When home secretary David Blunkett announced an inquiry into how
Ian Huntley was allowed to get a job as a school caretaker after he
was given a double life sentence for the murder of 10-year-old
schoolfriends Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in December it seemed
that it would be relatively small-scale operation,
writes Sally Gillen.
Its remit was to look at the child protection procedures in
place at Humberside and Cambridgeshire police forces, the
record-keeping of intelligence, the effectiveness of vetting
processes and information sharing with other agencies to find out
why a string of sexual allegations in Huntley’s past,
including an indecent assault on an 11-year-old, had not been
picked up before he was given the job.
Compared with Lord Laming’s inquiry into the death of
Victoria Climbie, which heard from 277 witnesses, lasted over a
year and revealed flaws in the entire child protection system, this
one would be more focused on police processes alone.
Three weeks into the inquiry, it has emerged that this may not
be the case. While its witnesses may be far fewer in number, what
they have had to say at the Huntley inquiry, chaired by Sir Michael
Bichard, has been in some cases as shocking as what emerged from
the Laming inquiry.
Deep-rooted problems revealed
Day after day professionals, including some from the police,
social services and the school attended by Holly and Jessica, have
given evidence revealing deep-rooted problems in the child
protection system and a worrying fragility of the vetting processes
Errors ranging from the basic failure of a headteacher to check
Huntley’s job references to the inability of the Criminal
Records Bureau to verify vital information provided by job
applicants, have been laid bare.
Before the inquiry began it had seemed that North East
Lincolnshire social services, which dealt with four cases of
underage sex involving Huntley over a nine-month period between
1995 and 1996 and the allegation of an indecent assault two years
later, was still only a bit part player in the case.
Acting deputy director of childcare Darren Shaw said in December
“even with the benefit of hindsight there is nothing we could
have done differently”.
Earlier this month, current deputy director of childcare Martin
Eaden appeared at the inquiry and gave evidence suggesting the
opposite. He had a rather different take on what had taken place
within the department as he struggled to explain the baffling
decisions taken by staff. And there was a lot to explain.
He did not know why an unnamed male social worker had arranged
for the first of the 15-year-old girls, known to be having a sexual
relationship with 21-year-old Huntley, and her 13-year-old brother,
to stay with him.
The handling of the second case involving a 15-year-old girl and
Huntley, Eaden summed up as “totally inadequate in every
sense”. He reached this conclusion after hearing that she had
been living with Huntley and his father, who had contacted social
services to say he would be going to work away, and she would be
left alone with Huntley.
No action was taken and Huntley himself made a referral to
social services citing “moral concerns”. But still no
action was taken.
Neither was there an explanation for the failure by social
services to pass on to police a fax from a deputy head teacher
detailing concerns that Huntley was having a sexual relationship
with a pair of 15-year-old school friends, and had given them drugs
Failure to link cases
Worse was to come when senior social worker Phil Watters, who
also gave evidence, admitted he had failed to link three cases
involving Huntley just days apart.
Aside from the individual decisions made by social workers it
has become clear that the records they keep may be ineffective.
Their database only records details of service users, and
Humberside police told the inquiry that they did not record arrests
on the police national computer, just charges.
Both the police and social services admitted they saw no point
in pursuing Huntley because the girls regarded him as a boyfriend,
despite the fact they were in their mid-teens and he in his early
Consequently, because of the way record-keeping systems operated
nobody ever linked the fact that he was involved in allegations
involving four underage girls in less than a year.
Flaws in criminal checks
Not only has the inquiry highlighted serious gaps in the type of
information social services and police hold, but also a worrying
lack of rigour in the vetting process carried out by the Criminal
The inquiry heard from one witness that there was a
“flaw” in the process carried out by the CRB that meant
addresses provided by a person who was going to be vetted could not
Such information is vitally important because it determines
which police force will carry out the checks on the job applicant.
Counsel to the inquiry James Eadie asked incredulously “what
sort of system was it that relied on the honesty of the
individual” to be truthful in what they disclosed.
He will not be the only one who wants to know how the creation
of the CRB, dogged by problems since its launch in 2002, has
improved the vetting process.
The headteacher of Soham Village College, the school attended by
Holly and Jessica, said he had not checked references supplied by
Huntley until after Huntley’s arrest, despite the fact
Huntley’s predecessor was sacked for having an inappropriate
relationship with a student.
Admitting it was a “mistake”, Howard Gilbert added
that it was not uncommon in schools to allow new staff to begin
work before they had been vetted. A directive from the Department
for Education and Skills in August 2002 that all checks had to be
complete before a new member of staff began work had been withdrawn
because it had caused chaos. This means there may be thousands of
people employed in schools around the country who have not been
Crucially, Gilbert said there was little guidance on how to
include child protection issues within interviews with non-teaching
staff to check their suitability to working with children (Huntley
had no track record in this respect) much beyond asking what the
interviewee would do if a student developed a crush on them.
How useful such a measure was to prevent “the wolf getting
into the sheep’s pen”, counsel had asked. When the
inquiry concludes at the end of March and Bichard and his team
retire to consider what they heard before reporting in mid-May, it
is likely they might be asking themselves the same question about
the whole system.