The first thing to notice about the suspension of Ben Emmerson QC, counsel for the inquiry into child sexual abuse, is that the victim groups are appalled to see him sidelined. Andi Lavery, of the Catholic survivors’ group White Flowers Alba, which represents 70 victims, said: “This can’t carry on without him. It has only existed because of Ben Emmerson. He has been the glue holding everything together.” Ian McFadyen, a campaigner and survivor of abuse, also remarked: “This is a devastating blow for survivors.”
Paradoxically, the manner of suspending Emmerson, and the reasons for so doing, raise more doubts about the new chair of the inquiry, Professor Alexis Jay, and her colleagues, than they do about Emmerson himself. Astonishingly, the counsel for the inquiry first learned of his suspension via the internet. His own lawyers said he had “read this evening on the internet that he has been suspended from the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. If, and when, allegations are put to him, he will respond appropriately”.
Think about this for a moment, for sometimes tiny incidents illuminate what has remained hidden.
If I polled, say, 10,000 companies, or 1,000 charities, or 50 NHS Trusts, would I find one that would let a person being suspended discover his or her fate on the world wide web before telling him or her directly? I don’t think so. If you are running an organisation, you just don’t do that. What we glimpse here is inexperience and incompetence.
This ties in with the comments that Dame Lowell Goddard made after she stood down as chair in August. In a memorandum she said that her staff were too inexperienced for such a far-reaching inquiry. “None of the secretariat or senior management team had previous experience of running an inquiry of this nature,” she wrote. “I felt, as chair, handicapped by not being given a free hand to recruit staff of the type that I judged to be essential.”
Indeed, when news of Emmerson’s impending suspension first began to circulate, it was supposed that the yawning gap between the inquiry’s duties and the staff’s ability to carry them out was the source of the tension. The official statement denied this and offered another explanation. “Suggestions in the press that Mr Emerson was considering resigning after raising disagreements over the future direction of the inquiry are untrue,” it stated. “They are not a matter on which he has advised the chair of the inquiry or the panel.”
Instead, the reason given was that the inquiry had “become very concerned about aspects of Mr Emmerson’s leadership of the counsel team. He has therefore been suspended from duty so that these can be properly investigated.”
This looks like a reference to Emmerson’s management methods. Was he, perhaps, impatient with staff who did not perform up to his own high standards? Did he show frustration with the slow progress of the inquiry? In two years, it has yet to hear a single word of evidence. Did he perhaps expostulate that it was unreasonable to make victims wait so long for some sort of closure?
Then there is the sheer volume of documents, often emails, which institutions subject to investigation have had to submit. I know of an individual case where 18,000 documents have been disclosed. The total for the inquiry as a whole reaches into the millions. Did he despair that such a mountain of material could be effectively processed with the team at his disposal? None of that would be surprising.
The Home Office contented itself with repeating what has been its mantra since 2014 whenever it loses a chair of the inquiry (three times) or, now, its chief counsel. “Our commitment to this inquiry is undiminished. The inquiry’s terms of reference, which are set by the Home Secretary in consultation with the inquiry chairwoman, would not be changed.”
That position is untenable. Sooner or later the Government will have to accept that the inquiry as currently constituted is unfit for purpose.
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