SHIRLEY OAKS: VIEW FROM THE GALLERY
More than 300 people turned up to Wednesday night’s Lambeth council meeting held in the main hall at Elmgreen school in West Norwood. If you’re wondering why Lambeth council have suddenly become popular – they haven’t.
Almost every person who attended the meeting was from the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association or their supporters. Shirley Oaks was a Lambeth council-run childrens home from 1965 through to 1983 where child abuse was carried out on an industrial scale.
There may also have been victims of abuse from other Lambeth children’s homes at the meeting but this was not clear.
The council meeting started 20 minutes late. The Mayor of Lambeth Cllr Marcia Cameron said: “We were only expecting 80 guests (laughter and one piece of verbal abuse). “A lot of people have travelled a long way to be here and we wanted to make sure everyone could be seated.”
(They were. The sliding doors to the main hall were pushed back and the rows of seats stretched out into the neighbouring large area with some people sitting on the steps there.)
The agenda was altered so the Shirley Oaks issue was discussed first. The agenda item reads as follows:
This purpose of this report is to update council on the progress that has been made since June 2016 in developing a Redress Scheme to compensate survivors of historic sexual, physical and psychological abuse in Lambeth council’s former children’s homes. The council considers that the scheme is the first of its kind in the UK, and compares very favourably to similar schemes which have been developed for example in Jersey, the Republic of Ireland and Canada.
There are no immediate financial implications arising out of this report, however, the financial implications of the Scheme will be considered fully by cabinet before a decision to implement a Scheme is made.
Recommendations 1. To note the progress to date in seeking to develop a Redress Scheme and the timetable that will need to be adopted in order to implement the Scheme and start to make payments before the end of this calendar year.”
Raymond Stevenson of SOSA addressed councillors first. “Councillors I’m going to get straight to the point . “I’ve read the publicity spin about the ‘merits’ of this scheme. “My response is: smoke and mirrors.”
He said the council had sent their proposals to the BBC before they sent them to SOSA. (Jeers).
The scheme as now presented was inconsistent with what the council had promised at a press conference on the issue, he said.
“They promised to give us compensation for any person who attended Shirley Oaks. “They have now reneged on this. “This report is not worth the paper it’s written on.”
SOSA had found 16 paedophiles working in Lambeth council homes. In 2000 a newspaper article said they believed they had found 100 paedophiles working in Lambeth children’s homes. But only three had been convicted.
The council had spent five years and millions of pounds investigating this. “This led us to believe there was negligence on an industrial scale – or a cover-up. (“Cover up” yelled people.)
“The word got out they could come to Lambeth and abuse kids at will.” Some of them were police officers, he said.
“A lot of people committed suicide. “We have now obtained evidence to show these people were sexually abused. “Initially council officers were very helpful. “Backroom staff provided information that helped us track down paedophiles……
(If that sounds familiar, it is. From the People’s Audit Lambeth report: 4.1 PROBLEMS ACCESSING INFORMATION “Once the audit period had begun the attitude of the council as a whole was obstructive. A number of times officers refused access to information after first indicating that we would have access. This could suggest that senior management was exerting pressure on officers not to release information.” – Ed.)
………”In the last three years we have spoken to 1,130 people who were children in Lambeth’s care.
“There’s a database of staff who worked in their homes and the abuse they carried out. “Some ex-council employees had kept documents in the hope that they would expose the truth. “We have also taken statements from social workers, police and ex-Shirley Oaks house parents who were whistleblowers..
“When we asked the coluncil to accept the findings of our report they refused. “Now we know why.”
He asked councillors not to share the report but to treat people with respect and dignity.
Their legal representative Michael Mansfield QC had threatened to walk out on Lambeth because they were not entering into the spirit of the redress scheme.
“Things started to go wrong when you gave Lambeth officers the go-ahead for the redress scheme which I’m sure you did in good faith.
“Officer spent hours listening to case studies and witness statements. “We were not sure the tears were real now we think they were crocodile tears.
“Nothing they agreed to is in this report. “Without consultation the council went ahead and designed a scheme that would take away much of its liability.
“There’s a direct correlation between what we shared with them and what we left out. “There were hidden caveats in the report, hurdles that were so high people would not be able to claim compensation.
“Every time the council removed something, they added another caveat. “Four people (victims) have died since they started this scheme.
“We’ve always relied on the fact there would be an independent panel considering our claims.”
“There’s not one person from our members who will sign this redress scheme.
“This redress scheme has been designed by the guilty party – Lambeth council. “They will be the judge and jury – they will be the independent panel.
“Why don’t you want a firewall between us? “Why do you want to be dragged into this dirty mess? “The intention is that no-one gets compensation.”
He had written to Lambeth’s chief executive Sean Harriss (who was not at the council meeting) on June 5th laying out his concerns. “Then I got a letter from the council’s lawyers. “They accused me of attempting to mislead and prevaricate.
“Initially they argued they were not liable for abuse committed before 1965 but they are now in the scheme – with caveats.
“They initially offered an ex gratia payment of £1,000. “They had factored in there would be 8,000 people – the reason for it being so low. “In their latest draft document costs were likely to exceed £60 million.
“Lambeth have a history of trying to evade liability. “Many victims were denied compensation in the past. “House parents have confirmed this. “They were paedophiles and you let them get away with it.” (“Guilty. “Guilty” chanted people).
“Of the council files we have applied for a significant proportion of people have been told their care records do not exist. “The ones we have received are so heavily redacted one would question how many thousands of pounds were wasted in doing so.
“A police officer said a senior Lambeth council officer was rewriting reports and changing history. “Officers were taking files they should have no interest in.
“Last year 140 boxes relating to child abuse went missing. “We’ve been told of missing keys, documents being removed by removal men.”
Council leader Lib Peck – who was shouted down consistently – said “We’ve agreed we will have an independent panel. “I don’t think we’ve got into exactly who’s going to be on it.”
There was a common experience payment, she added.
One SOSA representative said the scheme was the fourth draft they had received.
Mr Stevenson said Lambeth had spent £2 million to £3 million on documents for the national inquiry, about £700,000 on their own lawyers and £180,000 for SOSA’s own lawyers.
Cllr Louise Nathanson (Con Clapham Common) said there had been a breakdown of trust. “Do you think this independent panel should be set up immediately?” she asked. (“Yes” yelled people in the audience.)
Lib Peck, to jeers, responded: “We do still need to agree some aspects of the scheme.”
There were interventions from the Labour side – Cllr Marsha de Cordova who has just been elected Labour MP for Battersea; Cllr Ben Kind; Cllr Florence Eshimolo; Clr Michelle Agdomar (Herne Hill) who was also keen to hear about the time frame.
“It will take some time to get the right sort of people but can there be a commitment about when the process will start?” she asked. (Applause)
A male Labour councillor – possibly Cllr Jack Hopkins* – wearing a pink jumper said: “I recognise there’s a lack of trust in the council. “What is known about Shirley Oaks now, simply being there is enough evidence” (Applause).
Cllr Jack Holborn (Lab Herne Hill) asked if people would get substantial interim payments.
At the end of the debate there was a break so people could leave. When the meeting resumed there were just five members of the public – and one reporter.
ACT TWO Lib Peck said she had planned to give a council statement on the new equalities commission but that would now be highly inappropriate “after the first part of the meeting we have had.”.
Lambeth were the first public local authority in the United Kingdom to have acknowledged liability, she said.
“What we have heard tonight is some confusion between what the council have offered and what SOSA accept.”
She said there was no advantage to the council delaying this further.
They would continue to provide a counselling service to any people affected – that had grown from 20 16 months ago to in excess of 150. They would continue to pay for SOSA’s legal team.
“There were genuine sticking points around some of the cases around fostering but also some very clear cases where we will be able to progress existing claims.
“The £1,000 figure had been groundbreaking. “No-one else had offered that.
“A lot has happened. “There’s determination from me and many of us to make sure we come to an agreement and it has to be one that’s quickly agreed upon.”
*When the Mayor called councillors to speak in the debate, no names were announced. No seating map of councillors was available. – Ed. (Updated Tuesday July 25th).