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.