More allegations of 'culture failure' at City of Edinburgh Council

Two more whistleblowers have come forward alleging bullying, cronyism, and a failure to properly investigate serious allegations about teaching staff in the City of Edinburgh Council.
City of Edinburgh Council is at the centre of inquiries over its culture. Picture: Scott Louden/JPIMediaCity of Edinburgh Council is at the centre of inquiries over its culture. Picture: Scott Louden/JPIMedia
City of Edinburgh Council is at the centre of inquiries over its culture. Picture: Scott Louden/JPIMedia

The pair, formerly employed by the council, have revealed they have given evidence to the independent QC-led inquiry investigating the culture of the local authority, but have also raised concerns it could result in a “rubber-stamping exercise” which fails to hold the council to account.

One serious allegation involved the reporting of an employee making sexual remarks about pupils, while another involved a teacher bullied to the point of being unable to set foot in the school because of mental distress.

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The new allegations have come to light as the inquiries, led by Susanne Tanner QC, have completed collecting evidence and her reports are expected to be published later this year.

Ms Tanner will first report on how the council mishandled complaints about social work manager Sean Bell, who died as he was facing trial for historical sex offences.

Mr Bell’s death, and the revelation the council had known about the allegations but failed to act, prompted an outpouring of concerns about the culture of the local authority when dealing with external and internal complaints – many of them centred on the Children and Families department which runs the city’s schools and social work services.

This included an allegation the council paid a former pupil at the centre of a school abuse scandal £40,000 and asked her to sign a non-disclosure agreement about the deal, which councillors have demanded should be investigated by the Tanner inquiry.

However some whistleblowers have raised concerns their statements to the Tanner inquiry have not been followed up by requests for evidence to substantiate their claims.

The latest two to come forward, and who spoke to Scotland on Sunday on condition of anonymity, said they also lacked confidence in the inquiry’s scope, with one claiming the Pinsent Mason legal staff working with Ms Tanner “were at pains to point out to us the limitations of their remit, which was not particularly encouraging”.

One of the whistleblowers said they went to the inquiry after complaints about witnessing “serious professional misconduct” including “sexual remarks” made by another employee which were ignored.

They said: "Colleagues at work told me that those who questioned management in any way were routinely got rid of, through bullying and harassment or through non-renewal of fixed-term contracts. What can best be described as malpractice is rife and deeply entrenched,

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“I was told by some co-workers that there was "no point" complaining while another former staff member, who had been through the local authority's complaints process, described the council as "rotten to the core”.

“However, I went ahead and made a formal complaint through my union and was in fact told by them that I was professionally obliged to do so given the serious nature of what I’d witnessed. The investigating officer refused to interview any witnesses in my case, despite being provided with an extensive list of people willing to give testimony.

“After a totally inadequate investigation, my complaint was dismissed. I appealed, and the senior council official presiding at the tribunal also declined to interview these witnesses. The appeal was also unsuccessful.

"The council is rife with bullying and cronyism. Many council employees are unwilling to complain because they are terrified of possible retribution, in the form of further harassment, dismissal or counter-claims made against them."

Meanwhile, a former high school art teacher, who attempted to raise concerns about being bullied and harassed by her faculty head, told how her complaints were “systematically ignored” by her headteacher and senior managers.

She said rather than deal with the bullying, she found herself accused of “stealing" £1 from a pupil, who had bought safety pins to help set up an exhibition, yet after months of delays the accusation was dropped on the day she was due to be questioned by council managers, and she was told "all paperwork was shredded".

"I had already been raising concerns about the way I was being treated and spoken to by my faculty head. She would undermine me in front of classes, remove supplies from my cupboard which I had bought as we were under-resourced claiming they were the school’s. She rejected my ideas, told pupils the work they’d done was wrong… it went on for months. I was totally intimidated by her.

“I was in the process of starting a bullying and harassment formal complaint, then suddenly I was made to feel like a total criminal.

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"I had been preparing for the exhibition and trying to put lanterns made by pupils up, and the pins were rubbish. I asked the class if anyone was going to the shops at lunchtime and if they could buy better ones, and one pupil said yes. Then I discovered I had just £1 in my purse, but I knew the pins were £2.

"Of course my intention was to pay the pupil back the next day, which I did, but the exchange was reported to the faculty head and all of a sudden I was accused of stealing.”

"I knew that a lot of people in the school knew about it [the accusation] and that parents had even been written to. I could hardly hold my head up in the corridor. I felt so small. I was told what I had done was really, really shocking. It was an excuse to further undermine me, and I believe, try and force me to quit.

“Pupils were interviewed about it, and of course I apologised, but it was reported higher up to council managers, and the whole thing went on for five months – and then on the very day I sat in the council headquarters waiting for my disciplinary hearing, after so many delays, I was told it was all over, nothing more was being done and the paperwork had all been shredded. It was as if they thought they could pretend it had never happened.”

She added: “I couldn’t go back to that school. My mental health was shattered.

"During the time of my bullying and harassment formal complaint I was told by senior staff that if I alleged I was bullied, then they would advise my line manager to take out a formal complaint against me. There was absolutely no support. None of the 11 witnesses I put forward were interviewed and deadlines were never met in terms of responding to emails. It was a horrible time and the whole system was a shambles.

“A colleague alerted me about the [Tanner] inquiry and I have given an hour long interview but I’ve not been asked for any of my documentation or emails. So how much they’re going to use, I don't know. But they were sympathetic which was a change given what I went through.”

A City of Edinburgh Council spokesperson said: “We’re committed to ensuring that any allegations or concerns about our organisational culture and whistleblowing issues are reviewed thoroughly and impartially.

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"An independent Chair, Susanne Tanner QC, was appointed to lead the inquiry following cross-party agreement and is being assisted by a UK investigation team from independent law firm Pinsent Masons, who have considerable experience in this area. We expect the inquiry report to be completed and findings issued later in the year.”

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