Open Letter to members of Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Panel

Dear Panel Members,

You will be fully aware about the controversy over the recent appointment of Alison Hernandez as Police and Crime Commissioner. Many members of the public and police officers have raised concerns with me over the propriety of Ms Hernadez taking office in these circumstances, and I have much sympathy with their comments. I am writing to ensure that you are aware of these public concerns and that you properly examine them at the extraordinary meeting of the Police and Crime Panel on 27th May.

A criminal investigation is underway, transferred to West Mercia Police by Devon and Cornwall’s Chief Constable, into allegations of illegal electoral practice in respect of the proper recording of election expenses after the election last year of Kevin Foster as MP for Torbay. Alison Hernandez was the Election Agent and is thus jointly responsible with Kevin Foster for the correct recording of these expenses. There is evidence in the public domain concerning these allegations such that Mr Gavin Millar QC (a respected expert on electoral law) has said that “a court is likely to regard the allegations seriously”. These are allegations which raise questions over the propriety of Ms Hernadez acting as PCC while the investigation is ongoing, particularly because if she is found guilty of an offence of this type she may be debarred from public office. Members of the public have commented that this is simply “not right”, but there are additional concerns that should concern you.

First, Ms Hernandez does not appear to be acting in accordance with the ethical standards that she is expected to promote and require of the Chief Constable and his force. This can be seen by an apparent lack of commitment to openness in repeatedly refusing to answer straightforward questions about this matter, and a lack of honesty for example when she suggested that the votes she received were from people that would have been aware that she was under investigation by the Police.

Second, Ms Hernandez has failed to demonstrate unequivocally her belief in the importance of the law and the legal process, as it would apply to anybody in the UK. For example, her response during an interview broadcast on 12th May. When questioned about the investigation she dismissed it as a “storm in a teacup” and nothing more than a political agenda being pursued by the losing candidate in the 2015 General election for Torbay. As Police and Crime Commissioner, Ms Hernandez would rightly have been expected to stress the importance of electoral law and the need for due process, and demonstrating awareness that if it is proven that an illegal electoral practice has taken place, this may have enormous implications including the need for a by-election for the Torbay seat.

I have also noted a potential conflict of interest with the Cornish Conservative MP Scott Mann (also under investigation for electoral expenses) welcoming Alison Hernandez’s election. He did this while his actions were being investigated by Devon and Cornwall police.

 

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I would also draw your attention to the Police Federation calling for her to stand down during the investigation. This suggests that many rank and file officers share these concerns.

Given questions over the propriety of Ms Hernandez continuing to act as PCC until the investigation is concluded and the other concerns described above, public confidence in Ms Hernandez’s personal integrity and suitability for the role are in my view significantly undermined, as are the integrity and authority of the very role of the PCC.

I am sure that you will agree that this term of office for the new PCC has started disastrously. I would expect you to consider very seriously whether Ms Hernandez will be able to carry out certain aspects of her role effectively, particularly while the investigation into the alleged electoral misconduct is ongoing. Would Ms Hernandez be able credibly to hold the Chief Constable to account for his actions under all circumstances? If a serious incident occurred, could Ms Hernandez initiate an enquiry into the matter demanding honesty, openness and transparency, while concerns about her own conduct are unresolved? Similarly, could Ms Hernandez endorse a job specification for a replacement Chief Constable demanding that he or she will need to demonstrate a record of "ethically based decision making" and "substantial evidence of leading with integrity" as was required in South Yorkshire recently?

I hope you will ask yourselves at the meeting: are you certain that Ms Hernandez has the confidence of the public and can effectively carry out the full responsibilities of the Police and Crime Commissioner while these investigations are ongoing?

 

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Cornwall Councillor Tim Dwelly, Penzance East

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