Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:26 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Shadow Attorney General 4:26 pm, 20th December 2018

My Lords, this is a sad and delicate subject for our last substantive debate before Christmas, but the fact that it has been such a non-partisan and thoughtful debate makes it important and appropriate none the less. It also gives me a belated opportunity to welcome the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, to her role; she has already, very quickly, discharged it with enormous distinction and thought. I look forward to hearing her remarks on this difficult subject in a moment. This is also an opportunity for me to thank my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours for a lifetime of commitment to principles of natural justice and other human rights principles.

It is especially difficult to discuss these matters in the context of people who we have known, loved and respected. I must, for the second time today, thank the right reverend Prelate for the way in which he has handled these difficult matters, not least—if I may say it—when two of my formidable noble friends almost began a cross-examination; he showed enormous talent and fortitude.

Human rights are indivisible and, in this context, that means due process, fair trial and fair hearing rights, as well as vital human rights for the vulnerable to be protected from abuse—and who could be more vulnerable than children? This must be said, so that no one outside your Lordships’ House thinks for a moment that your Lordships’ House is trying to discourage victims of abuse from coming forward. I am sure that goes without saying here, but I want to say it in your Lordships’ name. Unfortunately, that will sometimes mean coming forward a long time after the event because of the nature of childhood and so on.

All of us want of course to build a society where the presumption of innocence is real, and where it is easier for victims of all kinds of abuse to come forward in the moment through proper, open and accessible procedures, and not years later in the media. Yet we still live in a society where the presumption of innocence is not real in ordinary life, where slurs and quick, harsh judgments are made—dare I say it—in political life and in the media, where we hear “there is no smoke without fire” et cetera. This makes it very hard to make the presumption of innocence a real norm in our daily lives. It is still too difficult for victims to come forward, children especially. We must remember that when people oppose sex education and more horizontal power structures, whether in education or any other part of public life.

We must do better in the future. In the meantime, and perhaps for ever, we will be dealing with very difficult balances of rights. Most noble Lords recognised that in their contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, cited with great admiration, and humility on his own part, the wise words of others but his own speech was one that I shall remember for some time. Before he entered your Lordships’ House, his contribution to fair-minded policing was enormous. We are dealing with difficult balances of rights. We must always remember that a miscarriage of justice creates an extra victim when, by accident or design, it is perpetrated.

People in public life can be more powerful than other people and have more access to power but they are also ripe targets for false accusations. That creates another enormous tension here. Members of minority communities, as was pointed out a number of times, are particularly vulnerable to slurs, especially in relation to sex offending. Rightly and understandably, sex offending is taken very seriously as one of the most terrible types of offending in our society. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, was right to point out the importance of the conventional and normal practice of anonymity pre-charge that has been departed from of late, with very unfortunate results. I look forward to reading the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, in due course.

Noble Lords, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Hunt, pointed out that when allegations are against the dead—who, of course, can no longer speak for themselves—it is sometimes unfair when slurs are swirling around unchecked not to conduct an inquiry to provide the possibility of vindication. Equally, it can be unfair to conduct an inquiry if it is somehow special, different, and the evidence is not handled with enormous care.