ON 5 OCTOBER 1990, after a police investigation, Stephen Norris, who was the officer-in-charge of the Cartrefle community home in Clwyd, North Wales, pleaded guilty to five specimen charges of indecent assault against boys in his care. He was sentenced to three and a half years’ imprisonment. For anyone concerned with standards of care in residential homes in North Wales, this development was significant. It demonstrated beyond doubt that the problem of sexual abuse in care homes was a real one and that at least one home in Clwyd had been affected by it. Norris’s conviction in relation to Cartrefle inevitably raised questions about his earlier conduct at Bryn Estyn – the community home in Wrexham where he had worked until it was closed on financial grounds in 1984.
In July 1991, partly as a result of suspicions expressed by a senior social worker from Cheshire who had been called in to investigate, and partly as a result of allegations of child abuse made to the leader of Clwyd County Council by Alison Taylor, a former residential social worker, the Council’s Chief Executive formally requested the North Wales Police to undertake an investigation. One of the main purposes of this investigation would be to inquire into the possible existence of a paedophile ring operating in North Wales children homes. The investigation was eventually launched on 1 August 1991. Although it was originally focused on Bryn Estyn, a community home in Wrexham where Alison Taylor had completed a student placement in 1982, it gradually enlarged its scope to involve all care homes in Clwyd.
(point of interest here; my son was born in July 1991 and by October I'd been sent back to Calderdale out the way)
In October 1991, after an HTV television documentary which featured Mrs Taylor, a separate investigation was launched into care homes in Gwynedd where Mrs Taylor had formerly worked.
At around the same time the leader of Clwyd County Council, Dennis Parry, contacted the Independent on Sunday. On 1 December the Independent on Sunday published a front-page story which claimed that the former deputy head of Bryn Estyn, Peter Howarth, was a paedophile. It suggested that a paedophile ring centered on Bryn Estyn might have preyed on children in North Wales care homes. It went on to name a senior officer in the North Wales Police who had recently retired, and implied that he was himself involved in the abuse of children at Bryn Estyn.
A number of allegations made by Mrs Taylor, and relating both to Clwyd and Gwynedd were detailed and Councillor Parry was quoted as saying that ‘we are fighting a machine trying to cover things up’. He accused the North Wales police ‘of mounting a cover-up to conceal the failure of senior officers and social services executives to reveal the extent of abuse in the children’s homes’.
On the day immediately following the publication of this article the North Wales Police announced that their Clwyd and Gwynedd investigations had been combined and that a HOLMES computer would now be used to co-ordinate the inquiry. The investigation rapidly gathered pace and became the largest inquiry into child abuse which had ever been carried out in Britain.
Although this investigation resulted in police officers collecting allegations of physical or sexual abuse against no less than 365 people, only 25 people [check] were ever arrested as a direct result of the 1991-2 investigation. Of these the majority were released without charge. By 1994 the entire operation had led to only one new conviction for sexual abuse, that of the former deputy head of Bryn Estyn, Peter Howarth. Stephen Norris, the care worker who had already been convicted in relation to offences committed at Cartrefle, pleaded guilty to three offences of buggery, one of attempted buggery and three indecent assaults involving six Bryn Estyn boys. Howarth protested his innocence throughout but was found guilty by a majority verdict in Chester Crown in July 1994. In 1995 John Allen, the owner of the privately run Bryn Alyn home in Wrexham, was also convicted in Chester Crown Court.
By this time the retired police superintendent named by the Independent on Sunday, had successfully fought a libel action against the newspaper. During this action it was shown that, at the time he was named by the newspaper there had not even been any allegations against him. The only allegations had been collected subsequently by two journalists, one of whom was the author of the original article. These allegations were discredited during cross-examination and substantial damages and costs were awarded.
The verdict in the libel trial was reinforced by other findings. Intensive police investigations discovered no evidence of any paedophile ring active in North Wales children’s homes. Speaking outside Chester Crown Court after the conviction of John Allen in 1995, the head of the investigation, Detective Superintendent Ackerley, said: ‘We though at first that there was a paedophile ring. Now we know that it was just two evil men.’
In the view of some observers, these negative findings rendered more plausible the claims made by some of the residential workers from the homes under investigation: that the 1991-2 police investigation had had collected an unprecedented number of false allegations, fuelled by the prospect of large compensation payments.
In spite of such sceptical assessments the belief that there had been a network of organised abuse in North Wales care homes persisted. This belief was reinforced by the consequences of Clwyd County Council’s decision to commission an investigation by a panel of experts. This panel, led by John Jillings, a former Director of Social Services for Derbyshire, was asked to investigate child care in Clwyd. Specifically it was required to ‘inquire into, consider and report to the County Council upon (1) what went wrong and (2) why did this happen and how this position could have continued undetected for so long’.
The panel took some two years to prepare their report. They concluded that abuse had been widespread and they either endorsed, or noted without comment, a number of the more sensational claims. When their report was completed, however, Clwyd County Council were advised by a leading barrister that its contents were potentially libellous, and might also jeopardise the council’s insurance cover. On 26 March 1996 a collective decision was taken not to publish the report, in spite of the fact that a number of councillors had urged that its publication should go ahead.
At this point a copy of the report was passed to the Independent newspaper, apparently by one of the dissident councillors. The newspaper immediately represented the decision not to publish the Jillings report as an attempt to suppress the truth. In a powerful campaign, carried out over a period of some three months, the Independent now published a series of news stories, features and leaders whose apparent aim was to create a sense of national outrage over what had happened.
Largely because of the campaign conducted by the Independent, a sense of crisis gradually developed, and, on 17 June 1996, an evidently reluctant government was forced to announce the public inquiry which had been demanded (see above, pp.XX-XX).
The main purpose of the Tribunal of inquiry which now took place was to investigate the huge disproportion between the number of convictions actually obtained in North Wales as a result of the 1991-2 investigation, and the number of allegations of abuse which had actually been made.
The idea that sexual and physical abuse had taken place in North Wales children’s homes on a quite massive scale and that a large number of abusers had remained undetected had been effectively revived by the Jillings report and the publicity surrounding the decision not to publish it. So too had the notion that the police investigation had been compromised either by the involvement of officers in a paedophile ring, or by the connections of senior officers with freemasonry, or by both. By referring to the possible involvement of ‘prominent public figures’, the Independent also appeared to entertain as a real possibility the extreme claim that the North Wales ‘ring’ included two government ministers and a senior figure in the Conservative Party hierarchy.
None of these sensational claims was specifically referred to in the terms of reference given to the inquiry which was now set up. There could never be any doubt, however, that it was such claims, recently amplified by theIndependent’s campaign, which were directly responsible for the government’s decision to institute an inquiry. Indeed, in announcing this decision, the Secretary of State specifically noted that speculation had continued that the real scale of the abuse that had taken place was much greater than the successful prosecutions themselves suggested.
He went on to make it clear that events in North Wales would now be investigated by the most powerful of all government instruments – a statutory tribunal appointed under the Tribunals of Enquiry (Evidence) Act of 1921. In July the three members of the Tribunal were formally appointed by Parliament. The Chairman of the Tribunal would be Sir Ronald Waterhouse, a retired High Court judge who himself lived in North Wales, and who had served from 1980 to 1984 as presiding judge on the Wales and Chester Circuit. The two other members of the Tribunal were to be Margaret Clough, a former member of the social services inspectorate in Manchester, and Morris le Fleming, a solicitor and former chief executive of Hertfordshire County Council.
A Welsh QC, Gerard Elias, who had served from 1993 to 1995 as leader of the Wales and Chester Circuit, was appointed by the Attorney General to act as leading Counsel to the Tribunal. He was assisted by Gregory Treverton-Jones and Ernest Ryder, who would himself be appointed QC at Easter 1997.
The Tribunal’s terms of references were:
to inquire into the abuse of children in care in the former county council areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974;The Tribunal’s legal team, including the Treasury solicitors who had been appointed to assist counsel, began preparatory work for the inquiry as soon as the members of the Tribunal were appointed in August 1996.
to examine whether the agencies and authorities responsible for such care, through the placement of the children or through the regulation or management of the facilities, could have prevented the abuse or detected its occurrence at an earlier stage;
to examine the response of the relevant authorities and agencies to allegations and complaints of abuse made either by children in care, children formerly in care or any other persons, excluding scrutiny of decisions whether to prosecute named individuals;
in the light of this examination, to consider whether the relevant caring and investigative agencies discharged their functions appropriately and, in the case of the caring agencies, whether they are doing so now; and to report its findings and to make recommendations to him [ie the Secretary of State].
The Tribunal hearing took place in the council chambers of Flintshire County Council at Ewloe, North Wales. Four preliminary meetings were held during the latter part of 1996 in order to make arrangements concerning legal representation, recommendations as to costs and matters of general procedure. On 21 January 1997 the Tribunal held its first full session and sat for three days in order to hear opening statements made by counsel to the Tribunal and others. On 3 February it started to hear oral evidence given, initially, by those who made allegations of abuse.
When the Tribunal was originally set up it was predicted that its hearings would last for a year and that its report would be issued by Easter 1998. In the event the hearings were not completed until 7 April 1998. The Tribunal’s report, although frequently said to be imminent, did not appear until 15 February 2000. No other Tribunal had taken so long to complete its deliberations.
The report did question some aspects of the received view of the North Wales story. But its most striking feature was its readiness to accept the vast majority of the allegations that had been made in North Wales, and its broad endorsement of the horrific picture which had already been painted in the media. The crucial question of whether the police might, by their very methods of investigation, have inadvertently encouraged former residents of care homes to make false allegations, was never asked by the Tribunal at any point in its year-long hearings. Although a great deal of evidence emerged during the proceedings which cast doubt on the role of Alison Taylor and the reliability of her allegations, this evidence was almost entirely overlooked in the final report.
The publication of the Tribunal’s report, far from moderating the climate of opinion that had led to the setting up of the Tribunal, thus had the effect of both legitimating and intensifying the moral panic which had already been created. On the morning of 16 February every national newspaper featured the story on its front page. In an extended headline the Daily Mail referred to two brothers who had been ‘horrifically abused’ in care and who would later ‘die in torment’. It went on to report that ‘Yesterday an inquiry concluded that, in all, 650 children – appallingly let down by social workers – were the victims of Britain’s worst-ever paedophile scandal . . . and that 40 of the monsters are still at large.’ Construing the report’s comments about systematic abuse in a manner which was predictable, the Express reported on its front page that ‘the long awaited report confirmed evidence of widespread physical and sexual abuse in care homes, and the presence of organised paedophile rings’.
Partly because of the apparent comprehensiveness of the report, and partly because journalists, academics and others had effectively ceded their own responsibility to investigate to the members of the Tribunal, the conclusions reached in the Waterhouse report have continued, in the year which has elapsed since, to be treated as authoritative. This has been the case not only among journalists and commentators, but also in the social work profession, in government departments, in the civil courts, and in Parliament itself.
Yet there are legitimate questions which can and should be asked both about the Tribunal’s proceedings and its report. The purpose of this essay is to pose some of these questions and, by exploring them, to attempt to establish whether the Tribunal did indeed conduct an adequate and fair investigation and whether it discharged responsibly the duties imposed upon it by Parliament.