The chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) will lead a review into the Home Office handling of historic allegations of child abuse, Theresa May told MPs. The review by Peter Wanless, which will take eight to 10 weeks, will look at the Home Office's investigation but also how the police and prosecutors handled information handled to them.
The Government will also establish an independent inquiry under an expert panel into handling of child abuse by public bodies, which could be upgraded to a full public inquiry if the panel decides it is needed, Home Secretary Mrs May said. In a Commons statement Mrs May said that where the Wanless review's findings relate to the Director of Public Prosecutions it will report to Attorney General Dominic Grieve as well as to her.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who spoke to the Home Secretary about the situation yesterday, has vowed that the investigation into how public bodies handled abuse claims will "leave no stone unturned". The review led by Mr Wanless centres on concerns the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse contained in a dossier handed over in the 1980s by former Tory MP Geoff Dickens.
Mrs May said: "I want to address two important public concerns: first that in the 1980s the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse and second, that public bodies and other important institutions have failed to take seriously their duty of care towards children." The Government will "do everything we can to allow the full investigation of child abuse and the prosecution of its perpetrators", she said, and will do nothing to jeopardise those aims.
There would be a presumption of "maximum transparency" and "wherever institutions and individuals have failed to protect children from harm we will expose those failures and learn the lessons". The Home Office's senior civil servant Mark Sedwill commissioned a review last year into the department's handling of child abuse allegations, including the information provided by Mr Dickens.
"The investigation found no record of specific allegations by Mr Dickens of child sex abuse by prominent public figures," she added. The Home Secretary said she was confident that the work commissioned by Mr Sedwill was "carried out in good faith" but spelling out the reasons for the Wanless review, she said: "I know that with allegations as serious as these the public need to have complete confidence in the integrity of the investigation's findings."
Demands for an inquiry were fuelled over the weekend by Lord Tebbit, a member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet in the 1980s, who said that there "may well" have been a political cover-up at the time in order to protect "the system". The wider inquiry into public bodies follows historic allegations against Jimmy Savile and the conviction of entertainer Rolf Harris.
Mrs May said: "Some of these cases have exposed a failure by public bodies to take their responsibilities seriously and some have shown that the organisations responsible for protecting children from abuse - including the police, social services and schools, have failed to work together properly." Mrs May said "many members from all parties" had urged her to launch an overarching inquiry.
"I can now tell the House that the Government will establish an independent inquiry panel of experts in the law and child protection to consider whether public bodies and other non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse," she said. "The inquiry panel will be chaired by an appropriately senior and experienced figure.
"It will begin its work as soon as possible after the appointment of the chairman and others members of the panel. Given the scope of its work it is not likely to report before the general election. But I will make sure that it provides an update on its progress to parliament before May next year."
Mrs May said it would be a non-statutory panel inquiry, like those into Hillsborough and the murder of Daniel Morgan. That meant it could begin its work sooner, and because it would initially focus on documentary evidence it would be unlikely to intrude on any criminal investigations.
She stressed that the inquiry would have access to "all the government papers, reviews and reports it needs", and could call witnesses subject to the constraints of any criminal probes. "I want to make clear that if the inquiry panel chairman deems it necessary the Government is prepared to convert it into a full public inquiry in line with the Inquiries Act," Mrs May added.
Mrs May said a Home Office investigation had concluded that the department had not funded the controversial Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) during the 1970s and 1980s. The findings will be published, but Mr Wanless will also be asked to look at that probe to ensure it considered the issues thoroughly.