Child sex inquiry promises protection

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Victims of alleged abuse at children's homes in North Wales, and those accused of abuse, could be given anonymity during the hearings of the judicial inquiry into the affair, which are expected to take a year.

Witnesses have also been old that anything they say in evidence cannot be used against them in a criminal court.

At the opening meeting of the North Wales Child Abuse Tribunal yesterday, the chairman, Sir Ronald Waterhouse, said that counselling services would be available for those who gave evidence.

The first meeting of the tribunal, which will begin taking evidence in January and which is expected to cost around pounds 6m, was attended by more than 30 barristers, solicitors and legal staff, including Sir Louis Blom Cooper QC, who will represent some of the abused, and Gerard Ellias QC, a counsel for the tribunal.

The Welsh Office, North Wales Police, councils and their insurers, senior council staff, including at least one director, and workers at the homes are among those who will have legal representation during the hearings. Police officers who were subject to allegations and disciplinary investigations will, the tribunal was told, be represented separately.

The tribunal was set up by the Secretary of State for Wales, William Hague, following allegations that several hundred young people had been abused, sexually or physically, at homes in North Wales over a 20-year period. Seven men have been jailed in recent years, but publication of a report into the scale of the abuse has been stopped.

At least 40 civil cases seeking compensation have been filed by alleged victims of abuse, and more are in the pipeline.

Sir Ronald told the crowded hearing at Ewloe, Clwyd, that the first duty of the tribunal was to assess the scale of the abuse. He said that several thousand social service files were having to be examined and that the police had taken statements from 2,600 people.

He said: "I must stress that we shall not be conducting a series of criminal trials or prosecutions. We are not a jury. Our duty is to inquire and our procedure will be essentially inquisitorial rather than adversarial."

He added: "Witnesses who complain of abuse may be granted anonymity if they wish to conceal their identity from the public at large. The tribunal will give similar protection, as far as it can, to persons against whom allegations or criticisms are made."

He said such witnesses may be referred to by a letter or number.

Sir Ronald said that the Attorney General had looked at the position of people giving evidence to the tribunal. "He has authorised me to say that anything which any witness says in evidence before the inquiry will not be used in evidence against him or her in any criminal proceedings."