01/11/2014 05:24 GMT | Updated 01/11/2014 05:59 GMT

Campaigners Dismiss Fiona Woolf Remark That Only 'Hermit' Could Lead Child Sex Abuse Enquiry

Yui Mok/PA Wire
File photo dated 11/11/13 of Fiona Woolf who has announced her resignation yesterday as the head of the inquiry into historic child sex.

The Government is facing a search for a new head for the inquiry into historical child sex abuse after the chairwoman announced she was stepping down amid a barrage of criticism over her "establishment" links.

Fiona Woolf said she had no choice but to quit after accepting that the victims had lost all confidence in her ability to conduct the investigation impartially.

Mrs Woolf warned, however, that it could 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.

It follows sustained pressure over her links with former home secretary Lord Brittan, who is facing claims that he failed to act on a dossier of paedophile allegations in the 1980s.

Mrs Woolf has said she did not reveal her links to Lord Brittan as she did not think he would feature in the inquiry.

In an interview with the Times she said: "I did not mention Lord Brittan as I did not think about him as a friend and I did not think he would be a focus of the inquiry."

Her departure is a huge blow for Home Secretary Theresa May after the previous chairwoman, Baroness Butler-Sloss, also had to quit because her late brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney general during the same period. Mrs May - who will make a Commons statement on Monday - said she would be meeting survivors' groups and consulting with relevant parliamentarians before appointing a successor.

However, Labour leader Ed Miliband said Mrs May needed to explain why "basic background checks" which would have revealed Mrs Woolf's links with Lord Brittan were not carried out before she was appointed.

"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," he said. "Theresa May has some explaining to do. To lose one chair is a misfortune but to lose two is total carelessness on her part."

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said it had been a "really, really big error" not to consult with victims before Mrs Woolf was appointed. She rejected suggestions that it would now be hard to find a suitable replacement who did not have similar "establishment" links.

"I just don't think this is right. I think this is a really narrow view of who it is that can have the kinds of qualifications to do this job," she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"It doesn't have to be somebody based in London. It could be somebody in Leeds or Manchester. I think there are plenty of people with great expertise who don't have close social or family ties with key decision-makers whose decisions may be being questioned as part of this inquiry

The chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz, said Mrs Woolf had been right to resign and called for an "open, robust, vigorous" process to appoint her successor.

"This has been chaotic," he said. "It is wrong for them (the Home Office) to have conducted this process in such way that

two very distinguished women who are pathfinders in their fields should have had to resign from the inquiry."

Mrs Woolf, who finally made the announcement at 5pm yesterday, said it had been clear to her for some time that she did not have the confidence of the victims and that she should now "get out of the way".

"Ultimately what turned the tide was less about putting up with the innuendo and negative comment in the press, but more about the victims themselves. This is for them," she said. "I am obviously sad that people are not confident in my ability to chair what is a hugely important inquiry impartially. I don't think it was going to be possible for me to chair it without everybody's support."

Her 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 however been under pressure since it emerged last month that she lived in the same street as Lord Brittan and his wife and that they had attended dinner parties at each others' homes.

The disclosure caused anger and dismay among abuse victims as Lord Brittan is expected to be called to give evidence to the inquiry about his handling of child abuse allegations. Documents published earlier this week showed that a letter setting out Mrs Woolf's contacts with the Brittans was redrafted seven times, with guidance from Home Office officials, before being sent to Mrs May.

The choice of Mrs Woolf - a tax lawyer who is the current Lord Mayor of London - had already attracted criticism as she had no experience of dealing with child abuse issues. Mrs May - who had strongly defended her appointment - 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.

Her decision to go was, however, welcomed by Alison Millar, head of the abuse team at Leigh Day solicitors which represents some of the victims. "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," she said."