I hoped this week to end the year with a seasonal reflection on the work of East Devon and a few civic hopes for the new year. That will need to keep till January though.

Last week our Audit & Governance committee considered an interim statement from EDDC’s external auditors, Grant Thornton. Usually, these reports concentrate on how a council is running its finances, from external contracts and procurement to monitoring of key performance indicators.

This is vital and legally obligatory work, and the joke amongst auditors goes that if a council ends this process wreathed in smiles then they aren’t doing their job properly. If they did not identify room for improvement, there would be no point having an auditor.

This year, Grant Thornton made the decision to look at the subject of the council’s governance. In particular they were as concerned as I have been for many years about anonymous allegations of bullying.

For legal reasons I can’t go into my personal experiences of this, but from the public record I can identify the start for me as the attempts in the lead up to May 2020 - when I was elected Leader - to prevent there being any meeting to elect a new Chair of council. This came near the start of the pandemic, and I had to battle to ensure we even had an Annual meeting. The Conservatives, who then held the Chair wanted to keep it, to hold no Annual meeting, and run the council under the blanket authority of our now former chief executive. This was profoundly undemocratic.

However, with the help of a brave and much maligned young councillor I was able to repeatedly quote our own constitution back at the Conservatives and our officers. The Annual meeting went ahead, I was elected Leader, and have been elected as such every May since then. The ensuing cross-party administrations have got on with the job, though clearly we had displeased many for whom East Devon had been a comfortable one party state for the previous five decades.

Since then, I have been aware of the word “bullying” being raised. Hence no jolly Christmas missive, I am afraid because I have to use this space to be unequivocal.

First, East Devon as a council has an incredibly strict Standards process. Second, if any allegations of bullying by a councillor are made, they are independently assessed by a legal team and passed for external investigation. This is rightly a confidential process – presumption of innocence being the bedrock of British justice – so I have no more knowledge about the number of allegations than anyone else.

However, the third, hard and indisputable fact is that there has been no finding of bullying against a single councillor in the entire time covered by the Grant Thornton report, also by the way the time I have been Leader.

To be frank, the most awful part of this year has been the doubts raised through an independent report concerning how back in 2016 the council reacted when it became aware that then Cllr John Humphreys had been arrested for what was later proved as sex crimes against underage males in Exmouth. A Safeguarding process should have been instantly triggered, but was not. Humphreys is now serving 21 years. It would be a good start to the new year if his allies and those who enjoyed his hospitality came clean about all that at last. It is highly likely that this will be raised in Grant Thornton’s report for the current year in due course.