The Meeting with the Abuse Inquiry Secretariat at Millbank Tower, Friday October 31st, 2014Posted: November 1, 2014
[Updated Saturday 8th November 2014 with transcript of responses from one panel member]
Yesterday (Friday, October 31st, 2014) I attended the roundtable for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse at Millbank Tower, together with 20 others. Whilst it would not be appropriate to provide a full list of attendees, various have otherwise identified themselves or been identified: Peter Wanless from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC); Peter Saunders from the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC); Liz Davies, social worker and whistleblower at Islington Council, now Reader in Child Protection at London Metropolitan University; Peter McKelvie, former child protection manager involved in the 1992 investigation into Peter Righton; Jonathan West, St Benedict’s School parent and campaigner into abuse at Ealing Abbey and associated schools, also part of MandateNow, but on this occasion there in a personal capacity; Alison Millar from Leigh Day Solicitors, Lucy Duckworth from Ministry & Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS); and Fay Maxted from The Survivors Trust. In some cases other representatives of these organisations were also present; other organisations represented were the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation (PACE), The Children’s Society, Against Violence and Abuse (AVA) Project, and Victim Support. I was at the meeting because of my involvement as a campaigner on abuse in musical education and contact with survivors there, and also because of wider research into organised abuse.
Jonathan West has already written a blog post on the meeting, and has covered some things I might have done and so will do so briefly; here I just want to add my own impressions and some further thoughts coming out of the further developments yesterday. It would not be appropriate to report exactly who said what, except where they have made this known elsewhere, so I will not do so, but I can give a broader picture of the nature of the meeting. From when people began to arrive there was a barrage of media outside Millbank Tower which had only increased by the end of the meeting; they were keen to interview attendees from when they arrived.
The meeting, which took place on the 12th floor and ran from 10:30 until slightly after 13:30, was also attended by two members of the inquiry panel, Barbara Hearn and Sharon Evans, as well as counsel to the inquiry, Ben Emmerson QC. It was chaired by Usha Choli, Engagement Manager to the inquiry, and several other administrative staff were present. All were sat around a large table with the panel members and counsel at one end, whilst Choli remained standing through the three-hour meeting. The administrative staff were taking notes throughout whilst Choli made some larger notes on a flipchart.
It is clear that this meeting was organised at very short notice, with most representatives having only been informed about it earlier in the week. It would appear to have been a response to widespread reporting about unhappiness following Fiona Woolf’s appearance before the Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday October 21st, 2014, and many subsequent reports suggesting there was more to her connections with various relevant individuals than had been made clear during this appearance and in the letter confirming Woolf’s connections which was previously posted on the inquiry website. The details of these are now well-known and need little extra rehearsing; suffice to say that I think if she had stayed in position, some of the seemingly less important connections (in particular concerning her steward Colin Tucker) would have been raked over more extensively in the media.
However, I want to stress that I felt this was a very positive and constructive meeting, notwithstanding the naturally heated atmosphere as a result of overwhelming dissatisfaction with then then-chair of the inquiry, Fiona Woolf. Throughout I got a sense of a real will to listen to the representatives present and try to answer the numerous questions posed and also aim for transparency of process; of course the real test will be whether the Secretariat of the Inquiry and the Home Office follow through on these promises. There will be a further meeting next Friday morning (November 7th, 2014), possibly starting later. It was made clear at this meeting that the secretariat will be happy to accommodate a larger group if necessary (and book a larger room for the purpose), and I would urge anyone who feels they should be present as a survivors’ representative or because of other relevant expertise to contact them as soon as possible.
At the outset, all those present were invited to introduce themselves, detail the organisation they represented where appropriate, and list one thing they felt to be most important for the inquiry to consider. Many different responses were given to the latter, such as considering non-sexual abuse, looking at how various institutions turned a blind eye, to (my own point) considering the culture of institutions in which abuse is able to flourish unchecked.
From these points, almost immediately a discussion flared up about whether one should assume that the chair and panel as currently constituted would remain, and also about what real powers the inquiry would have. In response to concerns about the latter, the point was made early on that the possibility of the inquiry having statutory powers (so that they would be able to demand evidence) had not been ruled out by any means, leading Choli to take a poll of those present as to whether this would be their preferred option. There was unanimous support for this, with various individuals expressing their belief that otherwise many institutions would provide no more information to the inquiry than absolutely necessary (I personally know of institutions who would act this way as a matter of policy because of fear of any other information being used against them in civil lawsuits). Choli made clear that this verdict would be communicated to the appropriate people.
Following this came a call for everyone to express their views on the suitability of Fiona Woolf as chair of the inquiry. Of those present, the majority were unequivocal in their view that she should definitely resign; three individuals were a little less emphatic, mostly because of concern about the delay to the inquiry that would be caused by the resignation of the chair, and two others were very mildly less emphatic than others whilst still essentially sharing the belief that Woolf’s resignation was necessary. Later in the meeting, various people made clear that were Woolf to remain chair, they and the survivors they represent had no intention of having anything to do with the inquiry. As Jonathan West has pointed out, there were a variety of reasons for this view, not simply Woolf’s relationship to Leon Brittan and others; various people also commented upon her lack of experience in this field and the amount of time which it would take for her to become fully acquainted with it within an otherwise busy schedule.
There were some questions placed to the members of the panel present about their own connections and the means by which they were selected for this task; an undertaking was provided that this latter process would be made clear on the inquiry website. One individual present wished in particular to question Barbara Hearn, former social worker and Deputy Chief Executive of the National Children’s Bureau, who has also worked as an unpaid researcher for Tom Watson MP for the last two years. I have been sent a verbatim (allowing for the possibility of human error) transcript of what Hearn had to say in response to queries about how she was selected and possible conflicts of interest on her part:
Barbara Hearn: My process was that in July Tom Watson, who I have been working with amongst other MPs, asked me if an inquiry was put together would I be prepared to be on a panel. Then he asked me in middle of August for copy of my CV and statement to go to the Home Office. He said submission was made by him with support of Tim Loughton and Zac Goldsmith [Conservative MPs]. I then had a phone call on the Fourth of September from John O’Brien [Director of Safeguarding at the Home Office] asking me to be on panel and I said yes.
Questioner 1: Tom emailed me saying he had no role in your appointment.
Usha Choli: Let’s put on website how appointed.
[agreement from Ben Emmerson and others from secretariat that this will be done[
Questioner 2: I was referred and I didn’t hear anything from anyone. Would be nice to know why I was not suggested.
BH: My personal relationship with Tom Watson: I know him through family contacts, as I worked with his stepmother. After his announcement in 2012, as he knew me and trusted me, he asked me to come in that afternoon as I think he wanted to speak with someone who had experience of child protection. [Questioner 1] and [Questioner 2] were also at that meeting, and Tom described me in that discussion as a very close personal friend of the family.
Their concern is about my involvement with John Rea Price [Director of Social Services for Islington Council, 1972-92, from 1992 Director of the National Children’s Bureau] , and one of my staff members had been in Islington and refused to give evidence to the Islington inquiry, so I understand their concerns.
My view is that I’d use my contacts and knowledge to dig deep, but I accept the fact that there are issues for any of us who have worked together.
Jonathan West: it is a common characteristic that survivors are extremely distrustful of authority to the extent that those with no experience of abuse might find irrational. The Panel must bend over backwards to try to establish that trust and recognise the state of mind of many of the survivors.
Otherwise, the schedule presented (in which there would be discussions about how the panel would engage with representatives, how such representatives would engage with each other, which issues the panel should be considering, and how the panel could draw upon representatives’ networks) was not really followed, though various of the issues listed were covered through the course of the ensuing discussion. Those present were invited to suggest skill sets or other areas of expertise they felt were not represented on the panel at present, and invited to suggest names for further individuals who could contribute in this respect. Expertise in abuse in education, not least in elite public schools, does not seem to be well-represented on the panel at present, and I hope some good suggestions will be made on this; I have proposals of my own to make for those knowledgeable about abuse in music and the arts worlds to suggest.
The Terms of Reference of the inquiry have received some criticism, for reasons of perceived vagueness, the omission of some types of institutions from the scope, and in particular the restriction of the inquiry to cover England and Wales. It was made clear that this latter point was due to devolution legislation which made devolved authorities responsible for child protection issues; thus Scotland and Northern Ireland would not be included. The message communicated, if not wholly clearly, suggested that the authorities in Scotland had not shown any inclination to launch a parallel inquiry of their own, despite widespread allegations of abuse in Scotland (much of it involving institutions and individuals operative elsewhere in the UK). This issue needs to be pursued further, and the Scottish Government held to account; various of those present at the meeting rightly asked the question of what they were meant to take back to Scottish survivors of abuse from this meeting. One person suggested that the model of a Royal Commission, such as was used in Australia to overcome separate jurisdiction in different states, might get round this problem. I requested that the appropriate devolution legislation and other clarification be placed on the inquiry website concerning all of these matters. Further questions affect the Channel Islands, under separate jurisdiction; knowledge of links between Jersey and Islington were raised.
In terms of the shape of the inquiry, it was presented as being in three stages: (i) consultation of all published and unpublished documentary evidence (referred to as ‘the reports’); (ii) taking of testimony from individuals; (iii) writing of the final report. The counsel also made clear in response to questions, some from myself, that those giving evidence to the inquiry would not be subject to criminal liability if their information was sub judice (thus otherwise liable for contempt of court proceedings) or libel, unless it could be shown to have been given maliciously. Even more importantly, it was also affirmed that those who give evidence will not be liable to prosecution under the Official Secrets Act; this is very important for current or former civil servants who may have been privy to important information. The panel will receive ‘developed vetting’ powers, enabling them to view security and intelligence files. They will also be able to access currently ‘closed’ files – I raised the example of the Barbara Castle archives in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, access to most of which has been forbidden to three people who have tried, and which might oossibly contain a copy of Castle’s own dossier of paedophiles in politics. In other archives, others have found access has been forbidden to key files on sensitive matters involving prominent individuals.
Liz Davies has emphatically made the point both inside and outside the meeting about the need for the inquiry to be limited to organised abuse (so not familial abuse with no institutional involvement) and also should consider some non-sexual forms of abuse such as torture. Others spoke of knowing survivors of abuse by some of the most prominent politicians in the country, and of massively widespread abuse in the care system, churches, schools, and elsewhere. One individual made the important point that the principal reason for Lady Butler-Sloss’s resignation from the inquiry chair was not so much the fact that her late brother was Attorney-General as that a report had suggested she had dismissed evidence against a bishop in order to protect the church.
If anyone has reason to question whether this is a fair account of the meeting, I welcome comments below, and am happy to make changes if necessary.
As mentioned before, towards the end of the meeting, people returned to the issue of complete lack of survivor confidence in Fiona Woolf. Of course, within less than four hours of the meeting breaking up (and widespread media coverage of statements by various of those who were present), Fiona Woolf’s resignation was announced. Now the inquiry is at least partially in a state of limbo.
Tom Watson has repeatedly tweeted and otherwise expressed his opinion that this should not be turned into an opportunity to score political points against Home Secretary Theresa May, who he believes genuinely wishes to get to the truth, unlike various politicians and non-politicians around her. Knowing of Watson’s tireless efforts on behalf of this issue (from his crucial question to the Prime Minister in October 2012, alleging the existence of a high-level paedophile ring with connections to a former Prime Minister, onwards) and his resolute will to stand up to corrupt power (as amply demonstrated through the phone-hacking affair), I am sure he would not make such an observation about a politician from an opposing party lightly, and think everyone should take this seriously. In the immediate aftermath of Woolf’s resignation, both Labour leader Ed Miliband and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper have wasted no time in making this into an issue of incompetence on the part of the Home Secretary and accumulate political capital in the process.
I hope this will die down quickly. No political party has reason to be complacent on this issue, and for it to descend into partisan point-scoring (just as UKIP unsuccessfully attempted to do in elections for the new South Yorkshire Police Commissioner) is both to trivialise the grave importance of the issue and what is at stake, and may be insulting to some survivors. Finding an appropriate chair for this inquiry with no conflicts of interest is no easy task, and whilst it is clear that the process has not be managed well, it would be rash to assume that if Labour or another political party were faced by the same demands as is the current government, they would have managed it much better. Furthermore, Labour and the left in general have their own types of ‘establishments’ as well, including politicians and others who are also likely to be the subject of scrutiny; some candidates being touted from the left might be equally problematic for this reason.
I believe very passionately that all politicians should do all they can to take the issue of child abuse out from short-term party politics (and equally avoid exploiting it to bolster black-and-white ideologies concerning race, class, gender, sexuality and so on), and co-operate, in consultation with survivors and their representatives, and other expert parties, to try and find a chair who will command maximum support. It is in my opinion really vital that the inquiry is able to start its business before the General Election (to stop it being used as a political football then), and that it commands support and inspires confidence in its integrity. No such inquiry will ever satisfy everyone, and some alleged cases of organisational abuse may be found to have been other than portrayed by those making the allegations (though of course also some hitherto unknown cases may also come to light). But to have an inquiry which has the widest range of powers realistically available, and which is staffed by those with a genuine commitment to the truth, will be a major step forward, little imaginable even just a year ago.
An account of the second meeting, on Friday November 7th, 2014, can be read here. I would like to copy the following section from this, which includes some important contact details:
You must email suggestions and ideas to: firstname.lastname@example.org . Please be assured your emails will be read and considered but you may not get a personal response due to the volume of correspondence.
You can email Inspire You Me Us CIC anonymously, marking your email CSAinquiry and we will pass your suggestions, concerns & stories on for you if that is helpful – email@example.com
Future information will be emailed out to representatives for circulation; please be patient and watch social media for information and updates. As many voices as possible will be heard in this mammoth task and this will take time if we want the process to be carried out properly and positively.
The Children’s Commissioner is carrying out an inquiry into Abuse in the Family Environment (intrafamilial):http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/info/child_sexual_abuse_within_the_family_environment
Are Children Better Protected from Sexual Abuse by Mandatory Reporting:
CSA Inquiry website: https://childsexualabuseinquiry.independent.gov.uk/
[Addendum: An article in the Mail on Sunday has reported various participants expressing serious unhappiness about the fact that the resignation of Woolf had already been decided before this meeting took place, yet no-one at the meeting was informed of this. Whilst other aspects of the meeting remain valuable, I would like to add my voice to those who feel a lot of time was taken up pointlessly as a result, and this does suggest stage management on the part of the Home Office. In this context, I will also register here that at the meeting I raised the question of whether, in case there were to be a voluntary resignation of the chair (which at this stage appeared more than a little likely following the release of the seven drafts of Woolf’s letter to the Home Office, providing clear evidence of manipulation of truth), other candidates had been considered? This was not least in order to obtain some clarification of the process for vetting potential chairs. No doubt because of instructions emanating from the Home Office, the reply was that it would be inappropriate to discuss this issue at that point in time..]