The invisible report: The grim reality of the Home Office’s sex abuse investigation
The full veil of secrecy imposed on the Home Office's report into its treatment of sexual abuse allegations was laid clear today during a stormy committee session.
Under fierce questioning from MPs, Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill admitted the investigator's identity was kept secret, the report had hardly been read by anyone, it was not going to be published even in a redacted form, and even the cursory investigative techniques had not been brought to bear on the problem.
The government's confidence in the Home Office review of the way it acted when accusations of paedophilia in Westminster were raised in 1983 now seems hopelessly naive. Their assurances have been based on air.
This is what Sedwill did once tasked with getting to the bottom of the issue, according to his own evidence:
He tasked an anonymous individual with conducting the research. He still won't say who this person is. The researcher searched the Home Office central database and auxiliary databases for potentially relevant files. He searched for files that had the name of Geoffrey Dickens, the MP who made the allegations. He searched for misspellings of the name, for files featuring the phrases 'child', 'sex abuse', 'paedophilia' etc. One hundred and fourteen potentially relevant files were missing.
Under tough questioning from Tory MP Michael Ellis – who, it's worth mentioning, is very good at these things – it emerged that they could identify these files by their name and serial number. But no-one has seen those files names – including Sedwill himself.
He was asked if he had recorded the serial numbers. That was pertinent because if adjacent serial numbers still existed, it suggested the missing ones had been deliberately removed rather than just lost or systematically destroyed. Sedwill said he did not know the methodology the anonymous researcher used.
The report wasn't published because it contained sensitive personal information in it. Quite why the names and addresses could not be redacted was not made entirely clear.
Even the home secretary has not read the report. She only read the executive summary. She said it was improper, given it covered alleged activity by mostly Tory MPs. But of course, it also covered the possible failure of the Home Office to take seriously its duty of care toward children, although that does not appear to have precluded Sedwill's involvement.
It was an invisible report, published by a man who is not named and read by no-one.
There was then an exchange between committee chairman Keith Vaz and Sedwill, which I wrote down as best I could (check on Hansard later for a more spic-and-span version). It’s worth repeating in full:
Vaz: "Have you seen a list of names of the missing 114 files?"
Sedwill: "I haven't, no."
Vaz: "This is a very odd report you've commissioned. A report the home secretary doesn't want to read…
Sedwill: "It's not proper…"
Vaz: "She's told the House."
Sedwill: "We don't want to mischaracterise it."
Vaz: "We'll see her next week. This is about you. You have commissioned a report you say is done in good faith, few people have read it, it was not put in the House even in redacted form, not even you know the names of those files."
Sedwill: "I relied on the judgement of the investigator. There's no reason to believe those files were inappropriately handled."
Vaz: "This is not questioning your judgement. Or perhaps I am questioning your judgement. I would have thought if someone came to you as permanent secretary of the Home Office and says 'there's 114 missing', I would say, 'well can I have a list of the names?' You never asked that? No one asked that except today?"
Sedwill: "That's what he found. He handed all that detail over to police."
Vaz: "So the police have it? Do the police have the names of the files?"
Sedwill: "You're asking me to go beyond the detail already disclosed."
Vaz: "Even relying on your good faith, the committee wants to know someone has looked at this list."
Sedwill: "I realise your frustration. I'm not going to second guess the investigator"
Vaz: "This is like a John le Carré novel. You appoint someone to conduct the investigation. You're asking a committee of parliament to rely on your good faith on the person and the report they've written. But when the report comes in, you don't look at the files."
It's telling how slapdash these operations are, once you get past the purposefully daunting gravitas of names like 'permanent secretary'. Once you cast aside the flamboyant job titles and parliamentary language, you get a bloke doing some searches on a computer with no-one bothering to read what he's come up with.
There was an awful lot of talk from Sedwill of various figures' "unimpeachable credibility" and "sound judgement". That's what we're given to rely on, once you get past the smoke and mirrors – the assumption these are decent, competent people.
And yet the history of the Home Office in general, and its conduct in this case in particular, does not suggest it is either decent or competent.
There's a very good chance those Dickens allegations don't amount to much. Many of his other communications consist of zany ramblings about the occult and he had a mixed reputation among his colleagues at the time. But we'd need a more competent and honourable Home Office to ever find out the truth.