Thursday, 13 November 2014

Scratchpad - Designing a once-in-a-lifetime Child Abuse Inquiry

Since I wrote this blog post last month, A draft proposal for a credible, definitive inquiry into UK child (sexual) abuse I've been doing a lot of thinking about how a worthwhile credible Child Abuse Inquiry can be conducted.

I've had discussions online (principally on Twitter) and one-to-one with others who are interested in trying to design a really worthwhile inquiry. This scratchpad expresses my take on the issues as of today but some of the ideas came from discussion with others.

None of the ideas in this scratchpad are set in stone (even in my own mind) although I think that at least some of them are getting close to the optimal solution. Even the detail of the Principles is up for further serious thought and discussion.

I've tried to make my thinking clear but I recognise that the issues are so complex and the possible solutions so many that I may have failed to express clearly why I got to a possible solution.

I'm making the assumption in writing this that the current Home Office-sponsored inquiry should be and will be scrapped.

See The Inquiry Panel and Keith Vaz must go - Letter to Theresa May and Mark Sedwill
for some of the reasons why I think the present Inquiry Panel should be dismissed.

Text in [square brackets] indicates points where I think that further thought and discussion is required.


These are the aims that I would favour (as of today):

  1. To establish, so far as is possible given the passage of time and death of potential witnesses, the truth about child abuse in the United Kingdom and Crown Dependencies in the period [for discussion] 1950 to date. [Should "Crown Dependencies" read simply "Jersey" or are others in question too?]
  2. To establish the truth, so far as it is possible, about the participation of prominent individuals in child abuse and in its cover-up.
  3. To establish the truth, so far as it is possible, about whether and how state and non-state institutions concealed child abuse.
  4. To provide for survivors of child abuse a safe setting in which they can tell their story.
  5. To provide for the families of the missing a safe setting in which they can tell their story. [This hasn't been discussed seriously yet so far as I'm aware. Think "snuff movies".]
  6. To produce a report that is credible with survivors and the public.
  7. To produce a report that is credible with decision makers. Without that nothing that needs to change will change.
  8. To make recommendations for change to minimise the potential for future child abuse and to minimise the scope for future cover-up of such abuse.
I consciously haven't included a definition of "child abuse" here. I'm clear about some things that need to go in but there are real "edge" questions which need to be discussed in detail.

For example, it's clear (to me) that Frank Beck buggering a young boy is child abuse. It's less clear whether a man meeting and having sex with a 17-year old "rent boy" in a public toilet (illegal at the time) is or is not "child abuse".

Perspectives differ on such issues. Much further discussion is needed to decide the defiinition that the inquiry will use. Some of that discussion will, I anctipate, likely be very heated.


It seems to me that these principles are essential both to establish credibility of the Inquiry and to maintain that credibility.

  1. "Non-trust". See Non-trust is the rational approach to the UK Child Abuse Inquiry for some of my thinking underlying the principle of "non-trust".
  2. "Total transparency". If the Inquiry is to be credible with survivors it must minimise the opportunity for further cover-up. Transparency cannot, in reality, be "total" - survivor testimony must be confidential, unless individual survivors choose that it be put on public record.
  3. Fairness - Balancing, somehow, the desire to maximise exposure of the truth without unfairly accusing someone who might be innocent. If, for example, a survivor wishes their testimony to be on public record but that testimony names a living person what happens? [Needs much further discussion.]
"Non-trust" has implications for the methodology of the Inquiry including the choice of chair.

The underlying principles I see in establishing a credible methodology are:

  1. Minimise the potential for cover-up within the Inquiry
  2. Maximise the risk for any cover-up attempted within the Inquiry
These principles play out in, for example, the choice of a Chair, A young judge may be the ideal person to chair the UK Child Abuse Inquiry .

If there is a "Public Panel" (see later) to monitor the activities of the Chair and the Inquiry Panel then it minimises the potential for concealment by any Panel Member

Similarly if a young Judge is appointed as Chair he/she would put his future judicial career at risk by any jiggery pokery. The principle of maximise the risk applies.

Non-statutory vs Statutory vs Royal Commission

This issue is potentially one of the most difficult.

Should there be a single UK and Crown Dependencies inquiry? Or multiple inquiries?

If there are multiple inquiries how can information be collated consistent with maximising the likelihood of establishing the truth?

A statutory inquiry has the powers to compel production of documents, to compel attendance to give evidence and to take evidence under oath but it cannot (so far as I understand) include the Crown Dependencies.

I think that taking evidence under oath is essential on the minimise the potential and maximise the risk principles.

A statutory inquiry also has the vexed issue of "interested parties" (of which there could be very many) and their right (I believe) to be legally represented.

There is also the issue of re-inventing the wheel. There are already inquiries in Northern Ireland and in Jersey.

I see, I think, a solution. This is my (unsuccessful?) attempt briefly to describe it.

  1. Establish a common methodology for information storage - for the UK and for, at least, Jersey. This will likely need retro-fitting with respect to Northern Ireland and Jersey.
  2. There could be a Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) single inquiry or an England&Wales Inquiry and a separate Scotland Inquiry.
  3. The inquiries covering the UK and the Crown Dependencies (Jersey?) would all feed information/evidence into a single database (see Methodology later). It might be necessary for Letters Patent to establish a mini-Royal Commission to enable the retro-fitting.
  4. Each inquiry would have search access to the database to assist in following "connections" e.g. where an individual might travel from jurisdiction to another.
That description is probably too compressed for easy understanding. I'm happy to discuss in detail with anyone who has the interests and mastery of the issues to see if it stands up to serious scrutiny.


The volume of information which is likely to be collected is enormous and is likely to be unprecedented in the history of public inquiries. It will, I anticipate, dward the daunting volume of information collected by, for example, the Hillsborough Independent Panel.

I think it is essential to use technology to maximise the likelihood of establishing the truth.

All information gatthered, from whatever source, should be held in a text-searchable database.

Reports of past inquiries should be scanned (optical character recognition) into that database. OCR is essential - the Hutton Inquiry used OCR and that facilitated searches. The Chilcot Inquiry didn't use OCR (at least in public documents) and that is a disaster, in terms of finding information and examing possible connections within it.

Both the "Inquiry Panel" and the "Public Panel". should have access to the database. [Suitable confidentiality agreements need to be designed to balance access and ability to raise concerns.]

The "Public Panel" and "Advisory Panel"

There is, so far as I'm aware, no precedent for these suggestions.

I don't see any insuperable problem with fitting these suggested structures on to either a statutory inquiry or a Royal Commission. [More experienced heads than mine may cringe at that comment.]

It seems to me that survivors (and perhaps families of the missing) need to be represented in the process. The Inquiries Act 2005 precludes them being on the Inquiry Panel (at least that's my understanding).

The "Survivor Panel" would have a monitoring overview role to ensure credibility from the survivors' point of view.

The "Public Panel" would have a more full time "keep the Inquiry Panel honest" function and a research function.

The "Public Panel" would have full access to what the Inquiry Panel sees (under suitable confidentiality agreement).

The Public Panel (existing researchers?) could also search the database for connections etc. The volume of information is vast. Adding additional well-motivated brains to the process would be an advantage - assisting the Inquiry Panel in establishing the truth.

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