Council gives way to pressure for independent abuse inquiry

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The Independent Online
Buckinghamshire County Council yesterday bowed to government pressure and agreed to set up an independent inquiry into the abuse of mentally disabled people in two private care homes.

After long resisting calls for further investigation, the council acted within hours of a stern request from the health minister Paul Boateng who met authority leaders last week.

Mike Appleyard, chairman of the social services committee, said that the issues had been studied by the Department of Health, the Social Services Inspectorate and the Local Government Ombudsman. But they agreed with the minister that "another detailed look at this long-running and complex case may be helpful". The council will set up the inquiry as soon as possible and the results will be published, Mr Appleyard said.

Residents at two homes run by Longcare Ltd in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, were subjected to physical and sexual abuse over a 10-year period.

Angela Rowe, the former co-owner of the homes, was jailed for two-and- a-half years last month for ill-treating residents in her care. Another member of staff was also jailed and another fined. Her husband, Gordon, committed suicide a day before he was due to be charged by police.

Families of victims were severely critical of Buckinghamshire council, which had failed to detect any signs of abuse despite being responsible for regulating the homes.

Mr Boateng was understood to have been unhappy with answers he received from members of the council at the meeting last week. In his letter to David Shakespeare, the council leader, yesterday, Mr Boateng said there were still lessons to be learned about the way Buckinghamshire had carried out its regulatory powers.

"After my long discussion with your member and officers I remain concerned that the magnitude of the risk to people with learning disabilities receiving residential and other services is not properly appreciated in your authority."

He said an inquiry should examine the decision not to cancel the registration of Longcare immediately the abuse was discovered. It should also look at the adequacy of the current services for people with learning disabilities and the effectiveness and reliability of the regulation of residential care homes.

Mr Boateng said: "I am determined that perseverance and courage shall be the hallmarks of a regulatory system which must be seen to protect weak or vulnerable people."

The decision was welcomed by Pauline Hennessey, whose late sister Janet Ward was said to have been raped by Gordon Rowe. Mrs Hennessey said: "I'm absolutely delighted. The families feel that an awful lot could be learned from the failures of Buckinghamshire. It's an important step forward for people with learning difficulties for their protection in future."

Kevin Grealis, a solicitor representing several victims who seek compensation, said the families had long wanted an independent inquiry. However, he asked that it should not delay any civil proceedings. The council should not be allowed to use the inquiry as a reason to put off court hearings on the compensation issue, he said.