Professor Alexis Jay is not a woman to sugarcoat the truth in any aspect of her life. An unflinching inquiry by the softly-spoken Scotswoman revealed that 1,400 children in the Yorkshire town of Rotherham had been sexually exploited, largely by men of Pakistani heritage, and failed desperately by police and social services.
Almost three years on, she arrived back in Yorkshire on Thursday as the chair of national Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in a bid to encourage victims and survivors from all walks of life to come forward and share their experiences with her and her team. Meeting the Yorkshire Post before speaking to a conference in York on the aims of the Truth Project, Professor Jay gives a glimpse of her no-nonsense attitude as a cup of milky tea she is handed fails to meet with her approval.
“Baby tea,” she says with a grimace after a sip. “You are obviously not used to northern tea!” That straight-talking approach in even the most minor of matters gives an insight into what has made her an ideal choice as the chair of the independent abuse inquiry, providing it with new focus and impetus after a deeply-troubled beginning which saw the resignations of the three previous chairwomen.
The inquiry was set up in July 2014 to investigate allegations against public and private institutions in England and Wales, as well as people in the public eye. The first two chairwomen, Baroness Butler-Sloss and Dame Fiona Woolf, stood down over their links to establishment figures, while Justice Lowell Goddard resigned on the same day it was reported she had spent three months on holiday or abroad during her first year in the job.
Professor Jay, appointed in August 2016, says she is hopeful the inquiry is gaining the confidence of victims through sticking to a strict timetable and “some of the issues being laid to rest that should never have arisen”.
The challenge ahead is undeniably massive - the inquiry is investigating how a wide variety of organisations may have failed to protect children from sexual abuse, including bodies such as schools, churches and children’s homes.
But progress is happening, thanks in part to the Truth Project element of the inquiry. The North East, including Yorkshire, was one of the first regions to open the project last June and more than 700 people have now come forward so far. In December, anonymous accounts of some of the first people to contribute were published, detailing abuse at the hands of teachers, priests and scoutmasters.
Professor Jay has participated in some of the Truth Project meeting with victims herself. “It has been a very humbling experience. Some of the accounts of abuse are heartbreaking. I’m still shocked by accounts of abuse that I hear. I have had a very hard career but nobody gets used to it, you can never become case-hardened and I wouldn’t want to.”
While her career has now become associated with investigating child abuse, Professor Jay’s background is 30 years in social work, working with vulnerable families in deprived communities. She helped set up the Social Work Inspection Agency in Scotland in 2005 and became Chief Executive and Chief Inspector of Social Work for Scotland.
Now in her 60s, Professor Jay’s career was led in an unexpected direction when Rotherham Council took the fateful decision to appoint her to lead an independent inquiry into its handling of child sexual exploitation cases.
The devastating findings that she delivered in August 2014 made headlines around the world and resulted in the resignations of the council leader, chief executive, director for children’s services and the South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner. When Professor Jay was appointed as chair of the national inquiry in August 2016, Home Secretary Amber Rudd cited her “strong track record in uncovering the truth” and determination to conduct the inquiry with the same “vigour, compassion and courage” she showed in Rotherham.
For Professor Jay, the aim of the national inquiry is very simple - to make meaningful changes that reduce the risk of children being sexually abused. “A successful outcome is for us to make the kind of recommendations that protect children in future. We are looking at recommendations from elsewhere and why they have not succeeded in making the lasting change they intended to. We don’t want to repeat proposals that have come to nothing in the past.”
While much of the coverage of the inquiry to date has focused on allegations of abuse by people of public prominence associated with Westminster, Professor Jay says the remit is far more wide-reaching.
“We need to work across England and Wales. The panel are absolutely clear this shouldn’t be a London-centric inquiry. I can assure people if they do come forward, they will be listened to in a safe and compassionate environment. I would hope and believe it would be beneficial for anyone to come forward and share their experience with us.”
In her speech to 80 delegates from organisations including the police, NHS and councils at The Principal Hotel, Professor Jay said the true scale of child sexual abuse is still not understood but believes the inquiry represents “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring the evil of sexual abuse out into the open”.
“This has never been done before, it is incredibly ambitious. In Rotherham, the key questions were ‘Who knew what when and what did they do about it?’ These are same types of key questions we will be seeking answers to in this public inquiry.”
Another speaker at the conference was Daniel Wolstencroft, aged 39 and from Manchester, who reported being abused as a child to police three years ago but no charges were ever brought. Now part of the inquiry’s Victim and Survivor Consultative Panel, Daniel has given advice on how the Truth Project should operate, as well as participating in it himself.
“With the police, it was an uncomfortable experience. I was constantly having to justify myself and felt I was struggling to be believed. I walked out questioning myself, doubting myself. To be honest it knocked me for months.
“With the Truth Project, one of the most important things was they waited for me to sit down and asked me where I wanted to sit at the start. I felt like I was in control at all times.
“Quite honestly, when I left I felt lighter and about ten feet taller. I felt I had been squashed into the ground by the police interview whereas with this, I felt unburdened and I felt healed. It was a cathartic experience.
“It is not all about getting a conviction, it is about healing. Sometimes that is the best revenge, getting better in your own life.”
Chance to speak 'truth to power'
Inquiry panel member Drusilla Sharpling said the Truth Project is the first initiative of its kind to ever be held in this country.
“For many, it will be the first time they have disclosed the horrors and suffering of child sexual abuse.
“For others, there may have been a court case but they may want to come and share their experience and make a different sort of contribution to the inquiry’s work. For some, the opportunity to come to the Truth Project is an opportunity to speak truth to power.”
For more information about participating, visit www.iicsa.org.uk/truthproject or call the Information line on 0800 917 1000.