and COLIN BROWN
Detectives in the Cromwell Street murder inquiry are following several new leads after their appeal for information on nine missing women known to have visited Frederick and Rosemary Wests' home.
Police yesterday stressed that there was no evidence that the women had come to any harm and said that they had no plans to start fresh searches for human remains. But they still have more than 1,000 incomplete lines of inquiry to check and a decision is to be made about which to follow up.
As controversy grew over the failure by Gloucestershire police, health and social services departments to spot warning signs of abuse and murder in Cromwell Street, Government ministers sought to avoid becoming embroiled in the row.
Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, last night resisted pressure from his own backbenchers for a public inquiry. Ministers are adamant that the system has been improved since the Maria Colwell inquiry in 1974.
However, Tory backbencher Emma Nicholson argued yesterday that Government claims that children had adequate protection were not true. "Today's children are not protected. I am in utter despair at the exposure of professional incompetence and of the inadequacy of systems," she said.
"I am appalled by the failure of the services to look after those children. All they are saying is that it is all too difficult and it was a long time ago. It is absolutely desperate. I feel so strongly I can't bear it."
Miss Nicholson demanded the resignation of "those in authority" in the case and called for a Royal Commission "to look at the whole way we protect vulnerable children".
Douglas French, Tory MP for Gloucester, repeated his call for a public inquiry and condemned the official report into social services departments involved in the West case by the Bridge consultancy as "woefully inadequate". He said: "What they have done is to look at hundreds of documents but they have not spoken to people at all."
A second strand of criticism emerged with calls for new laws to prevent tabloid newspapers buying up potential witnesses in major criminal cases.
At least seven witnesses at the Winchester trial of Rosemary West spoke of media deals of up to pounds 100,000. Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, who will conduct a review of the law on payments to witnesses with the Lord Chancellor and the Home Office, said the payments were like a form of Russian roulette and had threatened to blow proceedings out of the water.
"Are we running a criminal justice system as an entertainment business, or something the public has confidence in and which will deliver justice?" said Sir Nicholas.
There was confusion over the position of the Press Complaints Commission following claims that Lord McGregor, its former chairman, had told a tabloid editor that he would not be in breach of the code of conduct for newspapers by paying a witness for a story because the rules were so ambiguous.
A leading social services official said last night that there was no guarantee that there could not be another case like the West catalogue of murder and abuse.
"No one with any sense can give an absolute guarantee that it couldn't happen again," said John Ransford, the honorary secretary of the Association of Directors of Social Services. "But we can, with a degree of certainty ... [say] it is extremely unlikely that a situation like that would build- up and the signs not be picked up."
But while the child abuse system was much improved, there remained considerable difficulties about helping runaways - such as those who fell victim to the Wests.
"As youngsters of 16, 17 and 18 come up to adulthood they have rights as citizens to control their lives to a growing extent, and to disappear if they want to. And if they want to disappear, it is a relatively easy thing to do," he said.
Detective Superintendent John Bennett, head of the murder investigation, said the police had received 24 phone calls from the public since Rosemary West's conviction on 10 murder charges.
Half of these provided information about some of the nine missing women who all visited Cromwell Street at some time during the past 20 years. One of the calls related to Marilyn, a woman who lived in Gloucester in the early 1970s.
The remaining 12 callers had given police "positive lines of inquiry that they can follow", said Det Supt Bennett.
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