A national inquiry into the failings of state and non-state bodies to protect children from abuse was announced by the Home Secretary this afternoon. Over 140 MPs demanded the inquiry (following on from Yvette Cooper MP’s initial call 18 months ago) and an online petition reached over 70,000 signatures in its first couple of days. The inquiry was called for because institutions have consistently put their own reputations and survival before the protection of children, particularly children within the care system who are the most vulnerable to organised child abuse and trafficking. While there have been a growing number of investigations of late, such as the NHS reports into Jimmy Savile, these are all narrow in scope and do not look at why there were persistent failures to intervene, stop the abuse and prosecute the offenders.
Home Secretary Theresa May set out three principles for the review: that it should not get in the way of making successful prosecutions; that there should be maximum transparency; and that wherever there were failures they should be exposed and lessons learned. The Home Secretary said the latter should include looking widely at child protection issues including the proposal of legally mandated reporting of suspected abuse.
In addition to the main inquiry, Peter Wanless from the NSPCC and a senior legal figure will look again at the handling of the dossier of evidence and allegations handed to then Home Secretary Sir Leon Brittan by Geoffrey Dickens MP – a dossier which Dickens told friends would “blow the lid off” the lives of powerful and famous child abusers. It came as a surprise to many MPs and observers that the disappearance of 114 Home Office files – something which appeared to be a very recent revelation – had actually been made ‘public’ in a previous Parliamentary Question. Wanless will also look again at the allegations that the Home Office funded activity by the Paedophile Information Exchange.
The main inquiry will look at failures by state and non-state bodies to deliver their duty of care of protecting children and will begin as soon as possible. Although it cannot feasibly conclude before the 2015 general election it will provide an update to Parliament before May 2015.
However, while the announcement of an inquiry is momentous, there is no guarantee that it will fully address the questions the MPs and the public want answered. The Hillsborough-style inquiry will have far more scope than all the individual investigations that have taken place to date, but the scope is not limitless. And it is these limits which will ultimately determine the success or failure of the inquiry.
The Hillsborough Inquiry’s terms of reference allowed it to look at:
…all documentation held by central government, local government and other public agencies (the police, ambulance service, fire service, coroner and Sheffield City Council) that relates directly to events surrounding the Hillsborough tragedy up to and including the Taylor report, the Lord Stuart-Smith review of Hillsborough papers in 1998-99 and the private prosecution in 2000.
The timeframe is one of the key constraints that may hamper the new inquiry. Will the review only look at the 1970’s and 80’s? If so, this would exclude criminal activity right up until the current day. But the constraint on what information can be released to the panel will surely be the most telling.
In relation to pre-1997 government information, the Hillsborough Inquiry Panel was not allowed to see information which indicated the views of ministers (such as Cabinet material or policy advice to ministers) without first consulting representatives of that administration. Tom Watson, Yvette Cooper and other MPs pressed the Home Secretary today on whether the inquiry would have access to all information, including police and secret service papers, and information covered by the Official Secrets Act. The Home Secretary said she wanted the “fullest possible access” but could not guarantee this at the present moment – the legality would have to be established. With MI5 heavily involved in the cover-up of Cyril Smith MP’s abuse for example, access to all evidence is fundamental to uncovering the truth. Will the customs officer who intercepted a video tape containing footage of child sexual abuse found on a senior Tory MP be allowed to give evidence even though he was made to sign the Official Secrets Act? If parties have a right to be consulted on pre-1997 government information then what chances are there of them disclosing anything that may implicate themselves or their colleagues? Remember the huge fight David Steel put up to prevent it being known that he was the person who nominated Cyril Smith for a knighthood even though he had been told of the MP’s abuse of children? David Steels actions were clearly very embarrassing for him – and indeed he should be deeply ashamed – but it was not a criminal act. If it was he would surely have fought even harder.
We will have to wait for the Inquiry’s terms of reference which will be drafted once the panel lead is in place to see if the devil is in the detail (or whether the detail allows the devil to escape). The endless delays of the Chilcot Inquiry may be a better indicator of what the new child sexual abuse inquiry will be like than the Hillsborough Inquiry which focused on the police and never threatened the establishment.