Last month, whilst being questioned by the Home Affairs Committee, Lowell Goddard, new Chair for the Child Abuse Inquiry tentatively suggested the creation of a separate panel for survivors and victims of child abuse. She also explained her desire to create a separate panel to that of the core Inquiry panel – and it is this reasoning that has this week ignited a new row.
Although Justice Goddard offered up the suggestion of a standalone panel for survivors and victims in order to give them a voice within the Inquiry, she also clarified her decision not to integrate them onto the core panel. The reason she gave was that she felt they would not be impartial investigators, and therefore a potential source of difficulty for the Inquiry.
This morning victims have lashed out at Goddard and Home Secretary Theresa May for what they feel is a marginalisation of their role in an Inquiry which needs them and a decision which, they argue, is prejudicial. Currently, survivors and victims are not prevented from acting as judges or jurors in abuse cases under British Law so why have they been excluded from the central Inquiry panel?
The previous panel, which was an integrated board that included survivors of abuse, was disbanded after months of internal rows and a very public altercation between legal counsel to the Inquiry Ben Emmerson QC and panel member Sharon Evans, a survivor of abuse herself. Graham Wilmer, another former panel member and a survivor of abuse, was also the subject of criticism after an email he sent to a victim of abuse left the victim feeling highly distressed. What followed was a very visible change in panel makeup and background – the new Inquiry panel is heavily dominated by legal minds and of course, no survivors in sight.
Goddard’s comment about survivors’ objectivity at the Committee meeting last month was telling. Given past embarrassing scraps amongst panel members, legal counsel to the Inquiry, Emmerson, who at the time was effectively Inquiry Chair for procedural and other purposes, may have been tempted to throw his new found weight into the debate on the creation of a new panel and suggest a lawyer-dominated and survivor free board to minimise conflicts and disagreements. That action, regardless of its provenance, has now cost the Inquiry dearly.
A campaign to force a U-turn on the proposed membership criteria for the Inquiry Panel has been signed by over 200 survivors, whistleblowers and child protection professionals. It has also been backed by Michael Mansfield QC who at one stage was the survivor’s and victims’ favourite to hold the position of Inquiry Chair. In an open letter to the Home Secretary, the group expresses dismay at current Chair, Goddard’s view that survivors and victims lack sufficient objectivity to be quasi-judicial members of the Inquiry.
The Inquiry must get a handle on survivors and their culture before it is too late. For Home Office officials to still take the view, after these many months, that survivors and victims of abuse are at best a homogeneous group and at worst, dysfunctional and disruptive cogs in their investigative machinery, is a mistake. The secret to a succesful panel does not lie in excluding survivors, but in creating a panel with excellent chemistry, and that must include the right survivors for the task at hand.