Edinburgh Council secrecy over social worker allegations and whistleblower report is no 'petty' matter – John McLellan
After an extraordinary debate last week about what might be described as a courtroom rout over a whistleblowing report, Edinburgh Council’s administration will be adopting the brace position in preparation for the Tanner inquiry report into its social work department.
The inquiry by Susanne Tanner QC was sparked by the death of senior social work manager Sean Bell last year, shortly before he was due to stand trial on sex assault charges, and this week it was revealed Mr Bell’s boss Andy Jeffries has resigned.
Mr Jeffries, senior manager of the children's practice teams in the children and families department, had been suspended while the inquiry was conducted and it is understood the report will be critical of him and his boss, the former executive director of communities and families, Alistair Gaw, who also resigned last October.
Ms Tanner’s report is complete and has been seen by the most senior administration figures, but how widely circulated its findings will be remains to be seen and the chances are that if councillors get sight of it, it will be behind closed doors.
In fact, the council has previously resisted even revealing whether or not it held certain information relating to the case until ordered to do so by the Scottish Information Commissioner in July.
Ms Tanner is also looking at the council’s wider management culture in a separate inquiry and with some 200 witnesses this will take longer to complete. Much of the focus is expected to be on the education department.
It is because the full publication of these reports is still in doubt that the handling of a 2016 report into council misconduct was the subject of an intense argument at last week’s council meeting.
Officials have fought for six years to avoid handing over a report by consultants PWC into bullying of two whistle-blowers, also in the education department, to the whistle-blowers themselves, using legal advice that to do so would breach data protection law.
It was not an argument about full publication, but the right of the victims and key witnesses John and Deirdre Travers to see a report about them, which a court fully upheld.
The people responsible for the harassment campaign suffered by Mr and Mrs Travers resigned some time ago, public sector pensions intact.
There is a thread running though these cases; those at the heart of the allegations have resigned and are then beyond any further investigation or action, and that the council will do whatever it can to keep details under wraps, including contesting long-running and costly court cases.
Councillors are bound because revealing any confidential details or naming officials will lead to standards complaints and potential suspension, and this is not theoretical because three of my colleagues were the subject of such complaints five years ago.
So, getting to the bottom of the circumstances of the Travers’ fight to see information about themselves, and to discuss them in public, is not what council deputy leader Cammy Day dismissed as “petty politics” but cuts to the heart of openness and accountability at a council with an unenviable track record of secrecy.
Cllr Day might call it petty, but there are some very dark recesses at Edinburgh Council and shining a light on them is not a political wheeze but a duty.