Thursday, 29 January 2015

Lib Dems seek guarantees on future of ‘lifeline’ bus service


Liberal Democrats on both sides of the Tamar have joined together to try to secure the future of a vital cross-border bus route.

It comes after residents across North Cornwall and West Devon raised fears about the future of the 510 route connecting Wadebridge, Camelford, Launceston, Okehampton and Exeter.

Operator Western Greyhound will stop running the route from 20th February. Whilst new operator Stagecoach South West is due to take over 510 services, passengers haven’t been told what will happen after the 20th February and fear that they may be left stranded.

Services currently run 5 times a day in each direction between Wadebridge and Exeter, with a sixth service operating between Exeter and Launceston. 2 services a day in each direction run on a Sunday.

North Cornwall’s Liberal Democrat MP Dan Rogerson and local Lib Dem campaigner Paula Dolphin, Parliamentary candidate for Torridge and West Devon, have joined forces to seek reassurances that the vital bus route will continue after 20th February.

Commenting, Dan Rogerson MP said:

“For residents who don’t have access to a car in Tregadillett, Pipers Pool, Hallworthy, Davidstow and other Cornish communities along the route, the 510 is a lifeline service allowing people to get to school or work, to the shops and to medical appointments in Camelford and Launceston. The route is also vital in connecting Launceston and North Cornwall with Exeter St David’s railway station.

“People are understandably worried that arrangements for the service after 20th February haven’t been decided, and that time is running out to make alternative arrangements if some services are being scrapped.

“I have contacted Stagecoach South West and the Transport Departments at both Cornwall Council and Devon County Council to press for reassurances that bus services along this route will continue, and that arrangements for the change of operator will be finalised and publicised as quickly as possible.”

Liberal Democrat candidate for Torridge and West Devon, Paula Dolphin, added:

"Many villagers in Lifton, Lewdown and Bridestowe rely on the 510 for connections to Okehampton and Exeter and will want reassurances that the bus route will continue to operate after 20th February. It is important that passengers are kept informed about changes, and that residents and campaigners from Devon and Cornwall continue to work together to secure better cross-border bus services for local people.”
 


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Response to Cornwall Council's latest claims about me

In the light of the statement issued by Cornwall Council earlier today, I have today written to all my colleagues on Cornwall Council with the following:

Dear Colleagues

Yesterday morning I met with the LADO - the council officer who oversees the process involved when there is a potential child protection issue. It was the first time I had been permitted to do so despite this starting back in October last year. This followed a fourth LADO group meeting held in secret last Tuesday to discuss the evidence I had provided which quite clearly proves my innocence.

The LADO admitted correct procedure was not followed in the first three LADO group meetings as I was not informed of what was going on. So if the correct procedure was not followed in that respect, can we be certain that it was followed in others?

And he admitted some of the claims made against me by the council (and described on numerous occasions as 'robust') were in fact wrong. If some of these claims are wrong, how can anyone have confidence in the remainder - most of which I dispute?

What's more, he said the claim that whoever used my card details to access an illegal site did so from overseas was somehow mistakenly inserted into material sent to me by chief executive Andrew Kerr as part of his Code of Conduct complaint against me, and is untrue. Could this apparent about-turn have anything to do with the fact I have proven I was in the UK on the date the police say the site was accessed?

At the end of December, I received a reply from the Met Police to my subject access request. This stated, categorically, that no indecent images were found on my computer. I immediately passed this on to the council and the meeting last Tuesday was the direct result. To be clear, I am still being refused the right to meet with the LADO group. I understand that at their meeting last week they did not even have a lawyer present. Is this a transparent and robust process with which the elected members of the council are happy?

Despite this documentary evidence; evidence from my bank that my card had been used fraudulently; and a statement that the second laptop was not destroyed as claimed, the council say they have other secret information they can't share with me and which they choose to believe over the documents I have received from the Met and my bank. Indeed, they are stooping to falsely implying in a press statement this morning that the documents I have received from the Met may not be real.

It’s all too easy for anyone to make a spurious claim now because the computers no longer exist and neither do many of the police files from the time. So there is no way to either prove or disprove such claims. In any moral society which follows the principles of natural justice, such unverifiable claims cannot be used to damn someone. If the council believe they have verifiable proof then they have a duty to let me see it and to comment on it. If they refuse to do so then they should not be allowed to use it in their secret kangaroo court.

With the council now trying to imply that I am making up evidence, I attach the key statement I have received from the Met Police. The total response from the Met Police runs to 20 pages and I’m not proposing to publish more than an extract as I don’t want hackers and others to be able to use the personal information it contains to target me. But it has all been passed to the council and has also been looked through by Lib Dem group leader Jeremy Rowe who confirmed that it categorically states no images were found.

(DP refers to ‘detained person’ - me. - and NFA means no further action).

What also concerns me is that some of those involved in the LADO process have been actively leaking information and briefing people with convenient tidbits of information supposed to damn me. At last week's meeting, the LADO says he gave a firm instruction that no information was to be passed on to anyone except council chief executive Andrew Kerr and a named council lawyer. Yet the next day I am told that one of the council directors - Trevor Doughty - was briefing certain councillors.

The LADO has confirmed there have not been any other allegations made against me and this all relates to a single use of my card details on an illegal website 12 years ago - something I was in no way involved with. Despite this, they are still wrongly claiming that I represent a serious and ongoing risk to children, with all the completely false connotations that phrase is designed to conjure up. A former public protection officer has stated that this label and its subsequent promulgation via letters to local groups and press releases is without precedent and completely out of proportion with the claims the council is making.

In summary, the council admits that correct procedures have not been followed, that some of the claims made against me are untrue and they have withdrawn others. They have ignored the categorical statement provided by the Met Police that no images were found and the information provided by my bank and my bank in favour of secret ‘claims’ that they refuse to share with me.

If the council is willing to treat me in this manner, who will be next?
Yours
Alex

UPDATE: I've changed the image that I had originally attached as personal details could apparently be seen on it. The image now shown is a crop of the original.

Concerns over future of facilities at Launceston Police station

I'm backing our local Lib Dem MP Dan Rogerson in his call to get Devon and Cornwall’s Police and Crime Commissioner to step in to protect facilities at Launceston Police Station.

It follows suggestions that the custody suite at the station could be closing.

Dan Rogerson said:

“When the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner chose to close the public enquiry desk at Launceston Police Station last year, we were told that other facilities at the station weren’t under threat. It is worrying to now hear that the custody suite could be closing. I am concerned that this would be a loss for Launceston and could also mean that valuable police time is spent transporting people to other custody suites miles away from north and east Cornwall.

“I am meeting with Superintendent Toby Davis in Launceston next Monday to raise concerns about the future of the custody suite. Along with Launceston’s Cornwall Councillors I will be lobbying the Police and Crime Commissioner to use his powers over policing strategy and the annual policing and crime plan to protect facilities at Launceston police station.”

Cornwall Councillor for Launceston Central, Alex Folkes, said:

"Launceston Police Station has been developed as a significant facility for the force, acting as the central custody suite covering a wide area, as well as a base for training, meetings and large operations. To see it being downgraded like this is a significant loss for our town."

"The elected Conservative Police Commissioner, Mr Hogg, has responsibility for setting the overall strategy for the force through his annual policing and crime plan. If he really supported Launceston Police station and the services that it provides then he could act to save them. Any other course of action from him will ring hollow with local people."

I’ll be joining Dan at his meeting next week and will report back afterwards.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Cornwall Council consulting on extending blue badge parking charges

Cornwall Council has started a consultation on a proposal to extend the requirement to pay for parking to all blue badge holders. At present, those who are exempt from road tax can park for free whilst all other blue badge holders receive an extra hour on their parking.

The proposal is to bring the tax exempt badge holders into line with others - meaning that they would have to pay, but they would receive an hour for free on top of whatever they paid for.

Cabinet member for Transport, Bert Biscoe, has said the following:
"Since 2010 car park users displaying both a blue badge and a nil tax/disabled tax disc have been entitled to free parking in Cornwall Council car parks. This facility was introduced because at the time not all car parks had payment machinery that was accessible to people with disabilities. Since then the Council has committed to upgrading payment equipment and has introduced pay by phone (currently provided by RingGo). The equipment upgrade programme will be complete in mid-2015 (subject to funding being approved for the final phase of the upgrade). The Council does not propose to introduce charges until this is complete.

"The situation came to a head last year when the Government announced the end of tax discs. It had not prepared an alternative measure for identifying tax-exempt disabled car users and determined that it would leave solutions to local authorities. We put in place a temporary scheme which enabled our parking enforcement team to use hand-held equipment to check if vehicles, entitled to nil tax/disabled, had informed us and been included on a central register.  This scheme can only be run for a limited time period as the national database that Council officers are using to verify that someone is entitled to nil tax does not differentiate between vehicles that are entitled to nil tax for disabled, historic vehicles and eco vehicles.  Furthermore, the Council register cannot be edited to remove vehicles that are no longer entitled to the free parking, so over time this system could become open to abuse.

"The Council's proposal is to charge the tax exempt Blue Badge holders who currently park for free, but to leave in place the additional free hour for all Blue Badge Holders (To clarify this issue which has caused some confusion this week: Blue badges paying a parking fee automatically get one extra hour of free parking. For example if someone correctly displays a blue badge and pays for 2 hours, they can park for 3 hours). Blue Badge holders are also able to park in areas where other restrictive on-street measures (double yellow lines, single yellow lines etc) apply, provided that they do not cause an obstruction. 

"There are a total of 35,000 blue badge holders in Cornwall, of whom 13,000 are currently entitled to free parking.

"It should be emphasised that the original facility was not introduced to give a financial advantage to one group of people over others but to remove the necessity for tax exempt Blue Badge holders to wrestle with inadequate machinery. We will have addressed this inadequacy and introduced a phone-based payment system by the time the proposal would be introduced.

"The consultation can be found at www.cornwall.gov.uk/parkingconsultations. Alternatively, they can download a copy of the questionnaire off the website or pick up paper copies from One Stop shops and libraries. Any enquiries should be directed to the following email address: disabledparking@cornwall.gov.uk or to the following address: Disabled Parking Consultations, Parking Services, PO BOX 664, Truro, TR1 9DH.  The consultation runs from 16 January – 17 April 2015."


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

We can't just say it, we have to show it - building the case for Cornwall

Yesterday, Cornwall Council discussed the campaign to win more devolution known as the Case for Cornwall.

The debate was a good one - possibly the best I have been involved in during my five-plus years on the authority. There are those who want to see only limited further devolution - principally on the Tory benches - and those who want to see much more - mainly Liberal Democrats and MK.

This is what I said during the debate:

We are at our best when we are bravest.

Standing up for our principles at all times. For what Cornwall needs and wants even though it may not be popular.

We are weak when we allow ourselves to be bullied - whether it be by Pickles, Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, Farage, Bennet or anyone else.

And we are at our weakest when we put safety first and act on the basis of what others think we ought to do, not to think of what is best for Cornwall.

Over the past few months this council has been brave and taken the lead on many things - but three stand out:
  • our decision to defy convention and the actions of most other councils by planning a four year budget to cope with the cuts that are forced upon us;
  • our decision to seek to work much more closely with others - not just the health service, but the wider public sector and the voluntary and community sector too;
  • our decision to start preparing this case for Cornwall, far in advance of the moves being signaled by many of the Westminster parties.
Cornwall needs and deserves much greater say over its own services and its own future. What we need may not be the same as other parts of the UK. What is right for Cornwall may not be the same as what is right for Dorset, Yorkshire, London, Wales or Scotland.

This can only be achieved by further integration of the public sector and closer working with other sectors too. But we also need greater devolution from central government if this is to work.

I asked the people of my area what they thought about greater devolution and which services they felt could be devolved. There was no single view, but a large number of mentions for housing, health, transport, planning and local taxation issues.

And that highlights the concern that I have with the proposals of the administration. I do not believe that there is yet an agreement among the people of Cornwall as to what the outcome should be. If we propose a single outcome at this time then we risk making the best the enemy of the good.

What is missing is the input of the wider Cornwall. It runs the risk of being not a Case for Cornwall, but a case for Cornwall Council.

Where are the voices of the farmers, the fishermen, the tourist industry, our manufacturing businesses, our shops and small businesses, our health service, schools, colleges and civic society?

If we cannot demonstrate to ministers and civil servants from day one that we are representing the views of the whole of Cornwall - not just its political masters - then we run the risk of being rejected from the start. I have listened to the Leader’s opening and thank him for his commitment to continue this debate,  but fear that we are playing catch up.

I believe there is a settled will in Cornwall for greater powers and devolution. But we cannot simply say it. We must show it.

I support this proposal and hope that it will receive overwhelming backing from members today. But we cannot rely on merely a good argument. We need to build an incontrovertible case. By building such a case we will be able to test the government - of whatever hue it takes after the election. Are they serious and genuine - in which case they will grant Cornwall its wishes. Or was this a fix from the start - in which case we will be disappointed once again.

I very much hope that all parties are genuine in what they say - but we need to make our case as strong as possible to hold them to their words.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Bigger Upper Chapel development gets the go ahead

Cornwall Council has today given the go ahead to a development of 140 new houses at Upper Chapel. This application is on the same site as the controversial 100 home application that was approved by a planning inspector last year and represents an increased density on the same footprint.

I think the tone of the discussion could best be characterised as 'with regret'. After a unanimous rejection of the last application and the very costly appeal, councillors felt that there was little they could do to refuse the application given the very strong comments made by the planning inspector who awarded costs against the authority claimed to be over £100,000. Only one councillor spoke out wholeheartedly in favour of the application.

This remains a site which the people of Launceston feel is not the right place to develop. We have repeatedly voiced our opinion that new development should take place south of the Link Road. But until the Cornwall Local Plan is adopted, such beliefs are unenforceable.

The primary reason that we believe that development at Upper Chapel is wrong is because of the narrow roads, the congestion that will be created around the school and the danger of the junction at Western Terrace. But unless the council actually carries out a full highways assessment, it is impossible to make a proper case against applications such as this. A number of councillors at today's meeting expressed concern about the lack of this highways study.

I hope that this will be the end of applications on this site.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Why does the Cornish Guardian think there should be one rule for elected councillors and another for its own staff?

The Cornish Guardian carried a story this week saying that Cornwall Council does not know if any of its elected members might pose a risk to children because very few have had a background check.  

Actually this claim is untrue. In 2009, after the first set of Cornwall Council elections, all the elected members were the subject of CRB checks. Any councillor first elected in 2009 - more than half the current number - will have had either a CRB or DBS check from the council.

The policy was changed in time for the 2013 elections in line with national guidance to reflect a better understanding about the role of a councillor. We are elected to make policy decisions, not to act as front line staff. Any organisation that works with children or vulnerable adults - schools, sports clubs and so on - should have proper safeguarding processes in place all the time. They should not be relying on someone’s position in another organisation as a badge of trustworthiness and they should also recognise that a clean DBS check does not mean that someone could never be a risk in the future.

The Cornish Guardian thinks the policy should be different to the national guidance. Their articles appear to imply that the council should still be carrying out DBS checks (the new version of CRB checks) on councillors. The paper is entitled to its opinion. But surely it should be working to the same rules that it seeks to impose on others? During my time as a councillor to date, I think I have visited schools on five different occasions where I had any interaction with pupils. On each of these occasions I was always accompanied by a teacher or other staff member as any other visitor would be. That’s how child protection should work. Being a councillor does not confer any special status.


A group of people who regularly come into contact with children and vulnerable adults as part of their work are local newspaper journalists and photographers. They are endlessly covering school plays, exam results, sports days, reception class photos and so on. Every week the pages of the Cornish Guardian are full of such stories and photos. Often they do it over the phone and by email but they also go into schools too.


Do Cornish Guardian reporters and photographers go through a DBS or CRB check? My understanding is that they do not. I’ve tried to check with the paper’s editor whether this policy has changed but I have not received an answer. In fact I sent her a whole raft of questions about the Cornish Guardian's children protection policy and procedures but I haven't received an answer to any of them. If no checks are carried out then the paper cannot be in a position to say whether or not any of its staff might pose a risk to children.

This post is about the Cornish Guardian's hypocrisy. It’s specifically not about accusing or insinuating that any person connected with the Cornish Guardian, or any other media outlet, has done anything illegal. But they cannot attack others for failing to get staff checked if they do not do so themselves, particularly when they have far more contact with children than councillors do. They are a public-facing organisation seeking to represent the public and they must meet the standards they attempt to impose on others.

I also asked the editor about any safeguarding policy that the paper might have for staff who come into contact with children or vulnerable adults. If there is no policy of CRB or DBS checks then I would certainly expect this to exist. Again, she has failed to respond.


Finally, I asked if any complaints of inappropriate conduct had ever been made about any of the paper’s staff. I make no suggestion that any have, but I would expect the paper to have procedures in place to deal with any and to be able to reassure the public that this is the case. Again, no response has been received.


So come on Cornish Guardian. If you think that there should be a certain rule for councillors, why do you think your reporters and photographers should not be subject to the same rules? After all - you come into contact and communicate with children far more often than we do.