The home secretary is prepared to give significant new powers to the official inquiry into child sex abuse, including compelling witnesses to give evidence, she has told MPs.
“The overwhelming message I’m getting from those that I have been meeting, survivors and survivors’ representatives that I’ve been meeting, is that it’s important to make sure that we do get this right. I’m very clear that the inquiry should have the powers of a statutory inquiry,” Theresa May said on Monday. “This should be an inquiry that has the power of compulsion.”
The home secretary also indicated that she is reconsidering the inquiry’s terms of reference to enable a current 1970 cut-off date to be revised to allow allegations dating to the 1950s to be examined.
But May admitted that she was not yet on the verge of appointing a new chair to the controversial inquiry, with the Home Office considering more than 100 possible names for the job.
May, however, did tell the Commons home affairs select committee that she was prepared to give survivors and their representatives an opportunity to be consulted on her proposed new chair before their name was formally announced.
Progress in the inquiry which was announced in July has been hampered by the resignation of its first two chairs amid claims that they faced conflicts of interest and were ‘too establishment’.
The first, Baroness Butler-Sloss, quit after it emerged her late brother had been attorney general in the 1980s when some of the key allegations are said to have taken place. The second nominee, Fiona Woolf, resigned in October after questions were raised about her social links with the former home secretary, Lord Brittan.
May said she was confident that a new chair would be in place and the inquiry would be firmly established by next year’s general election. She told MPs her appreciation of the enormity of the issue had deepened since she first announced the inquiry in July: “What we have seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
Decisions have yet to be taken on how the inquiry, which continues to meet every Wednesday without a chairman, could be put on a statutory basis. May said it could be done by giving the existing panel powers to compel witnesses under the 2005 Inquiries Act or by waiting for a new chairman to ask for statutory powers.
Although some had argued the inquiry should be turned into a royal commission but she said powers to compel witnesses would have to be written into the royal warrant and such a move had not been legally tested.
May faced a testing end-of-year session before the Commons home affairs committee during which she stumbled over a couple of issues. These included not being able to explain the dispersal system of housing asylum seekers and refusing to discuss an individual citizenship case of a murderer whom her department had already said would have his passport suspended.
She rejected calls from the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, for a series of mergers of the 43 police forces in England and Wales to meet future spending cuts saying that it was quite possible to retain the local identity of forces while securing savings through collaborations between forces.