Tories' approach to councillor checks could fuel hysteria

Blackdown House, whcih Cllr Wragg said would be 'highly unsuitable as a meeting venue'

Blackdown House, whcih Cllr Wragg said would be 'highly unsuitable as a meeting venue' - Credit: Archant

The Journal’s front page last week highlighted the East Devon Conservatives’ urgent calls for all councillors to be subject to DBS checks, immediately following the news that former Tory councillor John Humphreys had been convicted of serious sexual offences against children.

The journalist did his homework and spoke to an experienced employment lawyer who questioned the legal validity of what the Tories were proposing. In the Tories’ press release, they claim that their calls for blanket councillor DBS checks have been ‘ignored by other groups within the council’, when the opposite is the case.

Whilst a Cabinet member I called a meeting with the council’s head of legal on the subject. At the time I knew nothing of the Humphreys investigation but I was being lobbied by colleagues who had local casework specifically involving vulnerable adults in relation to housing and wondered why they weren’t subject to a DBS check.

A report followed with reference to current legislation which remains in force, laid by a Conservative-led government in 2012. It stated that an individual in their capacity as a district councillor could not undertake an enhanced DBS check.

Currently no political party can legally vet their candidates before they are selected which could lead to their election to public office. As I’m sure you’re all thinking, this is a completely unacceptable situation when one considers the trust local people place in their elected representatives and access to their lives to help them deal with sometimes very sensitive issues in an advocacy capacity.

But it is also worth emphasising that a DBS check would never have flagged the crimes of Humphreys before he became a councillor, because they only recently came to light. DBS checks are no silver bullet, sadly. In my past role as an MP’s caseworker, I undertook safeguarding training. For the 45 years the Tories were in power at East Devon District Council, they didn’t manage to establish mandatory safeguarding training for councillors in relation to their activities - the current administration is getting that in place now.

With these facts in mind, and with all councillors having sight of legal advice which has been endorsed by the Local Government Association, I resent the way the Tories are campaigning on this most sensitive of issues, which has the effect of whipping up public hysteria. They do themselves no favours in suggesting it is an issue the present ruling groups are responsible for solving, when it is a Westminster issue. And in that respect, they have much better access to government ministers while the Tories remain in power there.

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I believe the Tories know full well that the subject of councillors and DBS checks is not a straightforward one, let alone a matter the current administration can click its fingers and change.

Appropriate and necessary reforms need to be made at Westminster. Had Humphreys been legally subject to a DBS check in 2015 before he became a candidate for that local election, it may have flagged that a police investigation on serious offences had begun. Presuming the Tories didn’t know already about the police investigation, the information may have also prevented the Tory group from selecting him as a candidate or indeed later nominating him for the position of Honorary Alderman.

If I could, I would change the law tomorrow to make being a Ddistrict councillor a ‘regulated activity’ which required enhanced DBS checks being carried out on us all. Any new law would need careful safeguards to prevent the public exposure of minor spent convictions from decades ago on matters unrelated to children and vulnerable adults.

But sadly I am not (yet) Exmouth’s elected Member of Parliament with a vote in the House of Commons and the power to propose new legislation. For now, the MP is Simon Jupp, whose silence on this matter and absence of support for his own EDDC Conservative group colleagues speaks volumes.

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