Departure of Lady Butler-Sloss puts Theresa May under pressure
Home secretary accused of ‘due diligence’ failings before former judge’s appointment as chair of inquiry into child sex abuse.
The home secretary, Theresa May, has no immediate replacement lined up to take over from Lady Butler-Sloss, who resigned as chair of the inquiry into historic child sex abuse only a week after her appointment.
May came under strong pressure for failing to undertake “due diligence” before appointing the former judge and sister of the 1980s attorney general Lord Havers to the role.
Butler-Sloss, in announcing her resignation, said she “did not sufficiently consider the difficulties” her family connections might cause for her role in conducting the inquiry.
Under critical questioning of her judgment before the Commons home affairs committee, the home secretary said she had not taken into account before making the appointment allegations that Havers had tried to dissuade the late Geoffrey Dickens MP from “naming names” of alleged Westminster paedophiles in the Commons in the early 1980s.
“That is an issue that has recently been surfaced, if I can put it in that sense,” May told MPs.
The Home Office admission that it had lost 114 files related to child sex abuse from that period, including responses to letters from Dickens, triggered the Butler-Sloss inquiry in the aftermath of the convictions of Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile for historic sex abuse crimes.
May told MPs she had no regrets about her decision despite Butler-Sloss’s resignation: “I continue to believe that she would have done an excellent job, given her experience, expertise and absolute integrity.
“I do not regret the decision I made. I continue to believe that Elizabeth Butler-Sloss would have done an excellent job as chair of this inquiry.”
Butler-Sloss, 80, is a retired appeal court judge who had been president of the family division and had chaired inquiries into child abuse in Cleveland and in the Church of England. In the week since her appointment it also emerged that Butler-Sloss had also been accused of covering up claims of a bishop’s paedophile activities while conducting the church inquiry.
Butler-Sloss said in her resignation statement: “It has become apparent over the last few days … that there is a widespread perception, particularly among victim and survivor groups, that I am not the right person to chair the inquiry. It has also become clear to me that I did not sufficiently consider whether my background and the fact my brother had been attorney general would cause difficulties.
“This is a victim-orientated inquiry and those who wish to be heard must have confidence that the members of the panel will pay proper regard to their concerns and give appropriate advice to government.”
May faced strong criticism from MPs of all parties on the home affairs committee with its chairman, Keith Vaz, asking why ministers had left it to the retired judge’s nephew, the actor Nigel Havers, to go on television to defend the appointment.
Vaz said Butler-Sloss had shown better judgment than the government. “This is the due diligence that you and your officials should have carried out,” he said. The home secretary responded that “of course” she was aware of Butler-Sloss’s relationship with Havers but stressed that the important thing was the integrity of the individual involved.
May said there was no immediate successor lined up to take on the role, which is bound to delay the start of the inquiry. She could not provide a timetable but promised “we will not be hanging around”, while admitting that any potential inquiry chairman would have to “consider very carefully” before accepting the role.
A decision on the other members of the panel of legal and child protection experts to carry out the inquiry will have to await the appointment of a new chairman, as will a decision on the terms of reference.
Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP who has been campaigning to highlight historical cases of child abuse, called for someone other than a judge to be the chairman: “It doesn’t have to be somebody from the judiciary. It can be somebody from the third sector. The bishop of Liverpool chaired the Hillsborough inquiry very effectively,” he said.
“It’s important that we appoint someone who is independent, commands the respect of victims and will be able to challenge the establishment in a way that Baroness Butler-Sloss could not.”
May again made clear that the inquiry is expected to draw lessons from the recent historic child sex abuse scandals but will not take evidence from individual victims about specific allegations. Those will be passed straight to the police.
- The Guardian,