What do we know?
- Home secretary Theresa May announced the inquiry into historic allegations of child sex abuse in parliament this week.
- Last February, Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill commissioned an investigation into documents relating to child abuse. The investigation covered information passed to the Home Office between 1979-1999.
- In carrying out this investigation, Sedwill found that 114 potentially relevant files were missing, presumed lost or destroyed.
- This included files that were part of a dossier MP Geoffrey Dickens brought to the Home Office alleging child sex abuse perpetrated from within Westminster.
- NSPCC head Peter Wanless has been tasked by Theresa May to review the Sedwill investigation, and look into how various public bodies handled abuse allegations.
- In addition to Wanless’s review, there will be a broad panel inquiry into public bodies with a duty of care to children, which is not expected to report until after the election in 2015.
- The panel is to be headed by retired senior judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, who headed an inquiry into child abuse in 1988.
- The task of these various reviews and inquiries is to “address dual concerns: the concern that, in the past, the Home Office failed to act on information it received, and more broadly the concern that public bodies and other institutions have failed to protect children from sexual abuse,” the home secretary said.
Voices from the sector
Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, is concerned the inquiry is too broad. It should heed the advice of people who have practised as social workers and, while it is important that justice is done for historic abuses, it is important to not get distracted from present day concerns, he says.
“At the moment it’s an umbrella inquiry aimed at catching anything and everything that becomes a matter of concern. The more it stays a broad umbrella inquiry, the less it will be likely to dig down and the longer it will take, “ he said.
“It’s important that the inquiry is informed by experts and people who’ve got experience working in child protection. If people have misused their position and power they should be punished for it and if there are lessons to be learnt we should learn them, but there’s a danger that people think of these things as something that happened in the ‘80s that is now being dealt with,” he said.
“It’s important that while we are being concerned about things that happened 20 years ago, we don’t forget to focus on what’s happening today.”
Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Associations of Social Workers (BASW), expressed her support for the inquiry, but feels it hasn’t gone far enough. It should hold those in the highest echelons of power to account, even if it has serious ramifications for the establishment, she said.
“It is absolutely right that such serious matters are subject to scrutiny as we owe it to all the potential victims of the historical child abuse allegations. It’s slightly confusing as Theresa May has ordered two inquiries focusing on different things and the campaigners were calling for an overarching one that would bring all the threads together.
“Essentially, these are issues of social justice and should not be about protecting any vested interests. The very nature of child abuse is that it is secretive and takes place usually behind closed doors. We absolutely need transparency in these inquiries about what is being scrutinised so we can have confidence in our current political leaders and child protection system.”
Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), says the lack of clarity about how the inquiry will be carried out, and by who, means its value is still hard to judge. It should be conducted as quickly as possible, and at a high standard, so the sector can know what’s gone wrong and act accordingly, he said.
“We don’t know who the members of the panel will be and it’s extremely important that we’re clear about its terms of reference and its reach.
“I hope this inquiry is done in a timely manner and is as exhaustive as possible but there needs to be a balance between being thorough versus people’s need to know. Until we find out what happened, we can’t be sure these things aren’t happening now.
“It’s not a foregone conclusion that someone in the social care sector knew about it but what is clear is that some people were doing these things and that someone knew about it.”
Bharti Patel, of the charity ECPAT UK, sees the small signs of a shift towards putting children at the centre as a positive step, but there is a long way to go. Politicised inquiries that don’t listen to the children contribute to a culture that allows signs of abuse to go unnoticed and unchecked, she said.
“ECPAT UK has long campaigned for voices of children to be central to the discussions around their protection and safeguarding. The importance of listening to the children has been proven over and over in recent cases where failure to listen to the children and believe their story of abuse has resulted in a culture of impunity for abusers.
“There is a need for this to be practiced at every level, from frontline professionals working with vulnerable children to multi-agency platforms. These organisations need to ensure all staff are adequately trained to listen to children, and recognise and act on signs of abuse from an early stage.”