A high court judge, Mrs Justice Macur, is starting work on what the Home Secretary says will be an an urgent investigation into whether the Waterhouse Inquiry into child abuse of children in care in north Wales did its job properly. This response to allegations that a paedophile ring centred on the Bryn Estyn home near Wrexham involved a cabinet minister has been made in a matter of days.
It's a sign of changing attitudes to the credibility of claims by people who say they were abused as children that the UK government has moved so swiftly. The Waterhouse inquiry was only set up after years of claims and unsuccessful investigations. When the report was published in February 2000 it was widely welcomed and praised for its thoroughness and for its recommendations. When the First Minister met the Children's Commissioner to discuss the latest developments, he recognised that progress was made as result of the Waterhouse report.
Fresh allegations about a cover-up have led to claims that the Waterhouse Inquiry didn't ask the right questions or was too restricted by the terms of reference it was given by the Welsh Secretary, Williams Hague. They were:
- to inquire into the abuse of children in care in the former county council areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974
- 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
The decision not to look at decisions to prosecute reflects the belief at the time that child abuse allegations were often impossible to prove. Sir Ronald Waterhouse didn't name alleged abusers in his report, unless they had already been identified in court proceedings. This was not to avoid prejudicing any future trials but because he thought no such trials would take place. Here's how Sir Ronald described the problem:
The very different climate today is illustrated by the very different treatment of Steve Messham. He says he wasn't even allowed to make his most serious allegations to the Waterhouse inquiry about what happened to him. Now he's had an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State for Wales to discuss his claims.