Alex Folkes: Cornwall Council and its chief executive have serious questions to answer

Many Lib Dems will know Alex Folkes. He’s a Lib Dem councillor on Cornwall Council, and was a member of its cabinet until earlier this month, when he stood down to “deal with a personal issue”. I noticed it at the time, hoped it was nothing too bad, thought no more of it.

Then on Thursday night I read Alex’s 1,500-word blog-post, ‘The truth about why I resigned and the claims being made against me’.

It is an extraordinary account which, if shown to be true, must surely lead to the resignation of Cornwall Council’s chief executive, Andrew Kerr. It was Mr Kerr who has asked Alex to resign from the council over claims he poses a “potential risk” to children. Last week, without giving Alex any advance notice, the council wrote to all schools and youth clubs in his ward about him and issued a press release to say they had done so. Why? Here’s how Alex tells it:

In 2006 (and before I became a councillor) I was one of many people who was arrested when credit or debit card details were found which linked the cardholders to a site containing indecent images of children. I have never viewed any such images nor had I ever visited the site or any others like it. I was able to show the police that my card had been cloned at some time in the past and used illegally for various things including a hotel in Brazil. I reported that at the time and my bank refunded the money. Of course I cannot be sure, but that is how I believe my card details came to be linked to the site as it fits the time my card was used fraudulently. When details are stolen on the internet they tend to come in a package and hackers can also have access to your address, email, password, phone, IP address, etc, which can easily be cloned and used by another person to cover their own identity and make it look like the victim of their fraud is the guilty party. The police searched my computer and other electronic devices I owned.

Because I had done nothing wrong, and therefore there was no evidence against me, the police did not bring any charges and they told me the matter was closed. I cannot blame the police for investigating based on the information they received. The whole episode put me through a huge trauma but I am reassured that they took such matters very seriously and I am glad that they were able to establish my innocence as they did.

Some will remember that thousands of people were caught up in similar scams about that time — here, for instance, is a BBC report from 2007 which investigated the issue after 7,000 individuals had their card details used.

Three years later, Alex continues, he was elected a Lib Dem councillor:

In 2009 when I was elected to Cornwall Council my arrest was flagged up in an enhanced CRB check. I discussed this matter with the chief legal officer of the council. He told me that he would discuss it with the (then) leader Councillor Alec Robertson. I heard no more about this from the legal officer, Mr Robertson or anyone else. I assume that they took the view, quite rightly, that the matter was properly dealt with by the police and considered closed.

It then all turns very Kafka, with accusations made against Alex without him having any knowledge of what is alleged or any chance for him to put forward his case:

At some point within the past few weeks someone raised the matter with officers within Cornwall Council’s child protection team. Since then, anonymous letters and emails have been sent to the press and to opposition councillors. There seems to be a concerted campaign against me. Those first emails started a very difficult period in which meetings were held about me without my knowledge or involvement to discuss information and claims which they refuse to share with me. I have repeatedly asked officers for the information they received to be passed on to me so that I can refute it. They refused to do so. That limited information which has been shared with me I know to be untrue and they have not offered any evidence to support their outrageous claims. Given that they refused to share the information they had, I asked officers for time to go through the laborious process of requesting the information from the various organisations concerned which would prove their claims to be wrong. They refused to give me this time and convened another secret meeting which passed judgement. They then made deeply libellous and completely untrue statements to organisations, other councillors and the media. Nevertheless, I have started the process (which is likely to take some months) of seeking the information held and then correcting it where it is false. All they have told me is that everything relates to the original investigation in 2006 and that there have been no concerns or claims made about me relating to any time before or since.

It seems that officers are more concerned with covering their own backs than with establishing the truth. They seem to think they know better than the police did back in 2006 when they had all the evidence and were able to conduct a full and thorough investigation. On two occasions, whilst denying me the information on which they based their apparent judgement, Mr Kerr has demanded my resignation.

Alex is determined to establish his innocence and clear his name (the latter especially hard in cases like this). He has not only resigned from the cabinet but also voluntarily suspended his party membership and referred himself for investigation under the Lib Dems’ own disciplinary procedures.

Cornwall Council and its chief executive Andrew Kerr have a number of questions to answer.

If Cornwall Council has evidence of any wrongdoing by Alex that should be shared with the police so they can act on it. Has this been done? It appears not, or at least if it has the police don’t regard the evidence as meriting re-opening an investigation, according to a police statement reported in the local paper: ‘”We are not investigating him,” the force spokeswoman said. “It is an internal investigation by the council.”

On what basis, then, is Cornwall Council warning local people of a risk posed by Alex, and on what basis is it demanding his resignation? Why has Alex been given no opportunity either to hear the allegations against him, or been subject to any form of due process investigation so he can defend himself?

Cornwall Council’s press statement suggests they have based their decision publicly to name and shame Alex based on information received from the police — yet if the police have decided not to charge Alex with any crime why has the Council used its powers to pronounce him guilty as not charged?

As Mark Pack points out on his blog here:

For an unelected Chief Executive to demand without explanation the resignation of a democratically elected councillor should be a scandal. If the Chief Executive has any evidence that stands up, he should be willing to communicate it and let Alex defend himself. And if he doesn’t, it is the Chief Executive who should be resigning.

Of course councils have to be incredibly careful regarding all matters to do with child protection. But accusations must always be on the basis of evidence and charges dealt with under a proper due process which allows individuals to defend themselves. Cornwall Council seems to have acted on the basis of ‘no smoke without fire’ and that’s no basis for justice.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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25 Comments

  • I am not aware of any circumstances when it would be proper for a council chief executive to demand the resignation of a councillor. Any such initiative, if justified (unlike apparently in this case) must come from the political leadxership of the council and not from its paid service. So the question about the future employment of the Cornwall chief executive is a very real one

  • Fancy asking someone to defend themselves and their reputation without allowing them to see the evidence against them. It’s disgraceful behaviour and should never happen. Sorry to be the first to point this out but the Lib Dems are a party whose MP’s broadly supported closed hearings in some circumstances. Whatever the accusations, unless justice is open it can always lead to situations such as this….

  • David Evans 23rd Nov '14 - 3:00pm

    Stephen,

    It’s Alex Folkes and he is “A Lanson boy, ” a derivation from Launceston where he is councillor.

    And I support him totally.

    David

  • In recent months we have not shown ourselves to be masters of due process in this regard. Now there is a chance to get it right. First thing on Monday morning the leader of Cornwall County Council should speak with the county council’s leading HR professional and take their advice. Depending on Cornwall County Council’s rules this is likely to lead to the County Council launching an investigation into whether or not Andrew Kerr has committed a disciplinary offence and may result in a “without prejudice” suspension whilst the matter is investigated.

  • David Evans 23rd Nov '14 - 3:19pm

    Stephen,

    … and in the links at the bottom of the article.

  • If the information given in this post is correct, the following should be done. (1) Cornwall Council should dismiss Mr Kerr and the officer(s) who leaked confidential information to outside parties. (2) The matter should be referred to the Information Commissioner, who may wish to levy a hefty fine against the Council and prosecute the individuals who have breached the DPA. (3) The Standards Committee should commission an investigation led by an independent, external investigating officer.

    Very few Council officers should have been privy to this matter. Perhaps two or three officers in the Child Protection Team, plus the Legal Services officer who handles child protection. The Chief Executive should not have known about it, nor any councillor, nor any partner. It would not have been discussed at the Local Safeguarding Children Board, where the Cabinet member for Children and the partner agencies (including the Police) sit.

  • I’m a little surprised that Alex Folkes hasn’t already taken legal advice and have his solicitor send an appropriately threatening letter to Cornwall Council. Defamation of character is a serious matter and solicitor’s letters do help to focus people’s minds and encourage them to give the necessary time to evidence gathering. The alternative is for Alex to take the ‘evidence’ to the police and so initiate a police investigation, something Council officials won’t be able to brush aside.

  • Stephen Donnelly 23rd Nov '14 - 4:51pm

    There is also the case of Robert Bleakley on Wigan MBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-29135683 which has received widespread coverage on BBC NW.

    I don’t know him, or his background, but without defending the behaviour, I am uncomfortable with the way this has been conducted through the media.

  • Gemma Roulston 23rd Nov '14 - 4:55pm

    Roland,
    Alex and his lawyers/solicitors are getting no joy from Cornwall County Council. The council have decided behind closed doors that Alex is guilty – and will not give the evidence to the police, or Alex and his side.
    The whole thing stinks.
    Yes our procedures are wrong, and we can put them right. But Alex was investigated by the Police in 2006, and was cleared. Cornwall County Council and Mr Kerr have several questions to answer, and as far as I am aware, have not up to now been prepared to do things properly or answer the questions.

  • Gemma – I hope that the party stands behind Alex and his solicitor and enable them to commence legal proceedings against named individuals (rather than Cornwall County Council)…

  • Steve Comer 23rd Nov '14 - 7:42pm

    This case reveals a total breach of Civil Liberties, and I’m sure I’m not the only past victim of attempted credit card fraud who is thinking ” it could have been me.”
    When the party’s procedures are complete then I think there should be a financial appeal to cover Alex’s legal costs, which are likely to be substantial. I believe this was done successfully a few years ago for a Councillor who fell foul of the late unlamented Standards Board. Since then ‘crowd-funding’ has become easier, so I hope Alex’s friends will look at this option.

  • Stevan Rose 23rd Nov '14 - 8:03pm

    There is a difference between cleared and there being insufficient evidence to secure a conviction. You can’t blame the council for investigating given the risks. They cannot ignore an accusation. But any accused has the right to see the evidence against them, the right to defend themselves, and the right to confidentiality during the investigation. Critically it’s not for any council employee to demand the resignation of any elected representative. I sense Mr Kerr and the council may end up with crippling damages to pay if they are not supported by the balance of probabilities. The way this has been dealt with frankly stinks and regardless of outcome Mr Kerr seems to have grossly mishandled a very sensitive issue. I hope very much Alex can prove his innocence beyond doubt.

  • Tsar Nicolas 23rd Nov '14 - 8:23pm

    @Stevan Rose

    “There is a difference between cleared and there being insufficient evidence to secure a conviction.”

    No there isn’t – at least not in English law. A person is innocent until proved guilty.

    800th anniversary of Magna Carta next year.

  • “No there isn’t – at least not in English law. A person is innocent until proved guilty.”

    There is where child protection is concerned. It is the principle that allows social services to remove children at risk whether or not the parents have been convicted of any offence. The council are not pursuing a criminal case but a risk mitigation. Inappropriately it seems based on what Alex says.

    Duncan – no it couldn’t be you. See what Alex says – they got a bit more than the card, the name, and the address.

  • Nicholas Whyte 23rd Nov '14 - 10:48pm

    Let us give credit to the Conservative leader on the council for demanding answers of the Chief Executive:
    http://m.falmouthpacket.co.uk/news/11618130.Tory_leader_calls_for_independent_enquiry_into_circumstances_surrounding_Alex_Folkes_resignation/
    Apparently Labour have also commented in similar vein, though I have not found a link.

  • Come off it, Nicholas! The Tory Group Leader deserves no credit whatsoever.

    All she is doing is to grab a quick headline, and throwing a bit more firewood onto the bonfire. Very nasty.

  • Roland

    “enable them to commence legal proceedings against named individuals (rather than Cornwall County Council)…”

    If they were acting in their capacity as council officers the action has to be against the council. If they took information and sent it too people outside what was allowed by their role then there may be a seperate action but the council would be liable for the actions of officers acting in their role.

    I would hope this reminds a few in the Lib dem leadership why secret justice is not justice.

  • @Duncan Scott

    Indeed, I’ve had two cards hacked and one stolen in the post – happens very frequently.

  • Tony Greaves 24th Nov '14 - 12:26pm

    I am rather appalled by the attitude of the English Party which according to today’s Guardian has welcomed the fact that Alex Folkes has “suspended himself” from the party – a strange procedure that seems unique to the Liberal Democrats? – thus pre-empting action by the English Party. Why should they take action? Alex has not been charged with any offence or indeed accused of anything tangible by CCC. Surely the party should be standing up for justice here and providing full support to Alex Folkes instead of these weasel words?

    Tony

  • Psi – The reason why you start proceedings against the individual, is that you effectively force them to resolve which capacity they were working in and hence field an appropriate legal team who actually represent the entity who may end up footing the bill, saving you time and money.

  • Tony Dawson 25th Nov '14 - 8:56am

    @Tsar Nicolas

    There is a difference between cleared and there being insufficient evidence to secure a conviction.”

    No there isn’t – at least not in English law. A person is innocent until proved guilty.”

    You appear to be unversed in the world of people’s real minds, as well as the processes utilised by police, social workers and several other sets of professionals in making risk assessments which determine what actions they will permit by ‘risky’ individuals and how they will themselves act in respect of many thousands of individuals every year.

    As to society as a whole, most people accept the rules of law in respect of official social guilt-determination as a criminal matter (ie whether or not there is sufficient evidence to impose a criminal sanction). However, they make their own individual judgments (normally on some version of ‘balance of probabilities) as to whether they believe the ‘offending’ individual to have behaved unacceptably – and act accordingly. A considerable number of people are found criminally ‘not guilty’ (or are never charged) then lose the civil case based on the same evidence because of lower burden of proof. People don’t, largely, say “Oh, but he didn’t do it” because thetre were no successful criminal charges brought.

    There are also people who have been found guilty but who certain groups and individuals hold to be innocent. Sometimes miscarriages of justice can be proven, often after very long periods of time where the person concerned suffers massive social stigma. Other times (for all sorts of reasons including mental health situations and lack of money) they never will be – and wreck lives.

  • I hope this gets resolved quickly, it must be really unpleasant for Alex. Someone is clearly responsible for this campaign against him, lets hope they’re caught and brought to justice ASAP.

  • Mike Falchikov 26th Nov '14 - 11:47am

    I have no first-hand knowledge of this matter, but it seems very sad and unpleasant. Certainly the watchword must be “innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt” – not just “possibly guilty and there’s no smoke without fire”…..
    But this case is yet another example of the moral panic and witch-hunting which is stalking this country, whilst bankers
    and financiers continue to flaunt their dubiously acquired wealth.

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