Leading Article: Cowardly in Clwyd

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The Independent Online
For years, children in the care of Clwyd County Council, children for whom that local authority was a parent, were assaulted and abused. An outside expert was brought in to identify what had gone so dreadfully wrong. He produced a catalogue of failings and recommendations for change. Where is his work?

The answer is: it has been suppressed. Councillors will not discuss it. The report might have done something to redress the grievance those young people have against the public authority that failed them. An account from which other social services departments (and police forces) might have learnt has been killed.

Clwyd decided that its principal obligation was not to the children, nor to the public's interest in making sure vulnerable groups get safe, efficient services, but to its cashflow. It was advised by barristers that in the world of modern local government it must think, first and foremost, of its duty to council taxpayers. That, apparently, means sitting on a report in which the council admits its fault. Why? Because to publish the report would have been to arm plaintiffs seeking compensation from it which, in turn, would have damaged its finances. Clwyd was helped to this decision by its insurance company, which warned that it would remove cover from the council if it published the report.

This scandal is an offence against open and accountable governance and a recipe for managerial inefficiency, which goes well beyond one Welsh council. The Government has known about pressure from insurers for some time and done nothing. Inconsistency rules. Leicestershire was ordered by the Department of Health, using a power given to it by the Children Act 1989, to hold an inquiry into a long chapter of abuse in its homes. That report said the council was negligent. Compensation is being paid to victims. If Leicestershire, why not Clwyd?

It turns out that some of the claims made against Leicestershire, and against Staffordshire after the "pindown" inquiry, helped to break the back of the local authority insurer Municipal Mutual. That same company, which is in a process of winding down its business, has told Clwyd not to publish. A failing insurer should not be allowed to make social policy. Local authorities have statutory obligations to children. The Department of Health has made clear more than once that it expects the results of inquiries to be published. Councils also have statutory obligations to publish information about their management performance. Yet a legal opinion suggests fiduciary duty stands above all of them.

The law needs to be tested. It is not too late for the cowardly councillors of Clwyd to bite the bullet. Publish - for the sake of the children - and face the consequences. Where abuse occurs, there must be inquiry and rectification. If that means pushing up premiums for liability insurance, so be it. Insurance rates will drop if, and when, councils perform better and cease to be liable. They will only do that if they learn from error. That is why Clwyd's act of suppression is so wrong.

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