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Buckinghamshire County Council is expected to agree to pay a sum believed to be over a million pounds to people with learning disabilities who suffered sexual and physical abuse at two private care homes registered in the county during the eighties and early nineties. The out of court settlement still has to be approved in a hearing before a judge this afternoon. The plaintiffs were hoping to establish greater legal protection for a group who often find it hard to make their voices heard when abuse is taking place. Our disability affairs correspondent Peter White has been following this case and he was at the High Court this morning.

Peter what is the background to it all?

Well it's a pretty awful case this, it relates to a regime of what does seem to have been systematic sexual abuse and severe physical abuse in two homes near Slough. They were run by a company called Longcare Limited in the eighties and nineties. It was owned by a man called GordonRowe and it's now been firmly established that Rowe simply abused his power over this vulnerable group of people. He had sexual relations with some of the residents, there was also a culture though of cruelty, of punishment and there was over-prescription of medication. He was a powerful and charismatic figure, he was clever at concealing what he was doing and it was almost a decade before complaints were taken seriously and investigated.

The case was brought by Pauline Hennessey, whose sister was in one of the homes and eventually these cases were taken seriously, criminal cases were about to be brought when Gordon Rowe actually committed suicide, the day before he was due to be arrested. Subsequently three care staff were found guilty of offences.

And what's this case seeking to establish now?

Well the point now is that the residents and their families want to establish firmly that the county should have spotted and stopped what was going on much earlier. Gordon Rowe had left a previous care home placement under a bit of a cloud, nothing was proved against him and his registration went ahead and although Buckinghamshire did mount an investigation into these homes in '94, families of the residents and their representatives argue this was just not robust or vigorous enough and the homes weren't closed, although they did eventually close in '96.

And do you think this is just a one-off or is this a case with much wider implications?

I think that's the worry, that the whole drive of this case is that courts, police, care homes, all need to find better ways of listening to people with learning disabilities because they do think, many of the relatives, that this is going on elsewhere. The assumption tends to be that because a witness can't be easily understood perhaps his or her evidence therefore can't be trusted. And people who work closely with those with learning disabilities say that that's just not true and that there are ways, it's a matter of teaching people to listen in a different kind of way.

And what have the council had to say?

Well they're saying absolutely nothing at the moment until the case has actually been heard. They've always argued that these communications problems have caused delays and that's part of the reason they say they've improved their inspection services. What we understand is that the plaintiffs will get 70% of what they would have got had they won and the case had been heard but it has to be stressed Buckinghamshire are not admitting legal liability.

Peter White thank you.

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