Can the child abuse inquiry retain the integrity it needs to survive?

Ivor Frank, Alexis Jay and Drusilla Sharpling testify to the Home Affairs Select Committee. PA

When the then home secretary Theresa May commissioned the enormously ambitious Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in July 2014, victims and survivors of abuse had reason to hope that justice would be served. For decades, the sexual abuse of children in England and Wales was ignored or hidden and, some would argue, perpetuated by institutions meant to protect them. To many survivors, the inquiry is a chance to make good at last.

Investigating decades of alleged child sexual abuse, taking in a number of large institutions and potentially thousands of victims is an enormous task. Nobody can have thought it would be be easy – but the road so far seems rockier than anyone anticipated.

The inquiry is now under the stewardship of its fourth chair, Professor Alexis Jay. Over the years it has been dogged by resignations, acrimony and reports of misconduct by senior figures. Allegations of racism were reportedly levelled against its former chair, Dame Lowell Goddard, who is now refusing to testify to the committee about her resignation. There are also reports of an allegation of sexual assault against Ben Emmerson QC, who also resigned from the inquiry’s team. Both Goddard and Emmerson categorically deny the allegations against them.

Now it faces a new crisis: one of the major survivor groups involved, the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association (SOSA) has withdrawn its participation in what it termed a “contrived investigation”.

The inquiry is just over two years old and yet it’s barely out of the harbour. Doubts about its seaworthiness are already entrenched. The stakes are high: if we are to ensure justice and to better protect children, failure is not an option. But an inquiry that cannot fail is by definition under enormous pressure to answer repeated and very public questions about its viability.

After SOSA withdrew, the Home Affairs Select Committee published a report criticising the inquiry for failing to investigate the allegations against senior staff, and lamenting its staff’s inability to confidently raise concerns. But the report also reveals just how unclear it is how the committee is meant to hold an independent inquiry to account.

The inquiry is funded by the Home Office, but the committee’s public scrutiny is integral to keeping the inquiry robust and credible. To further complicate the issue, parliament is itself subject to the inquiry’s investigations.

Jay responded to the report by apologising for any anxiety created by the transition period following her appointment. But the concerns appear to go beyond “transition”, and confidence in the chair is now more important than ever.

Since Jay was appointed, the issue of the internal independence of the chair has become more publicly visible. Reports of internal “discomfort” experienced by the assertion of independence by the third chairperson, Dame Lowell Goddard, from her panel members.

This issue was explored to some extent when Jay and two panel members, Ivor Frank and Drusilla Sharpling, presented to the committee in October 2016.

A new tack

That session made clear Jay sees the relationship between the chair and panel very differently than Goddard, under whom the panel had to employ a facilitator to communicate between them. Jay’s appearance alongside Frank and Sharpling was clearly far more collegiate. She also intends to take a more inspectorate-style approach approach, as opposed to Goddard’s judicial vision.

In its report, the committee suggests that the two approaches should be blended; perhaps Jay will take its advice on board as she tries to right the ship. More pressingly, though, the inquiry urgently has to address the concerns raised by SOSA and the misgivings of survivors more generally, which are causing serious tensions between those leading the inquiry and the people they are meant to help.

Lowell Goddard (L) denies allegations of racism. PA/Peter Byrne

There are scores of victims, survivors and their families whose wellbeing depends on the inquiry, and the means by which they can hold the inquiry to account or scrutinise its processes also remain unclear. To make matters worse, too much attention has shifted to those delivering the inquiry rather than the people they’re meant to help.

That was all too clear when Jay, Frank and Sharpling last gave evidence to the committee. In a discussion of how long they expected their work to take, Frank admitted that some of the inquiry’s 13 separate investigations could take several years and joked that panel members “look forward to a time when we will have a life beyond this inquiry”. As he and the committee members laughed, an audience member called out “so do we”. The same heckler later interrupted the hearing again and was removed from the room by a security officer.

This sort of fleeting exchange might seem inconsequential, but it’s a telling incident. To those who have desperately campaigned for justice, any sign of affable familiarity between the inquiry team and parliamentarians is deeply unpalatable.

Failure to thrive

It was a month or so after this hearing that SOSA withdrew; Lambeth MP Chuka Ummuna, who represents the area where SOSA alleges serious abuse took place, called on Jay to resign. In response, Sharpling publicly defended Jay, and asserted that the inquiry could still demand evidence from SOSA. Later, Jay announced she would continue to “fight for the inquiry”, asserting that people want to see it fail so as to keep abuse from being brought to light.

Both May and the home secretary, Amber Rudd, continue to support Jay’s leadership and, while the inquiry is technically independent, they are nonetheless being held accountable for its success or failure.

The thought of it being suspended pending further deliberations will make many survivors deeply anxious – but that demands serious critical evaluation. Survivors fear that individuals, groups and organisations who have perpetuated sexual abuse or neglected to protect children from it will work hard to avoid investigation. That means the inquiry’s team has to be as trustworthy and robust as possible.

Jay needs to take the initiative. If people with power are really working to sink the inquiry, she must make the basis for that suggestion clear. She must also account for the concerns that drove SOSA to withdraw. Simply stating that the inquiry will stay the course while major survivor groups jump ship is not enough – and it’s a disservice to people who’ve dedicated decades of their lives to pursuing justice.

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