Is this the most toxic job description in public life?

Young girl (pic posed by model)

Wanted: highly respected chairman or chairwoman, available for up to 10 years, robust in the face of press scrutiny, and with no ties to the British establishment - it is becoming the most toxic job description in public life. Finding the right person to chair this vast, complex and crucial public inquiry is proving all but impossible.

The departure of Dame Lowell Goddard has plunged the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) into crisis.

And what makes that so bitterly ironic is that she was precisely the person appointed to be the steadying hand on an inquiry that many felt had lost its way before it had even started.

The first chairwoman, Baroness Butler-Sloss, a hugely experienced retired judge, stood down after a week because of concerns relating to the fact she was the sister of the late Lord Havers. He was attorney general at the time of some of the abuse that was to be examined.

Why that had not been considered, or thought to be important, before her appointment remains a mystery.

The second, City solicitor Dame Fiona Woolf, lasted less than two months. Her judicial experience was confined to sitting as a part-time magistrate.

She resigned after it was claimed she was too close to Lord Brittan, who was at the time under investigation for sexual offences.

He was subsequently exonerated, but like Lady Butler-Sloss, Dame Fiona was seen as just too close to the British establishment that would fall under the inquiry's gaze.

Image copyright Home Office
Image caption Dame Lowell was appointed to be "the steadying hand" on the abuse inquiry.

Established in 2014, the IICSA is not simply a public inquiry, it is a vast, six-decade retrospective exercise in national soul-searching.

There is little doubt that children were sexually abused in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s and beyond, across many public and private institutions.

Society frequently tolerated such abuse by turning a blind eye and allowing those who were complicit to go freely about their gruesome business.

It took a series of scandals, most notably that of serial child abuser Jimmy Savile, to really change perceptions.

The IICSA must delve into the national psyche and institutions of decades past, and carry out extensive examinations of how they operated in relation to children.

Its scope is mammoth.

Churches, children's homes, the police, armed forces, schools, hospitals, charities, the BBC, and the role of well known people in politics and the media are just some of the areas it aims to tackle.

It must then come up with a comprehensive report that ensures no such abuse can occur in future.

That such an inquiry could have lost three chairwomen, all appointed by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, in two years is disturbing.

So, back to basics.

There are two key selection criteria for the new chairman or chairwoman.

They need the intellect and experience to do the job.

It would normally be a senior serving, or former, judge familiar with the law underpinning a public inquiry, and used to hearing and analysing mammoth amounts of testimony from multiple witnesses - effectively and with sensitivity.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Lord Macdonald says chairing the inquiry is now "not so much a poisoned chalice as a lethal injection"

But two senior judges have come and gone.

Equally important is perception and independence.

Victims and survivors must have confidence the chairman or chairwoman is divorced from the contentious subject matter of the inquiry and key people who may figure in it.

That is difficult for a senior British judge, who would be seen as part of the establishment and could have connections to individuals and institutions being examined.

But recruiting from abroad has also failed.

What makes recruitment harder still is that, in football parlance, Dame Lowell had "lost the dressing room".

My colleague Tom Symonds has reported that there was tension, even conflict, between her and her officials.

The former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald says chairing the inquiry is now "not so much a poisoned chalice as a lethal injection".

That raises two questions:

  • Is there someone capable of getting the inquiry in its present form back on track?
  • Or should it now be broken down into much more defined, separate inquiries with different chairmen or chairwomen?

The role would dominate and define the career of a senior person and place them under an intense media spotlight for the best part of a decade or longer.

Senior judges, such as the much respected Dame Heather Hallet, who won praise for her sensitive handling of the inquests into the deaths of those killed by the 7 July 2005 London bombings, would have to give up their judicial career and the chance of becoming Lord Chief Justice. The role becomes vacant next year.

Among other names mentioned are the current counsel to the inquiry Ben Emerson QC. He is a distinguished human rights lawyer, with the advantage of knowing the preliminary work of the inquiry well.

The barrister Michael Mansfield QC is favoured by some survivors, but at 74 is perhaps too old for a 10-year stint.

Beyond judges and lawyers, Prof Alexis Jay, who led the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham and is currently on the IICSE's advisory panel, is being touted by some as an interim chairman who could then take over full time.

Judge, civil servant, academic? Only the brave need apply.