Our worst child abuse scandal must not be hushed up

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The Independent Online
A national scandal is unfolding in north Wales: a report into what could be Britain's most appalling child abuse case is being suppressed. The scandal is not just that at least 100, and possibly double that number, children were systematically abused, while in the "care" of the state in the 1970s and Eighties. It is that a 300-page report into the affair has not been published and there is little sign that it will be soon.

The scandal is one of the most organised and widespread cases of child abuse yet uncovered, involving a network of people in different local authority homes. At least 16 former inmates of the homes have since died, several through suicide, in circumstances that were related to their dreadful treatment. It is not as if the authorities were unaware of what has gone on. Since 1974, more than 50 staff have been disciplined and several have been convicted. Yet none of the 14 reports into the affair, 12 of them internal, has been published. This is a cover-up on a massive scale. The public is being denied information about how services operated in its name have been systematically exploited for the purposes of sexual abuse of the most vulnerable children. Victims are being denied access to the information they need for redress.

The latest and most comprehensive report was compiled by a team of three external childcare experts led by John Jillings, the former head of Derbyshire social services. It was commissioned last year by Clwyd County Council. Earlier this month, the council decided not to publish the Jillings report and demanded that all numbered copies of the document be handed in for pulping. It is said the council took this decision because it feared publication would lay it open to legal claims. There are some suggestions that the council's legal advisers warned that the report was libellous. Another suggestion is that the council's insurers, Municipal Mutual, warned councillors that the report would help the victims to pursue claims for damages against the council. The insurer is alleged to have warned the council that in those circumstances it would not provide cover for the claims against the council. There are still other allegations that this has provided the council with a convenient excuse for not publishing the report.

That is not the end of the story, though. Neither the insurance company nor the council exists any more. Clwyd County Council was swept away at the end of March in another wave of local government reorganisation. Responsibility for the report has now passed to Flintshire County Council, which has "administrative" responsibility for it. Pinning down the insurance company is just as difficult. Municipal Mutual, which was a leading local authority insurer, went bust in October 1992. Most of its business was then bought by Zurich Mutual, a Swiss giant. Zurich Mutual denies it has any responsibility for the case. It says it is a matter for Municipal Mutual, but Municipal Mutual is winding down.

So this is the situation. One of the worst child abuse scandals ever is met with a wall of organised irresponsibility and buck passing. The history of abuse and mismanagement at the homes is compounded by the way the imperatives of the private insurance market and the secrecy of local government have worked together to prevent publication of a vital report.

As a result, answers to even the simplest of questions are difficult to obtain: who is now responsible for deciding whether the report should be published? Put another way: whose report is it?

It seems the answer to both questions will be William Hague, the Secretary of State for Wales. A version of the Jillings report is sitting on Mr Hague's desk, awaiting his return from a trade mission to the United States. It is not Mr Hague's report. But, at the end of the day, in the highly imperfect world created by our system of local government, it seems that, politically, Mr Hague's office is the only place where a decision about publication can be taken.

That is not completely illogical. The Welsh Office is not immune from criticism. It is responsible for overseeing the funding of Welsh local authorities. It operates the system of inspections that so clearly failed to identify or do anything about abuse that took place over many years. Yet it is also an indictment of the way that the case has been handled that a decision on whether to publish the Jillings report should be taken only when the buck is passed all the way up to the Secretary of State.

One lesson from the affair is that the legal status of these reports needs to be clarified to make it clear what power insurance companies have over them. It is quite normal for there to be a conflict of interest between an insurance company and someone making a claim against it. However, where the interests of the insurance company threaten to override the public interest, as they might do in this case, it should be perfectly possible to arrange exemptions. One step would be a voluntary code of practice adopted by insurers to make clear they will not prevent publication of information in the public interest. Zurich Mutual, for its part, says it would never seek to prevent a councillor making public such a report. It would simply point out, in the normal way, that claims against a policy would probably lead to loss of discounts or bonuses. There is nothing sinister in this; it's just normal insurance practice.

However, a better solution may to give reports such as this special legal protection to make sure they can be published. One possibility might be that inquiries such as this should be conducted under the wing of a public watchdog answerable to Parliament, such as the National Audit Commission. This formalisation of the status of these reports would help the insurance companies. It would make it clear they had no influence over whether reports such as this could be published. That would put councillors squarely on the spot to take responsibility for making the information public. They could not hide behind the insurers. In the long run, the only way we can have any hope that scandals the like of Clywd will not occur again is if documents such as the Jillings report are made public and the lessons within them are learnt.

This is the most troubling issue Mr Hague has had to deal with since assuming his post. He should consider long and hard how to publish the report. But the answer to the big question is already clear: the report must be published and Mr Hague must order it to be published.