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22.12.14

Home secretary to scrap child sex abuse inquiry panel

The home secretary will disband the panel set up to investigate allegations of historical child sex abuse, reports suggest.

Theresa May has written to panel members detailing three potential plans for its future. One involves turning it into a statutory inquiry, the other two involving scrapping the current panel and setting up either a fresh statutory inquiry or a Royal Commission.

The letter, which followed a meeting last Monday between May and panel members to discuss the inquiry’s future, said a statutory inquiry may have a panel but even then it would be appointed afresh.

She added that existing panel members can apply for positions on any new one, but the letter has still prompted anger among the current panel.

One panel member, Sharon Evans, chief executive of Dot Com Children’s Foundation, which promotes child safeguarding, and herself an abuse survivor, wrote in a response to May that she felt “devastated at the prospect of the independent inquiry being halted”. She said that it had been made clear to the panel “off the record” that the panel will be stood down in the New Year.

“As a person who suffered sexual abuse between the ages of three and seven, it was important that the experiences of victims and survivors were integral to the inquiry,” Evans wrote. “It was agreed by the panel that these experiences would form our line of questioning of institutions and ‘the experiences of victims and survivors would be at the heart of the inquiry’.”

The home secretary has put this decision down to concerns raised about the panel by abuse survivors. May wrote: “As I said on Monday, I am currently considering these three options and I appreciate this has implications for the members of the panel.

“I should like to make clear that I appointed each and every one of you for your experience, your professionalism and your undoubted commitment.

“I know that it has not been easy, that you are working in an incredibly sensitive and difficult subject area and that some of you have faced significant personal criticism.”

The panel has been beset by problems since it was announced. It has lost two different chairs due to conflicts of interest. Its first chair, Baroness Butler-Sloss resigned a week after the inquiry was set up due to questions about her impartiality, as her late brother was attorney general during the 1980s. She was replaced by Fiona Woolf, Lord Mayor of London, who was appointed in September, but she stood down at the end of October due to continuing allegations regarding her links to the former home secretary Lord Brittan.

Victims groups recently wrote to May saying they would pull their support from the inquiry if it was not given statutory powers.

Earlier this month it was also revealed that two members of the panel had been accused of sending threatening or insulting emails to victims who had criticised the inquiry. Lawyers for one abuse survivor wrote to the home secretary to complain of a string of unsolicited communications, including an allegedly threatening email sent two days before an official meeting in November that both panellists and an abuse survivor were due to attend. The victim, who is on medication for post-traumatic stress disorder, was left too anxious to attend.

Evans noted, however, that the panel met with more than 70 representatives of victims and survivors of abuse, 90% of whom supported the independent panel. “There has been a small number of individuals and survivor groups engaging in personal attacks on panel members though social media and the press,” she wrote. “In the face of hostility by certain individuals, my concern is that the independent panel has been controlled to such a degree that it was unable to rebut or refute allegations.

“My second concern is that halting the inquiry at this point would send a very negative message to so many people we have already met and who have promised they can have confidence in us to do the right thing.”

A Home Office spokesman: "The home secretary is determined that appalling cases of child sexual abuse should be exposed so that perpetrators face justice and the vulnerable are protected.

"She is absolutely committed to ensuring the Independent Panel Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse has the confidence of survivors. The home secretary is also clear that we have to balance the need to make progress with the need to get this right."

(Image: c. PA Wire)

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