Child sex abuse inquiry: They must get the appointment right this time

The cost is important but secondary... thousands have suffered terribly and feel that society has let them down

Sunday 02 November 2014 01:00 GMT

Fiona Woolf is a person of great integrity, as indeed is Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, but the task of heading an inquiry into allegations of historical child sex abuse is a special one. The two candidates for the post fell by the wayside not because of their personal qualities but because of their family and social connections. That the Home Office failed to spot the problem in both cases and then took so long to accept that it was a problem reflects badly on her department and ultimately on Theresa May, the Home Secretary, herself.

That, however, is the past. Ms May's sincerity should not be doubted, even if her department's competence and her judgement might have been found wanting. What matters now is to learn the lesson and get it right the third time. This is an important inquiry and it will be hard to find the right person to lead it – and much harder after the travails of the past few months. But the lesson worth learning is that the test for this appointment is unusually stringent.

The problem of maintaining the confidence of the victims is that many of them are used to being disbelieved, and so anything that casts doubt on the impartiality and credibility of the inquiry needs to be taken especially seriously. In particular, because of the feeling on the part of many victims that their abusers have been protected by a powerful establishment, the Home Office needs to be sensitive.

However, this is an opportunity as well as a problem: a chance to get it right this time, knowing that any well-qualified candidate is likely to appear to some people to be part of the class that covered up crimes.

Unfortunately, finding someone to chair the inquiry is only the second step, and the first step has not even been taken correctly yet – the first step being to decide the powers and remit of the inquiry. So far it seems that the Government has not yet accepted that the inquiry ought to have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence, or to extend its scope beyond England and Wales. Given the difficulties of gathering evidence, and given that so many serious allegations relate to the Kincora Boys' Home in Northern Ireland and to children's homes in Jersey, these are worrying failings.

As we report today, Ms May herself may be sympathetic to giving the inquiry greater powers, but we can understand the private reservations of her colleagues. They may be concerned that the inquiry will become too large, expensive and cumbersome. If it is given strong powers to call for papers and witnesses, it is liable to involve more lawyers and to require more staff, including legal staff, itself. The objection to widening its territorial scope is harder to understand: the mistrust surrounding the subject makes it imperative that the Northern Irish and Channel Islands cases be investigated by outsiders. (Scotland's different legal system makes the case for a separate inquiry there.)

The cost implications are simply the price that has to be paid for doing the right thing, however. Nor are the direct costs of the inquiry the full story. Many of the victims have received inadequate counselling and an inquiry that stirs painful memories is bound to expose the need for more and better therapy. Ultimately, it can be argued from American and Australian experience that counselling saves social costs that would otherwise be picked up by the taxpayer in the form of alcoholism, mental trauma and family breakdown.

However, this is, as we say, a matter of doing the right thing. The cost is important but secondary. We are talking about thousands of people who have suffered terribly and who feel that society has let them down. After two false starts, Ms May must start to put this right, on behalf of us all.

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