Once again the IICSA has hit the headlines. That has not been because of the work of the Truth Project which is now operating in London and Wales; the further research being commissioned in connection with child sexual abuse; or preparation for the first seminars at the end of November. They are examples of the Inquiry “getting on with the job” but those stories have been hidden by more controversy and criticism. The Inquiry needs to address the negative publicity otherwise it will lose all trust and face more accusations of cover-up and secrecy, the irony of which will not be lost on those who have suffered abuse.
The IICSA has once again been in the top news stories due to another barrister choosing to end her involvement in the Inquiry work. The structure of the Inquiry has meant that there is a large team of barristers many of whom remain actively involved but the numbers have not been shared to explain that position.
Today the Shirley Oaks Survivors Group (SOSG) has withdrawn their participation in the Inquiry. This decision was made last weekend, so before this week’s negative news commentary, but none of those will have made for reconsideration of that decision. SOSG have for some time publically stated their concerns and that they were thinking of withdrawing from the Inquiry. All victims and survivors whether individually or in groups have their own views on what the Inquiry should and should not do, so it is unlikely this will result in a wholesale departure of all victim and survivor engagement but for the Lambeth investigation it will be challenging to have no participation from this large and active survivor group.
Earlier this week the Inquiry announced it would not be proceeding with public hearings in connection with the Lord Janner investigation in March next year as had been planned. That is hardly surprising given the ongoing police investigations and concerns about the merits and focus of this investigation. However the message that another investigation is being delayed is what the public sees. The Inquiry has not countered that to advise of what is happening in the other investigations which are proceeding. Prof Jay has been conducting a review of all investigations and work of the Inquiry. The outcome of that review is not yet known but from the announcements thus far it would seem that there is a move towards a less forensic public hearing based approach to a more high level consideration of themes and issues. This needs further explanation to address concerns of core participants.
In amongst all of the negative publicity what is missed is the positive work which continues. This week the Truth Project sessions have begun in Wales and the Truth Project has opened its London office. Dru Sharpling and Ivor Frank, both Panel members, have been actively engaging and talking about the work of the Inquiry and in particular the Truth Project. In an article published in Big Issue North Ivor Frank talked in detail about the challenges the Inquiry is facing. He is quoted as saying that “In due course I hope we’ll be able to persuade people that the negative headlines are wrong. We’ll do that by getting on with the job.” In getting on with the job the focus in the past months has shifted to the Truth Project and granting victims the time to share their history. However the work of the Truth Project alone will not provide the answers many from all sides of the table seek and the decision by SOSG is an example of that concern.
Meanwhile the Research Project is also getting on with the job and has commissioned a rapid evidence literature assessment to determine what is known about the characteristics, vulnerabilities and on and off line behaviour of victims of online-facilitated child sexual abuse and exploitation.
The Public Hearings project is the one which garners media interest and as noted above the message this week has been that the Janner investigation has been postponed. An update on the progress of the other investigations is urgently needed. The Accountability & Reparations investigation will hold its first seminars at the end of November and whilst they were announced in the end of October update, further information has not been made publically available. At the end of September Tom Symonds BBC Home Affairs correspondent wrote an article noting that visible progress was needed. He highlighted the importance of the Inquiry being trusted by all who are involved or who will be impacted by its decisions. He noted concerns about secrecy. He also identified that detailed and difficult work was continuing and commented that “It is possible there is some real progress and some victims strongly support the IICSA. It just doesn’t feel like it from outside.” Six weeks on he could write the same article now and it is not just media commentators but victims and MPs who are expressing their deepening concerns about the work of the Inquiry.
The Home Affairs Committee has already expressed its concerns and next week it is expected to publish further information about the reasons why some barristers have chosen to end their work with the Inquiry. That is unlikely to be positive information. We have seen from other jurisdictions including Australia and Northern Ireland that it is possible to hold an Inquiry, to assess evidence and to publish reports. The IICSA needs to follow in their footsteps but we do not seem to have yet turned the corner to move the IICSA from a subject of negative ridicule to one of positive praise. Communication, transparency and trust are critical and at the moment for many sadly lacking. For lessons to be learned and recommendations made the Inquiry needs to change track and make sure its positive message is heard by all.
Written by Paula Jefferson, partner