It is possible that Prime Minister Theresa May is the luckiest British politician of our time. She seems to have completely dodged any responsibility for the debacle surrounding the instigation of the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). The fact that May has emerged politically unscathed with a reputation of businesslike competence is nothing short of remarkable, due in no small part to the Labour Party obsession with its leader rather than providing opposition. Needless to say. the people who have been forgotten appear to be the people in desperate need of closure, the abuse survivors.
A Weak Notion of Independence
As neither an abuse victim myself nor someone who has experience of supporting victims I am not qualified to begin to comment on the specifics this most sensitive of areas. But looking at the IICSA in an organisational context is a different matter and much is revealed about the attitude of the authorities, which casts doubt on a succesful outcome. I start by encouraging you to view the IICSA website. Looking at the About Us section we find the following statement:
Being independent means the Inquiry is not part of government and not run by a government department.
This seems a particularly weak interpretation of ‘independent’. It should go much further with a statement that it is neither subject to government influence nor censorship. The notion of independence is further weakened since much of the suspicion falls on establishment institutions which are outside the technical boundaries of Government such as the Police, Lords, the Church of England and the Judiciary. To this list can be added those members of the Royal Family aside from the Queen and Prince of Wales who are not part of the Government but most certainly part of the establishment. I shall return to this issue later.
Next, consider the appointment of the chairperson. So far three IICSA chairs appointed by the (Government) Home Secretary have resigned. In some cases the chair has been appointed despite the reservations of the victims groups. So much for independence from Government! Prior to the appointment of both the current (Alexis Jay) and previous chair (Lowell Goddard) a strong preference was indicated for renowned Human Rights lawyer Michael Mansfield QC. Despite Mansfield indicating a willingness to take the chair he was overlooked. This is in spite, or perhaps because of, his clear record of taking on cases such as the Birmingham Six and Hillsborough Inquest which directly challenged the establishment version of events. More surprising was the promotion of panel member Professor Alexis Jay as the new chair (current at time of writing). MPs had already demanded an opportunity to question previous chair Goddard on the reasons why the stood down. Apart from the fact that she had been paid a significant sum of public money for no tangible result, there were reports of tension within the inquiry. So without any public understanding of the reasons for the sudden and unexpected resignation, an appointment from within is an unsatisfactory situation. Certainly Professor Jay has an excellent reputation, having been involved in the Rotherham child abuse inquiry but we cannot know what role, if any, she played in the possibly toxic climate which led to Goddard’s resignation.
Establishment Honours and the Credibility Deficit
If we take a reasonable view of democracy as holding those in power to account then institutions must exist to allow an oppressed minority to seek a voice and settlement. In such a case it is vital not only for justice to be done but that justice is seen to be done. So certain actions involving members of the panel take on a puzzling aspect. Firstly, the panel members were, once again, appointed by the Home Secretary. Now take the example of panel member Professor Malcolm Evans, an expert in issues involving the victims of torture. Professor Evans was appointed to the IICSA panel in March 2015 and a short while later in December 2015 he was awarded a knighthood in the 2016 New Year Honours List. The award (a KCMG to go with his existing OBE!) was nominated by the Foreign Secretary. In an area where public confidence in investigating the establishment is understandably fragile, to offer the ultimate establishment reward to a panel member seems staggeringly insensitive. That Professor Evans accepted the honour (and presumably agreed to have it prominently displayed on the website), ignoring the possible light such an award might be viewed, casts doubt on his judgement. It is also worth mentioning that Alexis Jay also possesses an OBE (and panel member Drusilla Sharpling a CBE) while Michael Mansfield lists no establishment awards on his profile.
The issuing and acceptance of honours is a subject in itself which is too large to be dealt with in the context of the present post (but which I visit in a separate post). One aspect, however, needs to be considered. Looking at the profile for the IICSA a number of institutions are specifically named (including the BBC who, incidentally, reported that Mansfield was ‘too old’ to take the chair). Left out of the list is any mention of the Royal Family or Household. Presumably they are lumped in with ‘other public and private institutions’. But the problem is that it is the monarchy which ultimately bestows honours and titles and is itself under suspicion for a list of unwholesome connections. To take but two instances there is Prince Charles previous close personal friendship with serial paedophile Jimmy Savile and Prince Andrew’s friendship with convicted US paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. As the Daily Mail reported, at the height of the Epstein affair (when even MPs were so disgusted that they stripped Andrew of his official Trade Envoy status) the Duke of York was being presented with a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order by his doting mother for services to the crown!
The Inquiry is Symptomatic of a Wider Malaise
In a broader context the problem of the independence (or rather otherwise) of the IISA reveals a problem with our establishment system. Firstly, all authority for the Government and Judiciary is ultimately derived from a single source, the Crown. As a further example, notice that the IICSA website has a Crown Copyright sign on it (which covers all material produced by the Crown!). In most modern constitutions, institutions derive their authority from different constituencies. It allows for separate public institutions to hold each other to account. Although I am in no way an admirer of the US Constitution it did, for example, allow for the removal of a corrupt President Nixon in 1974 under disclosure and threat of impeachment by institutions with separate authorities. But the interlocking nature of the British establishment is perceived as a major obstacle in holding it to account. It is something which the Government is either ignoring or relying on depending on your point of view but something which the appointment of Michael Mansfield QC would have gone a considerable way to assuaging.