The council is to embark on two investigations – one looking into the handling of complaints against Bell, a social work manager who was found dead at Salisbury Crags, and a second inquiry into the wider culture within the local authority.
Andy Jeffries, senior manager, Children’s Practice Teams, has been suspended on a ‘precautionary basis’ while an investigation is carried out into the complaints against Bell, who was awaiting trial for sexual assault when he was found dead in August.
The council has agreed to set aside £600,000 to fund the first investigation, but concerns have been raised that the final cost will be much higher, after the council admitted that more staff had come forward than it first envisaged, leading to more than 15,000 pages of evidence needing to be examined.
At a meeting of the council’s finance committee on Thursday March 4, chief executive, Andrew Kerr, faced questioning from Tory Andrew Johnston regarding the potential for costs to spiral.
Mr Kerr said: “We had a meeting yesterday with Susanne Tanner [the QC leading the investigation] and Tom Stocker, of [law firm] Pinsent Masons, on exactly that issue.
“It is true that the volume of work that appears to be coming to the team is greater than was originally intended but we set no ceiling on the work so we are trying to make sure, that they are making sure, that those costs are controlled against the charging sheet they maintain.
“They anticipate that both parts of the work they are doing will be completed in June.
“The estimate that was given in the first instance was given about what may be the case, based on their charging sheet, but there is no ceiling being placed on these investigations.”
Further questioning from the Lord Provost Frank Ross revealed the scale of the work the legal team is undertaking.
Mr Kerr said: “While a number of approaches to the enquiry have been for historical cases, and a request to dig deeper into these cases, but also a number of new approaches from either staff or ex-staff to the inquiry which has been larger than they anticipated.
“I know that the Sean Bell investigation for instance, there’s 15,000 pages of which to sift through, in terms of evidence, and that necessarily takes time for the investigation team, and there’s two investigation teams, one for each part of this work, which is what was agreed with group leaders on the council, and which is why there’s a potential for the costs becoming larger than they were previously.”
Speaking after the meeting, councillor Johnston said: “It appears the sheer volume of evidence that has been submitted to the inquiry and the time required to process and analyse it, has been badly under-estimated.
“We must have confidence in the council's culture but without a clear understanding of total cost, the finance committee is having to make decisions in the dark.
“The law firm undertaking the inquiry should appear before the next committee and provide an update as to how far costs could rise and what can be done to control them.”