Wales politics

General election 2019: Tories stand by Gower candidate over Facebook post

Francesca O'Brien Image copyright Welsh Conservatives
Image caption Francesca O'Brien admitted her "use of language was unacceptable"

A Conservative general election candidate has apologised for a Facebook post in which she said people on a TV show needed "putting down".

Francesca O'Brien, who is running for the Gower seat in December's election, made the comments about Channel 4's Benefits Street in January 2014.

Ms O'Brien said her comments were made "off the cuff" but admitted her "use of language was unacceptable".

Labour and the Lib Dems called for the candidate to be dropped.

But Welsh Conservative chairman Byron Davies has stood by Ms O'Brien, who is still set to run in the general election on 12 December.

Labour First Minister Mark Drakeford said he could not imagine voters in Gower backing such a candidate, while a Tory peer has said the candidate should consider her position.

The former commissioned officer with the RAF Air Cadets was selected to be the Conservative party candidate for Gower in October after an open primary in which residents were able to participate as opposed to just party members.

Having lost Gower to Labour in the 2017 election, the seat is a top Tory target in Wales.

In the posts following the broadcast of the first episode of Benefits Street five years ago, Ms O'Brien said: "Benefit Street..anyone else watching this?? Wow, these people are unreal!!!"

Responding to another user's comment, she said: "My blood is boiling, these people need putting down."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Conservatives won Gower - which Labour held for more than 100 years - in 2015, but lost it in the 2017 snap election

In a statement released on Sunday, Ms O'Brien said: "These comments were made off the cuff, a number of years ago.

"However, I accept that my use of language was unacceptable and I would like to apologise for any upset I have caused."

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey told the Today programme what Ms O'Brien said was "clearly wrong", adding it was important she had apologised.

Asked if Ms O'Brien should stand, she said: "I think that would be a decision for the people of Gower to make the choice on who they want to be their next Member of Parliament."

But Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford said he could not imagine "decent people" in the constituency backing a candidate with "views of that sort".

"I think she is condemned out of her own mouth more eloquently than anything I could say," Mr Drakeford told his monthly press conference.

Ian Lavery, Labour Party chairman, said: "Removing a candidate who used such vile language about people on benefits should be a no brainer. 

"The cuts to benefits and Universal Credit programme that Therese Coffey and her party are responsible for have forced people into poverty."

He said Ms O'Brien's candidacy was "shameful".

Speaking on BBC Two's Politics Live, Conservative peer Lord Finkelstein said he thought Ms O'Brien's comments were "awful".

"I'm sure she does too," he added. "I do think she should consider her position."

Image caption Byron Davies said Ms O'Brien was not subject to any internal disciplinary process

The chairman of the Welsh Conservatives said Ms O'Brien was not subject to any internal disciplinary process.

Lord Davies - a former MP for the constituency - said: "The comments were inadvisable, obviously, but made in the heat of the moment watching a television programme.

"But I don't condone it in any shape or form. However, this is a dredging exercise on the part of the Labour Party whose candidate in the Gower doesn't want to talk about Brexit."

Benefits Street, which featured the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham, was a ratings hit for Channel 4 when it was broadcast.

But a total of 887 viewers complained to the broadcasting regulator, claiming the show had vilified and misrepresented benefits claimants.

Ofcom decided the programme did not breach broadcasting rules.

Ms O'Brien is due to stand against Labour's Tonia Antoniazzi, Plaid Cymru's John Davies and Sam Bennett of the Liberal Democrats. Other parties are yet to confirm their candidates.

Mr Davies invited Ms O'Brien to join him on a soup run "to see how real people have been affected by Tory cuts to public housing".

Lib Dem Mr Bennett called for her to step down, adding: "These kind of comments show the Tories are still very much the nasty party."

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