One of Britain's most high-profile murder cases was dogged by 'shocking failures'

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The Independent Online

When two 10-year-old girls disappeared in a small Cambridgeshire town, it turned into one of the most highly publicised police investigations of modern times. Yesterday, nearly two years after the deaths of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the failings which surrounded the Soham murders were forcefully highlighted in a scathing report by Sir Michael Bichard.

When two 10-year-old girls disappeared in a small Cambridgeshire town, it turned into one of the most highly publicised police investigations of modern times. Yesterday, nearly two years after the deaths of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the failings which surrounded the Soham murders were forcefully highlighted in a scathing report by Sir Michael Bichard.

It concluded a series of "shocking" failures in police intelligence may have resulted in potential child killers, such as Ian Huntley, avoiding detection. The national police intelligence network, the police service's inspectors, the Home Office, and many aspects of child protection were criticised by Sir Michael, who called yesterday for a radical overhaul of the present system.

His 200-page report follows a £2m inquiry set up in the wake of Huntley's conviction for murder in December 2003. It was revealed after the trial that a wealth of material about Huntley, including allegations of his involvement in nine sex offences in Grimsby in the 1990s, had been deleted from police files or ignored. This failure of intelligence allowed Huntley to obtain a job as caretaker at Soham Village College in Cambridgeshire in 1991. It was while in this post he murdered Holly and Jessica.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, ordered Sir Michael to set up the inquiry into the child protection and vetting procedures at Humberside and Cambridgeshire police, the two forces who had dealt with Huntley.

Sir Michael concluded yesterday: "The inquiry did find errors, omissions, failures and shortcomings which are deeply shocking. Taken together, these were so extensive that one cannot be confident that it was Huntley alone who 'slipped through the net'."

He reserved his most damning comments for the Humberside force and its Chief Constable, David Westwood. Mr Westwood paid the price for his force's failings yesterday when the Home Secretary ordered his suspension.

Sir Michael made a swingeing attack on Humberside's intelligence systems. He said that officers were "alarmingly ignorant" of how the intelligence system worked, and that the child protection database was "largely worthless".

Sir Michael said: "As a result, intelligence haemorrhaged in an alarming way; the pattern of Huntley's criminal behaviour was not identified remotely soon enough and the various investigations of Huntley might well have been handled differently if the officers involved had known about past incidents.

"I have concluded there were very serious failings in the senior management of Humberside Police and the current chief constable must take personal as well as corporate responsibility for not identifying and dealing with these earlier."

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary was censured for not spotting failures in intelligence-gathering and record-keeping.

Another crucial shortcoming had been the inability of police in England and Wales to share intelligence.

"Astonishingly there is still no national IT intelligence system nor indeed a system to ensure that forces can identify when intelligence is held on an individual by another force," Sir Michael said.

Mr Blunkett has accepted most of the report's recommendations. He has announced the setting-up of a temporary national intelligence-sharing system and has also promised to consider a more rigorous vetting procedure for people wanting to work with children.