EXCLUSIVE: Essex Council accused of child abuse 'cover-up' as legal action uncovers £350K in 'monetary settlements'

By Charles Thomson in Law

ESSEX Council forked out almost £350,000 in settlements to child abuse victims between 2012 and 2016, official documents have revealed.

A total of 239 abuse allegations were made in relation to the council’s children’s services between January 2012 and June 2016, according to data released by County Hall following a legal action.

But the founder of one of the UK’s leading child abuse charities has accused the authority of perpetuating a ‘cover-up’, after it refused to release further basic details.

A demand under Freedom of Information laws forced the council to publish details of all ‘allegations of historic child sexual abuse or other allegations made about abuse of children in the authority’s care’, received between early 2012 and mid-2016.

The data revealed 172 allegations were made in the four-and-a-half year period about alleged abuse in the council’s fostering system, plus 67 allegations of abuse in its children’s homes.

The data did not specify how many of the allegations were historic. The council said the figures related to ‘claims made since January 2012, irrespective of incident date’.

County Hall admitted it had paid ‘some kind of monetary settlement’ in 13 cases where ‘comprehensive investigations’ supported the allegations.

None of the settlements were awarded by a court. The council has so far refused to confirm or deny whether it reported any of the perpetrators to police.

The pay-outs totalled £345,740.81.

Among them were three payments authorised in 2016, totalling £37,500, for alleged abuse in schools or children’s homes. No further details were given.

County Hall refused to reveal how much each individual pay-out cost taxpayers, claiming that it could not disclose the figures without the consent of the recipients.

It claimed releasing the figures would ‘cause unwarranted interference to the rights and freedoms and legitimate interests of the data subjects’.

Peter Saunders, founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, called on Essex Council to be more transparent and urged complainants to contact the national Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

He said: “Essex Council seems to specialise in trying to keep things covered up. Certainly, the taxpayers have a right to know where these sums of money have gone and for what purpose.”

In early 2015, NAPAC and the Taxpayers’ Alliance joined a YA campaign for transparency over compensation payments authorised by Essex Council for alleged historic abuse.

The council claimed that answering broad questions, such as answering ‘yes’ or no’ to whether police were called in each instance, could identify the alleged victims – a claim rejected by the YA and its campaign partners.

Mr Saunders continued: “It’s absolutely appropriate to compensate people that have suffered at the hands of perpetrators – but it doesn’t help anybody, least of all the cause of child protection, to continue the cover-up and keep up the wall of silence.

“What hits you in the face here is that by paying these settlements, the council is possibly covering up for abusers who would still be out there. The alleged victims get compensated, but the perpetrators are able to continue their offending.

“So I would encourage these complainants to contact the national inquiry. These are serious issues and Essex Council needs to be brought to account, in my opinion.”

Tory councillor Dick Madden, Essex Council’s cabinet member for children and families, dismissed the criticism.

He said: “We have been completely transparent in our response to the Freedom of Information request. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong.

“We take our responsibility to both victims of abuse and neglect, and also to the Essex taxpayer, very seriously and any compensation payments would only follow after a comprehensive investigation process. This would include taking action as appropriate against perpetrators.

“We are not able to share the details of individual payments because to do so would run the risk that members of the public may be able to identify the victim or how much they had received. This would be a breach of privacy laws and is something we would never do.”

The council did not explain how releasing an anonymised list of cash sums could lead to the identification of the victims.

To contact NAPAC, call 0808 801 3331.

To contact the national inquiry, call 0800 917 1000 or visit www.iicsa.org.uk.

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