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Alexis Jay: I've been shocked in my career, but some of this horrified me

Alexis Jay: I've been shocked in my career, but some of this horrified me

In 2016, Scotland’s former chief social work inspector, Alexis Jay, became the fourth chair in two years of the UK government’s troubled Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse set up in 2014 in the wake of the Jimmy Savile allegations. 

The Inquiry had a fractious start with the first two chairs being rejected by victims’ groups as being too closely connected to the establishment they were set up to investigate and the third quit having been overwhelmed by the scale of the job to be done.

By then, IICSA badly needed a chair that could command respect across all interested parties but equally had the professional background to carry and interrogate the harrowing details of the evidence that was to come and to be unafraid speak truth to power.

Jay, having already had the experience of leading the large-scale inquiry into the sexual exploitation of young girls in Rotherham and earlier inquiries including that of the sexual abuse of three young girls in the Western Isles, and already a member of the IICSA’s panel, was offered the role in 2016. And despite being on the cusp of retirement, took on the mammoth challenge saying she believed it was her public duty.

Last month, after seven and a half years of investigation costing almost £200m which has included heartbreaking accounts from more than 6,000 survivors, and the publication of 19 smaller reports, IICSA delivered its final deliberations along with 20 urgent recommendations including a new criminal offence compelling those in positions of trust to report suspicions of child sexual abuse. The seminal report landed on the same day that Liz Truss resigned as prime minister.

And it was perhaps not an irony lost on Jay that the UK’s largest-ever exercise in trying to understand the scale of child sexual abuse across England and Wales, and why it gets covered up, was pushed off the newspaper front pages by the political psychodrama unfolding at Westminster.

After all, politics, reputation-saving, and the dynamics of institutional power play are common threads running through the near-500 pages of Professor Jay’s weighty report.

Every section reveals a horror story about how churches, schools, children’s homes, and other supposedly child-focused institutions conspired to allow the sexual abuse of children to continue on an industrial scale. Of how priests, teachers, care workers, and politicians chose to remain silent.

And in some cases, evidenced in both the Catholic and Anglican churches, senior religious leaders consciously opted to protect predators by enabling them to move job rather than be exposed. In the case of Jimmy Savile, the BBC itself simply closed ranks.

But at the heart of the report are the children whose lives were destroyed by abuse. Real-life stories that catalogue the horrific abuse that children suffered at the hands of adults whose principal role was to protect them. And with children in care or with disabilities so disproportionally represented among survivors, Jay’s anger at that ultimate betrayal is palpable.

“At worst, within some institutions, children were treated as commodities,” she says.

The overall findings from thousands of testimonies reveal terrifying data with one in six girls and one in 20 boys under the age of 16 having experienced sexual abuse to some degree or another, with the abuse predominantly starting well before the age of 11. Jay says she believes even these figures are an underestimate and that greater public awareness is needed of such a widespread problem that is often dismissed as part of a “moral panic”. 

Jay describes the scale of abuse as an “epidemic that leaves thousands of victims in its poisonous wake” and says that some victims would never recover from their experiences. 

“What we heard about was lifelong damage, not to everybody, but to a great many people. And it takes different forms. One of the reasons why we had the victims’ voices right at the beginning was to hear their accounts of what happened and how it affected their life. But of course, it affects every aspect of life or can do, education, health, mental health, relationships, attitudes to sex, everything, and one of the awful things about it is the trauma can be retriggered in unexpected ways that are not necessarily predictable.

“I mean, I’ve heard people who may have been in certain religious organisations, not churches necessarily, saying they couldn’t bear the sound of church bells, or they don’t like the colour orange, or, you know, some other related object, it’s just different things throughout a lifetime that have caused people to be re-traumatised in different ways.

“And that’s not well understood. I mean, it’s a horrible thing to say, but if you break a leg or something like that, there’s sufficient understanding, and while it obviously could be very, very serious for some people, you generally expect to recover from it. This, this is not the same, and to start thinking about it in the same terms, or expecting people to just ‘get over it’, it’s doing such an injustice to the child victims who may well be haunted by the abuse throughout their entire lives.

“We heard time and time again how allegations of abuse were ignored, victims were blamed, and institutions prioritised their reputations over the protection of children.

“And what we cannot do is simply file it away and consider it a historical aberration when so much of what we learned suggests it is an ever-growing problem and only exacerbated by the current and future threat of the internet.

“Everything we assume in this area is far less than the official statistics state it is. So, whatever the statistics are on this, they will always be under-reporting the scale of things. The one thing that we do know from the Internet Watch Foundation, which is very helpful, because we know a lot about scale in relation to online facilities and abuse, is that the UK is the third biggest consumer of illegal child sex abuse images in the world, which is just shocking. I don’t know the answer to why that is, but we’re a highly developed Western country, what is that honestly about? I don’t know.

“And I am quite willing to say that that was out of the scope of the public inquiry that was given to us by the government, and I don’t know the answer to that, but somebody needs to try and find out at some stage. And it does relate to a complexity of issues, both of what drives perpetrators and what drives the suppliers, especially when it comes to the internet.

“One of the issues, I suppose, is how much more depraved can people get? And that’s a scary issue because there also remains kind of a stereotype, if you like, of this [online abuse] being a victimless crime and of course, it’s not. It absolutely is not.

“And increasingly, the investigating agencies can’t keep pace with the predators and the perpetrators, because they dream up more and worse, and more depraved ways of treating children, but then it’s also about meeting that demand and it’s quite shocking that people know so much more nowadays about child sexual exploitation, as well as child sexual abuse, and yet there’s a transaction going on in some of these circumstances, where money changes hands. 

“You can’t underestimate the depravity or pretend it’s not happening on the scale we know it is. Some of what we heard and were told was, you know, shocking in terms of any kind of life experience, but obviously given my professional experience when you hear the most terrible things all the time that have happened to both children and adults, and believe me, I have been shocked in my career, but in the context of the public inquiry, some things were shocking, new, even to me. To be blunt about it, they horrified me.

“When I was first told of babies and toddlers in parts of the world, usually very poor places, almost being bred for abuse, and then, usually via the internet, being abused, raped, such young children abused to order, and for so little money… you could literally direct whether you wanted an anal rape or a vaginal rape to be performed on a child, I was shocked to the core. And I’m not talking about anything in the past, this is happening now…  so yes, I have been shocked, but you can’t ignore what is happening, you have to confront it.”

Jay has history in confronting hard social issues head on. Having decided against an initial early career choice in journalism because she thought she wasn’t going to be good enough following a stint working on the now defunct magazine Scotland, with the now deceased journalists Kenneth Roy and Douglas Crawford, she followed another passion rooted in the voluntary work experience she had done in a Save the Children Fund project in Edinburgh’s Niddrie housing estate.

She went on to study and qualify in social work at Moray House, winning the award for best student. Working initially trying to house homeless families before legislation was passed making them the responsibility of the council, she describes it as “one of the worst jobs any social worker could ever be in”.

“It was an absolute nightmare. I had a residential unit with a dozen homeless families, I had about nearly a hundred families in bed and breakfasts, [and] this was families with lots of children. It was a nightmare but I had the young, idealistic view that you could change lives for the better and make a difference.” That is a view she says she still possesses, but with a greater understanding about “what you can change and what is much harder to”.

She then took what she describes as a “conventional” route through to being a senior social worker, went into training and development, and became an operational manager and director of social services before helping to set up the Social Work Inspection Agency in Scotland in 2005 in the wake of the death of 11-week-old Caleb Ness in Edinburgh.

During her tenure as the country’s chief inspector of social work, she led investigations into allegations of ritualistic child abuse in the Western Isles and into social services’ failure to monitor a teenage sex offender who grew up in care and went onto kill a 16-year-old girl in Fife.

Jay, who had also previously been president of the Association of Directors of Social Work in Scotland and director of social work and housing in West Dunbartonshire Council, was awarded an OBE in 2012 for services to children and families. She is also a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde.

She came to wider UK prominence in 2013 when she was appointed to lead the inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. She says she hadn’t even been to Rotherham before her appointment and did not anticipate the scale of what she would uncover there.

Much has changed since her explosive 2014 report, which estimated how approximately 1,300 girls, some as young as 10, were sexually exploited over a 16-year period in the Yorkshire town and threw into sharp focus issues around sexism, race, and how consent is viewed by organisations.

“During the entire period [under review], car breaking and house crime were rated as more important than the rape of children. Not to belittle the importance to the public of car crime and house breaking, but in the current order of priorities to the police, children were rated lower. That’s absolutely not the case now.”

Despite spending a career steeped in some of the most brutal aspects of man’s depravity to his fellow human beings, Jay is a really warm and amiable person who laughs a lot and has great humility. At one point she even tells me I am “very brave” in relation to writing about certain current controversial issues. I am speechless. This is a woman confronted day in, day out by the cowardice of others to speak up and she has not been afraid to call it out.

She says that she doesn’t really know where her strength comes from but that she is fundamentally motivated by dealing with injustice.

Born in Edinburgh in 1949, Jay had a hard start in life. Her father, a carpenter, died in an industrial accident when she was just two, leaving her mother to raise her and her brother alone and without financial assistance. She was sent to live with her granny during the week simply so her mother could work long hours and says her granny was still doing cleaning jobs in a bank at the age of 75. 

“We were just a working-class family, and my mum and my granny had no choice but just to get on with it. Needs must. They worked all the time because they just wanted things to be better for me and my brother than their own experiences.”

Jay and IICSA Panel members Ivor Frank and Drusilla Sharpling give evidence to the Commons' Home Affairs Committee 

Jay met and fell in love with fellow social worker, Chris Jay, in her early 20s and the couple moved to Glasgow where he was deputy head of social work in the old Strathclyde region. 

It strikes me that to mentally deal with what Jay does, she must effectively compartmentalise things she sees and hears in her professional life to be able to get through her personal life without being affected. She says she has never felt the need to seek professional counselling and clearly being married to a fellow social worker must help, but she is also acutely aware of the parameters she can work within.

“I don’t wish to sound arrogant or dismissive about people that do need therapy because it’s hugely important and necessary for all sorts of people and I don’t know what their life experiences have been or anything else, and it was always available to actually anybody involved in the public inquiry. And people took it up, or they didn’t.

“We had to take very great care with victim witnesses and people who were exposed to all that came out of the inquiry but personally, I don’t think I need therapy… [she laughs] although maybe my husband would disagree… and I really don’t want that to sound trite or as if that’s in any way denying the impact some of this will have on others or that somehow puts me on a higher plane from others who just need it.

“We all have different levels of resilience. But one thing I would certainly say about that, is that I can read, and I can hear, all sorts of examples of sexual abuse and obviously for years and years and years, I have been, but I have always been cautious about it and while I have been asked to look at material or hear accounts of abuse, I just couldn’t watch or hear abuse actually be perpetrated. I would be afraid it would imprint on my psyche, and it would come back to haunt me and do real potential damage to me having the images or sounds of that abuse happening imprinted on my mind.

“But there are instances, which I can’t relate to you now because it could identify the individuals that I’ve heard in the last seven or so years, that stay with you in your mind, there is no doubt about that, and that horror serves as a very good reminder of the very worst of humanity that still walks among us.” 

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