Child care home rules 'may have helped paedophiles'

Michael Gove
Image caption The education secretary said the rules were hindering the police and helping abusers

"Absurd" secrecy rules applying to children in care homes may have helped paedophiles target them, Education Secretary Michael Gove has said.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Gove described a "wall of silence" when he tried to get information about homes.

It follows a grooming scandal in Rochdale in which a group of men was jailed for targeting young girls.

The Information Commissioner's office, however, said no law was a barrier to protecting vulnerable children.

The government is to publish a report on children's homes in England later.

'Bewildering regulations'

Mr Gove described a situation where it was very difficult to gather basic information about care homes and the children in them.

He said he believed this could have hindered the police and helped individuals and groups seeking to harm children.

The education secretary said his department was unable to gather details about where children's homes were located and who was responsible for them.

The regulator Ofsted was not allowed to pass information to the police because of data protection rules and what Mr Gove called other "bewildering regulations".

Mr Gove said gangs that targeted children in places such as Rochdale did have this information.

He said: "They knew where the homes were; they knew how to contact the children - at the fish and chip shop, the amusement arcade, in the local park, or just by hanging around outside the houses.

"In the name of 'protecting children' by officially 'protecting' their information, we had ended up helping the very people we were supposed to be protecting them from.

"We shielded the children from the authorities who needed to be looking out for them. An 'out of sight, out of mind' culture developed."

Mr Gove said he had been been determined to change the situation, resulting in the publication of Friday's detailed report.

A spokesman for the Information Commissioner's Office responded to Mr Gove's comments, saying: "Ensuring that vulnerable young people are properly protected in care homes is essential. There is nothing in data protection legislation that is a barrier to this happening.

"This law covers information about people, so it has no bearing on the disclosure of non-personal information like the location of care homes.

"The Information Commissioner published a Data Sharing Code of Practice in May 2012 which helps ensure that more routine information sharing takes place where necessary, and any myths around data protection preventing proper sharing are dispelled.

"The Commissioner's advice has not been sought on any perceived difficulties about sharing care home information, so we are writing to both Michael Gove and Sir Michael Wilshaw at Ofsted today to clarify the concerns and set straight any misunderstandings."

Mr Gove also said it was "indefensible" that almost half of children in homes were placed outside their local authority area, and more than a third over 20 miles away.

"So, too, is the fact that more than half of children's homes are in areas with above-average crime levels," he added.

The report is set to reveal that councils spent an average of £4,000 a week to put a child in a home.

It will show that almost one in three homes are believed to have fallen below the government's minimum standards.

Nine men from Rochdale and Oldham in Greater Manchester were jailed in 2012 for running a child sexual exploitation ring.

The men, who exploited girls as young as 13, were given sentences of between four and 19 years.

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