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Officers clash in accounts of how 'mass fraud' in council youth service was dealt with

PUBLISHED: 07:00 30 August 2019 | UPDATED: 16:09 30 August 2019

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The "time limited" youth services probe ended in 2017. Picture: Mike Brooke

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A former Met Police borough commander broke down in court while giving evidence about a corruption probe in the council service he used to oversee.

Andy Bamber was summoned to East London Tribunal Centre to speak as a witness in a tribunal case brought by former forensic investigator for Tower Hamlets Council, Mark Edmunds.

Mr Bamber, the former head of service for safer communities, went on sick leave in April 2016 and never returned - due, he said, to the stress of handling inquiries into criminality in the youth service.

Mr Bamber was one of three people who gave evidence this week in an unfair dismissal claim brought by Mr Edmunds.

He said that he and other investigators had been subject to harassment and threats connected to their work for the council.

In addition, he said on Tuesday, evidence from Mr Edmunds's probe into corruption and fraud in the youth service had been given to police - but they sent it to a PC, not a detective.

By June 2016 police involvement had ended and no criminal prosecutions were ever brought, despite dozens of individuals investigated by Tower Hamlets from 2014 to 2017.

The council instead went down the disciplinary route and a number of people left their posts - and in some cases were reportedly paid off - or remained in the local authority's employ amid a welter of allegations of criminality.

"I have known the Metropolitan Police for 30 years," Mr Bamber said, "and I didn't feel they put a significant amount of resources into it."

Mr Bamber was asked by barrister Francis Hoar about files going missing during the course of the investigation.

He said it happened "all the time", adding: "Files went missing from my office while I was off sick. My office was deemed to have been a secure environment."

In addition, Mr Bamber said, the caseload "mushroomed" as he and Mr Edmunds started to examine the allegations.

There was a concern, he said, that some documents they requested such as grant applications had been "manufactured".

In his own claim, Mr Edmunds has alleged that senior officers deliberately obstructed his work in order to close down the investigations.

He claims he was discriminated against by reason of his race and sex so as to cause him to leave his job while it was still needed.

Tower Hamlets Council has denied the claims. Two officers named by Mr Edmunds, Claire Belgard and Ronke Martins-Taylor, also gave evidence on Wednesday and Thursday.

Ms Belgard was the interim service manager from November 2015 onwards and now works for Newham Council.

She said Mr Edmund's role had become redundant by late 2017, adding that he "was working on specific allegations which were always intended to be time-limited".

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She was also quizzed on whether risk assessments launched after Mr Edmunds reported threats and harassment were taken seriously.

One risk assessment was not signed off 18 months later, she said, because they "couldn't agree" on the content.

By January 2017, some 58 individuals were identified in relation to misconduct and a Youth Service Project Group was tasked with deciding if there was a case to answer for each.

Of these, 11 sacked for gross misconduct were referred to the disclosure and barring service (DBS) over their suitability to work with children and vulnerable adults.

Ronke Martins Taylor, then-chair of the Project Group and now the council's divisional director for youth and commissioning, also gave evidence.

Ms Martins Taylor said her role had been to "transform and restructure" the service.

But both she and Ms Belgard said despite their senior roles, they were not aware of and had not taken it upon themselves to find out the full details of the alleged corruption - and both said it was a "mystery" to them why the previous head of service, Dinar Hussain, had left post.

She was asked why Mr Edmunds had not been invited to the Project Board's first meeting in July 2016 - when the head of media had been.

In addition, she was asked about allegedly inflated scores given to external organisations in the tender process for the 2016 Youth Service Summer Programm, which went on to underperform.

Ms Martins Taylor said procurement was a "parallel" exercise to investigations and in all cases, due process had been followed.

The hearing continues.

Reporting the reports: What happens next?

A judgement will not be made until December this year at the earliest, and a number of witnesses have yet to be called.

While this hearing relates specifically to Mr Edmunds's unfair dismissal claim, the 2,000-page evidence bundle includes evidence of alleged corruption and criminality that Mr Edmunds collated while working for Tower Hamlets Council.

On Tuesday members of the press applied to have all of these documents made available so that their contents could be responsibly reported on.

Two Conservative Tower Hamlets Councillors, Andrew Wood and Peter Golds, asked for the same documents in order to carry out their scrutiny function as councillors, but were turned down.

Judge John Critchley has ruled that witness statements, skeleton arguments and cast lists involved in the case should be given to journalists.

But a decision has yet to be made on the supporting evidence, which includes the names of scores of people and organisations that were investigated as part of the probe. Questions hang over how far these documents should be redacted - and if so by whom, and who should pay for it.

On the request of Tower Hamlets Council, a reporting restriction prevents the names of 10 people from being reported in connection with proceedings. This restriction ends on September 5.

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