Edinburgh council whistleblower John Travers' 20-year fight for the truth shows the need for openness in government – John McLellan

All public authorities should take note, even if it’s an old cliché, that the spotlight of publicity really is the strongest disinfectant.

Former Edinburgh Council worker John Travers won an unfair dismissal case after being subjected to a campaign of intimidation (Picture: Gareth Easton)

If regular readers think that’s familiar that’s because it was the punchline of last week’s column and two episodes at the end of the week have illustrated just how true that is.

No, not pictures of Health Secretary Matt Hancock applying an emergency face-mask to his “close adviser” Gina Coladangelo, although the circumstances of her appointment will undoubtedly come under close scrutiny, but much closer to home at Edinburgh Council on which some readers may recall I serve as a Conservative councillor.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

At the end of a very long and what turned out to be a very bizarre day, we were forced under new standing orders to switch to a truncated system for any business still outstanding after a 5pm cut-off, which meant that motions could only be formally tabled and voted upon without any debate, which made some important business look like it was going through on the nod.

Amongst it was a motion I had tabled to call for a public apology from the SNP MSP James Dornan for his astonishing accusation in the Scottish Parliament that a decision by Lothian Buses to suspend services on March 17 after repeated attacks by gangs of youths was based on anti-Irish Catholic bias because it was St Patrick’s Day.

Mr Dornan ignored demands from Lothian Buses chairman Jim McFarlane, other senior staff and Lothian Conservative MSP Sue Webber for a public apology and it was only as a result of my motion that it transpired that Mr Dornan had sent a grudging half-apology in private to the council transport convener Lesley Macinnes after she had privately asked him to put the record straight.

When Mr Dornan told the Scottish Parliament two weeks ago that, “I can only assume that Lothian Buses concluded one of two things: that I would be out celebrating my birthday or that Irish Catholics were to blame for the rise in antisocial behaviour,” we should have realised that he “never at any stage meant to imply that Lothian Buses or their staff were by this action anti-Irish or anti-Catholic.” Of course. How could anyone have thought otherwise?

A private exchange between two SNP politicians is not a public apology and far from the full retraction and apology in the Scottish Parliament Lothian Buses is seeking, but what was lost in Thursday’s decision was the fact that the council administration tried to delete the demand for a full public apology and to avoid the council leader Adam McVey having to write to Mr Dornan formally.

It was actually only because of a procedural blunder by Cllr Macinnes that the terms of the motion were accepted, and even then Cllr McVey tried to have the vote retaken. Unseemly isn’t in it.

But it was a following item which cuts to the heart of openness in public administration, as a result of a court case Edinburgh Council lost, a five-year fight to prevent the disclosure of a 2016 report into the way a bullying and harassment case was handled.

In a case dating back nearly 20 years, John Travers and his wife Deirdre had previously won a tribunal ruling against unfair disciplinary action and received a full apology for the campaign of intimidation they suffered after concerns were raised about operations in the community education department, and an investigation was commissioned from consultants PWC.

This latest case was not to block the full publication of the PWC report, but to prevent the very whistle-blowers who were subjected to appalling abuses by senior staff from seeing the consultants’ full report.

The Travers maintained that full disclosure of the report was a condition of their co-operation with the inquiry, which the council denied, and on Wednesday Sheriff Alistair Noble found against the council and ordered disclosure within seven days.

It beggars belief that a local authority would use public money on court action to prevent people finding out about how matters directly affecting them were conducted, and the Travers had to engage the leading QC Andrew Smith to argue their case. Even worse, they must now haggle with the council over the costs and the authority will no doubt seek to limit its financial exposure.

On Thursday my colleague Cameron Rose, who has helped the Travers throughout this case, lodged a motion calling for a full report to councillors about why the authority resisted making the report available for so long, something which has never been properly explained.

It now appears that Sheriff Noble’s decision will not be appealed and the Travers will receive the full unredacted report.

John Travers first took his original concerns to then council leader Donald Anderson who, to his subsequent horror, raised them with the very people at the heart of the complaint and unwittingly set in motion a chain of events which all but ruined the Travers’ lives, had they not been so determined to see justice done. Mr Anderson now says he regrets not realising the degree of “institutional corruption” going on under his watch.

This dreadful episode may be inching towards a final conclusion, but it should be at the heart of an investigation currently being run by Suzanne Tanner QC into whistle-blowing and the corporate culture within Edinburgh Council, and which should have lessons for public administration as a whole across Scotland.

It will be tempting to think that so many of the events Ms Tanner is examining are historic and go back to old administrations led by long-departed officers and councillors. But she will need no reminding that the Travers had to fight until last Wednesday to find out the full truth and still have a battle on their hands.

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.