The inquiry into historical child sex abuse has been plunged into what looks like the the most serious crisis it has faced in the two turbulent years since it was set up. Its brief, fraught history suggests to many that the whole concept of the inquiry needs redesigning. But the government is sticking to its original plan. Is it right to do so or would the victims of historic sex abuse and indeed the wider community be better served by a more limited remit?
It was in July 2014 that the then home secretary, Theresa May, announced there would be an Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) - easily the most ambitious and far-reaching official inquiry ever embarked upon in Britain. Its scope is enormous. It is to investigate claims of institutionalised child sex abuse in an almost unlimited range of public institutions in England and Wales, including Westminster itself, the Anglican church, the Catholic church, children’s homes, schools, the armed forces and other public bodies over a period of at least sixty years. Its task is not just to establish the historical truth but also to come up with policy recommendations to ensure that children never again suffer both the appalling abuse itself and the cover-ups that have prevented them from securing justice.
Getting the right person to chair an inquiry into what has lain under the stone of the establishment for so long quickly proved harder than anyone initially realised. The first person to be appointed, the retired judge Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, resigned within a week when it became clear that she could not command the confidence of many of the child abuse victims’ organisations because she herself came from a background within the establishment. Her successor, the solicitor and former Mayor of London, Dame Fiona Woolf, lasted barely a month when she too was thought to be too close to some of those who might end up being investigated. Then in August this year, the third chair, the New Zealand judge, Dame Lowell Goddard, abruptly resigned, amid criticism that she had spent too much time abroad during the eighteen months of her tenure.
The new home secretary, Amber Rudd, quickly replaced her with Professor Alexis Jay, who had led the inquiry into the Rotherham abuse scandal. She was the first chair of IICSA not to have a legal background. This made all the more important the role of Ben Emmerson QC, the lawyer appointed two years ago to be the inquiry’s chief counsel. With the two-year chaos over the chairmanship and the inquiry already having spent £20m even before any evidence has been taken, it was clear that Professor Jay and Mr Emmerson needed to get on with things.
Instead they have fallen out. It was reported that Mr Emmerson had told colleagues he was considering resigning. Two days later we learned that he had been suspended from his duties and, within hours, he resigned. That news was followed by another resignation. This time it was the woman who had been thought most likely to succeed Mr Emmerson: Elizabeth Prochaska, another highly distinguished lawyer and Professor Jay’s deputy. It is not known what lies behind the resignations, but it’s widely believed that it was a combination of clashing personalities and differences over the way the inquiry should proceed.
The inquiry put out a statement saying that ‘the inquiry has recently become very concerned about Mr Emmerson’s leadership of the counsel team’. Suggestions were floated in the press that he was ‘abrasive’ and ‘difficult to deal with’ and that this might explain the apparent breakdown in the relationship. Yet even some of those who acknowledge this characterisation of Mr Emmerson are anxious that he should stay. A solicitor for one group of abuse victims said: ‘Emmerson is difficult but he’s tough and robust and will stand up to powerful interests. It’s hard to see how it continues without him.’
But whatever the problems in the way Mr Emmerson has worked it seems there is another factor in this latest crisis. It is the suggestion that Mr Emmerson wanted to restructure the inquiry in order to make it more manageable. Professor Jay, on the other hand, wants to stick by the original brief.
If this is the cause of the problem, Mr Emmerson is far from alone in thinking the original brief is unworkable. Lord Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions and a colleague of Mr Emmerson’s at Matrix Chambers, said: ‘From the start it has fatally confused a laudable desire to bring closure to generations of victims with the need for a tightly focussed forensic inquiry into the changes that might better protect children in the future. The end result is an apparent attempt at mass therapy on a grotesque scale, which is unlikely to lead to any lasting public benefit and which will only raise hopes of reform to be dashed. The departure of Ben Emmerson is a categorical disaster. It will be enormously difficult to find another lawyer of stature willing to swallow this poison pill in the absence of a total redesign.’
But Amber Rudd seems to be having none of it. She said on Wednesday: ‘Our commitment to this inquiry is undiminished’. And a Home Office spokesman reiterated the full scope of the inquiry, saying: ‘The inquiry has a vital role to play in exposing the failure of public bodies and other organisations to prevent systematic child abuse. We owe it to the victims and survivors to confront the appalling reality of how children were let down by the very people who were charged to protect them’.
Defenders of the original terms of reference argue that what may appear to be far too broad a remit has already been broken down into a series of discrete and manageable sub-inquires and that it is important that there remains the original overall remit in order make coherent their individual conclusions. Others argue that the reason the government is sticking to its original plan, despite the obvious difficulties, is simply to save Theresa May’s face.
What is undoubtedly the case is the immense sensitivity of the whole issue. This is reflected in a revealing detail of the Home Office’s statement, referring to ‘victims and survivors’. There can be no doubt whatsoever that those who suffered child abuse were victims, but many of the organisations that represent them now prefer to use the word ‘survivor’, an altogether stronger term usually reserved for those who survived life-threatening crimes such as genocides and the Holocaust. Those who object to the use of the word ‘survivor’ for people who suffered child abuse argue that only in a very few cases were children’s lives at risk and that to use the term instead of ‘victim’ is to lose all sense of proportion. But many of those campaigning on behalf of those who suffered child abuse are outraged at this objection. They say it belittles the crimes that were committed.
If there is so much sensitivity simply on this issue of language perhaps it’s not surprising that the Home Office is so reluctant to open up the whole issue of redrawing the terms of reference. But will the inquiry get anywhere unless it does?
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