Thursday, 6 November 2014

The child abuse inquiry needs to start again with transparency and trust

Look here for my piece on the Guardian website about Theresa May's statement in Parliament last Monday.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Child abuse inquiry - Meeting with survivors groups

I was at the meeting on Friday between representatives of various survivors' groups and some members of the inquiry panel. Fiona Woolf's resignation was called for at that meeting.

The resignation wasn't the top priority issue discussed. Far more important was the need immediately to convert the inquiry into a full statutory inquiry, with the powers to compel the production of documents, compel the attendance of witnesses and take testimony under oath.

Ben Emmerson (counsel to the inquiry) pointed out that Theresa May had already said that the inquiry would be converted to a statutory inquiry if the chair saw the need for it. The response was that we know from many past inquiries how unwilling organisations often are to admit to failings and wrongdoing, and that we will need to drag the information out of them. There is no purpose in wasting several months while this lesson is learned anew by the inquiry chair, the inquiry needs to be statutory from the start if it is to be effective. Within the meeting, there was complete unanimity on this point.

If the need for a statutory inquiry were to be accepted, the next question addressed was whether Fiona Woolf commanded confidence as chairman to conduct it. The answer was overwhelmingly "no". Of the organisations represented, only NSPCC did not support the consensus, they stayed neutral.

The reasons for this position were far more nuanced and powerful than have so far been reported. There was the obvious issue of Woolf's connection to the Brittans. If Woolf were a potential juror in a trial where Brittan was a witness, she would immediately be excused as soon as the connection was known. It's unreasonable to expect a lower standard of impartiality – both actual and perceived – to be accepted for the inquiry. In my view it was crass of the Home Office to redraft Woolf's letter to try and sidle round this point.

But this wasn't the only argument against Woolf as chair. Woolf is a commercial lawyer. She knows nothing of child abuse. Those who have experience in this field have come to understand how normal logic and reasoning does not work when dealing with this topic. With experience, you gradually come to realise that on the subject of abuse and institutional responses to it, almost everything you ever thought you knew about human behaviour is wrong. It usually takes about a year of immersion in this subject to get your head around the implications of this. We can't wait a year while the inquiry chair educates herself. Sharon Evans, one of the two panel members present, clearly grasped this point.

There was one other very important though rather technical reason Woolf would not be suitable to head a statutory inquiry. In order to exercise the full powers of a statutory inquiry, you need a judge. Only a judge for instance can hold an uncooperative witness in contempt of court. This point was forcefully made by more than one of the lawyers present. Woolf is a solicitor, not a judge. So the general consensus was that a (preferably senior) judge is needed who has some background in family law and who therefore has experience of abuse issues.

Another issue discussed was the limitation of the inquiry to cover just England and Wales. This excludes some very important scandals such as Kincora (Northern Ireland), Fort Augustus (Scotland) and Haut de la Garenne (Jersey). Apparently the reason for this is that child protection is a devolved issue, and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland are not prepared to have a Westminster-run inquiry looking into matters on their patch. I want to find out who is responsible for this. It is nuts to have an abuse inquiry that is excluded from looking into some very major scandals, especially when we know that the trafficking of children inconveniently crosses local authority and even international borders.

If the inquiry is to do its job, the single most vital attribute needed is the confidence of the survivors of abuse. Some people present at the meeting had themselves suffered abuse. They are among the most robust of all the survivors in the country, they have transcended their experiences to fight on behalf of others. But if the inquiry is to gain a full understanding of abuse, its mechanisms and effects, the panel members will need to speak to many others, some of whom are extremely damaged psychologically, are very vulnerable, and will need much support in order to testify. What is required for that support was discussed in some detail. The survivors groups expressed their readiness to work with the inquiry and bring their knowledge and experience to help the panel in their investigations and evidence gathering. Expert advisors from survivor organisations to the Panel of Inquiry were suggested.

It is a common characteristic of abuse victims that they are extremely distrustful of authority, because that authority over them was so devastatingly misused when they were children. We pointed out that inquiry has to recognise this as a fact and accept the consequences. One consequence is that in the eyes of the victims the fiascos concerning the appointments of Butler-Sloss and then Woolf are far more damaging than even the papers have reported. Some victims are already expressing complete lack of confidence in the inquiry and an unwillingness to co-operate with it. Unless things change,  Theresa May will be throwing an inquiry and nobody will turn up.

If we are to retrieve the situation, urgent action is needed. The first part of that happened on Friday afternoon with Woolf's resignation. The next urgent step needed is an announcement of the immediate conversion to a judge-led statutory inquiry, and then consultation with survivors groups as to the new chair, the composition of the panel and the terms of reference. With the establishment itself under scrutiny, the inquiry process must be extremely transparent. The need for this is only gradually becoming understood by the inquiry team.