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Tuesday, 21 March, 2000, 22:25 GMT
Transcript: The Witch Hunt

This is the full transcript of Frontline Scotland's The Witch Hunt programme, broadcast on 21 March


Presenter Jane Franchi:Orkney, on whose islands the pressures and stresses of crowded mainland life can seem so distant. To the visitor it is a place of peace, tranquillity and harmony. It can give the appearance of a haven. But appearances can be deceptive.

In March last year Orkney's social work director officially left her post. She and the islands council announced it was early retirement. But according to claims in the tabloid press it was a witch-hunt, she was hounded out because she was gay.

It was another high profile departure of another Orkney social work director. Another crisis for the department which had dominated the headlines a few year earlier. Now Frontline reveals the story behind the headlines, and the so-called witch hunt.

Jane:Is it true that she was forced out of Orkney by an anti-gay feeling?

Cyril Annal (Councillor):No definitely.

Jane:That sexuality was the problem?

Cyril Annal:Definitely not.

Jane:Was Dr Osborne hounded out of Orkney for being gay?

James Miller, editor of the Orcadian: No. Under no circumstances.

Jane:It was on a February dawn nine years ago that Orkney's image of peace and tranquillity was dramatically shattered.

Nine children were taken from their homes on the island of South Ronaldsay by police and social workers who claimed the children were victims of ritual, sexual abuse.

They were taken into care on the mainland. While in Orkney their parents and supporters campaigned to have them returned. After five weeks the sheriff ruled that the case was fatally flawed.

Amid volatile scenes at his offices the Social Work director, Paul Lee, agreed to have the children returned to Orkney. His own position now untenable, Paul Lee left. His reputed pay-off - 60,000.

At the quarry where the abuse was alleged to have taken place the families, who for legal reasons can never be identified, united for the picture which became the symbol of the whole sorry case. And a public inquiry was held before senior judge, Lord Clyde.

After the South Ronaldsay scandal Lord Clyde urged the social work department to rebuild public confidence, and to improve the relationship between themselves and the local community.

Indeed, when Dr Avril Osborne was appointed as the new social work director much was made of how important her role would be in this bridge-building exercise. Instead, her appointment led to a whole new catalogue of controversy and confrontation. And she began taking up column inches in the islands' newspaper.

James Miller:She came with very good credentials. She had experience with the Scottish Office, and she was viewed as a knight in shining armour.

She was going to come in and build the social work department up again, was going to get rid of the dead wood, get rid of bad practice, and em. . . .well what transpired was a completely. . . .conspired was completely different.

Jane:Dr Osborne had made no secret of the fact that she was gay. But shortly after her arrival in 1995 she moved in with a woman who had been a leading figure in social work during the South Ronaldsay affair. There was astonishment among local people and their councillors.

Ian McDonald (ex-councillor):It may work in a big city, you know, where you don't live on the doorstep with your clients. But here everybody knows everybody else.

And you can't do that, you can't ride roughshod over people's opinions. Whether they're right, whether they're wrong, it doesn't matter. I think you've just got to be very, very careful professionally that you don't do something like that.

And she was very, very ill-advised. And, if not, to the extent of being totally and utterly arrogant. I mean she thought it didn't matter. She obviously doesn't understand the people or the place in which she's trying to serve, which is Orkney.

Jane:But there were even more raised eyebrows when it became known that Dr Osborne had started another relationship with another woman. This time a colleague, Roma Paton, who was head of complaints in the social work department.

James Miller:They became aware of the bad relationship, or the alleged relationship fairly early on.

Jane:Did it strike you that there could be a conflict of interest there, was there something you were able to report that if Roma Paton was head of complaints that any complaints about the operations of the Social Work Department would go through her?

James Miller:I would have thought actually that a potential conflict of interest is obvious to anyone.

Jane:And it hadn't escaped the attention of the island's councillors.

Did it not strike you as a possible conflict of interests?

Cyril Annal:Yes, a possible conflict of interest indeed.

Jane:And was this voiced on the council?

Cyril Annal:Privately, yes. Never publicly.

Jane: Privately voiced concerns in council corridors or publicly voiced gossip. The potential conflict would be an issue only if it affected the people of Orkney.

According to one family the much talked about close relationship between Avril Osborne and the head of complaints, Roma Paton, led to a conflict of interest when they tried to complain about the social work department.

Their disabled daughter died after she was assaulted at a council day care centre. They blame her death on Avril Osborne's mismanagement, and claim that their complaint couldn't be properly investigated.

Alison Campbell was born with hydrocephalus, water on the brain. She underwent numerous operations on the shunt in her head which drained away the fluid.

She also had physical and learning difficulties. Alison went to St Colm's Day Centre in Kirkwall, a happy arrangement until her parents learned of the arrival of a new resident with aggressive tendencies.

Dick Campbell:Alison came home one day and told us that another person who attended St Colm's, a fairly sturdy person in fact, had been knocked down and knocked to the ground by one of the other attenders there who we had heard was, tended to be a bit rough, a bit violent.

So as a result of that it obviously concerned us that if somebody fairly sturdy could be knocked down that way that Alison, who was small, only four foot six, who all her life had had a poor sense of balance, she could be seriously injured if that was to happen to her. We felt it could even threaten her life.

Jane:The Campbells were so worried they wrote to the social work department requesting extra supervision at the centre to prevent another violent incident.

Dick Campbell:Our correspondence at that time with Orkney Isles Council was headed "Safety at St Colm's". So we were concerned that the environment wasn't safe for Alison or for other vulnerable people.

Jane: Council records reveal a number of incidents involving the resident in the months leading up to July 1995. It was then that Alison became a victim. She was knocked down with devastating consequences.

Valerie Campbell:She was totally traumatised. She followed us round like a small puppy for a week. We realised then that whatever the physical assault was the mental assault was actually far greater because nobody had ever, ever pushed Alison in anger before, in violence before.

I said: "Alison is fading away on us." That was the only way that I can say it. She became a shadow of the little fighting spirit that we had living with us. In some ways maybe it was easier, but it was distressful to see her spirit disappear.

Jane:This video was taken one month before Alison died. She'd suffered a second assault at the centre, though not as serious as the first. Her parents believe that her feelings of insecurity at St Colm's emotionally damaged her. And a consultant neuro-psychologist agreed.

According to his report it was likely the incident had affected Alison's life. She was depressed, with suicidal tendencies, was suffering anxiety, sleep disturbance, and apprehension.

Alison underwent another operation in the spring of 1997. She died of respiratory problems in November of that year. Her parents are convinced that she had given up fighting.

Valerie Campbell:We both believe, definitely, that Alison's time of dying was induced by what had happened to her.

We will go to our grave convinced that the assault - not the person who did the assault - but the action, or inaction, after the assault was instrumental in shortening Alison's life. There is no question of that.

Jane:After the first assault the Campbells tried to invoke the council's complaints procedure over, what they claimed, was Dr Osborne's failure to protect their daughter. They found they were dealing with Roma Paton. They, like many others, had heard rumours of their close relationship.

Dick Campbell:It was one of these things that we . . .pick up on the grapevine. We had been puzzled at some stage as to. . . we felt that Ms Paton was not maintaining her supposed arms length role from the body, or from the director of the social work department. She was supposed to be semi-independent in her assessments and so on.

Jane: Were you concerned that she didn't seem to maintain this because you'd heard the stories about her relationship, or before that?

Dick Campbell:Before that. I mean this was something that we had queried, and it wasn't until much later on that we heard through other channels and through people we know and so on that this relationship had developed.

Valerie Campbell:We didn't think it was an issue. You know, we had to appreciate that it could be, and then we realised that we were not getting the responses to various correspondence that we ought to have got. And we then became aware that maybe there was a conflict of interest, yes.

Jane:In a letter to the Campbells the arms length nature of her role was explained by the head of complaints herself, Roma Paton.

But the Campbells were further frustrated when they received a letter from Avril Osborne informing them that any complaint against her department would be dealt with ultimately by her as its director.

Valerie:We would be told the result of what the director had decided.

Jane:So the director was deciding on her own department.

Valerie:She was deciding, she was actually judge and jury.

Dick:It was clear that it was against the spirit of natural justice that complaints against a particular person should be referred back to them for consideration.

Jane:It was also against the spirit of Scottish Office directives established in 1990. As the Campbells discovered when they wrote to the ombudsman.

The couple and Orkney Islands Council are still in dispute over whether their complaint was properly handled. Dr Osborne herself declined to take part in this programme. However, the ombudsman has now instructed the council to amend its complaints procedures.

Valerie: We received a letter from the ombudsman explaining this to us. And I had a moment of elation, just a moment of elation, because we had changed things.

But then, I realised the price was far too high, far too high. And it shouldn't have been two outsiders who found the error in the social work department complaints procedure. It should have been found within the department. But it wasn't.

Jane:Frontline has learned that Roma Paton in her other role of inspections officer failed to carry out all the required number of inspection reports at St Colm's during the years that Alison was there.

The Campbells sued the council for Alison's stress and suffering. They received 3,500 in an out of court settlement. Now, they've embarked on another legal action - they're suing the council for their own stress and expenses.

Valerie:Everything that Avril Osborne has touched and that we have learned about has just made us. . . in the last couple of years has made us more and more sad that Alison had the bad luck to encounter such a flawed personality, and the judgement of which, her judgement. . .Osborne's. . . Dr Osborne's judgement was so flawed, and it had such a desperate effect on Alison.

Jane:Do you blame her for Alison's death?

Dick:Ultimately, yes.

Jane:As the Campbells struggled with the emotional trauma of their personal tragedy the social work department was struggling too with staff problems under its new director.

James Miller:There appear to be a ring of managers. If you were within this ring you were all powerful, you could wield a lot of power within the department, and if you were outwith this ring you were excluded from the major decision-making process.

Jane:And in social work by definition that decision-making process could affect lives throughout the Islands.

Elsewhere in Orkney another family were, as they see it, battling with the intransigence of the social work department under the reign of Avril Osborne. In their case it was a long and traumatic dispute over adopting a baby.

For legal reasons the family concerned can't be identified. Nor can we reveal where in these scattered islands they live. Over the years they've been foster parents many times for children sent to them by the social work department. Obviously very highly regarded, they were asked to foster a baby boy.

Hello, may I come in, and hear more about your story?

Male(actor's voice): Yes.

Jane:Was this a usual fostering for you?

Male: Well, it started off just normally, and then seeing as he was so small when he came, we just got attached to him, and he got attached to us. He was part of our family.

Jane:As the months passed inevitably the attachment grew. And as the months passed it became clear that the baby's natural mother couldn't look after him. The social work department decided he should be adopted.

Male:He was about nine months old. The social work had decided something had to be done. He had to be moved on. So. . .and we suggested he should stay here. And why not, he fitted in quite well.

Jane:There were meetings, reports, discussions. The family wanted him to stay. The social work department disagreed.

At any point during all this negotiation that went on did anybody suggest that the wee boy was being harmed in any way by being here. Was there ever any suggestion that he should be moved away from you specifically while other decisions were made about his future?

Male:No, they were pleased at how he was being looked after. One of the reports said it was top quality care he was getting here. And we wanted to keep him, and we thought it was in his best interests to stay with us.

Jane: But the authorities disagreed on that too. They said their concern was that in a small community like Orkney the baby would be too close to his natural mother and she might try and interfere with his upbringing.

Let me be quite clear on this. During this time, by now we're talking how many years had you had him.

Male: Eighteen months.

Jane:Had there been any problem at this stage with his natural mother?

Male:No, none at all.

Jane:But the social work department was adamant. The little boy had to move away from Orkney. They tried to make a condition of the family adopting him. In the event, that condition couldn't be enforced, and the adoption finally went through. By then the boy was over two years old.

Jane:Was this dispute in the best interests of this child?

Male:No, I don't think so. Anybody could see his best interest was staying with us. It just got towards the end, it was a case of us versus them.

Jane:In a written statement in response to Frontline's enquiry about the adoption case Orkney Islands Council wouldn't comment.

They said it would be wholly inappropriate and unprofessional. So we asked an independent expert with years of experience whether the department stance had been in the best interests of the child the governing principle of adopting decisions.

Professor John Triseliotis (independent adoption consultant)What was important was the possibility of moving the child to another family. I thought that really should have never been entertained unless they had serious reservations about the capacity of this family to offer care, love, stimulation, a proper rearing to this child.

Jane:Then there was the recommendation that the family could adopt the baby only if they left Orkney.

Prof Triseliotis:Well, I haven't heard of such a case before and obviously I was very surprised. Imposition of a condition to move out of the area.

Jane If there were problems out in the field, there were just as many back at base: staff were suspended; there were sudden resignations, there were pay offs inevitably accompanied by gagging clauses.

On one occasion a social worker was summarily suspended by Dr Osborne only to be reinstated hours later after her lawyer stepped in.

James Miller:There were certainly suspensions and there were one or two early retirements, peculiar early retirements - people who were well respected within the department suddenly taking early retirement.

And again it all seemed to point to a discontent with the management of the department, a discontent with the way things were going, the way things were being run, the new procedures. And the suspicion was that the whole department was sliding into chaos.

Jane:These people who took the early retirement, surprising early retirement I think you described them as, did they tell you about the circumstances of their departures.

James Miller:Ah, some did and some didn't. I don't want to break any confidences here, but certainly as the stories. . . .the story ran, em, the council, or we suspected the council introduced what they call confidentiality clauses. This entailed the individual coming to a deal with the council that "I won't tell the press anything about what's going on if you promise not to tell something else."

So it was and "I scratch your back if you scratch mine" arrangement. We were deeply suspicious that this was the case, and em, we disapproved strongly that that was the case.

The council attitude was I'm convinced they knew things were going wrong, and eh, the policy was let's just try and keep a lid on this, let's try and keep it private, let's see if we can sort it out, but for goodness sake don't let it go out, don't let the council's name get dragged through the gutter again, don't let the taxpayers know that there's waste here. That was the psyche.

Jane:Eventually it all came to a head - the head of the department. Avril Osborne herself left. She and the council negotiated an early retirement package. Orkney council taxpayers were kept in the dark about the exact details of the financial settlement, but they heard the rumours.

And they read in the their local paper that the figure was 60,000. There was also a glowing reference for Dr Osborne to present to potential employers, and, inevitably, a confidentiality clause for both parties.

James Miller:Our argument on the confidentiality clause was that by the very nature they breed suspicion.

It seemed to us that the confidentiality clause excluded the Orkney taxpayer from finding out exactly what was going on and exactly what cost was involved.

Again, the council wanted to keep a lid on what was going on, wanted to keep it close, and didn't really want the Orkney taxpayer to know how much it was spending. It's a bit like giving two fingers to the Orkney taxpayer quite frankly.

Jane: There was someone on the council at the time who tried to sound early warnings - warnings that fell on deaf ears.

Alasdair Thom (ex-councillor):I would have preferred right at the beginning, but the unfortunate thing was that I did not get the support from my other councillors.

So there was only one of two on the committee that supported me, and I was always finding myself with an uphill struggle trying to get people to believe me.

Jane: Alasdair Thom tried and failed to get a full debate on Dr Osborne's departure. His opinion - she should have been disciplined.

Alasdair Thom:I had a number of criticisms. I don't really want to go into detail, and I felt they should have gone through the normal disciplinary procedures.

Jane:Avril Osborne's financial package was something else we wanted to ask the council about.

But, as with all our other questions, they declined to be interviewed. In their written statement they strongly refute that there was anything inappropriate about the severance terms offered to any of their departing employees. And they say that it would be 'entirely unreasonable to tout details of those financial packages to the press.'

The press though looked set for a field day of details after her departure. The council was facing an industrial tribunal in which a senior social worker, Margaret Jackman, would claim constructive dismissal during Dr Osborne's reign.

Fearing that details of her sexuality and reasons for retirement would come to light at the tribunal, Dr Osborne attempted to get an interdict against The Orcadian and the BBC to prevent publication of those details.

The interdict failed and the court ruled that Dr Osborne had to pay costs. In the event, Margaret Jackman and the council came to an agreement just hours before the tribunal. It was another pay off and another gagging clause.

James Miller:I can't understand why we have so much problems with our social work department. In theory actually it should be the quietest department in the council.

Jane:The Council's statement to Frontline says it's inevitable that in small communities disputes attract a higher than normal public profile, and that's particularly the case in Orkney because of its past history.

The statement says they're now looking to the future. A new director has been appointed and huge efforts are being made, it says, to build professionalism. Orcadians will be hoping that is the case - they, after all, will be paying for it, as they have been for the past ten years.

A decade which has cost these islands of peace and tranquillity dear, not just financially. The unfounded allegations of the South Ronaldsay scandal and the events which followed have tarnished reputations, cut careers short, and damaged relationships.

The social work department still has a lot of repair work to do.

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