THE FAIL BUS HAS ARRIVED

The inquiry into historical child sex abuse must swiftly recover from its previous mishaps

Alexis Jay will need to work hard and smartly if she is to
regain the confidence of victims and to get her investigation back on
track

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The torrent of revelations in recent years about child sexual
abuse – by celebrities, by institutions, by grooming gangs – has
shocked the British public. As each new outrage presented itself, it
became apparent that for decades children in this country were preyed
upon by a range of repugnant individuals. Even worse, the discovery of
systemic grooming of children by gangs from Rochdale to Oxford and
Rotherham to Derby made it plain that young people were still being
failed by those whose responsibility it was to keep them safe.

The establishment of a wide-ranging inquiry into the complex and
unsettling issues raised by these and other cases was supposed to
provide some answers, to be a means by which new evidence of abuse could
be assessed and perhaps help victims get some justice – insofar as that
can ever be possible. As things stand, however, the inquiry has been
nothing short of a shambles.

Even before it was officially opened, two chairwomen had been and
gone, with Lady Butler-Sloss and Dame Fiona Woolf both quitting after
questions were raised about possible conflicts of interest. Then-Home
Secretary Theresa May, who had appointed both women, announced that the
inquiry would be placed on a statutory footing and led by the highly
respected New Zealander Dame Lowell Goddard, whose long experience as a
judge and lack of direct connection to the British establishment raised
hopes that it would be third time lucky.

As she opened the inquiry in July last year, Dame Lowell made clear
that its broad remit would necessitate a lengthy period for the
assessment of evidence. She anticipated that a report might be
achievable in five years’ time. But little more than 12 months on and
Dame Lowell herself departed the scene, citing her career and family
life, amid criticism of the amount of time she had spent on holiday or
working outside the UK. She had become Britain’s highest paid civil
servant when she was appointed chair of the inquiry, yet left it
rudderless once again.

Panel member Professor Alexis Jay took over in August and it must be
hoped she stays the course. A non-lawyer, she is nonetheless
well-qualified for the role. Maybe, indeed, it will help that she is not
from the profession in which governments so regularly seem to place
excessive faith. Yet even since the latest change at the head of the
inquiry, things have continued to go awry. Lead counsel Ben Emmerson was
suspended over alleged disputes with Professor Jay about the
investigation’s remit. Mutterings about his leadership style remain
shrouded in mystery.

And now allegations are emerging about the conduct of Dame Lowell,
who has described as “false” and “malicious” claims that she linked the
number of paedophiles in Britain to there being “so many Asian men” in
the country. Senior staff working on the inquiry are said to have
expressed concerns about this and other alleged remarks to the Home
Office, and to have been left frustrated when no action was taken.

With Dame Lowell no longer in charge, questions over her conduct are
relatively moot. Yet after the suspension of Mr Emmerson, these latest
claims carry a broader implication of ructions within the inquiry team
that is hugely concerning. It is also notable that the person
responsible for setting up the inquiry, for appointing three chairs who
have each subsequently resigned, and for running the department that
reportedly failed to act on concerns about Dame Lowell’s alleged racism
is now the Prime Minister. What, it might reasonably be asked, does
Theresa May make of all this?

Alexis Jay will need to work hard and smartly if she is to regain the
confidence of victims and to get her investigation back on track. She
certainly has many top-class people working alongside her, yet clear and
compassionate leadership of the inquiry is more vital now than ever.
Child victims of abuse have been failed too many times before; they
mustn’t be failed again.

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