Wally Harbert blows the whistle
CHILD PROTECTION IN A HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT by Wally Harbert
In recent years, nearly every police force in the country has examined historic abuse in children’s homes. Fifty private schools have also been investigated. If organisations responsible for looking after children in the 1970’s and 80’s got it so wrong how can we blame the BBC for failures over Jimmy Savile or the Liberal Party over Cyril Smith? And what light does it throw on how it was possible for widespread abuse in Rotherham to be ignored over many years?
I describe here my experiences as a director of social services in the County of Avon between 1973 and 1990. The county was formed in 1973 from local authorities in Bristol, Bath and parts of Gloucestershire and Somerset. The social services department had over 6000 staff (about 4,500 full-time equivalents) in 250 buildings. The Council was abolished in 1996.
In the first section of this report I explain the impact of centralised control on the department and its work. I then give ten examples of how my job was at risk when I tried to protect children. The gains I made were commonly blunted by the retaliation that followed.
In the light of the current debate about public bodies failing to prevent child abuse and the government inquiry into historic abuse I consider this information should now be in the public domain.
1. CENTRALISED CONTROL
Avon was one of the most centralised councils in the country. My draft reports for the social services committee could be scrutinised and amended by central departments for months before being released. Like pooh sticks in a sluggish stream, drafts required constant prodding to rescue them from stagnant pools where they might sink forever. Yet, without approval from central departments, reports failed to reach committees. This insistence on corporate reports did not extend to documents launched by central departments whose turbo-charged pooh sticks sped direct to committees. I had to mitigate errors in them after they were approved.
Once agreed by the social services committee, staffing reports could take months to reach the personnel committee where new recommendations might appear. Then, reports might be kicked around by committees, sub-committees and joint committees for two or three years. A report on care homes was debated 26 times in three years. Few proposals were approved as I intended. Final decisions might not address vital issues. In contrast, swathes of posts could be frozen or deleted while I was at lunch.
The main preoccupation of many staff in the central administration was to build and maintain strong personal bonds with leading politicians – even if that meant hiding bad news, heaping blame on others or allowing services for vulnerable people to deteriorate. There were exceptions. The county treasurer was a man of integrity and exceptional ability. A legal officer who joined in the early 1980’s clearly struggled to reconcile his principles with systems that were abused by politicians and senior officers.
There were numerous occasions when the department and its services were damaged by the uninformed actions of others and by outright deceit; the following are among the best documented.
1.1. Joint projects
Joint projects were a nightmare. Low salaries for posts in a child abuse unit, funded initially by the health service, made them impossible to fill. I and the social services committee were then told they had been abolished because they were not needed. A training day I planned for departmental staff, probation officers, lawyers and others on family law was a disaster when the personnel director limited attendance to one member of staff. A new national training scheme for social workers required joint arrangements with other organisations in the south-west. At the last moment, trainee posts were abolished and Avon withdrew from the scheme. Relationships with colleagues in other services broke down. A hospital consultant stormed into the chief executive’s office demanding my dismissal for freezing vacant medical social worker posts without consulting him. Yet I was seldom consulted about which posts would be frozen or for how long.
1.2. Staffing in elderly persons homes
I wanted a review of staffing in children’s homes but this would reveal the need for more staff so the personnel department embarked on a study of homes for elderly people where it was known I was not seeking staff increases. After eighteen months a 155 page report was presented. With some pride, it was said that it had taken two man-years to prepare. It was embarrassingly superficial and criticised me for staffing arrangements that had been approved – and sometimes insisted upon – by personnel officers. It claimed that the staffing establishment was exceeded in some homes. If true, this meant there was improper expenditure which should have been dealt with when it was discovered – not twelve months later when the report was complete. I asked for details but none came.
At a joint meeting of the social services and personnel committees it was stated that the personnel committee had decided that, as a result of the report, no additional staff were required in homes and that it had “certain reservations” about my management. I had been found guilty at a meeting to which I was not invited. I said I was unable to reconcile information in the report with departmental records and suggested that it raised corporate issues requiring intervention by the chief executive. It was resolved to convene a meeting with the chief executive “as a matter of urgency”. The meeting did not take place, I made no changes as a result of the review and the matter was never discussed again in my hearing again.
When the Health Advisory Service, an independent inspection service, examined health and social services projects in Avon, the team thought staffing levels in some elderly persons’ homes were dangerously inadequate. I passed them a copy of the personnel department review. In response I received a two and a half page analysis unlike any document I have ever read. It was laced with such phrases as, “this is very crude thinking”, “a great injustice”, “questions left unanswered”, “shocking omissions”, misrepresentation of the position”, “misleading and damaging”, and “doubtful validity”. This response was denied a place on a committee agenda but I circulated it widely and received friendly warnings not to upset important councillors or officers in the central administration.
1.3. Hidden reports
I was sometimes aware that reports about the department which I had not seen were circulating among politicians. An assistant director told me of a meeting he attended with politicians. The personnel director would not let him see a report he passed round the table. He was assured the information it contained would be disregarded. This bemused him. On another occasion, the social services chairman handed me a report, prepared in the personnel department, which I had not seen. It contained inaccuracies. Personnel officers flatly denied its existence.
1.4. Cover ups
Three posts were declared, retrospectively, to be unauthorised because their creation had not been properly minuted. When they fell vacant I was required to forfeit other posts to fill them again. Despite repeateddiscussions with officers and councillors this was not resolved because no one was willing to prepare a report admitting responsibility for the error.
At my personal request, the director of personnel authorised an additional 11½ hours to a clerical post but later declared that the hours were “unauthorised”. We argued about this for seven months. He then resolved the problem by reporting to his committee that there had been confusion at the time of local government reorganisation. He knew this to be untrue.
After more than two years’ discussion I agreed the terms of a report with the personnel director, he added my name to it but failed to send me a copy of the final draft before its dispatch to committee members. It included a new recommendation we had not discussed that the social services department should fund two posts in the personnel department.
1.5. Closing the wrong home
I proposed the closure of a family group home in Bristol. The personnel director then brought forward the deadline. Early closure would unnecessarily disrupt children’s lives. Accordingly, I closed a home in Bath which, by chance, was about to lose all its children. This was a far better building and its loss would make it likely that, in future, Bath children would be accommodated outside the city. But the personnel chairman had bigger boots than his social services counterpart.
1.6. Starting salaries
By national agreement, if there was just a one day gap between candidate resigning his or her existing post and joining another authority, the starting salary was a matter for local discretion. Invariably, the personnel department paid the lowest rate possible. This created anger among candidates and despair for managers who, having coped with a vacancy for many months lost an outstanding candidate who was unwilling to accept a salary that did not recognise his or her many years of experience.
A group of staff campaigned about this claiming that it discriminated against women and that Avon was the only local authority in the country operating this policy. When the Council was faced with the prospect of an industrial tribunal a committee report was prepared recommending change. A draft implied that I was at fault. I produced correspondence going back nine years to demonstrate my opposition to it.
1.7. Heads will roll
I read in a newspaper that I had been criticised by councillors who were quoted saying, “Heads will roll”. Personnel officers had used raw data to show wide disparities in the cost per bed in residential homes. When I adjusted the figures for occupancy, took account of one home that had opened part way through the year and another that had a wing closed for repairs, I accounted for all the apparent disparities.
1.8. Withholding committee reports
The legal department was responsible for compiling committee agendas but it was customary for chairmen to be consulted. They often instructed that a report should be withdrawn or amended. This sometimes occurred at meetings where I was present but instructions were also passed direct to me or to the legal department.
Although I was willing to modify proposals to secure their passage through the political system I refused to recommend action I did not approve. (See 2. 7). Reports that displeased chairmen were routinely denied a place on agendas.
When I proposed the closure of a large home for girls I prepared a 123 page document about individual girls in residence. The chairman thought it too detailed and refused to place it on the agenda. A manager attended the committee meeting to provide verbal information but the decision to close the home was made without reference to him. A judge supported a legal challenge, finding that the committee had not considered the impact its decision might have on individual girls. The process of closure began again. The Press and many staff blamed me for what they saw as my failure to ensure that the girls were consulted.
While passionate debates about education flourished, there was little political interest in the care of children. In the early years, small children’s homes were dangerously understaffed and it was difficult to arouse concern about them among politicians. Larger homes with governors attracted greater interest.
Staff expressed extreme frustration about lengthy and insensitive decision-making processes. Instructions were relayed through my headquarters so they found it difficult to believe that decisions about salary levels, job advertisements, staff training and delayed appointments were made elsewhere. I, and senior managers, became targets for their frustrations. Those making decisions had no need to defend them or deal with the consequences.
Naturally, staff reporting to governors shared their dissatisfactions with them. In turn, governors angrily denounced me and wrote intemperate letters. They did not believe that someone called “director” directed so little. They wanted functions delegated to heads of homes that were not even delegated to me. They saw my headquarters as a vast, out-of-touch and uncaring bureaucracy that frustrated their best endeavours. That was how I saw the central administration.
Conflict between different levels in a large organisation is common but this was extreme. Governors were expected to bring independent oversight to the care of children but, faced by a common enemy, they joined with managers to attack the system. Some openly scoffed at the idea that “outsiders” who showed such a lack of understanding could comprehend the complexities of caring for delinquent children.
2. TWELVE NOTABLE BATTLES TO PROTECT CHILDREN
2.1, Trying to be heard
Before the staffing structure was operational I told the social services committee it was unworkable but members had been warned not to interfere with personnel policies. Salary grades were low. A post responsible for more than 60 elderly persons’ homes was graded lower than one responsible for 25-day centres and on the same level as a committee clerk in the central administration. In the first seven years there was never a time when all management posts in children’s residential services were filled. At least two managers of children’s services increased their pay when appointed to a home they previously managed – one as a deputy officer-in-charge. Managers with over one thousand staff had part time clerical assistance and sat in open-plan. Avon had the advantage of a clean slate but created a structure riddled with anomalies.
When criticised at chief officers’ meetings, the personnel director said his recommendations were dictated by his chairman. The chief executive did not seem to think that was remarkable yet the Nuremberg trials were well within living memory. When I chided members of the personnel committee about their decisions they said they accepted recommendations from the personnel director. This was the Reverse Nuremberg Defence. Avon had created the Nuremberg Loop in which each party blamed the other for decisions they could not defend.
The social service committee requested an urgent report, the personnel director failed to attend a meeting with the chairman as requested. A report prepared by officers from three departments was agreed by the social services committee but, when it reached the personnel committee, a covering statement said, “Although the personnel department was anxious to offer advice and assistance in the preparation of this report it was not afforded the opportunity”. If there had been a communication failure, which there had not, the six week interval between the two committee meetings was ample time for consultation.
I received a written warning from the legal department having been accused, tried, convicted and sentenced at a meeting at which I was not present. What kind of legal department would do that? Rumours spread among my staff that I was to be dismissed. I confronted the personnel director with the chief executive. He said his report had been dictated by a politician. The most likely explanation is that his chairman resented his social services counterpart discussing personnel matters with “his” officers and forbade them to attend. The county was not just dysfunctional, it was morally corrupt. I began keeping meticulous notes so that I could defend myself.
I fought hard to attend meetings of the personnel committee but was told by politicians that the committee, “does not have time to listen to you” and, “you should not interfere with personnel matters.” I eventually convinced the Council Leader that I should attend but was refused permission to speak so stayed away. There was no point listening to ill-informed comments unless I could respond.
The chief education officer resigned saying the management of his service was fragmented between so many committees and departments that it had no effective direction. I considered following his lead but I had a large family and had moved house often. My eldest son had attended seven schools by the age of eleven. The soil was unpromising but it was time to put down roots.
2. 2. Staffing family group homes
Despite repeated requests, the director of personnel refused to honour a promise to review staffing in children’s services after a year. I therefore prepared my own review.
The Council had about forty children’s homes, mostly small family group homes. Their physical layout meant children were accessible to staff even when staff were off duty. To take a night off, they must vacate their bed for relief staff. Limited career opportunities, stressful working conditions and unsocial hours led to high staff turnover. It was mainly young single women who tolerated such conditions. The system had been designed for young children but the age of children in care had been rising and many had behaviour problems. One in seven was incontinent. It was increasingly difficult to provide suitable day-time activities for children excluded from school. Untrained and inexperienced staff were unable to carry the burdens we placed upon them.
My report explained these problems and proposed 21 new posts in 31 family group homes to raise staffing levels to nationally recommended standards. I also sought improvements to the management structure. Much of the cost could be met by re arranging existing budgets and I envisaged implementation over two years. The personnel director declined to comment so, under the Council’s rules, the report could not be considered by a committee. Following pressure from me a working group of councillors discussed them at three meetings and resolved that the report and its minutes should be considered by the full committee.
Neither the report nor the minutes reached the social services committee and I was criticised for being disloyal by insisting on the report being considered by councillors against the wishes of the leadership
2. 3. Dodgy Dossiers
Freezing vacant posts caused immense problems in family group homes which commonly had one member of staff on duty for long periods. If staff sickness coincided with a post being frozen or a sick child needing constant attention, the home was placed in turmoil.
Meanwhile a senior opposition councillor was publically and relentlessly condemning residential managers which emboldened the chief executive to freeze vacancies. I constantly told him that this was dangerous. He answered that I should delete children’s management posts and transfer the duties to managers controlling elderly persons’ homes. This was his way of telling me that no social services job required a distinctive skill or experience.
In 1980 vacant posts in homes were frozen for a lengthy period. One home had seven temporary house-parents in six months as staff were moved between homes to cover gaps. Activities like Scouts, Guides and ballet lessons were frequently cancelled through lack of staff to escort children; parents’ evenings at schools were not attended; children were taken to casualty departments by other children; a girl of 15 attended her grandmother’s funeral alone. Back-to-back shift working was common; some staff worked from their sick beds; more than ten staff in homes submitted sick notes citing stress; one attempted suicide. In the middle of a shift, one stressed woman telephoned for assistance from a colleague in a neighbouring home. When he arrived she left the building and was not seen again. There was evidence of sexual activity among children in homes and I prepared a report giving 29 recent examples including rape, promiscuous behaviour and homosexual activity.
If poor quality care is inevitable it may be better for it to take place in the child’s own home or in lodgings rather than in an understaffed home so some children were hastily moved on. Well after I retired a newspaper reporter telephoned to tell me a girl from an Avon home found her way to Fred and Rosemary West’s lodging house. He gave no further details but it is a reminder of the vigilance required when children leave care.
My protests to the chief executive and councillors about frozen vacancies were ignored, including a request for intervention to avoid “a scandal of national proportions”. Eventually, one of my strongly-worded letters was quoted at a Council meeting.
Social services members were reluctant to become involved but were not prepared to see my blood on the carpet. The committee recorded its “full support for and confidence” in me. It showed no interest in what was happening in its homes.
Recruitment returned to normal but a chorus of voices claimed I had appointed social workers at the expense of care staff. I had anticipated this and had documentary evidence of informing politicians and others of the effect of recruitment policies as well as draft reports that had failed to reach committees.
Recruitment processes were transparent. Every post filled was cleared for advertising and, later, for filling by the chief executive and personnel director. I had also adhered to a ruling to keep within an “authorised manning level” by retaining at least 164.84 officer vacancies at all times. This was achieved without computerised records or electronic communication. Pooh sticks needed constant prodding.
A legal officer was asked to assemble information about my criticisms. His report was largely irrelevant and listed anonymous smears, half-truths and innuendo but did not investigate them. Criticisms of me began, “It has been suggested to me….”. “He (me) is understood to …”. And, “I am told that….” Comments began, “As far as I am aware…” and “I can find no record of…”.No reference was made to the quality of care. Almost every criticism was contradicted in the report and its appendices which contained copies of memoranda from me. Information supplied by the director of personnel was factually incorrect.
The report said, “had it not been for the filling of social services posts, the overall employment level of the Council would have stabilised”. What message was this trying to convey? In a letter to the chief executive I demolished the report, paragraph by paragraph and I never heard it discussed. A sub-committee met to consider it but ignored it. A report was passed round the table and a personnel officer said more posts were filled than a year earlier. This was untrue. The meeting closed before I read the report which made no reference to sickness levels. I was refused information I needed to check the figures it contained.
We had reached stalemate. Publication of the two dossiers would greatly damage the authors and the Council but I knew that ways would be found to make it impossible for me to retain my post. A face-saving formula was needed. I refused to make a public apology but agreed to say something that sounded like an apology – the only time in my career that I did a deal with politicians. It was surreal – like being choreographed into the role of a dissident in a 1930’s Moscow show-trial. I had always said it could never happen here……
An investigation was ordered into the department but it petered out after two years. The officer who wrote one of the dossiers was promoted soon afterwards and played a leading role in other incidents described below. When he retired the Council paid for Counsel’s Opinion to enhance his pension to the maximum legal limit.
2.4. Saving day nurseries
I learned that the estates committee chairman intended to close two day nurseries on the grounds that the buildings were beyond repair. A close relative of the Leader, he was known to believe that nurseries encouraged feckless mothers. We had far worse buildings but I did not control the budget for repairs and maintenance. Closure would require more costly and less effective provision for children on the abuse register. I was determined to make my views known before they were closed but my presence would not be welcome at a meeting of the estates committee and I might not be permitted to speak. I reported the matter to a meeting of the social services committee where the Press were excluded. The opposition informed the Press. In the ensuing uproar, the Leader issued a statement saying the buildings would be repaired. There was extreme anger but I avoided another written warning.
2. 5. Protecting abusers
After elections, power transferred from Conservative to Labour. I was summoned to meet two leading councillors and told to stop disciplinary proceedings against a staff member accused of overt sexual behaviour in a small children’s home. They were astonished when I refused. A second meeting made no progress and I was unavailable when a third meeting was called. The manager who represented me said the department would action instructions from the chief executive. None came. At a disciplinary hearing the staff member was transferred to duties away from children.
Leading politician now sometimes shouted derogatory comments at me about staff discipline across committee tables or along corridors with an audience of councillors who were clearly embarrassed and determined not to take sides. Arrangements for a disciplinary hearing would trigger a demand for a full report which was passed to staff. Yet councillors conducted the appeals process so could overturn disciplinary decisions. Some councillors were aggressive to mangers at appeal hearings and local managers expressed dismay when misbehaving staff were reinstated.
Some Labour councillors were tightly controlled by ward committees where Council staff were active. At least one ward committee was chaired by a trades union official and some of my staff openly boasted that they controlled councillors. Personnel officers now took more interest in staff disciplinary matters, urging caution and arguing that it was unwise to discipline staff if councillors were likely to overturn the outcome. I and my managers decided it was better to have decisions overturned than ignore unacceptable behaviour.
I have described (2. 2.) how a report on the need for better staffing in homes failed to reach a committee. That report had stated that the management structure was so poor that allegations of bad practice in homes were not being adequately investigated. But no one in the central administration expressed concern and the social services chairman said he had no authority to dispute personnel decisions. We muddled through.
One senior councillor publically called children’s residential managers, “silent, ghost-like figures that wander about the corridors”. He once pointed to a group of them and said, loudly, “That lot will have to go”. There was a danger that some might decide not to pursue an errant member of staff if the reward was a hate-filled public attack to which they could not reply. I explained my concerns to a sub-committee. Later, the principal offender angrily waved the minutes in my face saying, “I’ll get you for this”.
2.6. Consulting staff
I regularly circulated staff consultation documents but was now told they must be discussed with trades unions ahead of anyone else, including managers. I said I must consult appropriate managers to be sure that new proposals were feasible. I was then summoned to meet a councillor and was unexpectedly confronted by the Council Leader, two chairmen, the chief executive, the director of personnel and two personnel officers. In an ill-tempered interview I was accused of refusing to obey instructions and asked for an assurance that I would co-operate in future. I claimed the right to express my views and asked for examples of non cooperation but none were given. A consultation document on children’s services was currently being prepared and I felt obliged to ask the director of personnel how it should be released. He took 27 months to respond.
2.7. Trying to protect the social services budget
Staff in the chief executive’s office increased more than thirteen-fold in six years. They were uncoordinated and uncontrolled, recommending actions that further centralised control and, suggesting the transfer of social services funds to develop their work. They had the ear of Council leaders and the chief executive. Meanwhile, the district auditor revealed that the Council had nearly three times the number of personnel officers as comparable authorities. He said this did not relieve the social service department of personnel work. Yet there were continual attempts by the central administration, including the personnel department, to grab parts of my budget. Some were successful.
Staff strains were apparent when child protection work escalated. This was an opportunity for the Council to redistribute £300,000 (at 1983 prices) the district auditor identified as its excess spending on personnel services. This would provide each of my six area managers with an additional member of staff for child protection and allow the employment of another legal officer.
But the social services chairman told me to recommend the social services committee to meet the cost of an additional legal post in the central administration. I said I could not recommend it but offered to refer to his wish in a report. I was then alerted by a friendly back-bencher, that I was to be disciplined for refusing to obey the chairman. This was farcical. A Council that froze staff vacancies in homes without consulting me did not need my endorsement to raid the social services budget. The transfer of funds duly took place against my advice.
2.8. Investigating abuse
I informed the chairman of governors of a large home for boys that I intended to investigate allegations of abuse at the home. I was criticised at a combined meeting of governors and staff and accused of fabricating an excuse to close the home. A trades union refused to cooperate amid demands for the investigation to be investigated. The chief executive obliged. His terms of reference, what he discovered and to whom he reported were not revealed to me. His intervention delayed the investigation when the team was attempting to speed the process to reduce its demoralising impact on staff and boys. At least one team member believed he might be summarily relieved of his duties and kept duplicate notes at home in case they were required in his own defence. He and his colleagues were probably right to believe their promotion prospects had been damaged.
Staff at the home complained that they and their families were threatened and had their cars deliberately scratched. This, and conflicting loyalties, persuaded some entirely blameless staff, to conceal what they knew. Seven staff were interviewed under disciplinary procedures and at least one was dismissed. It might be expected that some satisfaction would be expressed that abusing staff had been identified and disciplined but the messages reaching me were that I had besmirched the good name of a home.
Unsurprisingly, some years later, the police identified abuse that had been missed.
The personnel director advised me that he had agreed with trades unions that information about disciplinary action would be deleted from files after a year. I authorised their continued retention indefinitely. Well after my retirement, the police asked whether I knew the whereabouts of the cabinet in which these illicit records had been stored. In another call, the police said their copy of the report on staff misbehaviour described in 8 above had the names of disciplined staff redacted. This had been done on instructions of the council’s solicitor.
2.10. Was there a Mr Big?
Following concerns about a misbehaving teacher in a home with education, I could not persuade his employer, the education director, to take disciplinary action. If the teacher had been a social services employee he would have been disciplined, possibly dismissed. The home contained some of the most troubled and troublesome adolescent boys from across the country. Tension was high and speedy action was needed to protect boys and staff. I indicated my intention to exclude the teacher but a solicitor, backed by the chief executive, forbade it so I said that I was no longer responsible for the home and advised the health department to find out who was now in charge. Once again, only by gambling with my job was I able to find a way forward without leaving children at risk.
My information is that the health department told the chief executive that I had been approved by the Secretary of State to manage the home and, unlike most homes, if I were impeded in that task without good cause the Secretary of State had the power to close it.
The prospect of a confrontation with the government saw hitherto formidable legal barriers fall away. The chief executive negotiated personally with a union official to transfer the teacher to a school. An extensive training package was offered and there would be an “independent inquiry” into the way the officer-in-charge had handled the situation. The chief executive attended a governors’ meeting to finalise arrangements. The social services budget was debited by £22,000 to retrain the teacher and the chief executive announced that he would conduct the inquiry personally. Was there more to this story than I knew?
I resumed responsibility for the home not knowing the nature of the complaint against the officer-in-charge. Ill-feeling was to be expected. Despite running one of the most challenging homes in the country, he had been told that neither he, nor I had authority to exclude a misbehaving teacher. But the inquiry was undertaken to please trades unions. Having been warned off me by the health department, someone else was targeted.
At a committee meeting I objected that the chief executive had already criticised the officer-in-charge and was not, therefore, independent. The inquiry was carried out by the personnel officer who had prepared the reports described in 1.2 and 2.3 above so I knew what kind of document to expect. The officer-in-charge deserved better than a game of charades with someone without relevant training or experience who had already been discredited. I was not asked to give evidence. About a year passed before the inquiry concluded by which time I had left the Council.
Some years later the teacher was arrested for an offence against a child whilst employed at the home.
Since retiring I have been drawn into discussions by the police and others about whether there was a paedophile ring in Avon protected by a Mr Big. I have no reason to believe that officers or councillors behaved inappropriately towards individual children. But, as in Kincora House, Belfast, where collusion between officers and politicians led to boys being abused over a long period, there were strong personal, political, and religious alliances that I could not penetrate between people at high levels in the Council and staff and governors in homes. Senior officers showed an alarming enthusiasm for pleasing councillors as opposed to offering sound advice. Also, I and my managers were deliberately and consistently undermined. This was an ideal scenario in which a paedophile ring could flourish.
I have seen no evidence that a group of people conspired to abuse children. However, nothing would surprise me. If confronted with the choice of protecting children or protecting a misbehaving councillor, I could not be sure that some senior officers had the moral courage to make the right decision. Nor could I be sure that they would refuse a demand from a politician to cover-up something unsavoury. The attitudes of senior officers cascaded through their departments to others who had access to homes. To that extent, Avon children were always vulnerable.
I believe naiveté, incompetence and a wish to please staff together with an urge to control things they did not remotely understand caused some senior officers and councillors to damage services. As with Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith, it was often convenient to look the other way. But this was more reprehensible in Avon because the care of children was one of the county’s core functions. Children were simply not heard and, as a matter of routine, lower standards and higher risks were tolerated than any councillors or senior officers would accept for their own children.
Wally Harbert trained in psychiatric social work and worked in mental health services for eight years. Before joining Avon he was director of social services for three years in the London Borough of Hackney. He served as president of the Association of Directors of Social Services and was UK Director of Help the Aged. His novel, Bent Twigs, about abuse in children’s homes was published in 2005.
Wally Harbert 3rd November 2014.
Wally was Hackneys first Director of Social Services in 1970, joined Avon County Council in the same capacity in 1973. He became Help the Aged UK Director in 1990, then Director of Planning and Development, retiring in 1996.
He has served on many governmetn comittees, drafted reports for the National Health Executive and the Home Office, and 6 books about Personal Social Services.
Wally was President of the Assocaition of Directors of Social Services in 1978/9 and was awarded the OBE in 1984.
Wally Harbert also wrote a novel published 2005 called Bent Twigs ISBN 1-904986 15 3 heavily based on his experiences in social services.
This is local government with the lid off. You will be relieved it is a novel, until you realise that is the best method of telling the truth.