Politician in need of a headline or two? Easy: demand an inquiry into something. The wider-ranging and less focused the terms of reference, the better the publicity. Unfortunately the more vaguely the remit of any inquiry is drawn, and the more politically charged its subject, the less likely it is to do much good. If you want proof, the saga of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, whose interim report appeared a couple of weeks ago, provides it in spades.
It was set up by then Home Secretary Theresa May in 2014 amid swirling and often self-serving claims of pederasty against what seemed almost anybody connected with the establishment. Things have not gone well. It is now on its fourth chair, ex-chief social work inspector Alexis Jay, assisted by human rights law professor Sir Malcolm Evans, radical barrister Ivor Frank, and former CPS luminary and HM Inspector of Constabulary Drusilla Sharpling. The first two chairs, a judge and a corporate lawyer, were eased out as being too patrician: the third, a New Zealand judge, resigned in murky circumstances after alleged incautious remarks about race and what seems to have been open warfare between her and the other members.
The inquiry’s terms of reference are a curious combination of matters clearly drawn up to placate particular pressure groups. On one side there is a vague injunction to find out all about child sexual abuse in the past, who was to blame, and what to do about it. To this are subjoined instructions to consider the experience of survivors, providing opportunities for them to ‘bear witness’.
What have we to show after nearly four years? Apart from a number of dry academic gatherings, the need to ‘bear witness’ bore fruit in a heavily advertised and rather creepy Truth Project (‘victims and survivors . . . sharing their experiences with us, so we can learn from the past to build a better future’). Victims of whatever ages were invited to bare their souls to the inquiry – a form of catharsis made slightly less inviting by a requirement to report all allegations of wrongdoing to the police.
And, of course, the report. Anyone hoping for radical ideas (on which, see below) will be disappointed. The terms of this turgid document are depressingly predictable for those used to reading such things. Money for support services for abuse victims must be prioritised and essentially protected from cuts. Claims for legal compensation must be encouraged and insurers strong-armed into co-operating. The statute of limitations is ‘an obstacle to accessing justice’ – or, put another way, lawyers should be enabled to demand compensation however old the victim and however long ago the events took place. Chaperones should be provided for young people in hospitals. Children’s home staff should not only be barred if guilty of untoward behaviour – which they are already – but should have to be professionally registered, with all the micromanagement and bullying that this entails. In the police, no one should be allowed to reach the top (sorry, ‘progress to the Chief Officer cadre’) without operational experience in child protection. Oddest of all is a recommendation arising from an ill-starred project which ran from the 1930s to 1970 to resettle children in the Commonwealth. Many were apparently brutalised either en route or on arrival. This was all the Government’s fault; every living participant should therefore be traced, formally apologised to and given taxpayers’ money, not on the basis that they were abused but because they were ‘exposed to the risk of sexual abuse’, and indeed whether or not they have already been compensated for it. Oh, and the government had better hurry up here because – well – the youngest victim will now be in his mid-50s and many might not live long enough to claim this largesse.
Now, sexual predation of children is vile; it needs vigorous suppression. Unfortunately there is room for doubt what good will come from this genteel mixture of apologetic breast-beating, managerialism, government money and the promotion of litigation at public expense. Let us suggest a few more ideas, however unsayable except on the computer screens of TCW readers.
First, if we want to repress crimes against innocence it is odd to insist, in good progressive fashion, on sexualising children ever younger. You do not help boys and girls resist predators when schools teach them in a thinly disguised way that sex – and sex any which way, since we mustn’t discriminate – is the sort of fun that they should be looking forward to enjoying with puberty, provided only everybody gives informed consent. You help it even less by taking away parents’ right to object to this pernicious nonsense.
Second, we should work with parents, who after all are normally those most concerned with teenagers’ well-being. At present we do not. A mother who tells police or social services about concerns over a teenager’s sex life is most likely to be told that this is none of her business, that no information can be given to her, and that if she makes allegations about grooming gangs or tries to take steps on her own to stop the teenager going out she will be the one in trouble.
Third, what is noticeably absent is any suggestion about helping victims to help themselves (apart, that is, from making full disclosure to a government appointee or other professional in order to get rid of any residual tendency to keep quiet about things they might actually want to forget about and move on from). We warn teenagers about drugs, obesity, smoking and even sugar. It would be logical to warn them about accepting gifts from, or getting drunk or drugged in the presence of, adults they do not know well; and indeed about promiscuous, loveless sex and its ability to become an obsession which obscures healthier relationships.
This doesn’t look like rocket science. Of course it won’t appeal to the culture of comfortable North London, which cannot bring itself to condemn anything that does not fit into its view that every teenager must be accorded the right to go to hell in a handcart provided he or she has given informed consent. This being an interim report only, the inquiry has a chance to redeem itself by making some seriously original suggestions. But don’t hold your breath.