There are a few things that can be said about this development. The first is that I'm not in the least surprised that it's happened. I warned about the likelihood of this in my article in the Guardian a month ago. I pointed out the following
The home secretary Theresa May’s conduct in setting up the inquiry falls far short of building the trust necessary to gain the confidence of these extremely and justifiably mistrustful people. It is clear from her statement in parliament on Monday that she isn’t close to understanding how much transparency is really needed.And in the subsequent paragraphs I described in detail the likely effect on many survivors of the shambles that has unfolded so far. I ended with this.
What would happen if they held an inquiry and no one came? We’re dangerously close to finding out.We aren't there yet. The signatories of the open letter represent relatively few survivors, and don't include the main organisations which provide support to survivors such as the Survivors' Trust. But this is a sign that we are getting closer. Each passing day where the inquiry, its powers and its terms or reference remain manifestly unfit for purpose brings the time closer where even if the present problems were to be fixed, too much trust will have been lost for most survivors to be willing to engage.
That would be a great pity. While there may be people who doubt the Home Secretary's sincerity when she said today that "we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to the bottom of this issue", the fact is that she is objectively correct in that statement. The problem is that if the delays in getting it right persist, then that opportunity may be lost.
The open letter's demands are that the Home Secretary:
- announce the scrapping of the current panel and its replacement on a transparent basis
- declare a statutory inquiry
- announce that the TOR will focus on:
- Organised & Institutional Abuse – hearing evidence from survivors of such abuse
- Extending the cut-off date to 1945 and linking with Inquiries in other parts of the UK
- Setting up a dedicated police team at the National Crime Agency to take evidence alongside the inquiry to investigate and prosecute offenders
- Holding those that have failed in their professional duty or covered up allegations or been obstructive to account.
The inquiry of course must be statutory. There's hardly any point in talking about anything else unless and until that is done. Just imagine a phone call made by a member of the panel to the headteacher some independent school where we know abuse has happened.
Panel Member: Ah, headteacher. I wonder if you would be willing to come and give evidence to the child abuse inquiry, since we know that abuse has happened at your school in the past.
Head Teacher: What do you have in mind?
PM: Well, we would like you to describe how and why you covered up abuse at the time. We would like to know if you are aware of any more abusers at your school past or present who the police haven't yet learned of, and how you have been able to keep it from them. And we would like you to bring along all the documents you have that are relevant to this.
HT: Why would I want to do that?
PM: In order to help prevent such cover ups in future.
HT: I think I have better things to do with my time.
PM: Is that a no?
HT: Precisely. Goodbye.
For as long as this remains a panel inquiry, there is absolutely nothing that anybody on the panel can do about the headteacher's refusal to co-operate. The Salesian order (which ran the school at which the panel member Graham Wilmer was abused) issued a statement. “The Salesians will of course cooperate fully with the forthcoming government inquiry if they are required to do so” (my emphasis). They have in as many words stated that this is pretty much how such a conversation would go if they were to be called to give evidence to a non-statutory inquiry.
As for the Terms of Reference, there are some good points in what is being asked for, and some perhaps more debatable ones. The good points are that it should certainly extend back to the limits of living memory - 1945 is as convenient a date as any for the purpose. The inquiry should also be able to cover the whole country, though whether this is better done by linking to other inquiries or by direct extension of the inquiry's geographical scope is something which can be discussed.
I'm a little less sure about the phrase "Organised & Institutional Abuse". The good part of it is that this does not limit the inquiry only to sexual abuse (which is how things stand at present), because where sexual abuse is present, other forms of abuse are often associated. The less good part of this is that in my opinion we need to be looking at institutional responses to evidence of child abuse, wherever that evidence has come from and whatever forms the abuse has taken.
Does "organised" abuse mean a gang of 5 or more? 4? 3? If the authorities have habitually failed abuse victims when evidence of the abuse came to light, does it really matter whether the abuse was organised or not? Is there anything different that the authorities need to do to protect victims depending on whether the abuse was "organised"? In detail, probably yes, but in general principles no. A young girl who has been raped needs much the same support irrespective of whether she was raped by one or more people.
The dedicated police team in parallel with the inquiry isn't strictly part of the ToR of the inquiry itself, but this or something like it may well be needed. The inquiry isn't going to be making criminal investigations. It has always been clear that evidence that might lead to abusers being prosecuted would be passed on to the police. Some single point of contact between the inquiry and police for this purpose is probably a good idea.
And of course we want to see those responsible for having participated in cover ups to be held to account. However, we might have to accept that this in many cases will consist of nothing more than "naming and shaming", because it isn't a crime to fail to report a crime, and so those involved in the cover up of abuse may well have committed no crime. Just today, the CPS has announced that there will be no prosecutions of anybody at Duncroft School over the abuses perpetrated by Jimmy Savile there. I'm not in the least bit surprised. Unless there was evidence either that others were abusing children as well, or that children were being handed over to Savile specifically for the purpose of him abusing them, then in all probability no crime had been committed. If they suspected (even strongly suspected) that Savile was abusing children, they had no legal obligation to report it, and they committed no crime by remaining silent.
So I have little or no problem with the requested changes. Nonetheless, I have two serious objections to the letter. The first is that the wording is in some places rather confused and unclear, which has led Sky News to report that part of the problem is that the scope of the inquiry is too wide.
My second objection is that it is not really a good idea metaphorically to place a gun at the Home Secretary's head and issue threats. Because this is what has been done.
As I have said before, Theresa May needs to make a far greater effort than has been evident up to now in understanding where the survivors are coming from. But the survivors need to try and make it easier for her to do that. Issuing threats hardens attitudes all round and makes it less likely that the requested changes will happen. Better would have been to say something along the lines of "we really do want this inquiry to succeed, but if you wait too long before making the changes that are needed, it is likely that few survivors will by then still be willing to trust and engage with the inquiry". You're saying the same thing, but phrasing it as an observation rather than a threat. These things make a difference.
I was not approached with a view to my name being added to the open letter. I did not know of its existence prior to publication. Had I been asked, I would have refused to sign it in its present form, even though I agree with almost all of its objectives.