Gravediggers' request for hearing before council is snubbed

Northumberland County Council has refused to allow discussion of the the sacking of two Berwick gravediggers at a public meeting

Malcolm Purvis, Heather Purvis, Carol Gregory and Chris Gregory
Malcolm Purvis, Heather Purvis, Carol Gregory and Chris Gregory

Supporters of two sacked gravediggers were dealt a blow when a request for their arguments to be heard before councillors was rejected.

Former Berwick gravediggers Chris Gregory and Malcolm Purvis had asked Northumberland County Council’s North area committee to support their quest for a probe into their dismissal by the authority, and an apology.

However, the duo were told their question could not be put to the committee’s meeting as it was “not the correct forum.”

In November 2012, the county council revealed that “problems” were suspected at the North Road and Tweedmouth cemeteries after the authority took over management of the sites from the now defunct Berwick Borough Council in 2009.

Chris Gregory and Malcolm Purvis, gravediggers at the two sites, were suspended and eventually sacked after an investigation found apparent irregularities, but have always denied any wrongdoing.

The council initially feared there could be around 30 cases of burials in the wrong grave, the wrong memorial being on a grave, deeds having been issued incorrectly or an unregistered burial having taken place.

The men had been arrested in October 2010 amid allegations they assaulted their manager and pushed her into an open grave at the Tweedmouth cemetery, although police took no further action.

In April, the council released the results of an independent audit into the apparent anomalies which it says confirmed there were “serious issues with record keeping, poorly completed statutory records (which are a legal requirement) and the information available to the public.”

It also discovered an “error with a previously reserved (but empty) plot within one of the cemeteries which has now been resolved with the family concerned.”

However, the council said its “very worst fears...did not come about.”

Berwick’s former deputy mayor Georgina Hill, on behalf of the duo, last week wrote to the county council putting forward a question for its North area committee.

This called for the committee’s support for the gravediggers’ request for an internal investigation into “unsubstantiated allegations which originated from representatives of the authority,” which ultimately led to their dismissal. The question also sought an apology.

Coun Hill has sent a similar request for support to the town’s retiring MP, Alan Beith, and the candidates bidding to replace him at the next election.

Yet she was told the question could not go before members. Coun Hill said: “Coun [Steven] Bridgett [committee chairman] claims that the question tabled for the North area committee ‘involves potential disclosure of exempt material’ yet we are pointing to stories in national newspapers which raise serious questions about the involvement of county council officers and elected members in a series of stories which brought the council into disrepute.”

A council spokeswoman said: “The North area committee would not have been the correct forum in which to raise these kind of allegations.

“We would also restate that while we can’t talk about individual disciplinary cases for legal reasons, it’s important to point out the disciplinary processes in this matter considered a number of serious issues and we’re satisfied the outcome of the hearings and the subsequent appeals still stand.”

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