Whether Fiona Woolf heads it or not, the child abuse inquiry will fail

Bloody Sunday, Profumo, Iraq … public inquiries usually find whatever Whitehall wants them to

Portrait of Alderman Fiona Woolf CBE, the 686th Lord Mayor of London

Fiona Woolf: her resignation from the child abuse inquiry saves time and avoids false hope Photo: Clara Molden/The Telegraph

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The defenestration last week of Chairman Number Two from the inquiry into historical child abuse brought forth understandable cries of “outrage,” “pantomime” and “farce”. I take a different view. Fiona Woolf’s resignation saves time and avoids false hope. This inquiry was always going to be a failure.
I do not in the slightest want to belittle the suffering that the victims of the abuse went through. I do not for a moment dispute that they deserve closure, redress and justice. But they are not going to get it from this inquiry. Partly, that is because of its specific task, if “specific” is the right word. It has been set up to investigate thousands, or more probably hundreds of thousands, of actions and failures to act “from 1970 to the present” across a vast range of “state and non-state institutions”. These include: “Government departments, Parliament and ministers, police, prosecuting authorities, schools including private and state-funded boarding and day schools, local authorities including care homes and children’s services, health services, prisons, secure estates, churches and other religious denominations and organisations, political parties and the armed services.”
Without a dramatic narrowing of focus, the task is impossible to complete, at least in under a decade or two – and that’s supposing memories have not faded, key witnesses have not died and documents have not been thrown away in the natural course of 44 years. But the other reason why the inquiry will fail is more general: because they just do. Any honest inquiry into public inquiries would have to concede that the vast majority disappoint. They may be the last escape for politicians with nowhere else to turn, the reflex demand of pressure groups and victims – but our faith in them is misplaced.
The failed inquiry falls into three broad categories. The first sort fails to uncover – or indeed conceals – the facts. Obvious examples include Lord Widgery’s original 1972 tribunal into Bloody Sunday, which exonerated the Army and placed all blame on the marchers; Lord Denning on Profumo; and Hutton into Iraq. A variant of this is an inquiry that uncovers at least some truth, but does its best to bury, fudge or gloss over it. Lord Justice Scott’s report on arms-to-Iraq, with its extended and impenetrable fondness for the double negative, is the classic example.
The second sort of failure is a report that gets to the truth and clearly expresses criticism, but refuses to hold any person or body accountable. The Butler report on Tony Blair’s Iraqi WMD dossier, for instance, found that the famous 45-minute claim, star of all the press coverage, was officially rubbish and should never have been included – but no one was blamed for it. Butler found that intelligence was politicised but his finger pointed to no politician or political appointee. All was subsumed in a convenient melange of unsatisfactory “process”, too complicated to separate individual acts of culpability: not a whitewash, by any means, but perhaps a greywash.
The third category is the inquiry that looks like a success at the time, but is essentially a political kneecapping. Lord Macpherson found that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist – a conclusion that is now widely accepted as overly broad and damaging. Over phone-hacking, Lord Justice Leveson stuck it to the newspapers, but was notably pianissimo about the equally disturbing behaviour of politicians and the police.
The essential reason why these inquiries, and most others, fail is that they are set up by the Government – one of the parties being scrutinised. Ministers get to choose their chairman and – more crucially – their terms of reference. This is usually done quickly, in the heat and excitement of an inquiry-generating media storm, and no one outside Whitehall ever pays enough attention.
Some do, of course, go down paths that can be deeply uncomfortable for everyone. But in the main, inquiries find more or less what the governments who set them up want them to find – that no one was wrongly killed on Bloody Sunday, that the Iraq intelligence had not been misrepresented, that the Met was insufficiently progressive and needed a kicking.
The only kind of inquiry that ever works is the kind that investigates someone other than the Government. Because the subjects were Islamist school governors and an underperforming council, rather than ministers and civil servants, the recent investigation into the Birmingham “Trojan Horse” affair was allowed to be astonishingly effective. They appointed someone – Peter Clarke, a former senior policeman – who knew how to ask questions and actually wanted to know the answers. They gave him a narrow focus and a short time to deliver. In less than three months, he produced a report of model robustness and clarity whose evidence was so compelling as to silence even the most frothing Trojan Horse apologists.
As Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the Iraq war enters its seventh year with no report, it would be unwise to expect similar despatch where Whitehall’s own interests are concerned. Unless the control of inquiries’ chairmen and terms of reference is taken out of government’s hands, they will continue, for the most part, to be cruel exercises in the raising and dashing of hopes. Until then, victims of abuse might do better to hold a whip-round and hire Mr Clarke.

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