Theresa May has been accused of presiding over “appalling incompetence” at the Home Office after the second head of the Government’s historical child sex abuse inquiry was forced to quit over her links with a key figure in the scandal.
Fiona Woolf, the Lord Mayor of London, announced that she was stepping down after she failed to declare that she lived on the same street as Lord Brittan and had attended five dinner parties with the former Conservative cabinet minister.
Lord Brittan was Home Secretary in 1984 when ministers were handed a dossier on alleged high-profile paedophiles. The files have disappeared, leading to allegations of a political cover-up. He was expected to be called to give evidence to the inquiry
Mrs Woolf also admitted allowing the Home Office to help redraft a letter explaining her relationship with Lord Brittan seven times in a way that appeared to distance herself from him.
Ms May is to make a statement to the House of Commons on the scandal next week. She will be questioned about why a Home Office vetting team failed to uncover links between Mrs Woolf and Lord Brittan which were publicly available on the internet.
She will also face questions over why she stood by Mrs Woolf when the extent of the conflict of interest was uncovered by a Sunday newspaper and why Home Office officials were involved in the drafting of Mrs Woolf’s letter.
“Theresa May failed to make sure the Home Office had done the proper background checks,” said Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary. “For this to happen once was deeply unfortunate, for it to happen twice is appalling incompetence on such an important issue.”
Mrs Woolf was chosen to lead the inquiry following the resignation of Lady Butler-Sloss in July. Lady Butler-Sloss's brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney general in the 1980s and also implicated in an alleged cover-up of paedophile MPs.
Mrs Woolf’s position became untenable after victims’ representatives unanimously called for her to be replaced following a meeting with the panel's secretariat.
Campaigners said the entire process would be “a dead duck in the water” if the corporate lawyer, who had no experience of child protection, was allowed to remain in post.
At 4.30 this afternoon, the Home Office was still claiming it had “full confidence” in Mrs Woolf but half an hour later she resigned.
“I was determined that the inquiry got to the bottom of the issues and if I don't command their confidence to run the panel fairly and impartially then I need to get out of the way," she said.
“Ever since the issue first arose I have been worrying about the negative perceptions and there has been a lot of negative comment and innuendo and that has got in the way as well.”
Mrs Woolf said that it was the views expressed by the victims which “turned the tide” for her.
“I am obviously sad that people are not confident in my ability to chair what is a hugely important inquiry impartially,” she said.
She also claimed that it could now be difficult to find a suitable replacement who was willing to take on the role in the face of intense media scrutiny.
“It is really going to be hard to find someone with no connections. A hermit?” she said.
Mrs May said she had accepted Mrs Woolf’s resignation “with regret”.
“I believe she would have carried out her duties with integrity, impartiality and to the highest standard,” she said. “The panel will continue with its work while we appoint a new chairman and I will be making a statement to Parliament on Monday.”
Survivors said the setting up of the inquiry had been a shambles. One victim of child sex abuse – who was taking legal action to try to oust Mrs Woolf – said a senior judge should now take charge of the inquiry.
Jo Heath said her legal case would continue as she and her backers demanded that inquiry be given the powers to seize evidence and compel witnesses to give evidence.
“It wasn’t just about Fiona Woolf. We shouldn’t be smoke-screened by this woman who should never have been there in the first place,” she said.
“It’s been a complete insult to survivors. They keep parading these people in front of us. Fiona Woolf was never fit for purpose before, during and after her appointment. That’s not treating us with very much respect.”
The Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz, who had earlier called for Mrs Woolf to quit, said the whole process had been "chaotic".
“Given the concerns of the victims and the information that was given to the Select Committee, it was the right thing to do. The real problem in all this has been the process, this is the second head of the inquiry who has gone and I would have thought it would have been better all-round if she had made these disclosures at the beginning.
“This has been chaotic. It is wrong for them [the Home Office] to have conducted this process in such way that two very distinguished women who are path finders in their fields should have had to have resign from the inquiry.”
Conflict of interest: the vetting fiasco
A simple Google search would have been enough for Home Office officials vetting Fiona Woolf to raise serious questions about her suitability to chair the independent inquiry into historical sex abuse.
It would have revealed Ms Woolf was on the same Board of Patrons of this year’s City Week event as Lord Brittan – one of the key witnesses in the investigation that she was meant to be chairing.
But despite losing Lady Butler-Sloss to a similar conflict of interest, such simple due diligence seems to have been beyond the wit of the Home Office vetting team.
But that basic oversight should not allow Ms Woolf to escape blame for this fiasco.
Before she was appointed, she was explicitly asked by the Home Office whether there was anything in her background which might disqualify her from the job.
Somehow she failed to see that living on the same street as Lord Brittan and his wife and attending five dinner parties with the former Conservative minister might be a cause for concern.
It took Ms Woolf more than two months to finally do the honourable thing and step down – except it was not really honourable because by yesterday it was clear she had no choice. The victims and the public in general deserve better.
Oliver WrightReuse content