The home secretary’s all-embracing inquiry into historical child sex abuse has become a humiliating shambles. To lose Fiona Woolf, the second inquiry chair forced out before it has even started, is a disaster. Theresa May must get a grip on the idea that this is an inquiry into establishment and institutional failings. It cannot be led by someone from an establishment background. She should accept the resignation of Mrs Woolf and find someone the victims can trust. Then she must reset the inquiry with a sharper focus, and she must make it sure it is, and it is seen to be, genuinely independent of the Home Office and the wider establishment.
This is the inquiry Mrs May didn’t want. It was forced on her last July in a familiar piece of Downing Street crisis management, conceded in the face of the political firestorm triggered by the charge of organised abuse by prominent Whitehall and Westminster figures and the disappearance of files containing the allegations from the Home Office in the 1980s. After Jimmy Savile and Operation Yewtree, the years of clerical abuse and repeated scandals involving children in care, the demand for an inquiry that would mark some kind of public watershed became impossible to resist.
Yet the Home Office has appeared to be unable to grasp what the inquiry is for. Either that, or it is actively seeking to control it. It would appear obvious that an inquiry into systemic institutional failure that may well include government ministers and officials should seek to recruit people as remote as possible from their home turf. Instead, the first appointee was Lady Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the sister of Sir Michael Havers, who was the Conservative attorney general during the 1980s. And after she was forced to withdraw, their choice fell upon Mrs Woolf, who not only lacks any experience of criminal, children’s or family law, but was at the least a close acquaintance as well as a neighbour of Lord Brittan, who was home secretary at the same sensitive period.
Once that connection was in the public domain, attempts were made to airbrush out the embarrassment. There were no less than seven different attempts to draft a letter that would present the relationship with the Brittans as inoffensively as possible. When that process was exposed, and the drafts published by MPs on the home affairs committee, Mrs Woolf was left in an impossible position.
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