Can the Goddard Inquiry succeed when civil servants hide the secrets?

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, also known as the Goddard Inquiry, has started in the UK.[1] This long overdue Inquiry will

“investigate whether public bodies and other non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse in England and Wales.”

For the Inquiry to succeed it has to examine the records held by public authorities that contain reference to child sexual abuse and allegations of child sexual abuse. To make sure records were available; the Home Secretary issued a moratorium on records destruction.[2] The Inquiry’s chair wrote to all public authorities to advise them about what they needed to keep and what they could destroy.

The 21st century version of arcana imperii is alive and well in the UK civil service

What the Inquiry confronts, though, is the problem of arcana imperii.[3] In all imperial systems, and the UK remains an imperial system ruled by a monarchy, arcana imperii refers to the secret knowledge that is used to gain and wield power. In ancient Rome, where Tacitus coined the term, those who were in power held it by force of arms and the access and use of hidden knowledge. The hidden knowledge was called tacenda, which means knowledge that was not to be mentioned or made public. These are things better left unsaid, implied, or inferred. In brief, knowledge about child sexual abuse would be tacenda. When it is used to wield power or influence, it becomes arcana imperii.[4]

Arbitrary power exercised by unaccountable civil servants

We know that James I used such information and understood the term to describe his rule. The King has access to secret or hidden knowledge that enables him to rule.[5] The UK civil servants continue the tradition today. They know the hidden information by which the Crown rules. Today civil servants like the “Director-General, Propriety and Ethics Team” exercise this power. They have a special role in the decision to award honours. They keep few records and do most of their work by telephone or in person. Even when there are emails, they are deleted from the system so that they cannot be requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Even though the emails and documents are public records, they destroy them to keep them from the public. They flout the laws about public records either to retain it or to allow access to it.

The Goddard Inquiry will stumble on the historical behaviour of civil servants who hid the secrets

If the Goddard Inquiry is going to fail and the victims of child sexual abuse, it will be because of the culture and ethos that encourages the behavior by civil servants like the “Director-General, Propriety and Ethics Team”.  What will surprise you, though, is that this post is responsible for the highest standards of propriety in government and civil service.

“The purpose of the role is to ensure the highest standards of propriety, integrity and governance within government.”[6]

According to the BBC article, they regularly and routinely violate the standards. All public officials are to follow the Nolan Principles. These principles are the standard by which all public officials are to be judged.[7] What we find is the central principle, principle four, is Accountability.

“Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.”

Is such behavior accountable? No. It also contravenes another principle, the fifth principle, Openness.

“Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.”

Is such behaviour open? No. When a public official destroys records, flouts the FOI law, and refuses to account for their actions, they demonstrate neither Accountability nor Openness. Why is the person responsible for the highest standards, the one who flouts them the most? They violates the standards and the laws consistently. They are unaccountable to anyone but themselves. They insult the public, pervert the law, and betray the democratic trust. Who would condone such unethical behavior? Apparently, that is how the UK government works.

Move along, there is nothing to see here

On the surface, this article and their behavior may appear a small matter, a spat between a reporter and a civil servant. It is just another government official, like Michael Gove, who does not want to be accountable. They flout a law that annoys them and they ignore the Nolan Principles. We can see the common refrain, especially from the media, “Really, we need to focus on the bad stuff like murders, terrorists and other criminals and stop harassing powerful civil servant who have no time for such petty things as FOIA or the Nolan Principles.” Perhaps, in a previous age we might have.

What happened to Civil Service integrity? The shadow that haunts the Goddard Inquiry.

With the Goddard Inquiry, we should expect that such behavior would be condemned and stopped. Can the UK continue to have a civil service with the ethos this behavior reveals and the morality of such decisions? We see the same behavior in Rotherham Council. If such behavior continues, it will undermine the Goddard Inquiry. The Inquiry requires records are kept, decisions recorded, and public officials be accountable. In particular, the Inquiry has asked for any information held by public authorities about honours.

g. Any material relating to the determination of the award of Honours to persons who are now demonstrated to have had a sexual interest in children or are suspected of having had such an interest.

The Inquiry has written to the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to ask for such information.[8] Except they are unlikely to find very much. The “Director-General, Propriety and Ethics Team” who makes the decisions on honours deletes and destroys the records. They will have erased the public memory. Neither they nor the person involved can be held to account. By their own hand, they have ensured the victims of the historical sexual abuse will be denied evidence. They will be denied justice.

As Chris Cook writes

“We also know, via the Freedom of Information Act, that she kept no log of why, how or when she destroys documents (contrary to that guidance)”

In the 21st century, we can see the Arcana Imperii at work. We now can see the way in which hidden knowledge is used to wield power behind the scenes, influence people, thwart the public will, and flout the law. The UK public has to ask, “What kind of regime allows someone to breach public standards so consistently, so blatantly, and so often?” We would expect such behavior in regimes like Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China or even Hitler’s Germany, but not in the UK. Yet, here we see the same imperial behavior continues. We see a regime that tolerates and promotes behavior to avoid accountability. They are not accountable to the law or the public.[9]

A regime that puts secrets before the truth puts privilege and power before the weak and vulnerable

What we find is a regime in which secrecy comes before accountability, where the Crown comes before the children, lies before truth[10], and power decides what is right. A decent person would recoil from such behavior. Perhaps, we find a regime that attracts person of a moral character who embraces such behaviour and flourishes. What we need to know is whether civil servants will be required to testify before the Goddard Inquiry for their past behaviour? If not, why not? Does the rule of law stop at the Cabinet Office’s doorstep?




[4] ARCANUS IN TACITUS Author(s): Herbert W. Benario Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, Neue Folge, 106. Bd., 4. H. (1963), pp. 356-362 J.D. Sauerländers Verlag

P360 “Here we have one of the keys to power, the ability – and the need – to conceal what is necessary from the general eye. The value of arcana is exclusively political here; what is referred to must be tacenda.”

Tacenda means things not to be mentioned or made public—things better left unsaid; tacit means “unspoken, silent” or “implied, inferred.”  (accessed 7 April 2015)

[5] For more on the term and its use, see Ernst H. Kantowicz, Mysteries of State: An Absolutist Concept and Its Late Mediaeval Origins The Harvard Theological Review Vol. 48, No. 1 (Jan., 1955), pp. 65-91




[9] Contrast this behavior with J. William Leonard who worked to ensure public officials were accountable and refused to allow records that described illegal behavior such as torture to be classified to hide them. Perhaps UK civil servants could demonstrate such integrity in the face of power. For more detail on J. William Leonard’s work and how a bureaucrat with integrity can hold a government to account see especially pages 1204-1209.

[10] “When I first requested a copy of this email back in 2011, the Cabinet Office insisted that it did not exist. The advice had only been given over the telephone, I was told. It was only in the course of a legal case (involving me, when I was a reporter at the Financial Times) in 2012 that the Department for Education revealed that it existed and it had kept a copy. The DfE revealed that the Cabinet Office had told an untruth.”

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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5 Responses to Can the Goddard Inquiry succeed when civil servants hide the secrets?

  1. l8in says:

    Reblogged this on L8in.

  2. Wirral In It Together says:

    Reblogged this on Wirral In It Together and commented:
    Thought provoking article here from an Information Governance professional who holds an insight into these dark, historically protected and fenced off areas.

  3. Heiko Luder says:

    Civil Servants and Public Officials constantly are “hiding” information that does not suit them.NHS waiting time targets were blatantly manipulated by NHS Managers in the 90’s.Patients were shifted virtually(in spreadsheets on computers) from consultant to consultant until the figures looked right.The impact of this on real patients and their waiting times was unclear but information managers were put under severe strain to “make the figures look good”.
    All the communication about this took place in one to one meetings and never over email or telephone.

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