The Westminster inquiry into historical child sex abuse has been thrown into chaos after its chairman, Fiona Woolf, yesterday announced she was stepping down in the face of a barrage of criticism.
Mrs Woolf said she had no choice but to quit after accepting abuse victims had lost all confidence in her ability to conduct an impartial investigation.
It follows sustained pressure over her links to former Tory home secretary, Lord Brittan, who is facing claims he failed to act on a dossier of paedophile allegations in the 1980s.
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Her departure is a huge blow for the UK government after the previous chairman, Baroness Butler-Sloss, also had to quit because her late brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney-general during the same period.
Mrs Woolf said it had been clear for some time that she did not have the confidence of the victims and that she should now “get out of the way”.
“Ultimately what turned the tide was less about putting up with the innuendo and negative comment in the press, but more about the victims themselves. This is for them,” she said.
“I am obviously sad people are not confident in my ability to chair what is a hugely important inquiry impartially. I don’t think it was going to be possible for me to chair it without everybody’s support.”
Her announcement came after victims’ representatives called for her to be replaced following a meeting with the inquiry’s secretariat.
Following a bruising appearance before the Commons home affairs committee this month, Mrs Woolf said she realised the writing was on the wall after lawyers for victims demanded a meeting.
“I made my decision a few days back and warned the Home Office of it,” she said.
Home Secretary Theresa May said she had accepted her resignation “with regret”.
“I believe she would have carried out her duties with integrity, impartiality and to the highest standard,” she said.
Mrs May said she would meet survivors’ groups and consult with relevant parliamentarians before appointing a successor.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said Mrs May needed to explain why “basic background checks” which would have revealed Mrs Woolf’s links with Lord Brittan were not carried out before she was appointed.
“It seems inexplicable, given what happened to the first head of the inquiry, that some basic questions were not asked of Fiona Woolf, before she was appointed, about her connections.
“Theresa May has some explaining to do. To lose one chair is a misfortune but to lose two is total carelessness on her part.”
Mrs Woolf’s links to Lord Brittan came under scrutiny because he is likely to be called to give evidence to the inquiry about his handling of child abuse allegations.
Documents published on Thursday night showed a letter setting out her contacts with Lord Brittan and his wife was redrafted seven times, with guidance from Home Office officials, before being sent to Mrs May.
Mrs Woolf – who is the Lord Mayor of London – warned it could be difficult to find a suitable replacement given media attention. “It is really going to be hard to find someone with no connections. A hermit?” she said.
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