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Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Volume 774: debated on Monday 17 October 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary on the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

“I know the whole House agrees with me when I say that the work of this 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. 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 more than £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. I am aware of questions around the reasons for her 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 she had sent to the committee. In her letter she said that she was lonely and felt that she could not deliver, and that was why she stepped down. Dame Lowell has strongly refuted the allegations about her. The only way we could understand properly why she had 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. I invite the House to offer its support in the same way”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response to the Urgent Question, which frankly gives very little further information, apart from telling us that a chair of the inquiry, appointed by the previous Home Secretary, had been the subject of concerns about professionalism and competence, expressed by the secretary to the inquiry to the Home Office Permanent Secretary on 29 July. Does that not raise questions about the judgment of the previous Home Secretary in making the appointment concerned? We are now on the fourth chair and it is two years since the inquiry was established, yet little evidence has been taken and there has been a series of resignations among the senior staff of the inquiry. Why do the Government now think the position will change? Are there to be any changes in the remit, structure, staffing or financing of the inquiry? When is it anticipated it will complete its work? What steps are the Government taking to reassure victims who held high hopes of the inquiry and whose confidence and trust have now been severely shaken by recent events, including the apparent helplessness of the Government to do anything to sort out this highly unsatisfactory situation over the progress of the inquiry?

My Lords, the inquiry has made good progress since it was established. It is not appropriate for me or the Home Secretary to be briefed in detail on the activity of an independent inquiry while it is under way. However, the inquiry has indicated that it is making good progress in all 13 investigation strands. Preliminary hearings have taken place, evidence has been called for, and the inquiry has received more than 47,000 documents. A research project has been established to support the inquiry’s existing investigations, assist to scope and define future investigations, publish original research on child sexual abuse and analyse information that the inquiry receives from victims and survivors. In addition, sessions have been arranged for hundreds of victims and survivors to come forward and share their experiences with the inquiry. Noble Lords may have seen a statement made earlier today by the chair on her view of the terms of reference. She says that she believes that the terms of reference for the inquiry are necessary and deliverable. She had previously undertaken that an interim report would be with the inquiry before the end of this financial year.

On financing, as I said, the inquiry had a budget of £17.9 million last year. It underspent on that by some £3 million.

My Lords, we on these Benches are concerned that lessons of past child sex abuse cases should be learned and applied as quickly as possible. Can the Minister reassure the House that immediate steps to address obvious weaknesses in the way such cases are dealt with will not be deferred pending the outcome of this inquiry?

My Lords, I understand that an internal review of the inquiry will take place. The noble Lord talked about consideration of current cases. Sorry, will he repeat the final bit of his question?

The concern that we have is that because this inquiry is taking such a long time, there might be some obvious weaknesses in the way that these cases are currently being dealt with that could be addressed but are being put off because the inquiry is still ongoing.

That would be a matter for the inquiry to consider. It is an independent inquiry and it is not for us to try to micromanage or dictate what it does. It is independent. But I take the noble Lord’s point and I am sure the inquiry will be mindful of that.

My Lords, on 13 September, in view of the concerns of Judge Goddard, I asked the Minister that the terms of reference be amended. This was refused point blank. The Home Secretary told the Commons committee that the only reason that she knew of for Judge Goddard’s resignation was her loneliness et cetera. Her Permanent Secretary, sitting beside her, and officials, may have had much longer knowledge of concerns about Judge Goddard. Could this be clarified? Would it not be better for there to be a pause for reflection so that all involved, including the victims, could be satisfied that we are now on the right course—including having the right terms of reference?

My Lords, the terms of reference were drawn up by the chair in consultation with the Home Secretary. The chair has made a statement today expressing her satisfaction with the terms of reference. As regards Judge Goddard, I understand that no concerns were raised formally and that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary had both a letter from Judge Goddard and what was presented to the Home Affairs Select Committee. Pausing for reflection is a matter for the independent inquiry. It is for the inquiry to decide whether it wishes to do that; it is not for us to tell it what to do.

My Lords, I suggest to my noble friend that the purpose and scope of the inquiry is hopelessly flawed and that it would be better now to scrap it entirely rather than waste any more money on it. If that is wholly impossible, can we have a much tighter remit as to procedure, purpose and timescale? That needs to be given immediate thought.

My Lords, judging by today’s statement by the chair, I do not think that there is any intention of scrapping the inquiry. As I said earlier, an internal review of the inquiry is going on and an interim report is due out before the end of the financial year. I have outlined some of the things that the inquiry has achieved to date. But I must reiterate that it is independent and therefore we cannot dictate what it should do.

My Lords, while I welcome the Statement, I agree that there is very little in it that clarifies what the inquiry is achieving, especially for the victims of this crime. As Victims’ Commissioner, I am a little concerned about where their voice is. This inquiry was set up to hear their voices, both historic and present. I spoke to some victims recently who were very worried and concerned about when their voices would be listened to, where their voices would be and how they would effect change through this inquiry.

While I welcome Professor Jay’s announcement today that there will be an interim report in November, my concern is about communication with the victims. I have seen huge gaps in the communications sent to them. This does not raise confidence throughout the country to encourage victims to come forward. Indeed, we have heard today that some victims want to sue the inquiry for causing them further trauma because of the up and down rollercoaster that it has started with. As Victims’ Commissioner, I am concerned that their voices are being missed. Will the Minister look at what support is being given? The Statement makes a good point about the underspend of £3 million. As Victims’ Commissioner, I would like that money to be used to support the victims while we get everything sorted, because the bureaucrats will go on but the victims are still suffering as we speak.

My noble friend makes a very valid point about the victims, because they are at the heart of the inquiry. If she wishes to raise any specific concerns with me, I will certainly take them up. If she believes that there are deficiencies in funding for the inquiry and victim support, again, I would like her to raise them with me. But the underspend tells me that funding has not been the issue here, and Alexis Jay herself said that she wants the inquiry to proceed with clarity and pace so that the victims from the past can be heard and we can all learn lessons for the future.

My Lords, of course we all want the victims to be heard and for there to be, as the chair herself said, a thorough examination of these issues—but how is it possible to have a thorough examination that is fair to the victims and to those who may be incriminated by any finding within any reasonable timescale so that lessons can truly be learned before so much time has elapsed that we will simply be left to treat this as a matter of history?

Alexis Jay said today that,

“the concerns that our terms of reference cannot be delivered are founded on an assumption that we must seek to replicate a traditional public inquiry in respect of each of the thousands of institutions that fall within our remit. We will do so for some, but we would never finish if we did it for all”.

I understand from that statement that the inquiry intends to look at some things in more depth than others. I hope that that results in a thorough inquiry, and I am sure that it will.

My Lords, I support the point made by my noble friend, which I think the Minister missed—namely, that this inquiry will take a very long time and that some pretty glaring lessons for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service can already be learned. We should not argue that nothing can be done by those bodies because we are waiting for the result of the inquiry.

The noble Lord is absolutely right. Perhaps I did the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, a disservice by slightly getting the wrong end of the stick as regards his question. Of course those inquiries must go on as the independent inquiry proceeds.

I beg the noble Lord’s pardon but I understand that 10 minutes are allowed for questions on an Urgent Question. That time has now elapsed. I apologise to the noble Lord.