Theresa May came under repeated fire over her failure to look in enough detail at the family background of Baroness Butler-Sloss, who today stepped down as chairman of a wide-ranging inquiry into child abuse claims.
he former High Court judge’s dramatic resignation, just six days after accepting the post, has severely embarrassed the Home Secretary.
In fiery exchanges with MPs, Mrs May insisted she stood by the appointment of a woman of “absolute integrity” to head the government-commissioned panel of inquiry.
However, the Home Secretary indicated she had been taken by surprise by allegations that the peer’s brother, the late Sir Michael Havers, attempted to thwart an attempt to expose paedophile activity.
Lady Butler-Sloss’s panel would have had to investigate whether Sir Michael, who was Attorney-General from 1979 to 1987, failed to act on allegations of child abuse involving senior establishment figures.
Sir Michael also reportedly tried to prevent the late Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens from using parliamentary privilege to name the diplomat Sir Peter Hayman as a paedophile.
Asked about the Hayman allegation, Mrs May told the Commons home affairs select committee: “This is an issue that has been raised in the last few days.”
The Home Secretary insisted that “consideration was given to the nomination” and she stood by the short-lived appointment of the retired judge.
“It is a mark of the woman that she herself has come to this decision. I respect it. I’m disappointed, but I respect it,” Mrs May said.
But the committee’s chairman Keith Vaz said: “She has shown better judgment, has she not, than the Government. This is the due diligence you and your officials should have carried out.”
He urged Mrs May to consult more widely over her replacement to avoid he or she being “put in the invidious position Lady Butler-Sloss appears to be in”.
The Labour MP, Ian Austin, told the committee: “It is now clear the child abuse inquiry has no chair, no terms of reference and it doesn’t seem to me to have any agreed purpose.”
The Tory MP Zac Goldsmith MP welcomed Lady Butler-Sloss’s decision, claiming that Sir Michael had ensured the terms of reference for an inquiry into paedophile activity at Kincora boy's home in Northern Ireland were narrowly drawn.
In a statement, the 80-year-old peer acknowledged a “widespread perception, particularly among victim and survivor groups, that I am not the right person to chair the inquiry”.
She added: “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."
Downing Street said Lady Butler-Sloss reached her decision over the weekend after discussing the issue with Mrs May.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman insisted she had been chosen for the right reasons and that no one had questioned her expertise or integrity after she headed an inquiry into child abuse in Cleveland in the 1980s.
Pressure grew over the weekend amid claims the retired judge kept allegations about a bishop out of a review of how the Church of England dealt with two priests allegedly involved in paedophilia.
Baroness Butler-Sloss reportedly told a victim that she did not want to name the bishop because “the press would love a bishop”. Bishop Peter Ball, the former bishop of Lewes and of Gloucester was later charged with indecent assault and misconduct in a public office.
Baroness Butler-Sloss responded that she “never put the reputation of any institution, including the Church of England, above the pursuit of justice for victims”.
Alison Millar, a lawyer who is representing some alleged abuse victims, said: “This was the only sensible decision to ensure that survivors and the public could feel confident the inquiry was not going to be jeopardised by accusations of bias.”