UK continues to hamper child sex ring investigation

Britain’s efforts to investigate a long list of child abuse scandals suffered another setback this week, when it emerged that the new head of a national inquiry was on “dinner party terms” with a former minister most likely to be questioned about an alleged cover-up.
The government’s first choice to lead the investigation, Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a former senior judge, resigned from the job within days of being appointed last July, citing concerns over a conflict of interest: Her late brother, Michael Havers, was attorney general in the 1980s, when files containing allegations about high-profile pedophiles were passed to ministers and subsequently lost.
Now her successor, Fiona Woolf, a corporate lawyer, faces a legal challenge from a group of abuse victims regarding her links to the man who was home secretary when a number of those files went missing. The former home secretary, Leon Brittan, now a member of the House of Lords, Britain’s upper house of Parliament, is likely to be called before the inquiry to give evidence about allegations that he helped cover up sex abuse claims. Mr. Brittan has denied involvement in any cover-up.
The inquiry was set up in July by the home secretary, Theresa May, against the backdrop of revelations about sexual misconduct by celebrities and entertainers like Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris. The lead investigator has a mandate to determine whether public institutions fulfilled their duty to shield children from abuse. “Wherever institutions and individuals have failed to protect children from harm, we will expose those failures and learn the lessons,” Ms. May said.
Since then, more scandals have come to light, including one in which about 1,400 teenage girls were sexually exploited over 16 years in the northern English town of Rotherham.
Lawyers for some of the abuse victims are raising questions about Ms. Woolf’s independence. As Lord Mayor of London, Ms. Woolf also represents the City of London and its interests and has lived on the same London street as Lord Brittan since 2004. Ms. Woolf and Lord Brittain both sat on the advisory board of TheCityUK, a lobby group for London’s financial district, and Lady Brittan is a member of a panel of judges for a community engagement award presided over by Ms. Woolf.
Ms. Woolf acknowledged that she had socialized with the Brittans in a letter made public on Tuesday. Since 2008, she wrote, Lord Brittan and his wife had come to dinner at her house three times and she had dined at theirs twice. On a “small number of occasions” she had met Lady Brittan for coffee.
But she also wrote that she had not seen the Brittans socially since April 2013, and on Wednesday photographs emerged in the press showing her and Mrs. Brittan engaged in conversation at a reception as recently as last October.
Alison Millar, a partner at the law firm Leigh Day, which represents several abuse victims, said her clients considered Ms. Woolf’s links to Lord Brittan to be “beyond the pale.”
“Somebody who seems to be on dinner-party terms with a senior political figure whose knowledge this inquiry will be scrutinizing is somebody who, from the perspective of my clients, does not have the necessary independence,” Ms. Millar told the British Broadcasting Corporation.
The government so far stands behind Ms. Woolf. But Keith Vaz, the chairman of the home affairs select committee, said he was “surprised that there is new information about the list of meetings that Fiona Woolf has had.”
“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,” he told the BBC.
Following a preliminary inquiry last year, the government said that more than 100 had files vanished over a period of 20 years, including a number of documents given to Lord Brittan when he was Margaret Thatcher’s home secretary from 1983 to 1985.

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