In 2015, when the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse launched, two chairs quit in quick succession. Finally, the then-chair Justice Lowell Goddard said:
“It is important to emphasise that this is the largest and most ambitious public inquiry ever established in England and Wales. Despite its unprecedented depth and breadth, I am determined to ensure that it does not become bogged down in the delays that have bedeviled some other public inquiries in this jurisdiction.
“My sincere hope and expectation is that it will be possible to conclude the Inquiry’s work before the end of 2020. While that may seem a long way off, the public will not have to wait until then to hear the Inquiry’s findings and recommendations.”
She intended, she said, to publish the first report in 2016.
Instead, just over a year later, Goddard quit. A month after her departure, the most senior lawyer was suspended. Now, a mini-inquiry into the inquiry has started.
Goddard said she left because she was lonely (she had moved from her native New Zealand to take up the job) and she felt she could not deliver. But then, The Times published allegations suggesting she had made offensive remarks. Goddard, who is herself part-Maori, said the allegation was “totally false” and described the leak as malicious. There have been no formal complaints made.
On Monday, the home secretary Amber Rudd was forced to make a statement to the House of Commons on the state of the inquiry. On Tuesday, Professor Alexis Jay, the newly appointed chair, gave evidence to the Home Affairs select committee.
“It was no secret,” said Jay of Goddard. “That she would rather be sitting alone.” But then she clammed up. Could she comment on Goddard’s resignation? “We cannot talk about HR”. What about the senior lawyer, Ben Emmerson? “I cannot discuss anything to do with Mr Emmerson’s circumstances.” What about the time scale? Jay confirmed the inquiry still aimed to conclude by the end of 2020, publish an interim report in 2018, and publish reports as individual areas are concluded. Could she say how many reports would be published? “I’m sorry, I can’t.” This would be disclosed in a few weeks’ time.
Jay’s adherence to protocol would be more admirable, if it wasn’t for the fact that allegations have been leaked to the press. And, as an increasingly frustrated David Winnick told the witnesses: “This is public money.”
After two days of parliamentary scrutiny, we have learnt little about the scale of child sex abuse in Britain. Instead, the issue is spiralling into a clash of egos, including the internal power battles of the independent inquiry, a select committee furious it has been misled, and the Home Office clan, past and present, which is keen to distance itself from it. “We were treated in a shabby way. We were misled. And I think it’s quite disgraceful,” Winnick railed at the Home Office permanent secretary.
What is really disgraceful is that victims have to wait longer to be heard, by an inquiry that they may no longer trust to deal with their evidence competently. In an inquiry about child sex abuse, so far as the victims are concerned, privacy and confidentiality should be paramount. But as for the inquiry’s leaders, they should stop leaking, give their HR system a kick and get on with it.