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

by Stephen Tall on November 23, 2014

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 Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.