Editorial: We cannot fail children again

Lord McAlpine's settlement is more than 10 times the average awarded to victims

The scale of what happened is not really appreciated, says Peter Garsden of Abney Garsden McDonald solicitors, who is president of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers. He told The Independent on Sunday that 41 out of 43 police forces have conducted inquiries into alleged abuse. And he estimates that 1,000 people are now pursuing compensation for abuse as children in care, most of them for sexual abuse.

As Roger Dobson, our reporter who has covered the North Wales care home scandal for two decades, wrote last week, many of the victims have suffered terribly. He reported on the fate of the four Johns brothers, two of whom are dead. One was unlawfully killed in a fire 20 years ago; another died of a drugs overdose three years later. The fate of the other two is unknown. "More than a decade ago, they were in hiding, fearing that their brothers had been the victims of foul play and that they were next." Today, we publish the testimony of the brothers' teacher, who knew them before they were abused.

Mr Garsden says that money is usually the last thing on a victim's mind. "It is more about being believed, being told it was not their fault, and that there was nothing they could have done to stop the abuse." All the same, the rest of society has a duty to make financial recompense as well. Here we come across a striking disparity. We were glad that the BBC settled so promptly with Lord McAlpine, the Conservative former treasurer who was wrongly accused, if not named, in the Newsnight programme. But his £185,000 settlement is more than 10 times the average compensation awarded to victims of care-home abuse. According to Mr Garsden, the damages won in a recent case handled by his firm averaged £13,900, and in some cases awards have been as low as £2,000.

As we say, we do not begrudge Lord McAlpine his money. No one who heard his interview on the radio last week could doubt the pain caused to him by the untrue allegation. But his suffering has not been weighed in the same scale as that of the hundreds of people whose lives have been ruined by paedophile abuse in care homes.

And we do begrudge the "compensation" secured by George Entwistle, who resigned as director- general of the BBC over the failings of its journalism in the McAlpine case. As our ComRes opinion poll today confirms, nearly 80 per cent of licence fee-payers are opposed to his pay-off, which was £225,000 more than that to which he was contractually entitled. Lord Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, said this excessive generosity was "justified and necessary", and that "the alternative was long drawn-out discussions and continuing uncertainty". We are unimpressed.

Our focus, however, as we said last week, should remain on the suffering of the victims of child sex abuse, whose testimony has been downplayed and disbelieved for too long. For that reason, we welcome the announcement last week by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, of his support for Frontline, a scheme to get top graduates into children's social work. It is an idea for which this newspaper has campaigned and on which we reported three weeks ago. Mr Gove's endorsement is a hopeful sign that the quality of child protection in this country can be raised dramatically.

That is what we owe the vulnerable children of the future. Meanwhile, we should compensate more generously the vulnerable children who have been failed in the past.