Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:48 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 3:48 pm, 20th December 2018

My Lords, one of the great merits of this most welcome debate, for which we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is that it helps to focus attention again on a serious issue with which, like the noble Lord and other participants in this debate, I have been much preoccupied in the last few years. It is one that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse will need to bear carefully in mind as it goes about its work, for reasons that we have already heard. The issue is well-known: it is the failure of the Church as well as of the state to accord, at all times and in all places, full and equal respect to the legal rights of both the alleged abuser and the complainant in cases of child sex abuse.

The House considered the injustices that can arise in a debate that I initiated in June two years ago. The cause of this deeply troubling state of affairs is equally well-known: it arises from the view, so widely held in recent years among the police and in the Church of England too, that the complainant should not only be heard seriously and respectfully but should almost always be believed. Because, for so many years, complainants were brushed aside or disbelieved, the police and the Church, among others, have rushed to the other extreme and given almost automatic credence to complainants at the expense of alleged abusers.

As a result, as my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral said, the cardinal legal principle, so long established in our country as one of the bedrocks of our liberties—that those against whom crimes are alleged must be regarded as innocent until proved guilty—has been compromised, sometimes perilously so. Grave injustice has been done to many people: some prominent in our public affairs; others suffering outside the glare of publicity; others still who are dead, their reputations horribly sullied by allegations that they cannot themselves rebut.

The Government frequently emphasise the operational independence of the police, sometimes almost giving the impression that they think it has become almost a separate estate of the realm—a result, in part, of the arrival of those newcomers, the police and crime commissioners, whose performance varies so widely across the country and for whom hardly any elector wishes to vote.

We surely must ensure that the police are called effectively to account when operations have been concluded and there is serious reason to believe that injustice may have been done to those who have been investigated. Often, large sums of public money are spent on these operations. Failure by any crime commissioner to make provision for proper review of completed operations in these early days of the new system should lead to intervention by the Government; otherwise, public confidence in the police will be seriously eroded, and many police and crime commissioners will come to feel they have no need to bestir themselves to arrange for serious criticisms of completed operations to be properly investigated.

I hope that the Government will make it clear from the Front Bench at the end of this debate that those who weighted the scales against alleged abusers were wholly wrong. In this connection, they must keep a watchful eye on the work of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, for reasons set out so powerfully by previous speakers. While the independent inquiry pursues its investigations, the Government should give every support to those who deserve redress because they were unfairly treated in cases of child sex abuse. Sadly, on this point, the state has not so far distinguished itself in some notable instances where redress is imperative.

I salute the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, for the determination and tenacity with which he has sought to correct injustices done to those who cannot act for themselves because they are no longer alive. He has spoken movingly about the unsatisfactory manner in which the independent inquiry has approached the investigation of allegations against the late Lord Janner.

The noble Lord, my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral and I also share a common conviction that a great wrong has been done to Sir Edward Heath, a man I did not know but in whose work I take a great interest as a political historian. If he is to be seen accurately by posterity, the seven allegations of child sex abuse against him, left open at the end of the much-criticised Operation Conifer, must be cleared up, as my noble friend Lord Hunt has emphasised. This is no less than our duty to a Conservative statesman in this generation, when the facts can be readily established, as it is unlikely to be possible hereafter. It is simply wrong to let his reputation remain gravely tarnished by doing nothing.

Last week, with the support of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and others in all parts of the House, I set out in detail why an independent inquiry must be held. Shamefully, the Government have brushed aside the unanimous view of this House. The matter cannot rest there. I have now tabled a further Motion for debate that,

“this House resolves that an independent inquiry should be established by Her Majesty’s Government to review the seven allegations against Sir Edward Heath left unresolved at the end of Operation Conifer”.

This is the strongest form of words that the rules of this House provide in circumstances where the Government have failed to do their duty.

The injustice that has been inflicted posthumously on a Conservative statesman should come within the remit of the independent inquiry, as the inquiry itself has recognised and my noble friend Lord Hunt has explained. Yet, perversely, the Conservative police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire keeps on saying that the inquiry should investigate, despite its clear refusal. It is a measure of this man’s extraordinary irresponsibility. He could set up an inquiry himself but keeps on passing the buck. Since he will not act, the Government obviously should, and yet they constantly refuse.

The Government now maintain that they have provided a full and sufficient explanation for their refusal to establish an inquiry in a letter dated 10 October and written by the current Home Secretary to the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, who I see in his place, a copy of which has been placed in the Library of the House. The Government have made much of this letter. It is wholly definitive, in their view, leaving nothing further to be said, according to views expressed in this House last week and earlier this week. At six paragraphs, this communication is certainly more than a note but is not much of a letter.

The key section is as follows:

“The problem that the police encountered was their inability to interview Sir Edward himself in order to secure his account of events. I have every sympathy, but that problem will of course remain and it is not clear to what extent a further review of the existing evidence by a judge or retired prosecutor would resolve this”.

“Not clear”, says the Home Secretary. That seems absurd. A review of the seven unsubstantiated allegations by a retired judge or other leading lawyer, who would probe and scrutinise every aspect of them, would establish whether or not all, or some, or even one of them carried serious credibility.

The Home Secretary has not provided any adequate justification for his inaction. He should write another letter, much longer and fuller this time, for which I asked in our debate in the House last week on the injustice done to Sir Edward. I hope that I shall hear from the Front Bench this evening that such a letter is in preparation and that all who took part in last week’s debate will shortly receive it.

Where, above all in our land, should we expect to find unwavering support for natural justice? What are the last places where a rush to pass judgment on an alleged but unproven sex abuser might be anticipated? Surely the answer is the Christian churches and our established Church, represented here in this House, in particular. But a terrible wrong done to arguably the greatest of all Anglican bishops of the last century has damaged confidence in the Church’s rectitude.

In October three years ago, completely out of the blue, the Church of England’s national press office announced that compensation had been paid to a woman who said that she had been sexually abused as a child by George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who died 60 years ago and was revered in this country and far beyond it for the depth of his learning, the strength of his support for both suffering Christians and Jews in Nazi Germany and for his remorseless opposition to the carpet-bombing of German cities during the war, a stand that is often said to have cost him the archbishopric of Canterbury. The Church’s judgment on Bishop Bell three years ago was a terrible wrong to this colossal figure in the history of Christianity, because the single, uncorroborated allegation against him had not been properly investigated by the secret group within the Church who passed judgment on him. Key living witnesses were neither sought, found nor interviewed. His extensive collection of private papers at Lambeth Palace was only cursorily examined.

These shortcomings, and more besides, emerged in the independent review of the case carried out by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, and published exactly one year ago. His report was scathing about the procedures that had been used. The noble Lord found that the Church had,

“failed to follow a process that was fair and equitable to both sides”.

He described the manner in which the Church had conducted its investigation as “inappropriate and impermissible”, and called the financial payment “indefensibly wrong”. No one in the course of the process spoke on behalf of this most distinguished and long-dead bishop, yet the Church saw no need to express penitence or regret for the great wrong that had been done to Bishop Bell, a wrong which the noble Lord’s report illustrated so fully.

The Church chose to regard it purely as a question of its own processes. Even when those processes had been shot to pieces, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself continued to maintain the conclusions which the processes had drawn, quite regardless, pronouncing that a “significant cloud” still hung over the reputation of George Bell. That cloud was entirely the work of the Church itself, and many critics were not slow to observe that its authorities had a vested interest in maintaining it in the air, regardless of the fact that there was no longer anything to support it. A little over a month after the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, published his report, the Church embarked on another secret inquiry after one further allegation appeared. Nearly a year on, that second inquiry has yet to be completed.

Bishop Bell has been much in my mind over the last few years and in the mind of many others, too: distinguished clergymen in this country and other European nations, historians and lawyers, powerful commentators in the press, along with so many other people up and down the land who have been grievously distressed by the conduct of their Church. I had hoped that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester might, in the course of his remarks, at least have made it clear that this second inquiry will be brought to a swift conclusion and that a report will be published as soon as possible. As it is, I urge all those who have not done so to look at the report of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. I hope that we will, sooner rather than later, have from the Church a proper, firm pronouncement removing the stain placed on Bishop Bell, whose reputation it should never have compromised in the first place.

I regret to say that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has not been a great help in securing justice for Bishop Bell. Having decided, quite rightly, that it would not conduct an investigation itself since the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, had already done so, it proceeded in March to give a platform to the Chichester diocesan safeguarding adviser, a member of the team that failed to investigate the first allegation properly, so that he could justify himself at length and snipe at a number of comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile.

Could there be a more flagrant denial of the presumption of innocence than in the case of Bishop Bell? The independent inquiry should take note. It is examining some truly shocking cases of child sex abuse, but it must take great care to respect the rights of those who are accused and avoid serious mistakes of the kind that have been made in both state and Church when justice and fairness were overridden because the complainants were assumed to be telling the truth.