FINALLY, after months of cover-up claims, a report into a taxi driver child sex abuse scandal at South Ribble Council has been released.
Yesterday the council laid bare the findings of independent solicitors Wilkin Chapman LLP into the failings of the licensing department and safeguarding policies.
It comes after concerns were first raised by council staff in November that one taxi 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.
Although the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board has since identified only one concern in respect of potential grooming, the solicitors concluded that there “had been a lack of awareness and priority given to safeguarding and the safety of taxi passengers in the manner in which licensing issues were addressed.”
Key problems identified in the 34-page report include:
○ Licences were routinely issued without proper documentation;
○ Problems with a new IT system meant proper checks weren’t made about drivers;
○ Investigations into concerns about taxi drivers lacked structure and record keeping was poor;
○ Liaison with other agencies “lacked structure.”
The report called on the council to make a raft of improvements, including tightening record keeping, identifying risks to the public and training. The report said a number of improvements had now been completed or were set to be completed.
Council leader, Coun Margaret Smith said the council had been “active in responding to any concerns” and said council is doing all it can to keep the public safe.
She said: “We made improvements as soon as the issues were raised, and as a result the final report has not seen the need for any further recommendations.
“This council is dedicated to having a Licensing Service that is the very best it can be and we have developed an action plan to ensure this happens.
“We have checked and double-checked the licence of every single taxi driver licensed by South Ribble Borough Council. We have given refresher training to all employees and members of the Licensing Committee in safeguarding children. We will also be rolling out a programme for all councillors, as well as undertaking training for the taxi trade itself.”
At a briefing yesterday, we were given 30 minutes to look at the report before quizzing Coun Smith and council chief executive Mike Nuttall.
Coun Smith defended the council’s record and said it has become one of the first authority’s in the county to set wheels in motion on a comprehensive Taxi Licensing Policy.
She said: “There’s a situation that policies and regulations for taxis are not that many and we are one of the first councils in Lancashire to work the policy up.
“That started in October/November and it’s due to go to council in January.”
When asked why the report had taken so long to publish, Mr Nuttall said: “The solicitors have gone through this extremely thoroughly and have made sure things are in place so people in South Ribble can be confident in using taxis in South Ribble.”
When asked about specific licence revocations and how one driver convicted of assault on an autistic child passenger was still driving a taxi in South Ribble, both said they were unable to comment on specific cases due to an ongoing investigation.
Yesterday’s disclosure comes two months after an interim report on the investigation was leaked to the press.
Today, critics questionned why some information in the interim report - sent to council bosses in December - has been omitted from the final version.
Details not mentioned include:
○ Details of two specific cases of suspected child sexual exploitation;
○ Accusations committee members “appeared to blame the 16 year old girl for the driver’s behaviour”;
○ Allegations from an officer that “they give you a badge if you have a sob story”;
○ Evidence that one driver had undertaken over 2,000 taxi journeys without a DVLA driving licence;
○ Details that additional checks were needed on around 40 drivers.
Coun Smith said the contents of the report were solely the responsibility of the solicitors.
But Labour Coun Paul Foster, leader of the opposition, called for an explanation of the changes. He said: “It’s a complete and utter whitewash. Basically the interim report has been sanitised for the benefit of the council.
“Where is the information in the interim report about the five year old and the 16 year old?
“Without the specifics and commenting on specifics, how can the public be reassured that investigations into cases has been carried out?
“How can anyone be confident in what they’re saying?
“This final report has made matters worse - there’s more doubts now about the functions of the council.
“The legal firm has to ask questions on why the final report has been changed so much. We need to know what the council asked for, because I think someone has put pressure on, somewhere.”
Councillor Smith said there had “absolutely not” been any pressure on the solicitors to omit details.
She said: “That is an independent report and it has been written as the solicitors see fit.”
A spokesperson from Wilkin Chapman Solicitors said: “Following the interim report provided to South Ribble Borough Council in December 2015, Wilkin Chapman solicitors produced a final report which was made public by the council on June 22.
“The interim report was, and remains, a confidential document intended for internal use within the council. In contrast to the interim report, which contained information in relation to named indviduals, the focus of the final report is strategic in nature.
“Therefore, it considers actions taken by the Council to address concerns highlighted by us in our review. It should also be noted that disciplinary procedures in respect of individual staff are still in progress and it would be inappropriate to comment on those matters.”
Since April, Coun Smith has faced calls to make the details of the report public or resign.
When questioned yesterday about whether she has regrets about the way the investigation has been handled, Coun Smith said: “I don’t think that is a question I would go near to answering.
Then added: “You can always do better, you can always learn from mistakes and if we’ve made them, we regret them.” Two licensing officers were suspended as part of the investigation and remain so.