Theresa May’s long search for a judge without links to the British Establishment to head an investigation into historic sex abuse has led her to the other side of the world.
The Home Secretary announced that the ill-fated inquiry is to be led by Justice Lowell Goddard, who sits in the New Zealand high court and will be given tough new powers to force witnesses to appear.
The appointment follows the resignation of Ms May’s two previous choices and a seven-month delay in getting the investigation off the ground. She told the Commons that Justice Goddard was “as removed as possible from the organisations and institutions that might become the focus of the inquiry”.
But the appointment immediately faced controversy as Ms May had to dismiss an accusation that the judge had been involved in a cover-up, telling MPs there was “absolutely no truth” in the allegation.
Ms May told MPs she had spoken to Justice Goddard, as well as New Zealand’s Attorney General, about the claim in a blog and had been assured it was false.
Ms May said the Home Office had received 150 applications for the post which had been rigorously sifted. The appointment was confirmed after the Home Secretary interviewed Justice Goddard by video link. Amid protests from child-abuse survivors about the conduct of the investigation and reports of infighting among members of the inquiry panel, Ms May scrapped the current inquiry.
The existing panel is to be dissolved, new members appointed and its terms of reference will be revised.
The new probe will also be able to investigate allegations dating back before 1970, which had been the previous cut-off point. The inquiry will be put on a statutory footing, giving Justice Goddard the power to compel witnesses to appear and hand over relevant documents.
Ms May said: “I’m now more determined than ever to expose the people behind these despicable crimes.”
The inquiry, which was announced last summer in the wake of a series of child-abuse scandals and claims a paedophile ring operated at Westminster in the 1980s, was originally due to produce an interim report before the general election.
The first panel chair, the former High Court judge Baroness Butler-Sloss, was forced to quit in July over conflicts of interest. Three months later, Dame Fiona Woolf, stood down following the disclosure of links between her and the late Home Secretary, Lord Brittan. He was reportedly passed a dossier in 1984 by the then MP Geoffrey Dickens, outlining allegations of widespread paedophile activity.
Justice Goddard, who has long experience of dealing with sex-abuse victims, warned the inquiry would be “long, challenging and complex”. She will take up her post next week. She said: “The many, many survivors of child sexual abuse, committed over decades, deserve a robust and thorough investigation of the appalling crimes.”
The Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who led calls for a public inquiry into child abuse, said he had “confidence” in the selection process and believed the process was now going in the “right direction”. Peter Saunders, chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, said Justice Goddard would “enhance the whole credibility of the inquiry”.
Alison Millar, of the law firm Leigh Day, which is representing dozens of abuse victims, said they welcomed the disbanding of the panel.