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.


  1. Crucial to get NI and Jersey Scotland involved; abuse occurred (allegedly) before devolved powers.

  2. For part of the period relevant for Kincora, Northern Ireland was under direct rule rather than devolved administration. Peter Robinson, the Northern Ireland First Minister, had said that he hoped Kincora would be included in the scope of the inquiry:
    and after the terms of reference were published he expressed disappointment that Kincora was excluded from the terms of reference:

    1. Yes, there is as close to a consensus as you will ever get among the local political parties in Northern Ireland that Kincora should be looked at by the UK inquiry.

  3. This is a thoughtful blog posting and one which deserves to be widely read. I'll do my best to get word out and links on Twitter.

    Jersey is presently conducting a long awaited Committee of Inquiry on child abuse there. Authorities in UK and Jersey will undoubtedly use point this to argue against inclusion in the UK Inquiry, but that would be a tragic mistake.

    Not only were the Jersey TOR watered down without explanation, but numerous promises were broken and little effort has been made to support survivors, despite assurances to the contrary. Fist person accounts of this are recorded on Jersey's excellent local blogs.

    When allegations of grave crimes arose in survivor or witness testimony, follow up questions to get to the evidence were completely ignored. Shocking publicly reported allegations that Savile paid off the Jersey government, for example, were not followed up with further questions.

    Jersey's inquiry is a terribly expensive one, because of the costly legal service provided on behalf of all implicated institutions and authorities and yet, the most key witnesses and whistleblowers are not provided with legal representation.

    There is abundant evidence the Jersey authorities continue to fight against exposure of past abuse and are, in fact, still protecting the system against probes into any ongoing or recent coverup efforts.

    The trafficking of children from Islington Care homes to Jersey has not been brought up, nor have the officials in or outside of the Jersey Inquiry addressed this, despite UK documentation that it took place. UK was legally responsible for the safety of children sent to Haut de la Garenne.

    It's helpful to look at what is going terribly wrong with the Jersey Committee of Inquiry, to see why there will still be little light shed on decades of horrific, still unexamined abuse there, without Jersey inclusion into the wider UK Inquiry. Jersey's inclusion is the only way to inquire about what really happened to Jersey's numerous abused and even still-missing children, and also the UK's own Islington children, some of whom have never been accounted for, either.

    Leigh LaFon

  4. Someone is floating Lord Carlile as a candidate for chair of the inquiry over at the Independent - "Who could lead the abuse inquiry?" gallery:

    1. He's apparently ruled himself out:
      "Politics 'must be taken out' of child abuse inquiry

      A Liberal Democrat peer has said there were two prerequisites for the person appointed chairman or woman over an inquiry looking to historic cases of child sex abuse.

      Ruling himself out, Lord Carlile told Sky News' Murnaghan programme:

      The politics has to be taken out of this.

      If the Lord Chief Justice could be persuaded to release a senior judge to do this job I think that would be ideal.

      There is no particular reason why it should be a woman but there are, as it happens, seven women who are members of the Court of Appeal, Lady Justices."

  5. Thankyou for the post - very insightful!