Leading Article: The cruelty that thrives on secrecy

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The Independent Online
LOCAL authorities are responsible for the residential care of some of Britain's most vulnerable people. Children, the disabled, the mentally ill and the elderly all rely on councils to fulfil a legal duty to protect their interests, whether they are housed in public or private accommodation. The failures of these authorities have been well documented. Barely a month seems to pass without fresh tales of abuse in bleak, poorly staffed children's and old people's homes.

Proper action is usually taken once abuse has been discovered. Homes are closed, staff are prosecuted or disciplined. For example, Frank Beck, a former social worker, was jailed for life in 1991 after abusing dozens of children in Leicestershire County Council homes. The police traced hundreds of possible victims on three continents to build up evidence about crimes that had taken place more than a decade before.

In this light, the behaviour of Buckinghamshire County Council is a disgrace. As we reported yesterday, the council's inspectors concluded in June that mentally handicapped adults had been 'continually subjected to a catalogue of abuse, deprivation, humiliation and torment' in two privately owned homes. They described a Dickensian culture reminiscent of the worst Victorian asylums. The charges were made by former members of staff.

Yet no legal action has been taken. The police should explain why they have not pursued the matter with as much vigour as their Leicestershire colleagues demonstrated in the Beck case. The report remains confidential and the homes are still open, run by a son of the couple held primarily responsible for the scandal. Relatives of the residents remain in the dark about the inquiry's findings. The council has confined circulation of its report to those authorities that have placed people in the homes.

In mitigation, Buckinghamshire County Council says that those who used to manage the homes have been removed, and that there is now no evidence of mistreatment taking place. Closure has been ruled out by the council's social services department on the grounds that such action would be strongly contested at great financial cost in the courts.

Buckinghamshire officials have decided not to place anyone else in the homes. In other words, the council has left open homes that it no longer trusts to care adequately for mentally handicapped adults from the local population. The council's secretive approach prevented families from seeking help for those who may have been abused, or indeed removing them from the homes. The suspicion must be that the inspectors' findings have been kept quiet to avoid the risk of civil law suits against the council.

Virginia Bottomley should tell the council to close the homes immediately, given that Buckinghamshire has failed to perform its duty. Having fought off recent attempts to weaken regulation of private residential homes, the Secretary of State for Health should also require that in future all local authority inspections must be published and made available to the families of would-be residents.

It is difficult to see how the public can retain its faith in the Buckinghamshire authorities to protect those in their care. Without the unambiguous commitment of council officials to punish malpractice, no amount of well-conducted inspection will put an end to continuing abuse in residential homes.

There are also larger issues raised by this scandal. If residential homes really were part of our community, with plenty of visitors and outside support, oppressive regimes would not develop and thrive. The isolation of these institutions leaves them prey to dark influences. For this state of affairs, we should all, perhaps, accept some responsibility.