Fiona Woolf, the second person appointed to lead the government’s inquiry into child abuse, is to be asked by a committee of MPs to clarify discrepancies over her account of meetings with the wife of Lord Brittan, who was home secretary when a dossier about alleged Westminster paedophiles went missing from his department.
Keith Vaz, the chairman of the home affairs select committee, said the committee was “not totally satisfied” with Woolf’s answers to the committee after previously undisclosed details of her meetings with Lady Brittan emerged less than a day after her appearance before the MPs.
The committee’s move added to mounting legal and parliamentary pressure on Woolf to resign as chair of the inquiry
Woolf, a QC and the lord mayor of London, replaced the government’s initial choice, Lady Butler-Sloss, who resigned soon after the inquiry was set up when it emerged that her late brother, Lord Havers, had been attorney general during the period when some of the incidents are alleged to have taken place.
A second conflict-of-interest row is growing as lawyers representing victims of the abuse insist that Woolf should resign after it emerged that Brittan was a neighbour with whom she had dined five times since 2008.
In a letter to the home secretary, released on Tuesday, Woolf admitted she knew Lord Brittan and his wife, and that she had met Lady Brittan for coffee on a “small number of occasions”. The last such meeting was in April 2013, it said. She also admitted that the two women were on a judging panel for the Dragons awards for corporate involvement in the community in 2014, making no reference to the same awards the year before. In her letter to the home secretary, Woolf
said: “I have had no social contact with Lady Brittan since 23 April 2013 and have not spoken to either of them in person or by telephone since.”
Vaz said he was surprised that details of further meetings had emerged. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme
, he said: “I am surprised that there is new information about the list of meetings that Fiona Woolf has had simply because she was very clear to the committee yesterday … this was a long letter that had been carefully gone through … She said she had checked this in a draft with the Home Office.”
He added: “I will write to her to ask her why this particular piece of information was missing and is there anything else she can help the committee, and therefore the public, in respect of other issues.”
Vaz said the committee wanted to raise three other issues with Woolf, including whether she had time to chair the inquiry after its launch was delayed to fit in with her busy schedule.
He said: “We were not totally satisfied [with her evidence] that’s why we are writing to her.
“We are writing to her about how much time she has to do this very important job. The committee wants to hear from her, rather than others, about her suitability … If she feels that she doesn’t have the confidence of the victims and others, then I’m sure she will make her decision in her own way.”
Woolf also faces a legal challenge over her appointment and a parliamentary motion calling for her replacement. Labour’s energy spokeswoman, Caroline Flint, told BBC’s Daily Politics programme: “I think it’s really difficult for her to stay.” But No 10 insisted the prime minister had “full confidence” in Woolf.
Andi Lavery, a victim of abuse at a Catholic boarding school, said Woolf personified the establishment as lord mayor. Speaking to the Guardian, he said: “I’m angry and appalled – it’s a cover-up.”
He said he had seen a copy of a judicial review challenging Woolf’s appointment. “There’s a legal challenge from Ian McFadyen [who was abused at Caldicott prep school] and an unnamed lady. She [Woolf] is not fit and proper under the Inquiries Act,” Lavery said.
Alison Millar, partner at the solicitors Leigh Day, which represents a number of victims, said her clients regarded Woolf’s links to Brittan as “beyond the pale”.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday, Millar said: “She has to be seen to be independent, and somebody who seems to be on dinner-party terms with a senior political figure whose knowledge this inquiry will be scrutinising is somebody who, from the perspective of my clients, does not have the necessary independence.”
Asked to state the single reason why Woolf lacked credibility to chair the inquiry, Milllar said: “This evidence of dinner parties with Lord Brittan puts her beyond the pale, in terms of her credibility with my clients.”
On Tuesday, Woolf told the committee that she had “no close association” with the Tory peer and she believed her account of contact with him would “lay to rest” any fears.
Woolf appeared unwilling to say Lord and Lady Brittan were not friends, and could not remember whether she sent them a Christmas card. “My Christmas card list last year had about 3,000 people on it. To be honest I don’t know whether they were on it or not,” she said.
She added that Brittan’s phone number was not stored in her mobile phone.
However, victims of abuse have continued to questioned Woolf’s credibility. Phil Frampton, a former Barnardo’s boy who campaigns for those who have been abused, said he was appalled by Woolf’s appointment. “It’s like putting Wayne Rooney in charge of an investigation of the nuclear energy industry,” he told the BBC.
The early day motion tabled by Lib Dem MP John Leech, and supported so far by three other MPs, calls on government “to find a new chair of the inquiry who has palpably demonstrated its willingness to challenge all quarters of the establishment to ensure that it can achieve its aims of providing justice to the victims of historic child abuse”.
The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said he had no evidence that Woolf had not been thoroughly vetted, but appeared to stop short of offering full support. Answering questions after delivering a speech in south London, the Liberal Democrat leader said: “We all need to have confidence that the decisions taken by the home secretary … were thorough. I have not heard anything that suggests to me the process by which Theresa May made the recommendation is anything other than thorough.”
Woolf’s role was given only qualified backing by Sharon Evans, a journalist, campaigner and victim of child abuse, who is on the inquiry’s panel of experts.
She said she understood the anger of victims but was “confident” the panel would properly investigate the allegations.
“There has been so much focus on Fiona Woolf, which I understand, but she is just the head of the panel. There are nine people with an enormous background and expertise in this field,” Evans told Today.
“The whole panel are aware that we have got off to a very difficult start, but … we are satisfied that Fiona Woolf has the skills of a solicitor … We do need balance … I would like people to be reassured that there are victims on this panel.”
Evans added: “We are determined to get to the bottom of this … I will give you my pledge as a journalist and victim that I will not let anybody get away with things that I think are being covered up.”
The role of Brittan is key to the inquiry because it will investigate what happened to a dossier handed to him by the late MP Geoffrey Dickens, which later went missing. Last year, Brittan said he could not remember getting the dossier, but after further questions were put to him in July, he released a statement saying he could now recollect a meeting with Dickens. He said he had asked officials to look into the claims but could not remember hearing any more about it.
However, a Home Office review from last year found Brittan had written to Dickens in 1984 saying the material had been assessed by the director of public prosecutions as worth pursuing and “passed to the appropriate authorities”. Brittan released a second statement saying he had only just been made aware of last summer’s review, which proved that appropriate action had been taken.
Downing Street has backed Woolf, saying it was confident she would ensure there was “no stone left unturned” as head of the inquiry.