Could lightning strike twice over leadership of abuse inquiry?
Dining habits of government probe’s new leader fall under scrutiny – just three months on from departure of Baroness Butler-Sloss
London’s Lord Mayor Fiona Woolf has been urged to resign from her post as leader of the government’s child-abuse inquiry, after it emerged that she was a neighbour of – and attended dinner parties with – Lord Leon Brittan. Former home secretary Brittan has been named in connection with the apparent disappearance of a sensitive dossier on alleged child abuse in Westminster circles during the 1980s.
In particular, campaigners and victims’ groups have drawn attention to an image showing Woolf with Lady Brittan at the 2013 Dragon Awards at Mansion House in October last year – despite Woolf telling MPs that she had had no social contact with the Brittans since April 2013. It has also clear that Woolf has entertained the Brittans three times at her house, and has dined twice at theirs, since 2008. With a legal challenge brewing over her appointment – together with a parliamentary motion calling for her replacement – Woolf has been accused of being too close to the Brittans to manage the inquiry in an objective fashion.
At the centre of the inquiry are claims that late MP Geoffrey Dickens handed Brittan a 114-page dossier alleging that politicians were involved in the sexual abuse of children around 30 years ago. However, the file later went missing, leading to questions over Brittan’s handling of the information. A Home Office review last year found that Brittan had written to Dickens in 1984 saying the material had been assessed by the director of public prosecutions as worth pursuing and “passed to the appropriate authorities”.
On Tuesday, Woolf told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee that she had “no close association” with the Tory peer, and believed that her account of contact with him would “lay to rest” any fears. She added: “I’ve gone the extra distance to make sure that I’ve dug out every possible connection … to make sure that it absolutely settles all the concerns that may be out there.”
Woolf’s socialising with the Brittans will come as a major embarrassment to the Home Office, as her predecessor at the helm of the probe, Baroness Butler-Sloss, was forced to step down for similar reasons in July. As Insights reported at the time, survivor groups complained that Butler-Sloss’ late brother Lord Havers was attorney general at the time of the allegations, presenting a conflict of interest, despite his death in 1992. The government conceded that it was inappropriate for one of his closest relations to be investigating events in which he could have played a crucial role.
Nonetheless, the latest revelations suggest the Home Office has done no better in its due diligence during Woolf’s appointment, particularly as she is also accused of having coffee on “a small number of occasions” with Brittan’s wife as recently as last year – and sponsoring her for a fun run.
An early day motion has been ordered by Lib Dem MP John Leech, with the backing of three other MPs, urging the government to “find a new chair of the inquiry who has palpably demonstrated its willingness to challenge all quarters of the establishment to ensure that it can achieve its aims of providing justice to the victims of historic child abuse”.
Alison Millar, partner at the solicitors Leigh Day which represents a number of victims, says Woolf was an inappropriate choice to lead the inquiry. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Millar said: “She has to be seen to be independent, and somebody who seems to be on dinner-party terms with a senior political figure whose knowledge this inquiry will be scrutinising is somebody who, from the perspective of my clients, does not have the necessary independence.”
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said he has full confidence in home secretary Theresa May, that she meticulously checked the background of Woolf before her appointment. The Lib Dem leader said: “We all need to have confidence that the decisions taken by the home secretary … were thorough. I have not heard anything that suggests to me the process by which Theresa May made the recommendation is anything other than thorough.”
May defended her decision, saying: “Fiona Woolf has a long and distinguished career, throughout which she has demonstrated the highest standards of integrity. I am confident that she will lead the work of the panel with authority, and that under her leadership the panel will get to the truth of these issues.”
If MPs conclude that Woolf deliberately lied to Parliament, however, then the stage could be set for a rare re-enactment of an antiquated law, under which the bar of the House of Commons would order her to be publicly admonished by the Speaker. Woolf will be keen to avoid that humiliation – a disgrace that hasn’t been experienced by a non-MP since 1957.
Has the Home Office robotically repeated a hiring mistake? Find out more about the perils of robotic management here.
Image of Fiona Woolf courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.