8 Nov 2012

The past on trial: a national watershed?

After revelations about Jimmy Savile, north Wales abuse and Hillsborough, Channel 4 News looks at how our institutions and processes are failing the victims of national tragedy and scandal.

Jimmy Savile was for decades a much loved TV presenter and an integral part of Britain’s cultural fabric. But now, a year after his death, police are investigating 400 lines of inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse by the DJ, dating back to 1959.

New claims about abuse at children’s homes in north Wales in the 1970s and 1980s have revived a scandal that had been dormant for more than a decade. Meanwhile, 23 years after the Hillsborough tragedy, there is to be a new investigation into the behaviour of police in 1989.

Watch more highlights from our special report: The past on trial
Paraic O'Brien meets the woman who has been involved in investigating the North Wales abuse scandal from the beginning - and has the first look at her extensive files.
HILLSBOROUGH: Alex Thomson hears from the families of victims in Liverpool, still fighting for justice
ABUSE: Ciaran Jenkins uncovers a list of alleged members of a paedophile ring
WITCH HUNT: Michael Crick looks at whether the national outcry risks becoming a witch hunt

Labour responded to Theresa May‘s launch of two inquiries into abuse in north Wales, by asking whether one over-arching inquiry might not be more appropriate.

Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, told Channel 4 News: “There have been some very serious allegations that have to be investigated by police.

“There’s two things that need to take place – first of all a criminal investigation, where there are prosecutions that need to take place they should do, we need police to get to the heart of the problem.

“The second thing is that we now seem to have a series of different, slightly confused reviews and inquiries into institutional failings – whether that was in north Wales, in hospitals, the case of Jimmy Savile.

“There are more than nine of these non-criminal inquiries – and that’s why we need this broader inquiry. This is in the end about crimes against children.”


Tom Watson MP also said the home secretary’s announcement was “the next stage of a cover-up”.

“The lesson of Hillsborough and hacking is that a narrow-down investigation is the basic building block of a cover-up,” he told the Commons.

“To limit this inquiry to north Wales and Savile would in my view be a dereliction of the home secretary’s duty. It would guarantee that many sickening crimes will remain un-investigated and some of the most despicable paedophiles will remain protected by the establishment that has shielded them for 30 years.”

‘Inquiry system needs reform’

Lifting the lid on the extent of abuse and the role the establishment may have played has led to national soul searching and could be a watershed moment. Channel 4 News spoke to human rights lawyer Louise Christian and former head of Wiltshire social services Dr Ray Jones, about the process of recovering from the past and holding institutions to account.

Louise Christian has acted in many judicial review cases challenging public authorities, and represented the victims of the Marchioness disaster and victims of the Paddington and Southall rail crashes: “Every time there’s a new set of victims they realise the flaws in the system, but whether that has any wider resonance among the public remains to be seen.

“It is a fairly common experience with these disasters, for the inquiries to last for years. I have been involved in the Marchioness disaster [where 51 people drowned on a boat after being run down by a dredger], which went on for over 10 years.

What happens very often is that victims’ hopes get raised, but it takes ages for a decision to be made and the media attention is elsewhere.

Louise Christian, human rights lawyer

“I know Hillsborough families want to see prosecution, but it is reasonably clear to me that there won’t be one. Any corporate manslaughter prosecution over Hillsborough against South Yorkshire police would have to be brought under the old corporate manslaughter law, therefore there almost certainly will not be one. The only alternative would be prosecution under perverting the course of justice – I’m concerned that their hopes may be raised again for nothing.

“With these inquiries into previous inquiries – it gets ridiculous doesn’t it? I think the inquiry system needs reformed. Coroners vary so much, as does the scope. If inquests were a more efficient way of gathering information, that might be different.”

‘We’ve had watershed moments before’

Dr Ray Jones, head of Wiltshire social services from 1992 to 2006, is now professor of social work at the faculty of health and social care sciences at Kingston University.

“The allegations about the Waterhouse inquiry into abuse in north Wales have surprised me greatly: there seemed to be the idea that children and young people in north Wales may have spoken of abuse, but because it was outside of the remit of the inquiry, it wasn’t seen as relevant.

“Police weren’t just servicing an inquiry. You can’t draw a limit around who you’re willing to listen to – you have to go wherever the evidence might take you.

You can’t draw a limit around who you’re willing to listen to [in an inquiry] – you have to go wherever the evidence might take you. Dr Ray Jones, former head of Wiltshire social services

“We’ve had watershed moments before: the death of Maria Colwell in 1973, Victoria Climbie in 2000, the inquiries into residential abuse in Jersey and north Wales.

“The difficulty and danger with these are that they’re high profile at that point in time, but then the lessons get left behind. We don’t embed the learning and action, and commitment in terms of action.

“There are two conversations going on at the moment: one about vulnerability of children and young people in terms of child abuse, and the other is about the need to cut back on public expenditure, and families and children are in danger of getting less assistance.

“Police officers, social workers and paediatricians are all under enormous pressure. There are greater notifications from teachers, members of public, but at same time they’re recognising there may be more childre.

“Since 2008, the number of children with child protection plans has risen greatly. But at the same time those numbers have increased, it’s not been matched by people on the ground and the money that’s available to families who need it to parent well, is being reduced.”