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House of Lords Hansard
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Child Abuse Inquiry
03 November 2014
Volume 756

Statement

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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a Statement made by my right honourable friend Theresa May, the Home Secretary, in another place, earlier today.

“Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the independent panel inquiry into child abuse, which has been established to consider whether institutions in England and Wales have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse.

The House will remember that in July, I made a Statement in which I announced my intention to establish the panel inquiry. I did so because of the growing evidence of organised child sexual abuse, conducted over many years, and serious allegations about the failure of some of our most important institutions to protect children from this disgusting crime. I established a panel of inquiry because it is the best way of making sure that we have an inquiry which is conducted by a team of experts with empathy and sensitivity to the feelings of the survivors of child abuse. The fact that it is a panel consisting of several people means that within it is able to cover more expertise than one person could offer. And importantly, the public can have extra confidence in the integrity of its work, because no one individual can take important decisions or come to judgments alone.

The members of the panel—Sharon Evans, Ivor Frank, Dame Moira Gibb, Barbara Hearn, Professor Jenny Pearce, Dru Sharpling, Professor Terence Stephenson and Graham Wilmer—are in place, and they are supported by Ben Emmerson QC, who is counsel to the inquiry, and Professor Alexis Jay, who is the panel’s expert adviser. The panel therefore consists of members with a broad range of experience and skills. They have backgrounds in social care, academia, law enforcement, healthcare, the media and the voluntary sector, and some have experienced sexual abuse themselves as children. I believe that the panel can command the confidence of the public and, most importantly, of the survivors of child abuse.

The House will know, however, that on Friday, the panel’s chairman, Fiona Woolf, announced her intention to resign. She did so because, as she wrote in her letter to me,

‘it has become clear that the inquiry’,

if she continued to chair it,

‘would not have the widespread victim support it so desperately deserves and needs’.

Fiona Woolf’s resignation of course follows the resignation of the panel’s first chairman, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. Both women had strong credentials to chair the inquiry. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, was the first female Lord Justice of Appeal, she was the President of the Family Division of the High Court, and she chaired the Cleveland child abuse inquiry. Fiona Woolf is a leading lawyer and a former president of the Law Society. But for different—and to this end, understandable—reasons, both the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and Fiona Woolf concluded that they did not command the confidence of survivors.

Almost four months after I announced my intention to establish a panel inquiry, it is obviously very disappointing that that we do not yet have a panel chairman in place, and for that I want to tell survivors that I am sorry. To put it bluntly, it will not be straightforward to find a chairman who has both the expertise to do this hugely important work and has had no contact at all with an institution or an individual about whom people have concerns. I still believe, however, that it is possible to find somebody who is suitably qualified and can win the confidence of survivors, so I want to turn now to what I plan to do to recruit a new chairman.

I will hold meetings with representatives of the survivors of child abuse, starting next week. I have already had a number of discussions with the Members of Parliament who have campaigned for an inquiry into child abuse—the honourable Members for Birmingham Yardley, Brighton Pavilion, East Worthing and Shoreham, Richmond Park, Rochdale, Wells, and West Bromwich East—and I will continue to have discussions with them. I will also discuss the appointment of the new panel chairman with the shadow Home Secretary and the right honourable Member for Leicester East. I have already agreed with him that the nominated panel chairman will attend a pre-confirmation hearing before the Home Affairs Select Committee.

In the mean time, the panel will go about its important work. So I can tell the House that the panel will hold its first meeting on Wednesday 12 November, and will meet every Wednesday thereafter until Christmas. The panel will organise other meetings that will discuss the different themes and issues covered by the inquiry, and attendance for these meetings—for both panel members and expert witnesses—will be set accordingly. In addition, the panel secretariat is planning two regional events that will be held before Christmas and another four that will be held early in the new year. These regional events will provide an early opportunity for survivors to give their views about how the panel should go about its work.

One matter that I know has been raised by some campaigners is whether the inquiry should become a statutory inquiry. The inquiry as it is constituted at present, like the inquiries into Hillsborough and the murder of Daniel Morgan, is on a non-statutory inquiry basis. I have already said that the panel will have access to all government papers, reviews and reports that it requests and, subject to the constraints imposed by any criminal investigations, it will be free to call witnesses from any organisation that it deems appropriate. But, as I said to the House in July, I want to make it clear that, if the panel chairman deems it necessary, the Government are prepared to convert it into a full statutory inquiry, in line with the Inquiries Act.

Another matter that has been raised is the terms of reference for the inquiry. Some say that the terms are too broad, while others say the terms are too narrow. I do not propose to narrow the terms of reference because to do so would risk missing out, in a fairly arbitrary manner, some important institutions. Likewise, I do not propose to extend the terms of reference to include Northern Ireland, Scotland or the Crown dependencies. I will, however, discuss with the new panel chairman how we can make sure that the Hart inquiry in Northern Ireland and the Oldham inquiry in Jersey feed into the panel to make sure that no information, and no institutions or individuals with a case to answer, can fall through the cracks.

I can also tell the House that the Government are considering ways of trying to make the experience of giving evidence less traumatic for survivors. The panel will therefore take evidence not just in public and private meetings but also remotely, with witnesses able to speak to panel members from their homes. The secretariat to the inquiry is also in discussions with officials in the Department of Health and other organisations to make sure that counselling and support are available to survivors before and after they provide evidence to the inquiry. To make sure there is an open channel of communication between survivors, the panel and the Government, I will establish a survivor liaison group, which will meet on a regular basis as long as the inquiry continues.

I know that some Members of the House have suggested that the Government should publish today the Wanless report about the Home Office Permanent Secretary’s investigation into the so-called Dickens dossier. I can tell the House that the Wanless report will be published next week. This is because it is about a separate but related matter to the work of the panel inquiry, and I want members of the public and the media to have time to scrutinise both this Statement and the Wanless review properly.

In the midst of debate about names, structures and legal powers, we must always keep in mind the survivors of child abuse themselves. Let us remember the events that prompted me to announce this historic inquiry into child abuse in the first place. There was systematic abuse of vulnerable young girls in Derby, Rochdale, Oxford, and other towns and cities across the country; examples of celebrities abusing minors and getting away with it, apparently because of their fame; and evidence that some of the most important institutions in the country, from the BBC to the NHS, failed in their duty of care towards children. Since I made my Statement in July, the evidence has only mounted. We have seen the Alexis Jay report into abuse in Rotherham and the report by the honourable Member for Stockport, which was commissioned by Tony Lloyd, the police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester. Both reports exposed serious failings among the police, social services, schools and other institutions, and the obvious conclusion is that, if only we had learned from these appalling cases earlier, we could have ensured that there were fewer victims of abuse today. I believe the whole House will agree with me that we owe it to the victims in all these cases to work together, to let the panel inquiry do its job as quickly as possible, and to start to learn the lessons of the many cases where, undoubtedly, too many things went horribly wrong.

I want to end my Statement by issuing a direct message to the many survivors of child abuse and their representatives. I know that you have experienced terrible things. I know that we cannot imagine what that must be like. I know, perhaps because of the identity of your abusers or the way you were treated when you needed help, that many of you have lost trust in the authorities. I know that some of you have questioned the legitimacy of this process, and you are disappointed that the panel has no chairman. I understand that. I am listening—and to you, I say this. I am as determined as you are to get to the truth. That is why I set up this inquiry. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something that is hugely important. Together we can expose what has gone wrong in the past, and we can prevent it going wrong in the future. We can make sure that people who thought they were beyond the reach of the law face justice. We can do everything possible to save vulnerable young people from the appalling abuse that you endured. Let us come together to make this process work and finally deliver justice for what you, and too many others, have suffered”.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Home Secretary’s Statement. We called for an overarching inquiry and we are obviously bitterly disappointed at the delays and problems. But the position of the person to chair the inquiry is, of course, of the utmost importance. It is not just a question of integrity and ability; whoever chairs this inquiry must have the confidence of the victims and those from whom they must take evidence. We are grateful for and welcome the fact that the Home Secretary has apologised and for her recognition that she now needs to do more and be proactive in ensuring that confidence by committing to meet survivors of abuse.

I shall ask a couple of questions on that matter. Can the Minister confirm that, when the Home Secretary meets survivors of abuse, it will not be just a meeting but she will undertake to consult those survivors on the terms of reference of the inquiry and the issues that the inquiry and the panel should focus on? Given that this is now considered, rightly, to be necessary, can he tell us why it was not deemed essential before that the Home Secretary consulted survivors in this way? Can he tell us when the new chair of the panel will be in place? When panel meetings take place in the mean time, who will chair those meetings? I notice that, of the people whom the Home Secretary has consulted, a number of Members of the other place who have raised these issues are listed, but no Members of your Lordships’ House. I hope that the Home Secretary will be able to speak to Members of your Lordships’ House who have some experience in these issues and will be happy to be of assistance.

I welcome the announcement that the Wanless review will be published next week. Many survivors of abuse were too scared to report the abuse and, when they did, they were let down and betrayed by authorities. Such horrendous crimes must be properly investigated and action taken against perpetrators. But children are being abused now. Last week in your Lordships’ House, I raised why it had taken more than two years to question an individual with evidence of online child abuse. Can the Minister assure your Lordships’ House that, at the same time as we are rightly investigating historical child abuse, we will ensure that mistakes do not get repeated and that those who are suffering abuse today are protected—that we do not let down today’s children? It should be a priority to investigate child abuse, whether online or otherwise, that is happening today in the UK.

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I thank the noble Baroness, first, for her welcome of the approach that is being proposed. The added layers of consulting the shadow Home Secretary and the consultation that will take place in a kind of pre-confirmation hearing with the Home Affairs Select Committee will go some way to allaying concerns about the process. There was always a difficult balance for the Home Secretary in establishing the inquiry, but it was not her intention that she was going to undertake the inquiry. Therefore, it is for the panel members to decide on the direction of inquiries and the direction in which they set up their meetings. It was the panel that sent out the invitations for the meetings for survivors’ groups, which began last Friday and which will continue, so panel members can continue their work—and it is absolutely essential that they do so.

The noble Baroness mentioned a very sensible point—the wealth of expertise in your Lordships’ House. Of course, the Home Secretary or certainly myself will be available to meet, and will try to seek meetings with, all those people with relevant expertise to ensure that that knowledge and expertise is fed into the process that we have. The Wanless report is in the Home Office at present. As we know from the comments made, the process is twofold. The Home Secretary has questions to ask to ensure that the questions in the terms of reference have been answered. We also want to separate the two issues so that people get an opportunity to look at those very serious allegations and a response to them by Peter Wanless next week.

The noble Baroness referred to an investigation that was carried out by CEOP under Project Spade. They referred themselves to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Of course, that was before CEOP had become part of the National Crime Agency. I urge the noble Baroness to think about the fact that there is now an ongoing inquiry called Operation Notarise which has had much more success.

We are lifting stones all over the place and discovering the scale of something that we never could have imagined was going on in our society. That goes to the heart of what we are talking about. It is tough and it is harsh, but we have got to go through it, not only for the victims in the past but to protect children in the future.

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I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I very much welcome the elements in it that refer to how the victims will be treated in the future. There will be liaison with them; their support will be sought; and measures will be put in place to ensure that the experience of giving evidence to the inquiry will cause them as little pain as possible, though inevitably it will cause them some pain.

As well as hearing from the victims, there are many thousands of well meaning, good people who have never done any wrong, working in the organisations that deal with children all over the country. I hope that the inquiry panel will listen to some of those people. In my experience, if you want to know what is going wrong in an organisation, you can do little better than talk to the staff. Of course, there are people who have things to hide; but the vast majority of people who work with children do so because they care about children and want the best for them.

On the appointment of the new chairman, I hope that the Government will look north of Watford before they look abroad—Newcastle rather than New Zealand, Carlisle before Canada. Many reputable members of the judiciary would be very well qualified to do this job. Although we can learn lessons from abroad, I do not think that it is necessary to find someone from abroad to chair this. Will the Minister confirm that the terms of reference will allow the committee to look at the experience in other countries and see whether there are lessons to be learnt that might be applicable to our situation in the UK, to help to protect children better than we have in the past?

Finally, I ask the Minister about the status of the inquiry. It has been said by the Government, several times and very clearly, that if the chairman feels the inquiry should be made a statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, that will happen. I am most concerned that, if that happens, the inquiry will be able to call in evidence and files from whoever it feels will benefit the inquiry and can compel those people, under threat of legal action—in other words, put them in contempt of court if they fail to co-operate with the organisation. Will my noble friend ensure that that happens?

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I appreciate that question from my noble friend. That comes to one of the reasons the inquiry was set up on a non-statutory footing at the start. Because one is dealing with really sensitive cases and a lot of young people who are very damaged, one wants to give them maximum freedom to approach the inquiry rather than be in a courtroom setting, which has its own set of intimidations—although, necessarily, legal advice is there. This inquiry was meant to be accessible to people. We are not anticipating that the inquiry will change to a statutory footing under the Inquiries Act, but that option remains open. The Home Secretary has of course made it clear that, to assist the speed of the review, it is very important that we do not reinvent the wheel and that we draw upon the vast literature and evidence already there in a way that can inform the decisions quickly, whether that be from this country or other countries.

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My Lords, of course we all welcome the inquiry. However, I was very relieved when the Minister said that we are not going to look just at historic abuse; we will be worrying about what is happening to children in the here and now. We could wait to learn lessons, but we already have numerous inquiries that stretch back, which have lessons that we know about. We know that co-operation between different statutory agencies will make a difference. Has the Minister read the report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children on co-operation with the police and the way that children have talked about the need for co-operation between agencies in looking at the police? I am sure that he has looked at it. I hope that we are not going to wait until the report comes through, given that we already know about some of the lessons. Has the Minister considered that the pressures on social workers, police and health workers are so great that they are likely to make mistakes? I spent time today with the representative of the independent reviewing officers, who are supposed to look at the plans for children to ensure that they are being protected. They say that the patchiness across the country is so great that some areas are still dangerous for children.

Will the Minister assure me that, while we are spending time and a great deal of money on historical abuse—which I welcome, because I know the victims and know how much it means to them—he will be sure to think about children here and now and the stresses on services that put them in danger today?

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I certainly can give that assurance. The terms of reference are from a 44-year period, which runs from 1970 to the present day, so some of those lessons will be there. I was familiar with the all-party group’s report, which noble Lords debated under the Serious Crime Bill. We are introducing a number of amendments under the Serious Crime Bill that do not talk just about the future. They are saying simply that we have the evidence but there are gaps that need to be tackled so that we can act. These are very important issues. Once the Government see an issue highlighted, they want to act as soon as possible to protect those in need.

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I will resist the temptation that there must be, not only to myself but to many in the Chamber, to criticise the Home Office and Ministers for the pretty pass we find ourselves in. On the basis of what the Minister said when repeating the Statement made in the other place, I look to the future. The key point seems to be to have a timetable that one will have some faith in, unlike that of the Chilcot inquiry. I was concerned when, during the course of the Statement, the Minister said that although the first few meetings of the panel might be without a chairman, it will have a chairman, and will meet every Wednesday from next Wednesday. I can imagine that in many cases that is perfectly reasonable, especially when one engages people who are busy on other matters. It may be that the timetable of once a week arises in part because of the commitments of the existing panel members, who will continue to be panel members. I wonder whether there should be some flexibility, at least so that the panel, preferably with the new chairman in place, can amend that and if possible arrange for further meetings so as to bring the inquiry to some sort of conclusion. We have had some reassurance from the Minister about the beginning of the inquiry, even without the chairman, but there has been no reassurance about how long it will take. Perhaps in all honesty the Government cannot give that and will not be able to give that. At least there should be some flexibility so that the panel could determine a lengthier time.

As to the appointment of the chairman, there are plenty of choices, as has been discussed today and in the media. I shall not go into that. I may not have trusted the Government on the first appointments, but surely we must trust the Government now, having had so many difficulties, to make a good choice.

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I shall clarify the position: in the terms of reference of the inquiry, the aim, approach and methodology of the panel is to solicit opinions, views and evidence from organisations and individuals involved in this, so at this stage it is simply going out to solicit that information. As in some inquiries or a Select Committee inquiry in our own House, we might find that the frequency of meetings will increase once that evidence has been collated and needs to be assessed.

I shall add one more thing which I hope is useful. It is the intention, and it was the intention when Fiona Woolf was the chairman, that there should be an interim report in March. It is still the intention that there should be an interim statement, perhaps on methodology, by then and that information will not be built up for one final release, but will be released as a clear segment of work is completed with recommendations so that it can be debated, discussed and acted upon.

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I thank my noble friend for the excellent Statement and wish him good fortune in choosing a new chairman because I fear that good fortune will be required. Given the terms of reference of the inquiry, to find someone who has had no connection with state or non-state actors over a period of 50 years will be very difficult to crown with success. This is a very important inquiry and clearly the matters that it will discuss are vast. It took the Saville inquiry more than a decade to inquire into the events of a single afternoon. Would it not be more sensible to divide the inquiry, and therefore to divide the number of chairmen, into a series dealing with different areas rather than to look for somebody, who may be impossible to find, to deal with the entire area of child abuse over 50 years?

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My noble friend makes an excellent point. Sometimes in the debate we have had it has been said that we need somebody who knows everything about everyone to head the inquiry. The person who is to chair the inquiry has a specific responsibility to manage the body of expertise which is already on the panel and to direct it in an efficient manner to complete the work in accordance with the terms of reference. We are looking for a different skill set in the chairman than in the members of the panel. Therefore I think it might be possible to find somebody who is able to satisfy the survivors and give them confidence in the process.

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My Lords, I hope the Minister and your Lordships’ House will accept my apology for missing the first two paragraphs of the Statement. I want to ask a question on the very important issue of Scotland. Given that a number of these allegations pre-date devolution and that a number of the institutions referred to cover the whole of the United Kingdom, not just England and Wales, including, for example, the BBC, there is dismay in Scotland among the historic survivors of child abuse that this inquiry will not cover Scotland. Therefore, I ask the Minister, as I asked his predecessors, why is this inquiry not including Scotland? Has the Home Secretary discussed this issue with the Justice Secretary in the Scottish Cabinet? If the new First Minister in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, who is expected to be in post before the end of this month, were to agree to include Scotland in the inquiry, would the Government be willing to reconsider this position?

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The inquiry is being set up now, and now it is a devolved matter in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is undertaking its own inquiry under Sir Anthony Hart into some matters which happened there. Scotland is free to undertake that process. Of course, as part of this process which we are now embarking upon, we remain open to approaches and suggestions from wherever they come, including from the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish First Minister.