Evening Standard, 19th February 1993
By Stewart Payne & Eileen Fairweather
THE documents that landed on the desk of senior Islington social services officials made grim reading. Their inspector, Mike Betts, was damning in his reports on the state of the council’s children’s homes and was demanding urgent action to protect the welfare of the youngsters who lived in them.
His reports could not have come at a worse time for Islington. Only weeks before, the Evening Standard had published the results of a three-month investigation into child care in the borough and had condemned the very same homes that Betts was now criticising.
Islington’s then leader Margaret Hodge had dismissed the Standard stories as ‘gutter journalism’, even though Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley said she was very concerned by the disclosures and her social services inspectorate ordered the council to investigate our allegations.
Officers were now faced with proof from one of their own experienced staff that the state of the homes was a matter of genuine concern.
The evidence amounted to a massive embarrassment for the council.
Betts was called in for high-level meetings and assured that urgent steps would be taken to put right all that was wrong with the three homes he had inspected so far. Money would be made available immediately. But a decision was made at this same senior level to delay showing his reports to councillors on the social services committee as promised. The committee’s September minutes record that Betts would submit a progress report in November. But these minutes are public documents and officials feared that Betts’s damning reports would be seized upon by a hostile Press.
In November, therefore, the committee was told that it would have to wait until January for Betts’s findings. The inquiry ordered by Bottomley into the Standard’s allegations was originally due to report by Christmas. It was hoped that by January Press concern about Islington’s children’s homes would have evaporated.
In fact, the inquiry received so much evidence that it has only just reported.
Sarah Ludford, a Liberal-Democrat councillor on the social services committee, confirms that Betts’s reports have still not been studied. The committee’s chairwoman, Sandy Marks, told her this week that none even existed.
The Standard knows this is not true. Last week we discovered the existence of these reports and, astonishingly, that Islington had withheld them from the inquiry into its homes ordered by the Health Secretary. When we alerted the inquiry Betts was called in to give evidence.
The decision to delay discussion on his reports by councillors was taken in October, shortly after the Standard disclosed the results on its investigation. Betts was told to continue his work. He had examined three homes and one – highlighted by the Standard as a place where pimps recruited teenage girls into prostitution – was causing him grave concern.
He had already completed his inspection of the physical condition of the home and was horrified by what he saw. The building was delapidated, dirty and insecure. Children slept on mattresses on the floor, scavenged for furniture from rubbish skips and had to share only two chairs when they sat down to eat. Sheets were used as curtains.
Betts started the second part of his report into the home, this time examining the emotional and physical welfare of the children. But last November he was called out to join the long-running strike by Islington social workers.
By this time the inquiry team set up by Islington council to investigate the Standard allegations had started its work. Jo Tunnard, a former director of a children’s charity and Brian McAndrew, a former local authority chief executive, were appointed by the borough and were promised all assistance.
In the course of their inquiry they asked for, and received, evidence from the two Evening Standard reporters who had carried out the investigation. They visited children’s homes and spoke to children, parents and social workers.
They produced an interim report at the beginning of this month and handed it to Islington chief executive Eric Dear.
For the last two weeks Islington had kept its contents secret while deciding what material was confidential and for the sake of protecting children should be removed before making it public yesterday.
It was during this period that the Standard discovered that Betts’s reports had not been shown to councillors or the Tunnard and McAndrew inquiry, even though Islington had pledged to provide it with all relevant documentation.
The Standard discovered the existence of the Betts reports from the network of sources who had assisted in our original investigation. We immediately contacted Tunnard and McAndrew to ask if they had seen them. They were not aware of their existence.
Tunnard and McAndrew expressed their concern that the reports were not volunteered to them and that when they did get to hear of them, it was from an external source.
In a pointed reference in their report yesterday, Tunnard and McAndrew stated: ‘Late in the review we discovered that reports had been written last autumn . . . we had neither seen them nor knew they existed. We are concerned that they did not form part of the briefing material we received.’
After the Standard intervention, they hastily arranged to see Betts, who provided them with copies of his reports together with additional information from his follow-up work which was critical of the emotional and physical state of the children.
It is understood he was also worried that many were expected to feed themselves on a paltry budget, leading to fears of undernourishment. He was concerned about insufficient staff, high staff turnover leading to the over-use of agency workers and a lack of effective security. He had already demanded that money be spent immediately on buying the children beds, curtains and a table and chairs for meals.
Betts returned to work after the strike ended this month but, without explanation, was given a different post. He is believed to have been under the impression that the inquiry team had received his reports and was shocked to discover they had not.
Islington council insisted that there were was ‘nothing sinister’ in its failure to hand the Betts reports over. It said: ‘The interim report was looking at the welfare of children in care and whether homes were out of control. It was not meant to be looking at the physical condition of the building and therefore the reports, which in any event were not complete, were not thought appropriate.’
Last week we were approached by a group of teenagers who live in the same Islington children’s home about which Betts was most critical. The Standard is withholding their names and that of the home to protect them.
The children said they were called in to give evidence to Tunnard and McAndrew but did not tell the full truth about life in their home because they feared it would close if they were critical.
Although they do not like where they live, it is the only home they have, and for many their companions are their only friends.
They say life in the home improved after the Standard published its investigation. We had highlighted security risks, and a broken lavatory window regularly used by intruders was replaced. New locks and grilles were fitted. The staff were more pleasant but they repeatedly warned the youngsters not to talk to reporters.
The children approached the newspaper last week when it was clear to them that any improvement had been only short term.
They urged us to see inside their home. It bore more relation to a Dickensian workhouse and its filth and delapidation could not be explained away by customary excuses of lack of government funding.
Four months after the inspector had demanded immediate improvements there were still mattresses on the floor, curtains missing from windows, and no seat on a lavatory. Plaster was crumbling, wallpaper peeling and carpets were stained and worn. What little furniture there was was broken and decrepit.
There was little evidence the money Betts that had been promised had been spent. Some repairs had been started but progress was dreadfully slow.
The children said that there was little or no discipline. As well as the poor security which had meant intruders were often found inside, visitors, many much older than the residents, would stay in defiance of regulations. One, they insist, introduced them to drugs, including ecstasy, crack and cocaine, which they take at the home.
The children have a meagre £20 a week food allowance and have to cook for themselves. Often they would live on toast because bread was the only food provided for them.
Money spent on drugs bought in the home is supplemented by muggings and shoplifting expeditions. Last month a 17-year-old girl at the home was jailed for mugging a woman at knifepoint in order to obtain money for drugs. Another teenager admitted stealing baby clothes and perfume and selling it to young mothers in Caledonian Road.
Rules, the children volunteered, were routinely broken and many would stay out all night at ‘raves’ or with boyfriends and girlfriends.
They spoke with hopeless resignation. One said: ‘We know we should get more discipline but most of the staff just don’t care. We can do what we like.’
Their story may contain exaggerations and distortions. But why should they lie? We had no reason to doubt their sincerity and much of what they told us we had already established in our earlier investigation.
So had they been interviewed by the inquiry team and given the two inspectors a truthful picture of the home? When they met Tunnard and McAndrew they said little of what they now reported because they were still worried about the threat of the home being closed. They say they believed they would end up in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
The Standard again contacted McAndrew and Tunnard, who confirmed they had met the children but had not been given such frank and detailed accounts. They said they would like to talk to the children again in the light of what they had told us. This week we put them in touch.
This additional evidence is likely to form part of the final inquiry report. Tunnard and McAndrew say they still have more work to do in examining other matters raised in the Standard articles – providing Islington agrees.