Questions over choice of Butler-Sloss as head of child abuse allegations inquiry
Keith Vaz surprised at appointment of peer as senior civil servant admits missing 114 files on abuse ‘probably destroyed’.
The government faced questions on Tuesday over the appointment of a member of the House of Lords as the chair of a public inquiry into “serious failings by public bodies and important institutions” in their handling of allegations of child abuse.
Keith Vaz, the chairman of the commons home affairs select committee, expressed surprise at the appointment of a parliamentarian. “Su[r]prised that the government has chosen a member of the House of Lords no matter how distinguished to head the inquiry,” Vaz tweeted after the appointment of the retired high court judge Lady Butler-Sloss.
The former Labour minister had earlier made clear at a meeting of his committee that he intended no personal criticism of Butler-Sloss. But he questioned whether it was right to appoint a parliamentarian to chair the inquiry when questions were being asked about whether alleged paedophiles operated at Westminster.
Butler-Sloss is the sister of the late Lord Havers, who was attorney general in the 1980s, when the former home secretary Lord Brittan of Spennithorne was handed details by the late Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens of alleged child abuse. Havers was later made lord chancellor by Margaret Thatcher.
Butler-Sloss, who chaired the Cleveland child abuse inquiry in the late 1980s, said she was honoured to be asked to carry out “important work” after the home secretary, Theresa May, announced she would chair the wide-ranging public inquiry into the handling of allegations of child abuse in public institutions. Butler-Sloss, a former president of the family division of the high court, coined the phrase “listen to the children” in her Cleveland report.
But Vaz challenged the appointment during a hearing with the home office’s permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill. He asked Sedwill: “In respect of Lady Butler-Sloss – a very distinguished person has been appointed. [Were] there any concerns that you [had] before the appointment was made that she is a member of the upper house and some of the allegations may have been made about members of this house?
“Was that considered at all, despite the fact that she is extraordinarily distinguished and a very good head of the family division – that she is a member of parliament and she is very closely related to a former lord chancellor?”
Sedwill replied: “The short answer is no. She is a woman of unimpeachable integrity. She is a cross-bench peer, of course, so is also highly independent in the House of Lords. Anyone who has ever dealt with her wouldn’t question for a second the integrity, capability, intelligence and rigour that she will bring to this role.”
Vaz gave Sedwill until Friday to provide the titles and any other information known about the 114 “missing” official files linked to allegations of a 1980s paedophile ring at Westminster.
The Home Office’s most senior mandarin undertook to try to provide further details on the 114 missing “potentially relevant” files, but warned the MPs that most of them had “probably been destroyed”.
Sedwill ordered the inquiry that revealed the “missing” files last year, after complaints about the fate of a 1980s “dossier” alleging abuse by prominent public figures sent to the then home secretaries by the late Geoffrey Dickens MP.
Sedwill was left in no doubt by the MPs that they were not impressed by the outcome of the inquiry he had ordered. Sedwill declined to identify the “anonymous investigator from outside London” – thought to be from HMRC – who had carried out the inquiry, or whether anyone in the Home Office had asked him whether a list of titles of the missing files existed. At one point Vaz said his evidence was beginning to “sound like a John Le Carré novel”.
Sedwill did, however, use his appearance before the Commons committee to appeal to all public bodies, including the security services and the political parties’ whips’ offices, to carry out a similar trawl of their documents for any evidence of historical child sexual abuse that could aid the new overarching inquiry.
The top Home Office mandarin said he shared MPs’ concerns about the missing documents, but stressed that the inquiry had not found any evidence that the documents had been destroyed “inappropriately”.
“I am concerned frankly about the 114. I am concerned about all the material that we cannot find. Most of these files were probably destroyed because the kind of topics that they covered would have been subject to the normal file-destruction procedures that were in place at the time,” said Sedwill. “They cannot be confirmed to have been destroyed because there is not a proper log of what was destroyed and what wasn’t.”
Sedwill said that when he ordered the inquiry last year, he had presumed that the Dickens dossier and the response to it would be found. He said it was a matter of concern that neither the Home Office nor Dickens’s family had retained copies of that correspondence.
He admitted that so far the security services had not been asked if they had copies of the dossier but Sedwill strongly implied such cases did not concern them.
- The Guardian,