Sketch: 'Goliath' Ben Emmerson fights back against 'David' Vaz in battle over child sex abuse inquiry

In Emmerson’s view, the current panel would have to be disbanded and replaced either by a royal commission or a new inquiry with statutory powers

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Indy Politics

At one point in today’s hearing on the chronic travails of the child sex abuse inquiry its counsel, Ben Emmerson, suggested a little cheekily that Home Affairs Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz’s clerks could show him where the QC’s duties as a “facilitator” of the panel’s meetings in the all-too-painful absence of a chairman were detailed on the inquiry’s website.

“What my clerks do is not a matter for you, Mr Emmerson,” Vaz replied with typical crispness.

It looked for a moment as if Emmerson could be in trouble. It was not to be. For a man, as he put it, with his “hand on the tiller” of an inquiry marooned after losing two chairpersons – let alone one who had been roundly accused of “bullying” Sharon Evans, one of the two child abuse victims on the panel – Emmerson was a confident performer. He has been described as a Goliath in human rights law. And as a potential David, interrogating Emmerson about Evans’s damaging evidence to the committee last week, Vaz found his sling in need of repair.

So confident, in fact, that he brought news. In Emmerson’s view, the current panel would have to be disbanded and replaced either by a royal commission or a new inquiry with statutory powers.

It was not for him to be speaking for, or even advise, Theresa May, who has promised to take a decision by next Saturday, but “she knows my views”.If the Australian parallel panel was anything to go by, a new panel could complete its job in four years. And yes, there was no reason why the current members shouldn’t apply to join a new panel. Except one.

For Sharon Evans had done “a great deal of damage” by leaking confidential information and making misleading statements about the inquiry. And indeed a Home Office letter to Evans, published by Vaz’s committee today, does accuse her of “extremely serious” breaches of confidentiality, which Emmerson insisted yesterday was essential if people on the panel are to be able to speak freely.

Not only had he been cleared of bullying by the Home Office, but he had initially been careful to temper his written warnings to her when the leaks first started back in December.

“It may be that in some areas Mrs Evans finds it difficult to distinguish between an accurate statement and an inaccurate one,” he said (rubbing it in), as a result of which it was impossible for the present panel to do its work … While I understand that she is a survivor she has done no service to the survivor community.” 

Emmerson was reminded by Vaz that the committee would be holding “confirmation hearings” with whomever May – hoping to be third time lucky – appoints as the new chairman. Well, said Emmerson with studied politeness, “I remain a little unclear about that process.” That sounded like powerful US congressional committees’ make or break hearings (which British select committees are not empowered for). Vaz, having turned to his clerk, agreed that they should be called “pre-appointment hearings”.

One up to Emmerson. And no he wasn’t going into tomorrow’s newspapers agreeing that the inquiry was “in tatters”. Rather, he explained, it was “in transition”.

Emmerson was fulsome in his praise for May’s commitment to the victims of child abuse, which is just as well since she will need to be committed to get the inquiry properly under way.

Asked by Vaz, close to the end of the hearing, what qualities the new chairman will need to bring to the inquiry, Emmerson said: “You need someone with absolute independence from the executive, the ability to hold the executive and institutions  to account, very significant forensic skills… to analyse vast quantities of information, to penetrate deep into the institutions that have failed survivors over the years, someone passionate about the need to bring justice to victims and  survivors … the inspiration … the imagination to realise that society … has a once in a lifetime opportunity to address decades and decades of abuse, and draw a line. Someone with real courage.”

This was well put. But does such a paragon exist? And if so, is he or she  available?