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Researching Reform: Child Abuse Inquiry - Starting block or stumbling block?

Date:3 DEC 2014
Since its inception in July, the Independent Panel Inquiry has made several serious but avoidable faux pas and continues to function without a Chair, arguably its most vital member. But what else has the Inquiry done to date and is it more of a hindrance than a help in the quest to safeguard Britain’s children from abuse and exploitation?

In a meeting in the House of Commons last Thursday, MPs met to discuss the Panel Inquiry and its progress. It was confirmed that the Inquiry had attended two sessions described as listening meetings with survivors of child abuse to hear their thoughts, and to take on board other important factors which may aid the inquiry process. A positive move, given that the Inquiry has been accused of being insensitive to survivors in the past for failing to include them more robustly in the inquiry process. In addition to weekly conferences being held in the run-up to Christmas, the panel also has two scheduled regional get-togethers before the New Year and four further meetings have been set for 2015. However the lack of a Chair has caused concern, with some MPs questioning the official nature of the work the members were doing without a complete panel, which may anger survivors if their input is set aside or down-played once a Chair is elected.

The thorny issue of who will be Chair is also unlikely to resolve itself quickly. When asked about the time frame for electing the Chair, the Home Secretary was unable to give an answer, saying only that the selection process was underway and that over 100 candidates were being considered for the position. And although thelist of candidates remains a secret for now, there was evidence at the meeting that several senior judges had been invited to take the position but each one had declined, viewing the role as a poisoned chalice. This view may be in part due to the poor reception previous Chairs have received by the public, but is most likely to stem from the concern that a judge sitting on the panel may be accused of asserting executive control over the proceedings. Such control may in turn create the potential for the public, and survivors, to be shut out of the investigative process altogether.

Yet the conundrum of who will lead the panel may be the least of the Inquiry’s woes.

Under its current remit
, the inquiry is only tasked with looking at abuse within England and Wales, has a limited and some might argue too narrow a set of reference terms (Northern Ireland is not included for a start), and its powers to compel witnesses and protect evidence virtually non existent. And despite its scope, which includes looking at abuse in Wales, there is not one Welsh panel member.

The panel too, is surprisingly homogenous. In a multi-cultural society, which is affected across the board by child abuse, a panel that is not representative of that diversity is a glaring oversight. It also makes room for potential misunderstandings. The Inquiry will inevitably have to look at different demographics affected by child sexual abuse and exploitation and may lay itself open to the criticism that it is finger pointing and passing judgement on entire communities it simply does not represent, or understand. It could also make room for right wing elements to jump onto the bandwagon, and twist the inquiry’s findings to at best alienate ethnic minorities further and at worst incite a xenophobic panic amongst the public at large.

Whilst it is clear that child abuse is not a unique phenomenon to any particular race, culture or religion, there are layers of incentivisation present which are unique to each and so the panel will have the rather delicate job of identifying and addressing these if they wish to make an effective contribution to the future of safeguarding. This they can only do with an ethnically diverse panel which represents Britain today and which features highly experienced safeguarding professionals as well as survivors of abuse.

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The inquiry is in danger of becoming a stumbling block rather than a step forward in the fight to tackle child sexual abuse, with its delayed start and unsure footing created by an incomplete panel, diplomatic scandals and potentially impotent modus operandi. But there are ways in which the Inquiry could rise from the ashes and make a meaningful contribution to the future of safeguarding, after all.

In order to do this, the Inquiry would firstly need to raise its status to that of a Statutory Inquiry. This is something the next approved Chairman could initiate, and would then allow him or her to compel a person to give evidence, and to produce documents and other things which may be relevant to the inquiry – a crucial power for a cause which has already seen controversial documents go missing and much-needed evidence shredded. An inquiry with statutory status would also have the power to make it an offence not to supply relevant information, punishable by a fine or imprisonment, another perhaps equally important measure to incentivise witnesses and others to come forward.

Widening the panel’s remit to include Northern Ireland could also allow for a more comprehensive inquiry, not least of all because Northern Ireland’s own inquiry into child sexual abuse may prove deeply helpful to understanding the phenomenon further. However it could also be viewed as a costly and unnecessary dimension given the current inquiry underway in Northern Ireland.

Scrapping or supplementing the current panel too, is a necessary consideration. A panel without ethnic diversity or more than one survivor has very little chance of getting to grips with the many complex and nuanced layers of child sexual exploitation. The argument that information from these groups can be collected regardless of whether they sit on the panel or submit as bystanders is both unfounded and egregious, and reflects the government’s current misconceptions about the inquiry and how best to bolster a satisfactory outcome. Deplorable too is the view held in some quarters that survivors would provide nothing more than an emotive and unstructured element to the panel – on the contrary, their unique understanding of the world of child sexual abuse should make their contribution the central axis upon which every panel member should take their cue.

And all of this must be done in an open and transparent fashion, with tangible deadlines and visible structures. The list of 100 candidates for Chair should be made public so that an open and democratic debate about the front runners for this most important position can be held. A deadline should also be set for the election of the Chair. The Inquiry’s panel members and the government may believe that their work pertains to the past and that, as their remit suggests, they are looking at historic abuse, but every survivor will tell you that there is nothing historic about the wounds and the pain they carry with them today. Another misconception which continues to gnaw away at any good faith the Inquiry may have had upon its inception. And finally, the inquiry should set out a timetable for the work to be done. No one will mind if they run over some of those deadlines in order to complete the job, but frustration will continue to grow if the inquiry does not at least lay itself bare and hold itself accountable to the very people it purports to protect.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.