Baroness Cox’s Notes For The Evening:
It is a great privilege to be invited to open the discussion today about matters which are momentous and about which I care so deeply. I would like to thank Natasha for so kindly organising this evening with her friend; my learned fellow panelists joining me in opening the discussion, and all of you who have come to share your reflections.
We have been invited to discuss extremely sensitive questions of child abuse, sexual exploitation and violence, and related questions of abuse of power within religious settings.
The debate around these questions has been very much in the public consciousness, with the emergence over recent months of some deeply disturbing revelations of child and Vulnerable Adult sexual abuse, including the grooming scandals of children in English towns like Rotherham and Rochdale, the uncovering of abuse involving some religious institutions and religious law courts, female genital mutilation, child marriage – the list goes on.
These, together with other instances of abuse in some churches, highly publicised cases of celebrities with a track record of abuse, have led to the Home Secretary announcement in July of an Independent Panel of Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
It is this Inquiry which provides the background to our discussion here this evening, and I know that there are some people here whose lives have been very much affected by the painful issues which will be the subject of the Inquiry and this panel discussion. I therefore want to assure you of my deep sympathy and my commitment to undertake whatever work I can, to try to end such evils.
Firstly, as we are in conversation together, I’d like to introduce myself very briefly: I am a nurse and a social scientist by intention; a Baroness by astonishment.
I wasn’t ‘into’ politics – so much so that I was the first Baroness I’d ever met. It was quite a shock one morning to find Baroness looking at myself in mirror! I thought a great deal about how to use the privilege of speaking in Parliament: it is a wonderful place to be ‘Voice for the Voiceless’
I have tried to use this by a commitment to work for victims of oppression & persecution, especially those off the radar screen of aid and media. I established HART to reach forgotten people with aid and advocacy. We are currently working with partners on frontlines of faith and freedom – including people of different faiths or none – in countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, Nagorno Karabakh, Nigeria and Burma.
In UK, I have become increasingly concerned about the predicament of some of our citizens, especially women and children, suffering from religiously sanctioned gender discrimination. My response has been to introduce a Private Member’s Bill relating to gender discrimination in religious mediation and arbitration services
In order to be open about my own faith, I should mention that I come to this conversation as a committed Christian trying to respond to the Biblical requirements to care for the poor and the oppressed and always to protect the vulnerable from abuse by the powerful.
In this, I work closely with people of different backgrounds and beliefs, and I count among my closest friends Muslims, Jews, Christians and those who do not adhere to any religious faith, but share a deep commitment to stand against injustice, persecution and abuse.
I believe that in Britain today, for too long we have allowed a culture to develop which has given power to unelected self-appointed leaders who claim to speak for particular faith groups. I am particularly concerned about the growth of Sharia Courts or Councils which impose inherently gender discriminatory policies, causing great suffering for many women and children in this country today. Moreover, they operate in ways which pose a serious threat to the fundamental principle of a liberal democracy of One Law For All. Their rulings undermine the fundamental rights of many women and children in this country to such an extent that one Muslim lady told me bitterly: ’I feel betrayed by Britain. I came here to get away from all of this; and it is worse here than in the country I came from.’
Moreover, many of these women live in such closed communities that they are not able to seek help from outside legal and professional sources on the grounds that it would bring ‘shame’ onto their family and community. Consequently, they are trapped in situations where they suffer in ways which would make our Suffragettes turn in their graves.
We are here to consider how we, in this country with our heritage of democracy, have allowed situations to develop where we abandon the human rights of vulnerable sisters and brothers from particular faith backgrounds, and allow the growth of completely unelected, unrepresentative so-called faith leaders, who seem to collude with practices such as child marriage, and so-called ‘honour’ based violence.
The Public Inquiry, which I hope very much will have the force of a Statutory Inquiry, is an opportunity to uncover and address a wide range of abuses which have damaged the lives of many vulnerable children, women and men.
The Terms of Reference of the Inquiry state its aim:
“To consider the extent to which State and non-State institutions have failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation; to consider the extent to which those failings have since been addressed; to identify further action needed to address any failings identified; and to publish a report with recommendations”.
In these opening remarks, I would like to make a few comments on the Inquiry.
Firstly, I should like to express my support for those organisations representing survivors of abuse, who have called for the Inquiry Terms of Reference to include ‘Vulnerable Adults’ within the meaning of the law, as well as children. In the context of abuse scandals affecting vulnerable young people who are of majority age but who have experienced abuse within religious schools, religious courts and honour-related exploitation, we see again and again the terrible pressure and damage which they have suffered, often for long periods of their lives. Safeguarding legislation on the statute book invariably applies to both children and ‘Vulnerable Adults’, and so should this inquiry.
Secondly, I am aware that a number of organisations representing survivors and victims of sexual abuse within minority religious community contexts have expressed concern that the Inquiry Panel currently has a skills gap where it relates to issues of abuse within ethnic and religious minorities in Britain today. I therefore hope that the Home Secretary will consider seriously the urgent imperatives created by the suffering of those affected by honour-related abuse, child marriage, abuse within some religious courts and religious institutions. The appalling grooming scandals in Rotherham, Rochdale and elsewhere have identified the need to look closely at situations where particular religious motivations and cultural practices have led to particular types of abuse taking place. This Inquiry is an opportunity to address such critical concerns, and to determine the values which will shape the country we want to build together.
I am also deeply concerned by the influence of so-called ‘multiculturalism’ which, associated with political correctness, has encouraged an ethos where those in authority and with responsibility for upholding the law of the land and protecting the vulnerable, have at times failed to fulfil their obligations for fear of ‘upsetting’ local religious and community leaders. I believe we must move beyond the situation where deference to so-called cultural difference has been allowed to over-ride the implementation of the law of our land.
Finally, I hope we will all urge our political establishment to look beyond the powerful circle of self-appointed religious leaders and religious organisations, whose vocal lobbying has created a Britain with parallel quasi-legal systems, and segregated communities. Among my close friends from minority religious communities are both women and men whose lives have been broken by the abuse and bullying they have experienced in closed communities, and who have been denied access to, or help from, the police and other authorities who should have given them the protection to which they are entitled in our democratic society.
I therefore hope passionately that this Inquiry will take very seriously the testimony of those victims whose voices currently go unheard, including some of my friends who have been victims of so-called ‘honour’ violence, FGM, abuse in sharia courts – as well as colleagues who have spoken out and paid the price for speaking out.
I am always deeply moved, often to tears, when I hear the stories of those who have suffered from abuse in our democratic country who have been unable to escape from religiously sanctioned rulings and closed communities, bound by the edicts of so-called honour and shame. I hope that your voices will be heard and that we can work together to make sure that this country is one where the weak and vulnerable will be given the dignity, protection and respect to which they are entitled.