Time to put safety first

The Bichard inquiry must lead to clear instructions for
agencies about sharing information. Former inspector Jack
puts the case for a new set of protocols.

A national protocol on sharing information about people who pose
a risk to children and vulnerable adults is long overdue. Jessica
Chapman and Holly Wells, who died in Soham in 2002 at the hands of
Ian Huntley, were only the latest in a string of cases of abuse or
non-accidental deaths of children and vulnerable adults that have
horrified the nation in recent years.

Undoubtedly, some of these tragedies could have been avoided had
the agencies involved shared information about the victim or
perpetrator. Huntley could and should have been stopped. A major
issue facing the Bichard inquiry is how to ensure that, from now
on, the necessary information to protect children reaches those who
need to know. Yet the need for a national strategy for
information-sharing is hardly a new development.

As head of registration and inspection at a London social services
department from 1990 to 2002, I followed the progress of several
inquiries. Each was set up to look at how we could avoid similar
tragedies. Each inquiry focused on the particular aspects of the
case, and produced a report and set of recommendations. Once these
had been published, local authorities had to demonstrate to the
Department of Health, via the Social Services Inspectorate, that
action was taken to implement them.

No scrutiny of government

However, no such scrutiny applied to the way government
departments themselves responded to recommendations directed at
them. More importantly still, there has been an absence of a
systematic overview to ensure that measures deemed necessary in
relation to one vulnerable group are also taken in relation to
others, where this is appropriate.

In 1998, the Independent Longcare inquiry, chaired by Tom Burgner,
looked into the abuse of adults with learning difficulties in
privately registered homes in Buckinghamshire. Burgner recommended:
“ A national framework of procedures with established
protocols for inter-agency working”. This framework is needed
for the protection of vulnerable adults, and equally, for the
protection of children. Yet as the Bichard Inquiry concludes its
investigations, the government has still not produced any such

If government departments failed to take the necessary steps, it
was not for lack of pressure from practitioners. In August 1998,
the London Heads of Inspection group wrote to the DoH, expressing
serious concern that practice on information-sharing about people
who posed a risk to children and vulnerable adults was “hit
and miss”, and that important information was not being

The group urged the DoH to produce a national protocol, so that the
relevant agencies would know what information to share, when and
with whom. The letter, which was copied to the Better Regulation
Task Force, referred to previous inquiry recommendations, gave
examples of problems experienced in the regulation field and
offered to assist in the production of a protocol.

In spite of reminders and approaches to several senior officials,
it took 15 months before a substantive reply was finally received.
The response listed the various government initiatives at that time
– the Protection of Children Act 1999, the Criminal Records
Bureau, the Care Standards Bill and the Crime and Public Protection
Bill – and gave assurances that the issues were being

Yet as the National Care Standards Commission was being set up in
the months leading up to April 2002, there was still no apparent
progress on the issue. The matter was again raised as a priority on
behalf of the Heads of Inspection national group (representing all
local and health authorities in England), with backing from the
Association of Directors of Social Services.

The resultant government circular LAC(2001)31 was a weak and
partial response, which put the onus on local and health
authorities, in conjunction with NCSC offices, to produce local
protocols. As a concession, the circular added that the “NCSC
will be expected to prepare internal guidance on the preparation of
protocols and procedures in order to assist national
consistency”. Yet with the new commissions for social care
and health services regulation having taken over from the NCSC,
there is still no such system in place.

Consistency essential

National consistency in the sharing of information is essential.
The CRB was proclaimed as a comprehensive one-stop shop. But the
bureau has so far proved sadly wanting, in both its capacity to
respond to requests for police checks and its ability to maintain a
comprehensive database under the Protection of Children Act and the
equivalent list relating to adults. The current proposals on the
reorganisation of services for children are mainly structural, and
do not address the detailed nuts and bolts on which the
effectiveness of child and adult protection systems ultimately

Anger in the aftermath of Soham has focused on the limitations of
the CRB and records kept by local police forces and social
services. However, parallel issues also apply to all the other
health, social care and education agencies involved in the
statutory, voluntary and private sectors. These include local
authorities (mainly social services, but also education and
housing); the NCSC (now the Commission for Social Care Inspection
and the Commission for Health Inspection); Ofsted (whose remit
includes not only schools but also the regulation of
children’s day care); the NHS, health authorities and trusts
as well as GPs, schools, children’s homes and day care, and
adult residential and nursing homes. All these agencies deal with
information that could be of vital interest to others. The recent
tragedy of an elderly couple’s death after their gas supply
was cut off demonstrates the need to codify the expectations laid
on the public utilities too.

National protocol needed

There are many sensitive matters that need to be addressed when
handling personal information, not least when unproven allegations
are involved. A national protocol needs to address these directly
so that people – those who hold information and those about
whom the information is held – know what to expect and what
principles and procedures will be applied. The protocol should be
backed by regulations, to give it legal force. It should

– The kind of information that should be shared, including
allegations not pursued by the police.

– The point at which information should be shared (for example,
stage of investigation of a complaint or allegation).

– To whom (and in what format) the information should be

– The range of checks that must be made in relation to people who
have access to children or vulnerable adults.

If the CRB is to remain the hub of checks on the suitability of
people, it needs to be strengthened and reformed. Regulations
should impose a duty on agencies to share information and give them
the necessary legal protection in relation to libel and

The protocol should also remove any scope for data protection
requirements to compromise people’s safety.

Jack Valero is a former chair of the London Heads of
Inspection (1997-2002)

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