Two Bury council officers deliberately delayed investigating allegations against Labour politician ahead of election, independent inquiry concludes
An internal report concludes two top officials put off child protection procedures so that the claims did not surface ahead of the poll
Two Bury council officers deliberately delayed investigating paedophilia allegations against a Labour politician, an independent inquiry has concluded – in order to help the party’s chances in 2015’s knife-edge general election.
An explosive internal report seen by the M.E.N. concludes two top officials put off child protection procedures so that the claims about Simon Carter did not surface ahead of the poll.
Carter, at the time Labour councillor for Tottington, was eventually convicted of downloading sexual images of children five months after the election. But – as reported previously – the council had initially failed to fully ensure children with whom he might have contact would be protected.
That included not properly informing the schools at which he was a governor.
Former chief executive Mike Owen is alleged to have admitted delaying procedures to do Labour ‘a favour’, a claim he has strenuously denied.
Both he and the council’s director of children’s services Mark Carriline resigned last month. Mr Owen quit before a disciplinary investigation was complete and Mr Carriline resigned after being found guilty of serious misconduct.
But now the extent of the allegations against them – and in particular claims that their ‘inexplicable’ behaviour was linked to the election – can be revealed by the M.E.N.
They are contained in an extraordinary dossier of reports to be considered by Bury councillors on Thursday evening, including the results of two separate independent inquiries into the matter.
The first, written by childcare expert Malcolm Newsam, is particularly damning. It concludes their actions were either the result of ‘direct political influence’ or ‘the mistaken belief by senior officers that they needed to be seen to be doing their best to protect members of the Labour group from any political embarrassment at a sensitive time’.
He concludes Mark Carriline kept the allegations ‘under wraps’ rather than fully inform the governors of the schools involved, one of which had a Tory councillor on its board.
A report second, by Charles Bourne QC, is more measured, concluding there was no ‘cover up’ but highlighting a particularly ‘close working relationship’ between Mr Owen and the council leader, alongside a string of failures and inconsistencies in the accounts given to him.
Initial concerns about Carter – at that point still a councillor for Tottington – were first passed to Mike Owen by an officer at his former employer, Oldham council, on April 1, 2015, five weeks before the general election.
It emerged that – unknown to Bury council – Carter had been sacked by Oldham in 2010 after being caught looking at sexual images on his computer, including pictures of ‘pre-teens’.
That information had been passed to the police at the time, but no further action had been taken.
However the Oldham council officer was concerned that Bury should know.
On learning of the incident Mr Owen did not immediately inform his director of children’s services Mark Carriline – who legally had responsibility for child safeguarding – or anyone else in Bury town hall, other than the Labour council leader, Councillor Mike Connolly.
Coun Connolly says Mr Owen, who at that point was interim chief executive, had told him as a ‘heads up’ about a ‘serious problem’ with one of his councillors. Coun Connolly then informed the regional Labour party.
Nobody else was informed for over a week.
Mr Owen later told both inquiries he had been explicitly advised by police to tell nobody at all, particularly children’s services. The detective he spoke to told Bourne this was not the case, although he admits to saying ‘leave it with us’, or words to that effect.
For the next eight days children’s services director Mr Carriline remained unaware of the issue, eventually finding out when the Oldham council officer rang him.
At that stage he and Mr Owen say they held a meeting – no records of which were made – and decided to start a safeguarding investigation.
However no formal action was begun until April 13, nearly a fortnight after the information had first come to light.
In his report Newsam notes a ‘reluctance’ by the officers to deal with the case as it would any other similar safeguarding issue. Given that the police would be anxious for Carter to remain unaware of their inquiries – in case he disposed of incriminating material – he also slams Mr Owen’s decision to tell Coun Connolly, a Labour colleague and ‘friend’ of Carter.
Doing so was ‘clearly wrong’, he concludes.
Charles Bourne’s report echoes Newsam’s view, finding the decision to tell a ‘close personal friend’ and political colleague of Carter to be a ‘serious error of judgement’.
At the same time Mr Owen and Mr Carriline failed to keep a series of senior safeguarding officers – all of whom should have been informed – in the loop.
The liaison officer legally charged with advising those connected with Carter about the investigation – including the schools at which he was governor – was not involved until May 5, more than a month after he should have been informed, despite having repeatedly asked for information on the case.
By the time he was involved Carter had already been arrested on suspicion of dowloading indecent images of children after police raided his house and seized his computer. He had been bailed under conditions that banned him from having contact with children.
Despite there being – according to Newsam – a ‘clear and pressing need’ to inform the liaison officer immediately, instead Mr Carriline chose to personally visit the headteachers of the schools in question.
He did not inform their respective governing bodies, one of which included a Conservative councillor, or tell them to suspend Carter from their boards.
As a result Newsam finds the eventual safeguarding investigation to have been deeply flawed and to have broken a string of strict guidelines.
Having been given no ‘satisfactory’ explanation for the delays and breaches, Newsam writes regarding Mr Carriline: “I am left with the conclusion that appropriate procedures put in place to handle allegations were sidestepped because of the overwhelming ambition to keep this information under wraps.
“It has been put to me that given the impending elections, that the driving motive was to ensure that the concerns in respect of Councillor A [Carter] were not known to political opponents.
“Given that there was an opposition elected member on the governing body it is difficult not to come to the same conclusion.”
In April and early May 2015, the Labour party were fighting to win the parliamentary seat of Bury North, in which constituency Carter’s ward of Tottington sat, from the Conservatives.
Ultimately Labour narrowly lost out on a victory by just 358 votes, before finally snatching it in this year’s election.
Expanding on his belief that the election played a role in the delays, Newsam also points to a meeting between Mike Owen and group leaders more than a year after Carter’s conviction, at which someone else in the room took notes.
The minute read: “Mike Owen said he was doing a favour to the Labour group by protecting it and Mike Connolly from the political impact of it at the time.”
Mr Owen told the inquiry he did not remember saying that and that he had never seen the notes of the meeting. In a statement issued today he describes the claim as ‘abhorrent’.
Nonetheless Newsam concludes his delayed actions were driven more by ‘political considerations to protect the Labour administration’ than they were by safeguarding.
Similarly he finds that Mr Carriline also ‘placed political considerations above his statutory safeguarding responsibilities’.
Again noting the lack of explanation for their actions, which he considers to have been deliberate, he adds: “This leads me to conclude that the management of this case was constrained by direct political influence or the mistaken belief by senior officers that they needed to be seen to be doing their to protect members of the Labour group from any political embarrassment at a sensitive time.”
The extraordinary saga is continued in the second report, by Charles Bourne QC, which formed the basis for disciplinary action against both officers.
While much more measured in its conclusions, the report notes a ‘close working relationship’ between then-council leader Mike Connolly and his chief executive, also pointing to the minutes claiming Mr Owen said he was doing Labour a ‘favour’.
This, Bourne suggests, could suggest ‘a more sharply improper motive’.
However he concludes that it was the close relationship with Coun Connolly rather than any ‘party political bias’ that was responsible for his approach. He also says he does not believe delays amounted to a ‘cover-up’, given that Mr Owen believed the eventual safeguarding investigation was effective.
But he questions the ‘reliability’ of Mr Owen’s evidence to his inquiry.
In a statement, Mr Owen said he had ‘denied deliberate wrongdoing from the outset’, had only delayed telling colleagues about the allegations against Carter on police advice and had ‘always been scrupulously politically impartial’ throughout his career.
Any suggestion he had been doing Labour a favour was ‘abhorrent’, he added.
Mr Carriline has declined to comment.
Meanwhile the reports also reveal how the Labour council leader helped Carter get a lighter sentence.
Carter was convicted in September 2015 of downloading dozens of images, including the most extreme Category A type.
In a character reference submitted by Coun Connolly to Carter’s sentencing, he stated – despite knowing of the reasons for his dismissal from Oldham council four years earlier – that Carter’s offence was ‘totally out of character’.
“I have known Simon Carter both as a friend and colleague for over 12 years,” he wrote.
“In all that time I have known him to be trustworthy, honest and reliable. In giving reference, it is in the full knowledge of the charges he is facing.
“I was utterly surprised to hear of the charges against him, which I believe to be totally out of character.”
Carter was spared jail at sentencing. Passing judgement, Judge Timothy Stead told Carter: “The letters of testimony written on your behalf are impressive,” before handing him a three-year community order rather than a prison sentence.
Coun Connolly, who was last year mayor of Bury and remains on the council, has referred himself to the standards board.
Neither report suggests that he told officers to delay safeguarding proceedings, but his actions are likely to be the subject of a forthcoming independent inquiry into the behaviour of political members at the time.
The Labour party was today considering suspending him.
Coun Connolly told the M.E.N. he had referred himself to standards ‘as I have nothing to hide and I want to be open and transparent’.
“I cooperated fully with the Newsam Report and the Bourne Investigation and I will cooperate with the subsequent Standards investigation,” he added.
“It would be therefore inappropriate to comment further.”
Both the Newsam and Bourne reports were commissioned by Bury council’s new Labour leader Rishi Shori as questions over the case emerged late last year, more than 12 months after Carter was convicted of making indecent images of children.
A resulting disciplinary panel in April this year accused both officers of – among other things – ‘ulterior motives’, gross misconduct and gross dereliction of duty.
Mr Carriline resigned shortly after being found guilty of serious misconduct and Mr Owen resigned the day before he was due to face his disciplinary hearing, citing ill health.
It is understood the Bourne and Newsam investigations have cost Bury council upwards of £180,000.
Statement from Mike Owen
“The Council has today published a report summarising the Human Resources and Appeals Panel’s meeting on the 28 February 2017 and the 19 and 20 June 2017.
“Those meetings related in particular to the Newsam and Bourne reports, which respectively examined the way in which Council Members and officers, including myself, dealt with allegations made against an ex-Councillor.
“I was not in a position to attend the Panel’s meeting as my GP had earlier declared me too unwell to attend.
“In order to reduce cost and avoid disruption to the Council and its employees, and having come to the conclusion that my position as Chief Executive was untenable irrespective of the outcome of the hearing, I felt it would be in everyone’s best interest if I resigned ahead of the Panel’s meeting.
“Therefore, after 31 years’ service with the Council, I decided to resign on 18 June and I would stress that I have received absolutely no compensation or financial inducement.
“Accordingly, I should now like to take the opportunity to make this statement in connection with any comment or queries arising from the Council meeting on 20 July 2017.
“I have not had the opportunity to make any representations to the Council on these matters.
“Right from the outset, I have denied any deliberate wrongdoing in this case.
“This was a totally unique, complex and sensitive situation caused by the actions of an ex-Councillor and, by acceding to a request from the Police to allow them a short amount of time to investigate historical allegations, I honestly believed I was acting in everyone’s best interests, including the wider Bury community.
“The Bourne report (relying on the evidence to him of the relevant senior police officer) accepts that I was asked to leave matters in the hands of the Police – which I did.
“In doing this my actions were intended purely to help obtain evidence so that the Police and CPS could achieve a successful prosecution, which they did.
“The Police themselves have praised the Council on a number of occasions for excellent partnership working on the case in question and I am pleased that we were able to secure a very speedy conviction of the ex-Councillor.
“At the same time, effective safeguarding took place and no child was harmed.
“However with the benefit of hindsight it is clear that, despite my best intentions, due to inexperience (the matter arose on my first day in the Chief Executive role) I made procedural errors of judgment in this case and that is something for which I am truly sorry.
“I also deeply regret any disruption that this has caused to the Council, an organisation that means the world to me.
“I absolutely refute the allegations made in the Council report for the meeting on 20 July that my actions were intended to ‘help’ the previous Council Leader and to impact the result of the election.
“These are abhorrent allegations that go against everything I believe in and which appear to be based on inaccurate assumptions about my motives.
“They are not, in my opinion, backed by credible evidence or by either the Newsam or the Bourne report.
“During my career, I have served administrations of all political colours and have always been scrupulously politically impartial.
“The same applied to my relationship with the then Leader. He did not ask for, nor did he need nor was he granted any ‘help’ from me at any time.
“Finally, at no point did I have, or seek to have, any impact on the safeguarding proceedings and I did not encourage any departures from standard procedures.
“I am very proud to have served the people of Bury for over 30 years and I wish the Council’s outstanding staff, to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude, and the Council’s partners and service users nothing but the best for the future.”