Published: 16:55, 16 October 2020
| Updated: 17:56, 16 October 2020
A Conservative association is facing criticism for getting a £10,000 Covid-19 grant aimed at helping small businesses.
The transaction to the Ashford Conservative Association was raised during a full Ashford Borough Council (ABC) meeting last night.
During lockdown, the government provided funding to councils to support struggling businesses, with Conservative-led ABC paying out about £29million to almost 2,500 applicants.
But at the meeting, Ashford Labour leader Cllr Brendan Chilton passionately questioned whether the £10,000 could be returned and used by people struggling financially.
He said: "At the start of this meeting, the portfolio holder [for finance and IT, Cllr Neil Bell] confirmed in a question from [Green Party] councillor Steve Campkin that the Ashford Conservative Association has received £10,000 of public funds.
"When families are struggling to make ends meet, when unemployment is rising and continues to rise, and businesses are going bust, do the Tories think it's right that they've taken public funds or will they do the nice, moral and honourable thing and pay the money back so it can go to those who actually need it and not a political party?
"Will they pay it back?"
To this, Cllr Bell (Con) chuckled and said: "Thank you for that Cllr Chilton and thank you for the finger-wagging as well, which really underlines the political nature of the question.
"I think I'd refer you back to the answer I gave earlier on.
"When grants were paid out to organisations, a large element of that is not necessarily just for the organisation itself, it's to keep the local economy going.
"The Conservative Association - as with all good Conservatives - have always been big supporters of the local economy, big supporters of local businesses, and those funds will no doubt be spent in exactly that way to support the local economy.
"As such, I think we should be celebrating the fact that central government money - not from the Ashford taxpayers at all - has been redirected into our local economy, which is an excellent thing."
Labour's Cllr Dara Farrell - who stood for the party in last year's general election - also found issue with the money.
He said: "I am astounded by that absolutely deaf answer from the cabinet member on this ludicrous payment of £10,000.
"He makes reference to the political nature of the question, that's because a political association has received government funds at a time when businesses across our borough are in danger of going to the wall and thousands worry for their livelihoods."
Cllr Farrell then asked whether the criteria allowed political associations to apply and, if not, whether the group had conceded that status to apply.
He also asked the money to be given to "a viable business" in the borough.
Cllr Bell responded: "In regards to the criteria, I can absolutely confirm all the criteria - which were initially laid down by central government - were adhered to. There were no exceptions for that.
Adding that it had fully gone through council officers' checks, Cllr Bell ended: "The idea that wasn't done is a complete nonsense and I'm very happy to confirm it's a complete nonsense."
"The bid met the criteria otherwise it would not have been granted"
These comments came after a run-down of ABC's grants, which were given to businesses impacted by Covid-19 restrictions.
Cllr Bell noted that by May 28 "the council had paid out almost £26m to over 2,169 businesses which is 90% of known eligible businesses".
"I'm extremely proud that we've been able to make these payments so quickly and grateful to the officers who've made this possible," he said.
Cllr Bell also highlighted the localised Ashford discretionary grant scheme – a £1.4m fund that could aid those who didn't qualify for other government relief grants.
In all, 175 discretionary grants were handed out at a total of £1.35m.
When asked about the grant and what it was being used for, Ashford Conservative Association chairman Janet Rymer-Jones told KentOnline: "The association applied for the grant in line with the criteria outlined by the council.
"The bid met the criteria otherwise it would not have been granted."
An ABC spokeswoman added: "The Ashford Conservatives’ property receives small business rates relief which made it eligible for the government’s small business grants scheme.
"The criteria for which businesses would qualify was set by the government, and local councils paid the grants out from money provided by the government.
“ABC paid out about £29m to almost 2,500 borough-based businesses through the government’s grant scheme.”