East Devon awards system to be reviewed

It follows sex crime councillor’s scandal

“[A process] full of potential cronyism and done in total secrecy without any safeguards.” Cllr. Paul Millar

“Understanding what happened in the past is important. It has always struck me in my time on the council that it’s been something done behind close doors by the party in control of the council…” Cllr. Cathy Gardner

“Had it not been for the horrific, scandalous affair of the councillor from Exmouth [John Humphreys] this [issue] probably would not have raised itself.” – Chair of the council’s scrutiny committee [and former copper – Owl] Cllr. Tom Wright 

East Devon awards system to be reviewed

Joe Ives, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk 

A report into the process that led to a councillor under investigation for sex crimes against children being awarded an honorary title is to be carried out by East Devon District Council (EDDC).

It comes after councillor Paul Millar (Labour, Democratic Alliance Group, Exmouth Halsdon) called for a full investigation into a process which he says is “full of potential cronyism and done in total secrecy without any safeguards.”

Former Conservative East Devon councillor and Exmouth mayor John Humphreys was awarded the honorary alderman title in December 2019 while under investigation by the police for sexual assault of two boys between 1990 and 2001.

Mr Humphreys was arrested in 2015 and put on bail in 2016 for crimes for which he was eventually convicted and handed a 21-year prison sentence in August this year. 

His arrest and subsequent release under invetigation was not made public until he appeared at Exeter Magistrates Court in November 2020.

However, he would have known he was at risk of prosecution when he received the award and yet he still accepted the honour.  The council stripped him of the title following his conviction.

The episode led councillors to agree to look into the selection process for aldermen. Unlike some other councils, there is currently no protocol at East Devon for nomination to the title of alderman.

Speaking to EDDC’s scrutiny committee, Cllr Millar said: “I worry that our system in the past has been full of potential cronyism and done in total secrecy without any safeguards,” before calling for a “thorough review” into the process.

The commission of a report has been suggested for months, but nothing has yet been published.  Now the scrutiny committee has formally requested a report, it should only be a matter of time.

Cllr Millar said: “I think we need to look at ourselves as an authority. I think we owe the public that and I think we owe the victims that.” 

EDDC has a history of awarding far more alderman titles than many councils. The district named 11 aldermen in December 2019, with former councillor Humphreys among them. In contrast, Exeter City Council has only given out 21 such awards since 1981.

When the issue was raised at a scrutiny committee, no councillors said they had a clear idea of how the alderman process worked. Several assumed it was for long service. 

It is hoped a review could be useful in shining a light on how the process has worked in the past and out if there has been any bias in the appointment process. 

The council had been under Conservative control for the entirety of its 47 year existence until an independent coalition took over following the 2019 election. Eight of the 11 councillors who became alderman in East Devon in 2019 were Conservatives.

Chair of the council’s scrutiny committee Tom Wright (Conservative, Budleigh and Raleigh) agreed the process should be investiagted. He admitted that nobody quite understands what what titles are for – beyond a general recognition of services to the council – or how they have been administered in the past, and argued there was “no point” in creating a protocol for the selection of aldermen until the council decides whether it want to abolish the post.

He said: “Had it not been for the horrific, scandalous affair of the councillor from Exmouth [John Humphreys] this [issue] probably would not have raised itself.”

Councillor Cathy Gardener argued the review was “long overdue.” She said: “Understanding what happened in the past is important. It has always struck me in my time on the council that it’s been something done behind close doors by the party in control of the council…There never seemed to be any logic behind those people being nominated. We were just expected to vote them through.

“I think obviously the fact that we found ourselves fairly recently awarding honorary status to someone who was under such severe and serious criminal investigation and ultimately conviction was absolutely appalling and shocking. I think the public and the victims and their families deserve to understand something about the process by which he was that honour.

“I definitely want to know who nominated him, what discussions there were, who was asked. I would definitely hope that those people involved would step forward and swear that they knew absolutely nothing about what was going on because it was under investigation for a long time.”

She added: “I really do think we need to make this process as transparent as possible.”

There was some friction over Cllr Millar’s concerns of potential cronyism in the selection process and the idea that anyone at the council had known that Mr Humphreys was under investigation.

Councillor Maddy Chapman (Conservative, Exmouth Brixington), who was a councillor alongside John Humphreys in Exmouth, said:  “I’m not a councillor that listens to tittle tattle and you do get tittle tattle in any neighbourhood but I never heard any tittle tattle about that particular councillor [John Humphreys]. I was quite horrified when it came out. If I had know I would’ve have said something before.”

Cllr Chapman welcomed the report into the alderman selection process.

Councillor Helen Parr (Conservative, Coly Valley) questioned the allegations of cronyism and said she’d like to read the report to see any evidence to suggest such a problem.  She doubted whether anyone knew Humphreys was under investigation at the time of the award.

The scrutiny committee agreed to a report into the process of appointing aldermen. It will look into what criteria, if any, were used for selecting candidates and will carry out a breakdown by party of those have received the honour in recent years.

The report will explore potential criteria that could be use to make the awarding and removing of the honour clearer in future.

The plan is to put this report to the committee and then to full council before deciding whether or not to scrap the alderman title – or to update how it is awarded to create greater transparency and accountability.

4 thoughts on “East Devon awards system to be reviewed

  1. Interesting comment from Angie E. Presumably she is referring to the former trolling chum of the incarcerated pervert who according to some was given a standards position via a biased process and according to others audibly at confirmation is not a fit person for the role. Not the only one on that list rewarded for party rather than community service. It might be interesting to compare notes.

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  2. A public perspective.
    People in East Devon have learned that the title of honourary alderman or alderwoman is regularly bestowed upon councillors who have chosen not to stand at next election , either because they’ve realised they will almost certainly not get re-elected or because they fear a skeleton or two being found in their cupboard in the near future.
    Then, lets not forget, there are those who are bestowed the honour as ‘a consolation prize’ for standing but NOT getting re-elected. Still gives them a bit of influence on the standards committee, for instance, even if their own standards don’t always conform to the Nolan Principles.
    This pompous process should be done away with altogether.

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  3. I can guarantee to Cllrs Chapman and Parr that some at the council were aware of the investigation. I heard of it in 2017/18. I am aware of others who knew and in each case the original source was an unnamed conservative councillor or councillors. It seems surprising that at least one victim and probably both were made aware of Cllr Humphreys bail conditions early in the investigation without the authority or his party also being made aware. If that is the case. While I accept the word of all those councillors who say they were unaware before the exceptionally discreet press coverage of the charges I note that the vast majority of Conservative councillors have not stated this and avoid mentioning his name or his party allegiance. If I were them I would want to get to the bottom of the failure of the police investigation 2004/6 and the failures of communication and decision making that have led to some of them being inadvertently complicit in enhancing his access to children in the intervening years.

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  4. You have to laugh at Helen Parr demanding to see evidence of cronyism. The fact that there has previously been no process (or an opaque secret process) for selecting / evaluating awards in the pass is prima-facia evidence of cronyism, and since the Tories have had continuous control of EDDC for almost or over 100 years, there can be no other party to blame for it than the Conservatives.

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