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May: No regrets over Butler-Sloss

Home Secretary Theresa May has insisted she does not regret appointing Baroness Butler-Sloss to chair an inquiry into allegations of historical child sex abuse by establishment figures, after the former judge stepped down following controversy over her selection.

Pressure had been mounting on Lady Butler-Sloss ever since her appointment last Tuesday, with critics warning of potential conflicts of interest, as the investigation was likely to look into the role of her late brother, Sir Michael Havers, who is reported to have tried to prevent the naming of an abuser in Parliament by whistle-blowing MP Geoffrey Dickens in the 1980s.

Announcing her decision to step down, Lady Butler-Sloss acknowledged that she "did not sufficiently consider" the difficulties her family connections might cause in the conduct of the inquiry.

A lawyer for alleged victims of abuse said they were "pleased" at the decision of the former president of the High Court Family Division, describing it as "the only sensible decision to ensure that survivors and the public could feel confident that the inquiry was not going to be jeopardised by accusations of bias".

Senior MP Keith Vaz, who was the first to raise questions about Lady Butler-Sloss's appointment , said her departure after just six days showed the inquiry process launched by Mrs May was becoming "shambolic".

Questioning the Home Secretary at a meeting of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, which he chairs, Mr Vaz said that Lady Butler-Sloss's departure was the latest indication of Mrs May's department "unravelling", following the resignation of her special adviser in a briefing war with Education Secretary Michael Gove, crisis at the Passport Office and the admission that 114 files relating to allegations of child sex abuse had been lost.

But Mrs May responded: "I reject any suggestion that it is, in your words, unravelling."

She said she was "very sorry" that Lady Butler-Sloss had stepped down, but added: "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."

In a statement, Lady Butler-Sloss said she was "honoured" to have been chosen to lead the inquiry, but added : "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.

"Nor should media attention be allowed to be diverted from the extremely important issues at stake, namely whether enough has been done to protect children from sexual abuse and hold to account those who commit these appalling crimes.

"Having listened to the concerns of victim and survivor groups and the criticisms of MPs and the media, I have come to the conclusion that I should not chair this inquiry and have so informed the Home Secretary.

"I should like to add that I have dedicated my life to public service, to the pursuit of justice and to protecting the rights of children and families, and I wish the inquiry success in its important work."

Mr Vaz told the Home Secretary: "The last couple of weeks have been somewhat shambolic... We all acknowledge that being Home Secretary is not like a walk in the park, but the last few weeks have been quite a surprise for a Government department that we thought was extremely well run under your stewardship.

"What has gone wrong? Why is it all unravelling?"

Mrs May pointed out that the 114 missing files had only come to light because of a review ordered by her department's most senior civil servant, permanent secretary Mark Sedwill.

And she added: "I realise that there has been a lot of suggestion and innuendo around in relation to Baroness Butler-Sloss. I reject entirely the suggestion that she wasn't the right person to do this job, but she has taken the decision herself. I am disappointed."

Mr Vaz told Mrs May that she should consult more widely, including with victims' groups, before appointing a replacement for Lady Butler-Sloss.

"If you had asked anybody the question about appointing Lady Butler-Sloss, the first thing they would have said was that she was a member of these Houses, when this House is of course under scrutiny, and secondly that her brother was attorney general at the time when some of these allegations were being considered," said the Home Affairs Committee chairman.

He added: "No Government minister went on to television to defend the appointment that you had made over the last week. I think the only person before the cameras was her nephew (Nigel Havers) who is an actor whose claim to fame is that he appeared in a famous sitcom in the 1990s."

Mrs May responded: "The Home Office was very clear in the statements we made and put out that we absolutely defended Baroness Butler-Sloss's appointment."

The Home Secretary added: "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."

But Mr Vaz told her: "She has shown better judgment, has she not, than the Government. This is the due diligence that you and your officials should have carried out."

Mrs May said she could not provide a timetable for the appointment of a new inquiry chair, but promised "we will not be hanging around".

Mr Vaz said the new chair would have to have "the virtues of Mother Theresa".

And he told the Home Secretary: "Can I just gently suggest to you that you should consult more widely than the current circle of people you may be considering - perhaps with some of the groups affected, the child victim groups and others, so that the person you appoint is someone who commands the respect of all and there is no question that they will be put in the invidious position that Lady Butler-Sloss appears to be in."

Labour MP Ian Austin told the committee: "It is now clear that the child abuse inquiry has no chair, no terms of reference and it doesn't seem to me to have any agreed purpose. How can the public have any confidence in this process?"

Asked about Lady Butler-Sloss's resignation, Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman told a Westminster media briefing: "He of course understands and respects her decision. His view, and that of the Home Secretary, about why she would have done an excellent job, hasn't changed."

Mrs May indicated that she had not been aware until the last few days about the encounter between Lady Butler-Sloss's brother and Mr Dickens.

"That is an issue that has recently been surfaced, if I can put it in that sense. Of course I was aware of Baroness Butler-Sloss's relationship with Michael (Havers)... but what was important in my mind was the integrity of the individual.

"This is an issue that has been raised in the last few days and has been surfaced in the last few days."

Mrs May insisted her judgment was solely about the peer's "integrity to do this job".

She confirmed she had not seen the titles of 114 files potentially relevant to paedophile allegations that are missing.

"I think this is a matter for the permanent secretary to consider," she said.

"The whole point about these files is that they are not there, they are presumed destroyed, but the review did not identify whether they had definitely been destroyed, whether they had been lost, or what had happened to the files,.

"The further review will now be able to look back at that to see whether there are further avenues that need to be looked into."

Campaigning MP Simon Danczuk triggered the launch of the inquiry by questioning the handling of Mr Dickens's allegations by then home secretary Lord Brittan.

The Rochdale MP welcomed news of Lady Butler-Sloss's departure, saying that while she was "an outstanding judge with a long and decorated career" it was "clear that she was not the appropriate person to lead this inquiry".

"I welcome the news that she has decided to step down from her post. I regret that she was placed in this difficult position in the first place and would stress that this does not reflect badly on her," he said.

"The priority now is to find a strong and independent person to chair the inquiry.

"This person must command the full confidence of both the public and victims of child sex abuse. Without this, the inquiry will not be able to succeed. It is vital that the new chair is appointed quickly so we can begin to make progress."

Labour MP Tom Watson, who raised allegations of historic child abuse in the Commons two years ago, said Lady Butler-Sloss had done "the right thing".

"She has the highest integrity. She would know that any controversy around her as chair of the inquiry would cause difficulties, particularly with very vulnerable survivors who are nervous of speaking out," Mr Watson told BBC News.

"They need to be encouraged to do so and any question mark over the inquiry would have been difficult. I think it is testament to her own integrity that she had made that decision herself."

It is understood that Lady Butler-Sloss informed the Home Office of her decision to step down over the weekend, after which she spoke to Mrs May.

The process of selecting a replacement is beginning immediately, but a new name is not expected to be announced for some days.

Mr Vaz urged Mrs May to "consult widely" on candidates, suggesting that failure to do so had caused problems in this instance.

The Home Secretary said she would wait until a chair had been selected to consider the inquiry's terms of reference and panel membership.


From Belfast Telegraph