Last night, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee published its (rather critical) report on The work of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. The Committee’s conclusions are as follows:
1. It is important that IICSA is, and is seen to be, independent. We do not seek to undermine that independence, which has been established by statute and is vital to the credibility of its work, which is immensely important to survivors of abuse. However, that does not absolve it in any way from the need for transparency, accountability and scrutiny, particularly given that it was established by the Home Office and its budget comes from Home Office expenditure, and that it was a lack of transparency in institutions which gave rise to the Inquiry being set up. (Paragraph 5)
2. It should also be noted that the Inquiries Act 2005 makes no provision for the relationship between independent inquiries and Parliament and its committees. The status of IICSA cannot, therefore, be regarded as making it any less open to parliamentary scrutiny than other organisations. The Government may wish to review what the appropriate accountability arrangements should be for independent inquiries, particularly in circumstances where problems emerge, as they have done in this case. (Paragraph 6)
3. It is disgraceful that Dame Lowell Goddard has refused to provide oral evidence to this Committee. She received significant sums of public money in salary and expenses during her period as Chair, and on her departure from the post, and played a prominent role in shaping the Inquiry for most of its lifespan until then. We regard this refusal as falling well below the standards we would expect of any public servant, including the fifth Nolan Principle of Public Life on ‘openness’, and particularly one who holds high judicial rank in her own country and who agreed to take on such an important and sensitive role as Chair of the Independent Inquiry. Should Dame Lowell travel to the UK in the future, we would invoke parliamentary procedures to seek to summon her to give oral evidence. (Paragraph 11)
4. It is not for us to pass comment on allegations made in the media about the former Chair of the Inquiry. However, it is important that, where allegations challenge the fitness of a chair to lead an inquiry, there is a process in place to deal with that. We understand that the Home Office is reflecting on how this should be dealt with and we regard this as important for future independent inquiries. (Paragraph 13)
5. We do not accept the Solicitor to the Inquiry’s assertion that answering our general questions about the differences between an inspectorate-style approach to the Inquiry, compared to a judicial approach, would somehow “stand in the way of [the Inquiry’s] ability to scrutinise the institutions it is tasked with examining, by putting them on notice of its approach before it is appropriate to do so”. We believe that the Inquiry would benefit from greater transparency about its approach and greater public clarity about the different kinds of work it is undertaking. Similarly, we believe that survivor groups would benefit from more public clarity about the approaches to its work which the Inquiry plans to take. (Paragraph 18)
6. It is not for us to pass any comment on the allegations made in the media about the former Counsel to the Inquiry, which he has categorically denied. We are not in a position, and it is certainly not our responsibility, to assess either the facts of the case or the details of the processes that the Inquiry pursued. However, on the basis of the evidence we have seen, we do not believe that IICSA has taken seriously enough its responsibility to pursue allegations of bullying or disclosures of sexual assault within the Inquiry. Nor do we believe it has done enough to demonstrate publicly that it has a robust approach to such matters. IICSA’s public response has been inadequate, and the words attributed to an unidentified “IICSA source” in the press in response to the alleged assault are completely inappropriate, appearing to dismiss the serious nature of the matter and the credibility of the alleged victim. One of the Inquiry’s key purposes is to assess other organisations’ procedures for dealing with disclosures of sexual assault or abuses of power, and institutional reluctance to confront difficult issues that might jeopardise their reputation. We therefore believe that it is extremely important that the Inquiry can show that it treats these issues with appropriate rigour when they affect IICSA itself. (Paragraph 26)
7. We believe that IICSA should now seek to address concerns about the reported incident involving the former Counsel to the Inquiry, including those raised by Hugh Davies QC in his evidence to us. One option would be to appoint an external person with senior legal experience to examine the events surrounding the Counsel to the Inquiry’s resignation. This may help to allay any concerns among those involved in the Inquiry’s work about whether IICSA takes its duty of care towards them sufficiently seriously. IICSA has indicated that no formal complaint was made to it regarding the allegations. It may wish to consider whether it has done enough to create an environment in which those involved with its work feel confident that they can make complaints without the risk of adverse consequences, regardless of the level of seniority of the individuals involved. (Paragraph 27)
8. We fully respect the independence of the Inquiry, but we do not accept the views of the Solicitor to the Inquiry in relation to the proper role of this Committee. He appears to minimise the risk to public confidence in the Inquiry arising from a perceived lack of transparency in relation to handling complaints. Whilst the resolution of an internal decision is a matter for IICSA, the robustness of the process is of public interest. There is a risk to the Inquiry’s authority if there is a perception of a cover-up over allegations of abuse. We recognise the importance of not interfering in the Inquiry’s work, which needs to continue unhindered by external views. However we affirm our role in holding the Inquiry to account for its progress, which was accepted by the previous Chair, and it is legitimate for us to seek the opinions of those who have previously worked for the Inquiry. The fact that politicians are within the purview of the Inquiry does not discount this Committee having a role, in terms of ensuring greater transparency in relation to the Inquiry, and thereby contributing to building confidence. We request that the Panel provides a full update to us at the conclusion of the IICSA Chair’s review. (Paragraph 29)
9. The Truth Project is an important way to enable abuse survivors to share their experiences with the Inquiry. IICSA notes that 500 people have so far been invited to attend an interview, but only 100 have been able to contribute in this way to date. It is also unfortunate that identifying a suitable hearing centre has delayed the start of the Public Hearings, so that the first one will not take place until February next year, some two years after the Inquiry was established in its current form as a statutory inquiry. We regard IICSA’s slow progress to date in engaging directly with survivors as being a significant weakness in its work. This issue must be addressed in Professor Jay’s review findings, if IICSA is to build the confidence of survivors in its ability to deliver on its objectives, and maintain their engagement with its work. (Paragraph 35)
10. Like our predecessors, we regard the work of the Independent Inquiry as vital. However, confidence in the Inquiry’s ability to deliver its objectives in a timely and effective way has been seriously diminished by the problems it has encountered. Steps need to be taken swiftly to rebuild confidence in IICSA and its work. These should include the Inquiry setting out publicly, as part of the announcement of Professor Jay’s review findings, how it intends to resolve the tensions that Dame Lowell Goddard referred to, between the judicial approach and the inspectorate approach. In particular, IICSA should provide clarity on the balance which it intends to strike between establishing the truth about past institutional abuse and assessing current institutional practice. (Paragraph 38)
11. It is important that the Inquiry is able to conduct forensic and legal investigations into historic abuse within institutional settings. Some of these events have been hidden from view for far too long. This is understandably what most troubles survivors, and they want these matters to be dealt with. We recognise that the Inquiry will need to determine the way forward in the light of the Chair’s review, which is expected to conclude shortly. As part of that process, to provide clarity and make the work of the Inquiry easier to manage, consideration could be given to dividing the work into two separate elements: one pursuing forensic and legal investigations, to establish the truth about past institutional abuse, and the other looking at thematic and compliance issues around child protection and safeguarding procedures within institutions today. Both are important, and they may require different approaches, skills and experience to deliver results, but this is a matter for the Inquiry to determine. (Paragraph 39)
12. Experienced counsel have been departing from the Inquiry at an alarming rate, and we are concerned that a new senior Counsel to the Inquiry has not yet been appointed. IICSA should prioritise appointing a new Counsel to the Inquiry at the earliest opportunity, and ensure that it selects an individual with both the leadership qualities to oversee a high quality legal team and the requisite experience and prestige to command the confidence of victims and survivors. (Paragraph 41)
13. We look forward to taking further evidence and giving further consideration to these issues in due course. (Paragraph 42)”
The Chair of IICSA, Professor Alexis Jay OBE, responded as follows:
“We welcome the committee’s recognition that our independence is vital to the credibility of the Inquiry and that our work carries huge importance to address historic failures to tackle child sexual abuse and the terrible harm it causes.
Nobody is more determined to deliver a successful Inquiry on behalf of victims, survivors and the wider public than the Panel and myself. We recognise that the past few months have been difficult for the Inquiry and for the victims and survivors who have placed their trust in it. I am personally sorry for any unnecessary anxiety the Inquiry may have caused to victims and survivors during this transitional period.
In the coming weeks, I will publish my review of how the Inquiry operates. While this will not alter our terms of reference, I believe it will make the work of the Inquiry more transparent and set out a clear path for how the Inquiry will progress.
In particular, we recognise that the Inquiry needs to share more information about the vital work it does. We will begin this process shortly by sharing anonymised testimonials from victims and survivors who have shared their experiences with the Inquiry’s Truth Project.
“While I am confident that our safeguarding and dignity at work procedures are robust, I recognise the impact of recent speculation and commentary about them. As a result, the Inquiry will invite an external senior legal figure to review some of the issues raised in the Committee’s report.” [our emphasis]