Child abusers escape the net

Libel fear and technical problems stop checks
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The Independent Online

Public Policy Editor

Paedophiles involved in the Islington child abuse cases could still be working with children around the country because a system designed to prevent that happening has failed.

Fear of actions for libel and bureaucratic barriers have prevented councils checking their current employees to ensure that none are among the staff involved in the 32 cases of alleged child abuse in Islington, north London, that stretch back to 1982. The cases were highlighted in a report in May which condemned the council for allowing "political correctness" to stand in the way of investigating the cases properly.

Islington, on legal advice, has refused to pass the names to other local authorities. It has given them to the Department of Health. But the department is not prepared to circulate the names for fear of libel. Other councils say they face legal barriers to trawling through their child care staff in order to see if they are former Islington employees.

Jeff Rooker, Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr who revealed the situation, said the public had been "grossly misled". "Every impression was given in May that these people would be traced to check whether they were working for other social services departments," Mr Rooker said, when plainly that was not happening.

Ian White, Director of Social Services for Oxfordshire, who named the suspected staff in a confidential annexe to his inquiry into Islington, said: "It is perfectly possible that there are people on the list who are still working in child care and who may well have a case to answer - and they cannot be touched."

His own guess was that "they are a tiny number - less than a handful". He confirmed that legal and administrative barriers have hindered implementation of his recommendation that the names should be checked. Important lessons needed to be learnt from that, he said. The situation came to light after Mr Rooker wrote to Birmingham social services department asking what action it was taking.

Fiona Mytton, head of social services personnel, told him that new and recent applicants were being checked to see if they had worked for Islington. But Islington had been unable to release the names of 20-plus people involved in the 32 cases while it took legal advice. It would, she said, "be very difficult to trawl all [Birmingham's] appointments to child care work over the last 10 years".

In addition, such action "could be subject to challenge" if there was no evidence that a risk existed. The council said yesterday that 2,000 past and present employees would have to be checked, and it had faced "several" legal problems, including the right of access to records and possible actions for libel and defamation.

Mr Rooker then approached Islington whose chief executive, Eric Dear, told him that the council was not able to release the names to other local authorities on legal advice. It had, however, been supplied to the Department of Health which maintains an index of people considered unsuitable for employment in child care.

Mr Rooker then wrote to John Bowis, Under-Secretary of State for Health, saying: "On the one hand I am told there could be a legal challenge if an authority trawls its appointments - on the other hand the body in possession of the few relevant names clearly has legal advice not to disclose them. You have to clear this up." Mr Bowis replied that his department would check any names submitted. If the check proved positive, those inquiring would be advised to contact Islington. The department's role was purely as "a referral agency".

The minister's answer, Mr Rooker said, "completes the circle of non-action. Effectively, these ex-Islington employees will never be checked upon by a social services department."

Leading article, page 12