Flawed police IT systems alone were not responsible for the
failure of the vetting system that allowed Ian Huntley – a man with
numerous sexual allegations in his past – to slip through the net
and into a job as caretaker of Soham Village College.
Problems with the attitude of professionals to under-age sex played
a significant role, alongside weaknesses in databases and
information sharing, and were exposed during the public inquiry
into the case, chaired by Sir Michael Bichard.
In his report, published last week, Bichard raises concerns that
social workers and police generally did not take “sufficiently
seriously” allegations of under-age sex (news, page 6, 24
Inquiry witnesses seemed indifferent to several allegations.
Typifying this was Peter Billam, former head of one of Humberside
Police’s child protection units.
Billam’s defence for deciding not to caution Huntley, then 21, over
a sexual relationship with the first of several 15-year-old girls
was: “It was a boyfriend-girlfriend situation. There was no
coercion, there was no force. It goes on wherever you look.”
This may seem a frank and realistic assessment. But when you place
his comments alongside a social worker’s decision to record “no
significant concerns about welfare”, it suggests a blas’ attitude
among those ostensibly protecting children.
Huntley came to the attention of police and social services nine
times between 1995 and 1999. There were four allegations of sex
with girls younger than 16, four allegations of rape and one of an
indecent assault on an 11 year old.
Difficult as it is to imagine that most social workers would
conclude that a sexual liaison between a 15 year old and a 21 year
old is acceptable, clearly there are tough judgements to be made
when assessing whether relationships are abusive.
Bichard has recommended that all such cases in future be passed to
the police apart from in exceptional circumstances, for example, a
relationship between two young people close in age. However, for
some, such as senior lecturer in children and family social work
Liz Davies, a former child protection social worker, there should
be no exceptions. She says that even relationships between young
people of a similar age should be referred.
Added to his attempt to clarify when police referrals should be
made, Bichard has recommended that national guidance be issued to
build on a protocol devised by Sheffield area child protection
committee to help social workers identify potential abuse in such
Sheffield’s protocol was developed after an outreach contraception
nurse said she wanted to make young people use her services but was
unsure about when she needed to report worrying
Tensions between confidentiality and the duty of care are
ever-present for a range of professionals, including social
workers. But Ruth Pearson, the ACPC’s manager of training and
development project, who led the development of the protocol, says:
“Confidentiality can never be 100 per cent. It is never going to be
easy but you have to say to young people from the outset that you
may need to pass on information.”
The protocol encourages workers to look at issues such as age
difference, power imbalances, overt aggression or coercion, or
bribery in order to make an assessment about risk in the
John Coughlan, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social
Services children and families committee, believes the national
guidance will help workers who “every day are making hairline
complex decisions” about cases.
But those closer to the front line are less sure. Davies is
disappointed by Bichard’s recommendations. She says the means to
make decisions about relationships involving under-age sex already
exist through Working Together to Safeguard Children and
its supplement, Working with Children Involved in Sexual
The position of the Association of Directors of Social Services,
that social services departments should not be responsible for
recording names of suspected sex offenders because it is a police
function, is also at odds with those on the front line.
Davies says: “I take issue with the ADSS, which says we should not
keep records on suspected offenders. That is our job. When I was a
social worker we had a database that was searchable by the child’s
name but it was possible to include details about perpetrators
under a field called significant others.”
Catherine Watkins, a team manager of a referral and assessment
service, says: “It is a good idea that we keep names of suspected
sex offenders. There are issues around what sort of information you
keep, how detailed it is and so on but, if you don’t have some way
to record stuff, how do you make the links?
“In a perfect world you could leave it to the police to make a
record. But what if for some reason they don’t do that or you need
to get hold of them urgently to run a check and all you get is an
answering machine message? It happens.”
Failure to link referrals about several cases involving Huntley was
illustrated by Phil Watters, a senior child protection social
worker at North East Lincolnshire, who didn’t connect three cases
involving Huntley and under-age girls received by the department
within a week.
In busy and overstretched departments where dozens of files may
pass through a worker’s hands each day, it is perhaps unsurprising
that the cases were not linked, however remarkable that may
Perhaps it does, however, illustrate how important it is to record
information rather than rely on memory. Bichard has recommended
that, in the exceptional instances where social services make a
decision not to refer to the police, they must make a note of why
in a database.
These decisions will be subject to external scrutiny through the
Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI), which will analyse a
random sample as part of the inspection process.
Coughlan believes this is a good idea because it will allow the
CSCI to build a picture of patterns of reporting to the police from
local authority to local authority.
Next month, North East Lincolnshire Council’s handling of
allegations regarding Huntley will be published in a serious case
review, intended to provide a rationale behind decisions not to
pursue allegations. It is eagerly anticipated.
- The government should reaffirm the guidance in Working
Together to Safeguard Children. Police would be notified as
soon as possible when a criminal offence has been committed or is
suspected of having been committed against a child unless there are
exceptional reasons not to do so.
- National guidance should be produced to inform the decision as
to whether or not to notify the police. This guidance could draw
upon the criteria included in a local protocol developed by
Sheffield area child protection committee and would take account of
issues such as age and power imbalances, over aggression, coercion
- The Integrated Children’s System should record these cases
where a decision is taken not to refer to the police.
- The Commission for Social Care Inspection should, as part of
any social services inspection, review whether decisions not to
inform the police have been properly taken.