Chris Marshall: Child abuse inquiry should be reformed

Susan OBrien QC
Susan OBrien QC
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When the chairwoman of Scotland’s child abuse inquiry quit her post earlier this week, her depature did not come as a huge surprise.

There had been rumours about the inquiry long before Susan O’Brien QC’s resignation ­letter was published by the Scottish Government on Monday.

Indeed, panel member Professor Michael Lamb, of Cambridge University, resigned last week blaming government interference.

Prof Lamb didn’t pull his punches, saying that meddling by Scottish Government officials had left the inquiry “doomed”.

Ms O’Brien’s resignation letter claimed officials had been “actively undermining” her work for months. The QC, who has a history of representing child abuse survivors in court, made it clear her resignation was due to worries about the inquiry’s independence and not as a result of the reaction to comments she made during a private training session earlier this year.

Dr Claire Fyvie, head of the Rivers Centre for Traumatic Stress at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, had written to the inquiry to protest that comments made by Ms O’Brien in February had been “totally unacceptable” and “incompatible” with her role as inquiry chairwoman.

Following the complaint, the Scottish Government began formal measures to have Ms O’Brien removed from her post. In the end, however, she jumped before she was pushed.

An eminent QC with an unblemished record, her career will now be forever associated with the failures of the inquiry she briefly led.

Education secretary John Swinney has begun the work of appointing Ms O’Brien’s successor, but he needn’t bother. The inquiry has lost the confidence of survivors and in that respect it is badly damaged. It should be scrapped and replaced with a judge-led inquiry of the sort survivors called for in the first place.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland yesterday, Mr Swinney said his obligation was to make sure public money was being used “effectively and wisely” by the inquiry.

It seems there was a difference in opinion between Ms O’Brien and the government about who should be taking witness statements from survivors, officials from St Andrew’s House or independent legal counsel charging £100 an hour. The first priority of this inquiry should be to get to the truth and obtain justice for survivors, not keep costs down.

It must be particularly galling for abuse victims that the inquiry into the Edinburgh tram debacle is being led by a judge, albeit a retired one in Lord Hardie.

It’s unlikely Lord Hardie would tolerate the sort of government interference Ms O’Brien appears to have dealt with in recent months.

The tram inquiry, which began in June 2014, had spent more than £2m by the start of this year, despite having yet to hear from its first witness.

It seems money is no object for an inquiry on a flawed transport scheme opposed by the SNP, but not for one designed to uncover the truth about decades of physical and sexual abuse of children.

If the Scottish Government is serious about this inquiry and getting to the truth, it must start listening to those who have lived with the abuse they suffered as children every day of their adult lives.

That means a judge-led inquiry with an ability to spend whatever it takes to achieve justice for the people who should matter the most – the survivors.