Questions over Theresa May's judgement after third chair resigns from inquiry

Written by Tom Smithard on 5 August 2016 in Diary

Labour called on the prime minister to provide "reassurance" after third chairwoman of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse quits prematurely. 

The new prime minister built her career on smooth stewardship of the home office – but last night’s resignation of the third chair of the sex abuse inquiry raises new questions over her judgement.

Theresa May was famed for keeping a tight rein on all home office business when she headed that department, micro-managing to the extent that Norman Baker described serving under her as “wading through mud”.

Her sharp eye and cautious nature – alongside loyal and ferocious support from the special advisers who have subsequently followed her to Downing Street – have been cited as key reasons why her six years as home secretary were untainted by scandal or widespread failure.

The department branded ‘not fit for purpose’ under predecessors including Charles Clarke and John Reid remained relatively quiet during the coalition years, despite May failing to get a grip on immigration, rows over the extent of internet snooping powers, criticism of proposed counter-extremism measures and worry over her commitment to protecting human rights legislation.

But it is over the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse where May’s judgement now faces serious questions, having appointed three chairwomen to the role, only to see each quit prematurely.

In 2014 high court judge Baroness Butler-Sloss resigned within a week of her appointment after questions were raised over her links to the establishment she would be investigating. The same fate befell her successor, lord mayor of London Fiona Woolf, who resigned within a month.

In February last year Dame Lowell Goddard was appointed, the New Zealand judge deemed remote enough to be able to investigate the British establishment with impunity. She was given one of the highest salaries of any UK public servant, a package of about £500,000.

But hours after the Times reported yesterday she had spent three months of her first year in charge away from the UK, she quit, issuing a terse two-line statement.

This morning Labour have questioned the judgement of the prime minister in appointing a chairwoman who last week was still asking for help interpreting “local law”.

Deputy leader Tom Watson told Radio 4’s Today: “I still believe Theresa May was very brave to set this inquiry up, I still believe she is committed to it but she needs to give reassurance to people today. It is her inquiry. Either she or Amber Rudd needs to let people know they are committed to getting to the facts and understand the remedy.”

Phil Frampton, of the abuse survivors’ group Whiteflowers, said: “Goddard stepping down is another opportunity to finally get the child abuse inquiry on to the right track. She was the wrong choice from the beginning. She came from a judicial system in a country which is 20 years behind the UK.”

Goddard’s resignation came as it emerged that 7% of adults and 11% of women were sexually abused as a child, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, which asked the question this year for the first time.

Picture by: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/Press Association Images

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