The latest Lobster has some interesting reflections on the controversy over historical child abuse. Garrick Alder questions the role being played by negative evidence of a kind summed up by Donald Rumsfeld's dictum that 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'.1
Alder suggests that some of those pursuing the alleged Barbara Castle dossier may be guilty of inferring a cover-up from the very absence of evidence in a Rumsfeld-like way. In other instances, however, Alder is more sympathetic to negative evidence
Quite a different kettle of fish, however, is the Home Office ‘missing child abuse files’ review conducted by Peter Wanless, who announced his findings shortly before the Castle yarn hit the headlines. Mr Wanless stated in his report that he had found no evidence that files were removed or deliberately destroyed. But hold that scorn: immediately after publication Mr Wanless was to be heard on BBC Radio 4 and 5 making it quite clear that he was not ruling out a cover-up at all.
Rather ironically, David Cameron used the Wanless review’s conclusions to remark that ‘people seeking conspiracy theories will have to look elsewhere’, which goes to show what a double-edged sword negative proof can be, in the wrong hands.
The discovery by Dr Chris Murphy of a file which surely should have been disclosed to Wanless suggests that the Prime Minister's comments were ill-judged. However, there may have been another important reason why both Wanless and Theresa May refused to rule out a cover-up following the report. That is that Wanless did in fact find significant new evidence, which did not prove Home Office complicity with the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), but which did corroborate important claims by a key witness.
The Wanless Report was commissioned to examine two earlier Home Office reviews. Review 1 looked at what the Home Office knew about organised child abuse in the period up to 1999. Review 2 looked at the suggestion that the Home Office had itself funded PIE.
The key witness in relation to the latter claim was Tim Hulbert, a former consultant to the Home Office's Voluntary Services Unit (VSU), who claimed to have seen evidence that the VSU had provided a grant to PIE in the late 1970s. In relation to this, Review 2 concluded:
The allegations were made by one individual. As a former employee, the individual’s account is credible; however no information or other person has corroborated their account.
7.4. The former employee reported that they had raised concerns about the alleged funding with the VSU Head of Unit at the time. There is no evidence or record of any VSU members of staff raising concerns regarding alleged funding to PIE. Allegations first surfaced in December 2013, via the media.
7.5. It is the reasonable conclusion of the senior investigator, taking all facts into account; including information both seen and heard, that on the balance of probabilities and in the absence of supporting evidence or a corroborative account, the alleged funding from VSU to PIE did not take place.
7.6. There is clear evidence that VSU provided funding to organisations who were connected to PIE, namely Albany Trust and Princedale Trust. It is impossible to determine whether VSU funding provided to either of these organisations was indirectly used to support the work of PIE, but no evidence was found to conclude that it did.
The review included an apparently full list of VSU grants from the organisation's own records and from a 1975 Ministerial answer. It had, however, no direct contact with Tim Hulbert, for reasons which are set out in the Wanless Report:
The whistleblower made a statement to the police in November 2013 and had some initial discussion with the original reviewer about whether they should meet face to face. This never happened. The whistleblower became concerned that some of the information which he was sharing was appearing, inaccurately, in politically motivated media coverage early in March. Suspicious as to how anything he said might be used, the whistleblower chose instead to submit a written, supplementary statement to the police. He then shared both his statement and the original one, with the reviewer on 12 March.
The methodology adopted for review 2 was sound but given the centrality of the whistleblower’s testimony to public concern about the possibility of PIE funding by the Home Office, more could have been done to demonstrate more explicitly that every element of what was being suggested had been thoroughly pursued (Wanless, p.27).
Wanless did meet with Hulbert who raised two concern's about the original review's findings:
First, Mr Hulbert said that on raising the matter of Home Office funding for PIE with his boss, Clifford Hindley, Mr Hindley had given him the impression that this was being done at the request of the security services in order to give them some sort of access to PIE. Second, Mr Hulbert said he had indicated that the payment to PIE could have been part of a much larger grant award to an unrelated charity. The suggestion being made was that this payment was being channeled covertly through a much larger budget line, without any suggestion that the larger charity itself would in any sense need to be aware of what was happening (Wanless, p.28).
Wanless examined VSU files in relation to the charity named by Hulbert, most of which had been destroyed in the normal course of events.
However, there was a significant financial relationship with the charity named by Mr Hulbert throughout the life of the VSU. A memorandum dated April 1976 lists, without any underpinning detail, significant annual payments to the charity in question for each of the three years 1974/75 to 1976/77 which are not picked up in the Hansard schedule of VSU grants for the first two of these years [records for the third year are missing]. This led us to conclude that the picture of VSU funding laid out in the annex to the original review is not complete. We have not been able to substantiate what further VSU funding during the years up to the early 1980s existed beyond the Hansard records, making it impossible to dismiss completely the suggestion being made that a payment to PIE was facilitated within/concealed within a wider grant award. Nor, we are told, does the larger charity itself have detailed published records of financial accounts for the years in question against which we could compare the grant sums leaving the VSU [even if these could be found] (Wanless, p.30).
This is key evidence which may have influenced Wanless' conclusion in relation to Review 2:
Review 2 concluded that on the balance of probabilities, the alleged funding of PIE did not take place. While this represents the judgement of the original reviewer it is not a fully satisfactory answer to whether the Home Office ever directly or indirectly funded PIE. We cannot offer categorical assurance one way or the other. It is possible that a Special Branch inspired payment might have taken place – the official records offer no direct evidence to suggest it did, and no other civil servant we have had contact with has corroborated Mr Hulbert's memory, but the records are insufficiently complete to rule it out entirely (Wanless, p.33).
Far from ruling out a cover up, as David Cameron suggested, Wanless found significant new evidence which corroborated Tim Hulbert's account and contradicted the previous Home Office review and the Hansard record. He concluded that it was not safe to rule out the claim that the Home Office had funded PIE even on the balance of probabilities.
As of now the only concrete explanation known to the public for the VSU grant uncovered by Wanless is the one offered by Tim Hulbert. No doubt, many other reasonable explanations are conceivable. The rational course in this situation is not to reach a definitive judgement but to regard Hulbert's evidence as a lead which warrants further investigation.
The Wanless Report did not and could not claim to be anything more than a limited review. A full investigation is presumably a matter for the police, to whom Hulbert gave a statement, and for the Historical Abuse Inquiry, which will surely need access to the new evidence which Wanless adduced.
1. Since this post appeared it's been pointed out to me that Rumsfeld didn't originate the phrase 'Absence of evidence, is not evidence of absence', though he did refer to it in the same press conference where expounded on the significance of 'unknown unknowns'.