COUNCIL bosses have been accused of an “orchestrated cover-up” after taxi drivers were investigated over sexually exploiting school children.
A secret report commissioned by South Ribble Council’s leaders has been kept away from the public, and attempts have been made to gag councillors after the licensing department was slammed for failing to carry out safeguarding checks – putting youngsters at risk on their daily commute to school.
A leaked copy of the damning report seen by the Evening Post claims one driver was arrested for sexual assault on a primary school girl and a ‘vulnerable’ 16-year-old girl complained that a male driver made “inappropriate sexualised remarks” to her.
Solicitors commissioned by the council found licencing bosses failed to carry out background checks on drivers and did not carry out appropriate investigations into the allegations.
The report even warned “there is a clear risk to the safeguarding of not only children, but the public as a whole.”
Today the council said it “acted quickly and urgently to investigate these serious issues”.
But the 20-page report has been kept out of the public eye and today a raft of critics have slammed council bosses and demanded the findings be released.
Coun Matthew Tomlinson, who is Lancashire County Council’s Member for Children, Young People and Schools, as well as a South Ribble councillor, has not been issued with a copy of the report.
He said: “I find it incomprehensible that such a report has been kept secret for so long.
“People need absolute confidence that their local council’s licencing department is doing all it can to keep people safe.
“Until that report is published, people will quite reasonably be harbouring some doubts.”
With regard the 16-year-old girl, Lancashire County Council – which commissioned the school transport service – removed the driver’s Approved Drivers Badge which allowed him to transport vulnerable people alone. LCC then passed the matter to South Ribble Council as the licensing authority.
In a second case, the report states the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided not to proceed because of the difficulties of such a young witness giving evidence.
Lancashire Constabulary have declined to comment, but the report states: “The police have been clear that they consider that the driver did commit the offence.”
In January the driver in that case had his license revoked by South Ribble Council.
Since the report was completed, two licensing officers have been suspended, pending the outcome of an investigation.
Last week, following press interest, the council attempted to stop councillors from speaking out on the matter.
A leaked email seen by the Evening Post was sent from Steve Nugent, the council’s head of Human Resources, to all councillors, asking them to “keep your own counsel”.
And when rumours of two licensing officers being suspended were put to the council by the Evening Post last week, the press office declined to reveal the reason why.
Leader of South Ribble Council Margaret Smith declined to comment.
Coun Paul Foster, Labour leader on South Ribble Council said: “There’s a complete lack of transparency and you have to question scrutiny at the council.
“I believe most of the cabinet have to be publicly questioned on this – there has been an orchestrated cover-up.
“Heads have got to roll. We (Labour) will be holding people accountable. This isn’t a political ding-dong now, it’s a serious situation.”
South Ribble MP Seema Kennedy said the allegations were “incredibly serious” and called for greater transparency.
The Tory politician said: “Children’s safety must always be our first priority. I have asked South Ribble Borough Council for a copy of the report in question and am seeking clarification that the council is taking all possible steps to uncover failings in a transparent manner and bring those responsible to account.”
Coun David Howarth, the Liberal Democrat leader on South Ribble Council, said: “If these checks allegedly have not been carried out or carried out thoroughly, then the public are being put at risk.
“It’s very difficult to comment when you don’t have the full facts to hand, but then that begs the question why councillors have not had the full facts disclosed to them.
“It’s just another concern over the general governance of the council and I think it leaves huge question marks over the political leadership of the council.
“It’s all very well patting yourself on the back over the budget, but are corners being cut?”
A CPS source told the Evening Post the case involving the man arrested for sexual assault could not be tracked through their system because the report did not mention any names. The CPS asked for the report from South Ribble Council but were told it had not yet been published.
An NSPCC spokesperson also hit out at the findings. A spokesman said: “This report exposes a shocking number of failings in the way South Ribble Borough Council failed to monitor cab drivers.
“Ultimately children should not be put at risk on their journey to school.
“Parents must feel secure in the knowledge that drivers ferrying their children to school are subjected to the highest possible checks.
“Recent high profile incidents of child exploitation are timely reminders of the evil that can happen in all of our communities.
“We should all heed these warnings and become more alert to signs of child abuse. It is vital all councils ensure they are constantly vigilant to risks posed to children.”
Coun Foster has called an extraordinary council meeting to discuss the issue on Wednesday, April 27.
A spokesperson for South Ribble Borough Council said: “We take matters of public safety extremely seriously and would like to reassure the public that we have acted quickly and urgently to investigate these serious issues.
“A fully independent review was commissioned by the council and since receiving its interim report, we have conducted a full review of all taxi licences, including checks on all drivers. Those are all now complete and no further issues have been raised.
“In addition, we have accepted the priority recommendations in the interim report and we have already implemented the majority of them and are working to complete the rest as soon as possible.
“We can confirm that two members of staff are currently suspended pending a further internal investigation, and continue to operate a full licensing service in the meantime.
“We will be publishing the final independent report, in full, once the investigation has concluded.”