Interview: Alexis Jay
By Alexis Jay
Big Issue North
December 4, 2017
Not long after qualifying as a social worker in Scotland, Alexis Jay took on some of her “most challenging work ever”. That role was to relocate 45 of Glasgow’s homeless family groups into bed and breakfast accommodation.
“It was a very significant experience for me,” she says. At that point, Jay could “not have imagined at all” that one day she’d be heading a multi-million pound inquiry into historic child sex abuse – one that, if all goes according to plan, could uncover institutional failings in some of the UK’s most longstanding establishments, including the NHS, the BBC and Westminster.
“I certainly didn’t expect to be in this position – chair of a public inquiry – but that’s life,” she laughs, apparently taking it in her stride. In August 2016, Jay, who led the pioneering Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham, was appointed chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA), which has suffered setbacks and controversy.
“There’s been much frustration along the way,” Jay admits. But nearly 18 months on, she believes progress is being made, even if it’s not as fast as many would like. Although new figures show that only 145 public evidence hearings have been held over a four-year period, Jay is pleased to report that by the end of 2017 the inquiry will have held 10 weeks of public hearings, hosted six public seminars and published five reports.
“It’s no secret that there was a lot to be done when I became chair,” Jay says. “But the most important thing was to get a proper work plan in place to lay out how we were going to proceed. That was a priority. We set that out in a report last December and have adhered to that timescale of public hearings, seminars and other activities. I’m pleased that we’re nearly a year on and we’ve managed to stick to a very demanding schedule. Everyone has worked very hard to deliver that.”
Theresa May, then home secretary, set up IICSA in July 2014 to “expose those failures and learn the lessons” when the full extent of the abuse by Sir Jimmy Savile was revealed after his death in 2011. Hundreds came forward to say they had been abused, with attacks allegedly taking place in NHS hospitals, schools, children’s homes and at the BBC. Previous chairs of the non-statutory inquiry, Baroness Butler-Sloss and Dame Fiona Woolf, stepped down from their roles in 2015. The inquiry was made statutory that year, giving it more powers, but new chair Dame Lowell Goddard quit last year, citing the inquiry’s “legacy of failure”.
Jay, by then on the IICSA panel, faced an unenviable task when she took on the unpopular position. Her appointment was immediately criticised because she was not a lawyer. “I don’t wish to sound pious but I regarded it as a public duty for me to take on the role of chair,” Jay says. “If I hadn’t, there would have been ever-more delays. I had the support of my fellow panel members and that was very important. We work very closely together.”
Jay and a team of experts and lawyers are looking at 13 areas of investigation, including child sexual abuse in the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, at Westminster and by Lord Greville Janner, as well as in residential schools and custodial institutions. The statutory inquiry can compel witnesses to give evidence but, controversially, will only return “findings of fact”, not the guilt or innocence of individuals. Jay is clear that the legal purpose of a public inquiry is not to do that. “But we can come to judgements as to how well institutions acted to protect children in their care from sexual abuse.”
Peter Garsden, head of the child abuse department at law firm Simpson Millar in Manchester and president of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, has been dealing with such cases since 1994. He is critical of the inquiry not establishing individuals’ guilt.
He says: “It’s a mystery to me how exactly the [panel] are going to satisfy the needs of their claimants yet fulfil their objectives.” He adds: “The writing on the wall seems to show that they’re more interested in finding links between institutions and the abuse that took place. And to my mind, you can’t investigate that without deciding whether the abuse took place.”
Part of the problem with leading a huge inquiry of this nature, Garsden says, is that “witnesses die, documents disappear and memories fade”. He says many victims of child abuse cannot report it at the time, perhaps because of loyalty to a family a member, threats by an abuser or fear of being disbelieved. “There’s often a genuine ignorance that what has happened to them is wrong or abusive until many years later.”
Abuse is not necessarily a sexual act, he adds. “You may have an adult who is very powerful in whatever role he is fulfilling at that time, whether it’s as a parent or teacher, care worker, MP or employer of some description, and a less powerful individual. They are chosen as the victim and groomed, manipulated and abused. It’s the imbalance in power that is the sexual stimulation for the abuser, rather than the sexual act itself.”
Garsden is not surprised to see many high-profile abuse cases, including politicians and Hollywood bigwigs such as Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, in the news. Power and abuse often go hand in hand, he says. “Unhealthy people may seek power for the feeling of control and pleasure that comes with it.”
He hopes the intense news and social media coverage of such cases will encourage others to come forward. Any spikes he has seen in the number of people approaching the inquiry is more often than not linked to media coverage of it.
“All the kerfuffle about the chairs [resigning] and the bad publicity has actually improved and increased the traffic towards it,” he says, adding that Jay has “coped very well with the attacks on her and the inquiry without throwing her rattle out of the pram as previous chairpersons have done.” She has “stayed the course”, he says, and “appears to be made of stronger stuff. To be leading such a monolith, she has to be given great credit.”
Jay also wants more people to come forward. There is, she says, a clear strategy to encourage victims to share their experiences. The inquiry has had 1,200 contacts from individuals, received “excellent feedback” about the Truth Project, which allows people to share their stories with the inquiry, and has already engaged with 700 victims and survivors.
There’s also a 200-strong Victims and Survivors Forum, which meets regularly and actively participates in the inquiry’s work, and a Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel. But do people who have been abused still have faith in the inquiry?
“There is no single voice and people have very different expectations and aspirations,” Jay says. “I’m certain we’ll not satisfy everybody.”
Garsden believes there will be more high-profile allegations and that more people will come forward. “I’ve no doubt that whatever is reported and uncovered is the tip of the iceberg.” Statistically, he says, one in four are victims of abuse.
“If there are 60 million people in the UK, that means 15 million are the victims of abuse – there’s no way that many people have come forward.” Most abuse, Garsden says, “goes undetected, undiscovered, unprosecuted and follows people to the grave”.
The most challenging aspect of Garsden’s job, he admits, is trying to give clients what they want. “They were abused and desperately want to be heard, to be believed, and apologised to for what happened.”
Garsden represents 16 alleged victims of Lord Greville Janner – an investigation that is on hold until the outcome of the Independent Police Complaints Commission inquiry into the activities of Leicestershire Police is known. “We don’t know how long the delay will be. Ours was meant to be one of the first to start and the inquiry has been running for four years, and it’s not yet begun.” The victims are frustrated, he adds. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Can Jay reassure victims that progress is, in fact, being made? “The most important thing is to demonstrate by deed,” she says.
Could anything more be done to make that process happen more efficiently? “Every time we do something different and new, we review it together and ask, how could we improve on that? What are the lessons we’re learning that could make this a better process for everyone concerned?” For example, for the Rochdale hearings, IICSA recently opened its own hearings centre – previously, it had rented office accommodation. “Not having a shared entry matters for anonymous witnesses.”
Errors do happen. In November, the IICSA website revealed an anonymous victim’s name. It was later reported that only five people saw the document. Nevertheless, Jay said it caused everyone involved “great distress” and highlights the volume of documents they’re working with. “The inquiry received around 1.5 million pages of evidence and communications from more than 5,500 people,” she says. “We looked to see whether there were technical solutions to avoid human error. But there’s no doubt we’re very sorry and concerned when something like that occurs.”
The government, Garsden believes, could give the inquiry “more resources, more money, and not keep them on such a tight budget”. He says: “They’re on a shoestring and are limited as to what they can do.” Garsden believes that time only increases the suffering of any individual who is kept waiting. “If the 13 modules could run simultaneously and everybody could have a hearing within a year, then that would be more expensive, but it would give quicker closure for the survivors.”
While Garsden believes that the Inquiry “isn’t truly independent”, Jay insists that “nobody has attempted to exercise political influence over us”. She says: “We want to keep our distance from any suggestion of political involvement. One of our investigation areas is Westminster, and that’s all the more reason why we should not have any direct engagement with politicians over these matters.”
Still, Garsden insists: “Any inquiry which is run by the Home Office, where the home secretary chooses the panel members, is going to be open to distrust and suspicion by any survivors. Although it is deemed to be independent and has independent panel members, it sits in the Royal Courts of Justice for hearings and there are members of the Home Office staff who police it administratively.”
Has Jay been surprised by the sexual assault allegations coming out of Westminster? “I should not comment on that, except to say that from my past experience, culture is an important aspect of how any institution operates.”
Despite the ongoing criticism and the increasing costs of the inquiry Jay is committed to the work that is being done – however long it takes. Last week IICSA’s first public hearings into allegations of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church got underway. Allegations about Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire were on the agenda. Counsel to the inquiry Riel Karmy-Jones told the hearing that children may still remain at risk from church institutions.
“I have to get on and do the work. It costs me and the other panel members a lot to carry out this work. It’s not an easy task. I’ve had to work through the emotional responses to the terrible things I read and hear about. I have that under control. It’s just the sheer energy it consumes – a weekly commute of 1,000 miles to Glasgow and staying away from my family, my home and my cats.
“I couldn’t do the work if I didn’t have the concerns and passionate sense of how badly some children have been treated in the past. I know how it can cause lifelong damage – how it can affect their health and their relationships. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have that absolutely core commitment to trying to address that and better protect children in the future.”