Thursday 10 August 2017
Child abuse panel members’ Grenfell warning:
‘Inquiries are not independent’
Two panellists of child abuse inquiry give advice to participants in Grenfell Tower blood transfusion inquiries
Two original panel members of the government’s child abuse inquiry have said they were forced to fight attempts at political control and interference from the Home Office when it was run by Theresa May.
The pair said they wanted to speak out to warn potential members of supposedly independent teams being assembled at the orders of the prime minister to investigate the Grenfell Tower fire and contaminated blood transfusions.
Sharon Evans and Graham Wilmer revealed how government officials intervened with the independent panel members by preparing a 23-page document instructing them how to answer questions from MPs.
Both left the inquiry when the original panel was disbanded within months of its formation and have since been critical of the inquiry.
Grenfell Tower fire: police considering manslaughter charges
But they said they wanted to warn relatives, victims or other laypeople co-opted on to the upcoming inquiries about the tendency of May and her team to seek close control over such processes.
“We wanted openness, and she broke every single promise made to us,” said Evans, who runs the Dot Com children’s charity.
“The top promise was that it was going to be an independent and open inquiry. And it’s been neither.”
Wilmer, who runs the Lantern Project charity, said: “It began from a good place but it began to go wrong in a very short space of time.”
The pair were brought into the process shortly before the appointment of the second of the inquiry’s chairs, Fiona Woolfe, was appointed to replace the original choice, Baroness Butler-Sloss. Both said that they felt the interference seemed especially apparent in attempts to control the public message put out by the inquiry, which has been dogged by delays and controversy, and is now on its fourth chair, Professor Alexis Jay.
An example of this is a long and vastly detailed briefing note given to panel members before their appearance before the Commons home affairs select committee in January 2015, just before the inquiry was reorganised.
Prepared by the civil servants staffing the inquiry’s secretariat, it has 23 pages and includes a series of “key messages” to explain the inquiry’s slow progress up to that point.
It lists more than 50 “difficult questions” the panel members could expect, almost half about the inquiry’s public image rather than its actual work.
Many relate to a critical TV interview given by Evans shortly before the committee hearing.
Evans was initially not asked to appear before the committee but was added at the last minute, thus receiving the briefing note.
This left her shocked, she said. “It was the ultimate insult. You’re meant to be an independent panel member. It’s not a briefing about remembering how many meetings we’d been to, factual things were we might need an aide-memoire. It was saying exactly what we could say, the lines to take, a script.”
While the inquiry staff were supposed to be independent from the Home Office, both Evans and Willmer said they repeatedly saw senior staff in touch with May’s officials and were told her advisers were keeping a close watch on how it was reflecting on her reputation.
The sense of being controlled began when the inquiry held so-called listening meetings, where people who had suffered child abuse made allegations to them, which they sought to have followed up.
At this point, Wilmer said, officials running the inquiry “learned that we were not prepared to just stand back and not be seen, we were not going to be told what to do”.
We wanted openness and [Theresa May] broke every single promise made to us Sharon Evans Evans said:
“We were not meant to be as successful as we were. They asked us to go to the listening meetings and to stand up and tell our stories. People started to come and tell us difficult things. But we were supposed to not make any problem.”
Both former panel members concede they have personal concerns about the way they were treated during their period with the inquiry.
Evans made a complaint of bullying against the now-departed lead counsel to the inquiry, Ben Emmerson, which was not upheld in an investigation by a senior Home Office official.
Wilmer was accused of sending insulting emails to critics of the inquiry, which he denies. But they say the excessive control was as much structural as personal, particularly with the contracts they signed.
These included a principle of collective responsibility by which panel members could only make public statements about the inquiry if all their number agreed.
Evans said this was used to limit internal criticism of the inquiry process and urged would-be members of new panels to be wary of such arrangements.
“I’ve been inside an inquiry and I’ve seen the way it can operate,” she said. “We ended up not having a voice on how the inquiry was set up and run – what should have been about protecting evidence was instead used to control us.”
Evans and Wilmer say they were certain much of the direction was coming from the Home Office, despite the inquiry’s official independence.
“For me, what’s really shocking is that I went into all this thinking I really had something to offer,” Evans said.
“At the beginning it was OK, because they didn’t really know what they wanted. But then the political agenda started to become obvious. That was when I was told Theresa May was going to be prime minister and I needed to behave myself – it had to look like things were going well.”