Andrew Webster QC was appointed in June last year to lead an independent investigation following the conviction of former council employee Linda McCall – who assaulted five pupils aged between five and seven years of age over a 14-month period in 2016/17 at Tweeddale Support Unit in Peebles.
Today a senior Scottish Borders councillor admitted Mr Webster’s findings made “very uncomfortable reading”, highlighting as they do a series of failings and setting out several recommendations to address them.
The probe was launched amid concerns from parents of a “cover up” by the council’s in-house investigation team, and Mr Webster is highly critical of the failure to report concerns to the Child Protection Unit until October 2018, almost a year after they were raised, describing it as a “reprehensible period of time” and stating that the delay “may have caused unnecessary harm to children”.
He adds: “What is clear is that the delay in reporting undoubtedly caused unnecessary distress for parents. I find it unlikely that had the Child Protection Unit been informed of the concerns that it was informed of in October 2018 in November 2017, at the conclusion of the disciplinary investigation, if not before, the processes that commenced after notice was given would have commenced earlier. The parents’ uncertainty during the substantial part of 2018, if not the whole of the year, could have been avoided.”
Mr Webster highlights widespread failure to recognise the significance of the conduct being alleged and “failure to appreciate that the welfare of the children was a paramount consideration”.
“Significant failings” in child protection training within the council in 2016/17 are also highlighted.
Mr Webster has recommended that the council review its child protection training for staff, reviews its disciplinary procedures for staff and its processes for communication with parents, in addition to carrying out improvements to its record keeping.
Scottish Borders Council will meet on Friday, February 25, to discuss the recommendations of the independent inquiry and consider the next steps.
Meanwhile, Councillor Mark Rowley, the leader of Scottish Borders Council, has issued a public apology for the short-comings highlighted.
A letter of apology has also been issued to parents.
Mr Rowley said: “What happened between August 2016 and October 2017, when young people were assaulted whilst in school and subjected to abusive behaviour, is shocking and completely unacceptable. It was wrong and should never have happened, and I am sorry that it did.
“Last May, Scottish Borders Council agreed to commission an independent inquiry to look at how the council dealt with the issues connected to the conviction of a former teacher for assault.
“The independent inquiry has considered any deficiencies in the handling of the concerns that were raised and whether policies, processes and practices were right and appropriate at the time.
“Such was the analysis required, and the sheer quantity of information considered, it has taken several months longer to conclude the independent inquiry than initially anticipated. Following a decision of the council last Thursday I am pleased to say that the independent inquiry report will be published today, Monday, February 21, in full, and is available online on the council’s website at www.scotborders.gov.uk/SBCinquiry.
“It is important to read the report in its entirety as it provides a clear picture and timeline of what happened and when.
“Andrew Webster QC spent time presenting the findings of his independent inquiry at a full meeting of full council last Thursday, after which the council agreed unanimously to issue a written apology to the parents of the young people concerned. I can confirm that this has now been undertaken by the chief executive.
“On behalf of the council, I am sorry the matters were not referred to the Child Protection Unit at the earliest opportunity, as they should have been, and I am sorry that the council failed to communicate appropriately with those parents who had raised various concerns. Most of all, the council apologies wholeheartedly that the incidents of abuse occurred in the first place.
“We must learn from these mistakes and ensure that they are never repeated. At last Thursday’s meeting it was agreed that a further council meeting be held, in public, at the earliest opportunity. This will allow further detailed consideration and discussion on Mr Webster’s report and his recommendations, and of the next steps required by the council.”
That meeting is to take place at 10am on Friday, February 25.
Councillor Carol Hamilton, the council’s executive member for Children and Young People, added: “I too am deeply saddened by contents of the report. It makes very uncomfortable reading.
“I am clearly sorry that the matters were not referred to the Child Protection Unit early on, and I am sorry that communication with parents was so clearly wrong. It should never have happened and we should have done much better.
“I am working closely with my fellow elected members to ensure the abuse experienced by these young people does not happen again. I offer my heartfelt apologies to these children for what they experienced.
“Changes will inevitably follow such a major review, and we will provide further information on these as soon as we are able to do so.”