Grant Shapps's woes grow as he faces investigation

Tory chairman accused of misleading the public with false name will be investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority.

In his capacity as Conservative chairman, Grant Shapps will welcome the media to his party's conference in Birmingham this weekend, so it's unfortunate that he's increasingly a figure of ridicule. As Ed Miliband caustically observed in his conference speech:

We’ve got a Party Chairman who writes books about how to beat the recession, under a false name. Really, I’m not making this up; I’m really not making this up. I mean I have to say if I was Chairman of the Conservative Party, I’d have a false name too.

That false name was "Michael Green" (and/or "Sebastian Fox") and, following a complaint by blogger The Plashing Vole, Shapps is now under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA will respond to claims that Shapps's website, HowToCorp (which now exists only as a help page for existing users), misled the public by implying that  "Sebastian Fox" or "Michael Green" were "real people", and that the glowing testimonies they attracted were "genuine".

Green was presented as a successful businessman with a personal fortune of $28 million (£17 million) who could make customers "$20,000 in 20 days" through the software package, TrafficPaymaster (while also providing a Partridge-esque guide on how to "bounce back" from recession), or offer them their money back. An ASA spokesman told the Vole:

We intend to deal with your complaint under our formal investigations procedure, which means that we will ask HowToCorp to comment on the complaint that the ad misleadingly implies Sebastian Fox or Michael Green are real people, and that the testimonies are not genuine, and to send evidence to support the claims. We will then draft a recommendation and refer your complaint to the ASA council for adjudication.

A spokesman for Shapps, who stepped down from the company in 2008, said: "Mr Shapps hasn't been involved with this company for four and a half years. These websites are no longer online and any blogger can make a spurious complaint about any website, which then has to be investigated. This is in the hands of the ASA."

In the absence of Andrew Mitchell, who has elected to stay away from the Tory gathering, it is Shapps who will be the media's prime target. Of the former, David Davis observed that it would be "very, very difficult" for him to do his job. Could the same now be said of Shapps?

Conservative chairman Grant Shapps adopted the alias "Michael Green" for his internet business HowToCorp. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
Show Hide image

"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496