North Wales child abuse inquiry pulls in police specialists from across UK

Concern as head of new National Crime Agency diverts resources from live investigations to inquiry into historical abuse

Specialist child abuse investigators from police forces in England and Wales are to be diverted from ongoing inquiries to take part in the investigation into the north Wales child abuse scandal demanded by the home secretary, the Guardian can reveal.

The development has raised serious concerns among senior police officers and experts working with abuse victims that this diversion, of limited resources from live investigations to a historical case that has already been the subject of an extensive public inquiry, could put children at risk.

The home secretary announced this week that Keith Bristow, the head of the new National Crime Agency, will lead an inquiry into abuse at north Wales children's homes more than three decades ago. His investigation will involve a review of the historical police investigations and an examination of any fresh allegations from adults who say they were abused as children in the homes in the 1970s and 80s.

But the NCA has yet to be fully established, has no officers and no budget, and the Guardian has learned that Bristow is asking for forces across the country to provide their specialist child abuse investigators to take part in what is likely to be a long and complex investigation.

Noreen Tehrani, a psychologist who works with police forces investigating child abuse and with victims themselves, said she had grave concerns about this development. "Everyone is under pressure at the moment because there has been an increase in reporting of cases as a result of what has happened over the last weeks.

"Officers in forces are trying to deal with these massive numbers of cases. If you take away your best people to investigate a historical case, what you have left back in the force are the live cases where a child is being abused tonight. This is the dilemma that these officers face.

"It is just not right. Obviously people are still upset and are coming forward all over the place and it has to be looked at. But the abuse at the north Wales children's homes has stopped for these people, thankfully; for children today it is still going on and that is what bothers me."

Bristow has to report by April next year on his review of the police investigations and assessment of the fresh allegations. A full criminal inquiry could follow which may take years. Theresa May acted after BBC Newsnight ran an interview with one victim of abuse in a north Wales children's home who claimed he had been abused by a senior Tory figure of the Thatcher era and there had been a cover-up. The substance of the allegations was called into question on Thursday, with new evidence obtained by the Guardian which suggests the senior Conservative figure at the centre of the abuse claims had been the victim of mistaken identity.

The home secretary said Bristow would work with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, use the expertise of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection unit, and use "other investigative assets as necessary".

These "assets" will be drawn from forces across the country and are specialist senior investigators in complex child abuse inquiries – of whom there are around a dozen – and experienced detectives who are skilled in interviewing vulnerable witnesses. These officers are said by one source to be "like gold dust" to forces.

"They are coming to forces all over the country to ask for our officers," one senior source said. "Chief constables will help because they know what a task Keith Bristow has, but there are many people who are just aghast at this. To do this properly will take two or three years."

Initially up to 100 officers are being assigned to the Bristow investigation, but it is thought this figure will rise.

Most if not all of the specialist child abuse officers being diverted will be engaged on inquiries into live abuse cases in their own forces, which are all in the process of making 20% cuts to their budgets.

There are ongoing complex abuse inquiries across the country involving multiple victims. Complex abuse can occur in the care environment, within families, at sports clubs or in voluntary groups. Increasingly police are investigating complex abuse cases where children are groomed on the internet.

One source working on a major investigation in the north of England said specialist officers were already overstretched across the country. In Greater Manchester alone, there are at least three major complex abuse inquiries under way.

"If they are going to pull the officers with the skills off these types of cases and take them away, what happens to the children who have learned to trust these officers, agreed to talk to them and be interviewed by them? What happens to these children when these skilled officers suddenly disappear on to something else because Theresa May thinks its important?

"This seems to have been a kneejerk response. There are enough experienced police officers within forces who would have been able to advise her on the appropriate way forward but she doesn't seem to have spoken to any of them."

The home secretary has said that resources would be made available for the investigation.


Sandra Laville, crime correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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