Martyn McLaughlin: Holyrood should tread carefully over child abuse inquiry

Susan OBrien has resigned less than four months after the Scottish Child Abuse Inquirys first formal call for evidence
Susan OBrien has resigned less than four months after the Scottish Child Abuse Inquirys first formal call for evidence
Share this article

The victims’ trust is easily lost and after the resignation of the chairwoman, who will come forward to testify, asks Martyn McLaughlin

Trust is a fragile thing easily lost. The trust of the neglected and the persecuted is rarer still, a commodity lent in faith more often than certainty. For the victims of child abuse, the decision to step out from shadows that span the length of a lifetime is an act of fortitude. Trust is the most precious thing they have. Sometimes, it is all they have left.

These prisoners of childhood are well acquainted with betrayal. Robbed of innocence, they have seen their torment denied and trivialised. That they can find the strength to rely on the authorities that so grievously failed them is nothing short of a miracle.

They give their trust in the hope that it is a means to an end in the long journey towards justice, accountability and redress. Squander it and they are betrayed once more.

Hemingway once said the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. What conclusion have the victims of child abuse in Scotland arrived at this week as they watch the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry spiral into disarray, less than four months after its first formal call for evidence?

Back then, its chair, Susan O’Brien QC, issued a six-page long address, the essence of which could be found in the third from last paragraph. “I am asking survivors to help us, by telling us what happened to them,” she said. Now, she is gone, just a week after her fellow panel member, Professor Michael Lamb, tendered his resignation. Who now will come forward to testify before such an anarchic set up?

The inquiry, tasked with poring over tens of millions of documents and gathering evidence from those who suffered abuse as children in residential or foster care, is at grave risk of failing before it has begun. So far, it has cost £1,113,817, a figure that is expected to be dwarfed by the final bill, likely to exceed £12m. Just one panel member remains - Glenn Houston, chief executive of Northern Ireland’s Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority - and even then, there are well-founded doubts over his future.

In May, he wrote to the education secretary, John Swinney, warning of a “significant risk of loss of public trust and confidence in the integrity of this inquiry should the chair be removed from office.” The fact Ms O’Brien chose to jump before she was pushed is unlikely to have addressed his misgivings.

Some 12 years after former first minister Jack McConnell made a “sincere and full” apology to the victims of abuse in children’s homes, and nearly a decade since the then SNP minority government announced a form of truth commission on historical abuse, the current turmoil seems scarcely believable. Getting this far has taken considerable time and political will, yet even before the inquiry has held its first public meeting, questions must surely be asked of whether its existing structure is fit for purpose.

Both Ms O’Brien and Mr Lamb have accused the Scottish Government of interfering in the inquiry’s work to the extent that its independence can no longer be guaranteed. The former claims a request to replace a government employee with an external solicitor has been blocked, while Mr Lamb said officials have questioned the inquiry’s decisions to date and meddled “in ways large and small, directly and indirectly”.

Urgent steps are being taken to seek a new chair and panel member, but the small pool of experts from which such individuals can be drawn would be excused for politely declining any approach, for fear of being unable to fulfil their role. At the present time, it is about as inviting and secure as being asked by Mark E Smith to join The Fall.

For his part, Mr Swinney yesterday indicated the friction centred around whether it was necessary for members of counsel to take all the statements from survivors at a cost of about £100 an hour. It is to be expected that a former finance secretary should advocate a shrewd approach to an inquiry that will be the costliest in Scottish history, but before digging their heels in, Mr Swinney and his civil servants ought to have considered the ultimate price of their prudence.

This is not a major capital project or a scheme that falls under the Non-Profit Distributing programme. It is a highly sensitive inquiry that has been decades in the making. Controlling expenditure is important but it is not paramount. Many victims of abuse have died waiting for answers. Others still with us have abandoned all hope. The events of the past week will regrettably add to their number.

An inquiry of this nature is entirely dependent on the integrity of its process . The acrimony of recent days has caused devastating, perhaps irreparable damage. As Helen Holland from the In Care Survivors group pointed out, the people most affected by the upheaval are the survivors themselves, the very people who should be protected.

There is still time for Mr Swinney to put things right. A concurrent inquiry in England and Wales was mired in controversy until Home Secretary Theresa May took the decision to expand its terms of reference and grant it new statutory powers. It was an imperfect solution, but one that addressed concerns the inquiry could go about its work without fear or favour.

The Scottish Government must give careful thought to its next step. Replacing Ms O’Brien and Mr Lamb will achieve little if underlying worries over the constitution of the inquiry are not tackled.

The trust of the victims must not only be restored, but vindicated. They deserve nothing less.