Waterhouse: a fight against injustice

by MICHAEL BARNES


After a struggle lasting over 11 years Michael Barnes, who is Chair of FACT - North Wales, has finally won his fight to clear his name in respect of allegations of child abuse made against him whilst he was employed in residential child care in North Wales.

MY NIGHTMARE BEGAN in 1990 when I was interviewed by North Wales Police in connection with my work as Officer in Charge of various children’s homes in Wrexham. I remember the time as though it happened yesterday. Further police interviews took place in 1992 and 1994. In each case I was told that the CPS did not intend to take the matter further. My then employers (Clwyd County Council) rightly decided to carry out their own investigations into the complaints made to the police. After a series of departmental investigations I was cleared with my ‘reputation and integrity still intact’ and continued in my work as Principal Social Worker for Children and Families.

I had expected that the matter might end there but the decision in June 1996 to establish the North Wales Tribunal of Inquiry into alleged abuse in children’s homes in Clwyd and Gwynedd changed that. All those matters which had already been investigated by the police and by my employers were now referred to the Tribunal for further investigation. Given the climate at the time perhaps I should not have been surprised that the Waterhouse Tribunal made some adverse findings against me. What did come as a surprise to me was that there was no right of appeal against such findings. I found this profoundly disturbing and contrary to all human rights principles. Indeed it was largely because of this that I felt driven, in the interests of all carers and teachers, to fight this injustice.

As soon as the Tribunal started hearing evidence in April 1997 my employers (now Wrexham County Borough Council) suspended me. This was not unexpected. What was unexpected was that I would remain suspended for four and a half years and that my employers would begin disciplinary action against me even before the Tribunal report was even published. As part of this process Wrexham Council had commissioned the NSPCC to undertake an independent review of the evidence presented against me and to assess my response to the allegations that had been made. The immediate problem was how to gain access to the NSPCC report. You could not imagine a more damning report.

What concerned me was that the report was riddled with error and had been compiled without due process or even giving me a chance to respond to the matters under consideration. The only way I could prove my innocence was to re-examine the evidence the NSPCC had obtained. After much correspondence with my employers I was allowed to examine the archive material on which they had relied. This took me several weeks to complete. I had expected to find evidence which would prove my innocence and I did. But I was concerned to discover that a great deal of this evidence had not been seen by the investigating officer or indeed by the Waterhouse Inquiry. Quite why this should be so I do not know. Its relevance had not even been appreciated. Crucial information which would have established my innocence to the Waterhouse Inquiry was withheld from them. I found this profoundly disturbing. At best it seems incompetent, at worst it suggests a lack of even-handedness and a presumption of guilt.

The disciplinary process proved to be quite daunting, involving several complex meetings over many months. Once the archive had been examined, dates were set for a disciplinary hearing. For various reasons the allocated dates proved problematic and this resulted in several postponements. When eventually a final date was given my Trade Union representative was unable to be present as he had been called to appear at an Employment Tribunal during the same period – to which he obviously had to give priority. By now I had become seriously depressed and had been unwell for over 6 months. My employers were aware of this. In the circumstances I expected a further postponement but was advised by my employers that the hearing would go ahead whether or not I or my representative attended. After a seven-day hearing, at which I had to represent myself, I was summarily dismissed.

Prior to my disciplinary hearing the Secretary of State had decided that, together with others named in the Waterhouse report, my name should appear on the list of persons considered unsuitable to work with children. Although it was not possible to appeal formally against the findings of the Tribunal itself it was possible to effectively overturn them through the Protection of Children Act Appeal Tribunal (POCAT) on the basis of new found evidence

Armed with the new evidence which I had found in the archive I presented a very detailed response to the Waterhouse findings. I was able to demonstrate that had this information been seen by Sir Ronald Waterhouse and his Tribunal, they would not have made any adverse findings against me. Following two directions hearings and a five-day ‘final’ hearing in London, the POCAT Tribunal ruled in my favour and agreed that I was a suitable person to work with children.

When my internal appeal against dismissal came to be heard in Wrexham in September 2002 I was naturally very anxious. To be truthful I did not expect to win. The enormity of the task was, I felt, too great. I was having to defend myself against over fifty allegations, some of them extremely serious. All I hoped for was a recognition that care workers are especially vulnerable to false allegations, and a recognition that complaints should be determined on the basis of the evidence not on the basis of personal, professional or political prejudice. I wanted the appeal panel to acknowledge that whilst some complainants in such cases make truthful allegations, many do not.

At the hearing I was represented by John Hughes, a local solicitor. He put me at ease, defended my case with characteristic vigour, and, more importantly, believed me. We had no preconceived strategy and were prepared to let the evidence speak for itself. Obviously the fact that POCAT, basing their findings on similar evidence, regarded me as a suitable person to work with children helped. So too did the finding of the Newcastle nursery nurse case. In that case the judge laid down standards for the investigation of complaints of ‘multiple abuse’. The criticisms he made of the Shieldfield investigation were very similar to the criticisms I made at my first hearing. I not only felt completely vindicated in my approach but also much more confident of the outcome.

To my surprise the appeal panel, which consisted of five councillors, ruled in my favour and overturned the decisions of the original disciplinary hearing. What pleased me most was that right from the start the councillors were prepared to listen to my case and judge the matter on the evidence. As the hearing  developed (it took place over 4 days) it also became clear that the panel not only accepted the reality of false and/or exaggerated complaints but also the dangers of applying the principle of ‘corroboration by volume’ You can’t imagine how pleased I was to discover this.

In North Wales and Wrexham in particular some of the sternest critics of staff working in children’s homes have been councillors. The fact that this panel took a more balanced view of the situation shows just how much progress has been made in getting people to understand the vulnerability of staff and the extent to which carers and teachers are exposed to false allegations. This progress would not have achieved without FACT, its ‘partners’, and those who support its work. I hope the result of my case will be uplifting for everyone and will provide some comfort to those who daily battle on in this cause.

Many times over the last eleven years I have felt like giving up. Had I not received such support, both from FACT and from former colleagues, I would have done so. I probably will never know the full extent of the efforts made by so many people on my behalf (and on behalf of others like me), or even all their names. What I do know is that I and my family are extremely grateful, and will always be so.

Note by FACT: (updated February 2003): Although Michael Barnes has been re-instated in his former post with Wrexham Borough Council, he has not yet returned to work and remains on sick-leave. In a few weeks’ time he will have been off work, suspended and/or unfairly dismissed for more than six years. He has, however, been offered his job back and hopes that all outstanding matters will be resolved shortly. FACT congratulates him on his achievement and wishes him well in the future.

This article first appeared in the October 2002 edition of F.A.C.T.I.O.N , the newsletter of FACT – Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers

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© Richard Webster, 2002

www.richardwebster.net

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