UK

Westminster Paedophile Ring Probe Chief Fiona Woolf Urged To Quit

31/10/2014 09:09 GMT | Updated 31/10/2014 14:59 GMT

Fiona Woolf's position as chair of the Government inquiry into historical child sex abuse appeared increasingly at risk today as victims' representatives formally called for her removal.

They are using a preliminary meeting with the inquiry panel's secretariat to demand her removal following claims that she tried to play down her social links with former home secretary Lord Brittan, whose role is expected to come under scrutiny in the investigation.

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 Home Secretary Theresa May.

Mrs Woolf, a City lawyer and lord mayor of London, is not expected to be at today's meeting at which lawyer Alison Millar of solicitors Leigh Day will call for her to be replaced "because our clients just don't have faith in her", a spokesman said.

The head of ChildLine, Sue Minto, declined several times to give Mrs Woolf her personal backing.

"I think the most important thing is to ensure that whoever chairs the inquiry also has an excellent team, a team that has the experience and the ability and the expertise to make sure this is full and thorough," she said when pressed over the suitability of the chair on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I think the NSPCC and ChildLine are both saying that we think that whilst the chair is a very important person, actually it's much more important that the people that are really doing the delving and the digging have got experience and expertise."

Chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee Keith Vaz said Mrs Woolf''s appointment had been "chaotic" and she should decide whether she wishes to remain as chair of the inquiry.

Mr Vaz agreed that the loss of a second chair - after Baroness Butler-Sloss stood down earlier this year amid allegations of conflicts of interest - would be damaging to the inquiry, and said it was not for his committee to determine whether she should stay on.

"I think what the victims want - and what they have wanted all along - is that this process starts as quickly as possible, with an inquiry team that is experienced, that is competent, where there are no questions of conflicts of interest," he told Today.

"This unfortunately has not happened and we hope that this will now progress in some way or the other."

Chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood Pete Saunders, who will also attend today's meeting, said: "The many survivors of abuse that I've spoken to will have no part of any inquiry that is headed up by Fiona Woolf.

"I can't speak for other people but many people have told me that will be the case, that they will boycott the inquiry.

"The survivors have been waiting a long time, many of us were abused decades ago, we can wait a bit longer to make sure we get this right."

Solicitor Ms Millar, whose firm Leigh Day is representing abuse victims, said of a boycott: That's something that a number of my clients have said to me and obviously that's enormously regrettable but the way the inquiry is being presented, I'm not at all surprised.

"I think that they fear that she is a safe tame creature of the Home Office who has been picked as somebody who will not uncover too many truths that are unpalatable to central government and the institutions that are being investigated."

Mr Vaz said the final version of the letter sent by Mrs Woolf to Mrs May "gave a sense of greater detachment" about her relationship with the Brittans than the earlier documents.

Mrs Woolf's links to Lord Brittan have come 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.

In her letter to the Home Secretary, Mrs Woolf said she had lived in the same street as the Brittans since 2004 and as well as inviting them to dinner at her house three times, she has dined at theirs twice, met Lady Brittan for coffee, sat on a prizegiving panel with her, and sponsored her £50 for a fun run.

She told Mrs May she had had no "social contact" with Lord and Lady Brittan since April 23 last year.

But Mr Vaz sought clarification from the City lawyer after a photograph surfaced showing her chatting to Lady Brittan at a prizegiving last October.

In her response to Mr Vaz's request for more information, Mrs Woolf said she did not recall any "substantial interaction" with Lady Brittan at the October 2013 event.

Mrs Woolf disclosed that the first draft of her letter to the Home Secretary was written by the solicitor and counsel to her inquiry, which she "reviewed and reworked" with their assistance.

The drafts were also circulated to officials in the Home Office and lawyers representing Mrs May in legal proceedings about the inquiry.

In an early draft, Mrs Woolf said: "I first met with Lord Brittan in a personal capacity when I was invited by Lady Brittan to a dinner party hosted at their residence in 2008. From recollection there were approximately eight people at this dinner.

"I returned the compliment and I hosted a dinner party at my residence about six months later. We engaged in another exchange of dinner parties after I was elected sheriff of the City of London in 2011."

A later, undated draft said "from my recollection there were no other guests who attended" the dinners at the Brittans' house.

By the final version, there were more details about the dinner parties, but Mrs Woolf indicated that they were focused on City of London matters, rather than purely social occasions.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said of the inquiry chair that Prime Minister David Cameron "is absolutely clear that he thinks she can do this job with integrity and impartiality and the Prime Minister is absolutely clear that he also wants this inquiry to get on with it.

"Why does he want that? Because victims want to see this addressed and the Government is determined to get on and learn the lessons of the past and that means getting the inquiry up and running and starting work," she told reporters.

Asked which of having Mrs Woolf in charge or getting the inquiry moving was the Prime Minister's priority, she said: "What matters is that we've got an able person getting on with the inquiry. That's both and that's what''s happening at the moment."

Mrs Woolf's decision to be clear with the select committee about the process of the letters "in itself is demonstrating openness and transparency from the chair of the panel", she added.

Calls for Mrs Woolf's removal were joined by Rape Crisis England & Wales.

Spokeswoman Katie Russell said while the organisation "has no reason to question Fiona Woolf's personal or professional integrity or her ability to lead this enquiry" the lack of victims' trust made her position untenable.

"Any process to investigate and call to account such abusers, those who have got away with it for so long, needs to be the polar opposite of an experience of abuse; it needs to be as open and honest, as transparent and independent as possible in order to gain the trust and confidence of survivors," she said.

"What sexual abuse survivors are telling us now is that this has not so far been achieved, that the process has been tainted for them before the enquiry has even begun and that their trust has been compromised.

"And it is survivors' trust that is paramount to this enquiry, over and above the credentials of any individual. For this reason, Rape Crisis respectfully says that it is time for Fiona Woolf to step down."