Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Fiona Woolf keen to establish one thing... five dinners does not an association make


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Indy Politics

The thing about Fiona Woolf is that she’s just an ordinary, common or garden, little old Lord Mayor of London.

OK, she currently has a global travel schedule that would make a UN secretary general’s head spin; she’s been president of the Law Society, a partner in a major multinational law firm, and a member of the Competition Commission. But she is definitely, as she kept repeating today, “not a member of the Establishment”.

Perish the thought.

We are in the area of higher semantics here. Future social historians will examine Woolf’s evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee for the fascinating new light it sheds on such terms as “establishment” or even “independent”.

Take another phrase, “closely associated with” – which Woolf insisted she very much wasn’t with regard to her neighbour Lord Brittan (on whose watch, as Home Secretary, an MP made certain allegations, about which the files have subsequently disappeared) – despite the fact that she had just admitted dining with Lord Brittan five times in the past few years.

As Labour committee member Ian Austin pointed out: “That’s more frequently than I’ve seen some members of my family.”

Woolf is not a criminal lawyer, but in a court the breaking of bread might help to demonstrate an “association” between two parties. And she couldn’t remember if the Brittans were on her Christmas card list: understandably since the list runs to 3,000 lucky recipients.

Intrigued that the Home Office had helpfully worked with  Woolf on the final version of her letter to the Home Secretary, in which she revealed the dinners, Austin asked to see the first draft in case there were differences. “I’m not sure they [the Home Office and the inquiry QC] added anything,” she said. Ah, but did they subtract anything? The committee did not ask that, but we may yet find out. At his ominous silkiest, committee chairman Keith Vaz praise-bombed  Woolf for her “very distinguished career”. It only got bumpier when Vaz, rather drawing attention to her personal lack of knowledge of child abuse, said he assumed she would not be familiar with “Section 11 of the Children’s Act, 2004.” Implying, probably  correctly, that she could absorb this stuff in a trice once her punishing Lord Mayoral schedule was over, she crisply retorted: “I’m a lawyer and I can read very long documents.”

Woolf kept repeating that she had a “steely determination” to get to the truth, including on behalf of “the victim community”.

She may have been a trifle nervous, since she spilt her plastic cup of water. But she only asked for advice once, from a woman sat behind her whom the committee wanted identified. Ah, it was the head of the inquiry secretariat, who will, presumably, return to her old Home Office job  if and when this inquiry is over. “She’s seconded,” explained Woolf. “But she’s independent now.” Another nuance for the linguistically minded social historian.