UK

Senior panel member defends head of child abuse inquiry

Dru Sharpling
Image caption Dru Sharpling said Prof Alexis Jay was "one of the few people qualified" to lead the inquiry

A panel member of the independent inquiry into child sex abuse has defended chairwoman Prof Alexis Jay as being "qualified for the job."

The Shirley Oaks Survivors Association, for 600 victims who lived in children's homes in London, is pulling out of the inquiry because of its leadership.

But Dru Sharpling said it would not prevent the inquiry from carrying on.

Labour MP Chuka Umunna has called for a new head, but Home Secretary Amber Rudd has backed Prof Jay's leadership.

The inquiry said its work would continue with "confidence and clarity", and Prime Minister Theresa May this week said she had absolute confidence in the inquiry's leadership.

The treatment of children in care in Lambeth, south London, from the 1950s onwards is one of 13 areas the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) is due to look at.

It will investigate the claim that a large paedophile network infiltrated children's homes in the area, run by Lambeth Council, with the Shirley Oaks group due to have been a "core participant" in the process.

Ms Sharpling said Prof Jay, who also led the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, was the right woman for the task ahead.

"One woman uncovered that abuse and that was Alexis Jay," she told the BBC. "I think she is one of the few people qualified for the job."

She added: "I'm very sorry Shirley Oaks Survivors Group has decided to withdraw but it is not going to prevent us from continuing the investigation. To be frank it gives us all the passion that we need to take it forward and although it has been a difficult start for this inquiry, we are determined to see it through no matter what."

'Pandora's box'

Raymond Stevenson, who has spoken about being physically abused during his time at the Shirley Oaks home in the 1970s, said the group's members had voted "overwhelmingly" on Saturday to pull out of the inquiry.

Mr Stevenson told the BBC that the group "felt relieved not to be part of this mangled attempt to get belated justice for our members" and he called the inquiry an "unpalatable circus".

He added: "The inquiry has just lurched from disaster to disaster and we do not believe Alexis Jay, the chair, is the right person to wrench open the Pandora's box of historical lies and cover-ups that have happened over the decades."

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Media captionChair of the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association tells Radio 4's Today the abuse inquiry is "failing tragically"

The inquiry has been beset by difficulties since it was set up in July 2014 to investigate allegations made against local authorities, religious organisations, the armed forces and public and private institutions in England and Wales, as well as people in the public eye.

Three chairwomen - former president of the High Court Family Division Baroness Butler-Sloss, her replacement, leading lawyer Dame Fiona Woolf, and Justice Goddard, a New Zealand high court judge - have already stood down before Prof Jay took her place.

A number of senior lawyers on the inquiry have also quit - the most recent of which was Aileen McColgan, who resigned on Wednesday amid concerns about the inquiry's leadership.

Shirley Oaks Survivors Group had threatened to withdraw before, questioning the inquiry's independence and claiming that the Home Office, which sponsors the inquiry and provided some of its staff, had a role in covering up abuse in the past. Now it is planning to publish the results of its own investigation.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Prof Alexis Jay became the inquiry's fourth chairwoman in August

Ms Rudd has also come out in defence of Prof Jay and said: "We owe it to victims and survivors to get behind the inquiry, and its chair."

She added that the inquiry had a "vital role to play in exposing the failure of public bodies and other major organisations to prevent child sexual abuse".

But the group said she was planning nothing more than a "social work talk shop", which it said would achieve nothing, and described her as "an uninspiring leader".

Their local MP for Streatham, Mr Umunna, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he was also concerned whether Prof Jay would be able to "bring the heft and forensic capacity of a judge" to the inquiry.

He also said there was concern about her social work background because "for many of the survivors... a lot the perpetrators came from that profession", and further concern about the "severe dysfunction" in the legal team.

"So for all those reasons I don't have confidence in this chair and I think we need a new one," he said.

Peter Saunders, the founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood who sits on the inquiry's victims advisory panel, told Today the inquiry should not be "distracted by just one group".

"This inquiry, for all its challenges, is the best chance that we've all got and we need to support it, not keep having a go at it."

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