New child abuse tribunals vetoed

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Assembly rejects a key Clywch report proposal. Felicity Waters, Tomos Livingstone and Laura May report.

A key recommendation made by the children's commissioner for Wales in the wake of the John Owen sex abuse inquiry is unlikely to be implemented because of legal stumbling blocks and union opposition.

Peter Clarke, who was at the Welsh Assembly this week to listen to the government's official response to his Clywch report, had recommended that four independent tribunals chaired by lawyers should be set up to hear serious allegations of abuse made against teachers.

But education and lifelong learning minister Jane Davidson told Assembly members that setting up the disciplinary tribunals would not be straightforward. New primary legislation would be needed to take the responsibility away from governing bodies.

Teaching unions welcomed her announcement that other options would now be considered.

Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said: "It would be horrendously difficult to define a 'serious' allegation, and we are afraid that cases would be referred to these tribunals for other reasons such as local considerations or other sensitivities."

Gethin Lewis, secretary of the National Union of Teachers Cymru, said the tribunals would create a more litigious environment.

"Children must be protected, but staff also need to be protected from malicious allegations."

Mr Clarke believed tribunals were needed to achieve the necessary independence to investigate serious allegations of abuse. But at a meeting of unions and professional bodies called by Ms Davidson ahead of the Assembly debate, it was decided that there was "little appetite" for the idea.

A spokesperson for the children's commissioner said it was "disappointing" that the recommendation had not been accepted.

"We are pleased, however, that the minister and other bodies are looking at other similar options, and that most of the other recommendations will be implemented. We are anxious that this is done as soon as possible."

Colin Thomas, director of Governors Wales, said the status quo was not an option.

"Our preference is to have the services of an independent person with legal or child protection training to inform, support and guide governors on matters of procedure, employment law and the disciplinary process.

"These days governors have to deal with far more technical issues, but that is not a sufficient reason for dumbing down their role."

Mr Clarke's report into sexual abuse allegations against former drama teacher John Owen catalogued dismal failures by key professionals to protect pupils at Ysgol Gyfun Rhydfelen in Pontypridd during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Owen killed himself in 2001 when facing criminal charges.

Mr Clarke's report, published in July, included 31 recommendations to tighten up child protection procedures, including a review of examining boards' child protection policies, whistle-blowing policies in every school, training for teachers in child protection, and an independent counselling service for children.

Some are being handled nationally while others have been devolved to other bodies.

Welsh Assembly member David Davies, the Conservative education spokesman, called for an investigation into whether anyone implicated in the scandal was still working in education, and particularly the WJEC, the Welsh exams board.

Mr Davies told the Assembly: "A WJEC examiner who stopped an exam due to the graphic nature of it was told he would never be used by the board again. And he never was used again. The WJEC has got some questions to answer on this."

He called for disciplinary action against anyone still at the WJEC who had turned a blind eye to concerns raised by examiners about the material used by Owen in drama lessons.

Plaid Cymru's Janet Ryder said: "At present, the WJEC is a private, unaccountable company. Many of its procedures are criticised in this report. It is essential that the minister satisfies herself that these procedures have been corrected."

Jane Hutt, health and social services minister, said: "We haven't specifically set out to comment on the recommendations for other bodies.

But we will ensure as part of our general oversight role that we hold regular discussions with them to monitor progress.

"The WJEC has already updated its child protection policies."

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