A taxi driver who was allowed to continue driving his cab for three years despite being convicted of abusing an autistic boy has finally been sacked after The Mail on Sunday exposed the scandal.
The newspaper had revealed that John O’Sullivan brutally assaulted the 13-year-old, trussing him up with bungee cords as he ferried him to a special school.
O’Sullivan was convicted in 2013 on two counts of assaulting the boy and fined and ordered to pay compensation. However, he was allowed to continue driving by South Ribble Borough Council.
Astonishingly, it has now emerged that the council, which twice renewed O’Sullivan’s taxi licence despite the offence, mounted a surveillance operation against the boy’s father – simply because he protested about the way the case was being handled.
The council used an expensive law firm, Weightmans, to threaten the father with a lawsuit for supposed ‘harassment’ after he wrote a letter of complaint to all councillors.
As part of a special investigation, The Mail had disclosed that O’Sullivan was one of several child abusers in Leyland, Lancashire, whose licences were renewed despite their predatory behaviour.
Girl A, who was aged just five when she was assaulted sexually, has been left severely traumatised. Her mother says when her daughter caught sight of her abuser back at the wheel of his cab, it triggered nightmares and bed-wetting.
Boy B, a 13-year-old with autism, was physically attacked multiple times by the driver who took him to his special school, and trussed up with elastic bungee cords.
According to his father, he has never recovered: “Finally a carer witnessed what was happening, and the driver was convicted of assault. But my son didn’t speak for five months. He’d been making progress. It immediately went into reverse.”
These bare facts emerged last year, when parts of an inquiry report were leaked. But until now, neither the scale nor the appalling aftermath of the scandal have been made public.
However the Daily Mail has revealed in a special report that South Ribble Borough Council has gone into meltdown. Its former Conservative leader and chief executive have resigned, and its director of human resources has been on indefinite paid leave since Christmas.
Parents of abused children have been yelled at and threatened with legal action. Meanwhile, although the staff responsible for licensing rogue drivers have been reprimanded and are not at work, they continue to draw salaries.
Worse, the whistleblowing officer who tried to tackle the problem claims he has been hounded from his job, along with councillors who supported him. But the council’s latest move is to spend thousands on an investigation by an expensive law firm, Weightmans – not to find out what went wrong, but who to blame for last year’s leak.
• A council licensing officer at the heart of the scandal, Wajed Iqbal, had earlier spent 11 years licensing taxis in Rochdale – at a time when some local drivers were raping underage girls as members of paedophile rings. Four were later jailed for their crimes;
• Between working in Rochdale and South Ribble, Mr Iqbal – who calls himself ‘Waj Da Enforcer’ on Facebook and also works as a bouncer – did a licensing job in Leeds, but left after ‘conflict’ with his superiors. He took Leeds City Council to an employment tribunal, but his case was dismissed last year;
• After Iqbal and his colleague Nikki Barratt were suspended on full pay, licensing expert Charles Goodwill discovered that, according to council computers, on their watch 91 drivers had been issued taxi licences without mandatory criminal record checks – a third of the total;
• The council was told a third driver contracted to take children to school propositioned a girl on her 16th birthday. Girl C wrote that she was terrified he might rape her, but the man’s licence was renewed and he is still driving taxis.
Astonishingly, there is no national standard for ensuring drivers are, as the law requires, ‘fit and proper persons’ to convey the public. Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer at solicitors Slater And Gordon who is handling Boy B’s father’s lawsuit said: “It is deeply alarming that there is no national vetting system to prevent those who pose a risk getting taxi licences.”
Tim Briton, the licensing policy expert for Lawyers In Local Government, said: “For one council, a conviction for theft or assault means you don’t get a licence. Another might say, “OK, it was a few years ago, you can drive a taxi.” There’s been no national guidance since 1992, and authorities have put in place their own policies. The result is there are some drivers who, if the public knew their background, they wouldn’t get in their cars.’
Last month, Freedom of Information requests revealed six councils in Lancashire have granted more than 300 licences to drivers with criminal records since 2012. Four have convictions for sex crimes, others for drug dealing, burglary, assault and possessing firearms.
Mr Briton pointed out another loophole: a hackney can work on a private hire circuit anywhere. Some councils, such as Rossendale in Lancashire, have issued thousands of hackney licences to drivers “who have no intention of working there, but in distant cities such as Manchester or Sheffield”. He said some drivers with dubious records sought licences where they knew standards were lax.
In South Ribble, the first man to realise there were problems was Ian Parker, the authority’s monitoring officer – a senior, director-level post. In the autumn of 2015, he learnt of the cases of Girl A and Girl C. The driver accused of sexually assaulting Girl A had been arrested and bailed in December 2014, when his hackney licence was suspended.
But the council allowed him to keep his PHV licence, and he carried on driving. The following September, the Crown Prosecution Service decided he could not be charged because the victim was too young to give evidence. Days later, his hackney licence was restored.
Mr Parker dealt with the case personally, insisting the man’s licences were finally withdrawn – bolstered by a police report saying they were sure Girl A had been abused. At first, the driver declared his intention to appeal, but shortly before a scheduled hearing he withdrew it. Fourteen months after his arrest, he was finally off the road.
Horrified by both this and the Girl C case – where council officers had not bothered to speak to the driver or his terrified passenger – Mr Parker compiled a report for the council cabinet, comprising senior Tory councillors. With their agreement, he commissioned an external inquiry by law firm Wilkin Chapman.
On December 3, 2015, it delivered a devastating interim report, finding: “There is a clear risk that the council may be unable to carry out its duties in relation to the safeguarding of not only children, but the public as a whole.” In the Girl A and Girl C cases, there had been no intelligence-sharing with police, and no investigation. The council licensing committee was not given vital information. It was also clear that drivers were being given licences without documented criminal record checks.
One of them was O’Sullivan, who having been convicted on two counts of assaulting Boy B in 2013, had twice had his licence renewed. Ironically, when his case came to court, he was fined only £90 because he argued that after being convicted he would no longer be able to earn a living as a taxi driver.
In January 2016, Iqbal and his colleague Barratt were suspended, pending a disciplinary inquiry. However, their union, Unison, which sources say is powerful locally, backed them to the hilt.
Wilkin Chapman’s final report was due in April 2016. But then the interim report was leaked – triggering a political tsunami that was as murky as it was violent: an object lesson in toxic local politics.
The leak’s source was Claire Hamilton, a councillor and Labour group press officer. She insists she gave it to the media because she was asked to do so by Paul Foster, her Corbynite group leader, and because she believed it was the only way to air the issue.
Backing her version is an email he sent to her with a press statement about the affair days before the leak was published.
But although he admitted he gave Ms Hamilton the report, he denied telling her to leak it. He added: “I don’t criticise Claire for leaking it. It was in the public interest.”
Ms Hamilton was to pay a heavy price. Last summer, Unison and some of her Labour colleagues began to insist there was no real scandal, and that Mr Parker had unnecessarily brought officers into disrepute. Months later, the Labour group expelled Ms Hamilton. Among her ‘crimes’ was speaking to The Mail on Sunday.
Meanwhile, at a council meeting and on TV, Foster accused Tory cabinet members who had supported Mr Parker of a ‘cover-up’ – when in fact, they had done the exact opposite.
Astonishingly, the Mail has established that following a decision by Tory deputy leader Warren Bennett that Foster should be ‘kept in the loop’, he was fully briefed about the way the council was handling the issue in November 2015, and was kept informed by Mr Parker.
One target Foster singled out, apparently for political ends, was Councillor Caroline Moon, a close ally of Mr Parker. As a devoted foster carer, the consequences of his allegations were devastating: “For a time, I thought I could lose my family.” She was vilified and forced out of the cabinet. In a twist of fate she is now the Tory General Election candidate in nearby Chorley, where Labour is defending a 4,000 majority. “I was gutted when someone I thought I could trust tried to use this. For me, it was never about politics, but protecting the vulnerable,” she said.
But the scandal is not over. First, Labour councillors accused Mr Parker of acting ‘unconstitutionally’ in his handling of the scandal, and he was suspended. Then, having successfully refuted this charge, he faced further allegations which, say friends, are equally bogus. He has resigned, and is suing for constructive dismissal.
Iqbal and Barratt were given warnings, and told to come back to work, but remain absent while they appeal against their reprimands.
The surveillance of Boy B’s father had emerged when he was given 400 pages of internal council emails in response to a special request made under the Data Protection Act. Documents show that as he tried to draw attention to the scandal, senior officials and councillors were monitoring his tweets and public statements – and discussing legal action to silence him.
The papers show the surveillance continued for most of last autumn and into this year. Yet on November 23, the council was warned by a government agency that to monitor individuals’ social media output in this way might be unlawful. It said that the surveillance could amount to a breach of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the Human Rights Act. The surveillance involved top level officers and, at times, was almost obsessive.
One of the father’s chief concerns was the campaign – revealed by the MoS – to force out whistleblower Ian Parker, the South Ribble officer who had taken the scandal seriously. In January, the council replaced him with Caroline Elwood, who had previously worked in East Cheshire and Sefton, Merseyside.
On January 23, the father wrote to councillors citing media reports showing Ms Elwood had left these jobs in controversial circumstances. The council responded by sending the father a legal threat from Weightmans. “I was terrified,” he said. “They had ignored my protests. It now felt they were trying to destroy my family.”
His lawyer, abuse expert Richard Scorer, from solicitors Slater and Gordon, said: “You’d expect these tactics to be used to pursue criminals, not a father who had reported serious abuse perpetrated against his son. Councillors and officials chose to deploy Orwellian surveillance, public funds and resources against a victim’s father rather than take action to protect the public.”
The father has now submitted a formal complaint to Tory council leader Peter Mullineaux. He said: “We will consider the complaint as soon as possible. The council has strict procedures and policies in place governing the use of residents’ data and our staff know they must always maintain a high standard of professionalism.”