After Soham: taking liberties

The Bichard Inquiry replaces the presumption of innocence with the assumption that there is a bit of Ian Huntley in us all.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

The Bichard Inquiry into the Soham murders has raised many important issues. The least of these, unfortunately, is the extraordinary row between David Westwood, the chief constable of Humberside Police, and home secretary David Blunkett, which has dominated the coverage.

Sir Michael Bichard’s damning criticisms of the role played by Humberside Police in failing to identify Soham murderer Ian Huntley as a potential threat to children have led to calls for Westwood’s head to roll; Westwood has refused to resign, claiming that he wants to stay on to implement the reforms proposed by Bichard. Blunkett has invoked his powers to order Westwood’s suspension, which in turn has led to concerns that one chief constable is being made scapegoat for a catalogue of failings across several local police forces, social services and vetting schemes.

Of course, there is a question about whether the head of one police force in the north of England can genuinely be held responsible for the cold-blooded murder of two schoolgirls in Cambridgeshire. Far more important, however, is the broad consensus that has greeted the rest of the Bichard Report – which, in its swingeing attacks on the most basic principles of criminal justice, takes the maxim ‘hard cases make bad law’ to a whole new level.

On 17 December 2003, Ian Huntley, a former school caretaker in the Cambridgeshire village of Soham, was convicted of murdering 10-year-olds Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells. The girls’ murder, in the summer of 2002, horrified the nation; and as the subsequent trial unfolded, the catalogue of errors, incompetence and obstructive PR stunts evident in the police investigation appalled us again. It was little surprise that the government, keen on inquiries at the best of times, should order an investigation into why so many cock-ups were made in bringing the Soham girls’ killer to justice.

Except that this is not what the Bichard Inquiry was set up to do. Following Huntley’s conviction, it became clear that this was a man with a dubious past, who had come to the attention of the authorities on several occasions: he had been accused of having sex with four underage girls, of raping four women and indecently assaulting an 11-year-old girl. Sir Michael Bichard was mandated to ‘urgently enquire into child protection procedures in Humberside Police and Cambridgeshire Constabulary’, in particular ‘to assess the effectiveness of the relevant intelligence-based record keeping, the vetting practices in those forces since 1995 and information sharing with other agencies’ (1).

Off went Bichard, returning six months later with a raft of recommendations that revolved around one key proposal: that to limit the likelihood of another Soham, those people intending to work anywhere near children should be treated like criminals from the start. To this end, the report recommends setting up a national police intelligence system to share information between forces about suspect individuals – in Huntley’s case, those whom the police may have suspected of committing an offence, but who were never convicted.

The report also calls for a social services database to log all those suspected of abuse, for a government register of those wishing to work with children, and for a further tightening of the already-stringent vetting procedures. Bichard, who is techily keen to stress the role of IT in all of this, even floats the idea of a ‘card or licence’ to be issued to individuals working with children – the arguments surrounding this are, he regretfully concedes, ‘matters for the government to consider’, but he would like to propose that should such a licence be issued, ‘a card with a photograph and biometric details would provide real advantages in checking identity’ (2).

The far-reaching measures might have a technical focus, but they rely on overturning a key principle of criminal justice: that somebody is innocent until proven guilty. It is of course possible to look back in horror at what we know now about Ian Huntley, and wonder at the stupidity of a system that lets somebody like him work in a school. But as Ross Clark points out in The Times (London): ‘[T]here was a good reason why Mr Westwood and his staff did not go about telling all and sundry that Huntley was a vicious sex offender. Until the conclusion of the Soham trial in December, Huntley had never been convicted of any sex offence.’ He had been suspected and accused of several crimes, but ‘in a free society, the weight of allegations does not equal guilt’ (3).

Clark’s point is a crucial one, going to the heart of our criminal justice system. Yet disturbingly few even seem aware of this, let alone bothered by it. A round-up of reactions to the Bichard Report, published by the Guardian, brought together quotes from the children’s minister, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman and the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, all of whom fulsomely welcomed the proposals and, if anything, criticised the government for not introducing them sooner (4). And of course, David Westwood’s refusal to resign is motivated not by any disagreement he has with Bichard’s proposals, but by his stated desire to implement the reforms.

Only Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, raised a concern about ever-more stringent checks on those working with children – but she quickly brushed that aside. ‘It would be a pity if vetting procedures put off volunteers who can have so much to offer schools, but this may be a price that has to be paid’, she said. So it does not really matter if nobody is prepared to work with children – provided that potential Ian Huntleys are kept at bay.

Why has the notion that the presumption of innocence should be overturned in relation to those working with children met with so little dissent? Clearly, the high-profile horror of Ian Huntley’s crime makes it easier for illiberal home secretaries to push through authoritarian reforms, and harder for others to object. But this cannot be the only reason. It does not take a detective to work out that the sweeping measures proposed by Bichard would not necessarily stop another Huntley from committing his horrendous crime.

As the string of sex offence accusations indicates, Huntley never had much of a problem getting access to younger girls before he became a school caretaker; and for all Bichard’s emphasis on closer monitoring of those who work with children, he is forced to cite the fact that Huntley ‘had not previously held any post involving significant contact with children’ as grounds for suspicion (my italics) (5).

The report’s introduction contains a tacit recognition that, for all the focus on institutional cock-up and systems reform, an individual determined to kill will do so: ‘Huntley alone was responsible for, and stands convicted of, these most awful murders. None of the actions or failures of any of the witnesses who gave evidence to the inquiry, or the institutions they represented, led to the deaths of the girls.’ (6)

The reason Sir Michael Bichard’s proposals have been so widely endorsed has very little to do with Ian Huntley, or the rare horror of the Soham case. Rather, it is because Bichard’s contention, that ‘one cannot be confident that it was Huntley alone who “slipped through the net”‘, has been accepted across the board (7). This assumption, that Britain is full of hidden Ian Huntleys – or, to put it another way, that there is a bit of Huntley in us all – creates a climate in which everybody is to be seen as a potential paedophile or child-killer.

Institutionalising such suspicion in the kind of reforms proposed by Bichard will have terrible consequences for those running children’s services, of whatever kind. It will, as Dr Mary Bousted warns, ‘put off’ those who want to work with children – particularly volunteers, who find that their willingness to give their time for free makes them doubly scrutinised for ulterior motives. It will, as Ross Clark warns, lead to more terrible witch-hunts of the kind seen in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1993, where two nursery nurses were falsely accused of terrible abuse and hounded from their jobs, despite the lack of evidence against them and despite the fact that they were acquitted by the court in 1994. Dawn Lillie and Christopher Reed lost nine years of their lives, mired in shame and suspicion, before they finally cleared their names in a successful libel trial in 2002 (see Child protection questions, by Jennie Bristow).

Perhaps most disturbing of all is that, in his desire to tighten the ‘net’ around all those potential Huntleys, Bichard diminishes the unique horror of the Soham killer’s crimes. Just as he attempts to elide an accusation of abuse with a conviction, he blurs the distinction between depraved child murder and sexual relationships of which he simply does not approve. ‘I have noted the level of public disquiet that Huntley was able to have sexual relationships with so many girls under the age of 16 and, in one instance, even to live with a girl under 16’, he says. ‘There is also concern that the issue of underage sex may not be taken sufficiently seriously by the police or social services generally’ (8). Bichard hopes that the Sexual Offences Act 2003, with its emphasis on ‘grooming’ young people for sex, will address this concern.

Can a sexual relationship between a 21-year-old man – as Huntley was at the time in question – and a 15-year-old girl who did not want to press any charges against him, really be seen as a precursor to the violent murder of two 10-year-olds? Are we really living in a time when those wishing to work with children are to be vetted, not only for any crimes that they may have been suspected of having committed, but any personal characteristics or behavioural traits that might mark them out as a bit dodgy in the moral universe of Sir Michael Bichard?

As Mick Hume argued straight after the Soham trial, there is no army of Huntleys out there planning to murder our children. ‘There is, however, a danger of raising our children in a surveillance-obsessed society stalked by mistrust and suspicion, where they are taught to assume the worst of everybody; a society where rumours and allegations are treated as fact, and legal principles and liberties are swept aside at mention of the word paedophile.’ (9) Six months on, these warnings should ring even more urgently in our ears.

Read on:

The Soham story, by Jennie Bristow

‘Loopholes’ and liberties, by Mick Hume

(1) See the Bichard Inquiry Report

(2) See the Bichard Inquiry Report

(3) The lessons of Soham inspired by the spirit of Salem, The Times (London), 24 June 2004

(4) Bichard report: reaction in quotes, Guardian, 22 June 2004

(5) See the Bichard Inquiry Report

(6) See the Bichard Inquiry Report

(7) See the Bichard Inquiry Report

(8) See the Bichard Inquiry Report

(9) ‘Loopholes’ and liberties, by Mick Hume

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Topics Politics


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