Chris Marshall: Patience of child abuse survivors is wearing thin

Under Lady Smith's leadership, the child abuse inquiry has now become what many wanted from the start - a judge-led process.
Under Lady Smith's leadership, the child abuse inquiry has now become what many wanted from the start - a judge-led process.
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After lurching between controversy and crisis for much of 2016, Scotland’s child abuse inquiry appeared to have entered a period of relative calm under the leadership of judge Lady Smith.

That was brought to an abrupt end yesterday with the news that Glenn Houston, a senior social worker and the only remaining member of the original panel, had resigned his position to take up work elsewhere.

Announced in a Scottish Government press release, it appeared an amicable parting of the ways.

Nevertheless, Mr Houston’s resignation led to questions over why he chose to remain in place when the inquiry’s two other original panel members left last year.

Professor Michael Lamb, a professor of psychology at Cambridge University, quit in June claiming the inquiry was “doomed” due to Scottish Government interference.

He was followed just a few weeks later by the inquiry’s chairwoman, Susan O’Brien QC, who resigned before she could be sacked over “unacceptable” comments she was said to have made.

Ms O’Brien is now suing the Scottish Government for substantial damages.

Many assumed Mr Houston would follow his two colleagues out the door, but he has remained in post seemingly happy to work alongside Lady Smith until yesterday’s announcement.

At a preliminary hearing of the inquiry at Parliament House in Edinburgh last month he sat awkwardly at the judge’s side as she set out the work her team is engaged in.

With no current plans to replace Mr Houston, the inquiry is now left with what many survivors called for all along – a judge-led investigation.

Given the problems the inquiry has encountered from the outset, it rather begs the question why a judge wasn’t appointed at the very start as was the case with the Edinburgh tram inquiry, which is also currently taking place.

Mr Houston will leave the inquiry to take up non-executive director positions on the boards of the Disclosure and Barring Service and the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, where he was previously an executive director of social work.

Given the lack of information so far released on the work of the inquiry, it is difficult to assess the contribution he has made.

But surely it is to be hoped that with the removal of the final remnants of the original panel, the inquiry can now start afresh and steer clear of the controversies which have dogged its work so far.

The patience of survivors – the people who should be at the heart of the process – appears to be wearing thin.

Yesterday one group which has core participant status in the inquiry threatened to walk away completely.

There’s a huge amount of work yet to be done not only in winning hearts and minds, but also in progressing the inquiry’s work.

That includes investigations into dozens of institutions across Scotland, including a number of private schools, about alleged abuse dating back decades.

The importance of that work cannot be overstated.

For all those relying on the inquiry to deliver some form of justice they have been denied over many, many years, it will be hoped yesterday’s announcement will prove to be nothing more than a minor setback.