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Home Office civil servant facing grilling over abuse inquiry head's departure

Published 15/10/2016

Dame Lowell Goddard rejected claims she used racist language
Dame Lowell Goddard rejected claims she used racist language

MPs will grill the Home Office's top civil servant over the resignation of former child sexual abuse inquiry chair Dame Lowell Goddard amid concerns the Government may have covered up allegations about her conduct.

Permanent secretary Mark Sedwill will be questioned at the Commons Home Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

The appearance follows revelations that Dame Lowell resigned days after the Home Office was made aware of concerns about her "professionalism and competence".

Home Secretary Amber Rudd and her predecessor Theresa May have now been urged reveal how much they knew.

Ms Rudd previously told the committee she believed the New Zealander, who denies allegations she used racist language, had quit because she was "a long way from home" and was "too lonely".

Mr Sedwill was sitting next to the Home Secretary at the September 7 hearing as she added: "That's all the information I have about why she decided to go."

But last night, the Home Office said it was made aware of worries about Dame Lowell's conduct on July 29, when Ms Rudd had taken over from Mrs May, who became Prime Minister on July 13.

Dame Lowell resigned on August 4.

Officials were unable to say whether similar worries had been raised before that date and the PM's official spokeswoman has declined to comment on whether Mrs May was informed during her time as home secretary.

Labour has called on Mrs May and Ms Rudd provide assurances that there was no cover up.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: "These are grave allegations and the Home Secretary and Prime Minister must address them urgently.

"Despite being given every reason not to trust the establishment, the victims of child sex abuse had put their faith in this inquiry. We cannot afford to lose their trust again.

"We must be given an assurance that there was no attempt to cover the accusations made about Judge Goddard. Because if true, it would mean that the Home Secretary knowingly put at risk the integrity of the entire inquiry."

Dame Lowell's replacement, Professor Alexis Jay, will on Monday provide an update on the progress of an internal review of the inquiry's approach to its investigations, it is understood.

Prof Jay is also due to appear before the Commons Home Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

Mrs May could be summoned to appear before the committee depending on what Mr Sedwill reveals on Tuesday , its acting chair Tim Loughton said.

The Tory MP said Ms Rudd could also be called but that the committee was more likely to request the Prime Minister, as it appears concerns began to be raised about Dame Lowell last year when Mrs May was home secretary.

Mr Sedwill is giving evidence "on the basis that he was sitting alongside the new Home Secretary (Ms Rudd) when the committee questioned her about the Lowell Goddard situation", he added.

Mr Loughton told the Press Association: "On the back of that (Tuesday's hearing) the committee will then decide whether to call Theresa May, rather than Amber Rudd, as she was home secretary when the whole thing came to a head about Lowell Goddard."

Referencing the Times stories on the issue, he said: "This isn't something that has just happened in the last couple of months, t his is something that started happening last year."

Mr Loughton said Mr Sedwill "must have been aware" of concerns coming out of the inquiry, adding: "Forty Home Office staff are seconded to the inquiry and I would be very surprised if the permanent secretary didn't make his then-home secretary aware that there were rumblings about the chair."

Dame Lowell has described allegations made in The Times as "falsities", "malicious" and part of a "vicious campaign".

The newspaper reported a number of claims made by what it said were "well-placed figures" at the inquiry's headquarters about her alleged conduct, including that she said Britain had so many paedophiles because it has so many Asian men.

The New Zealand high court judge said she had consulted lawyers in London about the allegations.

The beleaguered inquiry has been plagued by problems since it was launched in 2014.

When she resigned, Dame Lowell called for it to be overhauled, saying "there is an inherent problem in the sheer scale and size".

The probe - described as the most ambitious public inquiry ever in England and Wales - was earmarked to take five years, but there have been suggestions it could run for as long as a decade.

Last month the inquiry's senior lawyer Ben Emmerson QC resigned after being suspended amid reports he was about to step down.

The departure was announced just hours after it was revealed his junior colleague Elizabeth Prochaska had also left her role.

In the wake of the resignations, Prof Jay refuted suggestions Mr Emmerson had quit because of a difference of opinion with her about the inquiry's future.

Shortly before Dame Lowell quit, The Times revealed that she had spent more than 70 days working abroad or on holiday during her time in charge.

The inquiry's financial report for 2015/16 included details of spending amounting to more than half a million pounds in relation to Dame Lowell's terms.

The inquiry incurred costs of £67,319 during the last financial year on travel included in the New Zealand high court judge's terms of appointment.

"This included travel to and from New Zealand for her and her family," the report said.

Press Association

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