Editorial: A public inquiry is not always the right answer

Without fresh evidence, another probe into the Welsh care home scandal will not help

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With allegations circulating that a senior member of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party was involved in a paedophile ring centred on a children's home in Wales, it was not an option for David Cameron to do nothing. Government ministers have roundly criticised the BBC for insufficiently robust action over the accusations that Jimmy Savile was a serial sexual predator. They could not be now seen to brush aside similar claims about one of their own. It is also a requirement of common decency that victims of such crimes deserve a fair hearing.

So it was that the Home Secretary launched no fewer than two new investigations yesterday: one by the head of the new National Crime Agency assisted by child protection specialists, and the other a probe into the original inquiry – led by former judge Sir Ronald Waterhouse – into abuse in 40 children's homes in North Wales in the 1970s and 80s.

The Waterhouse review, which started in 1997, sat for more than 200 days, took evidence from 650 people, and named some 80 abusers (most of whom were care workers and teachers). But victims maintain that the judge's narrow remit prevented them from giving evidence regarding a third of their abusers. Sir Ronald also failed to consider claims that children were taken out of the homes to be made available to a ring of abusers alleged to include a number of prominent public figures, from company directors to senior policemen to MPs, they say.

The charges are serious ones that cannot easily be dismissed. Equally, after the work of the Hillsborough Panel recently left the credibility of the official Taylor report into the football stadium disaster in tatters, a public inquiry can no longer be considered the final word. Even so, there can be no value in re-opening the Waterhouse inquiry unless there is genuinely new evidence to be considered. Otherwise, such a move looks too much like kneejerk politics for comfort.

More febrile still are the growing calls for an over-arching public inquiry to bring together the Welsh care homes scandal and the alleged activities of Savile – and others – in the BBC, the NHS and even the Church in the same era. There are, without doubt, lessons to be learned about the failure of institutions, including the police, to treat the allegations of young victims seriously. Indeed, the appalling recent case of young girls groomed for sex by a gang of Asian men in Rochdale makes clear that the problem of hidden networks of abuse is far from solved. But a sprawling public inquiry is hardly the answer.

The Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking and press standards is a case in point. While this newspaper firmly supports the aims behind the investigation, its effectiveness has been hampered by an impossibly broad remit and a clash with ongoing criminal investigations. A super-inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse stretching back 40 years and taking place across any number of public institutions would face similar problems writ large.

The top priority is as clear as it is simple: the criminal investigation into wrongdoing and the prosecution of offenders. In the process, any evidence of systemic failures in individual institutions that emerges will, of course, need to be addressed. In the meantime, there is already a plethora of investigations into Savile's activities, how they remained hidden, and how they came to light. Now the Welsh children's home scandal will be re-visited, both as to what happened and to how it was dealt with. For now, at least, that is enough.

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