The head of the Government’s sprawling historical child abuse inquiry is facing demands to step down after she admitted hosting dinner parties with the former minister under scrutiny over his role in an alleged Establishment cover-up.
In a letter to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, Fiona Woolf, a lawyer, said that she had hosted three dinner events for Lord and Lady Brittan and dined twice at their home since 2008.
Despite other connections with the couple, including living in the same street, she said this did not amount to a “close association” with the former minister.
But concern at her relationship with the couple is mounting, particularly as Ms Woolf was only appointed after the original choice to head the inquiry – Lady Butler-Sloss – was herself forced to step aside over Establishment and family links to Lord Brittan.
The peer faces questions about what actions he took, while serving as Home Secretary in the 1980s, after being handed a now-missing dossier by the late MP Geoffrey Dickens that included claims of the involvement of VIPs in a child sex ring. In her first public grilling since she was appointed head of the inquiry, Ms Woolf – the Lord Mayor of London, former Law Society president, and member of the RAC club – repeatedly denied that she was a member of the Establishment.
She said that she would rigorously seek answers for the “victim community” during the wide-ranging inquiry charged with looking into institutional abuse back to 1970.
But she faced further questions about the independence of her inquiry, after she revealed that she sent an original draft of the letter detailing her links with the Brittans to Home Office officials before it was passed to Ms May. The letter was published today on a new inquiry website.
Ms Woolf – a corporate lawyer with no history of child abuse investigations – revealed that she had not raised the issue of her links with Lord Brittan with Ms May until it first emerged in the media.
She said that she left the decision to appoint members of the panel to the Home Office, which is also providing the head of the inquiry’s secretariat.
“I don’t believe the victims of child abuse will take much comfort with having her as their champion on this issue,” said the Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who has led calls for a public inquiry and initially backed her appointment.
“He [Lord Brittan] is a key figure that needs to be investigated by this inquiry. How is she going to do that when they are dinner-party friends? The public will conclude that the Government is trying to protect Lord Brittan.”
The Labour MP Paul Flynn said she appeared to be an Establishment figure and suggested she should also resign to ensure the report had legitimacy.
In her letter to the Home Secretary, Ms Woolf said that she had a London home in the same street as the Brittans for the past 10 years.
She said that she hosted the last of her dinner parties for the Brittans and others in February 2009 as she built her City network – adding that had also had coffee with Lady Brittan on a number of occasions and gave her a £50 charity donation for a running event in May last year.
But she told MPs that she could not recall if the Brittans – just one of thousands of people she knew in London – were on her Christmas card list, and their numbers were not on her mobile phone.
Ms Woolf also attended a City advisory council meeting with Lord Brittan in July – the same month that it was revealed that Lord Brittan had been questioned by police over an alleged rape in the 1960s – but says that the pair did not speak.
“I have had no further social contact with Lord and Lady Brittan since 23 April 2013,” she said in her letter.
She defended her decision not to tell Ms May about her contacts with the Brittans when first approached about the role by the Home Office. She said the matters did not cast “any real question over my actual or apparent impartiality”.
“If had the slightest doubt about those I would have said so at the outset and would not have accepted this appointment,” she wrote in the letter dated 11 October.
Downing Street and the Home Office both strongly backed her suitability for the role. She was appointed after Lady Butler-Sloss stepped down due to criticism of her brother Lord Havers’ role as Attorney General at the time that the Dickens dossier was handed over.
The papers were considered by the Home Office and then passed on to the police, but no action was taken against anyone. The documents – of which there were thought to be several versions – have since disappeared and cannot be traced by the Home Office and the Crown Prosecution Service.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister is confident that Fiona Woolf and the panel will carry out their duties to the high standards of integrity required.
“What is important today is that we are taking the next step – setting out the terms of reference and naming the other members of the panel – towards learning any lessons that need to be learnt from the failings of the past. That is what victims want to see.”
The full make-up of her eight-member panel was announced today. It includes two victims of abuse, and has been asked to consider the extent to which institutions have “failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation,” and to consider if they have been addressed.
Ms Woolf will oversee an investigation that stops short of a public inquiry that can compel witnesses to attend.