Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:35 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 4:35 pm, 20th December 2018

I do not think my personal view on this is relevant. I understand the inquiry is being carried out strictly in accordance with the legislation that allows that to happen.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, as your Lordships know, was set up by the Government in March 2015 to consider the extent to which state and non-state institutions have failed in their duty to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation, and to make recommendations to protect children from such abuse in future. As a statutory inquiry, it is underpinned by the Inquiries Act 2005 and has been given the powers it needs to expose the ways in which institutions failed in their duties to provide safe spaces for children and to get to the truth. As many noble Lords have noted, shining a light on these wrongdoings is of paramount importance, matched by the need to ensure that these failings are addressed and mitigated so that children are better safeguarded in future.

Noble Lords well know that the inquiry is independent of the Government, and rightly so. This inquiry is about people who suffered sexual abuse and exploitation as children because of the failure of state and non-state institutions and who for years have never found justice—people who believe that the state failed to listen to them in the past. That is why it is absolutely crucial that this inquiry is, and is seen to be, completely independent.

Under the Inquiries Act, the then Home Secretary agreed the terms of reference that set out the roles and responsibilities of the inquiry, and it is for the chair and panel to decide what the inquiry investigates and how. It is therefore not appropriate for me to use this debate to comment on the investigations of the inquiry, or to be seen to influence how the inquiry has interpreted its terms of reference. However, I can use this opportunity to remind noble Lords of the progress that the inquiry, chaired by Professor Alexis Jay, has been making in getting to the truth for victims and survivors.

The inquiry has confirmed 13 strands of investigation and has set out a timetable of public hearings that takes it up to February 2020. It has rolled out its Truth Project, providing victims and survivors with the opportunity to tell the inquiry what has happened to them. The inquiry has said that almost 2,000 accounts of child sexual abuse have been shared with its Truth Project so far. Over 200 individual victims and survivors are complainant core participants in the inquiry, as well as a number of other survivor groups and institutions.

In April 2018, the inquiry published an interim report in which it confirmed that it expected to make substantial progress by 2020. The inquiry also made a series of wide-ranging recommendations for change. Yesterday, after careful consideration, the Government published their response to the interim report. I am pleased to say we will take forward the great majority of the inquiry’s recommendations, and I am particularly pleased to note that the Government will establish a scheme to ensure that former child migrants receive a payment as soon as possible in recognition of the fundamentally flawed nature of the historic child migration policy.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, raised concerns about whether it is too easy for those alleging abuse to receive compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme. The inquiry is looking at the issue of compensation in some detail—although I fear the noble Lord may not be entirely pleased. The interim report rather highlighted barriers faced by victims and survivors when applying for compensation, including concern that some eligibility criteria have an unfair impact on them. For example, the inquiry reports that those with unspent criminal convictions are excluded from claiming compensation from the scheme in most cases, yet inquiry research also shows that some victims and survivors may commit criminal offences that can be directly attributed to the abuse they suffered, perhaps because it was encouraged by a grooming abuser—I am thinking particularly of the cases of the girls in Rotherham, with which the noble Lord is familiar. The Government have announced a review to consider whether the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme remains fit for purpose, and will consult publicly in 2019. I understand that in the past there have been instances where there has been abuse of the scheme.

This inquiry and the progress made would not have been possible without the strength of those victims and survivors who have been affected by child sexual abuse, and have come forward to give evidence, as noted by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. We offer our continued support and sympathies for them. We also recognise the role of Professor Alexis Jay in leading and making progress with the inquiry.

While progress is being made, as the inquiry’s timeline for public hearings highlights, there is still much work for the inquiry to do as it continues to expose what went wrong, but also setting out how we can provide a safer future for children. Of course, the Government acknowledge that any investigation or inquiry of this type will have an impact on individuals who are alleged to have sexually abused children, as well as their family and friends. Many noble Lords have put that case most clearly this evening. The inquiry has protocols for restriction orders and redaction of information that may identify individuals within the material it discloses to core participants and potentially to the wider public, and these are published on the inquiry’s website.

On the issue of police releasing names to the media before a charge has been made, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, this is covered by the College of Policing guidance on media relations, which has recently been updated to make it absolutely clear that it also applies to the release of names of deceased persons.

I understand that noble Lords have concerns about some aspects of the inquiry’s work, yet I urge the House to note the vital work of the inquiry and how crucial its independence from government is to its success.

I now turn to the noble Lord’s Motion to acknowledge the inquiry’s handling of evidence and the concerns raised by many of your Lordships, since this is the largest public inquiry of its kind. The inquiry is clear on its website that,

“Written and oral evidence … will include testimony from core participants who allege that they are the victim and survivor of sexual offences”,

and who are referred to by the inquiry as complainant core participants. I appreciate that this concerns some noble Lords. However, as the Government and the inquiry have been clear throughout, the inquiry’s focus is deliberately on the conduct of institutions and how any allegations were dealt with. At the risk of repeating myself, it is not for the Government to interfere with how the independent inquiry conducts its investigations.

The inquiry is receiving evidence and documentation from victims, survivors, government departments, police forces, churches, schools, local authorities and many other state and non-state institutions across England and Wales. It has held public hearings in relation to eight of its investigative strands, and has received over 158,000 documents, totalling over 1.7 million pages of A4. It is clear that the task the inquiry faces is significant. It has published on its website all the protocols it follows for the handling and publishing of documents. When the inquiry is closed down, the evidence will be transferred to the National Archives.

Several noble Lords raised the issue of false allegations and unproven allegations. False allegations are obviously an extremely serious matter, and accusers could be prosecuted for perverting the course of justice. Obviously, that would be up to the police to decide in each individual case. Where noble Lords feel that allegations are unproven, that information should be shared with the relevant police force.

In response to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, on the single-strand aspect with regard to Lord Janner being named, I really do recognise and respect the strength not just of his feelings on this subject but of those of many other noble Lords who have spoken. However, I again remind the House that the inquiry’s focus is on the conduct of institutions and how allegations were dealt with. It is not looking into specific allegations of child abuse made against any particular person, living or dead. The position on this particular investigation into the handling of accusations about Lord Janner was revised, and refocused on the institutional failings, as was set out in the notices of determination published in April and May 2017. I understand that this position is being kept under review.

I hope I understood the point raised by my noble friend Lord Finkelstein correctly. On the timing of the public hearing of this strand, the chair has indicated that it will come after the conclusion of the criminal investigations into Leicestershire Police.

My noble friend Lord Hunt asked why the inquiry was not looking at the seven outstanding allegations in relation to Sir Edward Heath but was looking at the case of Lord Janner. I hope that I have addressed that question; indeed, I feel that the noble Lord partly addressed it himself, in clarifying the fact that the inquiry is there to examine institutional failings—and it is those failings that it plans to look at in relation to Lord Janner.

My noble friend Lord Lexden asked about the need for an investigation into the seven outstanding allegations against Sir Edward Heath. I am sure that he will not be surprised to hear that the Government’s position remains unchanged from the recent debates and Questions on this subject and is set out in the letter from my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster.