Warning signs went unheeded

12th July 1996 at 01:00
Thomas Hamilton was suspected of posing a danger to children as early as 1981, yet he was still deemed fit to hold a firearms certificate, reports Shirley English, as Lord Cullen's inquiry into the Dunblane massacre leaves LEAs facing many questions.

The events leading up to Thomas Hamilton's murderous assault on Dunblane primary school on March 13 have left local authorities facing many questions. After almost six weeks of evidence from 171 witnesses at Lord Cullen's inquiry, what has emerged is that councils and police failed to respond adequately to warning signs over almost 15 years.

No one has been left in any doubt about just how vulnerable school buildings are to intruders - Dunblane primary had six entrances. But most worryingly, the inquiry has revealed that the systems to protect the public, and particularly children, from gunmen and paedophiles are grossly inadequate and often place civil liberties above public safety. In the days following the massacre, calls were made to tighten gun laws and the vetting of adults working with children.

These are the issues Lord Cullen is now expected to address when he considers his recommendations this summer. The implications for the authorities are clear - radical changes must be made.

It is significant that since the inquiry started, very little new evidence has emerged about Hamilton and his sad, seedy life. Wherever he went, a stream of parental complaints was never far behind. The problem was that no one in the local authorities had the full picture.

Councils across Scotland had been suspicious about his boys' gym clubs and summer camps, and had been trying to block his use of school premises. They had little success, partly because they feared legal action or complaints to ombudsmen - Hamilton, as is typical of paedophiles, was a vociferous campaigner on his own behalf.

Secret police reports suggesting he was a danger to children were first made in 1981. Police investigated him six times, and four times reported him to the procurator fiscal unsuccessfully, yet they still considered him fit to own a firearm. His licence was renewed seven times. Again, fear of legal redress seems to have discouraged those at the top, who had the full picture, from halting Hamilton's activities.

The trail of official impotence begs the question, how many people had to complain before something was done? And also, why did everyone jump whenever Hamilton put pen to paper, but repeatedly ignored the "gut feelings" of parents, politicians, teachers, police officers, and council workers? Altogether, Hamilton ran 17 boys' clubs across central Scotland between 1981 and 1996, and nine summer camps at Loch Lomond and Dunblane from 1985 onwards. Almost all attracted parental complaints, ranging from boys being forced to wear inappropriate clothing, to anger at Hamilton's photography and videoing of semi-naked youngsters without parents' knowledge. Despite this, he still kept going, often by switching venues or changing names. There were several reasons for this: First, the local authorities in whose areas Hamilton operated had no channel of communication to warn each other of suspicious adults working with children, and were unaware that he had firearms.

One thing they all knew, however, was that a 1984 ombudsman's report had criticised Central Region for suspending Hamilton's let at Dunblane High School on "unsubstantiated rumours alone". This gave him the protection he needed to expand his clubs into Fife and Lothian from 1985.

Second, Hamilton had a gym coaching qualification and the necessary insurance cover.

The councils thought there was little they could do to stop him hiring school premises, however, without hard evidence to back up rumours that he was a pervert. In Fife, less than one in 100 applications was rejected. And Hamilton, as a regular user, was entitled to a place on the committee that decided lettings at Dunblane high.

It is not surprising that to begin with Hamilton seems to have been able to obtain schools premises with ease - a situation which undoubtedly gave his clubs legitimacy. In Central Region before 1993, no checks were carried out on adults wishing to use school premises. Letting enquiries were passed from the legal and administration department to the janitor, and then on to the individual school board or council for approval.

Hamilton aroused suspicion wherever he went, but if there were any awkward questions, he simply lied to the authorities.

In 1993, he was asked by Central Region to name his so-called Boys Sports Clubs' Group Committee. He produced a fictitious set of minutes from a committee meeting, with a false list of members, one being his mother, Agnes Graham Watt. But it satisfied the council, and he went on to open more clubs.

His other smokescreen tactic was to bombard councils with letters. He took Central, Fife and Lothian councils to the ombudsman five times, but was successful only once, in 1984 - although this had far-reaching consequences.

Crucially, Hamilton also had the backing of his local councillor, Robert Ball, who became Central's education convener in 1994. Dr Ball not only supported his 1983 ombudsman complaint, but gave him a character reference, thus enabling him to expand into Strathclyde as a "council approved" youth leader in 1995.

The authorities did try to stop Hamilton, and Fife and Lothian eventually succeeded by using pending police investigations into two of Hamilton's summer camps at Loch Lomond in 1988 and 1991 to back their decisions. But Central, although obstructing Hamilton by ensuring there were no school vacancies when he applied, continued to seek too much proof because of the ombudsman's report.

No doubt a national register of adults working with children, compulsory criminal checks, compulsory committee structures for voluntary groups, better monitoring and improved communications between the councils, would have all helped to spot Hamilton and restrict his school lets.

In contrast, because the Scout movement had no appeals nor ombudsmen, Stirling's county commissioner Brian Fairgrieve was able to expel Hamilton.

Changes in the ways adults are vetted and school lets are issued and monitored are within the grasp of local authorities.

The drive seems to be towards maintaining a central control rather than further devolving responsibility to individual schools where the "bigger picture" would be lost. Improvements are already being discussed at the new Stirling Council, in which all groups will be fully vetted and monitored.

But the issue of school security is another matter. In their written submissions to Lord Cullen's inquiry, most teacher unions and educationists warned against turning schools into fortified prisons, although there is, since Dunblane, a growing resignation that some sacrifices will have to be made.

There are currently no national guidelines on school security. Suggestions put to Lord Cullen have focused on fencing, cameras, visitor logbooks and badges, and secure, single-entry systems. There is also a widely-held belief that all schools need a full security audit. But the crucial issue is that money will be needed - and lots of it.

Gordon Jeyes, education director at the new Stirling Council, has admitted that the security measures now in place at Dunblane primary cannot be maintained indefinitely, and will not be introduced at Newton primary, to open next month, due to the Pounds 24,000 expense.

But one question remains. Even if alarms and cameras had been in place on March 13, would they have stopped Thomas Hamilton?

Counting down the years to tragedy

1973: Scouts forced to sleep in van during Thomas Hamilton's Aviemore expedition.

1974: He is expelled from the Scouts.

1977: Gets first firearms certificate and joins Callander Rifle Club.

1981: Launches first boys' club, the Dunblane Rover Group, at Dunblane High School. Parental complaints start. First police criminal intelligence report.

1983: Complaints to Central Region about boys' clubs. Central suspends let at Dunblane High School. Hamilton complains to ombudsman.

1984: Ombudsman rules against Central.

1985: Hamilton reopens Dunblane Boys Club. Launches clubs in Fife, later Lothian.

1987: Joins Stirling Rifle and Pistol Club, where he "blasts away" at human-shaped targets.

1988: Linlithgow parent Doreen Hagger complains Hamilton abused children at summer camp at Inchmoan Island, Loch Lomond. Central and Strathclyde Police investigate. Report sent to Dunbarton procurator fiscal. No proceedings taken. Hamilton launches long-running vendetta against Central Police.

1989: Sets up fictitious Boys Sports Clubs' Group Committee as smokescreen. May: Lothian Regional Council suspends let at Linlithgow Academy pending police investigations at Inchmoan Island. June-July: Doreen Hagger pelts Hamilton with manure. Hamilton points gun at her outside her home. She also accuses him of showing guns to children in Linlithgow. Lothian and Borders Police investigate and pass report to Central.

1990: Hamilton complains to Ombudsman about Lothian Region, but fails. Complaint to HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary about Central Police is also rejected.

1991, July: Summer camp at Millarochy Bay, Loch Lomond. Complaints of abuse at camp and at a boys' club in Bridge of Allan. Central Police investigate, resulting in 10 charges to Stirling procurator fiscal, but no action taken. November: Detective Sergeant Paul Hughes urges superiors to revoke Hamilton's gun licence. Again, no action. Hamilton complains about police and council.

1992, January: Hamilton complains to Scottish Office about police. Depute chief constable Douglas McMurdo describes him as a "zealot'' and irrational. Firearms certificate renewed. July: Three nine-year-old boys run away from Dunblane High School summer camp. Fife Police investigate. Fife Region warned of "tragedy waiting to happen.'' Report sent to Dunbarton procurator fiscal, but again marked no action. Fife suspends Hamilton's let at two schools, pending police investigations.

1993, summer: Central Police seek warrant from Stirling procurator fiscal to search Hamilton's home for evidence of obscene photographs and possible embezzlement from clubs, but it is refused. August: Central Region asks Hamilton to send proof of his so-called club committee. Hamilton sends faked minutes. September: Central Police investigate complaints of boy being locked in gym with Hamilton.

1994: Hamilton complains to Ombudsman about losing let at Dunblane High School for summer camp, but fails.

1995, January-February: Firearms department start inquiries about Hamilton's firearms renewals, nothing found on him in criminal intelligence or firearms file. Firearms licence renewed. June: Hamilton confronts head of Bannockburn Primary about rumours spread by teachers. July: Applies to Strathclyde Region to open boys' clubs at Thomas Muir High School. August: Central Region sets up special committee to block his use of school premises. October: Buys semi-automatic 9mm Browning pistol he is to use to kill in the following year.

1996, January: Hamilton complains about "poisonous" rumours spread by teachers at Dunblane and Bannockburn Primary schools. March: Hints at suicide to friend Graham McGregor. Writes to the Queen complaining of his treatment. March 12: Copy of letter to the Queen arrives at Dunblane primary school. March 13: Hamilton guns down children and teachers at the school.

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