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Chance to show humility

Editorial Comment, the Herald, 09/08/2004

The committee system has been one of the successes of the Scottish Parliament. It has significant powers to carry out investigations and call MSPs, public servants and outside interests to account. It also has a very important role to play in the framing of new legislation. If it has a founding principle, it is to make democracy more accessible to the public.

When people have a grievance they feel is not accorded the attention it merits, they can take up their case with the petitions committee. This committee is petitioned in the name of all sorts of causes. One of the most difficult cases to come before the committee concerns the abuse of children at Quarriers care village. To date, four men have been convicted in cases going back to the 1960s. At least another seven cases are pending. Detectives involved in what has been one of Scotland's biggest child-abuse inquiries believe more victims are still to be traced. Coming forward as a victim of abuse as a child must be exceptionally difficult and traumatic for an adult. However, it is because of the willingness of the victim to confront a terrible past, and talk about it, that the abuser is brought to justice, in many cases years after the attack took place. When widespread abuse is uncovered, it invariably leads to an inquiry that produces a raft of recommendations which, when enacted, are intended to ensure that the care system will not let a child down again.

The criminal justice system must first run its course so as not to risk prejudicing outstanding cases, but it is easy to see why campaigners believe there is a case for an inquiry into abuse at children's homes. They maintained that the revelations at Quarriers, and the subsequent convictions, were but the latest examples of abuse so extensive that it merited a public inquiry. However, Peter Peacock, the minister responsible for social work, has rejected the demands. He argued that a full inquiry might affect public confidence in the child-care system and be potentially counter-productive by re-opening victims' wounds without addressing their needs.

He also argued that an inquiry into historic events would not lead to further changes in child protection in children's homes which had, he said, improved. He might be right on all of those counts, but where he has been found wanting is in the length of time it has taken publicly to respond to the demands for a public inquiry. It is a complex area where extra care and understanding are required to take account of the feelings and circumstances of campaigners, among them the victims of abuse. That can be time-consuming. However, two years is inexcusable. Mr Peacock and Jack McConnell, the first minister, have apologised for the delay. The petitions committee has decided that is not good enough and has summoned Mr Peacock to explain the delay and the reasons for turning down appeals for an inquiry. When he appears before the committee, it should be an opportunity for humility and sympathy on the part of the ministers. The victims of abuse deserve no less, and probably a lot more.

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