliamentary privilege has never prevented the operation of the criminal law. He also restated the position of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in its 1999 report that “the precincts of the House are not and should not be ‘a haven from the law’”.

In respect of the specific charges against Paul White (Lord Hanningfield), Keir Starmer QC said:

“The charges allege that between March 2006 and May 2009, Paul White dishonestly submitted claims for expenses to which he knew he was not entitled, including numerous claims for overnight expenses for staying in London when records show that he was driven home and did not stay overnight in London.”

According to the BBC, Lord Hanningfield has resigned his front bench position as Conservative business spokesman and stood down as leader of Essex County Council. David Cameron also requested that Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the Conservative opposition in the Lords, suspend the Conservative whip with immediate effect.

Keir Starmer QC’s closed his statement with the following:

“Can I remind all concerned that the four individuals now stand charged of criminal offences and they each have the right to a fair trial. It is extremely important that nothing should be reported which could prejudice any of these trials.”

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