The shock of the Soham murders must force through these urgent reforms

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The inquiry, chaired by Sir Michael Bichard, into how Ian Huntley obtained the job of Soham College caretaker, with lethal results, was never going to make comforting reading

The inquiry, chaired by Sir Michael Bichard, into how Ian Huntley obtained the job of Soham College caretaker, with lethal results, was never going to make comforting reading. Had police intelligence, social services records and school vetting procedures all worked as they should have done, two young girls would still be alive. Ian Huntley was able to kill because he had slipped through a net expressly designed to catch child sex offenders and potential murderers with profiles exactly like his.

In fact, as Sir Michael's report established, Huntley slipped through a whole series of nets, many of them riddled with holes and some - despite volumes of well-intentioned regulations - hardly in place at all. It is not difficult, with hindsight, to identify the individual faults. There is the Humberside police intelligence system, described in yesterday's report as "largely worthless", which failed to keep track of Huntley and erased the record of a rape charge against him. There is the headmaster who failed to check Huntley's references, the agency clerk who ticked a box saying that she had verified Huntley's personal details, but had not; the Cambridgeshire police who did not request records from Humberside and who were caught off guard and seriously out of their depth when faced with a double child murder.

Rightly, Sir Michael concentrates less on these errors of the past, which can never be corrected and will forever burden the consciences of those who made them, than on failings of leadership, management and systems which must be rectified in order to minimise the risk of similar errors in future. Among the recommendations to be welcomed are his proposal for a registration, or "passport", system for all those wanting to work with children or vulnerable adults, with access for employers and a built-in appeals process for applicants. This makes far more sense than the current unwieldy and seemingly haphazard system of vetting and should be put in place as speedily as possible. It might not be foolproof, but it would be a great deal better than what we have.

Sir Michael is also right to call for improvements in the existing, and outdated, Police National Computer, the urgent standardisation of police intelligence record-keeping across all forces, and a clear code of practice to govern the agreed system - based on the model that already exists in Scotland. It defies belief that, in this computer age, there are as many sets of local police intelligence records in England and Wales as there are forces and precious little meaningful communication between them. Personal data must, of course, be protected. But if such a system can work successfully in Scotland, there is no reason at all why it cannot work elsewhere.

Several of Sir Michael's recommendations, has been proposed before by other inquiries after other tragedies that could have been prevented. The hope must be that on this occasion the shock that the Soham murders still evoke will finally force the necessary changes. Also needed, however, will be political will, which means the support of the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and public money.

Mr Blunkett yesterday undertook to implement the Bichard inquiry's recommendations in full. But he also precipitated a new stand-off, by correctly ordering the suspension of the Chief Constable of Humberside, David Westwood, whose leadership was subjected to devastating criticism in the Bichard report. Mr Westwood's position is clearly untenable and his refusal to "go quietly" can have only two explanations. Either he is an unusually stubborn individual, or he sees himself protecting the autonomy of regional police forces as part of a wider, national debate.

For the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the Soham case is that it is high time for Britain to have a national police force to combat and investigate the most serious crime. This might not prevent a new Soham, but it would make it harder for another Huntley to slip through the system and it would facilitate the subsequent investigation in the unlikely event that one did.