Theresa May has just given as comprehensive a response as possible to the allegations of child abuse in the Commons. Insisting the government will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of the allegations, the Home Secretary told MPs that there will an independent inquiry panel, along the lines of the Hillsborough inquiry, which will examine not just how the Home Office dealt with allegations, but also how the police and prosecutors dealt with information handed to them. As a non-statutory inquiry, it will be able to begin its work sooner and will be at a lower risk of prejudicing criminal investigations because it will begin with a review of documentary evidence. May also said that the government will convert this to a full public inquiry if necessary.
The inquiry will be chaired by NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless. May set out three principles in her statement:
‘I want to set three important principles. First, we will do everything we can to allow the full investigation of child abuse and the prosecution of its perpetrators, and we will do nothing to jeopardise those aims. Second, where possible the government will adopt a presumption of maximum transparency. And third, we will make sure that wherever individuals and institutions have failed to protect children from harm, we will expose these failures and learn the lessons.’
May was careful to praise the work of Tom Watson and Tim Loughton in this area. This concerted attempt to be consensual meant that the Commons debate that followed was largely devoid of partisan point-scoring, save for a rant from Dennis Skinner about cuts and the public sector pay freeze, and Yvette Cooper’s response focused more on the details than the Home Secretary’s handling of the row. That said, Cooper did tell MPs that the ‘Home Secretary is right to announce today that she has changed her position and her response on child abuse’, which prompted some groans.
The Home Secretary did say the inquiry would consider the Home Office’s record-keeping, but one question that also cropped up that touched on allegations of a cover-up was a comment made by former chief whip Tim Fortescue MP in a 1995 documentary on the whips. Lisa Nandy read the quote:
‘In the mid-1990s, a senior ex-whip who had served in the 1970s told the BBC that the whips’ office routinely helped MPs with scandals including those, in his own words, ‘involving small boys’, and that they did it in order to exert control over those individuals and prevent problems for the government. It’s just one powerful example of how personal and political interests can conspire to prevent justice from happening, so can we have a full commitment that this inquiry will consider not just the police and social services but will also look at what happens at the heart of power, and if those systems are found to exist today, that they will be overturned, whether that makes life uncomfortable for political parties, whether it makes life uncomfortable for parliament, and whether it makes life uncomfortable for the government itself.’
May agreed that it was not her intention that political parties should be outside the scope of the inquiry. Mark Reckless also asked about information held by the whips’ office. Fortescue is dead, but the whips office, always a chamber of secrets in any political party, looks to become part of the hunt for a cover-up, if such a thing exists, rather than simply a very poorly-governed system that let victims down.