All three of Theresa May’s appointments to lead the British government’s child abuse reviews can be criticised on the grounds of a perceived lack of independence. However, the choice of Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss is especially dubious given the clear need to gain public confidence that this is not yet another establishment cover-up of non-recent child sexual abuse.
In the 48 hours since her appointment was announced, a number of compelling arguments against Butler-Sloss’ involvement have been widely promulgated in the British media. Notwithstanding the substantive nature of these criticisms Butler-Sloss’ decision to dig her heels in, she told the BBC yesterday “If people think I am not suitable then that’s up to them”, by announcing that she will take-up the appointment is a surprise given widespread acknowledgement that she is conflicted from the outset.
“The government faced questions on Tuesday over the appointment of a member of the House of Lords as the chair of a public inquiry into “serious failings by public bodies and important institutions” in their handling of allegations of child abuse.
Keith Vaz, the chairman of the commons home affairs select committee, expressed surprise at the appointment of a parliamentarian. “Su[r]prised that the government has chosen a member of the House of Lords no matter how distinguished to head the inquiry,” Vaz tweeted after the appointment of the retired high court judge Lady Butler-Sloss.
The former Labour minister had earlier made clear at a meeting of his committee that he intended no personal criticism of Butler-Sloss. But he questioned whether it was right to appoint a parliamentarian to chair the inquiry when questions were being asked about whether alleged paedophiles operated at Westminster.
Butler-Sloss is the sister of the late Lord Havers, who was attorney general in the 1980s, when the former home secretary Lord Brittan of Spennithorne was handed details by the late Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens of alleged child abuse. Havers was later made lord chancellor by Margaret Thatcher.
Steve Bell on the Butler-Sloss inquiry
Butler-Sloss, who chaired the Cleveland child abuse inquiry in the late 1980s, said she was honoured to be asked to carry out “important work” after the home secretary, Theresa May, announced she would chair the wide-ranging public inquiry into the handling of allegations of child abuse in public institutions. Butler-Sloss, a former president of the family division of the high court, coined the phrase “listen to the children” in her Cleveland report.
But Vaz challenged the appointment during a hearing with the home office’s permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill. He asked Sedwill: “In respect of Lady Butler-Sloss – a very distinguished person has been appointed. [Were] there any concerns that you [had] before the appointment was made that she is a member of the upper house and some of the allegations may have been made about members of this house?
“Was that considered at all, despite the fact that she is extraordinarily distinguished and a very good head of the family division – that she is a member of parliament and she is very closely related to a former lord chancellor?”
Sedwill replied: “The short answer is no. She is a woman of unimpeachable integrity. She is a cross-bench peer, of course, so is also highly independent in the House of Lords. Anyone who has ever dealt with her wouldn’t question for a second the integrity, capability, intelligence and rigour that she will bring to this role.”
The Guardian 9 July 2014
Why Elizabeth Butler-Sloss must not head the National Inquiry into Organised Child Abuse
“Butler-Sloss chaired the Inquiry into the arrangements for dealing with suspected cases of child abuse in Cleveland since 1 January 1987 (Report of the Inquiry into Child Abuse in Cleveland 1987 (1988) London. HMSO)
Butler-Sloss presided over a cover up which the system decided was necessitated by the social and political pressures for containment. This was to the great detriment of the children who had actually been abused at that time, to the detriment of children in that position ever since, and to the professionals trying to bring this to light. This was a betrayal because initially we trusted that the Inquiry would be powerful and would want to uncover the truth.
She has never to our knowledge made any public connection between the silencing of professionals by the Inquiry, and what happened to Child Protection in the UK as a direct result of the Cleveland Inquiry. Therefore, we have no confidence in her capacity to bring a neutral stance to this present problem. Despite her demonstrated understanding during the inquiry that many of the children in Cleveland had in fact been abused, she let the system return them home to the likelihood of further abuse. This in our mind was wrong and immoral. There was no excuse, even the one she gave, which was that it was not her remit to decide whether abuse had taken place because the high court was doing that job.
After Cleveland, professionals lost their mandate to intervene to protect children and this legacy has continued to this day. As professionals who were among the first to expose the extent of child sexual abuse we experienced at first hand how a public inquiry is used to allay public disquiet and divert attention from the truth about sexual crime against children.
We cannot let this happen again.
Heather Bacon. Former Consultant Psychologist, North Tees Health Authority. Witness to the Cleveland Inquiry
Sue Richardson. Former Child Abuse Consultant, Cleveland Social Services Department. Witness to the Cleveland Inquiry
Authors of Child Sexual Abuse. Whose Problem? Reflections from Cleveland. 1991
What on earth is Lord Elizabeth thinking of? Apart from the idiosyncrasy of calling herself Lord, it is obvious, she should withdraw because her brother is alleged to have closed down an investigation into a senior official – later found guilty. That is not her fault. But it compromises her and it seems intransigent not to know that.
There is another reason that Butler Sloss is not acceptable: she led the judicial inquiry in 1987 into the alleged abuse of 121 children in Cleveland that did not ask or answer the question on everyone’s lips – were the children abused?
Though she acknowledged that the doctors who had diagnosed severe anal abuse were not always wrong, and that the medical findings were not doubted, she then and thereafter contributed to the vilification of professionals trying to do their job in the face of the evidence and of ‘destructive’ police resistance to it.
Worse, her report contributed to the myth that children were the victims not of sexual abuse but of crazed doctors and social workers.
The only American expert she heard was accused adults’ advocate Ralph Uunderwager – later discredited for proposing that paedophilia could be seen as ‘god’s will.’
Her report also contributed to a regime that gave children one chance, and once only, to tell their story, in less than an hour, in a video interview with complete strangers.
Children’s evidence was not liberated, it was controlled and constrained – and closed down.
Her report was published in 1988. Before the year was out, the report of an eminent group of experts, ‘Action Taken Following the Report of the Judicial Inquiry into Child Abuse in Cleveland’ was sent by the Northern Region Health Authority to the Department of Health. It detonated the myth: after ‘extremely thorough and in-depth assessments of the children and families’ these experts concluded that 70-75 per cent of the diagnoses were correct. This ‘would clearly be contrary to general public understanding of the accuracy of the diagnoses.’
The Department of Health has never acknowledged this report nor relieved the public of its misconceptions. Nor has Butler-Sloss. That is why whistleblowers and abuse survivors wont want to talk to her.
Bea Campbell, award winning journalist.
Beatrix Campbell’s book, Unofficial Secrets, is an investigation into the Cleveland child abuse crisis.”
Spotlight On Abuse 9 July 2014