The national probe into child sex abuse has been plunged into fresh controversy after its most senior lawyer said he learned of his suspension from the investigation via the internet.
In a fresh blow to the inquiry’s credibility, its counsel, Ben Emmerson QC, claimed no allegations had yet been put to him and he was left to discover his fate from news reports.
The £100m probe, which has been dogged by controversy since it was set up by then Home Secretary Theresa May in 2014, is already on its fourth chairwoman. But current Home Secretary Amber Rudd insists she retains full confidence in the investigation.
Emmerson was suspended from his post because the probe had “recently become very concerned” about aspects of his leadership, a spokeswoman for the inquiry said.
They added: “Suggestions in the press that Mr Emmerson was considering resigning after raising disagreements over the future direction of the inquiry are untrue.
“They are not a matter on which he has advised the chair of the inquiry or the panel.”
Lawyers acting for the counsel to the inquiry said: “Mr Emmerson has read this evening on the internet that he has been suspended from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. If, and when, allegations are put to him, he will respond appropriately.”
Reacting to the news, James Berry MP, who sits on the Home Affairs Select Committee, said it had had a “catastrophic” effect on the inquiry.
He also labelled it a “devastating blow to survivors”, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
While Labour’s Chuka Umunna said Emmerson’s potential departure was “yet another blow to the search for justice”.
Rudd still has full confidence in the inquiry, a spokeswoman for the Home Office told the Press Association.
Her spokeswoman insisted the inquiry’s work remained undiminished, saying: “Ben Emmerson’s suspension is a matter for the independent inquiry, which is continuing its vital work in exposing the failure of public bodies and other organisations to prevent systematic child sexual abuse.
“Our commitment to this inquiry is undiminished. We owe it to victims and survivors to confront the appalling reality of how children were let down by the very people who were charged to protect them and to learn from the mistakes of the past.”
It had been reported that Emmerson was preparing to quit the probe after clashing with the investigation’s new head Alexis Jay.
Emmerson’s colleague in Matrix Chambers, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, told the Times the government needed to “face up to the reality that an inquiry lasting years into dozens of public institutions going back decades, quite unable to restrain its own remit, is destined to end as an embarrassing fiasco”.
Jay took over last month after the investigation was rocked by the sudden resignation as chairwoman of senior New Zealand judge Dame Lowell Goddard, who cited the “legacy of failure” from its beginnings as one of the reasons for standing down.
Baroness Butler-Sloss stood down as chairwoman in 2014, saying she was “not the right person for the job” following opposition to her participation from victims’ families due to the fact her brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney general during the period some of the allegations being looked into occurred.