Home secretary asked each panel member how they were feeling before ‘wielding knife’
By David Hencke and Mark Watts | 7 February 2015
Exaro can reveal the extraordinary inside story of the tense meeting between May and panel members at the Home Office on Wednesday.
They were left shocked and humiliated, even though Exaro revealed in December that May would scrap the panel.
One source said: “Everyone knew what was going to happen because of the Exaro story, but it still came as a shock when May actually wielded the knife.”
Panel members were summoned by e-mail on Tuesday to see the home secretary at 9.15am the following day.
They were ushered into a conference room on the ground floor of the Home Office’s headquarters in Westminster.
Officials asked the nervous group to sit at desks that were arranged as a large rectangle, and wait for the secretary of state.
At least two panel members had said that they could not make the meeting because they were ill: Sharon Evans, chief executive of Dot Com Children’s Foundation, which promotes child safeguarding, and herself an abuse survivor; and Barbara Hearn, former deputy chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau.
Also present was Ben Emmerson, counsel to the inquiry. He faced accusations in Parliament from Evans that he had been bullying her.
Emmerson denied the allegations, and called for Evans to be sacked.
Emmerson had also told panel members to keep to a detailed document of “lines to take” at a hearing before MPs on the House of Commons home affairs committee.
Alexis Jay, expert advisor to the overarching inquiry into child sex abuse (CSA), was absent, although it remains unclear why. Glasgow-based Jay is also author of the report last year that exposed the extent of child sex abuse in Rotherham.
May entered the room. She was “very polite and kind”, according to well-placed sources. She made a point of talking personally to each panel member there, asking how they were feeling.
What happened next stunned each of them, despite knowing what was coming.
May settled in the middle of a row of desks nearest the door, and said: “The panel will be dissolved and replaced by a statutory panel inquiry chaired by an overseas judge.”
She did not name the judge, but said that every panel member would be invited to re-apply for their jobs after the criteria for the appointments were published.
She stressed: “You have done nothing wrong. It is a matter of transparency that you have to re-apply for your jobs.”
One source said: “The way that it was said, I had the impression that panel members were not being encouraged to re-apply. It was more that they were being told that they could re-apply.” All the panel members were visibly shocked, saying very little.
Emmerson was also remarkably silent throughout the 45-minute meeting. He was behaving like “a cold fish”, according to one person present.
Panel members only learnt afterwards that he was the sole person to keep his position with the new inquiry. All panel members – and even Jay – were out.
Emmerson e-mailed panel members later to warn them not to talk publicly.
Panel members feel “humiliated”, deeply bruised, and think that their professional reputations have been damaged.
Self-styled campaigners had viciously attacked two panel members, even including abuse directed at a relative of one. A member also faced false accusations that were planted in the media.
One panel member thought that nobody would re-apply to sit on the new inquiry.
May then met a group of abuse survivors to tell them what she had done. Again, she did not name who would chair the inquiry.
Survivors and representatives there welcomed her decision, although not all.
She said: “It was my worst nightmare come true. I had faith in the panel, and I was very unhappy that it was being disbanded. I do not think that I will have enough trust to give evidence to the new inquiry.”
May later that day announced to Parliament that Lowell Goddard, a New Zealand judge, would chair a statutory panel inquiry.
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