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17/12/14 13:00

Education Secretary - Statement on historical child abuse

Angela Constance, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning
Scottish Parliament
17 December 2014

On 11 November, my predecessor, Michael Russell, stood in this Chamber and spoke about the moral imperative that compelled all of us, to face up to, and act on the reality, of historical abuse of children and the current risks of child abuse.

In his statement, he laid out this Government’s commitment to move comprehensively and quickly on these issues, and he reflected on the achievements of Survivor Scotland, the InterAction process and the establishment of the National Confidential Forum.

And he promised to return to this Chamber to set out the Government’s view on whether a national inquiry into historic abuse in Scotland is the right way forward to meeting the needs of survivors.

Today, Presiding Officer, I am making good on that promise.

There have been national investigations into this issue before – such as the Shaw Review and the Kerelaw Inquiry. And it is important that any further inquiry complements and builds on previous work, while moving the issue forward.

We must also be conscious of the work already underway with survivors. The Scottish Government has already given its commitment to working to develop a survivor support fund, and also to fund an appropriate commemoration, guided by the views of survivors.

The Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs has invited key stakeholders from the legal sector to consider how the civil justice system can be more accessible and responsive to survivors of abuse whilst children in care. This will include consideration of the way in which “time bar” operates. We will continue to work with survivors to ensure the fullest understanding of the civil justice barriers faced by survivors.

Our dedication to considering all of the issues must match the seriousness of this issue. We have witnessed the pitfalls when an administration rushes to make decisions about an inquiry, without involving the people who will be most affected by it. We are not a Government that believes in haste at the expense of sense. We are committed to delivering on what we promise. The victims of abuse are owed nothing less than a thorough consideration of all factors before a decision is reached.

Presiding Officer, of course, the case for an inquiry is strong.

I am sure that I do not need to tell members of this Chamber that we owe it to survivors to find the truth; to speak that truth wherever it needs to be heard; and to listen and learn from what we hear.

But we must also be mindful that inquiries are major undertakings. The decision to launch them cannot be taken lightly, and the planning around them must be careful and inclusive – with a clear focus, and not open-ended in either remit or timescale.

As part of the Scottish Human Rights InterAction Response, I met with a number of survivors on Monday along with the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs and the Minister for Children and Young People and we discussed what an inquiry would mean to them.

I have deliberated carefully having listened to their personal experiences and concerns.

I have also reflected on the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who once said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Presiding Officer, this Parliament must always be on the side of victims of abuse. We must have the truth of what happened to them and how those organisations and individuals into whose care the children were entrusted, failed them so catastrophically. And to get to that truth we will be establishing a national public inquiry into historical abuse of children in institutional care.

And to ensure justice is done, I can tell this Chamber that where crimes are exposed, the full force of the law will be available to bring perpetrators to account. I can advise the Chamber that the Lord Advocate has been consulted on holding the Inquiry and measures will be put in place to ensure that the Inquiry does not compromise or interfere with on-going criminal investigations and prosecutions.

I am grateful to the survivors of institutional child abuse who have taken the time to meet me and other ministers and who have spoken bravely and eloquently about why they consider a public inquiry is needed and why it is neccessary.

Of course, as vital as their voices have been in getting us to this point – indeed these voices have been vital – I am also conscious that there are many more survivors who remain silent; as abused children they had no voice, no-one to cry out on their behalf at the appalling injustices they suffered while growing up, and today they await the right circumstances for their experiences to be heard. I sincerely hope the public inquiry will provide just such an opportunity for them.

And as a society we have an opportunity to confront the mistakes of our past and to learn from them. It will not be easy but only by shining a light on the darkest recesses of our recent history will we fully understand the failures of the past, enabling us to prevent them happening again and ensure a brighter future for every child and young person in Scotland, today and for tomorrow.

Presiding Officer a few weeks ago the First Minister set out the priorities for our Government, speaking about the need to build a fairer and more equitable Scotland. It is a vision of a Scotland that will look the truth square in the eye, one that will not be quick to judge and one that will not flinch from what is discovered.

For that reason, the inquiry will be a statutory inquiry under the Inquiries (Scotland) Act 2005. It will have the power to compel witnesses to attend and give evidence, if required.

As intimated earlier, we will consult with survivors and relevant organisations on the exact terms of reference and I propose that this process be complete by the end of April.

Those terms of reference need to capture the principles of the inquiry, and how we can create the right environment to support victims to confide, and the right timescales over which it should be held.

That process must also find the right people to oversee the inquiry, not least any chair or panel.

We will not make the same mistake as others by rushing out with names before we have consulted with survivors and relevant organisations about the attributes of a chair or panel.

To support this work, I have asked the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland – CELCIS - to provide on-going logistical support, academic input and expert advice throughout the process.

Indeed, engagement with survivors has already started in earnest.

Scottish Government officials have written to survivor organisations on plans for engagement around these matters for the first few months of next year. We have had a positive response from organisations who have welcomed the opportunity to speak to us in a setting where survivors will feel comfortable in having their voices heard.

As part of this, we will also hold a series of regional events which will give a wide range of stakeholders the opportunity to contribute. As well as shaping the Survivor Support fund, these events will be used to consult on the inquiry, with a view to having the terms of reference and announcing a chair or panel, as I said earlier, by end of April next year.

Presiding Officer, I want to conclude my statement with one further reflection. When this Parliament was reconvened in 1999 and Scotland’s inaugural First Minister Donald Dewar addressed the nation during the opening ceremony, he spoke of the four words on the mace that sits in this Chamber: wisdom, justice, compassion, integrity. Those are the words that resound whenever this Chamber has turned to this issue, and they are the words on which this inquiry will be founded.

Thank you. Presiding Officer, I am happy to take questions from members.