UK

Fiona Woolf Quits As Head Of Inquiry Into Historic Child Sex

31/10/2014 17:05 GMT | Updated 31/10/2014 18:59 GMT

The head of the inquiry into historic child sex abuse is to step down after a barrage of criticism from victims. Fiona Woolf told the BBC that 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".

"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."

Chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee Keith Vaz welcomed Mrs Woolf's resignation but said the whole process has been "chaotic". He told the BBC: "Given the concerns of the victims and the information that was given to the Select Committee that we released yesterday it was the right thing to do.

"The real problem in all this has been the process, this is the second head of the inquiry who has gone and I would have thought it would have been better all round if she had made these disclosures at the beginning. I think it's essential that there should be proper scrutiny and open, robust, vigorous, appointment process but also one that before it even begins there needs to be full consultation with stake holders for the next name.

"This has been chaotic, look at the way in which this matter has been dealt with, it has been so badly put together. It is wrong for them (the Home Office) to have conducted this process in such way that two very distinguished women who are path finders in their fields should have had to have resign from the inquiry."

Mrs Woolf said that it was the views expressed by the victims rather than the "innuendo and negative comment" in the press which "turned the tide" for her. "I am obviously sad that people are not confident in my ability to chair what is a hugely important inquiry impartially," she said.

"I don't think that it was going to be possible for me to chair it without everybody's support." 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. 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. Mrs Woolf insisted that she had been "incredibly transparent" and that the Home Office was "just trying to be helpful".

Mrs Woolf's departure is a huge blow for the Government after the previous chair of the inquiry, Baroness Butler-Sloss, also had to quit because her late brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney general in the 1980s. She warned that it could now be difficult to find a suitable replacement who was willing to take on the role in the face of intense media scrutiny. "It is really going to be hard to find someone with no connections. A hermit?" she said.

She added: "This inquiry needs to get on with the job. Above all it needs to report in a time-scale that doesn't take 10 years." Mrs May said that she would be meeting survivors' groups and consulting with relevant parliamentarians before appointing a successor.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said Mrs Woolf had "done the right thing" as she did not command the confidence of victims, but added that the Home Secretary was guilty of "total carelessness" and had "some explaining to do". "There are things which really make one scratch one's head in this," he told the BBC.

"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. The Home Office and the Home Secretary need to make sure that, when it comes to the third head of the inquiry they appoint, they do the proper consultation with the victims to make sure that whoever it is can command the victims' confidence.

"Frankly, they need to get on with this inquiry which after all they announced three or four months ago and is still not even under way. Theresa May has some explaining to do. To lose one chair is a misfortune but to lose two is total carelessness on her part. It's not like this could not have been expected. If you had asked some basic questions and done some basic background checks, I think anybody really understanding the victims in this would have said 'Well, hang on a minute, isn't this going to be problematic?'"