The inquiry was announced yesterday by Home Secretary Theresa May, alongside a separate review by Peter Wanless, chief executive of children’s charity the NSPCC, into the Home Office’s own investigation of how the government handled allegations of abuse in the 1980s, and how it lost 114 submitted papers.
Prime Minister David Cameron has promised the investigations into the handling of abuse claims put forward by public bodies and MPs will tirelessly seek the truth about allegations of a paedophile ring with links to the establishment in the 1980s.
The government had resisted calls for an inquiry into the claims but bowed to pressure after former Conservative chairman Lord Tebbit alleged there “probably was a cover-up” in the 1980s. Former children’s minister Tim Loughton had also threatened to use parliamentary privilege to “name and shame” paedophiles if ministers failed to take action.
Demands for a full investigation into public institutions – such as the police, the NHS, Whitehall, schools and the BBC – had been mounting following the revelations about Jimmy Savile and the recent conviction of Rolf Harris for sexual abuse.
The review led by Mr Wanless will centre on concerns the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse contained in a dossier handed over in the 1980s by then Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens.
Mrs May said the wide-ranging inquiry would have full access to all government papers, and warned it could be turned into a full public inquiry if its chairman, who is yet to be named, feels it is necessary.
The other inquiry, led by an independent panel of experts on law and child protection, will – like the widely praised investigation into the Hillsborough football disaster – be a non-statutory inquiry initially focusing on documentary evidence.
However, it will have the power to call witnesses, subject to the need to avoid prejudicing any criminal investigations.
Mrs May told MPs the inquiry was unlikely to report before next year’s general election, but she promised an update on its progress would be given to parliament before May 2015.
The Home Secretary said the independent inquiry panel would 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 will have access to all the government papers, reviews and reports it needs … it will be free to call witnesses from organisations in the public sector, private sector and wider civil society.”
She indicated that “non-state institutions” such as the BBC, churches and political parties could be included as part of the investigation. “I think this has to be wide-ranging,” Mrs May told the House of Commons.
“It has to look at every area where it is possible that people have been guilty of abuse and we need to learn lessons to ensure that the systems we have in place are able to identify that and deal with it appropriately.”
Liberal Democrat MP Duncan Hames asked Mrs May if former public servants giving evidence to the inquiry panel would be released from any obligations they might have under gagging clauses in severance agreements or the Official Secrets Act.
The Home Secretary replied: “It is my intention people should be able to speak openly … It is only if people can speak openly that we are going to get to the bottom of these matters.”
Mr Wanless will look into an investigation conducted last year into the Home Office’s handling of child abuse allegations made over a 20-year period, as well as the response of police and prosecutors to information passed to them.
Mrs May said she was confident the work commissioned last year by Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill had been “carried out in good faith”.
Mr Wanless is expected to report within eight to ten weeks. He will look at concerns that the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse contained in a dossier handed over by Mr Dickens to then home secretary Leon Brittan in 1983.
Last year’s investigation found 13 items of information in Home Office files about alleged child abuse dating back to 1979-1999, and passed police details of four of the items about which they were not already aware.
But Mrs May told MPs that, while records of a number of letters from Mr Dickens were found, there was no sign of a “Dickens dossier”.
The investigation found 114 potentially relevant files were not available and presumed “destroyed, missing or not found”, although the independent investigator made clear he found no evidence to suggest the files had been removed or destroyed “inappropriately”.
Lord Brittan welcomed the announcement of the Wanless inquiry. He said in a statement that allegations he failed to deal adequately with Mr Dickens’s allegations while home secretary were “without foundation”.
Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk, whose questions in parliament about the Dickens dossier fuelled pressure for an inquiry, welcomed Mrs May’s announcement.
He said: “I hope that the inquiry will have powers to hold the intelligence services and Special Branch to account where investigations into powerful child abusers have been discontinued or blocked.
“I also hope it will give an amnesty for retired and serving officers to give evidence on what they know about establishment paedophiles without fear of losing their pension or other repercussions.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “There have been particularly troubling cases of abuse involving powerful people and celebrities and the failures of institutions to act.
“When those allegations go to the heart of Whitehall or Westminster … it is even more important to demonstrate strong action will be taken to find out the truth and get justice for the victims involved.”
One of the MPs who wrote to the Home Secretary demanding an independent inquiry into child abuse allegations has revealed that she was herself a victim of sexual abuse.
Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt said she had been abused when she was a child but had not spoken about it until she was in her thirties. She said: “It is important to me that we make it better for other people.”