Exploitation inquiry powers limited
An independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland is powerless to compel organisations to answer questions on potential failings within the care system, its chairwoman has told an Assembly committee.
But while professor Kathleen Marshall, a former children's commissioner for Scotland, said her probe did not have the legal powers of a full public inquiry, she stressed she did not envisage anyone failing to co-operate with her team.
The expert was commissioned by Stormont Health Minister Edwin Poots to assess the scope of the problem in the region in the wake of the announcement in September of a major police investigation into the suspected exploitation of 22 children, 18 of whom were within the care system.
Last month, police announced that a further two victims had been identified by detectives.
Police believe the majority of the teenage victims were harmed when they went missing from care homes, at times after being plied with drugs or alcohol at house parties. Some were living at home and were allegedly exploited after going missing for periods.
Stressing the complexity of the cases, police have said many of the children did not realise they were being sexually exploited and still do not view themselves as victims.
By September police had arrested 30 people in connection with the cases and, last month, announced that a further 20 suspects had been identified.
Stormont's Health Committee today heard that officers do not believe prosecutions are likely in each child's case.
In another evidence session before the committee, Mrs Marshall, along with officials from the Health Department and the regulatory body RQIA (Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority), was questioned at length by members on why her probe had not been placed on a statutory footing.
Committee chairwoman, Sinn Fein's Maeve McLaughlin, suggested the inquiry would potentially become "just another report" if it was not sufficiently empowered, while the SDLP's Fearghal McKinney raised concern on its ability to get answers to important questions.
Mrs Marshall, who today appealed for anyone with evidence about, or experiences of, child exploitation to come forward, told MLAs she did not think compulsion would be required with the organisations she was examining.
"Certainly the initial meetings that we have had so far people have been very open and very willing to help us," she said.
As well as the ongoing police investigation and Mrs Marshall's inquiry on the scale of the problem, Mr Poots has asked the multi-agency Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) to conduct a thematic review specifically examining the role of the statutory bodies in the individual cases identified by the PSNI to date.
One of the issues Mrs Marshall will be assessing is whether the authorities responded effectively to recommendations made in 2011 in a major report by charity Barnardo's highlighting the problem of child exploitation in Northern Ireland.
Addressing committee members, the inquiry chairwoman suggested the non-statutory footing might actually make people involved in the care system more willing to open up about the issue of exploitation.
"I have been involved in statutory public inquiries and the way they work - there are other ways of doing these," she said.
"We have got the thematic review, we have got the police investigation, I want this to be something where people actually feel more freed up to talk about what is actually happening, where front-line workers, young people who have been in difficult situations, parents are actually able to tell us what's happening.
"That doesn't always work best in a rigorous question-answer statutory framework where people come to the table defensive."
DUP committee member David McIlveen said he got the impression some MLAs were branding the inquiry as having failed before it had even started its work.
Sean Holland, giving evidence on behalf of the Health Department, said Mr Poots fully expected all bodies involved to co-operate with the inquiry.
"Our minister, having asked for the inquiry to be established, is certainly going to expect that all relevant bodies, including the department, engage fully with the inquiry," he said.
"So they (the inquiry) will ask us the questions, we will give the answers - that information will then be available to, ultimately, committees and the Assembly, who hold departments and ministers to account."
Chairman of the SBNI Hugh Connor also gave evidence to the committee on the board's thematic review.
With the board being made up of representatives from many of the agencies that are actually being scrutinised, he faced questions on the transparency and independence of the exercise.
Responding, Mr Connor said he had invited a number of independent experts to be involved in the review.
"What I hope we will achieve with those appointments is to be seen as having a transparent, open process," he said.
Mr Connor was also asked about the possible danger of compromising the police investigation by interviewing any of the alleged victims.
He said the review would approach the issue with extreme caution and, revealing there were not likely to be prosecutions in every instance, said the cases that did not go to court may offer greater opportunities to engage with the children involved.
"The advice I have from the policing service is that essentially of the 22 young people (initially identified as victims), at this moment in time it is unlikely that prosecutions will be brought in relation to all 22, and therefore there may be cases where it is possible to look at (them) more early in the process, because they are unlikely to go forward for prosecution," said Mr Connor.
Both the inquiry and the thematic review are set to take around a year to complete their work.