David Hencke Westminster, Whitehall and Berkhamsted news and views

Westminster, Whitehall and Berkhamsted news and views


Child Sex Abuse Inquiry Debacle: Why it is important where we go next

Today (mon) home secretary Theresa May, will face a barrage of criticism in Parliament for her office’s failure to twice find a suitable person to chair the much needed historic child sex abuse inquiry
Losing not one chair but  two – Baroness Butler Sloss and Fiona Woolf – because of potential conflicts of interest in a matter of weeks smacks of real incompetence by a department that should know better. it also caused severe embarrassment both to the people appointed and to the home secretary herself.
But I hope today is seen not just as an opportunity for ” yah boo” politics between Labour and the Tories but for a more reflective discussion of how we got here and what is needed to put it right.
What cannot be denied is that the home secretary did not entirely fulfil what she promised the ” magnificent seven ” MPs requested in drawing up the panel. True she did take on board their request for survivors on the panel – appointing two – Graham Wilmer, who runs the Lantern Project and Sharon Evans,  a former TV  presenter who runs a children’s charity.
But there – as far as I can find out – been no through consultation over the appointment of the two chairs of the panel involving the MPs – and there has also, to my surprise, been no internal consultation inside the home office. Frankly they should also have asked survivors groups BEFORE not AFTER the appointments.
It is probably not well-known but the home office has its own very small unit which can advise on the setting up of independent panels, who is appointed to them, and can interview suitable people to sit on them – or at least advise newly appointed secretaries to inquiries set up by other ministries on how to get going.
I understand this body was never consulted yet it can claim a track record of success. Its biggest achievement has been the Hillsborough Inquiry into the tragic deaths of Liverpool fans where it got a chairman, now the former bishop of Liverpool, to preside. None of those families of the fans would now say it didn’t get to the bottom of a grave injustice hidden for years.
Yet child abuse survivors might be surprised to know that it got the information without any statutory powers by ruthlessly pursuing the evidence and cajoling reluctant authorities to hand over  the information, including stuff that is now landing the South Yorkshire Constabulary in dire trouble.
It did have one duty  – and only one duty – to tell the families who lost loved ones at Hillsborough Stadium first what it had found out. Once it had done this it published everything as fact – and set up of a train of events – now being shown by the inquest into Hillsborough.
It is also responsible for the current Daniel Morgan murder inquiry – where I suspect but do not know the same tussle is probably going on now.
Now many of the survivors seem to want a statutory inquiry which can compel people to attend, give information,  force people to confess to crimes, with grand public hearings and a very detailed terms of reference. Be careful what you wish for.
Superficially it sounds great but there are drawbacks to this approach. Terms of reference need to be nebulous rather than specific so the panel cannot be stopped following the facts wherever it takes them – and given the wide sweep of institutions involved it needs to go to places we may not have even thought about.
Second yes statutory power sound great but there is one drawback – I am told it allows lawyers representing anybody or organisation accused by survivors to demand the status of ” an interested party”. That means anything you tell them could go straight back to their lawyers before the inquiry even reports.
If it is non statutory there is no obligation whatever to tell them anything – and their lawyers have no right to find out.
If it follows what happened in Hillsborough and in Daniel Morgan – the families are centre stage. In this case, it means the survivors are centre stage – the panel is obliged to you, you are not obliged to the panel. This means you will know first what the findings are – not the armed forces, the security services, the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the councils, the police, schools or any other body that allowed you to be abused.
Finally I hope the panel can tell you whether they have obtained a freezing  or preservation order on all documents listing evidence or allegations of child sexual abuse. Whitehall permanent secretaries have a superb meeting and network facility – and could send out letters now banning the destruction of all documents. I would expect the Church of England – after Archbishop Welby’s words last week to do the same.
And as for a chair – whoever is appointed faces the risk of ” guilty by association ” if they worked in any organisation because of the widespread nature of child sexual abuse. It just depends on how guilty the association is and the Home Office needs to do a  better job of finding this out.

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