Sex crime councillor investigation: no sign of it starting

CEO says it’s “inappropriate” to rush

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk 

East Devon District Council (EDDC) has been urged to speed up a report into how jailed former councillor John Humphreys was able to receive an honorary title while under investigation for sex crimes against children.

Two months on from a full council meeting asking for an independent report, work is still going on about options for how it will be done.

Councillors want a report from chief executive Mark Williams “at the earliest opportunity” but some speakers at this week’s cabinet meeting expressed frustration at how long it is taking, with publication set for July.

Mr Humphreys, who also previously served as mayor of Exmouth, is 10 months into a 21-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting two teenage boys in the early 1990s and early 2000s.

He was first questioned in 2005 but police did not find sufficient evidence for a prosecution.

Following a complaint by a second victim, he was arrested in 2016 before being released under investigation on suspicion of sexually assaulting the two boys.

Nothing was made public and Mr Humphreys continued to be a councillor until May 2019, eventually being awarded the honorary title of alderman by by EDDC in December that year.

The award of alderman is made by many councils to former members in recognition of their civic contributions. In East Devon, aldermen are entitled to free parking in the council’s car parks and may continue to represent the council at some functions.

Following Mr Humphreys’ conviction in August 2021, the council voted to remove his title and to review the process of selecting aldermen.

That review, by EDDC councillors, has so far only looked at peripheral matters such as whether aldermen should keep their free car parking permits. 

The new report will be independently conducted and delve deeper into how he came to receive the award.

Speaking at Wednesday’s [8 June] cabinet meeting, Alderman Roger Giles said the decision to bestow the award on Mr Humphreys after he had been arrested had “tarnished the whole system of recognising the work of former councillors.

“Of course, the tarnishing of the award of honorary alderman status is of infinitely less consequence than the effect on the victims of the abhorrent crimes of John Humphreys,” he added.

Mr Giles, who represented Ottery Town as an independent, said he was attending the meeting “to ask what EDDC is doing about what is undoubtedly the greatest scandal that has enveloped EDDC for very many years.”

He was critical of the seven weeks that had elapsed since councillors voted for a report, with no visible progress.

“What kind of message does this send to the wider world about the seriousness and urgency with which EDDC is treating this matter?” Mr Giles asked.

Councillor Jess Bailey (Independent, West Hill and Aylesbeare) was also “very disappointed by how long it’s taking,” adding after the meeting: “The council needs to stop dragging its heels and urgently commission the report given the importance of the issue.”

In response, chief executive Mr Williams said he has spoken to a barrister for legal advice and was awaiting his opinion.

“When I have that opinion, I will prepare a report. But if this is to be done properly, it needs to be done in a measured way and it also needs to be done in full knowledge of the legal powers and legal constraints that apply to the council.

“So my advice to cabinet is that I will bring a report in July. Pushing the timetable earlier is inappropriate and you may well end up making an erroneous decision.”

Mr Williams added: “You need to go into this with your eyes open in terms of the length of time it’s likely to take, the potential cost and also the implications legally of what we can or can’t do.

“Rushing something as important as this is, in my opinion, inappropriate.”

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