Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse Holds Preliminary “Westminster Strand” Hearing

From The Times:

The public inquiry into child abuse is scaling back its investigations into claims of an establishment cover-up of a VIP paedophile ring in Westminster.

The decision is a significant retreat by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse because the allegations triggered its creation by Theresa May four years ago.

Andrew O’Connor, QC, the inquiry counsel on the Westminster strand, told its first hearing yesterday: “We suspect that much of the public concern relating to Westminster child abuse issues may have been created, or at least exacerbated, by a lack of knowledge.” He said that concern over the allegations had “diminished considerably” since Scotland Yard’s discredited Operation Midland inquiry into the allegations [blogged here – RB].

The inquiry would not try to make findings of fact in the cases of the late Sir Cyril Smith, who was a Liberal MP, or the late Sir Edward Heath, a Conservative prime minister.

…. The inquiry, now chaired by Professor Alexis Jay, believes that matters of public concern remain in the Westminster strand: including the role of whips in suppressing information about MPs; the honours system, including knighthoods for Smith and Jimmy Savile; and whether senior politicians supported the Paedophile Information Exchange.

Yesterday’s hearing was a preliminary one (the main event will not be until March 2019), and the transcript can be accessed here. It shows that the inquiry will also look into claims “that police investigations into cases of possible child sexual abuse linked with Westminster may have been the subject of inappropriate interference”, referring specifically to claims relating to Elm Guest House – this is somewhat meatier than the above summary in The Times. O’Connor also referred to the “Dickens dossier” (blogged here), and to claims made by Anthony Gilberthorpe (blogged here) and Don Hale (blogged here).

The retreat from findings of fact

The “retreat” mentioned in The Times actually re-states a point made by the IICSA in September, after Wiltshire Police announced that it intended to end its fruitless £1.5 million probe into Ted Heath by passing its report to the body. The IICSA responded to the force’s face-saving plan with a statement that “the inquiry will be interested to see and consider the outcome of Wiltshire police’s investigation”, but that it “is unlikely to need to examine whether allegations of abuse made against any particular parliamentarian are true during the course of its work.” The Mail on Sunday shamelessly ignored the second part of the this statement, instead running with the sensational headline “Sex Abuse Inquiry WILL Probe Ted Heath” (or “Sex Abuse Inquiry to Probe Ted Heath” in the print edition).

The September statement, was, though, a climb-down when compared to earlier statements; in November 2015 the IICSA Tweeted that

We’ll conduct objective fact-finding inquiry into allegations of abuse by people of public prominence associated w. Westminster #CSAinquiry

More on this point – in particular in relation to Greville Janner – below.

Esther Baker

O’Connor also referred to Esther Baker, explaining that she has been given “core participant” status “given her status as a complainant of relevant sexual abuse and also in her capacity as someone who has campaigned publicly on related issues in her own name.” Baker’s appointment is controversial because she made an extraordinary allegation against the former MP John Hemming that police have not been able to substantiate. Hemming has accused her of being a “fantasist”, and this term has now been used in media reports.

Baker’s allegations include the claim that she and other girls were abused by Hemming and by various VIPs in a woodland setting while corrupt police stood guard – although she has not used the phrase “Satanic Ritual Abuse”, this is the obvious implication. Baker says that she remembered Hemming’s participation after encountering him at Parliament as part of her campaigning on the issue of abuse (she has close links to the Labour MPs John Mann and Jess Philips – and Philips won her parliamentary seat at Hemming’s expense); and it just so happens that this was shortly after a disagreement between Hemming and Graham Wilmer, a campaigner with links to Baker (more details here).

Baker was represented at the hearing by Peter Garsden, Executive Officer of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers and a believer in the reality of human sacrifice in the UK by “hidden societies”. Garsden attempted shut down critical comment about Baker’s appointment by asking the inquiry to refer newspaper articles to the police under the terms of the Witnesses (Public Inquiries) Protection Act 1892, which makes it illegal to “to punish, damnify or injure, any person for having giving evidence upon any inquiry”. Mark Watts, a journalist who has promoted Baker’s claims, referred to this on Twitter, although for some reason he failed to similarly convey the response of the lead counsel to the inquiry, Brian Altman QC, which was that the act did not apply in Baker’s case because she hasn’t given evidence.

Garsden also told the inquiry that Baker (link added)

has taken 12 overdoses, 12 attempts to commit suicide, by the excessive ingestion of tablets, prescription drugs… 12 attempts at suicide between 2015 and now, the most recent of which was 25 January 2018, because of the publication of this article in the Sunday Times by James Gillespie on 21 January.

One recalls here an old claim by Watts that an alleged survivor had attempted suicide after a Panorama documentary had drawn attention to problems with several “Westminster VIP” abuse claims. I think we can be sure that neither Garsden nor Watts would be quite so ready to take at face value a series of suicide attempts by someone accused of a sex crime, or to blame the media for reporting information.

Garsden also provided some extra context to Baker’s allegations:

Esther Baker is a very fragile individual. She has been serially and consistently abused from the age of 6 to 19, firstly by her father, who abused her on a regular basis, and then her father introduced her to various individuals who are the persons this inquiry is interested in. She was taken to various houses in the Birmingham area and to a wood where she and other girls were abused by various individuals, one of whom has been  publicly named, another of whom hasn’t, who are either MPs or former MPs, and that’s why she is relevant to this inquiry.

…She has been ably assisted by other individuals who suggested that she make public disclosure of her allegations, which she did in 2015, principally as a method of protecting her from what she deemed to be a threat of violence or worse than that. She thought that if she disclosed her identity there was more chance of her staying alive because she was making allegations against celebrities, or, should I say, well-known  individuals who were known to the public. Since then, there has been an orchestrated campaign made against her to vilify her and call her a liar.

Older media reports, such as this one in the Guardian from 2015, state that “the abuse went on for four years from the age of six”, rather than from “from the age of 6 to 19”. The discrepancy has slipped in because Baker in fact claims to have been abused in two contexts, the latter while she was a teenager. She also states that her allegations are still under police investigation; presumably they relate to this alleged teenage abuse, although the distinction has not been made very clearly.

The 2015 Guardian article also refers to a detail that is curiously absent from Garsden’s account:

Baker has also alleged that she was sexually abused at a flat in London, which she now believes to be Dolphin Square, in Westminster – the location at the centre of the Metropolitan police’s Operation Midland inquiry into the alleged murders of three children by high-profile individuals in a paedophile ring.

Baker said that she recognised details from the Westminster accuser “Darren” of a fake “medical room” at Dolphin Square where grotesque forms of abuse supposedly took place. In turn, “Darren” said that he recognised Baker from a photograph. Soon after however, “Darren’s” credibility came under considerable strain, and he later withdrew from cooperating with the police (despite claiming to have been forced to participate in a murder of a man with Down’s syndrome). This is not some minor detail – Dolphin Square was specifically mentioned earlier in the  hearing, and Baker’s claim to have witnessed abuse there ought to be highly relevant. Why would Garsden not mention this?

Greville Janner

Garsden also took aim at Daniel Janner QC, who provided a submission in relation to his late father Lord Greville Janner (and who has been denied core participant status). Garsden complained:

So I am putting out a plea that this fantasist nonsense should stop. It has happened in other inquiries. It has happened to all my clients in the Janner module. They have also been called fantasists.

The inquiry now refers to “institutional responses to allegations made against Lord Janner”, which is in line with its statement that it “is unlikely to need to examine whether allegations of abuse made against any particular parliamentarian are true”. However, this was not always the case – as Dominic Lawson noted in the Sunday Times in 2016:

…to quote this column from last March: “On the first day of the inquiry’s proceedings, its QC, Ben Emmerson, declared that he would attempt to make ‘findings of fact’ in cases of individual abuse, blithely referring to ‘Lord Janner and other individuals allegedly associated with him in his offending’.”

I believe that Emmerson, like his favourite newspaper [the Guardian], saw Janner as the easiest of targets and that it would bring the inquiry early kudos (not to mention press coverage) if it brought “findings of fact” that the peer had indeed been a child abuser.

Emmerson later left the enquiry following an allegation of sexual assault, and the Janner allegations appear to contain some difficulties after all.

The “1961” Edward Heath Accuser

Meanwhile, a solicitor named David Greenwood provided more detail about an Edward Heath accuser – here called  WM-A1 and very clearly the “1961” accuser whose allegations included impossible dates. According to Greenwood:

A1 is not “Nick” of Operation Midland, but he has been let down on all levels. He describes being close to a group of politicians that were using rent boys in the 1960s, and he was neither investigated himself — he was not prosecuted — nor was he protected. This all raises the issue of blackmail and scrutiny by security services of politicians, or powerful figures, at least, at the time, and A1’s evidence needs to be looked at for evidence of this scrutiny where it may lead the inquiry into significant findings.