EXCLUSIVE: Essex Council continues to suppress historic child sex abuse files after Government blocks YA legal action

EXCLUSIVE: Essex Council continues to suppress historic child sex abuse files after Government blocks YA legal action

ESSEX Council will be able to continue withholding information from the public about alleged County Hall child abusers, after the Yellow Advertiser was forced to abandon a legal action.

The YA had taken Essex Council and Government’s ‘Information Commissioner’ to a tribunal over their refusal to publish historic reports into child sex claims against civil servants.

Papers were filed with the Ministry of Justice and the tribunal process had been ongoing for months, with the YA – representing itself – successfully fighting off two attempts by Government to get the case kicked out of court.

But the YA – recently taken over by editor Mick Ferris, after Tindle Newspapers decided to cease publication – was forced to abandon the legal action due to the threat of a massive bill for costs.

The YA was trying to force publication of documents penned by consultant Helen Kenward. Kenward worked for Essex Council between 1998 and 2001, investigating allegations that child protection workers had abused, or facilitated the abuse of, vulnerable children in council care.

The council has never published Kenward’s findings and had never even publicly acknowledged her work until the YA gained exclusive access to documents connected to her investigations.

Lord Hanningfield – leader of the council when Kenward was hired – told the YA that he too had been kept in the dark, saying officers had never even informed him that she had been hired.

In 2017, the YA learned that Essex Police – while probing a historic paedophile ring in Shoeburyness, as a direct result of a YA investigation – had developed an interest in Kenward’s findings.

Since then, the YA has been through four legal processes to try to gain access to her files, but Essex Council and the Government have refused to release a single page.

The YA was forced to abandon the latest legal action when the Government said it would not rule out hammering us for legal fees.

The first-tier tribunal, administered by the MOJ, is supposed to be a ‘cost-free’ mechanism for the public to challenge Government over decisions to withhold information.

But the Government ‘Information Commissioner’s Office’ (ICO) informed the YA it was hiring counsel to fight the case and refused to give an undertaking not to pursue us for the fees.

YA editor Mick Ferris said: “This is outrageous. The Yellow Advertiser was represented for months, single-handedly, by reporter Charles Thomson, who managed to successfully fend off two attempts to have the case thrown out.

“The ICO, whose job is to know and apply the law on publication of information, should not require barristers’ advice to do its job – and particularly not when facing an unrepresented layperson.

“In my opinion, the mention of hiring counsel was intended to intimidate us into dropping the complaint.

“In addition to meaning the public, for now, will still be banned from knowing about very serious allegations about institutional abuse, the ICO’s conduct raises serious questions about whether any ordinary member of the public truly has any recourse against improper decisions.

“In our view, both Essex Council and the ICO made errors in determining whether this public interest information should be released.

“The first-tier tribunal is supposed to be the public’s cost-free avenue to challenge such decisions. But if the ICO is going to hire counsel, then refuse to give an undertaking not to seek costs, it is not really a cost-free tribunal at all – and no ordinary person can actually afford the risk of challenging the Government, rendering the ICO a law unto itself.”

Papers seen by the YA show Kenward received information in 2000 about the alleged establishment ‘cover-up’ of a Southend paedophile ring, dubbed the ‘Shoebury Sex Ring’ by the authorities.

Other allegations reported to Kenward included children claiming their social workers were using them for sex, reports of police officers and a solicitor involved in abuse, and repeated reports of a particular council officer involved in child protection taking young boys home with him.

Essex Council claimed there was ‘no public interest’ in revealing whether any of these allegations were upheld or what happened as a result. It added that the YA was being ‘vexatious’ by asking for the files, which it claimed contained ‘many allegations’ identifying ‘people, organisations and places’.

The council claimed redacting private information would take ‘many hundreds of hours’ – despite the initial report sought by the YA being less than 150 pages long.

It then bizarrely claimed that it could not release the report, because if it did, it would not be able to investigate abuse allegations in future.

It claimed: “A report of this nature cannot easily be destroyed for many decades because records relating to allegations of this nature may have future relevance. The only safe option would be to not commission reports of this nature.”

The Information Commissioner backed this claim, which one charity likened to ‘blackmail’, saying: “What it sounds like is Essex Council is saying that if they are forced to be open and transparent on this occasion, they will ensure that there can be no openness and transparency in the future.”

Mick Ferris said: “We have never asked for any private data, such as names or job titles of those accused or their accusers. We made clear from the outset that any information which could identify an accuser or accused person should be redacted.

“We stressed that our primary interest was in what Kenward had identified as the council’s weaknesses or failings, and what she suggested it do to improve the safety of children in its care.

“In our view, this is unarguably in the public interest. If the council refuses to reveal the results of this taxpayer-funded investigation, how can anyone have any confidence that it acted on the findings?

“The council claimed it would take ‘many hundreds of hours’ to redact private information. In our submission, this was nonsense.

“Since requesting Kenward’s 142-page first report from Essex Council more than a year ago, resulting in this lengthy litigation, we’ve actually received a separate Freedom of Information (FOI) release from the MOJ of roughly 600 pages, which it redacted and released within the FOI time limit.

“How come the MOJ can redact and release 600 pages in under 24 hours, but Essex Council says it would take ‘many hundreds of hours’ to do 150?”

*The YA’s investigation into the ‘Shoebury Sex Ring’ and other historic abuse complaints in Essex has won seven national awards and commendations to date.

Charles Thomson

Chief ReporterEmail: [email protected]