7 Jul 2014

What next in the Westminster ‘child abuse’ scandal?

The chief executive of the NSPCC Peter Wanless is to head a review into allegations of historical child sex abuse, Home Secretary Theresa May tells MPs.

The review by Peter Wanless, which will take eight to 10 weeks, will look at the Home Office’s investigation in the allegations, but also how the police and prosecutors handled information passed to them. The government will also establish an independent inquiry under an expert panel into handling of child abuse by public bodies, which could be upgraded to a full public inquiry if the panel decides it is needed, Theresa May said on Monday.

I know that with allegations as serious as these the public need to have complete confidence in the integrity of the investigation’s findings. Theresa May

In a Commons statement Mrs May said that where the Wanless review’s findings relate to the director of public prosecutions it will report to Attorney General Dominic Grieve as well as to her. The review led by Mr Wanless centres on concerns the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse contained in a dossier handed over in the 1980s by former Tory MP Geoff Dickens.

Mrs May said: “I want to address two important public concerns: first that in the 1980s the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse and second, that public bodies and other important institutions have failed to take seriously their duty of care towards children.” The government will “do everything we can to allow the full investigation of child abuse and the prosecution of its perpetrators”, she said, and will do nothing to jeopardise those aims.

‘Maximum transparency’

There would be a presumption of “maximum transparency” and “wherever institutions and individuals have failed to protect children from harm we will expose those failures and learn the lessons”. The Home Office’s senior civil servant Mark Sedwill commissioned a review last year into the department’s handling of child abuse allegations, including the information provided by Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens.

“The investigation found no record of specific allegations by Mr Dickens of child sex abuse by prominent public figures,” she added. The home secretary said she was confident that the work commissioned by Mr Sedwill was “carried out in good faith” but spelling out the reasons for the Wanless review, she said: “I know that with allegations as serious as these the public need to have complete confidence in the integrity of the investigation’s findings.”

Demands for an inquiry were fuelled over the weekend by Lord Tebbit, a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet in the 1980s, who said that there “may well” have been a political cover-up at the time in order to protect “the system”. The wider inquiry into public bodies follows historic allegations against Jimmy Savile and the conviction of entertainer Rolf Harris.

Mrs May said: “Some of these cases have exposed a failure by public bodies to take their responsibilities seriously and some have shown that the organisations responsible for protecting children from abuse – including the police, social services and schools, have failed to work together properly.” Mrs May said “many members from all parties” had urged her to launch an overarching inquiry.

‘Independent inquiry panel’

“I can now tell the house that the government will establish an independent inquiry panel of experts in the law and child protection to consider whether public bodies and other non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse,” she said.

“The inquiry panel will be chaired by an appropriately senior and experienced figure. It will begin its work as soon as possible after the appointment of the chairman and others members of the panel. Given the scope of its work it is not likely to report before the general election. But I will make sure that it provides an update on its progress to parliament before May next year.”

Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper accused the Home Office of failing to respond to legitimate public concerns. “The government must take these concerns extremely seriously – to make sure justice is done for victims of abuse no matter how long ago, to make sure that any institutional failure is uncovered, and to make sure that lessons are learnt and that child protection is as effective as possible for the future,” she said.

“We need a wide-ranging review that can look at how all the allegations put to the Home Office in the 80s and 90s were handled. Any stones left unturned will leave concerns of institutional malaise, or worse a cover-up, unaddressed.”