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Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 02:34 GMT
Report 'may have profound impact'

Home affairs analyst Jon Silverman looks at the background to proposals from a committee of MPs to protect children's home workers who face false abuse claims.

The Home Affairs Committee report will have been eagerly read by Terry Hoskin, who was head of a residential community home in Cheshire in the 1970's.

Mr Hoskin served as national president of the Association of Community Homes and was invited to Buckingham Palace in recognition of his achievements.


The jury must have thought 'well, there's no smoke without fire'

Terry Hoskin

But in 1996, after a two-year police investigation, he was convicted of physical and sexual abuse and jailed for eight years.

His case - which many observers regard as a miscarriage of justice - encapsulates some of the procedural flaws which the MPs' report highlights.

He said: "Given that many of the allegations against me came from people in prison, or who had been in prison, why would a jury believe them rather than the word of a respected headmaster.

"The answer is volume. In other words, the police had collected statements from enough people alleging abuse that the jury must have thought 'well, there's no smoke without fire'.

"The quality of this so-called evidence didn't seem to matter."

Trawling

This is the issue known as "trawling" for information and which many campaigners had hoped the committee would unequivocally censure.

In the event, the MPs stop short of calling for it to be prohibited though they do recommend that the Association of Chief Police Officers revise internal guidelines.

Another of the recommendations is, potentially, even more significant and addresses one of Mr Hoskin's complaints.

The MPs were impressed with a method of screening witness interviews for credibility and evidential value called "statement validity analysis".

They want to see this developed further and tested in pilot projects as a tool in historical cases of child abuse.

Anonymity

But the most contentious proposal is the one which calls for persons accused in such cases to be entitled to anonymity until they are convicted - unless a court orders otherwise.

This issue has arisen, of course, in rape cases and at a time when the government is anxious to provide more safeguards to rape victims as a way of boosting the conviction rate, it seems most unlikely that ministers would wish to intervene in another area of the criminal law to protect the suspect.

In recent years, a number of sensitive Home Affairs Committee reports have awaited a government response for a long time.

This may be another which falls into that category.

But coming hard on the heels of the case of the two nursery workers in Newcastle who were awarded substantial damages after being wrongfully accused of child abuse, this report may well have a profound impact on both the police and the courts.

See also:

25 Oct 02 | Europe
20 Sep 02 | N Ireland
14 May 02 | Wales
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