Today I attended a meeting at the Home Office, the sixth meeting to date with child abuse survivors and their representatives and organisations, to solicit their views on the appointment of the new chair and other matters relating to the Independent Panel Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. I was there in my capacity as convenor of the petition calling for an inquiry into abuse in music education, in the process of which I became privy to a very large range of survivor testimony, and remain in regular contact with a wide range of survivors from the classical music world.
In this post, I wish primarily to document responses to various issues raised during the meeting (an account of a meeting last Friday, December 4th, can be read here). On the whole, where I report here a view expressed at the meeting, one should not necessarily read that as an endorsement of that view.
The meeting was with Home Office Director of Safeguarding John O’Brien, and Helen Griffith and Cheryl Mendes from inquiry secretariat. It would not be appropriate for me to list the survivors and others who attended; suffice to say that it was a relatively small group, but representing a wide range of different fields of experience. The meeting was scheduled from 13:30 to 14:30; I had to leave promptly at 14:30 to attend to university business, so cannot at present report on the later part of a meeting which overran a little. However, we were promised minutes giving the essentials of the meeting, about which I will post further when they are received.
The three principal issues raised from the outset concerned the appointment of a new chair of the inquiry, whether the inquiry was to be instituted on a statutory basis, and would be judge-led, and about the period covered by the inquiry (currently set with a cut-off point of 1970). It was clear that previous meetings have produced overwhelming support for a statutory inquiry and an earlier date.
My impression was that it looks extremely likely now that the recommendation on the basis of consultation will be for the statutory inquiry, but it is less clear whether this should be judge-led or not. A statutory inquiry would have the power to compel individuals to give evidence, and demand to see documents. The advantages of the latter lie primarily in terms of experience in handling classified documents and the legal processes involved in gathering evidence and testimony through compulsion. On the other hand, a non-judge might have a deeper experience and understanding of the specifics of engaging with survivors of child abuse. It was acknowledged that no chair could realistically be expected to be all things to all people, so whatever form the inquiry ultimately takes, there is likely to be a wider panel involved. The issue of the suitability or otherwise of the current panel did not arise in this meeting. One other issue concerned the granting of developed vetting powers to the chair and panel, enabling access to intelligence documents and the like. As far as I could ascertain, there was no reason why the inquiry’s being statutory would dilute or compromise this. The case for a statutory inquiry now seems unanswerable.
O’Brien outlined some of the issues involved in making the new appointment. If this is to be a judge-led inquiry, then it is not simply a case of the Home Office’s being able to select whichever judge they like, as the judge concerned must be released from their duties by the Supreme Court. This could pose problems in the case, for example, of the one female member of this body, as their release would upset an already deeply unbalanced Supreme Court in terms of gender. In terms of finding an appropriate individual for a non-judge-led inquiry, not much was discussed, though all are aware that the Home Office have received a large number of nominations currently being considered.
Obviously the last two chairs appointed resigned on grounds (at least in part) of severe conflicts of interests based upon others who they knew or were related to, whose actions or testimony are likely to play a significant role in the inquiry. O’Brien made the reasonable point that whoever else is chosen as chair, whether a judge or non-judge, are unlikely to have no connections whatsoever to anyone or any organisation falling under the scope of the inquiry, if the individual concerned is to be someone with the required degree of expertise and experience. To which I raised the question of whether the possibility of appointing a chair from outside of the UK (in particular from a Commonwealth country, with a similar legal system) was being considered. The major argument presented against this option had to do with the significantly increased difficulties involved in the vetting process – police files and other relevant documentation are much less easily available when these are held under a different jurisdiction. With this in mind, it was argued that were a chair from outside the UK to be considered, the whole process would take quite significantly longer, and the dangers of overlooking some major conflicts of interest would be increased. From this, it looks unlikely that the new chair will be sought from abroad.
The issue of schedule for appointing the new chair is highly important. O’Brien clarified in response to a question that in the event of a new government and new Home Secretary, the latter could certainly cancel or change the nature of the inquiry – that is in their powers. If, however, the inquiry is already underway and has statutory powers, this would be much harder (though not impossible) for them to do. With this in mind, he was prepared to give an assurance that the Home Office are treating as a matter of urgency the appointment of a new chair before Parliament goes into recess at the end of March.
In terms of the scope of the inquiry, it was made clear that this is focused upon abuse occurring in institutions, not familial abuse. This is in no sense to imply that the latter is any less important or prevalent, just that it takes different forms and requires different types of investigations. Some attendees raised some complicated cases which blur the boundaries between familial/private and institutional abuse, especially in religious contexts. Whilst the basic position was restated, my recollection is that these types of cases might be able to be considered, some of which might be considered institutional abuse anyhow.
Of great important to all is the issue of support provided by the inquiry to survivors who opt to talk about their own experiences. The Home Office are currently consulting with the Department of Health as to the best way to provide this, and are aware that at present this appears to be the exclusive responsibility of survivor organisations; they are prepared to take advice from these organisations on the best form such support will take. To set up the support system does however require the chair to be in place.
It is envisaged that the inquiry will look into thousands of institutions and speak to maybe tens of thousands of individuals. Whilst the issue of whether the cut-off date should be extended was not discussed further in any detail during the period I was able to remain, O’Brien mentioned that for some people, the scope of the inquiry was too broad; for others it was too narrow. No firm decision in respect to this appears to have been made yet.
Where those giving evidence to the inquiry make allegations against individuals connected to institutions, these will generally be taken to the police afterwards, but this does not mean that the names of those who make the allegations will also be given to the police (in some cases the police may simply be instructed that they should investigate a particular institution). It is understood that some individuals may not wish to take their allegations to the police, and this would naturally be respected. It was implied if not completely clearly stated that where allegations involve an individual who remains a danger to others that it may be necessary to take these to the police regardless. Further clarification is required on this subject.
For all correspondence to the inquiry, the place to go is the website, which features a page for sending such correspondence. Whilst correspondence will be treated in absolute confidence, records will be kept of correspondence received.
More convoluted is the issue of the regions covered by the inquiry. At present, the Terms of Reference of the inquiry make clear that it will cover England and Wales only, not Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, or the Channel Islands (nor other British Overseas Territories such as St Helena). There are separate inquiries already underway in Northern Ireland (with which this inquiry intends to co-operate deeply) and Jersey, whilst the Foreign Office have recently announced an inquiry into child abuse in St Helena. But in particular, no inquiry has yet been created or announced in Scotland (though recent reports have suggested that one is currently being planned by the Scottish Government).
We were told that in July, when this inquiry was first announced, the Scottish Government pledged full co-operation, and there is no reason to think this position has changed (one should note the formation of a new Scottish Government with the resignation of former First Minister Alex Salmond following the September referendum). This co-operation would apparently extend to making available any information and documentation required. This may cover some matters for public institutions, but in the event of a statutory inquiry in England and Wales, the statutory powers would not extend to Scotland. This could mean that, for example, some Scottish legal institutions would not be bound to participate even where their activities have implications outside of Scotland (consider, for example, the case of former Scottish Solicitor General, the late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, whose name has been linked to abuse allegations both north and south of the border).
The regularly touted suggestion of a Royal Commission to cover all parts of the United Kingdom and associated territories is, we were told, only possible if the different regions with devolved legislation agree. Scotland could be included in the over-arching inquiry, but only with the agreement of the Scottish Government. The Royal Commission in Australia, which covered the whole of the country, was apparently only possible because each of the states agreed.
With this in mind, it is time for survivors, representatives, campaigners, journalists and politicians all to put pressure upon Nicola Sturgeon to announce either a separate inquiry or that Scotland will be included in the large inquiry. It is not entirely clear which member of the Scottish cabinet would take direct responsibility for a Scottish child abuse inquiry, but it be likely to be either Cabinet Secretary for Education & Lifelong Learning Angela Constance, or Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing & Sport Shona Robison MSP. These politicians should also be repeatedly questioned on whether they will support such an inquiry.
These are all the principal points I recall being discussed. It was a productive meeting, as it would appear have been earlier meetings with others. I continue to urge all survivors and others with a direct interest in the process to engage with the Home Office and the Inquiry Secretariat. It is by engaging that we can hopefully work to ensure the best type of inquiry, and above all for this to be instituted prior to the General Election in May 2015.