In early October 1988, a Labour researcher walked into the offices of the "Members Secretariat" in City Hall. He asked to see the "Statutory register of members’ Interests".
This register, enforced by the 1972 Local Government Act as well as the council’s own rulebook, had to be updated every year. Councillors were required to fill in a form, setting out in detail all their pecuniary (financial) interests, as well as those of their spouse. The details were then copied into the register.
The researcher began checking to see what details the new Tory leader Eric Pickles had entered. Starting at 1988, he began to work back through the register.
It soon became clear that Eric Pickles had not bothered to fill in the register for 9 years. Indeed, the only entry Pickles had ever made was shortly after he had first joined the council in May 1979. What Pickles had then declared proved fascinating.
Eric Pickles gave his job as "Office holder, research work" and his employers as "The Conservative party, 32 Smith Square, London". By tradition a failure to update an entry meant that the original entry still stood.
This appeared to confirm exactly what the opposition had been claiming for some time - Eric Pickles was simply a "tool" of central government.
Local T & A reporter Robert Schopen tackled Pickles about this. Pickles dismissed the allegations saying;
"I made a mistake, I have forgotten to make my declaration of interests up to date. That form was filled in when I first joined the council when the Party paid for me to take a year’s sabbatical off work to fulfil my duties as national Chairman of the Young Conservatives. To tell the truth I was convinced I had updated it, but I have never actually looked at the register. I do not work for Conservative Central Office, and I am not taking my instructions directly from Mrs. Thatcher."
If Pickles thought the matter would rest there he was mistaken. That short statement was to set researchers off on a long mystery tour through the private finances of the Tory leader.
Researchers were quick to spot a number of errors in Pickles’ short statement. For instance, how could Pickles have taken "a year’s sabbatical off work to fulfil my duties as national Chairman of the Young Conservatives" in 1979, when he wasn’t elected to that position until 1980 - one year later? Furthermore, researchers soon discovered that Pickles had in fact updated his "Declaration of Interests" 6 years after he had first joined the council.
In early 1985 the council’s Members Liaison Officer Tessa Winchcombe had phoned Pickles and told him that he had been neglecting his yearly returns for the register. On January 11th 1985 Pickles scribbled a note on City Hall notepaper and passed it through. It read;
"Following our telephone conversation I confirm that to the best of my belief nothing has changed since my last declaration of Interest.
"I am afraid I did not realise they had to be confirmed yearly. Sorry if this caused you any problem.
"Best wishes, Eric Pickles."
This would appear to confirm that in 1985 Pickles was still employed by Conservative Central office!
Shortly after being quizzed by Schopen, Pickles filled in his register entry for the second time in 9 years. He now gave his occupation as "Self employed lawyer" working in "Industrial and Employment law". He added "no work in Bradford" as if to emphasise there could be no clash of interests between his private and political life.
Indeed, Pickles had insisted to Schopen that he had always publicly stated he was an employment lawyer working mainly in the North West. Records bear this claim out.
When he first stood as a councillor in 1979, Pickles had described himself on his election manifesto as "A Lawyer" only weeks before he filled in the council register claiming to be an employee of the Tory party.
Other public statements over the 9 years he had served as a councillor showed him describing himself as "a lawyer".
Many journalists had noted that Pickles was a "solicitor". This is not surprising since the rather vague sounding term "lawyer" is in fact quite specific. A "lawyer" is "someone qualified to practice law" and means either a solicitor or a barrister. Since Pickles had never claimed to be a barrister, journalists naturally took it that Pickles’ reference to being a "lawyer" meant he was a qualified solicitor. It was well known that Pickles had studied to be a solicitor in the early 1970’s.
There was just one small problem with all this - Eric Pickles had failed to qualify as a solicitor. And anyone who describes themselves as such without the necessary qualifications commits a criminal offence!The Solicitors Act 1974, Section 21 reads;
"Unqualified Person Not To Pretend To Be A Solicitor.
"Any unqualified person who wilfully pretends to be, or takes or uses any name, title, addition or description implying that he is qualified or recognised by law as qualified to act as a solicitor shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine....
On October 25th 1988, as councillors gathered at City Hall for the first council meeting under Pickles leadership, a "KDIS Special Bulletin" entitled "The secret life of Eric Pickles" was circulated. The bulletin - the first of 5 profiles on the new Tory leadership front bench team, produced by 1 IN 12 Publications - spelt out these facts.
An angry Labour councillor Alan Rye demanded Pickles come clean. A furious Eric Pickles refused to respond, and later told journalists he would sue the authors of the bulletin. 2 days afterwards his bluff was called when Leeds Other Paper expanded the allegations in a full page article "Who pays Pickles?" The article also wondered when Pickles found time for his mysterious "law" work, as council records showed that Pickles was working at City Hall full time, consistently drawing the daily "attendance allowance".
Similarly, Pickles had no "office" for his law work - his "business" telephone number was in fact the number of his City Hall office. Council rules strictly forbid councillors from using City Hall resources for their private business interests.
Pickles never claimed "loss of earnings" to which he was entitled, and which would add up to a considerable amount if his "law work" claim was genuine. However, in order to claim these he would have to give details of his mystery clients.
He never advertised as a "lawyer" and, despite detailed and protracted enquiries by researchers amongst legal sources in the North West, no-one who had ever heard of Eric Pickles "the lawyer" could be found.
Despite his threats, Pickles never sued. Instead, that weekend he gave a number of interviews to friendly national newspapers and tried to set the record straight.
Pickles told lan Hamilton Fazey of the Financial Times that he was "a freelance legal consultant" and "made a good living from advising solicitors on employment law and industrial injuries". He admitted he had never completed his "Part two Law Society exams" and thus was not qualified as a solicitor. As to when he found time for his "law work" Pickles explained;
"I don’t need much sleep. I rise between 4 and 5 am and do a lot of paperwork and writing before 9 o’clock. Then I go out on any business I have to do."
Far from satisfying curious researchers Pickles’ statement only served to stretch their credulity. Further efforts to identify Pickles’ mystery clients proved fruitless.
With so little information available most newspapers settled on the description of Pickles as "a man of mystery".
Shortly after the Leeds Other Paper article in October 1988, Pickles had told an L.O.P. journalist; "Anyway, I’m starting a new job soon." He refused to expand on this and so researchers waited expectantly for his next entry in the council’s Register of Interests.
In June 1989 Eric Pickles duly updated the record. He wrote;
- Employment: "consultant in Employment practice".
- Business: "Industrial accidents, Employment law (thru solicitors firms), Training work, computer software."
Once more there was nothing specific.
The Local Government Act of 1972 had stated clearly that the register should contain details of a member’s "...employment of a specified company or other body, or that he or his spouse is a partner or in the employment of a specified person..."
However, the council’s solicitor Allen Sykes was quick to rebut the suggestion that Eric Pickles’ entry was "completely worthless with regard to the 1972 act."
"The disclosure is a valid disclosure within the terms of the legislation" he said.
So what is the truth behind the source of Eric Pickles’ mysterious income? Who are his shady paymasters?
In order to attempt to answer these questions it is first necessary to delve deeper into the private life of the Tory leader.
Eric Jack Pickles was born on April 20th 1952 at Keighley's Victoria Hospital. He was the only child of Constance Joyce Pickles and Jack Pickles - a retail fish and fruit salesman.
The Pickles family were then living in a small house at 22 Blossom Street (known locally as Thorn St.) in the Park Wood area of Keighley, overlooking a grimy industrial area of the town.
In 1963, when young Eric was 11 years old, Jack and Constance took over a small general store called "Smiths Store" on the nearby Woodhouse estate. The store stood at the top of the growing council estate and business was brisk. The family lived in at the shop.
The constant access to sweets and treats for young Eric must have proved tempting, and no doubt added to his weight problem. Although these were fairly humble circumstances, none the less being the son of a shopkeeper set Eric a notch above those youngsters around him.
When Eric was 16 years old Keighley became one of the first areas in the country to adopt the new Comprehensive education system. It was a revolution that Keighley was ill prepared for. The 2 grammar schools, Keighley Boys’ and Keighley Girls’, were made coeducational and the 11 Plus exams abolished, but teaching methods changed little.
Keighley Girls’ school changed it’s, name to Greenhead Grammar (although of course now a comprehensive) and a handful of boys took the first steps across it’s grand entrance in 1967. Eric Pickles was amongst that group. It must have been a daunting experience for that first group of boys, entering a new world where they found themselves vastly outnumbered by girls at ease with their surroundings.
But it was also a time when the "liberal" tradition was in ascendancy. When Eric entered the sixth form they had just acquired a new "common room" where mini-skirted girls and a handful of long haired boys in flared trousers could relax as "adults".
In the same year at school with Eric was a young girl called Irene Coates. They didn’t know it at the time, but the couple would later marry.
In the year immediately below Eric was another precocious and podgy youth who would follow closely in the footsteps of Eric Pickles. His name was Peter Gilmour.
At the age of 16 Eric Pickles was well read;
"I’d already read ‘Das Kapital' and Trotskys' ‘History of the Russian Revolution’. Selsdon Man was in fashion. It was an exciting time, riots and so on."
It was at this time that Pickles joined the Keighley Young Conservatives:
"I joined because of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. I was so shocked by the tanks. It was not the best way of fighting Breznev, but it made me feel better" he said.
Keighley had a particularly strong Conservative association. The Tories had won control of Keighley town hall and retained power until local government reorganisation in 1974 took Keighley into the Bradford Metropolitan District.
A brand new Conservative Association headquarters had just been opened at Churchill House in the town centre. The formal opening in October 1967 was performed by Tory opposition leader Edward Heath.
Keighley's Young Conservatives’ branch was the strongest in the country with a membership of over 200. Eric Pickles found it a "marvellous organisation, very friendly" and soon began to rise through it’s ranks. At the Keighley Y.C.’s annual meeting on Monday January 18th 1971, Eric Pickles was elected deputy chairman of the organisation. He was then 18 years old.
Pickles was having a good time. The Young Conservatives ran a disco at Churchill House - one of few activities for under 18’s in the town. It was always full and the young Eric Pickles was a regular attender. But the discos also brought in "skinheads and bikers" and the evenings often ended with fights. In 1971 the Keighley Conservative association felt it necessary to stop the Y.C. discos, even though they were annually bringing in £1500 for party coffers (they would later try to reinstate them, only to close them down again in 1974 due to "violence").
In January 1972, 19 year old Eric Pickles was elected as chairman of the Keighley Young Conservatives. In his inaugural speech he chose Unemployment and the Aire Valley Trunk Road as his topics - both of which would still haunt him 16 years later when he took control of Bradford council. "Unemployment is an economic and human waste. A trunk road would enable us to stop this alarming trend of redundancies by making Keighley that bit more attractive to firms wishing to expand."
He went on to argue that Keighley needed the motorlinks with the Euroports at Humberside and the Greater London area to attract industry. He said that most young people had to leave Keighley to find a good job and all that was left was the older people.
"Has Keighley only to look forward to the prospect of becoming the Geriatric Mecca of the 1990’s?" he asked.
Eric Pickles’ rise through the local Tory party ranks was meteoric. He went on to become chairman of the Yorkshire area Young Conservatives and in 1974 he was elected onto the National Executive of the National Conservative party as one of 4 delegates for the Yorkshire area National Union of Conservative and Unionist associations.
In order to appreciate Pickles’ standing within the Tory party, it is important to understand the party’s structure and where the spheres of influence lie.
The Conservative party is a very different organisation to other mainstream political parties. The Tory party itself consists of it’s members of Parliament and is ruled firmly from the top. The rest of the organisation has no direct say over policies.
The various Conservative associations around the country combine to form the National Union which has it’s annual conference once a year when Tory ministers and the Prime Minister make key note speeches. But the debates are very much stage managed and, unlike the Labour party for instance, have no direct effect on party policy.
The governing body of the National Union is it’s Central Council, which also meets once a year in a sort of "mini conference".
The National Executive committee (around 100 delegates) is made up of representatives of provincial areas, officers of the Parliamentary party and officers from Conservative Central Office. It meets every 2 or 3 months. Again this body does not direct government policy, but runs the party "machine". It approves or rejects affiliation applications from constituency associations, prepares agendas for the annual conference and vets resolutions submitted by local branches.
However, it also serves a very important "unofficial" function; it funnels concerns from local constituencies to Parliament, and feeds back government directives to the constituencies.
The key link between the National Executive and Downing Street is the Conservative party Chairman, who runs Conservative Central Office.
When Pickles attended his first meeting of the National Executive, the Party Chairman was Lord Thorneycroft. But Eric was to see several Party Chairmen come and go; Cecil Parkinson, John Selwyn Gummer, Norman Tebbit, Peter Brooke and Kenneth Baker. All were influential ministers under Margaret Thatcher.
Pickles was to sit on the National Executive right through from 1974 until he took control of Bradford council and beyond, with only a 2 year break. This was to have a vital effect on his political career, giving him a direct line to government ministers and, indeed, the Prime Minister herself.
Meanwhile Eric Pickles was also turning his attention to his future employment prospects. Armed with his 'O' and ‘A’ levels, Pickles studied on a six month course at Leeds Polytechnic Law Department, where he passed his Law Society "Part One" examinations in 1974. Then, in his early twenties, he got himself a position with top local solicitors Last Suddards where he began serving his 4 years’ "articles". This involved doing the basic clerical work for a wage about equivalent to a student grant.
During the first 2 years of his "articles" Pickles sat his Law Society "Part Two" exams, and failed. This in itself was not surprising; these exams were notoriously tough and it wasn’t unusual for aspiring solicitors to fail on their first attempt. Pickles still had 2 years ahead of him for further attempts.
Meanwhile he continued his work in the Keighley Tory party, entertaining at Young Conservative supper debates with motions such as "The liberated woman has failed to take her place in society."
On September 11th 1976, 24 year old Eric Pickles married Irene Coates at St. Michael’s Parish church in Linton-in-Craven, just over the border in North Yorkshire. Irene was then living in Colne, Lancashire and worked at the Grassington branch of Barclays bank. The couple had got to know each other through the Keighley Young Conservatives.
The newlyweds bought a brand new bungalow at 36 Hillside Avenue in Oakworth for just over £7000. A perk of Irene’s job meant the couple could benefit from a much reduced interest rate on their mortgage.
For Eric Pickles life was sweet and the future looked promising. His wife Irene was a quiet and unassuming woman who patiently tolerated her husband’s long political absences and rarely quizzed him about his political life.
In February 1978 his work with the Keighley Young Conservatives was acknowledged with an award for the "Best branch of the Young Conservatives". The decision was made by a committee chaired by the leader of the Tory party in opposition - Margaret Hilda Thatcher. 2 months later Eric Pickles was elected as the youngest ever National vice-chairman of the Young Conservatives, aged only 25.
Eric Pickles was now at a crossroads. As he served 2 consecutive years as National Y.C. vice-chairman he found himself devoting more and more time to politics. This had a detrimental effect on his work as an articled clerk and his continued attempts to pass his "Part Two" exams. A decision as to his future had to be made. He opted for a full-time commitment to politics.
In mid 1978, after finishing his 4 years’ articles without qualifying, and shortly after the death of his mother, Eric Pickles packed in his work at Last Suddards and gave up any hope of becoming a solicitor.
He was by then spending a good deal of time in London and eventually took on a full-time job as a research officer for Conservative Central Office. This was a voluntary and, according to former Party Chairman Peter Brooke, unpaid position. But Pickles received generous expenses.
As vice-chairman of the National Young Conservatives and a member of their Youth Service committee, Pickles embarked on drafting a new "Youth and Community" bill. When it was finished Pickles persuaded Trevor Skeet, Tory MP for Bedford, to push the bill through Parliament.
The bill was aimed at creating wider consultation between central and local government and voluntary youth organisations. It was introduced to Parliament by Skeet in June 1979 and made it’s way through a number of stages before disappearing altogether in July 1980.
Never the less, the experience brought Pickles directly into the Parliamentary arena.
As Pickles began his research work he had no thoughts of entering local government. But, in early 1979 the councillor for Pickles’ local Worth Valley ward, Bill Proom, decided to turn his attentions full-time to the County council. Proom announced that he was standing down as a member of Bradford council.
In April 1979 Pickles’ local ward party met to pick a successor for Proom. According to Pickles;
"I joined Bradford council completely by accident. I was chosen by the ward to fight an election in my absence. When I arrived late for the meeting I was told. I was mildly surprised but thought it might be interesting."
Pickles won the safe Tory seat in May 1979 with a majority of 500. But he had little interest at that time in local Politics and continued to direct all his efforts at national level. Margaret Thatcher had been elected as Prime Minister on the very same day Pickles was elected to Bradford council and national politics was about to lurch radically to the right.
Politically it was an exciting time for Pickles, even though he was still then poles apart from "Thatcherism".
At the annual conference of the National Young Conservatives in early February 1980, held in Scarborough, Eric Pickles realised one of his ambitions by being elected as the youngest ever chairman. It was a triumph for the "liberal" majority of the 30,000 strong Young Conservatives.
But the newly installed Prime Minister, now presiding over a right-wing resurgence in Tory politics, showed her feelings by snubbing the Young Conservative’s conference altogether. In a break with tradition she failed to show up.
The Young Conservatives had been founded in 1947 as a successor to the Junior Imperial and Constitutional League, to become the largest political youth movement in Britain and the second largest in Europe. Becoming chairman of the Y.C.’s was a useful step for any ambitious young Tory.
In 1988 Pickles would join the 40th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Young Conservatives as one of it’s 28 former chairmen. Of those 28, half had already gone on to become MPs and half of those had become government ministers
Life at the top of the Young Conservatives had already taken Eric Pickles around the world. On a trip to a Young Christian Democrats seminar held at Salerno in Italy, Pickles found himself caught up in a gun battle at Milan Airport between the police and the Red Brigades. Later he walked into a battle at Naples station between the police and local communists.
One of his first jobs as Y.C. chairman was to lead a delegation to Israel.
But his year in office was not without it’s difficulties. The radical right was a growing force in young Tory politics. The S.D.P. had recently been founded and disillusioned liberals in both the Labour and Conservative parties were deserting to the new "centre" party.
At the Young Conservative’s national conference in Eastbourne in February 1981, Pickles presided over a growing split in the ranks, particularly between northern "liberals" and southern "right-wingers".
Government Environment minister James Prior addressed the audience. He was worried about the growth of racist groups like the National Front, but was heckled by southern delegates. When northern delegates called for more cash aid for youth training, southern right-wingers dismissed it as "a waste of money".
Later that year 8 prominent young Tories defected to the S.D.P. They included 2 executive members of the Tory Reform Group and 3 former chairmen of the Federation of Conservative Students. They had been planning their move since early 1980, concerned at the Tories’ "drift to the right" and claiming that the Conservative party had become little more than a "Thatcher fan club".
The writing was already on the wall for the "wet" Eric Pickles.
The Federation of Conservative Students soon fell under the control of the radical right. Indeed, their antics proved such an embarrassment that Tory party chairman Norman Tebbit was forced to disband the FCS altogether just prior to the 1987 General Election. The right-wing young Tories simply moved elsewhere, and in 1988 even the "moderate" Young Conservatives were captured by the radical right when Andrew Tinney was elected chairman.
After his stint as chairman of the National Young Conservatives, Eric Pickles began to devote more time to local politics. But he still retained his close national party links as well. In June 1981 he was appointed co-chairman of the national Joint Committee Against Racialism by the Tory party. He joined the Labour party’s Jo Richardson MP on this Parliamentary body.
Back in Bradford Eric Pickles, by now chairman of the councils Social Services committee, was beginning to enjoy his council work. He was governor of several local schools and in October 1982 was appointed to the board of the Yorkshire Regional Health Authority.
According to Peter Gilmour, Pickles’ close friend and colleague who was running the council’s Education committee, ideas were then already beginning to form in Pickles’ mind about the need to reorganise the council. Having attempted, with little success, to obtain detailed costings for various council services, Pickles and Gilmour had settled for securing the best resources they could for their own departments.
It was around this time too that Pickles dramatically changed his image. His long hair was cut off and out went the "Godfather"-like tinted glasses to make way for contact lenses.
Pickles was moving into the new Conservative mainstream.
But what of the mysterious source of his income?
Since finishing at Last Suddards in 1978 Eric Pickles had had no further known employment.
There is undoubtedly some truth in his claim to have done some work as a "freelance legal consultant" for mystery solicitor-clients somewhere in the North West, but it is clear that this could never have generated much in the way of income.
This mystery had set researchers on a fruitless search for evidence of a shady political paymaster - either directly linked to Conservative Central Office or through one of the many right-wing and nominally independent "front" organisations which surround the party.
But there is another, as yet unexamined, possibility.
Eric and Irene Pickles enjoyed a relatively inexpensive lifestyle, with low mortgage repayments (probably less than £50 per month). They both drove inexpensive cars, again probably obtained with low rates of interest courtesy of Irene’s bank work. Irene, who in 1989 was still working as a clerk at Barclays bank Skipton branch, where the couple have a number of joint accounts, was earning in the region of £9,000 per year. The couple have no children.
Eric would be receiving generous expenses for his national Tory party work. Records show that he has always claimed consistently high expenses for his council attendance’s. These have risen each year and averaged around £6000 in 1987 and 1988. As council leader he topped the councils expenses league, bringing in around £2000 or more each quarter.
So, with a joint income of over £15,000 a year and only modest outgoings, the Pickles’ family could manage quite easily without the need for a "mystery paymaster".
It may well be that Eric Pickles was happy to foster the mystery surrounding his income, simply because for almost 10 years he had been largely unemployed. To admit this would hardly have enhanced his image.
Of course, the future emergence of new evidence or the sudden desire to "come clean" by the Tory leader may yet produce some startling surprises.