Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Child abuse inquiry - The powers of the inquiry

The child abuse inquiry seems to be a bit of a mess. It's worth dividing the mess into three separate issues.
  1. The powers of the inquiry
  2. The scope and terms of reference of the inquiry
  3. The chairmanship of the inquiry
Lets look at each of these in turn, in separate articles.

The powers of the inquiry

At the moment, the inquiry is set up as a "panel inquiry". The idea apparently was to use the Hillsborough inquiry as a model. But the Hillsborough situation was very different for a number of reasons. First, it was looking into the actions of a relatively small number of public bodies in the context of a single specific event. Second, their co-operation had been assured from the start. Third, the main purpose appears to have been to collate and bring into the public domain a large number of documents already available. Fourth, it wasn't an end in itself, but merely was intended to provide an indication as to whether the inquest verdict on the Hillsborough victims was sound and whether a new inquest should be ordered that would look into everything judicially. That inquest is still ongoing.

The child sex abuse inquiry is a very different matter. There are a much larger range of bodied both public and private whose actions are to be looked into. There is no single event being examined but rather decades of failings to act to prosecute a large number of criminals and protect a large number of children. Co-operation from the bodies concerned has not been promised in advance and cannot be counted on. The inquiry if it does its job properly is going to have to make many different recommendations: into changes in the law, changes in practice, funding arrangements and a whole range of other issues. Child sex abuse is a diffuse problem, there are many points at which child protection arrangements can fail, and each of those failure points is likely to need a different solution. The scale of the undertaking is completely different.

The issue of what powers it is appropriate to give the inquiry turns on the issue of co-operation, whether it can be guaranteed from all the bodies which the inquiry might want to look into. One of the groups of bodies which the inquiry is tasked with looking into is churches and other religious organisations. The difficulties that may occur can be illustrated by means of a simple example concerning the Salesians, an order of Roman Catholic monks whom Graham Wilmer (one of the inquiry panel members) has complained about. In an article for Exaro News, The Salesians made the following statement.

The Salesians will of course co-operate fully with the forthcoming government inquiry if they are required to do so.
Note carefully the qualification: "if required to do so". As it is currently constituted, the inquiry cannot compel the production of documents. It cannot compel the attendance of witnesses, nor can it take oral testimony under oath. So the Salesians are not "required to" co-operate with the inquiry because the inquiry lacks the powers to do the requiring. I think it likely that many other organisations will be similarly tight-lipped unless they are "required to" co-operate.

When announcing the inquiry, the Home Secretary Theresa May made the following promise.

I want to make clear that – if the inquiry panel chairman deems it necessary – the government is prepared to convert it into a full statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act.
Even before the inquiry starts, it is clear that it will be unable to do its job unless that conversion is carried out immediately. It should be done now rather than waste several months blundering around and discovering that most of the organisations being investigated won't co-operate. A statutory inquiry will have all the powers to compel co-operation that the present panel inquiry lacks.

Unless and until the inquiry is made a full statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, it is essentially useless.

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