Soham report: chief constable suspended

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The Independent Online

Home Secretary David Blunkett today suspended Humberside Chief Constable David Westwood in the wake of a highly-critical report into failures of police intelligence about child killer Ian Huntley.

He acted after the report by Sir Michael Bichard revealed a "deeply shocking" catalogue of errors.

Sir Michael reserved his most severe criticism for Humberside Police and called on Mr Westwood to take "personal responsibility" for a host of "very serious failings" in his force.

Speaking to reporters, Sir Michael stopped short of calling for him to resign.

But, responding to the report, Mr Blunkett told MPs he agreed that final responsibility for the failures rests with Mr Westwood and he announced that he had asked Humberside Police Authority to suspend the chief constable immediately.

There was no immediate reaction to Mr Blunkett's announcement from Humberside Police.

A spokesman said Mr Westwood would make a statement at 3pm and would not be commenting before then.

However, speaking earlier today, before the report was released, Mr Westwood insisted he would not be resigning from his post.

He said he would remain in his role to fulfil a promise to the parents of Huntley's victims Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman "to put things right".

Mr Westwood said: "I gave a personal commitment to the parents of Holly and Jessica and to the police authority here, to the public here and the Home Secretary that I would put things right."

The crucial shortcoming was the inability of police in England and Wales to share information, the report found.

It proposed a new "passport" system for registering people who work with children and vulnerable adults.

The new register could grant a licence or card to workers who pass stringent vetting, and should be constantly updated, said Sir Michael.

He also urged the Home Office to consider earmarking urgent funds to prop up the "ageing" Police National Computer and set up a new national intelligence system.

The chairman said the failure "contrasts sharply with the progress made in Scotland", where a single intelligence database will be available to every Scottish police officer by the end of the year.

While he ruled that none of the errors uncovered led directly to the deaths of 10-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgeshire, in 2002, Sir Michael said: "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'."

The 200-page report spared none of the parties involved with Huntley, or the criminal justice system at large.

The Home Office, Her Majesty's Inspector Social Services and the Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO) all came in for criticism.

But Sir Michael's sternest attack was reserved for Huntley's involvement in sex allegations in the 1990s.

It only emerged after his conviction that Huntley was at the centre of fouralleged rapes and indecent assault and four alleged incidents of underage sex.

Humberside either deleted or failed to retain records on Huntley's murky past.

Humberside's failures were "not isolated or the result of simple human errors", the Bichard report said.

Its local intelligence system was "fundamentally flawed" while its child protection database was "largely worthless".

The force was "haemorrhaging" intelligence in a way which cast doubt on the usefulness of its records as a whole, the report found.

Sir Michael concluded that Humberside Police had the "most fundamental failures" to maintain adequate intelligence.

He said they were not just "systemic and corporate" but also "endemic" and continued for "very many years".

The chairman stressed that the evidence suggested the problems were not just confined to those involved in the contacts with Huntley.

The report concluded on Humberside: "I am fully aware that senior management cannot be realistically expected to know about every failure.

"However when the problems are of this scale in a function critical to effective policing, the importance of which had been highlighted nationally on several occasions by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) then I do believe that senior management could and should have done more to identify and then deal with them.

"From March 1999 at the latest, that was ultimately the personal responsibility of Chief Constable Westwood."

Sir Michael highlighted a raft of areas of failure within Humberside Police.

The report said the force's main record system - known as CIS nominals - was not used properly and intelligence forms, which officers should fill in, were not effective.

Other databases were also not used properly, there was a failure to share information with social services - in relation to the underage sex allegations - and there were "failings and confusion" surrounding the retention and deletion of files on the system.

The report said: "There was not one single occasion in all of the incidents in which the record creation system worked as it should have done."

Sir Michael also said the inquiry found it "unacceptable that such serious failings in Humberside Police's intelligence systems should remain undetected for a period of years".

He said training and guidance of staff was inadequate and fed the confusion.Guidance on record creation, review and deletion was either "non-existent, or at best, confused".

The only intelligence report ever written on Huntley, which warned he was a "serial sex attacker" was deleted from Humberside's files a year after it had been submitted.

The inquiry previously heard that a pattern was not spotted in Huntley's involvement in four alleged incidents of underage sex in Grimsby during the mid 1990s, despite three happening within a month of each other.

Sir Michael today said the inability of Humberside Police and the social services to identify Huntley's behaviour pattern soon enough was one of the key failings.

Sir Michael said errors by Cambridgeshire Police were not as bad as Humberside's but they were "serious".

The force was responsible for vetting Huntley and gave him the all clear to work as a caretaker at Soham Village College.

It was from there he murdered ten-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in August 2002.

The report criticised Cambridgeshire for entering Huntley's date of birth incorrectly on to a database and for not checking Huntley on the Police National Computer (PNC), only his alias Nixon.

The inquiry also concluded the force had failed to request a vetting check from Humberside Police.

Sir Michael said there was a lack of guidance and a failure by management to identify the problems.

He said the errors were serious enough that he would have expected the Chief Constable Tom Lloyd to have spotted them earlier than he did.

Soham Village College was criticised for accepting five open references - headed "To Whom It May Concern" - as they were "by their nature, unreliable".

The inquiry chairman said Huntley should not have been allowed to start work before all necessary checks had been completed.

Sir Michael said he had "misgivings" over the way social services handled their contacts with Huntley over the underage sex allegations.

No action was ever taken against him despite him admitting at least one of the allegations.

He also asked why that case had not been referred to police.

Sir Michael said the Home Office and PITO - the body responsible for developing police information systems - must share responsibility for there not being a national intelligence IT system.

He said the Home Office should "take the lead more effectively than it has during the past decade, to deliver these priorities".

Responding to the report Cambridgeshire Chief Constable Tom Lloyd apologised for the errors made by his force.

He said the "lasting legacy of the Soham tragedy must be to see the full implementation of his recommendations so that we all learn from this case.

"I cannot say anything that will bring comfort to the families of Holly and Jessica in their loss. I remain wholly impressed by their courage and dignity.

"But I can assure them on behalf of Cambridgeshire police of my unreserved commitment to supporting the full and effective implementation of the Bichard recommendations.

"As I acknowledged during the inquiry, the errors made by my Constabulary as part of the vetting process were serious and I apologise for them.

"However, as Sir Michael Bichard has pointed out, Cambridgeshire's failings, though serious, were neither systemic nor corporate."