Last week, ConservativeHome called for an inquiry into historical child sex abuse. Is that what Theresa May announced in the House this afternoon?
The short answer is: yes, basically. The longer answer is that she announced two inquiries:
- The more significant of the two is an independent inquiry into whether, in May’s words, “public bodies – and other non-state institutions – have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse.” This will be the Hillsborough-style inquiry demanded by those MPs who signed Zac Goldsmith’s recent letter. It will have access to official documents and be able to call witnesses, without putting them under oath and prejudicing any criminal trials. May expects it to report after the general election.
- The second is, effectively, a review of a review. Last year – in response to queries made by Labour’s Tom Watson – the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, was set on investigating the department’s response to abuse allegations in the past. Given what we’ve since discovered about those 114 missing files, May has now decided to establish another review “not just of the investigation commissioned by Mark Sedwill but also how the police and prosecutors handled any related information that was handed to them.” This will be lead by Peter Wanless, the head of the NSPCC, supported by a lawyer. May expects it to report within the next eight to ten weeks.
May wasn’t able to fill in every detail of these inquiries – but that’s understandable. She doesn’t want to prescribe or pre-empt the work of the independent inquiry, whose members are yet to be selected.
But the Home Secretary was utterly clear about some broad principles: that all this will be conducted transparently; that the inquires should have access to any documents they need; that nothing should be done to upset any criminal prosecutions; that the investigations should range beyond the public sector; and so on. Among these concrete propositions was May’s revelation that the Government is prepared to turn the independent inquiry into a “full public enquiry,” if its members recommend it. The Government’s position really has shifted since last week.
Another measure of that shift was the response from the Labour benches. Apart from Dennis Skinner’s usual bellicosity – “Coalition cuts,” etc. – most of the questions were calm and considered. Watson and Simon Danczuk both went out of their way to welcome May’s statement. This was a serious House for a sad, serious problem.
It’s likely that there will be more questions to come, once the main inquiry actually begins. For instance, how will it balance so wide a remit – stretching back decades, beyond the public sector – against the requirement to reach conclusions? Will it really have sufficient access to all official files, including those held by the secret services? But, for now, May has done what was necessary.