Council blocks report on child victims

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Editor

A council voted yesterday to suppress an independent report into one of Britain's worst child sex abuse scandals because of fears that it could help seriously damaged victims in their legal claims.

The decision by Clwyd county council came after an 11th-hour intervention by Municipal Mutual, its insurers, who threatened to cancel the authority's cover against claims for a possible pounds 20m in compensation from abused former residents of care homes in the county.

Welsh Labour MPs condemned the move as "Kafkaesque" - while the affair could set worrying precedents for the gagging of future council-initiated inquiries. That is because it appears to establish that a council's duty to protect its finances from legal action will always take precedence over its duty to protect children by revealing the mistakes and failings of the past.

The inquiry team, led by former Derbyshire social services director John Gillings, began work two years ago amid widespread concern about sexual and physical abuse in North Wales children's homes. The report into seven Clwyd homes is estimated by Labour MPs to have cost at least pounds 500,000, but most of the 40 copies in circulation will now be pulped after all but a handful of Clwyd's 64 councillors opted to halt publication.

The investigation covered one of the longest-running and most serious abuse scandals involving children in local authority care. From 2,000 statements and 150 complaints, 58 files were sent to the Crown Prosecution Service, but just seven men were eventually convicted of sex abuse or assault in separate prosecutions brought during a four-year police investigation covering 46 homes in total.

John Allen, formerly of the Bryn Alyn Home, Wrexham, was jailed for six years for sex offences against boys. Peter Howarth, former deputy head of the council-run Bryn Estyn, near Wrexham, was jailed for 10 years for assaulting seven boys between 1974 and 1984.

According to North Wales sources, among a host of findings the report criticises Clwyd social services' running of its own homes, the infrequency of visits to homes by the Welsh Office's Social Services Inspectorate, and inadequate responses by the authorities to signs that children in care might be being abused.

The interests of the children often took second place to the preservation of professional positions, the report is understood to say. The interviewing methods of the North Wales Police are also said to have been raised, and the report highlights the need for a judicial inquiry because of the refusal of some witnesses to speak to the Gillings team.

Clwyd hurriedly called off a press conference to launch the report last Friday after Browne Jacobson, solicitors for the Municipal Mutual, insisted that its contents could help up to 40 abuse victims secure compensation for their suffering. Some former residents were so traumatised by their childhood experiences in the homes that they later committed suicide.

Municipal Mutual got into financial difficulties in 1991, is in a "solvent run-off" situation and is prevented from writing new business. Outstanding business is being handled by Zurich Mutual.

Councillors were also warned that they could be made personally liable for legal payouts, risking bankruptcy, disqualification from office and loss of their homes. They were likewise warned that any publicity that could create the climate for more claims risked being construed as helping alleged victims. The gag the council has decided to impose on its own members is such that they are prevented from even revealing the report's recommendation for a judicial inquiry.

Michael Beloff QC advised the council last week that it could risk losing its insurance cover if it released a report in which negligence was admitted. He also advised that a council was under no legal duty to inform the public of anything and that the fiduciary duty [duty of trust] of a local authority towards its electors and taxpayers was first and foremost to look after its financial interests. Yet Westminster Council felt able the day before yesterday to sanction publication of a report criticising it for housing homeless families in asbestos-ridden tower blocks.

The May 1991 report into "pin down" where children were kept in solitary confinement was commissioned and published by Staffordshire County Council whose insurers later paid out pounds 1.7m in compensation shared between about 140 victims.

Ron Davies, the shadow Welsh secretary, has written to William Hague, Secretary of State for Wales, urging him to place the report in the House of Commons library for MPs to consult. Members could then raise its contents on the floor of the House under the protection of parliamentary privilege.

Rhodri Morgan, Labour MP for Cardiff West, said yesterday: "It is just not credible in the late 20th century that we are going to be shredding this report. It is positively Kafkaesque. If it involves a change in local government law or executive action by the Welsh Office then Mr Hague must take that action."

But the Welsh Office's response was that the affair served to confirm that it had been "right" to set up a "paper investigation" by child-care expert Nicola Davies QC, who took no evidence. While most council members agreed to abide by the legal opinion, one said: "I agree that admitting liability in specific terms would void the insurance. But it is outrageous if you cannot even acknowledge the existence of a problem because it would cause extra publicity.

"Britain ought to wake up to the fact that it's got a walking time bomb on its hands with people around the country having done the most awful and lasting damage."

Ms Davies, appointed by Mr Hague's predecessor John Redwood, recommended a thorough examination of Clwyd and Gwynedd's social services departments and of private children's homes. She rejected a Cleveland-style full-blown judicial inquiry, saying that since it would deal with events before 1989 it would be mainly of "historical interest".

Adrianne Jones, the former Director of Social Services for Birmingham, was appointed to head the examination and will report to ministers in May.

But the Clwyd case raises the prospect that other council inquiries would be suppressed or not even begun.