A big chunk of my life has recently been dominated by the unenviable but important task, of assessing whether an independent review of what the Home Office did with the so-called 'Dickens dossier' was a decent piece of work. There has been huge interest in 114 files about child abuse apparently missing from the records. With suspicion about systematic cover up to protect people in high places, public confidence was low.
It's not easy looking for documents dating back to the mid-80s whose content, and sometimes existence even, is disputed. Some have said I was given an impossible task. But those who were abused during the period in question (1979-1999) need to be as confident as they can be that if evidence exists in the public record it is uncovered. And if there is any evidence of systematic destruction of papers to protect those guilty of abuse, that needs to be exposed. So I agreed to take on the task and I was fortunate enough to be partnered by Richard Whittam QC; a brilliant man, equally determined to get to the truth.
Some said that we would be blocked by people with an interest in making sure the truth was not unearthed. Quite frankly, it is insulting that either of us would be deterred from our task by jobsworth civil servants. Neither of us shy away from asking questions of those in powerful positions. For my part, I head a charity over 90% financed by voluntary donations from hundreds of thousands of independent minded individuals. Through them, I am accountable only to children and their right to a childhood free from abuse.
It is true though that the terms of reference for our task were limited. We were confined to examining what the Home Office itself knew about organised child abuse and the actions it took as a consequence. But we did not rely upon (patchy) Home Office records alone. We asked questions far and wide, across police forces and the public sector, including the security services, Number 10 and the Whips Office.
We were told that no papers were too secret to be outside our searches. We sought to identify whether inconsistencies within the Home Office paperwork, or in what others had recorded about Home Office involvement with child abuse issues, would throw up new information or a suspicious pattern of gaps in the Home Office record.
We published our approach in full, including detailed information not only of what we found of relevance in files that have been retained, but what is known about each of the 114 files that had been deemed missing.
Geoffrey Dickens clearly met the home secretary Leon Brittan in the autumn of 1983. While there is analysis of papers Mr Dickens handed over at the time, it is disappointing there is no file copy of those papers themselves. There is a huge discrepancy between how these papers are described in the media at the time and the sense one gets from government paperwork about what Mr Dickens actually passed across.
We were also asked to reconsider a second independent review into whether the Home Office ever gave grant funding to the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE). In the cold light of day, even the thought that tax payers' cash might have been used to fund that vile organisation is bizarre to say the least.
Despite payment schedules appearing in Hansard, we found it impossible to piece together a full record of larger awards made by the Voluntary Services Unit. We met the 'whistleblower' who said he had been told of funding going to PIE. We looked in particular at an indication he was given that Special Branch may have sanctioned a payment to help keep tabs on PIE activity. This was not a line of inquiry properly examined in the original review. We could neither confirm nor dismiss it on the basis of records that remain.
In relation to both reviews, our searches were stymied by the lack of any systematic approach to flagging up crimes against children notified to the Home Office throughout the period, and by file destruction policies that retained correspondence for no longer than two years. We have made recommendations to strengthen practice here and have been heartened by police protocols that now retain papers that relate to the suspicion of crimes against children for very much longer. Considering many survivors of abuse take years or even decades to speak out, this is an important change.
Of course, finding no evidence of an organised cover up within the official Home Office record does not mean that people in high places were not involved in child abuse or any sort of cover up of that abuse.
We simply observe that this is not apparent from within the registered filing system. And it certainly does not imply that children were never abused by people in powerful positions - indeed there are active police investigations currently underway, which we have taken meticulous care not to prejudice in any way.
Whether or not there are more papers to be found, I would encourage anyone with further information about past child abuse crimes to come forward. If your testimony can bring child abusers to justice and better protect children today, please speak up. Now is the time.
I hope our efforts to be as open as possible about this work will help further build a climate in which people can speak out with confidence and believe that action will be taken. Rumour and speculation only get you so far, reliance on official records likewise, even when a filing system is perfect and government records are far from that.
In the meantime, we should not get so sidetracked by looking into the past that we fail to act now on the risks facing children today. We saw in Rotherham that organised child abuse is with us today.
We don't have to paw over dusty filing cabinets to find it; just open our eyes and ears.
History will go on repeating itself until we learn one simple lesson - look out for and listen to children. They, in their own way, always tell us what is going on. We must all be ready and willing to take them seriously. In establishing an Inquiry with all necessary powers to get at the truth of what went on in the past, let's not take our eye off the ball for today's children. If you know or suspect abuse of a child please speak up, to us or to the police. Do it now.