Statement from UKIP Kingston & Surbiton Constituency Candidate for General Election June 2017, Graham Matthews
James Berry MP Ignores Scandal of Delayed Investigation into Convicted Child Pornographer Derek Osbourne, ex-Leader of Kingston Council
One of the most serious investigations of a Council leader ever to take place in the UK has been severely delayed and appears to be so under-resourced that it will be impossible to complete, but is not receiving any attention from local Conservative MP James Berry. Mr Berry is well placed to comment on legal investigations such as this, as in addition to being the MP for Kingston & Surbiton he is also a practising barrister and understands the legal process and costs extremely well. We demand that he take this matter up with the Council and issue a statement to update his constituents on the progress of the report, which has already been delayed by two and a half years. Without explanation, the credibility of this investigation is in tatters. As the Libdems do not want to talk about the convicted child pornographer who was their kingmaker for more than a decade, it falls to UKIP to raise these matters and demand answers.
Derek Osbourne, the twice ex-leader of Kingston Council for over 10 years, was convicted of in 2013 of offences relating to the downloading and distribution of pornographic material involving children, animals and violence to women, offences going back over a period of more than 10 years. The Royal Borough of Kingston Council decided to launch an investigation into his activities on 3 July 2014. As noted in the minutes of the Policy and Finance Committee and the Report by the Head of Corporate Governance to that Committee, concerns existed around Osbourne’s influence over the childrens’ safeguarding services provided by the Council’s Childrens’ Services department that had been rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in 2012, and his possible influence over the youth activities of the Rose Theatre and the International Youth Arts Festival, which brought many potentially vulnerable unaccompanied youngsters to Kingston. More serious allegations for a Council Leader in authority for so long are hard to imagine. And yet the Tory-controlled Council’s investigation was given a budget set at such an obviously impossible level that it brings into question the commitment of the Council to get to the bottom of the issues it has raised.
The original deadline for the report was 4 December 2014, two and a half years ago. The budget for the cost of the exercise was originally set at £10,000. The investigation was to be led by an ‘Independent Person’, the identity of which is still undisclosed but presumably an external firm of lawyers.
The current Council Leader, Kevin Davis, refuses to give any explanation for the delay, simply stating that he cannot interfere with the work of the Independent Person. However, this has now become an incredible position in the most literal sense – how can a complex investigation run for three years on a £10,000 budget? Without explanation, the credibility of the investigation is in tatters.
Questions needing an answer
Serious questions now arise over why this report is so delayed, and about the adequacy of the arrangements for the investigation and the competency of the councillors who instigated it, in particular Kevin Davis. Many questions arise around the budget of £10,000 and whether this was sufficient for an investigation of this scale:
- £10,000 was never going to be sufficient for an investigation this complex. £10,000 would not even pay the minimum wage for one person for one year, let alone employ a lawyer and experts highly skilled in child protection matters for three years. Who came up with this estimate and why was it accepted by Kevin Davis, Council Leader?
- It is not even clear whether or not this £10,000 includes all costs, such as direct costs of the ‘independent person’ and the costs of the Council officials working on the case. Obviously the total cost including the time cost of all the people working on the case would be much higher. What were the assumptions behind this cost estimate? Were the Council planning for a real investigation, or something on the cheap?
- A mid-level lawyer might charge £250 per hour. In this case, and assuming £10,000 is the external cost only and includes VAT, then this would be a mere 33 hours of time. And yet the investigation has been going on for over three years! What is the current cost and estimate to completion?
- It is impossible for any lawyer acting as an Independent Person to have performed a meaningful independent investigation with such constraints. Has the fee been renegotiated, and if not, how is the lawyer still working on such a small fee budget? How much does the Council owe them?
- This would put the lawyer into a potential breach of the Code of Conduct issued by the Solicitors’ Regulatory Authority, a principle of which is that solicitors ‘must not allow [their] independence to be compromised’ and to ‘have the resources….to carry out your client’s instructions’. Clearly in this case, £10,000 was never sufficient to carry out such an investigation. The subject of costs will have been raised by the lawyer and the Council must be in possession of relevant correspondence. We demand to know how the Independent Person is maintaining their independence under these circumstances.
- The Localism Act 2011, section 28 requires that all such Independent Person appointments are advertised. It is vital that the independence of such investigators is transparent. However, a check of the archive of RBK Council procurement does not reveal any such advertisement being made. A Freedom of Information request has been made to request evidence of this advertisement. In other similar cases (e.g. Sandwell Council’s Wragge Report) delays have been caused by the relevant Council failing to follow Localism Act legislation. We demand to know whether or not such an advertisement was made, and in the interests of transparency we demand to know who the Independent Person is.
- The original cost estimate of £10,000 happens to also be the amount defined by the Council in its procurement policy as a ‘minor work’. But any competent procurement officer or legal services team should have made a more realistic budget. Although there are no exceptions from the requirements of the Localism Act 2011 s28, and the Independent Person role should have been advertised, it could be that the Council was attempting to apply its minor works procurement rules? We demand answer as to why this was not procured as a major procurement when any competent procurement officer with knowledge of legal services procurement would know the cost would exceed £100,000, and challenge the £10,000 budget.
The investigation itself is such a serious matter that we need to ensure that it is (a) properly funded and independent, and (b) progresses smoothly to a conclusion so that residents can feel safe that all children safeguarding concerns arising from the Osbourne affair have been dealt with.
Other similar cases (such as Sandwell below) have had far greater disclosure during their progress. To ensure transparency and credibility of the process, it is vital that the public know who is the Independent Person that has been appointed, what is the exact state of progress, and when the report will be issued.
For local MP James Berry to pay no attention to this matter and not make any statement on it, or investigate its progress, it a complete abdication of his responsibilities. Whilst we can understand why the Libdems may not wish to pursue this matter, there is no reason a Conservative should not. Perhaps it is the incompetence displayed by the Tories in the setting up of this investigation that is preventing him commenting? Or is it because the report will eventually be reviewed by a fellow barrister, and it would never do to have one barrister commenting on the opinion of another? James Berry needs to make his position clear, or what is the point of an MP?
Appendix – Case Study – Sandwell Council’s Wragge/Gowling Report and QC Opinion on It
A similar case that serves as a benchmark is Sandwell Council’s Independent Person investigation into allegations against deputy Council Leader Mahboob Hussain. The Independent Person investigation commenced in March 2015, a separate QC report on this report was issued in May 2016, and the reports made public despite High Court challenges from the deputy Council Leader involved. Far more efficient than Kingston!
The Localism Act of 2011 requires Councils to set up a code of conduct and investigate breaches of it, and to appoint Independent Persons whose views are to be sought before the Council makes any decision. In the case of Sandwell, a law firm called Wragge, who later became Gowling, were appointed.
The accusations in the Sandwell case were more specific and easier to investigate than Osbourne, as they related to land sales which have documentary evidence trails. Paedophile infiltration is much more difficult to prove and requires skilled investigators, such as those of the NSPCC. Hence the cost of the Osbourne investigation should be far higher.
The process is complex. During the investigation, the team has to do interviews, review documents, engage in multi-agency coordination (for example, in the Osbourne case the team will have to speak to the Kingston Safeguarding Children Board, Childrens’ Services, the Police, the Rose Theatre, IYAF organisers, etc). They then produce a draft report that has to be ‘Maxwellised’ – meaning provided to Derek Osbourne for his comment and review before being finalised. The Gowling report, which was published on Sandwell Council’s website, is 72 pages long. Before being finalised, the deputy Council leader launched High Court action against Sandwell Council.
After Maxwellisation, which in the Sandwell case was a process fiercely contested by the accused lawyers, finalisation of the report can occur. Partly due to questions over the independence of the Gowling report (it appears their appointment was not put out to tender by the Council) the Council then requested a QC barrister review the Gowling report for them. The QC produced a further 79 page report before giving an opinion, also publicly available on the Sandwell Council website.
To imagine that such a process can be done for £10,000 is beyond incompetent, particularly as the Sandwell case was contemporaneous.