Edinburgh whistleblowers' concerns: Holyrood asked for independent inquiry

The Scottish Parliament is being urged to set up an independent inquiry into how councils and other public bodies have dealt with allegations about child abuse, safeguarding and children’s rights.

And a petition instigated by whistleblowers and their supporters also proposes an independent national whistleblowing officer to conduct such investigations in future.

The call comes in the wake of dissatisfaction among whistleblowers in Edinburgh with the investigation by top QC Susanne Tanner into the Sean Bell case and her wider review of the city council’s organisational culture. Bell, a senior social worker, was a serial sex abuser who had been protected by an “old boys’ network” within the council. He was awaiting trial on charges of historic sexual assault, domestic abuse and rape when he was found dead at the foot of Salisbury Crags in August 2020. The whistleblowers branded the Tanner reports a “whitewash” and called in vain for a public inquiry.

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But the petition makes clear the issue goes beyond the Capital, highlighting concerns with the Borders, Aberdeenshire and East Lothian, as well as with the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

Alison Dickie, former SNP education vice-convener on Edinburgh council, who has worked closely with whistleblowers and is one of the petition’s sponsors, said: “We are calling for greater national scrutiny on these issues. It’s saying you need to look at all these concerns that are coming from across Scotland, people alleging cover-ups, mishandling of children’s rights and safeguarding issues and there should be a national inquiry and a national whistleblowing officer – the NHS has one – for the way forward.

"Right now there are lots of frustrated people who are hitting brick walls. We need somewhere that’s going to consider on a national basis how those cases were handled. It would be a healthy step forward.”

The petition is also sponsored by Moray councillor and Aberdeen University lecturer Neil McLennan, former Edinburgh Labour councillor Bill Cook and Edinburgh campaigner Christine Scott, the first person to use the council's Safecall whistleblowing scheme after it was set up.

Ms Scott said she had encouraged others to take part in the Tanner review and investigation and some of them now regretted doing so. “I think collectively the whistleblowers were even angrier after it. We did not feel things were done correctly by the council when we did our own individual whistleblowing cases and the agony was compounded by a whitewash of a review and investigation.

Susanne Tanner reported both on the Sean Bell case and on the council's organisational culture.

“There has been nowhere to go with this – we've done deputations to the council, called for a public inquiry, but that was all ignored. We got nowhere with the council so this is the next stage of it all.”

The city council has set up a redress scheme to compensate victims, but Ms Scott said the criteria excluded many people she said had suffered. “The terms of the redress scheme are so narrow I don’t think the council will be laying out a lot of money. I asked for it to be extended to include all victims, not just in the Sean Bell case, but they have not listened to that.”

She said one whistleblower had been denied compensation because he had not personally been physically or sexually assaulted by Bell. “Their definition of abuse is way back to the 1970s. There are other forms of abuse that certainly whistleblowers have been on the receiving end of. Many of us lost our jobs because of this.”

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And she said whistleblowers were angry that little or nothing was being done about those in positions of responsibility who failed to act against perpetrators of abuse. “I had this naive belief that the perpetrators but also the folk that covered up for them would be held to account. There doesn’t appear to have been any consequences for them."

The petition has attracted more than 500 signatures since it went live online on Thursday. Ms Scott said: “We are totally committed to this. I believe passionately we have to protect our children and I think everyone should feel that way.”

She said the appointment of a national whistleblowing officer would mean there was someone at the heart of government with more of an independent view. “I think it's needed. There are parents who have been treated badly and abuse has been covered up. Local authorities are only concerned with preventing reputational damage, not about getting to the truth of what has happened and holding the perpetrators to account.”

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