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Child Sex Abuse Inquiry

Volume 758: debated on Monday 15 December 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made towards the appointment of a chairman for the independent panel inquiry into child sexual abuse.

My Lords, the Home Secretary takes the appointment of the next chairman extremely seriously. Following the resignation of Fiona Woolf, the Home Secretary has sought the views of survivors’ groups to inform her on the appointment and she will update Parliament in due course.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the Government have approached the Lord Chief Justice to see whether a serving judge might be available to chair the inquiry—and, if so, with what result? Can he say what the Government’s position would be if a potential chair made acceptance of appointment conditional on having statutory powers to compel witnesses and disclosure of documents?

I am grateful to my noble friend for that question. With regard to the Home Secretary’s Statement on this matter on 3 November, we have since had 130 applications, some of which have been from serving judges. Therefore, it would be entirely appropriate for the Lord Chief Justice to be consulted on their availability to perform such a task if they were asked. With regard to the statutory footing, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has said that if the chairman requested that the inquiry should be put on a statutory footing, she would take that into consideration. However, it does not have to be a judge for it to be statutory, because the statutory powers come from the Inquiries Act 2005.

My Lords, given the catalogue of mishaps in the appointing of a chairman, does the Home Secretary personally see a person she is minded to appoint as chairman?

Part of the issue here is that because of a series of announcements and revelations which brought about huge concern, there was a desire to move very quickly to establish the inquiry. The important thing, we recognise now, is to put survivors’ groups, and the confidence of those groups, at the heart of this, which is the reason the Home Secretary has met survivors’ groups three times—on 3, 20 and 25 November—and indeed is meeting them today.

My Lords, while we are discussing who is to be the chairperson for this inquiry—it is important that we get the right person—my concern is to support the victims in the mean time. What assurances can the Minister give about the support that will be provided, because it is not right through the bureaucratic processes to ask these victims what has gone on in their lives while they are being hit by barriers and not being given the right support and recognition of what they have gone through?

My noble friend is absolutely right. I also pay tribute to her work as the Victims’ Commissioner, which she carries out assiduously. Of course more needs to be done to help the victims. We are consulting with the Department of Health to find out what additional help we can provide, and in the interim we will be announcing a further package of £2 million of support for victims’ groups in the ongoing discussions.

We seem to be getting nowhere fast on this one, which is in marked contrast to the successful work done by my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey on campaigning to close the loopholes on soliciting sexual material from a child—an issue which the Government have at last decided to take on board. Frankly, that they have still failed to find a chairman suggests that suitably qualified candidates are perhaps now being put off by the inevitable trawling through their personal lives, backgrounds and families by the media which the Government’s ineptitude has ensured will now occur. Can the Minister tell us why the Home Office failed to carry out basic background checks on Fiona Woolf, having had the first appointee stand down? Further, while I think the Minister has said that the survivors and victims of abuse are being consulted on the issue of the new chairman, can he say whether the terms of reference and the format of the inquiry are also being discussed with them?

The noble Lord’s latter point is of course central to the discussion with the survivors. They want to have confidence that individuals can be compelled to give evidence and that that evidence will actually be available to them. Perhaps I may say that it is a bit unfortunate for the noble Lord to take that tone in relation to the appointments. Both the people who were appointed to the role of chair are eminently qualified to do the work, but the question mark was over whether they would command the confidence of the survivors’ groups. It became apparent that that was not the case, and that is the reason the Home Secretary is going to the lengths that she is to listen to them now.

My Lords, when consulting with potential candidates for the chair, will the Home Secretary consider the length of time that that person will be available for the inquiry? We must bear in mind the fact that the very nature of the inquiry means that various new issues probably will arise during the course of the panel’s investigations, and they will need to be given proper consideration. She is going to need someone who can be available for really quite a long time.

That was one of the reasons why the panel was set up in its current form for the initial period. It wanted to draw on the excellent work that had been done by Ann Coffey, Alexis Jay and the NSPCC, among others, who had produced literature and evidence. We did not want the panel to reinvent the wheel but rather to get on and make sure that our institutions are sound, that victims’ voices are heard, and that we take action to ensure that these things could not happen again. The emphasis is now on speed. We want to get this done, but obviously the work must be carried out with the confidence of the survivors’ groups.