News from Cornwall is quite remarkable. The council’s Chief Executive is demanding that a councillor resign from the council. Not that they quit a council post but that they resign from public office, and that’s despite not presenting details to the councillor or the public to back up their demands they quit other than ‘trust me, I know best’.
Imagine if the head of the civil service was to demand an MP resign their seat, and moreover without being willing to offer the evidence as to why. It would be a highly controversial news story. But because this is a local government story many miles away from London, so far it’s barely tripped the national headlines.
The background is this. Alex Folkes, a Liberal Democrat councillor on Cornwall Council, has resigned from the Cabinet (but not the council) after allegations about him being a danger to children were made.
Alex has a full and very robust defence. I’ve known Alex for many years and as he’s a colleague, you might expect some bias in my view, but I think it’s fair to say he’s got an excellent response to the claims that he’s been made aware of:
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.
Being investigated and cleared by the police is, we tragically know, not quite the complete trump card it should be given how the police failed to deal with other allegations involving children in the past.
But that doesn’t mean everyone accused of anything is guilty. There are still plenty of innocent people out there and Alex’s explanation of events is a solid one. (His behaviour since the allegations has also been exemplary, even overly so – not only resigning from the Cabinet but also suspending his membership of the Liberal Democrats and referring himself to the party’s own procedures.)
Of course you might wonder why, then, the Council Chief Executive Andrew Kerr has been trying to force Alex out of the council.
The very fact that he’s gone to this extreme length should ring an alarm bell or two for a start. Any unelected person should tread very carefully if trying to overturn a democratic election, especially if they’re not following a procedure that has previously been democratically agreed (such as a judge ruling on an election petition).
In this case Andrew Kerr is not following any standard, agreed procedure but ploughing on into new territory.
His reasoning? Well, he won’t say. As Alex Folkes recounts:
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.
On two occasions, whilst denying me the information on which they based their apparent judgement, Mr Kerr has demanded my resignation.
Reading through the council’s comments to the press, there’s really nothing more in what they’ve said other than ‘we can’t tell you, but trust us we’re sure’.
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.