How hard can it be to find someone to chair an inquiry who does not have any potentially embarrassing connections or conflicts of interest? Harder than you might think. It has taken Theresa May, the Home Secretary, two months to find a replacement for Baroness Butler-Sloss as chair of the independent inquiry into historical child sex abuse. Lady Butler-Sloss stepped down shortly after her appointment because of the outcry about her brother, Lord Havers, who was Attorney General at the time of some of the events.
Now Ms May has come up with another name. Fiona Woolf, the Lord Mayor of the City of London. She seems a safe choice. Her Who's Who entry is rather uninformative, apart from listing one of her recreations as "furniture history". It took The Times less than 24 hours, however, to find a connection with Lord Brittan, the former Home Secretary: they both sit on the Advisory Council of TheCityUK, which represents the financial services industry. This is awkward because the Home Office under Lord Brittan is accused of failing to act on a dossier containing allegations against senior politicians, a dossier that has since been lost.
This link is probably irrelevant, but it does invite questions about whether the net could not have been cast wider than the usual pool of quangocrats. Is Ms May really saying that there is no one in the whole of country who could lead this inquiry who has no connection with anyone whose actions may be scrutinised? Rather than spending the time looking beyond the usual suspects, Home Office officials seem to have been ringing up the good and the grand, only to be turned down because they do not want to have to deal with the level of media interest.
It is certainly true that Ms Woolf has taken on a thankless task, and we respect her for that. The subject of paedophilia has long attracted cranks and conspiracy theorists. The internet is overrun with people who are convinced that this or that political leader, judge or member of the Royal Family is a paedophile. When their efforts are combined with those of trophy-hunting journalists, it can make dispassionate investigation hard.
We have no doubt, however, that this is an important inquiry. Many young people have been cruelly wronged. If it is done well and the crimes of the past are reported and acknowledged openly, it will help to guarantee the safety of children in the future. But the inquiry has to be thorough, and our real criticism of the Home Secretary's appointment of Ms Woolf is not her choice of person, but her failure to provide the inquiry's terms of reference. In particular, we do not yet know whether Northern Ireland will be included in Ms Woolf's remit.
Yvette Cooper, Labour's home affairs spokesperson, was right last week to say: "The most important factor in taking this inquiry forward is to ensure it has the confidence of victims of abuse." That means the inquiry should be charged with looking at historical abuse throughout the UK.
As The Independent on Sunday reported last month, the victims of abuse at the Kincora children's home in the 1970s have no confidence in local investigations. Even Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland's First Minister, has asked David Cameron to bring Kincora into the UK-wide inquiry, believing that only a national body would have the authority to call the security services – accused of using Kincora to blackmail politicians – to account.
That Ms Woolf would appear to have been given access to intelligence documents is therefore welcome. It has taken Ms May long enough to find someone to chair the inquiry. Now she must make sure that it has the power and the scope to find the truth.Reuse content