In the courts: Welsh Office gets blame for inaction on child abuse

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The Independent Online
It was suggested at the North Wales child abuse tribunal yesterday that lack of action by the Welsh Office created the climate in which the `evil actions' of some carers could go undetected. Roger Dobson looks at the accusations.

Welsh Office failings under the Tories may have allowed a climate in which abuse in children's homes could flourish, the North Wales abuse tribunal was told yesterday.

"If the basic mechanisms to safeguard and sustain the welfare of a child in care were not in place, and the Welsh Office through ignorance or otherwise did not intervene effectively, what prospect was there that the evil actions of a minority of carers would be prevented or detected?" asked Gerard Elias QC, counsel for the tribunal.

"From the point of view of a victim of abuse, the Welsh Office was in all probability as unknown as it was unseen," he said in his opening speech on the role of the Welsh Office.

He revealed that in the mid-Eighties, when abuse is now alleged to have been widespread, the Welsh Office reduced the number of inspectors it employed from 14 to five. By the early Nineties, he said, there was only one inspector to deal with child care. Last year, the inspectorate was increased to nine.

The tribunal was told that from 1976 to 1987 there was no formal system to monitor services or standards. The Welsh Office was also accused of ineffectiveness, of being non-interventionist, of substituting excuse for strategy, and of being unaware of persistent failings at local level. "The tribunal may think that ... the Welsh Office failed to plan by setting aims and objectives, failed to ensure that the local authorities understood what was expected of them, failed to set and ensure minimum levels of service and standards, and failed to collate and disseminate information about the services and needs that the local authorities were expected to provide and meet," Mr Elias said.

He added: "The tribunal may conclude that the Welsh Office's almost inanimate, non-inquisitive stance, affected as it undoubtedly was by a paucity of resources, rendered it far less likely to discover and deal with abuse as and when it existed."

He said that the Welsh Office had the power to be the ultimate inspector of homes and supervision of child care: "Yet from 1973 to 1996 there is no real evidence that such supervision had either any defined aim or effect and indeed there is now clear evidence of repeated and extensive breaches of statutory duty by local authorities which were apparently unknown to the Welsh Office.

"It is submitted that a victim would have been hard pressed to discern the existence of any effective or significant exercise of these powers, at least in ways which might have facilitated the detection and prevention of abuse. While it is accepted that, in common with other agencies, the Welsh Office could not hear cries for help that were not made at the time, the failure to play a more forthright role may have reduced its chances of detecting the signs of an abusive regime, thereby permitting a climate where abuse could flourish."

The Welsh Office response to a major national report was also criticised. Why was a circular not issued after the Kincora report restricting home managers' job to qualified staff? "The tribunal may think that the ... response to the report was as ineffective in this case as it was in respect of may other reports," he said.