An alleged conspiracy to cover up a report on child abuse on St Helena and Ascension Island is to be investigated by the barrister who prosecuted the TV entertainer Rolf Harris.
Sasha Wass QC is expected to travel to the South Atlantic territories once she has made initial inquiries.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the investigation must protect victims but be “as transparent as possible”.
St Helena Government released only a three-page summary of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation’s 2013 report, claiming most of it could not be made public because of the need to protect victims.
Leaked extracts published by the St Helena Independent showed that much of the content did not present any such risk. Its coverage also showed that criticism of the police had been toned down to the point of misrepresentation.
By comparison, a similar report on organised abuse of teenage girls in Rotherham, in the UK, was published almost in its entirety – in the public interest.
Both reports made it clear that child abuse had been allowed to continue because police and officials were unwilling to acknowledge the issue. The Times exposed earlier efforts to cover up what was happening in Rotherham.
Several councillors on St Helena pressed for the Lucy Faithfull Report to be published in full once a first-draft had been posted on the internet.
Governor Mark Capes said it was “reprehensible” and “callous” for people to call for the full version to be made public – without acknowledging this could be done without identifying victims.
In a statement issued on 20 August 2014, he said:
The work of Police and Social Service Officers can be seriously damaged and undermined by breaches of trust and confidentiality, even more so in such a small community as ours. One might think this should be glaringly obvious to most people.
“To support publication of a confidential report about child protection, knowing that it would be likely to damage efforts to improve performance in that area and cause grief to victims and families that have had to deal with abuse, is reprehensible.”
He did not explain how full publication would damage work to deal with abuse. The leaked first draft of the report suggested that problems had become widespread because of a culture of silence.
The investigation will look into the conduct of the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, as well as the island government.
In a Written Ministerial Statement, Philip Hammond said serious allegations had been made by former employees of “the authorities” on St Helena:
“These allegations involve claims relating to child abuse in the territory, police corruption and incompetence, and a conspiracy by the St Helena Government (SHG), the FCO and DFID to cover these up.
“We are bound to take such allegations extremely seriously. Former FCO Minister for Overseas Territories [Mark Simmonds] announced to the House of Commons on 21 July the establishment of an independent inquiry to establish the truth of these allegations and make recommendations as appropriate.
“I am pleased to inform the House that I have agreed that Ms. Sasha Wass QC should lead this inquiry. Ms Wass is a very accomplished barrister with substantial professional experience of dealing with these kinds of issues. I am confident that she will lead this inquiry with great rigour, fairness and sensitivity.
“Matters of child safety require discretion and confidentiality. The issues self-evidently involve vulnerable people, whose privacy must be protected and confidences respected. I am certain this inquiry will do that. But it is also important that this process is as transparent as possible.”
The barrister – who secured the conviction and imprisonment of the entertainer Rolf Harris on sex charges – will assemble a team of independent experts to help her. She is due to report by the UK summer of 2015.
Mr Hammond said: “Since allegations relating to child safety were first raised in late 2012, the British government has been swift to ensure that they were investigated appropriately.
“We commissioned the respected Lucy Faithfull Foundation to conduct an initial review, which was then followed by an investigation by Northumbria Police. The reports made important recommendations, which the authorities on St Helena are working to implement with support from the UK.
“A number of arrests and convictions for child sex offences have also occurred.
“More, however, needs to be done. This new inquiry will not be quick. But it will be thorough. And I am confident that the facts will be established.”
St Helena child abuse inquiry launched – BBC
Written Ministerial Statement on St Helena child abuse inquiry
(includes link to the Terms of Reference)