I’d never been in Portcullis House before so to be sure to get in we arrived nice and early at 2pm and went straight upstairs to wait. As we were idling time outside the Grimond Room I took the opportunity to admire the artwork on display. To the left of the Grimond public entrance door was an ‘official’ painting of the House of Commons in 1986/1987 and to the right was an unofficial painting commissioned by all those who had not been captured in the official one – a detailed tableaux of the House of Commons Library and smoking rooms taking you back to those in Parliament nearing Thatcher’s third term.
While spotting faces in the official painting Michael Ellis MP (who I didn’t recognise and know who he was until the HASC convened and each of the MPs helpfully have their name badge displayed on the desk in front of them) arrived escorting Mrs Woolf and were stood next to me – low pleasantries were exchanged, a light laugh from Ms Woolf and the phrase “know all my neighbours” from Ellis distracted me from face-spotting temporarily but as I moved back to the other painting to compare who was missing (Leon Brittan, Harvey Proctor, Peter Morrison, Edwina Currie, John Major, Glenda Jackson were all MPs who put their hand in their own pockets to feature in the unofficial painting) it occurred to me who the room was named for. Jo Grimond was Jeremy Thorpe’s predecessor as leader of the Liberal party and the chap who had to step in when Thorpe was on trial for the attempted murder of his former lover, prior to David Steel taking the reins. [Not having been a student of political history, my only reference for this was having read Rinkagate in the past year, very much recommended]
By the time the Grimond door opened the Select Committee had assembled and we, various members of the public, along with assorted hacks filed in, I realised the room set-up was such that the audience actually sit and face the horseshoe-desk arrangement where the MPs sit – and therefore get to see only the back of the person being asked questions by the committee. I really should have remembered that from watching Murdoch’s pie-flanning on television when it had been the role of John Whittingdale MP leading the Culture and Media Select Committee to keep the agenda moving. However too late to try and pick a seat with a better view I shuffled along the second row of seats and ended up sitting to the left of Mrs Woolf wishing I’d been bolder to sit in the front row. Next time I’ll know better.
Despite not being able to see Mrs Woolf’s full facial expressions from the front (until re-watching the HASC online yesterday evening) what did strike me were the tremors in her left cheek which about 15 minutes in, just as David Winnick MP asked his first question, culminated in a brief interruption due to Mrs Woolf attempting to pour water into a glass from a carafe and with a shaking hand over-filling it until the cup overfloweth and a woman sitting behind to her right (later referred to as some kind of Home Office Secretariat function that will be supporting the inquiry, although she’s on secondment so she’s independent now apparently?) had to dab at Mrs Woolf’s now drenched and soggy notes. I would say maybe that’s why the poor performance – difficult to read prep notes, but the previous 15 minutes hadn’t inspired any confidence that those particular notes were going to help so possibly not.
So not an auspicious start to a meeting by any Worshipful Company’s or Honourable Guild’s standards for sure – and certainly not Parliament’s (or the oldest club in the world as Vaz reminded us) – and despite later dismissing immediately Dr Julian Huppert MP’s question regarding her associations with Freemasonry, an apron would have been quite handy at that precise moment.
The question about Woolf’s connections with freemasonry towards the end of the session was an interesting one.
While it was worth asking in order to put something on the record (so thanks to Dr Julian Huppert MP for that – concerns over Operation Tiberius tainting beyond the Police Force should never be forgot) it isn’t really a question that can be answered with any real confidence by any one. Reading a Guardian interview with Pete Townshend while perusing his autobiography recently I was struck by Townshend being startled to discover The Who bassist John Entwhistle had been a lifelong freemason of 40 years only at Entwhistle’s funeral. Presumably like Savile’s funeral there had been some official attendees in garb looking not so secretive at all! Gaudy sashes and egotistical garb of rank and honour tend to defeat ‘not being noticed’ but last rites appear to demand it.
So being that the freemasons (and their worshipful, guildy, rotaristic, friendly society offshoots each with their little rituals and traditions of honouring their heritage) revel in secrecy as part of the fun of creating and being within an ‘in-crowd’, the only answer realistically anyone can give as to their own connections to freemasonry (barring being able to say with some certainty they themselves are not a freemason as within their direct knowledge) is “Not as far as I know” or “Not that anyone close to me has revealed to me.” Unless of course, realising this kind of question might come up Mrs Woolf had gone to the trouble to make enquiries of her nearest and dearest? That would certainly produce the more confident and immediate denial she was able to make.
What did became clearer throughout was the role of the Home Office and Home Office officials in the inquiry. “Out of courtesy” Mrs Woolf sent an email to the Home Office setting out her “Letter of Transparency” detailing dinners, sponsorships, and coffees connecting Mrs Woolf to her neighbours former Home Secretary Leon Brittan and his wife Diane. What courtesy? It wasn’t for Mrs Woolf to vet herself surely and while admirable to wish to give an account to the Home Office why would Home Office officials have any input into the content of such a letter? And why would such a letter be sent after a public announcement of appointment, while it appears Mrs Woolf had not yet received a letter of appointment in September? Flustered and scratching her head at the suggestion she might produce this first draft of the “Letter of Transparency” to the Committee as requested by Ian Austin MP it seemed Mrs Woolf was attempting to mime email confusion with both hands going back and forth to convey that somehow a first draft of a letter sent as an email might not really constitute “a letter” in the process of being drafted. If these are the kind of semantics we have to look forward to in the Inquiry, it’s going to be a tortuous 3 years of five days a week definitional wrangling without ever getting to the heart of the matter. The fear is that of course we’ll end up with another Cleveland Inquiry, where the main question “Were these children abused?” was not addressed in favour of discussing systemic this and systemic that.
A further taste of the semantics potentially in store came with Mrs Woolf’s refusal to agree with Paul Flynn MP that public perception of her might not be as an “ordinary citizen” rendering her incapable of her self-described role as “voice of the citizen.” “Voice of the subject” yes, quite clearly her deference and attention to courtesy over independence of thought might make that a more accurate description but a complete lack of self-awareness as to how she is presenting and a persistent use of phrases like “victim community” and “the victim community mind” only serves to highlight her lack of interest in engaging.
I can’t wait to see her written response on s.11 of the Children’s Act 2004.
One thing Mrs Woolf did confirm positively is that she can (1) read; (2) read long documents; (3) give written answers. Unfortunately as a glorified Project Manager she’s yet to grapple with aligning her GANTT chart with Parliament’s timetable and without Vaz’s guidance would have been issuing interim reports into the parliamentary ether with no one around to comment.
I can’t see that this is not going to turn the British legal system into a laughing stock when the Australian Royal Commission appears to be making much better headway in gaining survivors’ trust and engagement. Any inquiry will have to be a open and transparent. This is a terrible and quite frankly, embarrassing start.