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The rather bland announcement from Alexis Jay, chair of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse that she had appointed an employment judge Mark Sutton to investigate dignity at work and safeguarding inside the inquiry poses more questions than answers.
It followed ferocious criticism from the Commons Home Affairs Committee after the rather lurid – and now said to be untrue – tale that its leading counsel. Ben Emmerson, had sexually assaulted a woman on the inquiry’s premises.
The report concluded: “It is not for us to pass any comment on the allegations made in the media about the former Counsel to the Inquiry, which he has categorically denied. We are not in a position, and it is certainly not our responsibility, to assess either the facts of the case or the details of the processes that the Inquiry pursued.
However, on the basis of the evidence we have seen, we do not believe that IICSA has taken seriously enough its responsibility to pursue allegations of bullying or disclosures of sexual assault within the Inquiry.”
It goes on:
“Nor do we believe it has done enough to demonstrate publicly that it has a robust approach to such matters. IICSA’s public response has been inadequate, and the words attributed to an unidentified “IICSA source” in the press in response to the alleged assault are completely inappropriate, appearing to dismiss the serious nature of the matter and the credibility of the alleged victim.
“One of the Inquiry’s key purposes is to assess other organisations’ procedures for dealing with disclosures of sexual assault or abuses of power, and institutional reluctance to confront difficult issues that might jeopardise their reputation. We therefore believe that it is extremely important that the Inquiry can show that it treats these issues with appropriate rigour when they affect IICSA itself.”
The reason for these strong words followed evidence from Hugh Davies QC, who resigned as Deputy Counsel to IICSA in December 2015, He made it clear he was unhappy with the procedures for handling such instances. He said:“the institution cannot abdicate responsibility to the person making the disclosure, who may be vulnerable or otherwise emotionally unable to pursue a formal process”.
Also significantly the report says : “We also received a confidential submission relating to this alleged incident. Although it is not appropriate for us to publish this evidence, it has helped us to understand the incident and the way in which IICSA dealt with it. We are very grateful to the individual concerned for providing us with this information.”
How IICSA handles this will be crucial and it must not be seen to bury it. Its instructions to Mark Sutton say:
“You are requested to examine the events surrounding the Counsel to the Inquiry’s resignation from the Inquiry and to advise on the appropriateness, in the given circumstances, of the Inquiry’s actions at that time.
If you find evidence that there are structural challenges in HR / employment matters that arise due to the legal status of public inquiries and their employment model of seconded staff, self employed individuals and contractors, the Inquiry would welcome your Review making broader recommendations or observations.”
He will not rerun or second guess the actual incident nor will he publish his advice to the inquiry. And the inquiry will see his report before any statement is published.
I have also learnt separately that Graham Wilmer, a member of the original panel before it became a public inquiry, wants Mark Sutton, to look at the involvement of Mr Emmerson in a campaign conducted by members of the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel to undermine him and the Lantern Project, which helped survivors in the Wirral, North Wales and the North West. He has passed documentary evidence to the inquiry. Given that Mr Wilmer was a member of the first independent panel one would expect ” dignity at work ” to apply to their dealings with him.
My concern – given there have been other allegations of bullying dating back to when Dame Lowell Goddard was in charge – is the inquiry may not do enough to allay fears and suspicions among staff working there.
If that happens people will not be satisfied. You can’t have an inquiry examining the most sensitive allegations of historical child sexual abuse which have been hidden for decades through the abuse of power if it can’t handle sensitive allegations about its own staff.
We don’t want yet another cover up in this already troubled inquiry.