by Les May
A report in today's Rochdale Observer tells us that a decision will be taken on Monday about whether the local council's investigation into allegations of sexual abuse at Knowl View special school in the late 1980s and early 1990s should be scrapped. The argument in favour of scrapping the local investigation is that the Goddard Inquiry will address the same issues and that any duplication would be a waste of money.
In April 2014 the council commissioned Mr Justice Garman to investigate claims of abuse both at Knowl View and at Cambridge House hostel. The latter dated from the 1960s and involved the late Cyril Smith. The Garman inquiry superceded an earlier inquiry which had been commissioned specifically to look at the Knowl View claims. This widened inquiry was set up following the 're-discovery' by Simon Danczuk of the story by John Walker and David Bartlett of Smith's antics at Cambridge House published in Rochdale Alternative Paper (RAP) in May 1979.
As Smith was alive when the story was published and declined to sue the authors there had never been any reason to doubt that it was true. Having seen the affidavits of the young men who were on the receiving end of Cyril's attentions I can understand why he decided no to sue. The story was well known to people in Rochdale though it did little to dent Cyril's popularity. How Simon must wish that his own little difficulties of allegations by an ex-wife, questions about expenses and some dubious texts could be so easily forgotten.
The Garman inquiry was also to look at claims that council officers had 'covered up' abuse at Knowl View involving pupils some of whom were victims and others perpetrators. Claims of such homosexual activity by boys at Knowl View had been made public in an article in the Independent on Sunday in September 1995. The source of these claims was a very professional and unsensational report in 1991 by Aids worker Philip Shepherd.
What does not seem to be disputed is that the report was sent to both the Education and Social Services departments of RMBC and that a further report by a consultant clinical psychologist was commissioned. This confirmed Mr Shepherd's findings.
The intention was that the Garman report would be published by the end of July 2014. The proximate reason for the fact that the report was never published is that the Greater Manchester Police launched a criminal investigation. However it is also the case that whether intentionally or otherwise Simon Danczuk's constant interventions acted to undermine public confidence in the Garman report. The constant refrain was that RMBC could not be trusted to hold an inquiry into itself. The fact that this was a serious slur upon the independence and professionalism of Mr Justice Garman does not seem to have occurred to Mr Danczuk.
At the time the overall impression was that the Garman inquiry had been abandoned. We now find that it had been 'temporarily halted', that Mr Justice Garman has produced an interim report and that he met with 'resistance' from potential witnesses in 2014.
Now, I don't wish to claim that there has been a deliberate 'cover up' in the past two years by RMBC. But the fact remains that once the Garman inquiry was halted (temporarily or otherwise) one effect was that RMBC no longer had to field questions from the press and other news organisations. All enquiries now had to be directed to GMP.
Nor does it look likely that we shall ever see the contents of Garman's interim report. We can I think assume that this contains details of which council officers saw the 1991 Shepherd report and the February 1992 report by consultant psychologist Valerie Mellor, what action the took themselves, what further action they recommended to councillors and which councillors they reported to. I think we can also assume that it will include details of who 'resisted' Mr Justice Garman's investigation.
I don't believe there was a deliberate 'cover up' by RMBC about what was known about sexual activity amongst the boys at Knowl View. Having read the Shepherd report I can see that what was going on was undoubtedly very unsavoury. But I fail to see how anyone could have found an instant solution to all the very serious problems which were uncovered. Immediate closure of the school was clearly not an option.
The question is did the people who knew about what was going on at the school, whether they were officers or councillors, make a serious attempt to sort out the problems that had come to light?
Whilst it would clearly be inappropriate to publish any sections of the interim report which relate to claims of any criminal activity the rest of it should be published.
If next Monday the Cabinet decide to 'axe' the now 'halted' Garman inquiry and use it as an excuse for not publishing the interim report they have only themselves to blame if it generates claims of a 'cover up', not least because the leader of the council in the early 1990s, and who might have been made aware of what had been happening at Knowl View and what steps were being taken to remedy it, returned as leader of the council in 2014. In a word the present situation is a mess.
Whilst I have often been sceptical about some of Mr Danczuk's actions in relation to Knowl View this is something where I think he should use his position as Rochdale's MP to press for the publication of Mr Justice Garman's interim report.
Over to you Mr Danczuk.