Chris Philp questioned over wife's alleged corporate espionage in fiery South Croydon election hustings

Chris Philp at the General Election hustings
-Credit: (Image: Harrison Galliven)

Voters challenged candidates vying for the Croydon South parliamentary seat at a heated hustings debate last night. Residents at Coulsdon Community Centre quizzed the Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and Workers Party candidates during a somewhat tense meeting that covered everything from Brexit to knife crime.

The incumbent MP and policing minister Chris Philp kicked off the evening’s proceedings before being followed by Ben Taylor of Labour, who many consider as his main challenger. Richard Howard of the Lib Dems and the Worker’s Party’s Kulsum Hussin also participated on the night.

There were notable no-shows from the Green Party and Reform UK candidate, who claimed prior engagements kept them from attending. The perennial independent candidate Mark Samuel was also not in attendance.

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Candidates for the Croydon South seat, (left to right) Ben Taylor (Labour), Chris Philp (Conservative), Kulsum Hussin (Workers), Richard Howard (Lib Dems)
Candidates for the Croydon South seat, (left to right) Ben Taylor (Labour), Chris Philp (Conservative), Kulsum Hussin (Workers), Richard Howard (Lib Dems) -Credit:Harrison Galliven

After all four candidates had made their opening speeches, the floor was opened up by questions from the audience. It did not take long to realise that many in the room had already made their minds up; local Conservative councillor Ian Parker was particularly enthusiastic whenever Mr Philp finished a speech.

The first question concerned the cost of living crisis, and what each candidate would do to address it. Mr Philp, up first, was quick to acknowledge the external pressure of the pandemic and global conflicts but followed up by reassuring the audience that inflation had come back down to two per cent, which Mr Philp reminded the audience was “lower than the Euro zone and America”.

Mr Philp also mentioned the triple lock on pensions, central to the Conservative campaign. The 10 per cent minimum wage rise was also acknowledged. Mr Philp gave an optimistic finish, saying “It’s been a tough few years around the world, but from the figures I have just given, you can see that the pressures are easing, the plan is working and much better days lie ahead.”

Mr Taylor immediately countered Mr Philp’s optimism, insisting “These stats don’t matter.” He added: “What matters is how much food you can afford to buy to feed your family, what matters is how much your mortgage payment has gone up because of the Conservative chaos over the previous years.”

Ben Taylor at the election hustings
Ben Taylor moved to the constituency with his young family five years ago -Credit:Harrison Galliven

Mr Howard, who was the Lib Dem’s candidate for Croydon mayor in 2022, followed up with his rebuke of the Tories. He focused on Mr Philp’s time spent as Chief Secretary to the Treasury under Liz Truss, during which he said: “He sent the economy crashing, he sent the pound plummeting and he sent interest rates and your mortgage payments skyrocketing.”

Mr Howard also told the audience how food prices are already 25 per cent higher as a result of Liz Truss's premiership and that his work as a financial advisor had exposure had exposed him to the sharp end of these economic pressures. Ms Hussin of the Workers Party rounded off the answers by focusing on wealth disparity and the lack of social housing.

She said: “I believe the cost of living crisis has made the inequity between people huge, the disparity between the people that don’t have any money and the people that do have some money is huge.” Affordable housing was next up. This was a particularly apt topic for Coulsdon residents following the sale of Red Clover Gardens in the town centre to a housing company last week.

The 157 flats were built by Croydon Council’s own Brick By Brick company last year and intended to provide social housing for those in the borough. However, Brick By Brick’s collapse and the site’s sale for £38m to Regen Capital has left many fearing that affordable housing is not being properly addressed in Croydon.

Richard Howard speaking at the election hustings
Richard Howard previously served in the British Army before becoming a financial advisor -Credit:Harrison Galliven

Mr Howard began his appraisal with some home truths about wealth disparity in the UK. He told the largely older crowd that “approximately two-thirds of our wealth is held by people aged 55 and above and a lot of that wealth is property.” He went on to say: “What we’ve seen at the moment is that because average weekly earnings are not rising in line with property inflation, then our houses become less and less affordable.”

He also questioned whether the current designation of what counts as affordable housing could actually be called affordable by many people. Currently, affordable housing is anything at 80 per cent of market rent.

Mr Taylor took to attacking the Tories national record on house building, saying they have “failed year on year on year to meet their targets”. Mr Philp drew applause from the crowd for holding up the record of the former Labour-run Council, especially the controversies surrounding Brick By Brick.

Before giving his policy proposals, Mr Philp also attempted to assuage fears of ‘overdevelopment’ in the borough’s leafier south by insisting that “Croydon town centre was the right place to build tower blocks”.

One of the first shocks of the night came when the Worker’s candidate said she would trust the Conservatives more than Keir Starmer. Ms Hussin, Mr Philp and Mr Howard expressed concern over the Labour leader when asked about his trustworthiness.

All candidates, except for Howard who admitted he lived 200 yards from Croydon South, live in the constituency. Mr Philp, who took over the seat in 2015 after his predecessor Sir Richard Ottaway stood down, lives with his Elizabeth and their twins in Coulsdon.

Hustings crowd
The crowd at the hustings was made up by members of the public, activists and local councillors -Credit:Harrison Galliven

Perhaps the most fiery moment of the evening came when an investigative journalist questioned Philp on whether he is a shareholder in any of his wife’s companies. This question referred to the recent allegations of corporate espionage against Mrs Philp revealed by The Guardian earlier this week.

The article reports she denies allegations that she used trade secrets gained from her former employer and is countersuing them over accusations of cyber-attacking the website of the company she subsequently founded.

After some pushback from the moderator, Charlie King, and cries of discontent by Conservative supporters in the room Mr Philp eventually gave an answer acknowledging the ongoing case but did not confirm or deny that he was a stakeholder. He also told the journalist: “I think it's pretty out of order to be attacking my wife,” before shouting at him to “shut up” so he could complete his answer.

The candidates were also challenged on whether they supported the ULEZ expansion. The policy, introduced in August 2023, was met with considerable backlash in areas of South Croydon where TfL provision is scant.

All except Mr Philp said they support the policy, with Mr Taylor taking the lead by highlighting what he saw as the importance of clean air in the borough. However, he agreed with the panel and admitted “it could have been rolled out in a different way”.

The only other memorable exchanges came following a question on whether the parties supported Labour’s controversial private school policy, in which they pledged to end their VAT exemption and business rate relief.

Mr Philp, Mr Howard and most surprisingly Ms Hussin came out in opposition to the policy, saying it punished “hard-working” parents who wanted a better education for their children. Howard added: “The money from this policy is going to raise is going to cause more problems by bringing more people from the private sector” to mainstream schooling.

Coulsdon Community Centre
Coulsdon Community Centre hosted last night's hustings event -Credit:Harrison Galliven

Mr Taylor prefaced the defence of the policy by saying “I completely understand why it’s not going to be popular.” He then told the crowd of the dire state of state schooling, where “some teachers have had to start buying their own stationery.”

He went on to say: “I cannot have statements saying if you’re putting your children through independent schools it's because you care more or you work harder, because I simply do not think that is true.”

Knife crime and concerns over youth safety were also addressed. As the current Policing minister, Mr Philp trumped the use of facial recognition in Croydon town centre as well as the use of hot spot policing.

However, the mood from many in the room was that policing has suffered over the past few years. At one point, Mr Taylor rhetorically asked the crowd: “When was the last time you saw police patrolling on foot through South Croydon?!”

The night concluded with a question from the moderator, in which he asked the candidates for one benefit of Brexit. Mr Philp was the only candidate who tried to give a positive, but was met with jeers and laughs from the crowd.

Defence, potholes, and small business support were also discussed on the night. Throughout the hustings, there was no mention of the environment, social care and the relationship between local and national government.

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