03/11/2014 15:30 GMT | Updated 03/11/2014 16:59 GMT

Theresa May Apologises For Resignation Of Fiona Woolf, Second Chairwoman Appointed To Child Sex Abuse Inquiry

Theresa May has apologised following the resignation last week of the second chairwoman of the inquiry into historical allegations of child sex abuse. The Home Secretary said the first meeting of the panel would be held next Wednesday but told MPs it was "very disappointing" the probe still does not have someone in the top job four months after being created.

In a Commons statement following the dramatic resignation on Friday of Fiona Woolf, Mrs May told MPs that a report by NSPCC chief Peter Wanless, into the way the Home Office dealt with an investigation into child abuse allegations between 1979 and 1999, will be published next week.

She said: "Almost four months after I announced my intention to establish a panel inquiry it is obviously very disappointing that we do not yet have a panel chairman and for that I want to tell survivors that I am sorry."

Mrs Woolf, the Lord Mayor of London, admitted on Friday that she had lost the confidence of abuse victims following disclosures about her links to the former home secretary, Lord Brittan, who is expected to come under scrutiny by the inquiry over claims he failed to act on a dossier of allegations of alleged paedophile activity at Westminster in the 1980s.

Her resignation followed the decision by Baroness Butler-Sloss to stand down in July amid questions over the role played by her late brother, Lord Havers, who was attorney general in the 1980s.

The Home Secretary admitted that it "will not be straightforward to find a chairman" for the inquiry who has "both the expertise to do this hugely important work and has had no contact at all with an institution or an individual about whom people have concerns".

But she added: "I still believe ... it is possible to find somebody who is suitably qualified and can win the confidence of survivors." Mrs May said she would start holding meetings with abuse victims next week, and told them the inquiry was a "once in a generation" opportunity to expose what had gone wrong and prevent it from happening in the future.

She said recent reports into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and Manchester "exposed serious failings among the police, social services, schools and other institutions, and the obvious conclusion is that if only we had learned from these appalling cases earlier there would be fewer victims of abuse today".

Mrs May confirmed that she would discuss the appointment with shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and the candidate would attend a hearing of the Home Affairs Select Committee before taking up the post. She said the inquiry panel would hold it's first meeting next Wednesday and then every week until Christmas.

There will also be regional events to allow survivors to give their views about the way the inquiry should proceed. In a direct message to abuse survivors, Mrs May said: "I know you have experienced terrible things. I know we cannot imagine what that must be like.

"And I know that, perhaps because of the identity of your abusers or the way you were treated when you needed help, many of you have lost trust in the authorities. I know some of you have questioned the legitimacy of this process. I know you are disappointed that the panel has no chairman.

"I understand that. I am listening and to you I say this: I am as determined as you are to get to the truth. That is why I set up this inquiry. We have a once in a generation opportunity to do something that is hugely important. Together we can expose what has gone wrong in the past, we can prevent it from going wrong in the future.

"We can make sure people who thought they were beyond the reach of the law face justice. We can do everything possible to save vulnerable young children from the appalling abuse you suffered and endured."

Asked if David Cameron - who was not present in the Commons for the Home Secretary's statement - would echo Mrs May's apology, a Downing Street spokeswoman said: "Yes, he shares her view." The spokeswoman added: "The Prime Minister absolutely shares the Home Secretary's view that, as we have said throughout, at the heart of this inquiry are victims and survivors of abuse.

"What matters here is that we learn the lessons of the past to ensure that things like this can't happen again in the future."

Mrs May rejected calls to make the inquiry a statutory inquiry with formal powers to compel witnesses to give evidence, but said it could be converted if the panel chairman decided the extra measures were necessary. Lawyer Alison Millar, head of the abuse team at Leigh Day which is representing some of the victims of alleged abuse, said she was disappointed by the decision.

She said: "We welcome the Home Secretary's apology to the survivors for the mistakes made up to this point. We agree that this inquiry represents a once in a lifetime opportunity and welcome her more consultative approach on the future of the inquiry and to provide support for survivors.

"However, we are disappointed that the Home Secretary will not give the inquiry the statutory powers it needs to compel the production of documents and the attendance of witnesses, as well as to ensure that anyone who gives false evidence will face criminal sanctions. As this once in a lifetime opportunity, the model needs to be right from the onset, it cannot simply be tweaks to a failed approach. Full consideration should be given to the model provided by the Australian Royal Commission which has been met with widespread support from survivors."

Richard Scorer, of law firm Slater & Gordon, who represents more than 800 abuse survivors, said: "We welcome the Home Secretary's determination to get the inquiry progressing after the setbacks of recent months and her apology. Although it was the correct move for Fiona Woolf to step down, the victims now want this process to show some positive signs of getting under way.

"They want the truth and the best way to do that is for the inquiry to start work. The victims will be pleased the panel is to start meeting. "I understand the calls for a statutory inquiry, but I fear this would prolong the process and would become very complex. I believe the victims are better represented as the investigation stands currently than by giving it statutory powers which could see it drag on for years and years."

Mr Wanless said: "It's a positive move that the inquiry will get under way while the search for a chairman is undertaken and that there will be a liaison group for the survivors of abuse. We have experienced frustrating delays but this is now an opportunity to introduce a process far more engaging and involving those with a direct interest in uncovering the truth about child abuse.

"Much greater transparency and openness will help build trust. But we need progress sooner rather than later through an inquiry that has real authority. Those who would like to kick awkward questions into the long grass must not be allowed to deny victims the justice they deserve and for which they have fought so long.

"But while, quite rightly, there is a pressing need for this inquiry to get under way and for lessons to be learned we must not forget that there are still many children being hideously abused who need protection. They rely on others to speak up for them and should not have to wait for months or years for answers before they get help. The grooming scandals of Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford are grim reminders that appalling crimes against children have not been consigned to history."