Edinburgh Council elections: Secrecy over children's homes abuse scandal should make you think carefully about how you vote – John McLellan

For the last meeting of a council which has set new standards for secrecy, obstructiveness, and the dismissal of public opinion, it was an appropriate way to end.

Thursday, 5th May 2022, 4:55 am
Edinburgh Council's last meeting before the local elections, on the children's home abuse scandal, was held in private (Picture: Picture: Neil Hanna)
Edinburgh Council's last meeting before the local elections, on the children's home abuse scandal, was held in private (Picture: Picture: Neil Hanna)

Claims of serious damage to vulnerable young people in the care of Edinburgh Council grow by the week and another chance to expose what has gone wrong was missed when councillors of all parties except the Conservatives voted to hold Tuesday’s emergency meeting of the education, children and families committee in private.

Called to get answers from officers, particularly chief executive Andrew Kerr, following leaked reports of serious failures in the council's secure units, it meant responses were not fully recorded and made it more difficult to refer back to any assurances.

But those who have suffered wanted the public to hear their testimony. A deputation from whistle-blowers were denied the opportunity to speak publicly because their evidence might compromise the council’s position in disciplinary cases and potential law suits.

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All they wanted was for a statement from a parent of a girl who had been in one of the units to be read, and while councillors eventually heard it, the public did not. Afterwards, the statement was released, but neither the family nor the public got to hear or see what questions were asked or how Mr Kerr responded.

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As it happened, the statement did not contain any compromising information but revealed that the girl suffered port-traumatic stress from her experience, and demanded answers to legitimate questions which her family would not hear.

“If you say that all the staff and managers who were responsible for these failings have since left the council, I will simply not believe you,” it said.

“I have no confidence in the council’s commitment to transparency. Will you be marking your own homework again?” it demanded.

Of course, the “secret” official report produced for the meeting does contain a set of action points and commitments to quarterly meetings, to add to the recommendations from the investigation sparked by the original whistle-blower in 2020.

But the reason the alarm was sounded was because interventions ordered years before by Mr Kerr were never followed, and agreed safety and well-being policies were somehow not applied. Yet the families are expected to believe that promises made in private now are somehow more reliable than those given by the same management in the past.

As voters go to the polls with a real chance to bring about significant change to the way Edinburgh Council operates, they should have the words of that parent whose child was abused and damaged by the system at the forefront of their minds.

“Our children deserve better. It’s up to you as councillors and officials to implement real change with genuine transparency and accountability,” said the parent.

So have a look at your ballot paper and before you stick a one or two next to a name, ask yourself if your choice will help give those parents the guarantees they seek and deserve. Or will it produce more of the same evasion to which we have become accustomed?

Is your preference someone who will represent their constituents, or one of those who voted to avoid debate, to keep discussion secret, to put vested interests first? If the answer is the second, don’t complain about the outcome.

John McLellan is standing down as a Conservative councillor