The extent of the abuse is greater even than in the scandal in the neighbouring county of Clwyd, which the Independent on Sunday revealed earlier this year.
Six Cheshire care workers, all male, have already been jailed for terms of up to 10 years in prison after being found guilty of well over 100 counts of sexual, indecent and physical assault on residents of children's homes; at least another nine prosecutions are in the pipeline, involving many more charges.
The Cheshire scandal has been the subject of an enormous police investigation, in which all 2,500 former inmates of homes in the county since the mid- Sixties were sought for interview. But its extent has remained unpublicised, not least because of a series of court orders banning publication of the names of four of the principal homes concerned, which can be referred to only by their police code names: Granite, Emily, Bugle and Enamel.
The effect of the ban has been that the court cases have been reported in isolation, with the astonishing scale and extent of the abuse remaining unseen.
Martyn Jones, Labour MP for Clwyd South West, said last night: "This seems to fit in with the pattern as seen in Clwyd, but the number of cases is really frightening. It is appalling. It makes you wonder what safeguards there are in place for these kids who have nowhere else to go."
"This is the largest inquiry there has been and may well be the largest there ever will be," said a member of the 24-strong team of detectives involved in the case, based in Widnes, who traced more than 2,000 former children's home residents. Of these, more than 300 - one in seven - made specific allegations that they had been abused while in care.
The Cheshire scandal will give substantial impetus to the calls for a full judicial public inquiry into child abuse in children's homes across Britain, which were prompted by the Clwyd affair and the refusal of Clwyd County Council to publish its own report on it.
This weekend a group of parents of more than 40 children sexually assaulted in Cheshire residential homes have written to the Prime Minister asking for an inquiry and calling for the ban on naming the homes to be lifted. (The ban also extends to the naming of witnesses and the naming of future defendants.)
They say in their letter: "We feel the time has now come for a totally independent inquiry into child abuse because of the large number of care workers arrested and convicted in the Cheshire area. While we appreciate it would be very costly, we believe that it is the only way forward which would satisfy the public."
One of the parents who wrote the letter to Mr Major and who cannot be named - his child was one of those abused - said last week: "We really must do something about these evil people who infiltrated children's homes. We cannot dismiss it as just a few odd loners. This abuse was rampant and across the country and the Government cannot hide from that."
Mike Hall, Labour MP for Warrington South, also wants action. He said yesterday: "A national look at this would now be in everyone's best interests." And a senior police officer involved agreed. "I have no doubt in my mind that there has to be - will be - an inquiry. I think the whole bloody child care system needs looking at," he said.
The police investigation has spread to Cheshire's other neighbouring county of Merseyside, where at Liverpool Crown Court recently two children's home workers were jailed for terms of 13 and 15 years.
The Cheshire detectives have also tried hard to find links with the Clwyd scandal, for which seven care workers have been jailed in the past four years, but their search for a paedophile ring has been hampered by the unwillingness of many of those convicted to talk.
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