The future of the current child sex abuse inquiry reaches a ” make or break ” moment this Wednesday. On that day it will either be wound up or reinvented.
What has particularly depressed me about the whole business is the way it has been handled. The Home Office, in particular, has not covered itself in glory – recommending two chairs that had to resign – and with a new chair still to be appointed months after the inquiry was originally set up.
What started with great hopes when seven MPs of opposing parties got together to ask Theresa May, the home secretary, to set this up has ended in despair with people quarrelling with each other on-line, demanding resignations of panel members and refusing to co-operate or attend listening events.
I don’t think people realise what a mean feat it is – thanks to the open-mindedness of Tory Mp, Zac Goldsmith- to get together seven MPs from four parties with opposing views- Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green – and get them to agree to press an initially reluctant government to set up the overarching inquiry in the first place.
The MPs have frankly not followed the ” yah boo ” script of scoring political points off each other – and tried to take the issue out of party politics. The Opposition has also rightly tempered its criticism of Theresa May in Parliament when it would be easy to score cheap points from her discomfort as the debacle unfolded. They recognised she was genuinely committed to the inquiry- and respected that.
I wish I could say the same for some of the survivors and professionals but I can’t. By all means have a lively, rational debate on what is to be done and try to convince others of your case. But to descend into demanding people are removed from a panel, banned from attending meetings ( as the Survivors Alliance wants) or to claim that your view is what every one of the probably millions of survivors want is both arrogant and wrong.
You can change people’s minds. I originally thought it would be better to have a non statutory inquiry after the success of Hillsborough. I now think it should have statutory powers because of the issues it is dealing with – and the fact it has to tackle very powerful people whose instinct will be to want to cover everything up.
However they are lots of ways to run a statutory inquiry. The simplest one is to scrap the existing panel replace it with a judge, employ phalanxes of highly paid lawyers and hold judicial style hearings where witnesses are cross-examined in public. This means it will be transparent but survivors will have to face cross-examination even if their hearing is in private. It will also mean that the judge – and the judge alone – will decide what the report will say. And I am afraid the history on this is not good – with findings often at odds with the evidence presented – take Hutton and Leveson for starters. Or more pertinently, take the Waterhouse inquiry into North Wales child sexual abuse, which is now having to be reviewed. Also statutory inquiries can be delayed and delayed as lawyers argue about their findings – as is the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War for example,
Survivors will be confined to giving their evidence in this model -but the judge will decide whether to believe them.
The other way to do this is to combine the present panel with a judge and work in a collegiate way. Here survivors not only give evidence but alongside other professional people – have an input into what the report will say. They are real participants.
Just a moment. Isn’t this what we have got already? Yes it is, we have a panel of experts who can tackle the issue and understand child sexual abuse. So why throw the whole thing out and start again.
Now it is clear from an article I have written with Mark Watts in Exaro today that while some survivors and professionals have told Theresa May the whole inquiry has to be scrapped other survivors who have attended the listening events in London and Manchester passionately want it to continue. And I don’t understand why the people who want it scrapped seem to want to deny the people who want it to continue any voice. Particularly as some of them have turned down invitations to attend.
Isn’t it about time that survivors tried to work with each other rather than undermine each other?