Edinburgh Council suspends leading social worker after death of colleague awaiting trial

A senior official has been suspended by Edinburgh City Council in the wake of the death of a social work manager who was awaiting trial for sexual assault.

Tuesday, 6th October 2020, 12:27 pm
City Chambers
City Chambers

Andy Jeffries, a senior manager* with the children’s practice team, part of the Children and Families department, has been temporarily removed from duty on a “precautionary basis” as the council conducts an inquiry into how previous complaints made against a member of his team, Sean Bell, were handled.

Mr Bell was found dead on the Radical Road at Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags on Thursday 27 August. He had been facing a criminal trial for allegations of historic sexual assault, domestic abuse and rape.

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However, the police investigation into Mr Bell also uncovered historic complaints made against him by council staff going back decades, including at least one report of alleged domestic violence, with the staff involved questioned as part of the criminal inquiry.

Now Mr Jeffries, who was recently interim head of children’s services and has worked for the council since 1989, has been suspended while an internal inquiry is conducted. It is understood he was also Mr Bell’s senior manager when a whistleblower raised complaints in 2012, but it is not known if the pair worked together when a sexual assault allegation was reportedly made against Mr Bell in 1998.

The woman at the centre of that allegation was also involved in the pending court case, and said the council had known about Mr Bell's actions “for years”. Now 44, she said that when she alerted the council to Mr Bell’s alleged assault on her when she was 22, no action was taken.

The revelation of Mr Jeffries’ suspension came as councillors are set to agree a motion on the need for a full-scale independent inquiry into the current and historic culture and practices of the local authority, after a series of staffing scandals.

The motion, brought by Tory group leader Iain Whyte, has received cross-party support, as well as the backing of the council’s chief executive Andrew Kerr. Mr Whyte said the motion, which will be discussed at today’s policy and sustainability committee, will also go on to be approved at a full council meeting. He said it was a necessary move “to clear the decks” as “too many previous inquiries never fully answered the questions posed”.

In a report to the committee, Mr Kerr said both the council and Police Scotland had “ongoing investigations relating to the sudden death of a former staff member, which potentially involves examination of certain council activities and staff knowledge over the past 20 years”.

He added: “The vast majority of staff are conscientious in the performance of their duties. Employees are therefore being encouraged to bring forward any information which they consider may assist the investigations ... or indeed in relation to any other concerns, with confidentiality being assured.”

Mr Kerr’s report said not much detail could be provided “publicly in relation to the existing investigation in order to ensure that it, and any associated police investigations, are not prejudiced in any way”, but that a number of steps had been taken “to ensure that due processes were followed, colleagues were fully supported, and a full investigation could be carried out as quickly and robustly as possible”.

The legal firm, Pinsent Masons, had been appointed to carry out the current council investigation and all political group leaders on the council were being “fully kept up to date”.

He added: “The motion references a number of matters, many of which are historic and it is acknowledged that some of these matters noted have, unfortunately, indicated or included poor or unacceptable practice and/or gaps in governance. It is imperative that the council learns from these matters to ensure that issues are addressed and people are supported to come forward with any information to highlight issues and improve services.

“However, it is noted in this regard that the council has robustly investigated matters brought to its attention, often utilising independent investigations. The council is keen to demonstrate a willingness for transparency, honesty, uncovering wrong-doing and resolving issues.

“Like any large organisation, there are always improvements that can be made. Following the first phase of the investigation the council will have a further review and assessment of culture and practices carried out under the same independent chair.”

A council spokesperson said: “The council is committed to ensuring that any allegations or concerns are investigated openly and thoroughly. As set out in the report to committee today, we’ve already taken steps to begin a full review and we will shortly be appointing an independent chair.

“It is vital to all parties that this process is allowed to proceed quickly and isn’t prejudiced in any way. We are therefore unable to comment any further at this stage.”

*A previous version of this story incorrectly said Mr Jeffries was the council’s Chief Social Work Officer.

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