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Last Updated: Friday, 12 March, 2004, 15:29 GMT
Series of shocks at Soham inquiry
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Online

The Bichard Inquiry hit a depressing low note on Friday as it revealed more missed opportunities to stop Ian Huntley getting a job at a school.

Already members of two police forces and one social services department have attended the fifth floor of an office block in Holborn to hold their hands up to their mistakes.

But those errors were well known ever since Huntley, who had a string of sex allegations against him, was convicted four months ago for the double murder of the Soham schoolgirls.

Howard Gilbert, head of Soham Village College
Howard Gilbert admitted no references were checked
This time there was visible shock among the 20-strong audience, the chairman Sir Michael Bichard and the inquiry counsel James Eadie, on seeing the rigour of education's vetting system crumble under scrutiny.

Not only did the head of Soham Village College admit not checking any of Huntley's references, but the national system whereby firms make background checks for LEAs was put in serious question.

At least the parents of Holly Wells, who attended on the previous day, were not present to hear further lapses exposed in such detail.

The inquiry was still digesting the lack of effort by the school when the second witness provided another blow to any faith left in the vetting process.

Maureen Cooper, director of Education Personnel Management Ltd (EPM), told the inquiry that when she ticked the police check forms to say she had verified Huntley's personal details, she had actually done no such thing.

She claimed she was not equipped to check his date of birth, alias names or the previous addresses in the past five years.

Flaws

Mr Eadie offered a few helpful suggestions - how about council tax, electoral roll, gas bills?

No, the accuracy of the form depended on the "honesty of the individual", Miss Cooper said.

A seemingly incredulous Sir Michael made his only intervention of the day to remark: "You are signing something that's not true."

When she argued this was done across the country, he answered: "I'm sorry, it's either verified to the point where you're satisfied they are accurate, or it's not."

Huntley's application form
Huntley's job references were vague
Miss Cooper clearly wanted to sound the alarm on a loophole which, she admitted, meant 11,000 checks done by EPM in the last two years were "flawed".

By this time Howard Gilbert, head of the college which employed Huntley as caretaker, was sitting in the front row.

Earlier he took the witness seat and leant forward confidently to take questions.

His was a familiar face to those who heard him say on television after the trial that he felt "physically sick" on hearing about Huntley's past.

On this occasion he was honest in appraising his own role in not checking the five references.

"It's something I've thought about long and hard, as you can imagine, given the subsequent events," Mr Gilbert said, at a loss to explain why usual practice and government guidance were neglected in this case.

Impressive

Mr Eadie went into detail to demonstrate the weakness of the references submitted, with vague dates, several ambiguities and only one with a named addressee.

He flashed up Huntley's job application form on one of the inquiry's big screens, written in scrawny block capitals.

Under reasons for applying, Huntley wrote: "My fiance and myself have decided to relocate to an area which offers a better quality of life for us to start a family and settle."

I need no convincing that the references should have been followed up and not to do so was a mistake
Howard Gilbert
Headmaster
Soham Village College
Mr Gilbert was not the only employer he impressed. Huntley's job references showed him to be a man who gave a good account of himself in several posts.

They chillingly depicted a man well-equipped to mask any dangers in his personality.

Even in his interview at the college, Mr Gilbert said his manner had been "thoughtful and mature".

But the only attempt to probe his suitability to work with children was a question about what he would do if a pupil developed a crush on him.

"How useful is that as a measure to prevent the wolf getting into the sheep pen?" asked Mr Eadie.





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