Edinburgh council's Sean Bell scandal: independent review makes 50 recommendations to improve council culture

An independent investigation into whistleblowing and the organisational culture of the council has made 50 recommendations on how it should be improved.

By Ian Swanson
Monday, 13th December 2021, 11:53 am

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The review led by top QC Susanne Tanner said that the culture at the council had been “historically extremely problematic”.

Ms Tanner’s report said “considerable strides” had been made under current chief executive Andrew Kerr and a new whistleblowing policy had given employees increased confidence to report concerns.

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The inquiry was into whistleblowing and the wider organisational culture of Edinburgh City Council

But it revealed that 47 per cent of staff who responded to a survey said they had not seen any improvement in the council’s culture since 2015 – 683 as opposed to the 405 who said it had improved.

And 35 per cent said the council had a culture which discouraged speaking up and addressing concerns of wrongdoing, while only 16 per cent said the culture encouraged people to speak up.

Ms Tanner said: “My overall conclusion is that despite considerable steps taken to improve organisational culture since 2014, there is not a universally positive, open, safe and supportive whistleblowing and organisational culture for the raising of and responding to concerns of wrongdoing within the council.”

She said some parts of the council appeared to have “more cultural issues than others” and singled out the education and children’s services directorate, previously known as the children and families department, saying the number of staff who came forward to speak to the inquiry team from there far outstripped the number from any other part of the council.

Susanne Tanner was appointed to carry out the inquiry in November 2020

The report’s recommendations included a refresh of training about bullying and harassment; more emphasis on seeking consensual early resolution of complaints; a more robust system of exit interviews when staff leave the council; a new system of anonymous feedback on the behaviour of managers as part of annual performance reviews; a whistleblowing training and communications strategy; and a revised disciplinary policy for directors.

The report said: “Many of the issues which were brought to our attention originated when the council was under different leadership and a previous administration and to an extent the current executive directors and the monitoring officer are grappling with the legacy and cultural impact of historical cases that still hang over the council, some of which have required, and continue to require, the expenditure of significant time and public resources.”

Ms Tanner was appointed in November 2020 to lead two parallel inquiries – one into the council's handling of complaints against senior social worker and serial sex abuser Sean Bell and the other into whistleblowing and the council’s wider culture.

Her report on the Sean Bell case, published in October, found two former senior officials had been guilty of a "dereliction of duty" in failing to investigate or tell the police of allegations against Mr Bell, who was found dead at the foot of Salisbury Crags in August 2020 while facing charges of historic sexual assault, domestic abuse and rape. Former education director Alastair Gaw and Andy Jeffries, a senior manager in the children and families department both resigned their posts before the report came out.

Mr Jeffries had been facing a disciplinary case when he quit and the case was dropped. But Ms Tanner’s report on council culture said stopping such an investigation when someone leaves “sends the wrong message” to other staff and “fuels a perception that those who have committed some form of wrongdoing are able to walk away without consequence”.

She added: “I would encourage the council to consider continuing whistleblowing and disciplinary investigations in serious cases even if the subject leaves.”

Ms Tanner's first report identified several occasions when Sean Bell’s conduct was reported to officials but no action was taken, and it said witnesses had claimed Mr Bell was part of an "old boys' network" which "looked after their own" – though she said she understood none of those in the network were still employed by the council.

However, the report on the council’s wider culture noted: “There was a perception among a small number of contributors that managers, at varying levels across the council, will look out for each other rather than seeking to take forward concerns.”

And it said: “Given the fact that long service by managers across the council is very common, there is a risk of cliques forming among managers who have spent many years working together.”

The report said 26 employees who worked in schools had come forward. “Themes included preferential treatment with respect to promotions and new hires, unreasonable behaviour towards more junior teachers, including alleged incidents of bullying and harassment by head teachers or heads of departments; management closing ranks and protecting one another; and a general lack of encouragement to speak up.

"Senior education officers and head teachers to whom the review team spoke did not consider there to be a widespread culture of bullying and harassment within schools. However, 12 teachers raised concerns about the behaviours of more senior teachers towards staff within their schools.”

And 21 social work staff had responded to the call for evidence. “Five colleagues working in one team within the social work department and a councillor raised concerns about a ‘toxic culture in the team and a culture of systemic bullying’ within that team.”

The report said there was a perception more generally of preferential treatment, including cronyism, nepotism and favouritism, among some staff in relation to jobs being awarded to internal candidates, but the review team had not found any evidence to substantiate the claims.

The whistleblowing system currently involves the independent hotline Safecall categorising complaints it receives as either major/signifcant, which are investigated by Safecall or minor/operational, which are investigated by the council. But the report called for more complaints to be categorised as major/significant and investigated by Safecall.

And the time taken to complete investigations was identified as a concern, with 12 whistleblowing disclosures taking longer than a year.

The report also said more cases could be resolved by early resolution rather than spending time and resources on unnecessary investigations. Addressing issues in such a way could avoid issues being “blown out of all proportion”.

But Ms Tanner said: “Having conducted an extensive review, I have not identified any evidence that any major/significant whistleblowing disclosures are being covered up by the council. Where a whistleblowing disclosure comes to the attention of the whistleblowing team and Safecall it will be investigated.

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