Alison Dickie: Edinburgh council must be more open about its investigations into bullying and child protection failures

Alison Dickie, Edinburgh’s vice-convener for education and a registered teacher, says she has been warned against pursuing a whistleblower’s concerns about bullying and failures in child protection in the Capital. But she says the council must show that it has learned lessons and put a stop to the mistakes of the past.

Friday, 10th September 2021, 12:35 pm
vice chair of education, Alison Dickie

It’s four years now since I first heard Deirdre Travers’ story. I’d not long left swapped teaching for my new role as an Edinburgh Councillor and was fired up about making a difference, especially for our children and young people.

Maybe I was naïve, but I did not expect to be representing constituents and people caught up in the darkest of issues like child protection concerns and allegations of corruption and collusive networks.

Deirdre ─ I name her because she deserves recognition ─ is the wife of John Travers, a whistle-blower who alleged maladministration in the education department 19 years ago. His was a brave and honourable act, from an honourable man and officer, but one which brought a tidal wave of vile intimidation to his family’s door.

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Two parallel independent inquiries are under way at the city council

It’s an inspiring and troubling story worthy of a TV drama, and it is not over yet. The latest episode was their court victory against Edinburgh Council after a five-year battle to secure a copy of an independent report into everything that had allegedly taken place, part of an agreement for handing over their copies of a mountain of documented evidence.

Deirdre Travers is a dedicated public servant, deeply respected across the Prestonfield community where she serves as a community learning & development worker in Cameron House Community Centre, and my first conversation with Deirdre left me overwhelmed but determined to act. She explained how she had endured years of sustained pornographic abuse and much more and to this day has not even had the respect of an apology.

But that was only the beginning. Other current and former council employees and constituents came to me in desperation because they felt no-one was listening and the walls were going up, even those who had already been through our whistleblowing system.

Imagine one of those Wordle word clouds much loved by marketing and advertising people and think of the worst one possible. That’s what emerged; an appalling insight into the allegations.

I’d key in the words…abuse, accessing personal information, bullying and harassment, children kept in care without assessment, collusive networks, corruption, cover-ups, doctored reports, failure to follow child protection procedures, HR discrepancies, missing records and lost evidence, misogyny, old boys’ culture, smearing, surveillance, victimisation of whistle-blowers and those raising concerns, withholding information from children’s hearings, and more.

The allegations concerning the safety of children lost me the most sleep. Nothing is more important than protecting them and there can be no room for doubt. In Edinburgh, we have robust child protection procedures, some wonderful officers and strong partnerships, but we all know the greatest risks lie in what we don’t know and children are best protected when all information is on the table.

I have raised endless concerns and questions with senior staff and with the Police too. There have been thorough explanations and reassurances, but the information was at times limited and in conflict with what I’d read and heard. Accessing reports was difficult, even though they might have ruled out some concerns, and although the message was often “nothing to see here”, those I represented continued to scream that something was really wrong. My gut instinct was to keep listening.

Over the years, I’ve been told to “stand back”, “it’s too big”, “we always knew there was something wrong but you’ll get nowhere”, and even “watch yourself, it’s dangerous”.

Most often, I’ve been told “it’s all historic”, but the cases stretch to unresolved events of today and allegations about perpetuating culture. How, then, can we be confident about today if we haven’t properly dealt with the past?

The sudden death of senior social work officer Sean Bell shortly before he faced trial for sexual offences last year was shocking, but at that point none of the allegations I’d received concerned him. But there were common threads across all cases, and any feelings of reassurance I had were shattered.

Thankfully, all parties supported a wider inquiry into Edinburgh Council’s whistleblowing culture, and I felt proud to be part of it. The speeches from across the Chamber were honest, open and transparent, recognising that this had gone on for too long. We all know this has nothing to do with politics but everything to do with integrity and responsibility.

It is now in the hands of Susanne Tanner QC and her twin inquiries into the complaints about the conduct of the late Sean Bell and the council’s wider culture, and we hope this is an opportunity to start afresh and deal with the allegations properly.

Sadly, at our last Council meeting where the report into the Travers court win was to be debated, people got in touch to share their outrage at what appeared to them to be a continued resistance to openness and transparency.

The Travers report will come back to the next Full Council, and the Tanner reports should be submitted to all councillors later this year, and it’s vital for all of us to work together to ensure the fullest debate and scrutiny in public. There may well be legal issues like data protection and reputational risk to be considered, but after all that has happened surely the priority must be to bring down the walls and rebuild a reputation for openness and transparency.

The Council has nothing to fear because much good work is going on and the Travers would be the first to say so. Instead, a failure to look deeply behind those walls and ensure full accountability for any wrongdoing uncovered poses the greatest risk… especially to our children and young people.