Almost a year to the day on Thursday this week, the wide ranging Historical Child Abuse Inquiry will finally open its doors, ironically, some 5 days after Independence Day in the United States. I say ironically because complaints about the independence of 2 proposed Chairs – Baroness Butler-Sloss, and Fiona Woolf have resulted in their resignations.
The hearing of evidence will take place at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre (QEII) Centre, Westminster and be chaired by a New Zealand based Judge, Lowell Goddard. It has thus colloquially become known as the “Goddard Inquiry”.
So what will the child abuse inquiry achieve:-
- We must wait and see what its scope will be when the opening remarks are made at 10am on Thursday by Judge Goddard. I attended a meeting just before Christmas when it was thought that a backstop was to be placed on events which took place from 1970 onwards. This raised considerable opposition, not only because much of the abuse we deal with here at Simpson Millar occurred in the 1960’s. The abusers are sometimes still alive, as are the victims. Documents in some cases still survive.
- Ironically it was principally set up to uncover governmental cover-ups in the past of widespread abuse throughout society, but principally within various institutions, but will it ever get to the bottom of what happened over 40 years ago? Will documents over which the Official Secrets Act have been claimed actually be willingly disclosed to the Inquiry. We have already had an investigation into what happened to the missing dossier with all the high profile names in it, which still has not been found, and no impropriety was discovered.
- Most importantly, the victims of abuse will be able to give evidence in person, and disclose their long withheld painful experiences of abuse in childhood. The involvement of victims in the run up to the inquiry has been fraught with much argument. The original panel which included several victims was dismissed in the early part of this year and replaced with an all professional panel including several lawyers under the stewardship of the chair. This followed some high profile disputes between several vocal survivor groups and their representatives with the then panel. I found it very sad that the very beneficiaries of the inquiry were forced into disputes with each other. There were some talk of a survivor sub-panel, but that in itself led to the survivors feeling that their voices, understandably had been pushed into the long grass, because they didn’t really matter.There was then a consultative and interview process for 8 members of the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel, which is now established, and will work with the main panel.
- The inquiry has an extremely wide remit, and will take several years to hear all the evidence. It will cover years of abuse at many wide-ranging institutions. I am not up to date with the latest definition, but an earlier definition which was around at the end of last year was:
We must see whether the new outline of the inquiry’s purpose published on Thursday differs much from the original proposal.
To consider the extent to which State and non-State institutions have failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation; to consider the extent to which those failings have since been address; to identify further action needed to address any failings identified; and to publish a report with recommendations.
The danger of course is that by the time the report is published, so much time has elapsed that the immediacy, and news that has elapsed has moved on, with yet another topic grabbing the headlines. If one judges this inquiry against the Australian Royal Commission, then one hopes that it will be a fearless and unshrinking as that model appears to be. Will this report take as long and be as expensive as the Chilcott or Bloody Sunday inquiries?
Personally, despite my misgivings, I welcome the inquiry as do, with some reservations, my clients, and support groups. Any inquiry, which is set up and governed by a Home Secretary into the workings of the very government and its links with paedophile rings must, by its very nature, per se, be open to criticism on the grounds of lack of objectivity. Undoubtedly, the incompetent way it has been set up over the course of a year has contributed to the suspicion and mistrust of the very beneficiaries it is designed to help. Those much more cynical than I have argued that it was set up to fail.
Inevitably, I am enthusiastic about any inquiry which criticises the way in which institutions are run, and finds corruption in public office. It will do much of the work, which otherwise my loyal and dedicate team here would have to do. It will bolster the evidence of my clients in cases where the inquiry looks at institutions I am involved in such as, when the criminal case is over, the Janner saga.
It is also ironical that as long ago as 1995, I was writing to the then Secretary of State for Social Security, who was then Peter Lilley, now a back bench MP, to demand a public inquiry into historical abuse due to the scandals which were then coming out about abuse in children’s homes at a time when 41 out of 43 police forces had major child abuse investigations in their area. I was then hearing anecdotally, as witnesses were too afraid to give evidence formally against government, that abuse spanned every echelon of society.The response I got from government was that it was premature to consider an inquiry as there were so many police investigations afoot. I was supported by many survivor groups.We lobbied Parliament, and managed to achieve a commitment from the newly elected Labour Government under Harriet Harman as the new Secretary of State to push forward an entirely new scheme, as it was then, to police the recruitment of volunteers and employees working with children, which later became known as the Criminal Record Bureau as we know it today.What we didn’t get was a Public Inquiry. It has taken another 20 years and the Savile scandal to finally persuade government to act. Knowing what we now know, it is no wonder that there was not much willingness to agree when I originally asked.
It will be interesting to look back at this blog in 10 years time to see if my predictions are true. I am at the same time optimistic but cautious, because I anticipate that the scandals which inevitably are lying below the surface will not see the light of day in as much focus as we hope for.
If you have been the victim of child abuse you can contact us in confidence on 0845 604 7075 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.