There can be few people in social work better prepared than Professor Alexis Jay to lead the mammoth Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which started evidence hearings this week.
Recounting the early days of her inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, where someone who was working with her to read case files saw a huge stack land on her desk, she says: “She was just handed nearly a thousand cases where child sexual exploitation had featured, and that wasn’t even complete.”
Jay, who began her career in poverty-stricken parts of Edinburgh and Glasgow, did not anticipate the scale of what she would uncover in Rotherham when she first took on the role in 2013.
“During the entire period [under review] car breaking and house crime were rated as more important than the rape of children. Not to belittle the importance to the public of car crime and house breaking, but in the current order of priorities to the police, children were rated lower. That’s absolutely not the case now,” Jay says.
History of Alexis Jay
Alexis Jay qualified as a social worker in 1974. She went on to work as a senior social worker and director of social services. In 2005 she established and led the Social Work Inspection Agency in Scotland. In 2013 she was appointed to lead the inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham.
Much has changed since the explosive 2014 report, which estimated how approximately 1,300 girls were sexually exploited over a 16-year period in the Yorkshire town and threw into sharp focus issues around sexism, race, and how consent is viewed by organisations.
The government made child sexual exploitation a national policing priority, Ofsted started including how local authorities responded to the topic more prominently in inspections, and the issue has gained a higher profile than ever before.
It was that inquiry, and a career in social work and inspection, that led Alexis Jay to the embattled Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, becoming its fourth chair in a little over two years when she was appointed in August 2016.
The inquiry was announced in July 2014 by the then home secretary Theresa May in response to, among many things, revelations of historic abuse committed by people in the public eye like Jimmy Savile, and allegations of abuse rising to the very top of public institutions and government.
A fiercely important and increasingly topical issue as more revelations hit the headlines, Jay is reminded of the political significance of this inquiry regularly with the panoramic views of Westminster from the inquiry’s 23rd floor headquarters.
Looking out of the window during our conversation you see the Union Jack flying on top of the Houses of Parliament, a short hop across the Thames.
By the time it is concluded, the inquiry will have investigated government departments, including former ministers, political parties, the armed services, local authorities, churches and the police, among many state and non-state institutions.
How does she feel about her role? “[There are] certainly a lot of new challenges.”
Jay qualified in 1974 after putting a career as a journalist to one side after she felt she wasn’t good enough at it doing voluntary work in Edinburgh.
Her first job after qualifying was as a social worker for homeless families, before legislation that made housing them the council’s job, and she describes it as “one of the worst jobs any social worker could ever be in”.
“It was an absolute nightmare, I had a residential unit with a dozen homeless families, I had about nearly a hundred families in bed and breakfasts, [and] this was families with lots of children,” she explains.
What kept her in the role was the simple fact she enjoyed it.
“I had the young, idealistic view that you could change lives for the better and make a difference,” she says. A view she says she still possesses, but with a greater understanding about “what you can change and what is much harder to”.
She took a “conventional” route through to being a senior social worker, went into training and development, and became an operational manager and director of social services, before helping to set up the Social Work Inspection Agency in Scotland.
Here, she led on inspecting social services, and began the work that would later come to characterise her career in investigating abuse cases, such as in the Western Isles, where she led on a report identifying three girls’ sexual abuse and neglect.
She says inspection and investigation wouldn’t be for everyone, but appealed to her interests of developing structures, methodologies and finding conclusions.
“You can’t sail into the circumstances without a structure in mind and then make it up as you go along. All of that was helpful for the work that I’ve done since, obviously it’s relevant to this inquiry,” Jay explains.
Jay has been in post leading the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse for more than a year, and says it is making progress after its tumultuous beginnings.
History of the Inquiry
The inquiry was announced in July 2014, with Baroness Butler-Sloss as the lead. She resigned one week later after concerns were raised about her links to the establishment.
She was replaced in September 2014 by the then Lord Mayor of London, Fiona Woolf, who quit by the end of October that year following criticism over her friendship with Lord Brittan, who was facing accusations at the time though police later said he had no case to answer.
In February 2015, Justice Lowell Goddard, a high court judge from New Zealand, was appointed. She resigned from the post in August 2016.
Alexis Jay was appointed to lead the inquiry in August 2016.
In December 2016 it published an interim report about the progress the review had made so far, and in 2017 the inquiry has carried out investigation seminars, research seminars, public hearings and met with 1,200 victims who have come forward. Research has been commissioned, and anonymised case studies have been published online.
As a social worker, Jay’s career has been rooted in a strong set of professional values, and she says it’s important to remain fair when investigating organisations that have failed, and when those values haven’t always been met.
“It’s a matter of looking at the evidence and applying judgement to it. I hope I’ve always been fair and recognised good practice and improvements when it has occurred, as well as failings,” she says.
But a certain empathy for practitioners and their circumstances is not the same as letting people off the hook.
“I have a very strong sense in my professional and related fields about how things should be done to the best possible standards and best quality you can expect from trained professionals and in this field of highly sensitive personal relations that surrounds everything to do with child abuse and child sexual abuse.
“I’m pretty uncompromising. I may understand what has led to failings, but if I see poor practice I will identify that, I will nail that, or if I see bad behaviour by people in a position of influence,” she says.
This was the case in Rotherham: “The culture of an organisation is not necessarily set by the professionals in it – they have a responsibility to be true to those values – but there are other things that influence the culture of an organisation very significantly, for example elected members and the example they set and the way they behave.”
While she can’t talk about the specifics of the current inquiry, she says her experiences investigating failure show patterns in what makes organisations fail. She adds there’s also a tendency to “protect the institution”.
Despite being decades away, and many miles from, those first jobs in Scotland, Jay says there’s plenty of space in her current role for her social work skills.
“You’re learning about relationships with people, how they tick, what motivates them.
“As a social worker these are all the things you learn at the beginning. It’s so embedded in everything I’ve ever done, just like most social workers.”
This particularly comes to the fore when she meets survivors of abuse, Jay says. One of the inquiry’s major strands is The Truth Project, which is a call for survivors to share their experiences.
“Mostly people have one session. They can come accompanied by whoever, if they want there is support built into the process before and after,” Jay explains.
She says 1,200 survivors have approached the inquiry so far, and anonymous examples of their experiences have been published online.
This work feeds into the legacy Jay wants the inquiry to have, a part of which is changing the culture around survivors speaking out after the main body of work is done, estimated to be around 2020/21.
“It has been an issue surrounded by secrecy, shame and embarrassment for victims in the past, and that would be an achievement, if people were able to talk about terrible crimes that have been committed against them.
“It’s humbling, actually, that for some people and so late in life this was the first opportunity they had to talk about what had happened to them,” Jay says.
She wants to ensure the inquiry’s recommendations don’t repeat ones that have come before. She wants to analyse why those recommendations didn’t work, why progress has been slow and make sure this inquiry, with its high-profile and tumultuous beginnings, has a real impact on changing things for the better.
Things changed after Rotherham. The problems aren’t gone but there has never been more attention given to the issues raised there.
“Every time there is an awful case and the media use the cliché of ‘lessons learned’. Sometimes people don’t appear to have learned lessons. It may have been that we’re focusing on the wrong things,” Jay says.