Whitewash fears over probe into council ‘cover-up’ culture

A woman who reported the actions of a senior Edinburgh social work manager who died while awaiting trial on historical sexual assault charges, has said she will give evidence to a new independent inquiry into the culture of Edinburgh City Council.

Thursday, 8th October 2020, 7:00 am
Edinburgh Council is at the centre of an inquiry into its culture
Edinburgh Council is at the centre of an inquiry into its culture

The 44-year-old at the centre of the criminal case brought against Sean Bell, who was found dead in August – a month after he had been charged – said she had raised her concerns about him three times since 1998, yet “nothing was ever done”.

However she, and a former colleague of Mr Bell who blew the whistle on his behaviour in 2012, have said they fear the inquiry could be a whitewash, with no-one ultimately held responsible.

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The council has agreed two independent investigations should be carried out, firstly into the administration’s actions over Mr Bell and secondly, a wider inquiry into the current and past culture of the council. It is now in the process of appointing an independent chair and writing the remit, both of which will have to be agreed by all political group leaders.

The inquiries were triggered by the death of the senior Children & Families officer Sean Bell, although the local authority has been beset by scandals as a result of officials’ actions and inactions in the last decade or more. A senior social work manager, Andy Jeffries, believed to be Mr Bell's boss, has already been suspended as a "precautionary measure” while the inquiry is held.

The woman who alleged sexual assault by Mr Bell, whose body was found on the Radical Road at Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags, said: “I will be happy to speak to the inquiry but I still think the council is hoping this will all just go away and people will go back to work and it will all be forgotten about.

“I've been trying to warn them about Sean Bell since 1998 and no-one would listen to me. I told three separate social workers on three occasions, who told me they had passed it on, but nothing was done until the last time this year. The council actually went to the police with what I’d said and that's when the criminal case started.

A former colleague of both Mr Bell said he felt "vindicated" that an inquiry was to be held.

He claims that as a result of his grievance against Mr Bell, funding was pulled from his department which helped vulnerable immigrant women and children and it was ultimately wound up. He was also contacted by the police as a result of the criminal case.

"If the police not become involved this would have been buried indefinitely and the sad irony is that my interviews with the police was the first time I felt these matters were being taken seriously."

He added: "I feel that others could, and definitely should have been spared anguish if the council had conducted the investigation impartially and transparently at this time and previously.”

Edinburgh Council has stressed that when the historical allegations were made against Mr Bell earlier this year, it acted immediately by taking them to the police.

Council chief executive Andrew Kerr has told councillors an independent chair for the inquiry should be appointed next week and the terms of reference for would be agreed by group leaders.

He added: “This matter will take some time to conclude. It is likely even that the first part may take as long as six months to come to some conclusion. How long both matters take to conclude will depend on who comes forward and matters we find as part of the investigations.

"However, I believe with a credible and independent chair and an experienced investigation team that we will come to some clear conclusions that will allow the council to act appropriately in dealing with those matters both now and going forward."

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