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Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Volume 615: debated on Monday 17 October 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the remit, organisation, budget and staffing of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse.

I would like to make a statement on the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. I know that the whole House will agree with me when I say that the work of the inquiry is absolutely vital. Victims and survivors must have justice, and we must learn the lessons of the past. The inquiry’s remit is to examine whether institutions in England and Wales have failed to protect children from sexual abuse. It is an independent body, established under the Inquiries Act 2005. The Home Office is the sponsor Department, and I am responsible for the terms of reference, appointing the chair and panel members, and providing funding. Last year, the inquiry had a budget of £17.9 million and underspent by over £3 million. The appointment of staff and the day-to-day running are matters for the chair.

I appointed Professor Alexis Jay as chair of the inquiry on 11 August, following the unexpected resignation of Dame Lowell Goddard on 4 August, and I am aware of questions around the reasons for that resignation. Let me spell out the facts. On 29 July, the secretary to the inquiry met my permanent secretary and reported concerns about the professionalism and competence of the chair. My permanent secretary encouraged the inquiry to raise those matters with the chair. He reported this meeting to me the same day. My permanent secretary also met members of the inquiry panel on 4 August. Later that day, Dame Lowell tendered her resignation to me, which I accepted. Less than a week elapsed between concerns being raised with the Home Office and Dame Lowell’s resignation. My permanent secretary’s approach was entirely appropriate for an independent body.

The second issue relates to my evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. I was asked why Dame Lowell had gone. Dame Lowell had not spoken to me about her reasons, so I relied on the letter that she had sent to the Committee. In her letter, she said that she was lonely and felt that she could not deliver, and that that was why she had stepped down. Dame Lowell has strongly refuted the allegations about her. The only way we could understand properly why she resigned would be to hear from Dame Lowell herself. To echo any further allegations, which are now likely to be the subject of legal dispute, would have been entirely inappropriate. We now owe it to the victims and survivors to get behind the inquiry in its endeavour. My own commitment to the inquiry’s work is undiminished, and I invite the House to offer its support in the same way.

I have no wish to be disobliging to the Home Secretary, but for the record, and for the propriety of these proceedings, I should just mention that in no meaningful sense of the term was she making a statement to the House, which is a matter of conscious and deliberate choice by the Government. The right hon. Lady was responding—she has done so timeously—to an urgent question, which I have granted. In other words, the Home Secretary is here because she has been asked to be here, not because she asked to be here. That is quite an important distinction, which we ought to respect in the language that we use.

The Home Secretary is right to say that the inquiry is of profound significance not only to survivors, but the whole country. She is right to remind us that it is independent, but these events and the problems that have beset it since it started also raise fundamental questions of accountability.

The Home Secretary referred to the evidence that she gave to the Home Affairs Committee on 7 September, in which she said that “all the information” she had was that Justice Goddard had quit because she was a “long way from home” and “too lonely”. The Home Secretary said that she was relying on a letter. Why did she not ask Justice Goddard why she had quit the inquiry? We have since learned that senior officials in the Department were aware on 29 July—before the resignation—of concerns about Justice Goddard’s conduct. It is also alleged that Liz Sanderson, an adviser to the Home Secretary’s predecessor, who is now Prime Minister, and Mark Sedwill, the permanent secretary, knew about the concerns long before then. Will the Home Secretary clarify whether that is the case?

On what date did the Home Office become aware of the problems? On which exact date during the 16 months that the chair was in post did the Home Secretary or her predecessor become aware of the problems? Who made them aware of those problems? Given that 38 Home Office staff are seconded to the inquiry, how could the Home Secretary have been unaware of the concerns as late as 7 September? Can she tell us why, given that the Home Office knew of serious questions about the behaviour and leadership of the inquiry, she went on to authorise a pay-off to Justice Goddard worth £80,000?

Will the Home Secretary confirm that she is the only person who can terminate the chair’s contract and that misconduct is grounds for dismissal under that contract? If so, why was that not acted upon? Has she or the Prime Minister intervened to request that Justice Goddard appears before the Home Affairs Committee? If not, will they do so urgently? Can she explain the circumstances surrounding the departure of the lead counsel, Ben Emmerson, QC? Has any compensation been paid to him or the four other senior lawyers who have quit the inquiry? Will the Home Secretary assure survivors about how the inquiry will proceed?

Finally, this inquiry was established to shine a spotlight on institutions characterised by a culture of secrecy, denial and cover-up in which child abusers were able to operate in plain sight without challenge or consequence. It is a tragedy that the inquiry has been dogged by allegations of a similar nature, with which child abuse victims will be far too familiar. If the inquiry is to proceed with confidence, the questions must be answered.

It is very cheeky for an hon. Member to use the word “finally” in what I might call the Hughes sense—a reference to the former Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, who was wont to follow that word with several further sentences.

I will endeavour to answer the hon. Lady’s questions as fully as possible. She initially asked about my comments to the Home Affairs Committee on why Dame Lowell Goddard had left, so I want to quote from Dame Lowell’s letter, in which she says:

“It was never easy operating in an environment in which I had no familiar networks and there were times when it seemed a very lonely mission.”

It was with reference to that note that I gave my answer to the Committee.

The hon. Lady had several queries about staffing. The independence of the inquiry can be maintained only by it being absolutely clear that such matters are for the chair. It is not for the Home Office to control staffing; it is for the chair to appoint members of staff, and the chair has the operational independence to do so.

The hon. Lady also inquired about whether I had asked Dame Lowell Goddard to appear before the Home Affairs Committee. I have indeed passed on that specific request.

My Department has followed the correct formal procedure at all times and will continue to do so in order to ensure that there is true accountability regarding transparency, which is so important. The fact that the inquiry is independent is absolutely essential to garnering the support that is needed from the expert panel, which is part of the inquiry, and from victims and survivors.

May I support the Home Secretary in emphasising the importance of this inquiry carrying on its important work? Will she also acknowledge that Alexis Jay and other panel members, as well as her own permanent secretary, will be appearing before the Home Affairs Committee tomorrow? Does the Home Secretary agree that it would be very helpful if Lowell Goddard agreed to appear in person in front of us? Finally, while respecting the independence of such an inquiry, there is a duty for the Home Secretary and the Home Affairs Committee, as a scrutinising body, to make sure that it is fit for purpose and is spending public money wisely. Does she agree that it is not sufficient for a chairman to be entirely self-regulating if things are going wrong, as she appears to be suggesting?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is right to say that we need to point out that the permanent secretary is appearing before the Home Affairs Committee tomorrow, as is the new chair, Alexis Jay. I am sure she will get the confidence she deserves from the Select Committee and from other parties who have listened to her.

My hon. Friend is right that the operational independence of the chair is also dependent on support from the expert panel, and when my permanent secretary was approached by the secretary of the independent inquiry about concerns on 29 July, he rightly referred the secretary to ask the expert panel to take this up with the chair. The relationship between the chair and the expert panel is central to this, and so in that way the chair would not be able to act independently, because she needs the support of the expert panel.

The Government are now on their fourth chair of the inquiry into child sexual abuse. No inquiry in modern times has been mired in such chaos. At the very least, this suggests a certain incompetence, both in setting the terms and in selecting the personnel to lead the inquiry. This is bad for policy and for the Home Office but, above all, it is a terrible situation for the survivors of child sexual abuse, who have put so much hope and trust in the successful conclusion of this inquiry.

The latest scandal is the departure of Dame Justice Lowell Goddard, amid allegations of high-handedness and racist remarks. The Home Secretary said—this has been repeated—when she appeared before the Home Affairs Committee on 7 September that “all the information” she had was that Lowell Goddard had quit because she was

“a long way from home”

and “too lonely”. She says that she was reliant on Justice Goddard’s letter, but why did she not ask—why did she not get a formal response from her as to why she was going? In the absence of any attempt to get formal information, other than the letter, the Home Secretary finds herself in a position where she will have to defend herself against accusations of misleading the Committee. It is clear from the statements of the victims and their families that they believe there will be no change to the remit of the inquiry and no reduction in its scope. Who, on behalf of the inquiry and the Home Office, has communicated that to them? Was this Home Office policy at the time? Has it changed, and why has it changed? Will any attempts be made to scale back the inquiry? Does the Secretary of State agree that if that were to happen—scaling back an inquiry on which so many hopes rest among individuals who have spent a lifetime in pain and misery because of early abuse—it would be to make the survivors pay for the Government’s failure in managing this inquiry?

The hon. Lady confuses a number of items in her questions, and I respectfully say to her that questions to me about scaling back the inquiry reveal that she has failed to understand that this inquiry is independent. I urge her to look at the terms of reference, which were set out last year to Parliament, as they are very clear about independence. To maintain the confidence of the survivors and victims, it is essential that that independence is maintained and is seen to be maintained. There is no question of the Home Office scaling back an inquiry; this is for the chair of the inquiry, Alexis Jay, who has such a strong reputation in this area, including for her work on the Rotherham inquiry. I urge the hon. Lady to acquaint herself a little more with what this independence means, and I hope that that will mean that she will have more confidence in the process.

Having worked for many years with my constituent Tom Perry, who works with Mandate Now and the Survivors Trust, which seek to require all staff working in regulated activities to report concerns about a child’s welfare to the local authority, I know how important this inquiry is. Does the Home Secretary agree that the inquiry is indeed a vital tool for uncovering where children and young people have been failed by Government and institutions in the past, and will she undertake again to look at mandatory reporting?

My right hon. Friend raises a personal case, and it is important for us all to bear such cases in mind when we think about the scale of this inquiry and people bringing forward criticisms. There are always these independent stories that remind us how important it is to get truth and justice for these people, and to learn from those stories so that we can ensure that institutions make improvements. Of course I will look at what she has suggested.

Every MP in the Chamber is anxious for the inquiry to succeed, but before we can draw a line under recent difficult problems and move on, we need honesty and transparency from the Home Office. When the Home Secretary appeared before the Home Affairs Committee in September alongside the permanent secretary, she left Members with the impression that Justice Goddard resigned because, in short, she was “lonely”. There was no mention of concerns about conduct then or, indeed, in her subsequent letter to the acting Chair of the Committee. For clarity’s sake, did she know before giving evidence that day, or before writing the letter, about the concerns that had been raised? Will she confirm that only she could remove the inquiry chair from office and that the limited grounds for doing so included misconduct? Is that not why all these questions about the state of her knowledge are so important?

Will the Home Secretary confirm that the secretary to the inquiry, to whom she has already referred, is a lifelong Home Office staffer and that that secretary regularly meets the permanent secretary to provide progress updates? Is she categorically stating that these issues were not raised before July? If they were not raised before July, why on earth were they not raised before then? When did the permanent secretary or the special advisers first make either the current or previous Home Secretary aware?

When the Home Secretary gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, was she being economical about what she knew, or had she been badly briefed by the permanent secretary—it has to be one or the other? Finally, does she accept that, by sticking its head in the sand, the Home Office hierarchy allowed the inquiry to descend into a state of paralysis, which we must never see again?

Order. I fear it is rather discourteous for the hon. Gentleman to suggest or imply that the Home Secretary might be “economical” with what she knew. That comes fairly close to crossing the line. Given that he has a prepared text, and therefore had full knowledge of what he was going to say, may I suggest that, for the future, he ought to phrase things rather differently?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is no “paralysis”—he particularly used that word. The inquiry is at full tilt and working at full speed under Alexis Jay, and it will continue to do so.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the dates. I believe that I set them out very clearly in my response to the urgent question: I knew about this on 29 July, and that was one week before Dame Lowell Goddard resigned. I point out that the allegations to which he refers are absolutely denied by Dame Justice Goddard, so it would not be appropriate for me to refer to them or to speculate on them while there may indeed be legal action following them.

Many of our constituents have suffered child sexual abuse and live every day with its consequences. Will the Home Secretary confirm to the House that this inquiry will be a No. 1 personal priority for her?

I can confirm that this is a priority for us. It is a priority for this Government and Members across the House. As my hon. Friend says, we all know of constituents who have suffered and who are, quite rightly, expecting action.

Is the Home Secretary aware that there is bound to be disappointment? When she appeared before the Select Committee at its hearing on 7 September and replied to questions about why Justice Goddard had resigned, she did not give further information that was relevant to the resignation or that involved any possible legal action. On the wider issue, will the Home Secretary accept that there is now a lack of confidence—there is no other way to put it—that the inquiry will carry out the very crucial task of looking into the sexual exploitation of children? There is also no indication whatsoever of a timescale; the inquiry could go on for many years. It would be an absolute farce if such an important inquiry ended in the way that many of us fear.

I urge the hon. Gentleman to give his support to the inquiry. Let us all try to find a way of being confident about it. Alexis Jay, the chair, has said that she hopes to conclude the inquiry by the end of 2020, but it is perhaps for us in the House and for the Home Affairs Committee to give her assistance. I am not suggesting anything but the most thorough of scrutiny, but it may be that we need to give as much assistance as we can to make sure that the new chair can do a thorough and successful job going forward.

I very much welcome the appointment of Professor Jay to take the inquiry forward. Can the Home Secretary confirm that victims of child sexual exploitation in my constituency will be able to engage with the inquiry and share their experiences?

My hon. Friend is right. Alexis Jay has the experience to be able to lead the inquiry and under the truth project, one of the strands within the inquiry, we are encouraging people to come forward and speak to the inquiry about their experience.

The Home Secretary is right to talk about the independence of the inquiry. We all want Professor Jay to be able to make a success of such an important inquiry now, but there is continued concern because this is the fourth chair and the second legal team, and because of the lack of transparency about the problems that there seems to have been from both the inquiry and the Home Office. Is the Home Secretary satisfied that the transparency arrangements for the inquiry are strong enough and that there will now be enough accountability for the progress of the inquiry?

The right hon. Lady has come to the crux of the matter—have we got the right balance of independence and transparency? I recognise that that is something that I need to reassure people about and hopefully demonstrate. One of the reasons for being here today is to make that point. I will watch carefully to make sure that we continue to get the right balance, providing the independence that is necessary while being as transparent as possible.

I think it is worth reiterating the importance of independence, and I hope my right hon. Friend agrees with me. I hope she will reinforce to the House that protecting the strictly independent nature of the inquiry is incredibly important. Will she continue to give that reassurance?

My hon. Friend is right. Ensuring that people have confidence in the inquiry is also about maintaining its independence.

Instead of making this all about lawyers, judges and even Ministers, may we bring the focus back to where it really belongs—on the needs, wishes and interests of the victims? Will the Home Secretary give us an assurance that as the inquiry goes forward, any request for access from victims’ representatives to her or to the inquiry will be met, that the victims’ voice will be heard in Government, and that any victim who is pursuing justice by another route will not find that route prejudiced by any shortcomings in the inquiry?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that important point. The inquiry is, of course, about the victims and survivors. When I wanted to make inquiries about appointing a new chair, I did, of course, consult the victims and survivors consultative panel to ensure that it was supportive, which indeed it was. The right hon. Gentleman is right—we must make sure that the victims and survivors are always at the centre of our words and our deeds.

As well as it being vital that this important inquiry is strictly independent, as hon. Members have emphasised, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we let it do its work and await its report, rather than anyone seeking in any way to pre-empt its findings?

My hon. Friend is right. We are caught between our impatience to find out more and the need to keep the inquiry independent. We are hoping for an interim statement on the inquiry for the current financial year—the end of March next year—and I hope that that will shed some light on progress to date.

The Saville report took 12 years and spent £190 million to report on a single incident that took place over two hours. This inquiry has been given the mission impossible to report on hundreds of thousands of incidents that took place over many decades. Is it not time for the House to confess that this was a political escape hole to recover from an embarrassing situation, and to make it clear that the matter is, of course, of vital importance, but that the committee must be allowed to reshape the report and its inquiries so that they can be reported within our lifetimes?

I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view about this being a political inquiry of any sort. I think it is essential, important and valued by everybody—in this House certainly, and in the nation generally. We have a Select Committee that will continue to make its inquiries. As I said earlier, Alexis Jay has indicated that she hopes to conclude the inquiry by the end of 2020.

Given that we are where we are now with the resignation of Dame Justice Goddard, does my right hon. Friend agree with Professor Jay when she says that the inquiry is “open for business”? Does she agree that it can now go forward with its vital work with confidence to demonstrate its accountability?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We may have discussions, urgent questions and statements on issues of staffing, but the fact is the inquiry is going ahead, it is taking evidence and the chair is working hard to make sure she delivers as soon as possible.

It is not taking evidence from everyone yet. I am the appointed representative of some of the survivors from my constituency, and my office is assisting others with statements, and none of that has gone forward yet. Is there not a danger that this is going to become another lawyers bun fest, with judges and barristers resigning, and with large numbers of lawyers not just queueing up, but at the front of the queue, to make large amounts of money not only representing people to the inquiry, but, simultaneously, taking legal civil action against the authorities? What are the Government going to do to ensure that the survivors are at the heart of this rather than the lawyers?

We always make sure that survivors are at the heart of this. There is, nevertheless, a legal role to be played, and there are expenses associated with an inquiry, but there is no blank cheque. One role with which the Home Office does have constant engagement is making sure that the budgets are carefully set and challenged each year so that the proper costs are associated with this.

I am sure the inquiry is moving forward in the right way, but I hope we are not being deflected from dealing with child abuse that is going on at the moment, especially of children who are trafficked into this country. One thing we could do urgently is move the protection of children who are trafficked from local government to national Government and the Home Office. If the Home Secretary would be willing to look into that, it would improve things enormously.

I know of my hon. Friend’s action and strong reputation on the issue of trafficking, and I would of course be delighted to speak to him on any matter in this area on which he has advice to give. I would like to reassure him, though, that a key element of this inquiry is about learning from the past to improve institutions going forward.

Will the Home Secretary accept that there are some serious questions to be asked about the due diligence that was undertaken in the appointment of Justice Goddard in the first place? Has she had an opportunity to discuss with her predecessor what steps she took to ensure Justice Goddard was up for the job? Can she confirm for me exactly what date she expects the interim report, exactly what date she expects the final report and what the total cost of the inquiry will be?

We have asked for the interim report by the end of this financial year, so we would expect it in March or April next year. I have already indicated that we hope that the final report will be completed by the end of 2020, but I cannot be prescriptive about that; that is for the chair to decide, but that is the indication she has given.

Can the Home Secretary reassure my constituents that the work of this important inquiry was not stopped each time a chairman stood down? Can she reassure the House that there is a robust system of deputy chairs in place?

Considerable work has already been done over the past 16 months. The new chair is aware of the need to get confidence back and to pick up activity with all due urgency. I assure my hon. Friend that she is taking that obligation, with the momentum that she has now picked up, very seriously.

When I asked the former Prime Minister an oral question about the loss of survivor testimonies that were submitted through the inquiry website, he said that he would write to me. What he meant was that he would print a press release from the inquiry website and forward it on. This patronising and irresponsible approach has been the only consistent theme of the inquiry. Is it not time that this Government started listening to the legitimate concerns of survivors and experts, and acknowledged that unless something changes, it is simply being set up to fail?

I respectfully ask the hon. Lady perhaps to engage with the inquiry in a slightly more positive manner. This Government set it up, and we are absolutely serious about wanting to assist survivors and victims, and wanting to make the changes to institutions that are necessary as we move forward.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but I like to think that this Government had some part in making sure that that took place.

If the hon. Lady would like to write to me about the particular instance to which she is referring, I would of course be happy to respond, and she can rest assured that I will do so.

Order. Unless I am much mistaken, the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who is a most assiduous attender at our proceedings, was not here at the start of these exchanges in the Chamber. [Interruption.] If she was, that is fine. I had been advised that she was not, but her word is good enough. If she says she was, that is good enough for me. Was she here at the start of the exchanges on this matter?

Do Professor Jay and the panel have the resources they need to complete this inquiry, and if not, what extra help can be given to them?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. These inquiries are not always popular because they can be costly, but the Home Office has a management technique to make sure that we always look carefully at the costs that might be involved. I assure her that we will always make sure that they are sufficiently funded to do the job well.

As part of its work, the inquiry was due to look into the sexual abuse of children in the care of Nottingham City Council and Nottinghamshire County Council as one of its first-phase investigations. As the Secretary of State knows, survivors in my constituency have already waited not just years but decades for their voice to be heard. What assurances can she give to my constituents, who are desperate to secure a measure of justice, about the timeframe for those investigations?

I completely understand the need for the hon. Lady’s constituents to have a better view on the potential timing of the progress of this inquiry. We now have a chair who has said that she is going to move with momentum and pace, so I would expect them to hear from her soon. I am sorry to have to repeat this, but it is for the inquiry to decide how to proceed. I urge the hon. Lady to engage with the chair in order to get an answer.

Following the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), with the movement of people and the vulnerability of children a matter of concern to all of us in this House, what steps are the Government taking with other nations to tackle the global challenge of child sexual abuse in order to learn from that and better inform the inquiry?

Internationally, we are viewed as being ahead of other countries in trying to address this. We have a number of initiatives online to make sure that we share good practice and engage with other countries. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 is one way of making sure that less abuse takes place. Again, we are an international leader in that area.

I have known far too many people in my life who have been abused. A colleague at theological college used to cry herself to sleep every single night because of the abuse she had suffered as a child. A young member of the congregation where I was a curate self-harmed for months on end because of the abuse that she had suffered from one of her teachers. Another ordinand was abused by the Bishop of Gloucester—a man in power and authority, and spiritual authority, over him. For all those people, and doubtless for all the others we all know, the thing that matters more than anything else is getting to the truth, so that what they know in their heart is known by everybody else to have been the truth. I say very gently to the Home Secretary that if at any point she has a choice between letting everything out into the open and keeping some things back, she should always go for the former, not the latter.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is incumbent on those of us who have anything to do with an inquiry about transparency and abuse to ensure that we are as transparent, accountable and frank with people as possible. I reassure him that I will always do that, but I would like to turn the emphasis back to the inquiry and the new chair so that we can make the progress that is so essential to his and all our constituents.

David Cameron was very fond of quoting Justice Brandeis’s dictum that sunlight is the best disinfectant. In the spirit of the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), does the Home Secretary agree that we need to get all the facts out in the open now? Will she allow, and in fact even encourage, former panel members to share their fears and concerns in public so that we can start with a completely clean sheet?

I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the new chair takes that approach in terms of full transparency, but I do not want to mislead him by saying that the Home Office can do too much on that. We can be frank and open about every stage that we have been involved in, but it is for the inquiry to answer some of the detailed questions. I remind the House that Alexis Jay will be in front of the Home Affairs Committee tomorrow and hopefully will be able to answer some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Speaker. When the Macur report was presented earlier this year, it contained hundreds of redactions, apparently to avoid prejudicing court actions, much to the dismay of victims in north Wales. What can the Home Secretary do to ensure that the report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse will have a minimal amount of redactions to help victims to obtain justice in the courts?

I can honestly say that I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that an inquiry of this nature and seriousness should have the minimum amount of redactions. What the Government and the country expect is a full, open inquiry that will allow our constituents and people in our country who have been abused to have the truth and justice opportunity that they are seeking, and then for us and the institutions involved to learn so that such abuse does not happen again.