The past week has seen a new crescendo of criticism for what we must now stop, following the resignation of its third chairwoman, calling the Goddard Inquiry into child abuse.
Along with a slew of bad news articles we’ve seen broadsides from Charles Moore in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, Dominic Lawson in yesterday’s Sunday Times (£), and now Libby Purves this morning’s Times (£).
The only question that seems to divide the inquiry’s critics is whether it needs to be simply rebooted or scrapped outright. Yet none report any evidence that this will happen.
Moore is quite explicit about why he thinks the ill-fated circus will plough on full steam ahead: its collapse would be hugely embarrassing to the Prime Minister, who set it up when she was Home Secretary.
This is probably true. But whilst it is easy for the media to switch deftly from one set of certainties to another, it’s important to remember that when Theresa May commissioned this inquiry Britain was witnessing what amounted to a witch hunt.
Calling the inquiry was not only politically prudent close to the general election – as everybody is quick to point out – but may have vented some of the pressure which might otherwise have led to more people being named, on hearsay, by the likes of Tom Watson.
That said, there can be no doubt that the inquiry has gone badly off the rails, with an excessively wide remit compounded by envelope-pushing personnel.
Thus despite being mandated to investigate institutions – and prohibited by the Inquiries Act 2005 from trying to “determine any person’s civil or criminal liability” – Dame Lowell and Ben Emmerson, the lead QC, elected to pursue high-profile but thinly-evidenced cases against individuals instead.
Scandalous allegations against high profile individuals – and the wild fantasies about an ‘establishment conspiracy’ – certainly provided the real impetus for the Home Secretary’s decision to take action.
But since the Inquiry was set up most of the cases against high-profile politicians, such as Leon Brittan, Harvey Proctor, Edward Heath, have fallen apart – despite the often discreditable conduct of the police against them.
Moore describes the police raids on the homes of Lords Bramall and Brittan as “contemptible”, and that’s before one includes the call for witnesses against Heath that was held outside the former Prime Minister’s home.
If we assume that the Home Office isn’t going to drop the curtain on this ill-fated Inquiry – and there’s no reason to think it will – then it must be put back on track with all haste.
That necessitates a much tighter, more practical remit that focuses on the institutional failures of the past in order to better protect children in the future.
Pursuing individuals for alleged crimes is the proper job of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the courts.
Show trials for individuals facing ancient, unsubstantiated allegations – using “findings of fact” to try to name someone a paedophile without adequate evidence or granting them the ability to present their case or cross-examine witnesses – must end.
That must include a shift in attitudes away from the current guilty-until-proven-otherwise logic of the “believe the victims” mantra. Both inquisitors and journalists must re-learn the difference between “victims” and “alleged victims”.
On these terms May’s inquiry could still do a lot of good, drawing lessons from previous institutional failures in order to build better safeguards for tomorrow’s vulnerable children.
If the Government continues to indulge the witch-hunter fantasies of Watson et al, on the other hand, further fiasco and failure will surely follow.