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Criticism of Woolf honour 'unfair'

Criticism of the honour awarded to the City lawyer who was forced to resign as chair of the Government's child sexual abuse inquiry is unfair, her predecessor in the role has said.

Fiona Woolf, the then Lord Mayor of London who has been made a Dame in the New Year Honours list, was the second senior legal figure to quit as chair over her links to the Westminster political establishment.

Her resignation, just months after retired judge Baroness Butler-Sloss stepped down over similar concerns, has thrown the Government's stalled inquiry into crisis.

Lady Butler-Sloss said criticism of the honour awarded to Dame Fiona was "very unfair" as the damehood was in recognition of her term as Lord Mayor of London.

She blamed the Home Office for failing to perform proper checks on Dame Fiona's links to former home secretary Lord Brittan.

Lady Butler-Sloss, who stood down from her role on the troubled inquiry in July because her brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney general in the 1980s, was speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme in her role as guest editor.

Defending the decision to award the honour, she said: "She was Lord Mayor of London, she is only the second woman ever to be Lord Mayor of London.

"The very least that the honours system could do would be to honour a woman who has got such a distinguished post.

"Unfortunately she had, like myself, a brief period where she had agreed - for goodness sake, she had agreed to do a very disagreeable job to become chairman.

"And because she happened to know Leon Brittan, she was unacceptable to the survivors and therefore she stood down."

She criticised officials for failing to spot the potential difficulties the contacts with Lord Brittan could cause.

"I don't know what happened. There was discussion between her and, presumably, the Home Office.

"I think they made a mistake in not doing sufficient due diligence, actually.

"But the fact is she is a very distinguished woman, she did a wonderful year's job as Lord Mayor and of course she gets an honour for it, that's why she gets it.

"To put if off to another time would be a reflection on the City of London."

Edinburgh-born Woolf, a City of London lawyer already honoured with a CBE in 2001, was made a Dame for services to the legal profession, diversity and the City of London in the New Year Honours.

But Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale and a leading figure campaigning against child abuse cover-ups, was scathing about the honour.

He said: "Fiona Woolf misled the Home Secretary over her links with Leon Brittan, caused unnecessary distress to victims of child abuse and caused a lengthy and avoidable delay to a very serious inquiry that urgently needs to get started.

"It seems inappropriate that she's now being invited to Buckingham Palace to pick up one of the highest honours.

"I can think of many more worthy recipients of this honour, but once again it looks like the Establishment is looking after their own."

Dame Fiona's links to Lord Brittan prompted the calls for her resignation.

Lord Brittan is likely to be called to give evidence to the inquiry over a dossier he received from MP Geoffrey Dickens in 1983, documenting the alleged involvement of VIP figures in a child sex ring.

Lady Butler-Sloss said effectively giving survivors the final decision on who chairs the inquiry "creates real problems" but "there has to be a victim voice on the panel".

Asked if the inquiry will ever make progress, she told Today: "I don't know. I worry that the victims, survivors - for whom I have the most enormous sympathy, and as a judge I tried a great many child abuse cases, I really have huge sympathy for them - but for them to be deciding who should become the person chairing it creates real problems.

"Because if you did not have, in the past, a position of authority, how are you going to be able to run the inquiry? You need someone who knows how to run things and if you get someone from an obscure background with no background of establishment, they will find it very difficult and may not be able, actually, to produce the goods."

She acknowledged that the establishment had covered up abuse and claimed she would have "cut the whole thing open" if she had been able to run the inquiry.

"I do believe the establishment has in the past looked after itself, partly because people did not really recognise the seriousness of child abuse and they did not think it was so important, and it was important to protect members of the establishment.

"So I would want to go in with a knife and cut the whole thing open and expose it, as to what happened, bearing in mind, of course, that the views of those people are not the views of people today and t hat is a difficulty.

"But I don't believe I was unsuitable to do it because, in principle, as a judge with 35 years' experience on the bench, I was quite able to be independent and say that people got it wrong and to be critical of them."

Lady Butler-Sloss said she did not regret taking the role as chairwoman: "I thought it was my duty. I didn't want to do the job but it was one that needed to be done, I thought I had the qualifications.

"It never crossed my mind that my brother would be an impediment."

She added that it appeared to be "an attack on my integrity" to suggest she could not be impartial.

"As a judge, I would expect to be totally impartial, even with my own family."

But "we live in a world of perceptions ... nobody looks at the reality, they look at how they feel about things".

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