FACT: the origins of a campaign
revised 7 February
I refer to the website of FACT (False Allegations against Carers and Teachers)
FACT is a grass-roots organisation of care workers and teachers who are concerned about the practice of police trawling and about the false allegations and wrongful convictions this practice has given rise to.
The organisation had its origins in the prosperous commuter town of Formby, where St George’s, a community home later reclassified as a special school, was once situated. In the late 1990s St George’s became a particular focus for one of the largest police trawling operations in the country – Operation Care which was then being headed by Detective Superintendent John Robbins of the Merseyside Police.
In September 1997, the following letter was sent to some 500 of the former residents of St George’s:
The eventual consequences of this mail-drop, in which a police force was, in effect, applying the tried and tested techniques of marketing organisations to the gathering of evidence for a criminal prosecution, would be huge. St George’s was destined to become the institution which was turned, in the imagination of the Merseyside Police at least, into a ‘house of horrors’. Eventually no fewer than 91 former members of staff would have allegations of abuse made against them. Of these 91 cases only one resulted in a prosecution which has not been successfully challenged; all the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the allegations collected against former members of St George’s staff – perhaps as many as 98% of them – were false.
The reasons why St George’s in particular came to be demonised in this way are far from clear. One factor which undoubtedly played a part was that it had always been one of the largest Community Homes in the country, accommodating as many as 120 boys at any one time. Another possible reason was that, very unusually, one of the former members of staff was a national celebrity; David Jones, the Wolverhampton Wanderers football manager and former Everton player, had worked at St George’s during the 1980s.
David Jones was not the first former member of St George’s staff to be arrested as a result of the Merseyside Police’s trawling letter and the investigation which accompanied it. That ‘honour’ was reserved for a man who was himself a former Merseyside police officer, Mike Lawson. Lawson’s arrest was soon follow by that of another care worker, Basil Williams-Rigby.
Williams-Rigby, who was arrested in December 1997, had gone out of his way to help the boys in his care. This, however, had rendered him particularly vulnerable to the kind of allegations he now faced. As he would eventually tell the journalist Bob Woffinden, he found it almost impossible to take these seriously:
When my solicitor sent me the statements of complainants, I couldn’t read them. It upset me to think that I could be accused of something like that. I just went like a lamb to the slaughter, thinking that these people wouldn’t continue with these idiotic lies. That wasn’t the case, was it?
There was one witness I was staggered by. He used to be a very frightened kid, I boosted his confidence. He’d done reasonably well for himself – I thought at the time, that’s something that I gave him. He’d actually kept in touch.
The police approached him on more than one occasion. He said nothing like that had ever happened. I’d phoned and asked him to be a character witness – he agreed straightaway: ‘What a stupid set of allegations. I’ll help you anytime, Baz, you’ve helped me enough in the past’.
Then, he succumbed to temptation. I think it was just
the money. He got three thousand pounds – or three thousand pieces of silver, as
I think of it.
As Basil Williams-Rigby waited in disbelief for his trial to take place, the Merseyside Police continued to collect allegations against others. On 17 June 1999 newspaper headlines throughout Britain reported the most sensational news in the entire history of police trawling: the arrest of David Jones who was at the time the manager of Southampton. For the first time, a nationally known figure had been arrested for allegedly abusing boys while working in a children’s home.
As the police continued to attempt to strengthen their case against David Jones by collecting more allegations against him, Williams-Rigby’s case, which followed a much more rapid trajectory than that of Mike Lawson, came to trial in August 1999.
Williams-Rigby was supported throughout the trial by his wife Dianne, and his three eldest children, Rebecca, who was 27, Victoria, then 21, and Lydia who was 14. Some two years after the trial, Rebecca would recall the moment when she finally realised her father was going to prison. ‘He said “how can I prove my innocence?” and I just hugged him and said “you can’t, Dad”. Then I knew for certain that he wasn’t coming home.’
When the jury returned their verdicts on the 47 counts which her father faced, Rebecca’s intimation was proved to be correct. Although he was acquitted on 25 of the counts, he was found guilty on 22 of them. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison.
In many respects the conviction
of Williams-Rigby, coming as it did so close to the arrest of David Jones on
similar counts, was to prove a turning point in the entire history of police
Since that time, partly because of the untiring work of its two first chairmen, Harry Fearns (Basil Williams-Rigby’s brother-in-law) and Richard Newsham and the huge contribution made by former Merseyside care worker Phil Fiddler, FACT has grown into a national organisation. With the support of Claire Curtis-Thomas, FACT members were, along with campaigning journalists Bob Woffinden and David Rose, partly responsible for persuading the Home Affairs Select Committee to hold its full scale inquiry into police trawling. Since then the organisation has not only seen the acquittal of David Jones but it has also been on hand to witness the overturning of the convictions of Lawson and Williams-Rigby.
In the last two or three years FACT has gone from strength to strength. Under its current chairman, former headmaster Rory O'Brien, and its new secretary, former senior residential social worker Michael Barnes, it has adopted a bolder national profile. Michael Barnes has revitalised the FACT website and the new committee has a national flavour which makes full use of FACT members' many talents. The Northwest branch of the organisation has reformed with Mike Lawson as chairman. Other areas include North Wales, South Wales, West Midlands, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire..
All those teachers and care workers who have been falsely accused of sexual abuse and their families and friends have reason to be grateful to FACT and to its committee members, both past and present, who have laboured so hard and so long in the cause of justice.
© Richard Webster, 2004