Donald Macintyre's Sketch: A journey into a past riddled with loose ends and so-so debate


In a long forgotten short story about time travel, a man wakes up to discover he is in a locked room, empty except for a pile of magazines dated 20 years hence. Unfortunately they are all about gardening, so having frantically leafed  through them he is no wiser about whether the world has landed a man on Mars or fought a third world war. 

Except that this journey is to the past rather than the future, the story echoes the Home Office position in relation to historic child abuse. You imagine archives packed with papers on parking meters or pub licensing policy, but the relevant 114 files are nowhere. “I am concerned about all the material that we cannot find,” Permanent Secretary Mark Sedwill told MPs, in a nicely understated answer.

While most of the files were “probably” destroyed according to “the normal file procedures” they “cannot be confirmed to be destroyed because there is not a proper log of what was destroyed and what wasn’t”.

Faced with all this, Labour Committee Chairman Keith Vaz mused that it was all becoming like a “le Carré novel”.

Maybe, but you can’t help feeling the master story-teller might have written better dialogue. Sedwill – to be fair like other important people who come before parliamentary committees – is almost incapable of starting an answer without the word “So.”

No doubt it began as a way to buy time to think, but normal people do not answer questions like this. “What’s it to be today, Mrs Jones?” “So. Two pounds of carrots and that nice big cauliflower please, Jim.”

Trying to make sense of the old procedure, whereby documents were preserved or not, the Tory Lorraine Fulbrook asked whether documents were kept for five years and then disposed of after a review. Sedwill replied “errm... So. A proportion are disposed at first review and others are held back for further review.” “What closes a file?” she asked – rather relevantly. “So. A decision... its varied a lot down the years... etc etc.”

The MPs were mainly polite, though Labour’s Ian Austin had a waspish exchange with the mandarin about his information that a Home Office official who thought a proposal had been made to give public money to the Paedophile Information Exchange had not been interviewed in the relevant enquiry.

And when Tory Mark Reckless pursued the interesting question of the parliamentary whips’ offices’ policy on giving information to the police, Sedwill said carefully he was not qualified to answer.

To his credit, Sedwill was obviously sincere in saying of child abuse that as a “citizen and a parent I shudder to think of this”. But the MPs did not appear to leave more confident about the investigations so far than they had arrived.

“The one absolute in this is I’m not going to make absolute assurances,” Sedwill cautioned. “You can only hope that the Wanless report will finally produce some clarity.