Alexis Jay: ‘If I see poor practice I will nail that’

Professor Alexis Jay says her social work skills and values will help her in leading the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Photo: mizar_21894/Fotolia

*This article was updated on 27 October 2017

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.

Political significance

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.

Alexis Jay

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.

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.

*Correction: This piece originally stated that Alexis Jay investigated the Western Isles abuse case while at the Social Work Inspection Agency. This was incorrect since the investigation into the case had been completed prior to her joining the inspectorate. The article was amended to reflect this 27 October 2017.

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16 Responses to Alexis Jay: ‘If I see poor practice I will nail that’

  1. Steve Stericker October 11, 2017 at 4:52 pm #

    “but if I see poor practice I will identify that, I will nail that ”
    I am confident that all will be within a context – workloads/resources/emotional impact/blame culture.
    Not as an excuse, but as balanced support to, and respect for, a generally dedicated workforce trying their very the best to achieve the highest standards – but sometimes falling short.
    And I suppose it works both ways – If I see a poor quality review/engagement/ methods/analysis/ timescales slipping – we will nail that………

  2. ian kemp October 11, 2017 at 8:02 pm #

    The trouble with people like Alises Jay is that they have not practised social work for years….. They have very little understanding of what has happened at the coal face . Hours spent on computers, to fill in pointless forms to satisfy some jobs worthy further up the line. Millions spent on bureaucracy, micro management, little contact with clients . People like Jay whatever their motivation talk about practise when they themselves have not been any ware near any form of practise for years . Unlike a medical consultant at least they still do the job. These bureaucrats are paid a lot of money,
    I am not clear why .? There are so many like them in so called social work. The Local authority …is a huge very costly insensitive bureaucracy. Its main purpose is control and to manage budgets which are increasingly limited by political decisions which should be challenged. But L.A cannot do that it is part of the problem.
    A proper independently organised social work department funded separately with yes its own bureaucracy organised into areas covering the UK with proper professional training covering all aspects of care from children’s homes alderpersons care fostering home care all under one roof. would be the way forward . It could be done if the political will was there . It would be costly in the short run but in the long term would be much cheaper more accountable and properly professionally organised sensitive and focused on clients rather than a managelism and the budget control mentality. It would not suit those who are more inclined towards control rather than care and social change. It is certainly not going to happen in the near future. It will require great political change. But in the long run the right type of person would be attracted to social work as it became more of a profession which at the moment it is not.

    • Joan Elliott October 12, 2017 at 6:26 pm #

      Ian while I understand and recognise your lack of confidence there are many people who have had long careers in social work who DO retain the value base they had when they entered the profession and who care deeply about ensuring people are protected and supported and that there is transparency when this has not happened. I have worked with Alexis Jay and do believe from my personal experience and her proven track record that she will not shirk from exposing they system politically or organisationally if fault is found.

    • Michelle October 16, 2017 at 10:26 am #


      You are obviously very frustrated with many aspects of our profession; I really like your comparative analysis between practicing medical consultants and Alexis J . However, could I please invite you to check the spelling and grammar of your recording before publishing as the mistakes detract from what is otherwise a very interesting argument.

      There is also a host of experience that can be gained away from the “front line” and while I agree that this is a different understanding, it is as important to view things from a strategic perspective in such these circumstances as well as ethnographically.

      Let’s await the outcomes and remains professional as well as passionate……

  3. Grace Easie-Edgar October 12, 2017 at 1:38 pm #

    I am want to feel confident that poor practice at any level would be challenged in the right arena and reviewed for learning but in cases highlighted by AJ she was right about the culture that was not healthy and impacted downwards in that council
    It takes a brave confident individual to challenge poor practice every day

    • ian kemp October 12, 2017 at 6:49 pm #

      But AJ has not worked as a social worker for years . Poor practise is quite often endemic within the pressure of a very insensitive bureaucracy… its not an Excuse its a fact.

      See above.

  4. Jason Bascoe October 13, 2017 at 2:05 am #

    So often bad practice becomes the norm in many fields of work. However it is essential that practice in disciplines that has an impact on the public or is financed by public funds is of the highest standard. Legislation’s and policies are not put into practice and procedures because there is a gap between the two level of work force. I am in strong belief that this must be eradicated and will applaud any efforts to achieve this.

    • ian kemp October 16, 2017 at 10:54 pm #

      Ha Michelle…dear me . My wife could not see any spelling problems, so not sure what you ment ??.. Anyway I spent 44 years in social work from a social worker to senior to T.M in all forms of social work. WORKING AFTER RETIRMENT As a Locum, IN OVER 22 L/A AND NHS. I am a triple Grad. Who also worked in industry . So from this experience comes my frustration . I am retired now away from the coal face. I have seen and experienced the problems and the gradual take over by the Local Authority of social work. Manageralism is not the answer. Since 1990s there has been a increasing bureaucratic control approach where budgets have become the main focus. Client contact has decreased by as much as 80% in most areas of social work. In my last job I was faced over 20 rows of computers with people spending up to 5 hours a day putting in information for what purpose, it was not clear. I could go on about this. I sure Alexis Jay is very well meaning, but in reality she is part of the problem. Social work can never aspire to any real professional status, it is part of the Local authority control system .It can never be independent. Any way good luck .

  5. Thomas Hughes October 13, 2017 at 4:53 pm #

    My Father qualified as a SW in 1976 and back then you could turn up at court with just a note pad for evidence and that would be accepted.

    No such luck these days.

    • ian kemp October 16, 2017 at 11:07 pm #

      I qualified even earlier…. . There was a lot of client contact in those days. Yes some things have improved . but in reality the life has been has been squeezed out of social work. It has become part the political / authoritarian control system for want of a better word. There has been in many areas a loss of respect and humanity/ care.

  6. ian kemp October 16, 2017 at 11:01 pm #

    Jason your comment rather misses the point. The problem is the system itself. Of cause everybody would agree one should aspire to the highest stands possible. I met over the years many that did . But they were very frustrated by their experience in Local Authority Social work. Many very good social workers left because they felt that they were knocking their heads against a brick wall.

    • Planet Autism October 18, 2017 at 7:47 pm #

      “Many very good social workers left because they felt that they were knocking their heads against a brick wall.”

      And that’s the tragedy. Because I believe there are so few good social workers, judging by the families seeking help from community support groups telling horror stories about what’s happened to them. It’s not only about SWs leaving through the system being frustrating, I believe there will be honest SWs who don’t stick around when they see what a corrupt ethos exists in so many departments and how the rotten apples are so often encouraged. What decent person could exist seeing that day in day out?

      • ian kemp October 21, 2017 at 10:32 am #

        I totally agree.. little empires have been created.. Many of what may be described as social workers are in the system to climb the hierarchy get more money or they like to control people including staff…… It is cynical , but in over 40 + years I have seen it all . The values of social work have declined . People become control freaks only interested in their own progress for want of a better word. That is the nature of local authority….. Disciplinary procedures are used.. to gain control or to get rid of somebody a senior manager does not like or does not fit into the system. There is no compassion or care anymore.. It is sad but decent people who I started out with all those years ago rarely go into social work any more.. The few that do leave or have breakdowns.
        The only way one could rescue social work as some sort of humane profession is as I said above is to create a proper professional department separately funded independent from Local authority. At the moment it is just part of the control mechanism of Local gov. It is a mere cog in the wheel of the system with very limited control and any form of professional ethos or care.

  7. Ruksana Chowdhory October 17, 2017 at 11:19 pm #

    The ‘lessons learned’ relate to the government and local authorities adding more red tape to a system already overwhelmed and crippling with processes and procedures. In response to SCRs and damaging media coverage, practitioners are buried under more paperwork and management are hidden away in more meetings and panels. Such a counter intuitive response is preventing Social Work from making any real improvements in practice, and maintaining them on the rare occasions that they do trigger short term change. That is why lessons haven’t really been learned. When will the government truly learn? I hope this inquiry acts as a positive catalyst for change for the profession.

  8. ian kemp October 18, 2017 at 12:13 pm #

    Yes I agree I hope that you are right but I am not optimistic .. For social work to survive as a any sort of profession the radical transformation I have suggested above is necessary.. It will not happen while social work is tied to local GOV … It has to be a independent ..

    cheers Ian

  9. frustrated October 19, 2017 at 12:49 am #

    planet Autism and Ian you are spot on and that it is a phase I have used myself ‘bashing your head against a brick wall.

    Those that remain are seeing the Emperor’s clothes (groupthink).