Fiona Woolf bows to victims’ demands and quits sex abuse probe

Fiona Woolf and, below, Peter Saunders, Chairman of The National Association for People Abused in Childhood
Fiona Woolf and, below, Peter Saunders, Chairman of The National Association for People Abused in Childhood
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THE head of the inquiry into historic child sex abuse is to step down after a barrage of criticism from victims.

Fiona Woolf said it has been clear to her for some time that she did not have the confidence of the victims and it was time for her to “get out of the way”.

Fiona Woolf and, below, Peter Saunders, Chairman of The National Association for People Abused in Childhood

Fiona Woolf and, below, Peter Saunders, Chairman of The National Association for People Abused in Childhood

“I was determined that the inquiry got to the bottom of the issues and if I don’t command their confidence to run the panel fairly and impartially then I need to get out of the way,” she said.

“It has been brewing for some time. Ever since the issue first arose I have been worrying about the negative perceptions and there has been a lot of negative comment and innuendo and that has got in the way as well.”

Mrs Woolf’s announcement came after victims’ representatives issued a unanimous call for her to be replaced following a meeting with the inquiry panel’s secretariat.

She had been under mounting pressure to quit over her links to Lord Brittan, whose actions while he was home secretary are expected to come under scrutiny in the investigation.

Home Secretary Theresa May said she had accepted Mrs Woolf’s resignation “with regret”.

“I believe she would have carried out her duties with integrity, impartiality and to the highest standard,” she said.

Mrs May - who is to make a Commons statement on Monday - said the inquiry panel would continue its work while a new chairman was appointed.

“I decided to set up this inquiry because it’s imperative that we establish the extent to which institutions in this country have taken seriously their duty of care towards children. Recent reports from Rotherham and Greater Manchester demonstrate the importance of this work,” she said.

“As with Hillsborough, the best way to do this is through an independent panel inquiry. I believe we have a panel which brings a wide range of experience and expertise and one that survivors can have confidence in.”

Alison Millar, head of the abuse team at Leigh Day solicitors which represents victims, said: “We are pleased that Fiona Woolf has stepped down and now the work begins for a proper inquiry which listens to the survivors and supports them in giving their evidence to an experienced panel.

“The terms of reference must be based on the needs of survivors and must cover the scale of abuse which is slowly coming to light across the UK.”

MPs earlier summoned Mrs Woolf, who did not attend lengthy talks in central London between victims’ groups and the expert inquiry panel, to return to the Commons next week for a fresh grilling over her suitability.

Speaking after the meeting, Alison Millar, head of the abuse team at law firm Leigh Day which represents survivors of child abuse, said: “ The unanimous view from the representatives of all the groups present today is that there needs to be a statutory inquiry with full compulsory powers to seize documents and compel witnesses to give evidence.

“Concern was raised that if the inquiry was not headed by a high court judge, then it would not be practically possible to take criminal proceedings for contempt if truthful evidence was withheld.

“Representatives of survivors were unanimous that Fiona Woolf is unsuitable to lead this inquiry.

“The constitution of the current panel, it was felt, needs to be substantially revisited and enhanced so that it is more representative of the situations in which abuse occurred and engages the diverse range of people who have been abused.”

Downing Street said today that Prime Minister David Cameron “is absolutely clear that he thinks she can do this job with integrity and impartiality” and wanted to see the inquiry up and running as quickly as possible.

But Peter Saunders, chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, said victims would rather wait for a proper inquiry than rush forward with a “paper exercise”.

He said he had emerged from the talks “vaguely encouraged” that concerns were being heard and urged Mrs May to get in contact with victims’ groups urgently to hear their case.

“They reassured us that they were listening to us and taking what we had to say very seriously. I suppose that was the best we could hope for today and I am vaguely encouraged,” he told reporters.

“But we are unanimous in our feeling that Fiona Woolf cannot remain as chair. It has to be a statutory inquiry, the terms of reference need to be looked at the geographical spread.”

He accepted there was “no easy way out” of the situation as any new head was likely to have to be another establishment figure.

But he rejected calls - including from Mr Cameron - for a necessarily speedy resolution.

“There are one or two people who have said ‘We’ve just got to get on with this’.

“Well no, I don’t agree. I think most survivors of abuse have waited a long, long time to get a voice and they are more than happy to wait a little longer to make the whole thing work rather than steam ahead with a sort of paper exercise with the sort of wishy-washy terms of reference that we have at the moment.”

Mrs Woolf’s links to Lord Brittan have come under scrutiny because he is likely to be called to give evidence to the inquiry about his handling of child abuse allegations.

The former Cabinet minister denies failing to act on a dossier of paedophilia allegations he received while in office in the 1980s.

Documents published last night showed that a letter setting out Mrs Woolf’s contacts with Lord Brittan and his wife was redrafted seven times, with guidance from Home Office officials, before being sent to Mrs May.

The chair of the Commons home affairs select committee, Labour MP Keith Vaz, claimed the final one suggested “a greater sense of detachment” from her near neighbours than initially stated.

“Fiona Woof has been asked to return to the committee next Tuesday to give further evidence in the light of recent developments,” he announced.

Labour former home secretary David Blunkett heaped further pressure on Mrs Woolf by questioning her future in the job.

“I have never come across a situation where somebody being appointed to a critical independent panel of this sort has had their letters vetted, altered or suggestions made,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One .

“I’m not sure whether Fiona Woolf asked for advice in helping that draft or whether it was, if you like, offered to her. But either way, I think it has put a very different complexion on the situation and a very substantial cloud over whether she can do the job.

“I’m verging on believing that she is now in the kind of very difficult position that we saw before where somebody simply feels that they themselves cannot continue to do it.”

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said it was “incomprehensible” that Mrs May had failed to consult more widely about the appointment, especially after the inquiry’s original chair Baroness Butler-Sloss stood down earlier this year amid allegations of conflicts of interest.

Ms Cooper said: “ Theresa May has twice failed to consult with victims’ groups and carry out sufficient background checks on her appointed chair to ensure they would have the confidence to do the job.

“Having failed once, it is incomprehensible that she could then fail a second time to consult widely enough to ensure Fiona Woolf would have the support needed to carry out this vital role. The inquiry cannot go on like this, lurching from problem from problem without any proper leadership from the Home Secretary.

“Theresa May has put Fiona Woolf in an impossible position. We had hoped the Home Secretary would be able to sort this out, so that the inquiry could get going this month, but she has failed to do so. Sadly, it is now impossible to see how Fiona Woolf can carry on in this position.”

Mr Vaz has written to the Home Secretary to ask her if she still considers Mrs Woolf to be the “most appropriate person for this role”.

In his letter he demanded to know when Mrs May first became aware of the links between the head of the inquiry and the Brittans and asked: “Why was Mrs Woolf allowed to continue in this post once these connections had come to light?

“Many victims have said they have no confidence in Mrs Woolf’s ability to chair this inquiry. Do you believe that this inquiry can progress if many victims are claiming that they will not participate if Mrs Woolf remains its chairman?”

Mr Vaz also asked for details of Home Office officials’ involvement in the drafting of Mrs Woolf’s letter setting out her contact with the Brittans and whether Mrs May was aware of the editing process.