It's another shambles for David Cameron: the government has just announced that Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss has stepped down as head of the child abuse inquiry. No.10 insisted at this morning's lobby briefing that the decision was her own and that Cameron and Theresa May continued to believe that she was the right person to lead the panel. May spoke to Butler-Sloss by phone at the weekend but only after she had made her decision to resign.
Here's Downing Street's statement on the news:
[Lady Butler-Sloss] has taken the decision to step down as chair of the panel inquiry. It is entirely her decision. The government's view hasn't changed, that she would have done a first-class job as chair. The reasons for her appointment still absolutely stand in terms of her professional expertise and her integrity, which I don't think has been questioned from any quarter whatsoever, and rightly so.
Calls for the former high court judge's resignation began almost immediately after her appointment last week owing to the fact her brother, Michael Havers, served as Margaret Thatcher's attorney general from 1979 to 1987, the period when many of the offences are alleged to have taken place (No.10 insists that Cameron was aware of this). They then intensified when the Times reported on Saturday that she excluded allegations about a bishop from of a review of how the Church of England dealt with two priests allegedly involved in paedophilia because she "cared about the Church".
Here's Butler-Sloss's statement in full:
I was honoured to be invited by the Home Secretary to chair the wide-ranging inquiry about child sexual abuse and hoped I could make a useful contribution.
It has become apparent over the last few days, however, 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.
Theresa May, who will face questions on the subject when she appears before the home affairs select committee at 3pm, said:
I am deeply saddened by Baroness Butler-Sloss’s decision to withdraw but understand and respect her reasons. Baroness Butler-Sloss is a woman of the highest integrity and compassion and continues to have an enormous contribution to make to public life.
As she has said herself, the work of this inquiry is more important than any individual and an announcement will be made on who will take over the chairmanship and membership of the panel as soon as possible so this important work can move forward.
A new chair for the wide-ranging inquiry, which will examine how the government, the NHS, the BBC and other public institutions handled allegations of abuse, will now be appointed. Given the seriousness of the issue, and the imminent cabinet reshuffle, this self-inflicted mess has come at a bad time for Cameron.
The key decision facing the government now is whether to appoint another establishment figure to lead the inquiry, or whether, as many would prefer, to recruit a more distant outsider.