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Tories warned Mark Menzies misuse of funds claims ‘constituted fraud’ but whistleblower told there was no ‘duty’ to report it | Politics News

The Conservatives were warned ex-Tory MP Mark Menzies’s alleged misuse of party funds may have constituted fraud but the whistleblower was told there was no duty to report it

Mr Menzies, the MP for Fylde in Lancashire, gave up the Tory whip in the wake of reports in The Times that he misused party funds. He disputes the allegations.

The allegations came about after Mr Menzies former campaign manager, Katie Fieldhouse, spoke to the newspaper.

Mark Menzies pictured in Peru  in 2020
Pic: AP
Image:
Mark Menzies pictured in Peru in 2020. Pic: AP

In a new interview with The Times this evening, Ms Fieldhouse, 78, claims she was told the Conservative Party was aware the allegations were potentially criminal.

She says the Conservative Party’s chief of staff “told me that when they first took over the investigation [from the Whips’ Office] they had consulted solicitors”.

She added: “He told me on the phone, ‘the solicitor said it is fraud but you are not duty-bound to report it because it’s not Conservative Party money’.”

The whistleblower said she was told the decision not to inform the police was made because it was donors’ money and not the party’s.

A Conservative spokesperson said: “The party is conducting an investigation into the claims made and has been doing so for several months.

“We will of course share any information with the police if they believe it would be helpful to any investigation they decide to undertake.

“Suggestions the party has not been seriously examining this matter are demonstrably false.”

Lancashire Police said today it was “reviewing” information about Mr Menzies after Labour asked for an investigation to take place.

In a statement, the force said: “We can confirm that we have now received a letter detailing concerns around this matter and we are in the process of reviewing the available information in more detail.”

Read more: All the Tory MPs suspended since Sunak became PM

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Ruth Davidson on Mark Menzies allegations

The party’s chief whip, Simon Hart, is said to have been made aware of the claims in January, when the former campaign manager reported what had happened.

Sky News understands there has been an investigation ongoing by Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) since the allegations were first raised, but further information came to light this week and Mr Hart acted immediately.

Speaking tonight, Labour’s chair Anneliese Dodds said: “The Conservative chairman and chief whip must urgently come out of hiding and explain what they knew and what advice they received.

“If, as reported, they or Conservative officials​ were warned about potentially fraudulent activity and chose not to go to the police, this would be indefensible.”

Mr Menzies, who has served as an MP since May 2010, is reported to have phoned his 78-year-old former campaign manager at 3.15am last December, saying he was locked in a flat by “bad people” and needed £5,000 as a matter of “life and death”.

The sum, which rose to £6,500, was eventually paid by his office manager from her personal bank account and subsequently reimbursed from funds raised from donors in an account named Fylde Westminster Group, the newspaper says.

Speaking to Sky News, Ms Fieldhouse said: “I am feeling dreadful because I am a devout Tory and as I have said to everybody else, I reported his actions to the chief whip… it is now the middle of April.

“Come to your own conclusions [about] what is happening.”

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Asked if she was disappointed with the way the complaint was being handled, she said: “Yes.”

Mr Menzies said on Thursday: “I strongly dispute the allegations put to me. I have fully complied with all the rules for declarations. As there is an investigation ongoing I will not be commenting further.”

British Gas staff feel pressured to force installation of prepayment energy meters on customers in debt, says whistleblower | Business News

A current employee in British Gas’s debt recovery team has told Sky News that staff feel pressured to force the installation of prepayment energy meters on customers in debt.

The employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had seen an increase in the number of indebted customers since the cost of living crisis began, and that debt recovery had become the “be all and end all”.

“My role is predominantly trying to get the most out of that debt collection process. And you know, within the last 18 months, the main focus of that has been the force-fitting of prepayment meters into customers’ homes,” he said.

“A lot of pressure is put on that side of the business to collect more debt, to fit more meters. A lot of time is spent figuring out why, if we haven’t been able to fit a meter, why and what we can do better.

“A lot of the time these customers that you speak to, they physically can’t pay. They don’t have any money. They can’t afford their energy. It is not about them not wanting to pay, they can’t pay.”

British Gas has suspended its use of court warrants to force the installation of prepayment meters following a Times investigation that revealed debt collectors had forced entry into the homes of vulnerable customers.

Energy regulator Ofgem has placed British Gas under investigation and asked all other household suppliers to suspend the practice pending a review.

Forced installation of prepayment meters is intended as a last resort for use against indebted customers who refuse to pay bills, or have failed to respond to attempts by suppliers to engage, usually over a period of more than six months.

The rise in energy prices in the last year has seen an increase in the number of prepayment installations, and ministers and charities have called on companies to stop using the court process.

British Gas whistleblower
Image:
The whistleblower said he had seen an increase in vulnerable customers

The whistleblower said he had seen an increase in vulnerable customers who he believes were simply unable to meet higher energy costs.

“In the past, it’s been the vast majority of people who just avoided paying their energy, whereas now, the majority is people who are going out to work, they’ve got kids at home, and they’re trying their best, and the best isn’t good enough.

“And they’re sort of being forced into this situation where they’re technically at risk of being cut off unless they pile money, put money on their meter.”

Read more:
The claims against British Gas prepayment meters explained
Ofgem tells suppliers to suspend forced installation of prepayment meters
Why problem of prepayment meters won’t go away for vulnerable energy customers

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Centrica boss ‘truly sorry’

In a statement, British Gas’s parent company Centrica said: “We refute this description completely. There has been no increase in the number of prepayment meters we have installed in the last 12 months. Fitting a prepayment meter under warrant has always been a last resort when a customer will not engage with us despite multiple attempts over months.”

The company said installation data supported its position. British Gas supplies 27% of the UK market and has installed 16% of all prepayment meters, some 97,000 out of 600,000 in 2022. Around 20,000 of those installations were through the court warrant process with the balance requested or voluntary.

Sky News has also spoken to a woman who had a prepayment gas meter installed following a forced entry despite not being in debt and being up-to-date with direct debit payments.

The woman, a single mother of two whose identity we are protecting for personal reasons, said she came home to find contractors employed by British Gas had forced a window open.

British Gas customer
Image:
Sky News is protecting the woman’s identity for personal reasons

“I still feel really violated by it,” she said. “I just couldn’t work out how or why they’d come in, or how they got in. Once I realised, I just felt really exposed, really vulnerable and I still feel really vulnerable because the window is still broken.

“And it’s embarrassing. I got given this card that I had to go top up in a shop, it’s only in specific shops you can top it up, so you’re limited to how and when you can top up.

“The gas might run out in the middle of the night, and then you’ve got to go in, it’s 9pm, and you’ve got two children in bed.

“I’m a single mum, I can’t go out at 9pm and top up a gas card particularly not when it’s not in all the local shops, so it’s just been really difficult. I feel like for the last six months, all I’ve spoken about is British Gas.”

British Gas acknowledged it had made a mistake with the forced fitting and after five months an engineer swapped her back to a credit meter.

Centrica said it would investigate her case.

In a statement, it said: “We are very sorry to read these details and we will ensure her case is looked at as part of our investigation.

“As we made clear yesterday, the allegations around our third-party contractor Arvato are unacceptable and that’s why we immediately suspended their warrant activity.”