Edinburgh's Sean Bell scandal: councillors offered chance to see 2012 report on previous investigation

Allegations that former social worker and serial sex abuser Sean Bell had bullied and harassed staff were upheld by a report nine years ago, but the council failed to take any of the recommended action, a councillor has claimed.

By Ian Swanson
Friday, 26th November 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Friday, 26th November 2021, 8:24 am

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Now councillors are to be given confidential access to the report, which also dealt with claims Bell had misused council funds.

A full council meeting agreed not to pursue further investigation of the misuse of funds allegations after being told it would not be proportionate to spend more money on a matter which had already been looked into.

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Top QC Susanne Tanner is expected to report soon on the wider organisational culture of the council.

But Tory group leader Iain Whyte – one of only two councillors who has seen the 2012 report – said the report made clear the bullying and harassment allegations had been accepted at the time.

And he said he believed the whistleblowers involved had not been told of this finding and nothing had been done by the council.

Bell was found dead at the foot of Salisbury Crags in August 2020 while he was awaiting trial on charges of historic sexual assault, domestic abuse and rape.

An independent inquiry led by top QC Susanne Tanner into the council's handling of complaints against Bell found last month he had repeatedly assaulted at least three women over many years and senior council staff failed to take appropriate action when they learned of the abuse.

The inquiry noted that the allegations on misuse of public funds had been investigated internally on several occasions and it had been found no misuse took place.

However, the inquiry report also said an investigation which included the misuse of funds claim conducted by senior manager Andy Jeffries had been cited by witnesses as an example of the "old boys' network" where senior staff who had a friendly relationship investigated each other.

Council leader Adam McVey said council officers were working hard to address the issues highlighted by the inquiry to ensure the authority was a much stronger organisation able to deal with such issues swiftly and robustly.

And he said: “It is important for potential victims to hear they will always be heard.”

Councillor Whyte said as far as he was aware only two of the city’s 62 councillors had seen the 2012 report by the council’s monitoring officer in response to two whistleblowers, along with a note by solicitors Brodies, who had reviewed but not reinvestigated the matter.

He said: “It covered two different things – a whistleblowing, which included an allegation about misuse of public funds, but it also included an item on recruitment policy and it also covered separately a fair treatment at work complaint and the result of that. That was about bullying and harassment in the workplace by Sean Bell against members of our staff.

"It became clear to me that both of the initial investigations made very clear recommendations. Those recommendations were to take action against Sean Bell. What is not apparent from anything I have seen is whether anything was one about that by this council.”

He said he agreed it would not be proportionate to reinvestigate the misuse allegations “There is competing evidence and competing legal positions and I think at this stage we won’t get anywhere.”

But he said it was clear the allegation about treatment at work was believed and action was suggested. “I suggest every councillor should go and read that file note because it will be clear to them what was going on if they do.

“There are issues of bullying and harassment here, issues that led to one member of staff to leave and subsequently suffer a breakdown and issues that affected people who are still our members of staff, who were directly affected or were affected because they undertook an investigation in good faith, set out recommendations and expected them to be acted on.

“If nothing was done, which is what I suspect, then we must say to those people we believed you as an organisation but unfortunately something went wrong and we failed and we apologise.

"We haven't done any of that so we must have that further short management investigation to get to the bottom of this.

"If we don’t expose this and show we're going to change matters and the culture of this council and we don't tolerate cover-ups, how do we give all of our staff now a full assurance that we take matters seriously for the future?”

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The council agreed to make the 2012 report available to all councillors in appropriate “data room” conditions and added that the decision that it would not be proportionate to have a new investigation into the misuse allegations did “not preclude further requests for management actions to seek additional assurance if necessary”.

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