A clean-up plan for social work

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Paedophiles are sophisticated criminals, endlessly seeking fresh access to children. They wheedle their way around half-hearted efforts at restricting their behaviour. So the price of protecting children, especially in institutional settings, is eternal vigilance.

The Department of Health knows this. So do local councils. Both have responsibility for children's homes and should have learnt the lessons of past scandals. Yet, as we reveal today, they preside over a shambolic system of checking up on would-be employees.

Care workers suspected of abusing children in Islington council homes may, we report, already be working in homes elsewhere. A recent report alleged that more than 20 one-time Islington staff may have allowed men to abuse boys and girls, introduced children to blue movies and turned a blind eye on children abusing other children. In all, 26 children were affected by the alleged abuse over a 20- year period from the early Seventies. Ten, now grown-up, are still receiving counselling.

Yet the names of the staff have not been circulated to other local authorities. The only way councils can discover if they have hired one of these workers is by cross-checking with the Department of Health. And even this exercise is of limited value. Most of the accused from Islington never faced formal proceedings. so they could not simply be sacked. As a result, some paedophiles have probably escaped to offend again.

Who is to blame ? First, Islington council for failing to investigate the allegations for more than a decade. This means that we don't know which of its former employees were responsible for the abuse. Margaret Hodge, leader of the council at the time, should hang her head in shame. But the Government is also at fault. It could introduce much tougher regulation of those who work with children. At present there is only a murky blacklist of undesirables kept by the Department of Health which is incomplete, out-of-date and inaccurate. It misses out some dangerous people while including some who are innocent but have been smeared by unfounded allegations.

This system should be replaced by a central register of those working with children in residential care, policed by a General Social Services Council. Only those accepted on to the register would be eligible for employment. They would face investigation, much as a doctor can be called before the General Medical Council, if accused of unprofessional conduct. Childcare staff could be struck off, and so rendered unemployable, if found guilty.

These changes would be simple enough to implement. The Department of Health has had a detailed blueprint for introducing such reforms since 1993. The National Institute for Social Work put forward the proposal after Frank Beck was jailed for abusing children in three children's homes over a 13-year period. But still nothing has been done.

If Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, genuinely values children in the care of the state, he should act immediately to set up a register. Bad childcare workers do as much damage as quack doctors. They should be regulated just as strictly.