Child abuse: Adding insult to injury
Theresa May’s decision to make Lady Woolf the new head of the child abuse inquiry could turn out to be deeply embarrassing, writes Eddie Ford
Lady Bracknell famously observed that to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose both looks like carelessness. Well, Theresa May, the home secretary, has already lost one chair of the government’s ‘impendent’ inquiry into child abuse. Now she could be set to lose a second.
The initial choice was, of course, Lady Butler-Sloss (or Ann Elizabeth Oldfield Butler-Sloss GBE PC1). But she had to resign in July soon after the inquiry was set up, when it emerged that her late brother, Lord Havers (Robert Michael Oldfield Havers PC QC), just happened to have been attorney general during the mid-1980s when minister were handed a dossier making allegations of child abuse by high-profile establishment figures.
Lady Butler-Sloss’s departing words were that she “did not sufficiently consider” whether her family links would cause difficulties in the inquiry. May’s rather strange response was to say there is “absolutely no doubt” that Elizabeth Butler-Sloss was indeed Michael Havers’ sister - well done, Theresa, no flies on you.2 Only the best get to be home secretary. Just as oddly, she still insisted that Lady Sloss was the “right person for the job” (though you would be hard pressed to say the same about May) and that she did not regret the decision despite all the “rumour and innuendo” about the appointment - the “innuendo” being that Lady Sloss was hardly the ideal person for the job, given that her late brother had tried to persuade former Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens (also deceased) not to name an alleged paedophile on the floor of the House of Commons during the time when Leon Brittan was home secretary. Stirring things up, The Times reported that Sloss excluded a certain bishop from a review of how the Church of England investigated - or not - two priests allegedly involved in paedophilia because she “cared about the church”.3
Undeterred, May declared that she would “not hang around” in naming Lady Sloss’s successor. Give credit where credit is due, she certainly did act quickly - by appointing Lady Fiona Woolf CBE, who, if anything, is even more compromised than Lady Sloss.
Very few things expose the true nature of the British establishment as well as a government-sponsored inquiry into this or that scandal. After ignoring the problem for as long as possible, and then some more, the clamour of indignation becomes so loud that even the establishment finally realises it has to be seen to be doing something and so invariably appoints one of its own to oversee an interminable inquiry, essentially designed to exonerate itself of all blame. The whole rigmarole always gives us a glimpse of how the great and the good are connected by an intimate network of social and familial relations: going to the same schools, universities, clubs, parties, etc - the child abuse inquiry being a text-book example. If you are part of the ruling class circuit, it is a very small world.
Lady Woolf protests, perhaps a bit too much, that she is not a member of the establishment. No, Fiona, of course you are not - merely a commercial lawyer, member of the Competition Commission, alderman4 for the ward of Candlewick, the lord mayor of the City of London, non-executive director of Affinity Water Ltd, senior adviser to London Economics International, honorary bencher of Middle Temple5, and also a former sheriff of London6 and president of the Law Society (not to mention a member of the Parochial Church Council of St Clement Eastcheap). Still, maybe in the circles she moves in, that is considered slumming it.
However, the real problem was caused by the fact that she has social connections with Lord Brittan and his wife, having gone to dinner parties with them on five occasions. For those with a taste for dark humour, we discover that the home office had to inform Woolf of the exact dates and times of these parties - meaning that the secret state were keeping a close watch on someone you really would have to strain your imagination to picture as the enemy within.
Wolf later disclosed that she had been involved in the past with various bodies on which the Brittans had also served. Even more embarrassingly, in a letter to the home secretary Woolf said she “had no social contact” with Lady Brittan since April 23 of last year - only for photographs to appear of the two at more recent social functions, one showing them in October 2013 at the Dragons award ceremony (which “celebrates corporate community involvement”7) and another of Woolf standing close to Lady Brittan at a mayoral event. Defending herself, Woolf said Leon Brittan was “one of thousands of people” she knew - doubtlessly true, but hardly the point, nor is it particularly relevant that she cannot remember if the Brittans are on her Christmas card list or that Leon Brittan’s phone number was not stored in her mobile phone.
As before, Theresa May said she had “full confidence” in the new head of inquiry - so you know it can only end in tears. But it is depressingly predictable that the government will cling onto Woolf until it is no longer possible to do so, which is partially explained by the fact that the inquiry has been asked to produce an interim report by the end of March - which for a British government inquiry is a furious, almost Stakhanovite, pace. But, given the utmost seriousness of the crimes and allegations concerned, it is hard to see how she can shake off her association with the Brittans.
Now, we are delving into very murky waters, when it comes to the Dickens-Brittan story. Disregarding Lord Havers’ advice, Dickens in 1981 invoked parliamentary privilege (to avoid being sued for slander) and named the former British high commissioner to Canada, Sir Peter Hayman, as a paedophile in the Commons. He asked why Hayman had not been jailed after illegal child pornography of an apparently extreme nature had been found in his possession. Two years later Dickens claimed there was a paedophile network involving “big, big names” and threatened to name them all in the Commons. Then in 1984 he gave his “explosive” 40-page dossier, which he claimed had the potential to “blow the lid off” prominent child abusers in the establishment, to the then home secretary (ie, Leon Brittan) during a 30-minute meeting. Curiously, the dossier went missing and, even stranger, the police later stated that they had “no record” of any investigation into the allegations and the home office confirmed that no correspondence from Dickens had been retained - ie, there was “no record” of the specific allegations made by Dickens.
The whole affair becomes even murkier when you consider that the missing dossier has been linked with the ongoing investigations into the Elm Guest House child abuse scandal - Hayman being one of many visitors to that institution, others being the Liberal MP, Cyril Smith (now in posthumous disgrace), the Soviet spy and third cousin to the late queen mother, Sir Anthony Blunt, a Sinn Féin politician, several Conservative politicians, and a Labour MP.8 As a coda to the whole wretched business, Dickens told the Commons in 1985 that he had received “threatening” telephone calls followed by two burglaries at his London home - and that his name had appeared on a “multi-killer’s hit list”.9
You might think, when looking at the above, that Theresa May only had one decision to make - to ensure that the next chair of the inquiry was not a friend of Leon Brittan. She failed. John Hemming, a Liberal Democrat MP, said Woolf’s personal contacts “would give no confidence” to abuse victims who had been ignored for so many years. Similarly, Labour’s shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint told the BBC’s Daily politics show that it was “really difficult” for Woolf to stay on if those abused as a child did not support her. But, not doing his already tarnished reputation any good, Nick Clegg said Woolf was a “credible person” for the job. Speaking on LBC radio’s Call Clegg programme, the deputy prime minister informed his listeners that May had recommend Woolf to himself and David Cameron “following an exhaustive look at the candidates” - in which case you have to question the judgement, if not sanity, of all three.
Quite understandably, child abuse victims have threatened to boycott the inquiry. Alison Millar, a partner at Leigh Day solicitors, which represents almost 50 victims, said a number of them would not participate because of their concern about how it was going to be run - she challenged Woolf’s credentials to lead the inquiry and fearing that it would just end up as another establishment “whitewash”. For example, Andi Lavery, who describes himself as a “survivor of abuse” at a school in the 1980s, says he has “zero confidence” in the inquiry - it has “no investigatory powers” and Woolf seemed “weak as water” when questioned by MPs on October 21. Another victim of abuse, Alex Wheatle, damningly wrote in The Independent that, although he saw the inquiry as an “opportunity to observe institutions finally being made accountable for their woeful neglect” and also a chance to “spell out what happened to me” - yet he is “not prepared to do that”, as long as Fiona Woolf is in charge (October 24). She must resign, believes Wheatle - adding that Woolf should not keep her position to “save the credibility” of Theresa May.
Stepping up the pressure, Peter McKelvie, a former child protection manager whose allegations about child abuse led to a 2012 police investigation, went on to BBC’s Newsnight arguing it was “quite an insult” that someone with such close links to establishment figures had ever been appointed to head the inquiry. All the abuse victims he had talked to had “no trust in the whole process” - they will not cooperate. Sentiments confirmed by Millar: the clients she had spoken with are “unanimous” that they do not want Fiona Woolf in charge.
A judicial review application is now underway on the grounds that Woolf is not impartial, has no relevant expertise and may not even have time to discharge her duties. Adding insult to injury, Woolf is due to become chancellor of the University of Law, a private institution that is largest legal training and education establishment in Europe.10 This prestigious appointment involves promoting the university to foreign students, which naturally will mean many trips abroad - what is she going to do, chair the meetings via Skype when she has a day off?
But, as we all know, this is how the British establishment has always behaved - tirelessly exploiting its vast web of old friends to get what it wants and maintain its obscenely privileged position: honours are sold, friends ennobled, MPs entertained by tobacco companies, and so on. For example, the department of culture, media and sport sees nothing wrong with the wife of the director general of the BBC working for the company it paid to head-hunt the next BBC chairman, and is perfectly happy for its senior political presenter and interviewer, Andrew Marr, to launch his first novel at a Downing Street party hosted by the prime minister.
It’s how we’ve always done it, old boy.
1. ‘PC’ stands for Privy Council.
3. The Times July 12 2014.
4. In the City of London, aldermen are elected for each ward (for life until recently) - and to be a candidate for the lord mayor of the City of London, you have to have been both an alderman and a ‘sheriff of the City of London’.
5. One of the four Inns of Court exclusively entitled to call their members to the English Bar as barristers (the others being the Inner Temple, Gray’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn).
6. Two sheriffs are elected annually for the City of London by the Liverymen of the City Livery Companies.
9. The Daily Telegraph July 2 2014.