Saturday, November 03, 2012

Newsnight and the North Wales child abuse scandal

After the build up it received, yesterday's Newsnight was something of an anticlimax. The 'senior Conservative' alleged to have been involved in the abuse of children's in local authority homes in North Wales.

But the programme did at least one valuable service in revealing further shortcomings of the inquiry held in the late 1990s by Sir Ronald Waterhouse. [Later. You can read his report online.]

There had already been an internal inquiry conducted by Clwyd County Council. According to Newsnight, the findings were so damning that the council insisted all copies were returned to it and pulped. One suspects it would be harder to suppress such a report in the internet age - something for which we should be grateful.

For the Waterhouse Inquiry, the young people making accusations of abuse first made statements and were then questioned on the matters raised in the statements and those alone.

Yet according to more than one of them interviewed for Newsnight, it was made clear to them that there were some things that could not be included in statements, and they included the names of prominent individuals they claimed had abused them.

And this was not the only failing of the Waterhouse Inquiry. As Nick Davies wrote in the Guardian back in 1997:
When the tribunal was established last year, it had been assumed that the press could report its proceedings, using the laws of privilege which allow them to name names from court cases and public hearings without fear of libel actions. 
However, Sir Ronald then ruled that the media could not report the name of any living person who was accused or likely to be accused of abusing children in the North Wales homes unless they had previously been convicted of such an offence. Since then he has extended his ruling twice: he has granted anonymity to one man who died 16 years ago and to another who has twice been convicted of sexually assaulting boys from a North Wales home. 
Sir Ronald has argued that his ruling will encourage paedophiles to come forward and to give honest evidence without fear of retribution. Critics say that this is unnecessary since he has the power to compel witnesses to attend and that those who have come forward have done so to deny the allegations against them and not to make a clean breast of their alleged offences. 
One lawyer who has been involved with the tribunal said he feared that the anonymity ruling was actively discouraging witnesses. “Newspaper readers may well have information of potential value to this tribunal. They may themselves have been the victims of abuse, or they may have worked with the alleged abusers. But if the press is not allowed to inform them of the names of those against whom allegations are made, they will not learn that their information is important. So they will not come forward.”
This approach was not unique to Sir Ronald. The lawyer who conducted the inquiry into abuse in Leicestershire children's homes in the 1970s and 1980s conducted most of it in private and refused, beyond a prepared statement, to answer questions about its findings when it was published.

Leicestershire County Council was probably alone, however, in trying to avoid paying compensation to young people who had been abused in its homes by arguing it did not have a duty of care to them.

Later. Further evidence that the Waterhouse Inquiry was flawed.

8 comments:

Frank H Little said...

BBC Wales has failed in its duty in my opinion in giving more coverage to the US elections than to Bryn Estyn, especially as the Children's Commissioner for Wales has added his voice to the demands for a full investigation. A generation has grown up since that scandal broke and need to be informed - and their elders need to be reminded.

Anonymous said...

thank you for your excellent research into this cover-up on behalf of top level paedophile ring. More and more we see the establishment spends £millions of our money to protect an elite group of Politicians, judges, barristers, solitictors,Police and their buddies. There is no end to their depravity.

SCALLYWAG MAGAZINE HOW THE TORY'S COVERED UP THE ... http://google-law.blogspot.com/2012/10/scallywag-magazine-how-torys-cover-up.html?spref=tw

Iain Sharpe said...

In the light of today's Lord McAlpine story I wonder whether you have any second thoughts about your implicit call for the Jillings report to be made public?

According to Richard Webster, among the reasons it was not published was that it named specific people accused of abuse without giving them a chance to respond to the accusations.

It might be compared with the Shieldfield case, in which two nursery workers, despite being cleared of abuse in court, were then accused again in an official Newcastle City Council report. They had to sue the council (successfully) for libel to clear their names. But not after having to spend years in hiding and in fear for their safety in the light of the predictable tabloid coverage of the council's report.

There might be those who think it is the job of state agencies to name publicly those accused of vile crimes without giving them a chance to defend themselves, and compromising their chances of a fair trial. But surely as Liberals we should at least have our doubts about that sort of thing!

There was rightly outrage at the treatment of Chris Jefferies by the tabloids earlier this year. Does the fact that it's a council or government agency doing the accusing make it any better?

Jonathan said...

Ian

My point was that Clwyd County Council should have acted upon the Jillings Report rather than pulped it.

If it is a choice between suppressing a report on institutional abuse and leaking it, I will always be in favour of leaking it.

But the correct course of action for Clwyd would have lain in the wide tract of country between these two extreme positions.

Iain Sharpe said...

But the Jillings report was presented to the last ever meeting of Clwyd County Council in 1996. How could a body that no longer existed act on the report?

The Jillings report has been accused of being of such poor quality that it didn't give much to act upon. But clearly I haven't seen it and can't judge.

The point is that publishing or leaking the Jillings report would have meant making public accusations of what is commonly regarded as the vilest and most unforgivable crime against people who might be innocent, who have been given no chance to defend themselves, who lack Lord McAlpine's resources to threaten libel action, and whose safety might be put at risk by publication.

Is that really a course of action Liberals should favour?

Jonathan said...

But the Jillings report was presented to the last ever meeting of Clwyd County Council in 1996. How could a body that no longer existed act on the report?

This is disingenuous. Clwyd County Council had successor authorities and there were transition arrangements. The Jilling report could have been taken further rather than pulped if Clwyd wished. Certainly, some people were outraged by this decision at the time.

The Waterhouse Report (32.51) says:

"At this time the Welsh Office was encouraging the successor authorities to produce an edited version of the Jillings recommendations but was unwilling to publish such a document itself. The successor authorities did not, at first, reject the idea of publication and discussed with Jillings the possibility of preparing a ‘safe’ version but they concluded by 6 June 1996 that they could not publish the report and the Secretary of State was so informed. The problem then receded, however, with the Prime Minister's preliminary announcement on 13 June 1996 of the Secretary of State's intention to institute a public inquiry.”

It seems to me that a ‘safe’ version of the Jillings Report should have been published. Waterhouse (32.61) suggested that the Law Commission should look at establishing “a general statutory provision enabling local authorities to institute inquiries into matters of wide public concern and to publish the reports of such inquiries to the public at large with the protection of qualified privilege”.

The pulping of the Jillings Report seems to have had most to do with the influence of the council’s insurers. While Waterhouse did not criticise those insurers, he was clearly uneasy at the extent of that influence. After listing six issues it gave rise to, he wrote (32.62):

“These are all matters of pressing concern on which agreement should be sought and which may require intervention by central government to facilitate it.”

I think he was right. As I say in this post, thanks to their insurers Leicestershire County Council founds themselves trying to sustain the argument that they did not have a duty of care towards the children in their care.

The Jillings report has been accused of being of such poor quality that it didn't give much to act upon. But clearly I haven't seen it and can't judge.

I can’t judge either – and I am probably biased because I once had a long talk about children’s homes with one of the people who produced it – but I am not sure it is right to cast aspersions on the Jillings Report in this way.

The point is that publishing or leaking the Jillings report would have meant making public accusations of what is commonly regarded as the vilest and most unforgivable crime against people who might be innocent, who have been given no chance to defend themselves, who lack Lord McAlpine's resources to threaten libel action, and whose safety might be put at risk by publication. Is that really a course of action Liberals should favour?

Care must obviously be taken – hence my support for the idea of a ‘safe’ copy of the report – but it must be possible for councils to investigate their own childcare facilities and bring the problems they find to light. The Waterhouse Report contains a lot of names and I am not aware that anyone’s safety was put at risk as a result.

You mention the Shieldfield case, which was a close cousin of the ‘Satanic abuse’ panic of that era. I have never seen convincing evidence that such abuse exists. Abuse in children’s homes, by contrast, has always been a problem. When Family Failed by Nigel Middleton is a good place to begin on this: it is brave attempt to describe the history of the childcare system from the perspective of those who grew up in it.

Anyway, thanks for the debate, but I do not think you are going to convince me that Clwyd’s decision to pulp the report was right or inevitable.

Iain Sharpe said...

OK, I'll have to agree to agree to differ. And we may be disagreeing about nuance - my point about Shieldfield is that it illustrates the danger of a council publishing a libellous report.

But I would recommend that you read 'The Secret of Bryn Estyn', which you may disagree with, but which is the only published study of the events surrounding the Waterhouse inquiry. It certainly makes a strong argument that the North Wales scandal was not so very different from the Satanic Panic cases you mention.

Jonathan said...

I did read Richard Webster's book when it came out but sadly no longer seem to have my copy.

I think he was right to point to the dangers of trying to secure convictions so long after the event, but I would not claim as much for the book as you do.