STUART SYVRET INTERVIEW: ‘A systemic decades-long betrayal of the innocents’

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Sitting alone in his darkened flat with a bottle of wine following a States sitting that he will never forget, the long-serving politician began calling child abuse survivors and telling them that once again their stories had been silenced.

Months earlier he had been removed from his position as Health Minister as details of child abuse in the Island’s care homes and allegations of political cover-ups began to surface.

Mr Syvret had, for the previous year or so, been leading the charge to uncover and expose the political and departmental failings that had allowed child abuse in the Island’s care homes to remain hidden for so long.

And yet, despite his seniority in the States, his position as Health Minister and the weight of a now-public police investigation into Haut de la Garenne, nobody seemed willing to listen.

Many within the political and civil service ranks saw his public attacks on staff within his own department as misguided and felt that he could no longer remain Health Minister.

On Wednesday 5 December 2007, it fell to Mr Syvret – the longest-serving Senator and ‘father of the house’ – to deliver a Christmas speech before the Assembly ahead of its festive break and the annual Members’ Christmas lunch. Never one to shy away from controversial topics, the then-Senator wanted to use this moment to raise awareness of the child abuse scandal and pay tribute to the victims whose stories had gone unheard.

‘By then the police had gone public with their investigation,’ he said. ‘By then, there was no longer any hiding place.

‘I thought I would take that opportunity to speak of some of what I knew about the child abuse and the suffering of the victims.

‘I didn’t usually write speeches, but on this occasion I took the time to write a speech.’

Part-way through the speech, Members began to interrupt, suggesting that the traditional Christmas speech was not the time to be raising such issues.

‘Philip Bailhache cut my microphone and adjourned the meeting.

‘I stood there staring at my desk – stunned. I couldn’t believe people would behave in that way – I thought “what a pack of animals”.

‘Then I thought how can I possibly explain to the vulnerable survivors that I knew were going to be listening that we have been silenced again.

‘I got back home, changed out of my suit, opened a bottle of wine and drank. The feeling at that point was so extremely bleak. I was seriously thinking about ways to kill myself.’

Mr Syvret said that he had first become aware of some ‘minor things that didn’t seem quite right’ towards the end of 2006. During the months that preceded his 2007 Christmas speech, he worked to gain the trust of the victims.

‘I think they were surprised that someone in a senior position was listening to them and believing them,’ he said. ‘I made promises that I would fight for them.’

By mid-2007, his research and meetings with former care-home residents had confirmed his fears that Jersey had a vile secret that for decades had gone unreported.

During the course of our two-hour interview, Mr Syvret broke down in tears on a couple of occasions as he recounted some of the most shocking abuse cases that he knew of.

‘They were putting faith in me and at every turn I was being silenced and marginalised.’

He added that after his Christmas speech was cut short he felt he was losing the fight.

Mr Syvret said: ‘There were co-ordinated attacks to discredit me and make sure I, and other campaigners, were sidelined.’

‘One of the things that has been wrong is that politicians haven’t been strong enough in requiring better standards from departments.’

A ten-year battle, during which Mr Syvret was jailed for ten weeks following data protection and contempt of court offences, this week reached a major milestone as the Independent Jersey Care Inquiry released its long-awaited report into the systemic failures of the States in protecting vulnerable children.

A constant theme throughout the report is the notion that the ‘Jersey way’ had contributed to the child protection failings. That a desire to ignore and underplay the uncomfortable issues had created a culture which did not allow abuse to be fully investigated.

The inquiry panel found that former Senator Syvret ‘highlighted relevant issues about child abuse that needed to be addressed to ensure the protection and safety of children in Jersey’, but added that ‘his public criticisms of civil servants were inappropriate and did not assist his cause’.

Unrepentant, despite his approach leading to him losing his job, health and freedom, Mr Syvret said he would not have changed his tactics, as he believed his revelations would have been swept under the carpet if he had acted any other way.

And he reiterated his view that the inquiry had failed to properly address the issues surrounding the Island’s judicial system.

‘What the inquiry did well was that it gave the survivors a chance to be heard and it believed them,’ he said. ‘That the abuse they suffered has finally been accepted and admitted to, that I hope gives the victims some clarity.’

He added: ‘I don’t think the recommendations are broad enough or go far enough. Things won’t be safe in Jersey until we have a proper judicial system which is completely “firewalled” away from the political realm.

‘The decisions of the Attorney General were categorically political and, even if they weren’t, how can the victims view those prosecution decisions as being safe when they are being carried out by the same man whose has been the legal adviser to the departments?’

He added: ‘It is important to recognise what has happened, but it could never be a substitute for the proper rule of law.

‘I know that there are child abusers still out there now, walking free, who should have been prosecuted but weren’t.

‘I say to the survivors that they should settle for nothing less. They should not be bought off with a mere public inquiry instead of justice. A public inquiry is not a substitute for justice.’

Mr Syvret did not give evidence to the inquiry, as he was not offered legal representation during the process. The former Senator said that the inquiry had failed to protect those wishing to give evidence by denying them legal advice.

Over the course of the Inquiry, which ran between 2014 and 2017, the States spent more than £5.5 million on its own legal fees.

Mr Syvret said: ‘The establishment side had seven full-time professionals there during the hearings and there was not so much as one lawyer there representing the survivors.

‘I wanted to give evidence. I had evidence that would have been crucial to the inquiry, but I could not give it because I did not have the protection to do so.’

He added that he feared that without proper legal advice, his evidence could have breached previous court orders and he could have risked being sent back to jail.

Much of the belligerence that came to define his political career is still present, and it is clear that Mr Syvret bears the scars of the ‘war’ that has dominated the last ten years of his life.

‘I wish I had never got into politics, he said. ‘I might have had a normal life.

‘People frighten me now. The whole process has left me frightened of people. Frightened of what human beings are, what they do and how they can behave.’

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