Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
“The Times they are a-changing” sang Bob Dylan in 1964. It seems they haven’t stopped. As the age of deference dies, and pillars of the establishment come crumbling down, dark secrets are being revealed that had been festering in sordid silence.
Few of these revelations are more horrific than the child-abuse scandal that erupted as the truth about Jimmy Saville emerged. I look back on my untainted childhood and feel humbled and lucky that it was so, because the abuse of a child is probably the starkest, foulest illustration of the dynamics of abuse.
Abuse is about power – of one individual over another. It is about the power of the abuser to strip away everything that gives the abused their identity, to break them inside, so that there is nothing left of the person there once was, but a little heap of rubble. That little heap of rubble of a person will then be made to believe anything by the abuser; that they were “asking for it”, that they “deserve” it, that it’s all “their fault’. The abuser is often very good at making themselves out to be the victim, and inflicting the abused with guilt – anyone who has suffered domestic abuse will know this. And the shock of all this is that abuse can happen to anybody; it can happen to the strongest, cleverest, most popular person you know.
That is the direct abuse. The aftermath is the second act of abuse. The abused will be so programmed to think they “deserve” it that they will often find that they go back to abuse, because it is at least a pattern they know. That broken little heap of rubble does not just “fix” when the source of the abuse is removed. The human brain is very quick to remove facts that are too awful to know, or don’t fit in with its required perceived order of the world – from out of its mental operational zone to the mental trash can. But that mental trash can does not get emptied with a click like that you can make on your computer. The reality that the brain has carefully buried and hidden festers, goes septic, and poisons the abused person’s life.
It can manifest in all sorts of ways: self-harm, addiction – to work, or alcohol or drugs; it can and will ruin future relationships and family relationships, as the abused seeks to repeat the programmed pattern of abuse, and finds that they cannot trust anyone and are afraid of intimacy. Even if the abused has had the ability to tear themselves away from their abuser, the abused must sometimes still live with the legacy – can still feel the abuser has power over them, even if, like Saville, the abuser is dead.
Last month, the superb charity The Southmead Project organised a seminar on child sex abuse. (CSA). The Southmead Project helps those who have been abused in coming to terms with what has happened to them, and turning that little pile of broken rubble into something whole and strong again. It is a long process. The mind is not like a bone, it mends slowly and dreadfully painfully. We heard from survivors of child abuse, and what they wanted from the child abuse Inquiry.
Very simply, they wanted a properly independent inquiry, with teeth. Given that some of very senior figures, embedded at the heart of the establishment, may be potentially implicated, those teeth must be exceptionally sharp, and very long.
Last week, Theresa May put the inquiry back on track; There will be a panel on the Inquiry, so that one individual isn’t depended upon to drive it. Survivors will be deeply involved in shaping the Inquiry. A new chair, who meets the difficult criteria of being a top legal brain whilst also not having any contact with “The Establishment’” is to be found. The panel start working in the meantime.
This is all good, and demonstrates an appetite for pursuing this horrific injustice, wherever it may lead. But one thing remains that puzzles and me, and concerns survivors.
The Inquiry is not statutory from the start. Theresa May gave reassurance that it will have every potential of becoming statutory if the new chair requests this to be so. That is good. Given that anyone with anything to hide will do almost anything in order to hide it, especially if they are an influential figure, you would think that the ability to compel witnesses to give evidence under oath would be absolutely fundamental to such an inquiry.
How else is it supposed to operate? “Dear Mister Establishment. We have questions about you and child abuse. Will you answer them?” “No.” “Oh, okay then.”
There would have to be questions over the suitability and motivation of any Chair who does not request that the inquiry be statutory – and given we’ve got through two already, we certainly don’t want this to happen.
Statutory Inquiries cost a lot of money, and take a long time, and so the Prime Minister has historically not granted many. However, an issue like this is surely what the statutory inquiry process is for. What is more, it would be symbolic of our willingness to hold the Establishment to account, to say to those abusers who think they are untouchable because they have power: “No, you are not. You have no power. We have taken it away from you”.
If the new Chair instantly makes the inquiry statutory, we can put the previous delays behind us. But it would be so much better if it were statutory from the start. And anyone who still wants to cover-up abuse with the shield of establishment should have a listen to Bob. “For he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled, for the times they are a changing.”
If you would like to support the Southmead Project, go to www.southmeadproject.org.uk.