‘Poisonous regime that betrayed the children’

Evening Standard, 7th January 1998

by Stewart Payne & Eileen Fairweather

The independent investigation into scandalous events in Hackney that allowed an HIV-infected social worker and child abuser – to work virtually unchallenged for 12 years, despite several warnings about his dangerous character, is published today. The inquiry, set up after a series of disturbing revelations in the Evening Standard, finds the council’s pathetic response was bedevilled by political infighting and all-round incompetence.

 THE poisonous, spiteful and vindictive nature of personality-driven politics in Hackney Town Hall is at the heart of its failure to properly safeguard children in its care, an independent report is expected to say today. The report is a devastating indictment of the majority Labour group on the London borough, and a major embarrassment to Tony Blair. Although Mr Blair has been keen to rid his party of the “Loony Left” tag, Labour councillors in Hackney were backed by the party at national level in a bitter internal battle which led to 17 rebels quitting to form a rival group.

 Those councillors supported by Labour’s hierarchy will be shamed by today’s report, which is expected to be highly-critical of the party’s stewardship of Hackney during two decades. It is likely to be turned into a resignation issue for long-serving Labour group leader John McCafferty and his senior political colleagues. No one in Hackney Town Hall is expected to come off lightly – officers and councillors of all parties alike – but special criticism is likely to be levelled at the political leadership for creating and nurturing a climate of suspicion, conspiracy and fear.

 As a consequence, widespread incompetence and management weakness gripped the town hall, with the appointment of people to jobs they were not fit to undertake, and a reluctance to discipline or dismiss those who failed due, in part, to the dominance of trade unions.

 The independent report, to be published later today, is the result of a 14-month inquiry which examined Evening Standard allegations of council bungling over the handling of HIV-positive social worker Mark Trotter, who was suspected of child abuse. It is believed the Poisonous regime that report reinforces the Standard’s findings that Trotter should have been suspended long before he died of an Aids-related illness, just as police were about to arrest him.

 And the report, by John Barratt – a lawyer and former chief executive of Cambridgeshire County Council appointed to head the inquiry in the wake of the Trotter scandal, is expected to lambast Hackney council for its own woefully inadequate attempts to discover whether Trotter had abused children in Hackney’s care. Their own internal investigation, given to an officer who was working out his notice, was produced months late and failed to find evidence of abuse.

 Yet a subsequent inquiry by the NSPCC, set up after the Standard articles revealed that Trotter was to be charged with serious child sex abuse in Liverpool where he had previously worked, confirmed the newspaper’s worst suspicions. Trotter had indeed abused children in Hackney.

 He had worked with vulnerable young people throughout much of his 12 years in the deprived London borough, despite warnings about his behaviour on up to six separate occasions.

 HE DIED in July 1995, aged 34, just as police from Merseyside, investigating sex abuse in the North-East going back many years, were on the verge of arresting him. They had overwhelming evidence that Trotter had abused five boys in care in 1980 and 1981.

 The report is expected to confirm that senior officers in Hackney agreed with Liverpool police that the likelihood was that Trotter, who became a Labour Party and trade union activist, would have continued abusing children on arrival in London.

 With Trotter dead and no longer a risk, the task was to discover who might have been abused and to offer help and counselling. There was the added danger that he could have infected others with the HIV virus.

 This was urgent and important work, yet it was given to a retiring area manager Len Redley, about whose managerial competence there were widespread misgivings.

 The Barratt inquiry is expected to confirm the Standard’s disclosures: namely that Redley did very little work, his report was submitted months behind schedule and, at one point, the council even lost contact with him.

 When the report finally dropped on his director’s desk, it was worthless. It is also expected to criticise the officials who supervised his inquiry, the Director of Social Services Joyce Moseley and her assistant Dinah Morley.

 This scandalously inept handling of a major case of suspected child abuse led to opposition councillors claiming that Hackney was covering up the Trotter affair because of his links with the local Labour party.

 Today’s report is expected to find no evidence of cover-up or corruption but will state that the suspicion of both was understandable, given the nature of Hackney’s politics. Confrontational styles and the pursuit of personal agendas and vendettas – accompanied by insults, rumour-mongering and petty-politiking – inevitably led to a climate where conspiracy theories flourished.

 Examples expected to be covered in the report include a malicious and anonymous leaflet linking gay councillors through sexual promiscuity with each other and Trotter, and an attempt to blackmail a leading Labour councillor over an alleged affair with the social worker.

 With the then ruling Labour group tearing itself apart, Liberal Democrat councillors led calls for an inquiry, supported by the rebel Labour councillors who have since joined the Lib-Dem ranks, making Hackney a hung council. They are not spared criticism in the report.

 The Labour group announced the inquiry in October 1996. Its report is expected to conclude that much of the party politics at this time was ill-informed, inevitably so given the incompetent way in which the Trotter affair was being handled.

 The report, which will make a series of recommendations, is expected to state that there was impropriety both by individuals and by the council as a whole.

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