East Devon councillors vote against increased background checks

  Posted: 22.11.21 at 08:27 by Francesca Evans

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A proposal for all East Devon councillors to undergo heightened background checks was defeated by three votes to two last week.

Following the jailing in August of former East Devon district councillor and Mayor of Exmouth, John Humphreys, the Conservative group at EDDC called for mandatory criminal record checks for all councillors and anyone who stands for election in the future.

Humphreys, 59 – a Conservative himself – is now serving a 21-year prison sentence after being found guilty at Exeter Crown Court of sexually assaulting two boys between 1990 and 2001.

The Tories quickly distanced themselves from their former member and, following his conviction and called for Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks for both councillors and candidates – but the legality of this was complex with laws already in place to restrict people with recent criminal records becoming councillors.

An earlier report in 2017 concluded that the only option available was basic DBS checks, which only provided very limited information relating to ‘unspent’ convictions, which generally means very recent ones or those that carry only light sentences.

A meeting of the council's Audit and Governance Committee was held on November 18, with Conservative councillor Phil Twiss putting forward the proposal requiring all councillors to undergo DBS checks.

Cllr Twiss said: "Whilst a DBS check is only a snapshot at the time it’s made, having to have a one would deter those who are not fit and proper people, standing for election as offences committed after the check would then show up any convictions and police cautions.

"There is a widely held belief and assumption by many members of the public that councillors have to undergo DBS checks, as is the case with many other community roles.

"This has been highlighted since the start of the COVID pandemic, which has brought many councillors into situations where a check would normally be mandatory, but which isn’t currently the case.

"Undertaking a voluntary check on the basis of 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' should be a priority for councillors.

"There is currently a Private Members Bill working its way through Parliament to make DBS checks a legal requirement as well as cross party support for the introduction of them across England."

Councillor Twiss' proposal included lobbying the government to make DBS checks compulsory for councillors to give members of the public confidence in their elected members.

However, this was defeated by three votes to two, with the chair of the committee, Cllr Sam Hawkins, choosing not to vote on the motion and abstaining.

Some councillors criticised Cllr Twiss' proposal, arguing that as a governor of a school in Exmouth Mr Humphreys would likely have gone through enhanced checks and yet was still appointed to senior positions.

Council leader Paul Arnott said: “All of this should have been known. He was a primary school governor – I imagine he had every check under the sun there, but it didn’t show up because if you’ve got East Devon’s own Conservative Jimmy Saville knocking around, fooling everybody at every stage, then this kind of check isn’t going to catch him.”

Mr Arnott also heavily criticised Axminster's Conservative councillor Andrew Moulding, who said he did not know whether Mr Humphreys' crimes related to children or not.

Councillor Paul Millar said the push by EDDC Conservatives for mandatory DBS checks following Mr Humphreys’ conviction had been “very distasteful".

He said: “The Conservatives know legislation is not in place for us to require enhanced DBS checks at this council. It’s an irresponsible response to the appalling news of the conviction of former alderman Humphreys.

“During the Conservative council, I don’t recall the Conservative council ever lobbying government to change the law.”

Instead of the Conservatives' proposal, an alternative motion put forward by Councillor Nick Hookway was passed. It proposed that the council trains people on the operation of the safeguarding policy.

Speaking after the decision, Cllr Twiss said: “I am disappointed that my proposal, seconded by Cllr Dean Barrow, was lost by three votes to two, with Cllrs Steve Gazzard, Nick Hookway and Paul Hayward, all of the ruling East Devon Alliance, voting not to refer the proposal to council, with chair Cllr Sam Hawkins abstaining at the vote.

"Clearly public opinion says we should as a council take a lead on this matter, whether the law currently requires it or not. Sometimes you just need to do the right thing and not wait to be told to do it.

"The recent conviction of a former EDDC councillor on serious sexual assault charges, as well as former councillors in other local authorities, makes the decision not to support the proposals both surprising and disappointing, given a DBS check would have alerted EDDC and others to his previous crimes, possibly preventing more that are not known about."

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