Legal letter stuns Party Leaders into silence

On 27th April, 2021, an article published elsewhere on this website (read in full here), and headlined ‘A Dirty Business‘, revealed, exclusively, an acrimonious dispute between the Leader of Oldham Metropolitan District Council and a fledgling political party in his local ward, writes Neil Wilby.

Just a couple of days earlier, the sniping on the doorsteps of the two wards in Failsworth, East and West, and on social media, had reached fever pitch. The Failsworth Independent Party (FIPs) issued a Statement on their official website, and on their Party Facebook page, attacking Cllr Sean Fielding, the aforementioned Leader, and his activists, over what they considered to be a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign.

It was on much the same theme as a podcast released by the FIPs a week earlier.

A letter amplifying those claims was hand delivered to Cllr Fielding’s home on the morning of 24th April, 2021.

Cllr Fielding, who is also Labour Party Leader for the Oldham Borough, is one of three incumbents in the West ward and is up for re-election in the poll set to be decided on Thursday 6th May, 2021. He is opposed by, amongst others, Mark Wilkinson, whom not only represents the FIPs as a candidate, he is married to its Chairperson and driving force, Kathleen Wilkinson.

It is obvious to most observers, with even a passing knowledge of Failsworth’s local affairs, that there is bad blood between the Wilkinsons and Sean Fielding. Much of the criticism of the country’s youngest council leader, by a group attaching itself to the FIPs, is highly personalised and, in the cold light of day, lacks substance or an evidential foundation.

The same can be said of the FIPs Statement. Made even more surprising when one considers that Mark Wilkinson was a police officer for 32 years.

Both before, and after, the publication of ‘A Dirty Business‘ Mark and Kath Wilkinson were both, publicly and privately, asked to back up the claims made in their Statement. A lot of it simply didn’t ring true to an investigative journalist. The ensuing silence has been deafening and, since the article appeared, they have not referred to that Statement since. In public, at least.

In that same article, Cllr Fielding, as part of his right to reply, provided a brief but firm rebuttal to the allegations and, further, indicated that matter had been referred to a solicitor for a full dissemination.

This is the full text of the resultant lawyer’s letter, dated 30th April, 2021, and emailed to the FIPs on the same day.

It was provided by Cllr Sean Fielding, upon request, with no restrictions on its reproduction here. It significantly aids understanding of the matters in issue, between the warring factions, and its release very much serves the public interest.

It was addressed to Kathleen Wilkinson, Chairperson, at the Party’s registered address.

“Dear Sirs

Re: Our Client Sean Fielding

We act for the Association of Labour Councillors and have been approached by Councillor Sean Fielding, Leader of Oldham Council, for assistance.

We have been shown a copy of your letter dated 24th April 2021.

Your letter asks that our client “treat this letter as a Cease and Desist Action”. It goes on to say that “this is in accordance with Electoral Code of Conduct for campaigners”.

The next paragraph reads: the Legislation states that during the campaign period a campaigner must not “knowingly make a false statement about the character of a candidate”. It is clear you [Cllr Fielding] have contravened this rule.

Your letter to our client is very puzzling both in its language and its intentions but we will attempt to answer the claims set out in that letter as they are presented.

You have referred to the “Electoral Code of Conduct for campaigners” and a “Cease and Desist Action”. It would appear that you have conflated two different procedures. A “cease and desist” letter would normally be sent as a precursor to warn that a claim in defamation was contemplated. However, you make no mention of such of claim in your letter of 24th April.

If you seek to rely on this letter as a Pre-Action Letter we must advise that the letter fails at all levels to comply with the protocol referred to as the Pre-Action Protocol for Media & Communication Claims. Therefore, we cannot treat this letter as a Pre Action letter in defamation nor make the required response in accordance with the protocol.

You refer to “The legislation” and we must assume that you refer to the Representation of the People Act, 1983.

We make this assumption because you use the words “make a false statement about the character of a candidate”. However, you have misquoted the legislation which you consider applies to the purported actions of our client in relation to Mark Wilkinson and the Failsworth Independent Party.

We refer you to the Representation of the People Act, 1983, Section 106: False Statements as the Candidate, paragraph 1: a person who or any director of any body or association corporates which – (a) before or during the election; (b) for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election make or publishes any false statement or facts in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct shall be guilty of an illegal practice, unless he can show that he has reasonable grounds for believing and did believe that statement to be true.

You can see, from the wording of this section of the Act, that it is very limited in its relevance and, thus, very difficult to demonstrate that it is applicable. We refer you to the Phil Woolas case in 2010. In that case, the judgment set out the clear interpretation of this Section 106. Mr Justice Teare’s judgement suggested that in order to prove that a statement is in contravention of Section 106 it is vital to ask the following four questions:-

  1. Has a statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of a candidate in an election been made
  2. Is that statement false?
  3. Does the person making the statement believe it is true?
  4. Did he have reasonable grounds to believe it was true when he made it?

We would robustly defend any allegation made under Section 106 of the RPA 1983 against our client, Councillor Fielding, relying on these criteria. If the answers to questions 3 and 4 can be answered positively as we believe they can, such a case against our client would fail.

Your request is in 3 parts. You say that:
1) our client has referred to the Failsworth Independent Party as a racist party 2) our client has said your candidate Mark Wilkinson is a racist.

However, in your letter of 24th April 2021 you have provided no reliable evidence to substantiate these two claims. In addition, section 106 of the Act applies only to the personal character or conduct of a candidate, therefore statements about political parties do not fall within its remit.

For a successful prosecution under Section 106 of the 1983 Act you would have to demonstrate with evidence that our client and his “campaigners” have referred to Mark Wilkinson as racist. You have not provided such evidence and we consider that none exists. Secondly, you would have to demonstrate that such a statement was false. Thirdly, you would need to prove that our client did not believe that this was a true statement and finally that he had no reasonable grounds to believe that that was true.

Towards the end of your letter you say “as a seasoned campaigner you should be aware that your actions “do not bring into question the integrity of the electoral process”. We assume there is, in there, somewhere, a typographical error which, if corrected, would make sense of this sentence.

Further your letter states “whilst out campaigning on the doorstep of a Failsworth resident, it was falsely stated that Mark Wilkinson had assaulted your father – Mr Stuart Fielding”.

You have failed to provide details of this allegation to facilitate a proper response. However, we refer you to the count on the evening of the Failsworth by-election on the 29 November 2018. Our client’s father was in conversation with Mr Wilkinson who, apparently, became irritated and grabbed his father’s arm. Our understanding is that our client’s father approached the police present to state that Mr Wilkinson had attempted to assault him. We understand that no formal report was made.

We consider that this will be ample evidence to demonstrate that in fact our client did believe that Mr Wilkinson had assaulted his father and he had reasonable grounds to believe so.

In the interest of openness and transparency, we put you on notice that our client has been in discussions with Greater Manchester Police about pursuing a criminal harassment complaint against individuals, including Mr Wilkinson. This is in connection with [an alleged] 3 year defamatory social media smear and harassment campaign against our client.

Finally, in response to your letter of 24th April, we aver that none of our client’s actions have brought, or are likely to bring, into question the integrity of the electoral process and we insist that you cease and desist from making such scurrilous allegations against him forthwith.

Yours faithfully

Edwards Duthie Shamash

Ends”

As legal responses go, that is definitely in the ‘very robust’ category. It also highlights how seriously misconceived, and amateurish, the FIPs Statement was. Both in its construction and intent.

Regrettably, it once again highlights poor conduct from Mark Wilkinson (read more here) and aligns with feedback from two officers who worked with him during his time as a detective in nearby Chadderton and at Ashton-under-Lyne.

Underscored by a highly respected police station solicitor whom, also, encountered him in that era. All three characterised ‘Wilkie’ as an arrogant, boorish individual of, seemingly, limited ability. If a view to counterbalance those can be found, it (or they) will be published in an update to this piece.

On the very clear evidence of recent Twitter exchanges, and as set out in the ‘Barking Up The Wrong Tree’ article, Mark has a non-exclusive relationship with the truth.

As the Twitter post posits, the fitness for public office of Wilkinson is now very much open to question. His claims of openness, transparency and integrity now lying in tatters and a matter for the local electorate of Failsworth West to reflect upon.

Up to the time of publication of this article, shortly after the polls closed, no reply from the Wilkinsons had been received by Cllr Fielding’s solicitors.

The Failsworth Independent Party have again been offered right to reply to this article, via and email sent to their Chairperson and Mark Wilkinson. A number of questions were also put to them:

1. In the light of the contents of the solicitor’s letter written on behalf of Cllr Fielding will you:

a. Be withdrawing your Statement published on 24th April?

b. Or amending it?

c. Making a public apology to Cllr Fielding?

d. Publish the solicitor’s letter on your Facebook page and or on your website?

e. Be replying to the letter?

2. On your website, and elsewhere, Failsworth Independent Party make claims regarding ‘integrity, openness and transparency’. 

That is plainly and demonstrably a false claim to make. Therefore:

a. Can you please provide a date by which the relevant lozenge on the Home page will be amended and removed?

b. Will you be amending or withdrawing all such claims made by your party officials or representatives where such claims have been made?

3. Your Party appears to be irredeemably wedded to the CSE ‘cover-up’ narrative by police and council in Oldham, largely propagated by Tameside political activist, Raja Miah. In that light, the following issues arise:

a. Mr Wilkinson confirm, as a former Greater Manchester Police detective and long term Oldham resident, what he knew of child sex abuse being perpetrated in the town and the said cover-up by police and council either as a serving officer or post-retirement. Also, when he first became aware of the ‘cover-up’ and to whom he reported those concerns. It would be particularly helpful if Mr Wilkinson was able to name officers alleged to be part of said ‘cover-up’. There is no suggestion direct, or inferred, that Mr Wilkinson was part of that ‘cover-up’, most particularly as all the evidence suggests it didn’t exist.

b. As a former detective, serving locally both at Chadderton and Ashton-under-Lyne (a regional posting), has Mr Wilkinson either himself, or possibly in concert with other former GMP officers wedded to the same ‘cover-up’ narrative (Peter Jackson [who served in Oldham] and Paul Shilton spring immediately to mind) undertaken an investigation to either prove, or disprove it. Or to challenge the findings of my own extensive investigations? 

‘Get the white vote angry’ – Neil Wilby

b. Brian Hobin, your sole elected councillor (at the time of writing, of course), has been a taxi driver for a good number of years, licensed by the Council. When did he first became aware of child sex abuse being perpetrated in the town and the aforementioned cover-up by police and council and to whom did he raise concerns? The occupation of taxi-driver is linked to the CSE problem in other towns in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire either as witness or perpetrator. There is absolutely no suggestion that Cllr Hobin would be anything other than a witness or an important conduit for information on such grotesque crimes.

A written response was requested in the first instance with an offer of further discussion, in an interview to tape or camera, at the election count at the Civic Centre.

No response was received from either Kathleen or Mark Wilkinson. They have previously declined all other rights of reply and, consistently, refused to answer questions asked of them.

Apparently speaking on their behalf, their son Ryan Wilkinson made a series of offensive and defamatory posts on social media regarding this article and its author. They are not reproduced here as they will form part of legal action to be taken against him. The gist of his posts are that Neil Wilby:

(i) Has ‘made up another sensationalist, click bait headline’. It appears to be plainly and neutrally written from the body text. It did not, and, quite easily, could have picked out the ‘racist’ and ‘assault’ allegations made against Mark Wilkinson.

(ii) Is, or was, ‘clearly on the payroll’ of Sean Fielding. Palpably untrue.

(iii) Is unemployed and ‘will be reporting to the Jobcentre on Monday’. Palpably untrue.

(iv) Lies for a living (which runs counter to the unemployed assertion at paragraph (iii) above). Which is palpably untrue.

(v) Needs to ‘get a life and a proper job’. Journalism is generally regarded as a vocation or profession. It can give a rewarding life, too. For example, campaigning for the homeless, against child poverty and rehabilitation of offenders.

(vi) Needs ‘to stop trying to discredit and harass people’. As with his parents, the allegation is absent of specification or evidence. The article very largely comprises of a solicitor’s letter to his parents.

(vii) Is a ‘charlatan’. No further details tendered.

These allegations are remarkably similar to those regularly posted by a seemingly endless series of anonymous Twitter accounts that seek to defend the FIPs on social media.

Wilkinson, 31 years old, and his business partner, Holly Cuthbert, 32, have a short, but chequered, business history. One of their company ventures was compulsorily struck off in 2016 and a second company went into liquidation owing creditors £169,000. Lloyds Bank were owed £85,000.

He has no entry on LinkedIn that suggests he is in employment and his Twitter bio is absent of similar details.

Right of reply was offered to Ryan Wilkinson. The correspondence address given for him at Companies House is the headquarters of the Failsworth Independent Party at 282, Lord Lane, Failsworth, M35 0PG.

On a night of shocks for the Labour Party across the country, Sean Fielding lost his seat on the Council by 191 votes. In a short statement, in the early hours of Friday 7th May, he said:

“Whilst tonight is obviously disappointing the voters of Failsworth West have spoken.

“It is no secret that I have been saddened by the campaign both politically and personally.

“I have served Failsworth as a Councillor for nine years, ensuring local green belt is protected, reinstating local youth services and saving vital local bus routes.

“I have also been privileged to serve the Borough as Council Leader for the past three years, steering Oldham through the unprecedented challenge presented by CoVID and developing a new vision for the town centre.

“I’m incredibly proud of what we have been able to achieve as a Labour Council during my time as Leader. All at a time of savage austerity cuts to vital public services.

“And I’m also proud that I’ve been ambitious for Oldham, the town where I was born and brought up, and where I still call home. That ambition is unwavering, although I’m no longer serving as Leader. The people of Failsworth and of Oldham deserve the very best”

Page last updated at 0645hrs on Saturday 8th May, 2021.

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

Photo credit:

© Neil Wilby 2015-2021. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

6 thoughts on “Legal letter stuns Party Leaders into silence

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