22 December 2014
Last updated at 11:52
Labour has criticised Theresa May for failing to get the inquiry “off the ground”
Dozens of child abuse survivors have urged the government to scrap an inquiry into historical abuse and replace it with a more powerful body.
The call comes after a leaked letter from Theresa May told inquiry members their panel might be disbanded.
Peter Saunders, from National Association for People Abused in Childhood, said the move would be supported by the majority of survivors.
Labour’s Simon Danczuk said the inquiry so far had been an “utter mess”.
Mr Danczuk, who exposed child sex abuse allegations against former Liberal MP Cyril Smith, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that survivors would be “dismayed” by the progress of the inquiry – which was set up in July and has started work, but has no chairman.
‘Very good people’
He later told BBC Radio 5 live: “It is verging on a disgrace in terms of how government, how Theresa May, and how Home Office officials have organised or failed to organise this particular enquiry.”
Mr Saunders said he had not met any survivors who had any confidence in the process and the panel, “as it is currently constituted”.
“There are some very good people on that panel as it stands at the moment, but there are one or two characters who sadly have an association with the past that would make them inappropriate,” he said.
He added that if the panel was disbanded it would not “take us back to square one”, and argued that getting the inquiry set up correctly would win the support of survivors.
But former children’s minister and Tory MP Tim Loughton told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that all the survivors he had met wanted to get the inquiry going, and he did not accept that disbanding the panel was the will of the majority.
In the letter to Home Secretary Theresa May from survivors, survivors’ groups and associated professionals, they call for a new inquiry with the power to “compel witnesses to give evidence under oath”.
It is “essential” the inquiry has these legal powers to “prevent evidence being withheld or tampered with”, they say.
The letter also says they would welcome a “dedicated police team to take evidence alongside the inquiry and investigate and prosecute offenders”.
They say this would “increase confidence”, adding it is “essential” those conducting the inquiry “are free from strong links to prominent establishment figures or any other potential conflict of interest”.
The letter also calls for the terms of reference of the inquiry to be extended to include allegations of historical abuse dating back as far as 1945, rather than 1970 as is presently the case.
One of the people who signed the letter was abuse survivor and campaigner Ian McFayden. He said the government only had “one chance” to get an inquiry like this right, and it needed to have teeth.
Lib Dem MP Tessa Munt, who has revealed that she suffered from child abuse herself, also agreed the inquiry needed greater powers, and people should be compelled to give evidence under oath.
Mrs May’s first two choices to be the inquiry’s chairperson both stood down amid claims they had close links with establishment figures.
The inquiry, sparked by claims of paedophiles operating in Westminster in the 1980s, will investigate whether “public bodies and other non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse in England and Wales”.
Fiona Woolf and Baroness Butler-Sloss have both stepped down from the role of inquiry chairman
In her letter to current panel members, seen by the BBC, Mrs May said she was considering three options to give the inquiry more powers – and only one did not require the panel to be disbanded.
She acknowledged the situation had “not been easy” for panel members but said the “confidence of survivors is paramount”. An inquiry source told the BBC panel members had been told they could apply for positions on the new panel.
A leaked reply to Mrs May from panel member Sharon Evans, who runs a children’s charity and suffered abuse herself, says halting the inquiry now “would send a very negative message to so many people we have already met and who we have promised they can have confidence in us to do the right thing”.
Its first chair, Baroness Butler-Sloss, resigned a week after the inquiry was set up. She faced calls to quit because her late brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney general in the 1980s.
Her replacement, Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf, was appointed in September – but on 31 October she stood down amid questions over her links to former Home Secretary Lord Brittan.
The current panel members include:
- Graham Wilmer – an author of several books on child abuse, he also set up the charity the Lantern Project to help victims of abuse
- Barbara Hearn – spent 20 years in social work in local government and a further 21 years with a particular focus on children
- Ivor Frank – a barrister with 40 years’ experience in family, human rights and international law
- Professor Jenny Pearce – professor of young people and public policy at the University of Bedfordshire
- Drusilla Sharpling – an inspector for Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Constabulary and chairwoman of the national rape monitoring group
- Sharon Evans – former journalist and chief executive of the Dot Com Children’s Foundation which helps to prevent children from becoming victims
- Dame Moira Gibb – former chief executive of the London Borough of Camden and lecturer in social work
- Professor Terence Stephenson – author, lecturer in child health and consultant in general paediatrics
- Under the current set up the eight panel members would be assisted by Professor Alexis Jay as an expert advisor and Ben Emmerson QC as counsel