An independent probe costing around £50,000 is set to go ahead to uncover how an East Devon Councillor was made Honorary Alderman while under investigation for historic child sex offences, writes local democracy reporter Georgia Cornish.
John Humphreys, a long-standing East Devon and Exmouth town Councillor, is now serving 21 years in prison after he was found guilty in August 2021 of multiple sexual offences against two underage boys dating back to the 1990s.
Taxpayer cash will pay for the independent review into how Humphreys was awarded the alderman accolade after his arrest; some 27 East Devon District Council (EDDC) members this week voted in favour of the investigation, nine against, with five abstentions.
It follows an earlier announcement this week that an ex-Ofsted inspector will lead a separate independent review into how Devon County Council failed to properly deal with concerns raised in 2014 by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) about former school governor Humphreys – when allegations of sexual assault had already been made to the police.
It comes after the East Devon Conservative Association, of which Humphreys was a member, said it had not been made aware of any police investigation or arrests until a court report was published in the press – leaving it unable to implement its safeguarding policies, and membership removal.
Devon and Cornwall Police this week said legally it had ‘no recourse’ to inform a regional political organisation in relation to one of their members being under police investigation, on a matter unrelated to them.
In the eyes of the police the role held by Humphreys ‘was not a notifiable occupation’, and the matter was ‘for EDDC to answer for in relation to their safeguarding of Humphreys following his arrest’.
A letter in September 2022 by East Devon Conservative Association chairman Bruce de Saram, to EDDC chief executive, Mark Williams, said: “I can confirm that we were only alerted to the arrest of John Humphreys when it was first reported in the local press.
“We were never informed of his arrest via Devon County Council as the local authority with responsibility for Children’s Services; East Devon District or Exmouth Town councils where John Humphreys was a sitting Councillor; Devon and Cornwall Police or John Humphreys himself on his application to be a Conservative candidate.”
Mr de Saram said Humphreys ‘did not’ give any indication of his arrest or conviction during his party member applications and approvals.
He said the East Devon Conservative Association could have taken ‘appropriate steps’ had the authorities shared the details.
Mr de Saram wrote: “This involvement would have ultimately prevented from him becoming a Conservative candidate and undertaking activities on behalf of the Conservative Party…,”.
He said Humphreys ceased to be a member of the Conservative Party on June 9, 2020.
This week (Wednesday, September 28) an extraordinary consultative meeting of East Devon District Council debated a report compiled by the council’s chief executive, Mark Williams.
Before the report was presented, Councillors heard from two members of the public, including one of Humphreys’s known victims who expressed “disgust at the lack of urgency from those who are supposed to safeguard our community.”
Mr Williams’s report explained how the council does not have the power to suspend or request the resignation of Councillors, meaning that even if the accusations had been public knowledge, the authority could not have acted.
The report concluded that Humphreys may not have been awarded the title of Honorary Alderman had the police been required to inform the council of his arrest – but did not directly recommend an investigation.
The motion to instigate the investigation was proposed by Cllr Jess Bailey (independent, West Hill and Aylebeare) and seconded by Cllr Paul Millar (Labour, Exmouth Halsdon), who are not part of the democratic alliance party that runs the council.
Councillor Paul Millar (Exmouth Halsdon, Labour) returned conversation to a point previously made that a council officer had attended a Devon County Council Local Authority Designated Officer meeting (LADO) following Humphreys’s arrest in 2016, which included the police and other agencies.
Cllr Millar said while the matter was confidential, the officer could have requested an update from those involved in the LADO meeting when Humphreys was later nominated as alderman.
Cllr Philip Skinner (Conservative, Tale Vale) questioned the cost of the investigation, which could be as much as £50,000. He asked which pot of council money this would be coming from.
Councillor Eleanor Rylance (Lib Dem/Democratic Alliance) noted this would be “£1 of the council tax bill of each household in this local authority.”
She highlighted the failures of other organisations, including the police, but also those of East Devon District Council’s policies.
She said: “We can’t expect a cunning, manipulative individual to come forwards, hands up and say, ‘I’m stepping down’.”
After much debate, 27 councillors voted in favour of the investigation, nine against, with five abstentions.
EDDC stripped Humphreys of the Honorary Alderman title in September 2021, after an extraordinary meeting of the council voted unanimously to remove the accolade.
Additional reporting by Becca Gliddon.