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Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Volume 617: debated on Monday 21 November 2016

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

The inquiry was set up to look at the extent to which institutions in England and Wales failed to protect children from sexual abuse. We know the terrible impact that abuse has on survivors, sometimes for many years.

As the House knows, following the resignation of the previous chair, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary appointed as chair Professor Alexis Jay. She has a distinguished career in social work and a long-standing dedication to child protection. She led the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, where she scrutinised the work of social workers and proved her capability to uncover failings across institutions and professions. She is the right person to take this work forward.

Taking the work forward is vital for creating a sense of certainty for victims and survivors. The inquiry has set up 13 strands of investigation, and made 250 formal requests for information from over 120 institutions, with 164,000 documents having now been submitted. It has referred roughly 80 cases a week to the police. It has rolled out the truth project, providing survivors with the opportunity to tell the inquiry what has happened to them. More than 500 people have so far come forward.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 2MC.]

The inquiry has adequate resources to undertake its work, and we will support the inquiry with what it needs. The inquiry remains independent, which means it is not part of Government and is not run by a Government Department.

Professor Jay is mindful of the scale of the task and the need to move forward with pace. That is why she has instigated an internal review of the inquiry’s approach to its investigations, exploring new ways to develop its investigative work, while remaining faithful to its terms of reference. She has made it clear that, if any changes are proposed, the views of those affected will be sought.

We expect the outcome of this review soon. It is crucial that we now give the inquiry the space and support it needs to get on with its job—getting to the truth for victims and survivors—and I urge everyone in the House to do just that.

I thank the Minister for that statement, but where is the Home Secretary, and why has nobody from the Government sought proactively to come to this House to provide reassurance about the serious events that have unfolded over the past week as this inquiry has unravelled in front of our eyes?

Has the Home Secretary met survivors groups since last Thursday? What steps has she taken to establish that the chair and the panel have the expertise and the working relationships for this to succeed? Has anybody from the Home Office investigated why so many lawyers have cited concerns about competency and leadership? Does she expect further resignations? Has a new chief legal counsel been appointed? Is the former chief legal counsel, Ben Emmerson QC, still being paid, and if so, why? What action has the Home Office taken to establish that there was a disclosure of sexual assault, and is she satisfied that that disclosure was dealt with properly by the inquiry? Can she give me a personal assurance that the intelligence services are standing by the commitment to hand over all files and that that is not being obstructed? We heard about Professor Jay’s internal review for the first time in August—where is it?

This is the second time in recent weeks that I have had to ask Ministers to come to the House and account for these failings. They have lost seven senior lawyers, three chairs and several survivors groups, and it is now impossible to see that this inquiry is still operating effectively. This may be the last chance that the Prime Minister and her Home Secretary have to rescue from collapse the inquiry that the Prime Minister set up. Will the Home Secretary now stop hiding behind the smokescreen of independence, recognise that she has responsibility for this inquiry’s success, and get a grip on it?

I am absolutely delighted, as the Minister responsible for vulnerability, safeguarding and counter-extremism, to be here to answer this question. It is absolutely at the core of this Government’s priorities to safeguard children in our country. The Home Secretary was in this House as recently as 17 October answering questions in detail. The Home Affairs Committee has asked detailed questions of the permanent secretary to the Home Office. The hon. Lady is really quite wrong in asserting that there is some sort of smokescreen and hiding behind independence. It is absolutely essential that this inquiry is an independent inquiry. The terms of reference of the inquiry were shaped with the voices and the opinions of the victims, and it is very important that this independence is maintained.

The hon. Lady asked a series of operational questions, all of which are for the chair and the leadership of the independent inquiry. It would be totally wrong for me to answer those questions here, because we would be intervening in the independence of the inquiry. I am confident, as are the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, in the ability of Professor Jay to lead this inquiry. It is really important that we all get behind the inquiry so that it can get on and do its really important work in making sure that it gets to the truth and delivers for victims.

I do not for one moment undervalue the intentions of those who set up this inquiry and those who are working with it, although it has had a very rocky road since it was begun. Nor do I underestimate for one moment the trauma felt by those who have been affected by child sex abuse. I have acted in a number of criminal cases in which I have seen with my own eyes the terrible consequences for adults of what happened to them as children. I want to ask my hon. Friend a question from a slightly different angle. I have a constituent who, since the early part of this century, has been left in a hideous, Kafkaesque limbo. He does not know whether he is an accused person or a witness. What is his status in relation to this inquiry? He, like the victims, needs to be told when this is all going to finish, both for him and for the victims. Will my hon. Friend please make some inquiries of the inquiry to ensure that this man can either be prosecuted or set free?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the customary thoughtfulness with which he asked his question and reflected on the importance of this inquiry. As he quite rightly points out, child sexual abuse can have a devastating impact not just on the victims, but on the people caught up in such inquiries. He referred to a particular case that is an operational matter for the police. While I can understand why he wants to bring this matter to a swift conclusion on his constituent’s behalf, these are operational matters for the police, who, quite rightly, are independent of the Home Office.

This inquiry is on its fourth chair. Every time, Ministers have come to the House and asserted that the current chair is the right person to take the inquiry forward. Having said that for the fourth time, why do they expect the House, the public and, above all, the survivors to be reassured? As the Minister has said, this is of course an independent inquiry, particularly as to its conduct and findings, but that does not mean the Home Office can take no responsibility at all.

On the question of the Shirley Oaks survivors who were in the Lambeth children’s home, I have heard the Minister say that she will not answer operational questions, but she will know their concern about having a social worker as the overall chair of the inquiry. They have said they will accept a vice-chair for their strand who is not a social worker. Have Ministers put that to Alexis Jay? Above all—I hope the Minister will not dismiss this as an operational question—the Shirley Oaks survivors want to know what Home Office involvement there was in the monitoring and supervision of the Lambeth children’s home during the period when the historical child abuse occurred. Ministers cannot just let this inquiry run into the sand. The public expect better, this House expects better and the survivors expect better.

I absolutely assure the hon. Lady and every other Member in the House that we will absolutely not let this inquiry run into the sand. It is vital to the full protection of children in our country that we understand the failings of the past, seek remedies for the victims and use that intelligence to improve and have better safeguarding arrangements for children today.

The hon. Lady asked questions about operational details that she knows full well it would be completely inappropriate for me to answer. I can assure her that the chair of the independent inquiry regularly meets survivors groups, and I am sure that she will listen to the concerns raised by the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association. She is undertaking a review to make sure that the inquiry is properly focused to address the really serious concerns that are being raised.

I appreciate that this is an independent inquiry, but my hon. Friend must understand that the victims groups have become upset and disturbed about the nature of the inquiry and how long it is going to take. Will she at least assure me that the scope of the inquiry will not be reduced, and that whatever funds are required by the inquiry will be delivered by the Home Office?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I quite understand that the victims, who have been abused, will feel disappointed at some of the issues that there have been with the inquiry. I quite understand that, but as he says, it is absolutely vital that the independence of the inquiry is maintained. The chair is meeting and engaging with the survivors organisations and individuals to make sure that the inquiry absolutely delivers on its terms of reference, which they themselves shaped. To go back to my initial response to the urgent question, the fact that 80 cases a week are being referred to the police and that over 500 people have come forward to participate in the truth project shows how valuable the inquiry already is to those victims.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 3MC.]

We all know that the inquiry has been dogged by setbacks and problems, so it is very disappointing to learn of further difficulties, namely the latest withdrawals and the concerns expressed by groups representing victims and survivors. I am sure that all right-minded people want the inquiry to succeed. We want it to meet its original purpose of investigating historical allegations of institutional child sexual abuse, and, wherever possible, we want, above all, justice for those people whose lives have been irreparably harmed by abuse. Yet, to do so we need to restore and secure confidence in the inquiry and its findings.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s reluctance to address what she considers to be operational matters, when does she anticipate that a suitable legal counsel will be appointed to ensure that the facts are well established throughout the proceedings? Following the resignation of the previous chair in August, does the Minister know whether internal procedures for resolving complaints about staff and panel members have been established? Most importantly—this is categorially not an operational matter—what does she plan to do to restore trust in the proceedings for those survivors of sexual abuse and to regain their support?

I thank the hon. Lady for her series of questions. I will take her last point first. On confidence, there is a huge amount that we can do in this House, and that is to get behind the inquiry. It is open for business. It is worth getting some perspective. Although I am really disappointed that one victims group has decided not to engage with the inquiry at the current time, I am hopeful that it will re-engage in the future. We must remember that it is one group. The inquiry is open for business and getting on with its work.

The question about the legal counsel is for the chair and the leadership of the commission. It is their responsibility to make sure that they appoint the people necessary to undertake the task. I am sure that the chair understands the concerns raised by Members and victims organisations regarding making sure that she gets on with resolving the issues so that the very important work that the inquiry is doing can come to a swift and really good conclusion.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the role of the Home Secretary, or any Secretary of State, under the Inquiries Act 2005 is to appoint the chair and the panel and to agree the terms of reference with that chair, and that for a Member to come to this House with an imperious and censorious list of questions, such as those we heard from the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), does not help the inquiry and totally fails to understand the law?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is a lawyer, for asking such an insightful question. It is very disappointing that Opposition Members are coming to the House and making such censorious claims when what we really need to do is get behind this independent inquiry so that it can do the job for victims and make sure that we all learn what more we can do to keep children in our country safe.

It is not just my constituents who are members of the largest survivors group, Shirley Oaks, whose more than 600 members have said that they no longer have confidence in the chair of the inquiry. White Flowers Alba, Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors and lawyers representing numerous other survivors have also said that. On Friday, I was appalled that one response to Shirley Oaks’ withdrawal of support was a suggestion that it should be compelled to provide to the inquiry the evidence that it has gathered. Its members are survivors of child abuse—they are not criminals. Millions has been spent, there has been no public cross-examination of witnesses yet, and the most senior lawyers are resigning month after month. Does that not reinforce the need for a change in leadership, which is within the purview of Home Office Ministers? What we need is a senior judge of High Court standing or above to lead this inquiry. Why do the Government not act?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is an assiduous constituency MP and he is quite right to raise the concerns of the victims based in his constituency. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary could not have made clearer their confidence in the chairman of the independent commission. It is really important that we carry on with the inquiry and that we let it get on with its vital job of getting to the truth and making sure that we learn the lessons to keep children in our country safe.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if it is to have any degree of public confidence, no one should pre-empt the outcome of the inquiry?

My hon. Friend is quite right. We set up an independent inquiry so that it can get on with its work. It shaped the terms of reference with the victims themselves, and, as we have seen from my response to the urgent question, it is making good progress.

It is a bit rich for Conservative Members to call for patience, understanding and so on. Eighteen years ago in this House I had to bring business to a stop two nights running to get allegations about child abuse in my constituency put on the record. The Waterhouse inquiry was set up, and that took years. There have been subsequent inquiries, one after another. One of the children in my constituency committed suicide before we heard any results from an inquiry. It is absolutely essential that the survivors of abuse have those results and have confidence in what is being done.

In north Wales, for example, it has taken all these years for Chief Superintendent Anglesea to be put on trial and to be sentenced for his involvement in child abuse in north Wales. It was good investigative journalism, not inquiries, that got to the root of his case. I appeal to the Minister: do not ask for patience from the Opposition. We have been patient long enough, and it is just not good enough.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question, and I pay tribute to her for the work she has done in campaigning so assiduously for justice for her constituents. I reassure her and everyone who is here that those lessons have been learned from the past. The inquiry is an incredibly important part of what the Government are doing to learn lessons from the past and make sure that we are doing everything that we can to keep children in our country safe. As a result of people coming forward to the inquiry, as I said in my response to the urgent question, more than 80 referrals a week are being made to the police. Information and evidence gathered by the inquiry are being used to seek the prosecutions that absolutely need to be made, as the right hon. Lady described.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 3MC.]

This inquiry is doing incredibly important work. Does the Minister agree that the most important aspect is that it is independent of Government? “Independent” is the first word of its title. Does she agree, therefore, that the best thing that Members on both sides of the House can do to support its work is to give it the space it needs to do that work independently?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for absolutely hitting the nail on the head. As constituency MPs, we have all met victims of domestic abuse and violence and children who have been involved in child sexual exploitation, so we know how absolutely devastating this is. It is really important that we do everything we can to support those people and encourage them to come forward to the inquiry. Wherever the evidence takes us, we will seek those solutions and those prosecutions.

It has taken 35 years for Gordon Anglesea to face trial at Mold Crown court, where he was convicted last month and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for historical child abuse offences. While recognising the inquiry’s independence, will the Minister tell the House when the first evidence sessions in public are likely to be, so that my constituents and others can give their evidence of that level of abuse?

If the right hon. Gentleman or his constituents have any evidence whatever, they should go to the inquiry right now. We are not waiting for the end of the inquiry to take action, as I have said before; more than 80 cases are sent to the police every week so that action can be taken. It is really important that people engage with the inquiry and support their constituents in doing so, so that we can seek justice for the victims.[Official Report, 23 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 4MC.]

I would like to pick up on a point the Minister has already made. This inquiry plays a vital part in protecting vulnerable children for the present and for the future. Will she put it in the context of what else the Government are doing?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The inquiry is incredibly important, but is part of an overarching strategy. We want to do everything we possibly can to keep children in our country safe. We are seeing record levels of prosecutions and huge investment in supporting victims, making sure that we take apart the culture of secrecy and cover-up that contributed to the delays we have heard about from Opposition Members.

The inquiry was set up as a panel inquiry, then turned into a statutory inquiry. Was the biggest mistake not setting up a royal commission modelled on what is happening in Australia, which has had a royal commission for the past few years that is pursuing the issue very successfully and has the victims’ confidence, as well as having their interests at its heart?

Royal commissions can be very important, but they tend to take a very long time. The Government’s view was that an independent inquiry was the best way to learn the lessons and secure the justice that the victims were looking for.

There was speculation over the weekend about the way an inquiry was taking place in Wiltshire. When events might have happened a long time ago, evidence is difficult to corroborate and high-profile figures are involved, there is always a significant risk that things might somehow just get left. Will the Minister assure the House that when victims give evidence, although that evidence might be difficult to corroborate and it might be about things that happened a long time ago, our chief constables and investigating officers up and down the country will go where the evidence takes them, as they should? Will she commit to ensuring that sufficient resources are available so that everyday policing is not affected when these serious matters happen in individual constabularies?

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. I can absolutely give him the assurance he is looking for—we must go where the evidence takes us. It can be very painful for people to revisit terrible things that happened in the past, but I encourage them, as I am sure he is doing, to come forward, go to the police and give that evidence.

The inquiry has been given the status of one of the most important police functions in our country. The police have the resources to support investigations into historical sexual abuse of children.

On the Opposition Benches there is no question but that the inquiry is and must be independent. But this is a question of confidence, and confidence is not an operational matter. There seems to be an attempt to dismiss the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association as just one group of survivors. I can tell the Minister that that association represents 600 survivors of abuse. It has undertaken two years’ worth of rigorous, detailed, exceptionally high quality research on behalf of survivors and has very powerful evidence. I have raised concerns on the association’s behalf, as have both my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and the Home Affairs Committee, but they have not been answered. I am afraid that it simply is not good enough for the Minister to demand our unswerving confidence when the legitimate questions we have raised have not been answered. I ask her once again: will she intervene to ensure that we can have the confidence in the inquiry that is necessary for it to do the job it needs to do on behalf of victims and survivors?

I absolutely want to put it on the record and correct any doubt in the hon. Lady’s mind that we take every victim’s story extremely seriously. Every victim’s voice must be heard. That is why we set up the inquiry. If I were to intervene, it would no longer be an independent inquiry. It is absolutely essential that it maintains its independence. Professor Jay has a long and established record. She did a really excellent job in Rotherham. If people were to speak to the victims in Rotherham, they would hear the confidence that they placed in her and what a really good job she did there. I would strongly encourage Opposition Members to go back to victims and their organisations and encourage them to re-engage with the independent inquiry and with its chairman, so that we can move forward.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on being granted the urgent question, but I do not think that it has been the best question: there has been a lot of noise from the Opposition and not a lot of clarity from them. [Interruption.] As they are proving, Sir, at this very moment. Does the Minister agree that one of the most important things is that we look after potential child victims of abuse now? Is not the simplest thing that the Government could do to take responsibility for child victims of sexual abuse, especially those who were internally trafficked, away from the Department for Communities and Local Government and make it an independent responsibility of the Home Office, because too many children are re-trafficked into sexual abuse while under the DCLG’s care?

I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful question. Bringing us right up to date with the incredibly important work that we are doing to ensure that we keep children safe in our country, while addressing historical issues, is very important and it informs what we do now, but we leave no stone unturned in our determination to make sure that children are safe, including those children, as he rightly points out, who might be trafficked or who are victims of modern slavery. We constantly keep under review our care for those children.

May I remind the Minister that the purpose of setting up this inquiry was to find out the truth and to allow the victims of child sexual abuse to get closure? To achieve that, they have to have confidence in the inquiry. If the inquiry alone cannot command the confidence of victims, the Government still has a role to play. She or the Home Secretary should be meeting the victims’ groups. She should be hearing their concerns directly from them and seeking their remedies if the inquiry is to do the job for which we set it up in the first place.

We have absolute confidence in the inquiry. I respectfully urge everyone in the House today to get behind the inquiry to make sure that it works for victims. More than 500 victims have come forward, and that is leading to cases going forward for the police to take action. It is really important that we send out a strong and united message from the House that we all think that this independent inquiry is vitally important for victims and survivors and that we will all do our best to support the inquiry’s work.

Over a month ago, when I brought up with the Home Secretary in this place the loss of survivor testimonies by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, she suggested that I engage with the inquiry in a slightly more positive manner and that I write to her about the incident. As I have yet to receive a response to the detailed letter that I subsequently sent, and as the Home Secretary is not here today, will the Minister update the House now on what investigation has since taken place into those lost testimonies?

I agree to make sure that the hon. Lady gets a response to her letter and the detailed concerns she raises.

There has never been an official Welsh representative on the inquiry, despite intense lobbying by Welsh Government Ministers, the then Health Minister, Mark Drakeford, and the Social Services Minister, Gwenda Thomas. Considering that this is an England and Wales inquiry, will the Minister give an assurance that there are open lines of communication with the Welsh Government, so that devolved aspects can be appropriately discussed? Will she confirm that the interests of Welsh victims are adequately protected?

Of course, it is really important that people living in Wales, like those living all over our country, can have their voices heard. It is an independent inquiry, however, so I respectfully ask that the hon. Lady makes those representations to Professor Jay to make sure that she is satisfied that victims in Wales feel they are being listened to.

For years, I worked supporting victims of sex abuse. It is absolutely clear to everyone in the House that the seemingly endless cover-ups, scandals and delays will be painful and traumatic for all the victims and survivors. How does the Minister intend to restore trust and integrity to the inquiry as soon as possible?

The hon. Lady draws on her work and personal experience. In working with victims, she made a huge contribution before she came to the House, and I am sure that some of them look at what has happened and feel disappointed, but I can assure her that we are utterly committed to seeing the inquiry through and that we utterly support the chair, Professor Alexis Jay, who we believe is the person to see this through. I encourage the hon. Lady to speak to the victims in her constituency and assure them that this is a top priority for the Government. We will support the independent inquiry to do its job so that the victims she worked with and those all over the country get the justice they seek.

In north Wales, where many offences of child sexual abuse took place, there is extreme scepticism about the Government’s commitment to openness. The Macur review, which reported recently, redacted the names of people in positions of responsibility, some of them Members of the House, because of continuing court proceedings. We now know that Gordon Anglesea has been convicted. If the Minister is committed to openness, will she go back to the Ministry of Justice and ask it to revisit the Macur review and to make open those redacted names to make it clear that there is openness in this inquiry and that, following their conviction for heinous crimes of child sexual abuse, those responsible will be openly put for consideration as part of reports issued by the Government?

The hon. Gentleman says there are concerns about a lack of openness and transparency, which I simply do not accept. This Government have done more than any other to make people accountable, to be more transparent, to open up processes and to make those in authority accountable for their actions.

The question you are asking is about a specific case, but it would be completely inappropriate for me to comment on a case that is going through the courts. I have absolute confidence in our criminal justice system. The matters the hon. Gentleman raises should be raised with the justice system.

First, I should just point out that I was not asking any question, as the Chair does not do so. Secondly, notwithstanding the evident and audible frustration of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), I simply make the point that there has been a full exchange today, but these matters will inevitably be returned to on the Floor of the House, possibly on innumerable occasions, and either the hon. Lady or some other Minister will toddle along to the Dispatch Box to respond. The matter will go on and on. I feel sure of that.