Those already deeply suspicious of the nation’s Independent Inquiry Into Child Abuse are probably feeling very smug this week. The news that the Home Affairs Select Committee wants to summon Inquiry panel members to give evidence before it looks at first glance like a significant distraction from the investigation’s original remit – to gather evidence about child protection failings from agents of government departments and privately run organisations.
New Chair for the Committee, Yvette Cooper insists she wants to call panel members on grounds of transparency. She says:
“Given the two-year history of problems in the inquiry, it is vitally important that there is some transparency over the things that have gone wrong in the past and the way it is working now, so people can have confidence that problems are now being resolved and the work is back on track. It will be for the committee to decide when and whom to call on to give further evidence.”
However, new Inquiry Chair, Professor Jay, has released a statement in which she counters this idea by suggesting that calling panel members to give evidence before the Committee would compromise their independence.
If the Committee presses its advantage, it could hold hearings focusing on past failings within the Inquiry itself, which raises important questions: should these matters not be separated from the Committee’s work with the Inquiry’s subject matter, and addressed elsewhere? And, does the Inquiries Act even allow for this kind of investigation?
There is a real danger that trying to combine the Inquiry’s failings with institutional failings relating to child abuse may just cause the Inquiry to collapse altogether, or at the very least, create more confusion. The frustration for survivors too will be palpable.
And it’s not just the current panel members the Committee are looking to hear from, either. Former Chair, Justice Goddard has also been asked to come forward and discuss her time as Chair, what went wrong and ultimately, why she left.
This whole fiasco could take months to play out, and may stop the Inquiry from carrying out its work in good time, as it is essentially working against the clock – many of those alleged to have abused children are elderly, and teetering on the brink of fitness to stand trial thresholds.
The lack of trust in the Inquiry, as it lurches from disaster to disaster will only get worse if it is seen to be prioritising its own internal strife and self reflection over the needs of survivors and victims. Those who have lost faith in the Inquiry completely will see this latest development as a way to stall its work further.
This is a crucial moment in history for the Inquiry.
There does need to be an investigation into the internal tensions at the Inquiry, but these must not be dealt with under the same terms as the Inquiry’s own vital work. There should be a standalone investigation looking into the Inquiry’s failings, failings which we suspect will highlight the Inquiry process’ flaws, offering universal lessons about statutory Inquiry systems generally in the face of a growing demand for transparency, independence and democracy, in their truest forms.
As the Inquiry also looks at the possibility of reducing the number of investigations it undertakes, any more events which seem to rock the already fragile status quo of the Inquiry could result in tragedy: no real outcomes for survivors and victims of abuse, just a pathetic pantomime featuring temper tantrums, indecision and a lack of courage.