HOME Secretary Theresa May has come under attack from MPs over the appointment of Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss as head of a child sex abuse inquiry after the former high court judge was forced to step down from the role.
The decision by Baroness Butler-Sloss to quit before the inquiry had even begun came after campaigners for the victims of child abuse described her as being “wholly inappropriate” to run it.
It was a humiliating blow for the Home Secretary, who was later told by MPs on the home affairs select committee that her “judgment is in question”. But Mrs May insisted she had no regrets over the decision to select Baroness Butler-Sloss to head a review of how allegations of abuse linked to public institutions in the 1970s, 80s and 90s were handled.
The pressure had been mounting on the former judge ever since her appointment last Tuesday, with critics warning of potential conflicts of interest because the investigation into an alleged establishment cover-up was likely to look into the handling of allegations by her late brother, Sir Michael Havers.
Sir Michael – later ennobled as Lord Havers after being appointed Lord Chancellor – is reported to have tried to prevent the late Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens from airing in parliament claims about abuse by a senior diplomat.
In her statement yesterday, Baroness Butler-Sloss said: “It has become apparent over the last few days … that there is a widespread perception, particularly among victim and survivor groups, that I am not the right person to chair the inquiry.
“It has also become clear to me that I did not sufficiently consider whether my background and the fact my brother had been attorney general would cause difficulties.”
The resignation led to a tense confrontation between Mrs May and MPs on the home affairs select committee, where the Home Secretary’s handling of the crisis was described as “shambolic” by the chairman Keith Vaz.
Mr Vaz said that Baroness Butler-Sloss’s departure was the latest indication of Mrs May’s department “unravelling”, following the resignation of her special adviser in a briefing war with Education Secretary Michael Gove, a crisis at the Passport Office, and the admission that 114 files relating to allegations of child sex abuse have been lost.
But Mrs May responded: “I reject any suggestion that it is, in your words, unravelling.”
She said she was “very sorry” that Baroness Butler-Sloss had stepped down, but added: “I continue to believe that she would have done an excellent job, given her experience, expertise and absolute integrity.
“I do not regret the decision I made. I continue to believe that Elizabeth Butler-Sloss would have done an excellent job as chair of this inquiry.”
However, Mrs May twice refused to state if she knew of any concerns involving the late Lord Havers when she appointed Baroness Butler-Sloss.
Mr Vaz told her: “It is not Baroness Butler-Sloss’s integrity that is being questioned, it is your judgment.”
Victims’ representatives also pointed to allegations that Baroness Butler-Sloss had tried to keep out of the public domain the name of a bishop who had been connected with child abuse.
Phil Johnson, a former choir boy, had claimed Baroness Butler-Sloss did not want to include some of his allegations during a review of how the Church of England handled the cases of two paedophile priests in 2011, because she “cared about the Church”.
But in her statement, Lady Butler-Sloss said: “I have never put the reputation of any institution, including the Church of England, above the pursuit of justice for victims.”
A lawyer for alleged victims of abuse said they were “pleased” at the decision of the former president of the High Court Family Division to step down, describing it as “the only sensible decision to ensure that survivors and the public could feel confident that the inquiry was not going to be jeopardised by accusations of bias”.
Labour MP Tom Watson, who raised the allegations of historic child abuse in the Commons two years ago, said Baroness Butler-Sloss had done “the right thing”.
“She has the highest integrity. She would know that any controversy around her as chair of the inquiry would cause difficulties, particularly with very vulnerable survivors who are nervous of speaking out,” he said.
Labour’s shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said: “As Lady Butler-Sloss has said, the most important thing is victims have confidence in this inquiry.
“This inquiry now has no chair and no terms of reference and there is considerable confusion over what it will be able to cover, and what the powers of the other investigation into the Home Office and Whitehall will be too.”
Error of judgment dents ambitions of becoming Tory leader
THE Home Affairs Committee chairman Keith Vaz put it succinctly.
He told Home Secretary Theresa May: “It is not Baroness Butler-Sloss’s integrity that is in question it is your judgment.”
This was far more than a senior Labour MP telling a Tory minister she is incompetent; Mr Vaz has been a very good and fair chairman of his committee and not the sort to be party political.
The truth is that the resignation of Baroness Butler-Sloss as head of an inquiry before the rest of the panel had even been picked was utterly humiliating for Mrs May and shows that the government which has dithered on the growing paedophile cover-up scandal is not in control of important events.
Mrs May has ambitions for the Tory leadership but this, coupled with an inability to deal with the passport office fiasco, has been a major setback.
It is still unclear why she thought it was a good idea to appoint somebody to look into a possible establishment cover up who was herself part of the establishment and, in the case of a bishop linked to child abuse, may have actually tried to prevent a name from being made public. The mess has left the government looking, at best, out of control on a desperately difficult issue and at worst, appearing as though it was again part of an establishment cover up, especially with suggestions Tory MPs were historically involved.
Mrs May has been a successful Home Secretary in what is often a career-ending brief, but this was a bad day for her and the government, and one from which she could struggle to recover.
Monday, July 7:
Home Secretary Theresa May, below, announces that she will establish an independent inquiry to examine the handling of allegations of paedophilia by state institutions as well as bodies such as the BBC, churches and political parties.
Baroness Butler-Sloss is named as the chair. Home affairs select committee chairman Keith Vaz, below, questions the choice of a member of the House of Lords to investigate the establishment – pointing out her brother was Lord Chancellor during the era being probed.
Calls for the appointment to be abandoned intensify over reports that her brother, Sir Michael – later Lord – Havers, tried to prevent ex-MP Geoffrey Dickens airing claims about a diplomat in parliament in the 1980s. Baroness Butler-Sloss insists she knew “absolutely nothing about it”.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, rows in behind the baroness. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper dodges questions over whether the Opposition backs the appointment.
Downing Street announces Baroness Butler-Sloss is stepping aside by her own choice. In a statement, she acknowledges that her family links would “cause difficulties” for the process. Mrs May says she is “deeply saddened” but has embarked on the search for a replacement.