Call for inquiry into social services

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The Independent Online
PATRICIA WYNN DAVIES

AND COLIN BROWN

A public inquiry should be held into the repeated failure of local agencies to uncover the nightmare at the West home in Gloucester, Douglas French, MP for the city, said last night.

The MP said the failures "trouble me very deeply. It is at the very heart of the matter."A personal distress hotline to ensure future abusers were never allowed again to practise evil with such impunity should be established, he said.

"The total amount of information spread among the different agencies - social services, police, health and education - would have been sufficient to set the alarm bells ringing. The problem was that no single agency had all the information."

Mr French said a key lesson from the tragic events was that incoming information must be collated at one point. "There could be an equivalent to the 999 call - a personal distress hotline, say 666, that went across the country."

Had such a system been in operation, it was possible that some of the murders could have been avoided, the MP said.

The official report by the Bridge consultancy catalogued a series of failures, including a failure to share information, but said that no child protection system in Britain could have predicted the catalogue of murders. Mr French said his hotline suggestion, and a discussion about its practical implementation, should be raised in a public inquiry to bring together all the expert opinion about the prevention of abuse.

The Government was, however, damping down expectations of any fullscale inquiry. A Government source said: "It's very hard to lay down guidelines to deal with sex-mad killers who are very good at covering their tracks." It was pointed out that the first case involving the Wests took place before the Maria Colwell inquiry, after which new procedures were put in place for the police to inform social services of suspected abusers.

But there was concern among MPs. Peter Temple-Morris, Tory MP for Leominster, said: "It needs to be examined now we have got this trial over with. The fact that such a large number of murders took place in the area, and that it was not discovered sooner, is a cause for concern. We will need to learn any lessons from it."

Jack Straw, the shadow home secretary, said: "This was an appalling case almost beyond belief, and there will obviously need to be lessons to be learned about how so many people can go missing."

Peter Luff, Tory MP for Worcester, from where one of the victims came, said: "If mistakes have been made, procedures will have to be reviewed urgently. There should be no excuses for any failures."

But Sir Ivan Lawrence QC, Tory chairman of the cross-party home affairs select committee, said: "Social services always take a hammering when something goes wrong like this, but they also take a hammering when they do too much to interfere in the lives of individual families."

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