The fiasco surrounding the Woolf inquiry suggests the Home Office still doesn't grasp the size of the problem.
How could this happen? Almost four months ago, the Government announced a wide-ranging inquiry into explosive allegations of historical child abuse. Since then, two chairs have been appointed; both have resigned and the inquiry hasn't even started work. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, will face uncomfortable questions from MPs when she makes a statement in the House of Commons tomorrow.
On Friday, the embarrassment spread to David Cameron when he backed Fiona Woolf, the current Lord Mayor of London, only hours before her resignation as head of the inquiry was announced. She lost the confidence of victims when it was revealed that she is a friend of the former home secretary Lord Brittan, who was at the Home Office in the 1980s when, it is alleged, a dossier on child abuse compiled by a Conservative MP went missing. It emerged last week that a letter setting out her contacts with Brittan went through seven drafts.
The inquiry needs to be exceptionally wide ranging, shining a light into just about every area of the establishment. Yet the Home Office seems not to have realised that the usual approach – announcing an inquiry and picking one of the great and the good to chair it – would be entirely inappropriate in this instance. Woolf's predecessor, Baroness Butler-Sloss, had also faced questions about her connections to a senior political figure in the 1980s; her late brother, Lord Havers, was attorney general when reports of child sexual abuse were allegedly not examined properly.
It was Baroness Butler-Sloss, as it happens, who offered an insight into the process of setting up inquiries when she gave a lecture in 2003. When she was asked who instigated a previous inquiry into child abuse (which she chaired) in the late 1980s, she made this off-the-cuff remark: "I think it was my brother actually as Lord Chancellor." Butler-Sloss said her brother suggested a woman judge should chair the inquiry, and she was one of only three female judges at the time. The other two were unavailable, so "I found myself doing it".
The fate of that inquiry, which reported in 1988, offers a fascinating piece of background. It came about because a Labour MP in the North-east, Stuart Bell, was outraged by the number of children who had been taken into care in his constituency following diagnoses of child sexual abuse. Bell painted doctors and child protection professionals in Cleveland as fanatics who saw sexual abuse everywhere; he even compared their behaviour to the Salem witch trials. Butler-Sloss was critical of the mechanisms used to take the children into care, but a TV documentary later claimed that nearly three-quarters of the diagnoses were correct. The feminist author Beatrix Campbell described the Butler-Sloss report as "compromised by establishment guile and bad faith".