Child abuse inquiry: incompetence made thankless job near-impossible

Theresa May

It’s been 200 days since Theresa May said she would set up an inquiry into child sexual abuse.

In that time, two chairs have come and gone because proper checks had not been carried out on them nor survivors consulted, proceedings have been started without a chair and then cancelled, some panel members have been asked to reapply for their own jobs, there have been tensions between the panel, accusations of bullying, the discovery of a file that may or may not have been missing and no clarity over what powers the inquiry might have when it does eventually start work.

On the day it was announced that Leon Brittan, the former home secretary who had been linked to historical cover-ups, had died, Yvette Cooper decided it was time to table an urgent question to find out what progress was being made.

The home secretary was in an unusually conciliatory mood. Some might say defensive. “The right honourable lady is trying to make an argument between us about this inquiry where I think none exists,” she began. She wanted nothing less than the shadow home secretary wanted.

It had been regrettable there had been delays but she had previously said that a new chair would be appointed and the terms of the inquiry agreed by the end of January and she was on course to deliver that even though she couldn’t actually say how many people were on the shortlist for the job. It’s going to be a hectic next week for Theresa.

It all sounded more or less reasonable, though May did manage to make it sound as if much of the blame lay with Lady Elizabeth Butler-Sloss and Fiona Woolf themselves for failing to realise they didn’t have the confidence of survivors, rather than with the selection panel for not bothering to check their connections, and it did seem to be taking her department rather a long time to establish whether the new file was the same as the old one. But by the time she had nibbled humble pie – as close to eating it as she’s ever likely to get – to long-time child abuse campaigners Keith Vaz, Simon Danczuk, Tom Watson and Sarah Champion, she was beginning to sound more like her old, confident self.

The carapace unexpectedly cracked when David Winnick pointed out that though her motives had undoubtedly always been sincere, “if someone had set out to wreck the whole process from the very beginning, that person could not have done a more effective job than this”. May’s voice wobbled and her delivery became more fractured, because this is also her tragedy as well as that of the child abuse survivors. No matter how thorough the subsequent inquiry turns out to be, there will now inevitably be those who think it will be an establishment cover-up. The incompetence of the Home Office has turned a thankless job into a near impossible one.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by John Crace, for The Guardian on Thursday 22nd January 2015 19.13 Europe/London

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