The Gowlett Legacy: Labour councillors who kept a £100,000 donation hidden from members

It is difficult to recall exactly when I heard for the first time the name of Ben Gowlett.

In one sense, he has always been there. Ever since I became active in the Labour Party in Brighton and Hove in 2006.

In those days, a small number of individuals who were party decision-makers — operating often in private, frequently out of sight, and largely unaccountable to members — used to refer to a mysterious donor who had left “property” to the party. It was never clear who this person was, when the bequest occurred, or what precisely was the nature of the property that had been bequeathed.

On the rare occasions when the subject came up, the bequest seemed always to be associated with Hove Constituency Labour Party. But nobody seemed certain.

For most of us in Brighton in those days, Hove was a foreign country. They did things differently there. In more ways than one, to most members, Hove Constituency Labour Party was a closed book.

This article seeks finally to open that book and reveal how a cash windfall of more than £100,000 has been kept hidden from the mass of party members for up to 27 years.

It also provides evidence how a small group of senior party figures — including Labour councillors and officers, past and present — deliberately kept control of the funds to prevent them being “hijacked” by grassroots members exercising their democratic rights “through perfectly legitimate means”. (One senior Labour councillor, unaware of the details, told me last month that he had heard only unsubstantiated rumours that the trustees wanted “to keep the money out of the hands of the Militant Tendency”, which was in the ascendancy at the time, especially in the two Brighton constituencies.) It is fair to say that key individuals mentioned in this article are anti-Corbyn diehards.

The disclosures — which are now under scrutiny by Labour officials both locally and nationally — include transactions involving two residential properties in Brighton Pavilion. They also relate to a shadowy trust, referred to publicly as “Ben Gowlett Trustees”. Even though Mr Gowlett’s will makes no reference to the creation of a trust — whether charitable or not — and no “Ben Gowlett Trust” is registered with the Charity Commission.

In addition, this article provides documentary proof that the money — whether in a trust or not — has never appeared in Labour Party accounts submitted to the Electoral Commission.

Moreover, the money was never considered when party assets were assessed in the run-up to Brighton, Hove and District Labour Party (the City Party) being formed in 2011. Nor, crucially, was taken into consideration — or even mentioned — when the City Party was split back into three CLPs in 2016.

My interest in Labour Party finances in our city began in 2007, shortly after I stood as a council candidate in St Peter’s North Laine and had subsequently become de facto campaign coordinator for Nancy Platts, who had recently been selected parliamentary candidate ready to take on Caroline Lucas in what turned out to be the election that never was!

Nancy and I tried to sit down with John Warmington, then the notoriously-secretive treasurer of Brighton Pavilion CLP, and understand the finances as they might affect a parliamentary campaign.

As so often with Mr Warmington — and, to be fair, his successors in what became the City Party (Peter van Vliet and Edward Crask) — it was a frustrating experience.

It was impossible to discover even the names of what seemed like myriad bank accounts, what money they held, who controlled access to them, and to what purposes they could be used, or had been used. They all seemed connected, yet disconnected. It was baffling — as, I believe, it was intended to be.

I know many party members who joined in the last two years will find it surprising — even shocking — that, in the bad old days, only the most cursory overview of party finances was made available to members.

And then only occasionally, never routinely. Never in detail. The books stayed firmly closed.

It is important to stress here that nothing in this article should be construed as suggesting that anyone mentioned sought personal gain.

What will become clear, however, is that a few individuals exercised power and control. And they used subterfuge and secrecy to help them maintain an undemocratic hold on the party and its finances.

In truth, it is possible that I did not come across the name of Ben Gowlett until I became editor and co-owner of Brighton & Hove Independent, the free weekly newspaper, in the summer of 2013.

As a journalist, I was fascinated by data. Especially “open” data relating to cities like Brighton and Hove.

Increasingly, more data was becoming freely available on line: donations to political parties and party accounts, via the Electoral Commission; property data, via the Land Registry and websites such as OurProperty; and probate data relating to wills and bequests, via the Court Service; the electoral roll, via services such as www.192.com; and details about council tax and individual properties, via the Valuation Office.

The disclosures in this article were brought to light — and can be independently confirmed — by reference to the above online sources. All relevant data can be downloaded, via the links appended in Appendix 1 (to come). As you will see, for the minority of readers who might be interested, I have deliberately chosen to explain in detail where the data can be found; I have also chosen to adopt more of a forensic rather than a strictly journalistic approach.

A flood of donations into the City Party piqued my interest in 2014 — not least because the approach of Mr van Vliet, the then City Party treasurer, made Mr Warmington appear a model of transparency; I seem to recall he made only one formal statement of accounts to an all-member meeting in the whole 12 months of his tenure.

It is worth noting that in 2014 the Labour Party in Brighton and Hove — in all its *entities — received £96,768.49 in donations (“cash” and “non-cash”).

Since Electoral Commission online records began, the Labour Party in Brighton and Hove — in all its *entities — has received £434,875.32.

The annual totals are: 2001 — £4,395; 2002 — £6,093; 2003 — £3,020; 2004 — £8,520; 2005 — £7,270; 2006 — £2,000; 2007 — £27,944.14 (Full disclosure: Including £1,805 from a now-dissolved company in which I was a shareholder); 2008 — £18,711; 2009 — £26,244.11; 2010 — £28,599.50; 2011 — £20,300; 2012 — £10,640; 2013 — £27,563.17; 2014 — £96,768.49; 2015 — £101,843.49; 2016 — £15,963.42; 2017 — £29,000.

*Entities comprise: Brighton and Hove Local Government Committee (£42,145); Brighton Kemptown CLP (£46,511.75); Brighton Pavilion CLP (£33,645); City of Brighton and Hove Labour Party (£237,364.11); Hove CLP (£30,975); Peter Kyle MP (£41,677.09); and Ms Nancy Platts (£2,737.37).

These are large sums, especially in the two years (2013–2015) during which I was editor and co-owner of the most-read newspaper in Brighton and Hove.

I am proud of the articles we published highlighting how all the political parties locally were funded. But, in one regard, I failed. Miserably. And I kick myself for it now.

Why? What did I miss? And what I have now discovered?

That’s where Ben Gowlett comes in.

I had previously discovered that “Ben Gowlett Trustees” — or, in one instance, “Gowlett Trust” — had given £34,230 to the Labour Party in Brighton and Hove:

  • £5,480 to Hove CLP on March 3 2010
  • £2,250 to Hove CLP on March 30 2011
  • £5,000 to City of Brighton and Hove Labour Party on April 20 2012
  • £11,500 to City of Brighton and Hove Labour Party on January 1 2015
  • £10,000 to City of Brighton and Hove Labour Party on December 9 2015

In addition, “Ben Gowlett Trustees” had apparently given £15,000 to “Luton Unitary Local Campaign Forum” on May 10 2011

I assume — but have yet to receive confirmation from the Electoral Commission — that this is a mistake in the commission’s records; I believe it was donated to City of Brighton and Hove Labour Party. I may be wrong.

Finally, “Ben Gowlett Trustees” gave £10,000 to the Labour Party centrally (“Central Party”) on November 5 2012.

In sum, a total of £59,230 was donated between 2010 and 2015 to various Labour Party entities — apparently by “trustees” in the name of Mr Gowlett.

Try as I might, I could not find any formal records of Ben Gowlett Trustees, nor even of Mr Gowlett. My excuse for my failure is that I assumed that he was some post-war benefactor whose bequest had disappeared in the mists of time. (One outcome of this article will, I hope, be some public recognition of his life and his generosity!)

Then, in February, I discovered his will. And that’s where this story really starts.

Benjamin Frederick Dennis Gowlett, of 73 Rose Hill Terrace, Brighton BN1 4JL died on June 19 1990.

He left an estate valued at no more than £115,000 gross, and no more than £100,000 net (equivalent to more than £230,000 today). Other records indicate he was born on December 3 1907; therefore, he was 82 when he died.

The executors of his will — which was probated on July 13 1990 — were Leslie Arthur Hamilton — “a schoolmaster” — of 6 Nursery Close, Mile Oak, Portslade, Brighton, and David Jeremy Harbord Stockman, a partner in what was then Wynne Baxter Godfree solicitors, of 1 Warwick Road, Seaford, East Sussex.

73 Rose Hill Terrace, Brighton BN1 4JJ

Witnesses to the will were Tom Bowers, a commercial artist, and his wife Jo-Ann Bowers, who still live nearby in Rose Hill Terrace, Brighton BN1 4JJ.

They recall signing the will — dated March 2 1990, less than three months before Mr Gowlett’s death — but have no knowledge or memory of its contents, beyond the fact that he left his home to the Labour Party.

Cutting through the legal language, the will is relatively straightforward: Mr Gowlett appointed Mr Hamilton and Mr Stockman — as his “trustees” — to sell his home, but only after the basement was converted, with planning consent, into a self-contained flat. Any fees or other costs should be paid for out of the estate.

It is clear from the will that Mr Gowlett wanted Frederick William Matthews — described in the will as “a friend” — to have the chance of a 25-year lease on the basement flat at a rent of £525 a year.

Subject to this, Mr Gowlett wanted to give the net proceeds of the sale of his home — “and all parts of my estate for the time being unsold” — to Portslade Branch of Hove Constituency Labour Party. (It may be worth noting Mr Gowlett lived in St Peter’s North Laine ward, in Brighton Pavilion constituency, at a time when Brighton and Hove had separate councils.)

What happened next is unclear. Neighbours thought Mr Matthews — born on August 6 1926, some 18 years younger than Mr Gowlett — was a nephew; others who claim knowledge of the two men remember them as partners.

A basement flat was listed in the Valuations Office council tax register from 1993

In the Valuation Office’s first register of council tax bands (in 1993), it appears a self-contained basement flat was newly-created at 73 Rose Hill Terrace.

Mr Matthews, however, ceases to be on the (print-only) electoral roll in Rose Hill Terrace in 1993, when he then appears as the sole occupant of a more accessible ground-floor flat, about 10 minutes’ walk away: Flat 1, Karenza Court, 69–71 Springfield Road, Brighton BN1 6DF.

It is safe to assume that 73 Rose Hill Terrace was sold by whoever formally owned it in 1993. Although records for so long ago are not easily accessed, it appears likely that it was either Portslade Branch Labour Party and/or individuals associated with it or with Mr Gowlett’s executors.

With price-paid Land Registry data available online only from 1995, It is worth noting that a neighbouring house in Rose Hill Terrace was sold in 1996 for £63,500 — suggesting Mr Gowlett’s estate included assets other than the house he and Mr Matthews had lived in together.

Flat 1 (bottom left), Karenza Court, 69–71 Springfield Road, Brighton BN1 6DF

By comparison, a neighbouring flat to the one Mr Matthews moved into in Karenza Court sold in 1995 for just £19,500 — suggesting that if any of the proceeds of Mr Gowlett’s £100,000 estate were used to buy a new home for Mr Matthews, it was only a fraction of the money raised by the sale of 73 Rose Hill Terrace.

As mentioned earlier, quarter of a century on, it is not easy to access the Land Registry documents showing who owned Flat 1 while Mr Matthews was living there.

Listed in Companies House records, however, are shareholders of Karenza Court Management Company (Brighton) Limited (Company Number: 01968331), a company incorporated on December 4 1985 to manage the block of flats on behalf of the residents.

For Flat 1, four individuals owned the shareholding during the period in which Mr Matthews was the occupant: LA Hamilton; SS John; DK Turner; and SL Collier.

These four individuals — at the time, among the best-known senior figures in Portslade and in Hove CLP (along with Ivor Caplin, who became a borough councillor in 1991) — remained shareholders of the management company until March 23 2006, when the flat was sold for £111,000, just under a year after the death of Mr Matthews (at the age of 78, on April 30 2005).

In his will — dated February 21 2000 — Mr Matthews left his estate to his brother, Thomas Henry Matthews, who lived in Islington, north London. In Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency.

Interestingly, Mr Matthews’s estate was valued at a gross value of of no more than £263,000, but a net value of no more than £30,000. This often indicates that a significant mortgage and/or personal loan had to be repaid out of the estate.

It was, however, to be another five years after Mr Matthews’s death that “Ben Gowlett Trustees” made its first donation, according to Electoral Commission declarations: £5,480, to Hove CLP on March 3 2010.

Perhaps now is the time to give a little information about the four Hove CLP members in Portslade — all of them local councillors in their time— who were listed as shareholders of Karenza Court Management Company (Brighton) Limited:

  • Councillor Leslie Hamilton: A former mayor of Hove — like his father, also called Leslie — and member of the now-defunct Portslade Council. In the latest register of interests for members of Brighton & Hove City Council, Cllr Hamilton does not mention any trust named after Ben Gowlett; the only bodies of which he says he is in “a position of control or management” are as vice-chair of Mile Oak Football Club and chair of Catherine Martin Trust (which provides financial assistance to children and young adults who are continuing in full-time education);
  • Sue John: A former councillor for South Portslade, a former deputy leader of Brighton & Hove City Council, and a former chair of Hove CLP, she lost her council seat in 2007. The former office manager for Ivor Caplin, when he was Labour MP for Hove, was a friend and mentor of Peter Kyle before he became the Labour MP for Hove. Former colleagues say she is no longer a member of the Labour Party;
  • Don Turner: Initially a member East Sussex County Council, Mr Turner became a representative for Hove and Portslade in 1985; he became a city councillor for North Portslade in 1997, before standing down in 2007; he was twice the Labour Party parliamentary candidate in Hove in 1987 and 1992. Mr Turner died in March 2014;
  • Steve Collier: A councillor for South Portslade from 1991, Mr Collier resigned from the Labour Party in September 2002 after numerous rebellions against the Labour Group line in important council votes — and after he had not been selected to stand again for Labour. He said: “In principle and practice I could not endorse or support the out-of-touch line the council’s administration was taking.” Mr Collier sat as independent councillor until the council elections in May 2003, when the number of South Portslade councillors reduced from three to two; he came fourth, with Labour’s two candidates — Sue John and Leslie Hamilton — being elected. Inexplicably, he remained a shareholder in Karenza Court Management Company (Brighton) Limited for another three years.
Councillor Leslie Hamilton

For self-evident reasons, the main focus of my investigations has been Cllr Hamilton, who remains lead member for finance on Brighton & Hove City Council and is one of the closest lieutenants of Labour leader Councillor Warren Morgan.

Councillor Alan Robins

Cllr Hamilton was one of Mr Gowlett’s executors and is now one of only two Labour members with direct access to the account holding what remains of Mr Gowlett’s donation; the other is Councillor Alan Robins, Cllr Hamilton’s fellow South Portslade councillor. Cllr Robins makes no mention of any trust named after Ben Gowlett in the latest register of interests for members of Brighton & Hove City Council.

Since I began my investigations, Cllr Hamilton has reportedly accepted — under questioning by Labour colleagues — that there is, in fact, no formal Ben Gowlett Trust. Which appears to contradict declarations made to the Electoral Commission, to which “Ben Gowlett Trustees” have claimed it to be a “permissible donor exempt trust”.

Officers in Portslade Branch Labour Party — where Cllr Hamilton is currently treasurer and which had fewer than 50 members when the City Party was created in 2011— say the preferred description now is the Ben Gowlett “legacy”.

Under pressure, Cllr Hamilton has also claimed about £61,000 remains from the legacy.

From the days of photocopying and faxing — before the era of spreadsheets and websites — many documents have inevitably disappeared. One, however, has emerged. It is as interesting as it is tantalising.

The one-page document, dated February 3 1998, appears to be the minutes of a meeting of “trustees” attended by Ms John and the late Cllr Turner.

It clearly implies some relationship between “theTrust funds” and Portslade Branch Labour Party — although it notes that “trustees” have the final say over the use of any funds. The relationship is perhaps not a transparently straightforward or direct one.

A key paragraph states: “The rational (sic) behind this recommendation is that the Trustees believe that as things stand, it would be possible for a very small group to ‘Hi jack’ (sic) these funds through perfectly legitimate means.”

The document also notes the resignation of Cllr Hamilton as a trustee — “accepted by Portslade Branch Labour Party” — but adds: “The trustees agreed that it is important that Les Hamilton be a Trustee as he probably knows the wishes of Ben Gowlett better than any of us.”

It is time to turn to how various Labour Party “accounting units” have accounted for the Ben Gowlett legacy.

Hove CLP appears never to have submitted any accounts to the Electoral Commission since its foundation in 2001, presumably because its annual income or expenditure never exceeded the statutory threshold of £25,000.

I have no information about annual accounts shared with Hove CLP members for 2011 or for previous years, but one of the most respected Hove CLP treasurers of pre-City-Party years has insisted he never had any knowledge of the Ben Gowlett legacy.

In contrast, however, Brighton, Hove and District Labour Party (the City Party) submitted four sets of annual accounts to the Electoral Commission — for 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 — until its disaggregation into three CLPs early last year. In addition, it published abbreviated accounts for 2012.

The crucial question is: How did the City Party account for the Ben Gowlett legacy?

The answer is: It didn’t.

Edward Crask — a prominent Hove CLP member who likes to tell anyone and everyone that he was a Labour Party organiser for 20 years — was the treasurer responsible for the 2016 accounts, submitted on April 28 2017. The “total current assets” for the whole of the City Party is given as only £64,206; net assets are given as £60,531, less than the £61,000 that Cllr Hamilton now says remains of the Ben Gowlett legacy.

Edward Crask reported “branch balances” of only £20,421 at the end of 2015

For the 2015 accounts, Mr Crask followed a slightly different approach and listed “branch balances” separately, giving a figure of £20,421. Clearly, these branch balances did not include £60,000+ for Portslade Branch Labour Party.

For the 2014 accounts, Mr Crask’s predecessor as City Party treasurer — Peter van Vliet — put “branch balances” at £28,599

For the 2013 accounts, Mr van Vliet reported that “branch balances” were only £18,276.

Bank and cash accounts totalled £37,511 in the first City Party accounts in 2012

The abbreviated accounts for 2012, the first for the new City Party — which did not have to be submitted to the Electoral Commission, Mr Warmington reported bank and cash accounts to total £37,511 (and compared it with a figure of £34,456 for 2011).

No independent audit was commissioned or conducted

It is worth noting that when the NEC-imposed steering committee held its inaugural meeting on November 15 2016, members — including Mr Crask — agreed to an independent audit by an accountancy firm of Labour Party accounts in Brighton and Hove; Simon Burgess, a prominent Hove CLP member, highlighted the possible cost. No independent audit was ever commissioned or conducted.

So what do we know now, several months after I began my investigation?

Significantly, general committee members of Hove CLP were, on Thursday, March 29, given a draft set of accounts for 2017, the first full set since the demise of the City Party.

They were drafted after Cllr Hamilton became aware of my close interest.

And surprise, surprise!

The 2017 draft accounts for Hove CLP report “branch assets” as £70,137.05 — almost all of them now associated with Portslade Branch Labour Party

The branch assets — in Hove alone! — are now put at £70,137.05, for 2017; interestingly — and retrospectively and/or inaccurately — the figure for 2016 is put at £68,309.56.

In addition, in the notes to the draft accounts, there is a “Portslade BG” line showing expenditure of £665.20; if this refers to “Portslade Ben Gowlett”, it confirms what Cllr Hamilton has told branch colleagues about the “trust” making small gifts/grants — for example, to some (unspecified) branches or groups. Strangely, “Portslade BG” does not report any income — for example, from interest payments.

Given all of the above, the draft accounts have not yet been approved. Indeed members were told last week they are “sub judice”, because the subject of the Ben Gowlett legacy is the subject of a referral to the Labour Party’s legal department.

Ivor Caplin — a former Portslade councillor and close friend of Peter Kyle, the Hove MP — was quick to assure members everything was above board. He avowed that both he and Mr Kyle had received funds from the trust (For the record, none of the donations registered to the Electoral Commission by the “trust” refer to Mr Caplin or to Mr Kyle; nor do Mr Kyle’s entries in the MPs’ Register of Financial Interests make any mention of the “trust” ).

More than two weeks ago, on Tuesday, March 23, I asked Cllr Hamilton 10 questions about what I had discovered; in case it helped, I copied the questions to Cllr Morgan’s political assistant.

I have not yet received a response. If, following publication, I receive a response, I will publish it here.

These are the questions I asked:

  • When was the “Ben Gowlett Trust” created and who have served as trustees over which periods? What evidence can you provide that it is a “Permissible Donor Exempt Trust” under Section 162 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000?
  • How much money resulted from Ben Gowlett’s will and what has happened to it?
  • How has this money been accounted for and to whom: Portslade Branch Labour Party, Hove Constituency Labour Party, Brighton, Hove and District Labour Party, and/or any other Labour Party unit?
  • How much money remains as a result of Mr Gowlett’s will and who currently has authorised access to it?
  • Which individuals — in addition to yourself — have decided how proceeds from Mr Gowlett’s estate have been disbursed, including the seven donations totalling £59,230 detailed (all since March 3 2010) in Electoral Commission records?
  • Are you willing to provide to Hove CLP and the Brighton and Hove Local Campaign Forum with a full set of bank statements and trustees’ minutes to substantiate answers to the previous questions above? If not, why not?
  • When was 73 Rose Hill Terrace sold following Mr Gowlett’s death and how much was it sold for?
  • When was Flat 1, Karenza Court, 69–71 Springfield Road, Brighton BN1 6DF, bought — by whom, and for how much?
  • When was Flat 1, Karenza Court, 69–71 Springfield Road, Brighton BN1 6DF, sold — by whom, and for how much?
  • What arrangements have been made relating to potential Capital Gains Tax liability?

In last week’s draft accounts, Jane Gateley, the Hove CLP treasurer, notes under “Legacy issues”, the following: “Hove and Portslade CLP, along with Kemptown CLP and Pavilion CLP, will need to work with the Labour Party Regional Office to complete any outstanding legacy issues and balance transfers from central accounting units during 2018.”

Many members will regard that as an understatement.

Appendix 1:

An index of links to the evidence and data I used to validate the blogpost above:

Pro-Corbyn. Elected secretary of Brighton, Hove and District Labour Party; votes annulled by NEC; suspended Oct 2016; re-instated Feb 2019. Ex-Fleet Street.