Woolf position ‘beyond the pale’

Published: Wednesday 22nd October 2014 by The News Editor

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The head of the independent inquiry into historic child sex abuse is coming under growing pressure to stand down, as a lawyer representing victims said her social relationship with former home secretary Lord Brittan “puts her beyond the pale in terms of her credibility”.

Fiona Woolf yesterday confirmed she had attended two dinner parties at Lord Brittan’s house and hosted the Tory peer and his wife on three occasions, but insisted she did not have a “close association” with the former cabinet minister.

She told a parliamentary committee scrutinising her appointment that the former home secretary – who has denied failing to act on a dossier of abuse allegations in the 1980s – was “one of thousands” of people she knew in London.

But solicitor Alison Millar, who represents a number of abuse victims whose cases are likely to be raised in the inquiry, said the “general view” among her clients was that Mrs Woolf – the Lord Mayor of the City of London – “really does not have the necessary credibility to lead what is such an important inquiry for them”.

Asked whether Mrs Woolf should step down, Ms Millar told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ” Yes. I think this evidence of dinner parties with Lord Brittan really puts her beyond the pale in terms of her credibility with my clients.”

Mrs Woolf was appointed in September to chair the independent panel inquiry into UK institutions’ handling of child sex abuse allegations, after the initial nominee Lady Butler-Sloss stepped down over suggestions that she might be called upon to investigate the role of her late brother, former attorney general Lord Havers.

Downing Street has said Prime Minister David Cameron is “confident that Fiona Woolf and the panel will carry out their duties to the high standards of integrity required”.

Ms Millar told Today: “This is not about Fiona Woolf’s ability or her integrity. This is about her independence and her ability to lead this inquiry in a way that is credible to the survivors of abuse whom I represent.

“S omebody 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.

“The people that I am in contact with because they are my clients, or I am in contact with otherwise, the general view among them is that Fiona Woolf really does not have the necessary credibility to lead what is such an important inquiry for them.”

Corporate lawyer Mrs Woolf, who lives in the same street as Lord Brittan, yesterday released a letter detailing the extent of her social links with the former minister.

She told the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee that, as well as attending dinner parties with Lord Brittan, she had met his wife for coffee, sat on a prize-giving panel with her, and sponsored her £50 for a fun run.

But she described him as “essentially someone who is one of thousands of people who I know in the City”, and insisted there was nothing in the encounters to stop her chairing the wide-ranging probe ordered by Home Secretary Theresa May.

Mrs Woolf appeared unwilling to say Lord and Lady Brittan were not friends, and could not remember whether they were on her 3,000-strong Christmas card list last year. But she said their numbers were not programmed into her mobile phone.

As a newly elected alderman of the City of London Corporation, she had hosted hundreds of dinner parties to “build my City network” at a time when Lord Brittan was a vice-chairman of UBS bank.

Mrs Woolf insisted she did not regard herself as “a member of the establishment”.

“I can understand that there will be people who do not know what the Lord Mayor of London does,” she said. “But as an ordinary solicitor in private practice I really do not think I count as a member of the establishment.”

Mrs Woolf said she had no background in child protection or family law, indicating that she would take a managerial approach to the inquiry.

“I am determined that this inquiry is going to relentlessly uncover the truth for the victims,” she told the MPs.

In a statement to the Commons earlier, Mrs May reiterated her backing for Mrs Woolf. She said she believed the inquiry panel – which will also include Rotherham sex abuse report author Professor Alexis Jay – would “carry out their duties to the highest standards”.

But Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who led the campaign for an inquiry, said Mrs Woolf and Lord Brittan were “clearly good friends” and she should stand down as chairwoman.

Lord Brittan is likely to be called to give evidence to the inquiry over a dossier he received from MP Geoffrey Dickens in 1983, documenting the alleged involvement of VIP figures in a child sex ring.

Abuse survivor Phil Frampton, who supports other victims of abuse in care homes, told Today: “I am absolutely appalled at Fiona Woolf’s appointment. It’s like putting Wayne Rooney in charge of an investigation of the nuclear energy industry.

“What appals me is that this is about very, very serious crimes and horror for children, and adults who are living with it still.

“It’s like putting a few puppets in place to deal with the seriousness of the situation.”

Another victim of alleged abuse in local authority care, who could not be named for legal reasons, told the Today programme: “Everyone deserves a chance, but I thought she lacks a huge amount of credibility from a victim’s perspective.

“She talks about ‘victim communities’. There is no such thing as a victim community. All the victims have had to live their lives in mainstream society carrying some terrible, terrible scars and being ostracised by society by and large.

“And yet we have the lord mayor of London to represent victims. It’s laughable.”

But inquiry panel member Sharon Evans – chief executive of the Dot Com Children’s Foundation and a sexual abuse survivor – told Today: “I am very confident that this inquiry can do its job.

“We have Graham Wilmer, who is another victim… We have representatives of HMIC (HM Inspectorate of Constabulary), we have a family law barrister who’s been in care himself.

“I think there’s been so much focus on Fiona Woolf, which I understand, but she is just the head of the panel. There are nine people in total, with an enormous background and expertise in this.”

Ms Evans added: “The whole panel are aware that we’ve got off to a very difficult start, but what we discussed between us yesterday is that we are satisfied that Fiona Woolf has the skills of a solicitor … We need balance and we need those skills that will give us that kind of balance.

“I would like people to be reassured that there are victims on this panel and we are determined to get to the bottom of this. One of the things that Graham and I hope is that the fact we are here and we are part of this will give people confidence. We do want to listen.

“I will give you my pledge that I will not let anybody get away with things that I think have been covered up. I know from talking to all the panel members, who have so much experience, that they are equally passionate about that.”

Published: Wednesday 22nd October 2014 by The News Editor

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