When is a crisis not a crisis? After the departure of seven senior lawyers, three chairs, several survivors’ groups, £15m of public money, two years and little progress to show for it, Theresa May and her Home secretary are increasingly lone voices in their insistence that all is well on the child abuse inquiry that May, as Home secretary, rightly established in the wake of distressing revelations about Jimmy Savile.
It was always a daunting and complex task to shine a spotlight into institutions characterised by secrecy and cover up, where abusers were able to operate in plain sight without challenge or consequence. The inquiry spans decades, covers hundreds of institutions and relies on the accounts of many survivors who have struggled on for years without support. Now they must face the prospect of detailing abuse at the hands of the powerful, to the powerful. How to find a chair with the legal expertise and commitment to command the confidence of survivors, the public and the inquiry staff, a person with vast experience but without personal connections to the accused?
And yet it has been done. In Australia, a Royal Commission has begun to uncover the truth since it was set up in 2013. By contrast, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has been dogged by problems since the outset, losing its first two chairs within months because of connections to the accused, before being re-established on a statutory footing. The appointment of its third chair, Dame Lowell Goddard, was so rushed and confused that the Home Affairs Committee took the unusual step of releasing a report criticising May for potentially bringing “the whole process into disrepute”.
More worryingly, MPs said she was “not displaying the openness and transparency we would expect from the Home Secretary”. From the start it was unclear how appointments were made and how much key officials were paid. Over a year later when staff came forward to accuse Lowell Goddard of racism, bullying and non-attendance – claims she strongly denies – it became apparent that neither she, nor anyone else, will appear before Parliament to answer questions about it.
It has left a yawning gap in accountability, filled not by her, nor apparently by the fourth chair, Alexis Jay, who has asked the Home Affairs Committee to “consider carefully” before calling her to give evidence on the inquiry’s important work. Who will be held accountable for the ongoing dysfunction that left key members of the panel struggling to work with the chair, for significant sums of public money spent on salary, expenses and payoffs and for the apparent failure to investigate alleged disclosures of sexual harassment?
Not the Home secretary, nor the Prime Minister, apparently, who set up and have presided over this chaos but repeatedly refuse to discuss the inquiry, stressing its independence. The Home secretary must not interfere with the Inquiry’s investigation, but she is the only person with the power to hire and fire the chair and her department is responsible for its budget and staffing and supplies a fifth of its staff. The Permanent secretary meets with the Inquiry secretary regularly but says he only “formally” read about these serious, longstanding problems from a report in the newspapers. Meanwhile the Home secretary and Prime Minister appeared to suggest they had no knowledge of the problems that had emerged, only later to confirm that they did. For child abuse survivors this is too familiar a story. Independence cannot become a smokescreen or as we have seen, history repeats itself.
In the past week there have been calls by survivors’ groups for Professor Jay to resign. A seventh senior lawyer has quit amid reported concerns about leadership. The Home secretary has the legal right and a moral duty to investigate. Without delay she must establish whether the Chair and panel have the expertise, skills, willingness to challenge power and working relationships for the inquiry to succeed. But most of all she should learn from the mistakes of the last two years. The problems with this inquiry did not begin with the appointment of Jay and even if she leaves, they will not end. We need a detailed plan for how the inquiry will focus its resources and begin to make progress. This includes a commitment to transparency, including honesty about mistakes made in the past and a clear, published whistle-blower policy that guarantees concerns will be heard and acted upon. This may be uncomfortable for the Prime Minister but it is simply asking her to put survivors’ and the public interests before her own, and that is in itself a test of leadership.
Meanwhile as she stalls, those who have willed the inquiry to fail gather conviction. And as the clock ticks, many survivors wonder if they will live to see the truth emerge. This feels like Theresa May’s last chance to rescue the inquiry she set up. Will she?