Hard evidence

Any investigation into cases of historic abuse in children’s
homes is likely to raise some contentious issues. And reaction to a
report published by the House of Commons home affairs select
committee at the end of
October1 ran true to
form, shocking and infuriating some while drawing praise from

The committee, chaired by Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland
South, concludes that many innocent people are serving lengthy
prison sentences as a result of malicious false allegations made
against them by adults seeking compensation, revenge or attention.
The report raises “deep concern over the conduct of police
interviews with witnesses and the integrity of witness testimony”,
concerns that have led Mullin to say: “I am in no doubt that a
number of innocent people have been convicted, and that many other
innocent people, who have not been convicted, have had their lives

Phil Fiddler is one of those. A former residential social worker,
he was charged three times after allegations were made by people
who had been in his care – allegations that he says were enticed
from witnesses by police who suggested that they could win

He was acquitted in two of the trials and the prosecution dropped
the third case. But, despite leaving court an innocent man,
Fiddler, 48, says his life, career and reputation have been ruined.
A newspaper cutting naming him as the defendant in a child abuse
case was circulated anonymously to his neighbours, he lost his job
and he has been permanently banned from working with children,
despite having never been convicted of any wrongdoing.

Fiddler welcomes the committee’s findings, particularly the
recommendation that the accused should in most cases be granted
anonymity until they are convicted. He also agrees with the
committee that it should be mandatory for interviews with alleged
victims to be audio or video recorded. This would, he says, prevent
police or social workers asking leading questions or prompting
unfounded accusations.

These recommendations set the tone for the committee’s
between-the-lines condemnation of police investigation methods in
historical child abuse cases. Although the report stopped short of
banning “trawling” – where police officers contact hundreds of
former residents and staff of homes where alleged abuse took place
to ask them whether they have information – it has called for
tighter controls and clearer guidelines on how trawling should be

The committee heard suggestions that police officers routinely used
the lure of compensation payments to elicit allegations. In other
cases, allegations were drawn out of prison inmates with the
promise of parole, shorter terms or better conditions, something
the report says should be “prohibited”. The report also hinted that
investigators’ “failure to disclose evidence inconvenient to the
prosecution case” might have been a factor in the conviction of
innocent people.

In his evidence to the inquiry, Terry Grange, chief constable of
Dyfed Powys Police and the Association of Chief Police Officers’
spokesperson on sexual crime, defended the investigative techniques
used by officers, including trawling. He was unavailable for
comment on the committee’s recommendations, but an aide suggested
he would be “taking up the matter with Mullin and the Home

But the police are not the only target. The report called for
significant changes to the way abuse claims are handled. It stops
short of calling for abuse victims to be refused legal aid to
pursue personal injury actions which can cost hundreds of thousands
of pounds and take up to eight years to resolve. Instead it
recommends that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which
pays out far smaller sums to victims in much shorter periods,
should be made more “user friendly and attractive”.

The report also recommends changes governing the type of evidence
that can be lumped together. It suggests that, unless two
allegations against the same person are “strikingly similar”, they
should be treated as separate cases. If implemented, this could
bring an end to trials where a single defendant is facing hundreds
of different allegations from multiple witnesses – an overwhelming
mass of accusations which some argue makes it impossible for juries
to believe someone is innocent.

Chris Saltrese, a solicitor specialising in defending people who
claim to have been falsely accused, says: “The rules about similar
fact evidence are at the crux of the matter. In many of these cases
the evidence by itself is weak, but the jury believes there is no
smoke without fire. If the law is amended to disallow that, it
would prohibit the prosecution of many innocent people.

“There is an enormous number of false allegations. Probably quite a
lot of abuse goes unreported and any abuse is a terrible thing, but
these retrospective allegations are so clearly not substantiated. I
think the description of a lot of these places as children’s homes
is misrepresentative. Approved schools and community homes were
places with a lot of difficult and disturbed teenagers, many of
whom were well able to look after themselves and were physically
bigger than the people who are supposed to have abused them.

“I think the committee has done its job well. I imagine it’s been
hard in the face of what you might call a child abuse

But Saltrese’s view is not shared among organisations that support
people who have been victims of abuse, some of whom privately call
the report an abusers’ charter. As well as concerns that the
recommendations could make access to justice even more difficult
for groups such as people with learning difficulties, there are
concerns that the proposed time limit will deter people coming

Matthew Byrne, project co-ordinator for FireinIce, a
Merseyside-based organisation for adult male survivors of child
abuse, says more than 400 men have contacted the project in the
past three years about childhood abuse in institutions. He says:
“Most of these people are talking about abuse that took place well
over 10 years ago. In many cases it’s taking 15 to 20 years for men
to be in a position to discuss what happened.”

Lee Moore, president of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers
which helps those alleging abuse to pursue claims, says: “It’s
obvious that the members of the committee had no understanding of
the politics of sexual abuse, or of its impact on the victim.

“False allegations do happen, but they are rare and quickly weeded
out. People making false allegations can’t come up with the
immediacy of evidence, or they don’t know the ins and outs of what
they’re alleging, or the paperchase doesn’t add up.

“Many people don’t report the abuse, and many of those who do don’t
claim compensation. Some of them simply don’t want money – they see
it as dirty money, or it makes them feel like prostitutes. And
often these damages are derisory anyway. What’s £2,000 for
three years of buggery?”

The committee has certainly “changed the political landscape”, as
Earl Howe, opposition spokesperson in the House of Lords said
recently. Others have suggested that the report is “the beginning
of a backlash against the child abuse bandwagon”. But governments
have a history of leaving contentious or difficult select committee
reports to gather dust for years before acting. Those claiming to
be victims of miscarriages of justice must be hoping that this will
not be another of them.
House of Commons home affairs select
committee, The Conduct of Investigations into Past Cases of Abuse
in Children’s Homes, The Stationery Office, October

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