That the inquiry into allegations of historical child abuse should be mired in a row over its leadership for the second time is deeply concerning. Fiona Woolf is an impressive individual and no doubts have been raised about her fundamental integrity. However, it should have been apparent that whoever was appointed to lead this potentially difficult inquiry was likely to come under the most intense scrutiny. The resignation of the Government’s first choice, Lady Butler-Sloss, over her familial connection via the late Lord Havers to the governing class of the 1980s should have made the need for care even more obvious.
Sure enough, when Ms Woolf was announced as the replacement for Lady Butler-Sloss, several commentators noted that she had no experience in her legal career of dealing with cases involving child abuse. That was a point against her, but one which could have been overcome by hard work and dynamic leadership.
Whether Ms Woolf gets the chance to display those qualities is now open to serious question, given the increasing burden of her links to Lord Brittan, whose actions as Home Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government will be closely inspected by the inquiry when it finally opens. The sense of déjà vu is palpable.
Reservations were first raised over a month ago, when it emerged that Ms Woolf lived on the same street as Lord and Lady Brittan and was friendly enough with Lady Brittan to donate £50 to her charity fun run appeal. Now it emerges that she has hosted three dinners for the Brittans and twice dined at their home since 2008.
There are two problems in all this for Ms Woolf. First, there will be plenty who dispute her own conclusion that a handful of dinners, occasional coffee meetings with Lady Brittan and the simple fact of being near-neighbours do not amount to a “close association”. The second rests on a subtly different argument: that Ms Woolf’s idea of what does and does not constitute a “close association” marks her out as living a very different life to that of most people, featuring regular social engagements with Lords and Ladies who are acquaintances but not great friends. In other words, it shows her as being very firmly part of “the Establishment”.
Both these problems may be insurmountable insofar as Ms Woolf’s continued leadership of the inquiry is concerned, for to succeed in the role, she must inspire confidence in victims of abuse. If they regard her as close to the man who, as Home Secretary, was handed the now-missing dossier of allegations about supposedly high-profile child abusers – or if they believe she is as much a part of the Establishment as those whose involvement in the abuse has been hinted at – that will be impossible to achieve.
Crucially, Fiona Woolf ought never to have been placed in this position. She told MPs on Tuesday that she did not proactively inform the Home Secretary about her contacts with the Brittans because the matters did not cast “any real question over my actual or apparent impartiality”. That may be right but displays a surprising naivety. More shocking is that nobody at the Home Office appears to have thought that the point about possible connections with senior ex-government figures was worth raising, especially in the light of what had led to Lady Butler-Sloss’s resignation.
There are said to be no more than six degrees of separation between any two given individuals on the planet. When it came to choosing a person qualified to conduct this prominent and challenging inquiry, would it have been too much to ask that there be at least a couple of degrees of separation between them and anyone whose past actions they might have to investigate?