Sean Bell case: Honesty still feels as far away as ever - Iain Whyte

There is no excuse for bullying and harassment at work, but if you were a victim how would you feel if your employer makes great claims about combatting such behaviour but does nothing when you make a detailed and verifiable complaint?

Monday, 29th November 2021, 4:55 am
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Imagine then the despair you would feel if the perpetrator goes on to be promoted to a very senior role? And even worse is if the organisation is responsible for social care where the whole purpose is to protect the vulnerable and prevent harm.

But this is precisely what happened for some Edinburgh Council staff in 2011 who blew the whistle on the late senior social worker Sean Bell.

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Ten years on, and only after his death, the Council commissioned Susanne Tanner QC to undertake an inquiry into his behaviours and she has very publicly recognised the very serious harm Sean Bell did to several women over many years.

But the inquiry set aside claims about misuse of public funds and financial irregularities because previous probes found nothing wrong and said further investigation would be disproportionately costly.

Yet, there has been no openness about the harm Sean Bell did to other staff and no recognition that the whistle blowers reported this alongside financial irregularities. We were told a 2011 review by an external solicitor effectively said nothing more could be done, but when I finally got to read it in private last week it revealed a rather different story.

The Tanner report found Bell was a “golden boy” whose behaviour was covered up by an “old boys network”, and the new information shows bullying and inappropriate management behaviour was identified and action recommended. But we don’t know if anything happened because Ms Tanner said his personnel file was clean.

So, another group of Council staff and ex-employees did the right thing by investigating and making clear recommendations, but even after the latest investigation they are still left wondering why Sean Bell’s abhorrent behaviour went on for ten more years.

At last week’s Council I proposed a short management investigation to find evidence that action had indeed been taken. Maybe Bell was disciplined but it was kept secret and the whistle-blowers never told they were believed, despite repeated and escalated complaints? I doubt it.

This was rejected by the other parties who privately sided with senior management who said it would be expensive and time-consuming. But all it would take is for a small group of very senior former managers to be asked what happened in what was a very memorable case, and if they cannot detail the actions we can conclude there were none.

I accept the whistle-blowers were bullied and harassed, that they were believed, and good managers tried to act. They did the right thing by speaking up but something went wrong and the Council must publicly recognise this and apologise to them. Anything less allows a cover-up culture to continue, reduces confidence and compounds the failure.

Several whistle-blowers have contacted us since last week and they were shocked by what they heard in the debate because it confirmed to them that no one in control is listening. “Nothing has changed,” said one.

For them and other past victims, honesty and openness must seem as far away as ever.

-Councillor Iain Whyte is the Conservative group leader at Edinburgh City Council

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