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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Allegations of child sexual abuse linked to Westminster Investigation Report


E.2: The Liberal Party and Sir Cyril Smith

3. Baroness Brinton, the President of the Liberal Democrats, provided the Inquiry with evidence about the structure and the organisation of the Liberal Party between the late 1960s and early 1990s.[1] We were interested in its process of candidate selection and how the Party dealt with allegations of child sexual abuse.

Selection as a Liberal Party candidate

4. Baroness Brinton told us that, from 1969 to 1988, the Liberal Party was “extremely decentralised”.[2] Local Liberal associations did not have to be affiliated to the national party, so they could operate in isolation of it. She said that, in the 1970s, the selection of a candidate contesting an election would be entirely in the hands of the local association. The arrangements for a by-election were different in that, regardless of whether a candidate had been selected to fight the seat at the next general election, a by-election required a fresh selection process.[3]

5. Baroness Brinton said that a tripartite committee, whose role it was to decide whether to contest the by-election, would be attended by representatives of the local party association, the regional federation and the national head office, with each having one vote. The main difference for fighting a winnable by-election was that “HQ staff would work with the Chief Whip to ensure a strong candidate was nominated”.[4] Baroness Brinton emphasised in her oral evidence that the decision to select candidates was, with the exception of by-elections, entirely in the hands of the local association.[5] She confirmed that this is still true today and that a by-election is very different, with high media coverage, local or national, and where the level of campaigning, particularly if it is a hotly fought seat, is likely to require a lot more from a candidate. Baroness Brinton told us that, as a result, particularly in a winnable seat, “HQ does have a hand”.[6]

6. While the Liberal Party may well have been decentralised during the period we are considering, the fact is that the national party played a role in the selection of candidates for a by-election. Indeed, Des Wilson, who gave evidence to us, and was President of the Liberal Party between 1986 and 1987, told us that he was invited to fight the Hove by-election in 1973 during a personal call from David Steel, who was then the Liberal Party chief whip and became Liberal Party leader in 1976. Des Wilson was not even a Liberal Party member at the time.[7] It demonstrates both the direct involvement of a senior figure in the national party in identifying a strong candidate to fight a by-election and the informality of the process. The selection process in Mr Wilson’s case involved an interview with a selection committee and then tea with Lord Beaumont (then President of the Party), which took place halfway through the Hove by-election because an interview at national level had been forgotten.[8] Although he did not win the seat, Mr Wilson secured one of the largest swings in any by-election ever.[9]

7. Cyril Smith first came to prominence as a Rochdale local councillor, then Mayor and later as MP for Rochdale from 1972 until his retirement in 1992. He was knighted in 1988 and died in 2010.

8. It is likely that the selection of Cyril Smith as a candidate for the Rochdale by-election in 1972, which took place only a year before Mr Wilson’s selection for Hove, was run along similar informal lines with the Westminster Liberal Party’s direct involvement in, and endorsement of, his selection as a strong candidate for what was a winnable seat in Rochdale. While the Party might have thought there were advantages to an informal process, it risked adopting a candidate whose conduct and character were wholly suspect, as was the case with Smith.

9. Cyril Smith had been a Liberal Party member from 1945 to 1950 but then joined the Labour Party and was a Labour councillor from 1950 to 1967. Baroness Brinton said that the politics between the Liberal Party and the Labour Party at this time was “very tribal … on both sides, and absolutely no love or caring to try to compromise at all … they hated each other”.[10]

10. In 1969, Cyril Smith was investigated by Lancashire Constabulary over allegations that he had sexually abused teenage boys at Cambridge House Hostel in Rochdale. When he was interviewed by the investigating police officers on 24 January 1970, Smith told them that he had to make a decision in three weeks’ time whether he was going to fight the next parliamentary election as a Liberal candidate in Rochdale out of fairness to the Liberal Party and so he was asking for a quick decision on whether he would be charged.[11] On 19 March 1970, more than three weeks later, the Director of Public Prosecutions decided that Smith would not be charged. (We commented on aspects of this decision in our Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale investigation report.[12]) Smith was selected as the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) for Rochdale in 1970.

11. Michael Steed, the Liberal Party President between 1978 and 1979, visited Rochdale in 1966 and familiarised himself with the politics of the region and “the towering personality and media impact of Cyril Smith”.[13] Rochdale was regarded as a prime Liberal target. Mr Steed knew Garth Pratt (a university student friend of his) who had been selected as the PPC for Rochdale. Smith’s selection had the effect of displacing Mr Pratt as PPC. Mr Steed said this was resented by many in the North-West who thought that a coup had been staged centrally and believed that Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal Party leader at the time, had “fixed it”.[14] However, Baroness Brinton did not think Jeremy Thorpe would have become involved in Smith’s selection as PPC. Her view was that the local Party selected Smith over Mr Pratt simply because he was seen as “a safer pair of hands”.[15]

The Liberal Party’s awareness of the allegations against Sir Cyril Smith

12. There are two key questions for us to consider. First, whether the Liberal Party in Westminster was aware of the serious allegations made against Cyril Smith before his selection as PPC in 1970 and his later reselection as the Liberal candidate for the Rochdale by-election in 1972. Second, if the Liberal Party in Westminster was aware of it, what they did or ought to have done about it.

13. Michael Meadowcroft, who was Chair of the Liberal Party’s Assembly between 1977 and 1981, recalled receiving an email from Garth Pratt’s widow, Jill, following Channel 4’s Dispatches programme ‘The Paedophile MP: How Cyril Smith Got Away With It’, which aired on 12 September 2013. In her email, Mrs Pratt told Mr Meadowcroft that Ted Wheeler, who at the time was the Liberal Party’s chief agent, had visited Rochdale following Mr Pratt’s deselection in 1970 in order to see whether Rochdale was winnable.[16] She said she had told Mr Wheeler about allegations regarding Smith’s activities and had mentioned to him that there was a Baptist minister who had reported the allegations to Mr Pratt. Mr Wheeler visited the minister, who gave him the names of boys who alleged they had been abused by Smith. Mrs Pratt said:

“With hindsight, Ted must have been reporting to JJT [Thorpe] so ‘senior Liberals’ knew well before he [Smith] became candidate.”[17]

Mr Meadowcroft passed the information on to Greater Manchester Police when they came to speak to him about Cyril Smith in 2015. Mr Pratt died in 2007 and Mrs Pratt in 2015.[18]

14. In his response to a request from the Inquiry under Rule 9 of the Inquiry Rules 2006,[19] Mr Meadowcroft asserted that he had no personal knowledge of the Lancashire Constabulary investigation into Cyril Smith or what the Liberal Party may have known about it. He said, as he had told Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, that the Party in Westminster were unaware of complaints or allegations coming from sources in Rochdale. He had heard occasional comments that Smith liked boys but they were non-specific and he thought symptomatic of the unpleasant gossip that permeated Westminster, much of which never amounted to anything substantial, which had been the case in relation to Smith at the time.[20] He did not elaborate on when he had heard these comments.

15. Michael Steed did not recall anyone saying a word about Cyril Smith’s personal sexual behaviour or his “smacking of delinquent boys when any evidence at that time relevant to his unsuitability to be a Liberal PPC could so easily have helped save Garth Pratt’s candidature”.[21]

16. Baroness Brinton told us that John Spiller, Cyril Smith’s election agent for the 1972 by-election, was contacted early in the by-election campaign by the editor of the Rochdale Alternative Paper who made the allegations about Smith which emerged later. Mr Spiller considered that these were wild allegations of the sort not uncommon in by-elections in those days, especially when a candidate had defected from another party. Mr Spiller said he had told the editor that if he had evidence he should pass it to the police but heard no more and thought no more of it.[22]

17. Philip Goldenberg, a member of the Liberal Party National Executive Committee and Candidates Committee from 1975, recalled some allegations (but not what they were) coming into the public domain in the mid-1970s. Mr Goldenberg believed this was in 1976 when Cyril Smith was chief whip. The allegations had been published in the Evening Standard and Smith instructed solicitors to deal with the matter on his behalf.[23] In light of all the evidence seen by the Inquiry, it is highly probable that the allegations Mr Goldenberg heard related to Smith’s sexual impropriety with children.

18. Des Wilson withdrew into other career activities from the mid-1970s to 1982 but resumed active involvement with the Liberal Party in 1982, later being elected its President. Mr Wilson had read the Private Eye article in 1979 about Cyril Smith but was not involved in the Party at the time.[24] He told us that he believed the stories.[25] Occasionally he would hear references to ‘Spanker Smith’ from Party members but could not recollect specific instances.[26]

19. Lord Steel told us that he had not been aware of anyone in the Liberal Party who knew of allegations of sexual assault of teenage boys by Cyril Smith in 1969–70 at the time Smith was selected as a PPC. He said he had not heard of any allegations of child sexual abuse being made against Smith and he was unaware of the Lancashire Constabulary investigation or that papers had gone to the Director of Public Prosecutions.[27]

20. Dominic Carman, son of the late George Carman QC, recounting his father’s defence in the Thorpe trial in May–June 1979 and the Rochdale Alternative Paper and Private Eye articles in the same year containing allegations of child sexual abuse by Smith,[28] said that his father had known about Smith’s alleged abuse of boys for years and that 1979 was not the first time he had become aware of the allegations.[29]

21. Sir David Trippier was the Conservative candidate for Rochdale in the 1972 by-election. He confirmed that it was widely known among all political parties competing in the by-election that there had been some allegations of a sexual nature involving Cyril Smith and boys.[30] He had understood that there had been a police investigation and they had decided to take no further action. In light of that, he said the subject was taboo and the view was taken that using it would incur legal action for slander and for that reason no one used it.

22. Baroness Brinton concluded that most of the people they had contacted had clear memories of issues involving Jeremy Thorpe taking up Liberal Party time in the 1970s but had no memory of any allegations about Cyril Smith prior to the Private Eye article in 1979.[31]

23. The idea that the Liberal Party in Westminster knew nothing about the allegations concerning Cyril Smith at or after the time he was selected as PPC for Rochdale is highly unlikely. If, as we accept, Mrs Pratt told Mr Wheeler about the allegations, it is highly improbable he would not have shared the information with other senior Liberal politicians in Westminster, including Jeremy Thorpe, just as Mrs Pratt surmised he had. Indeed, Mr Meadowcroft himself recalled hearing comments about Smith liking boys but dismissed it as Westminster gossip, although he was non-specific about when he heard them. Mr Goldenberg heard allegations in 1976 – when Smith was chief whip – which were serious enough for Smith to engage solicitors, yet Mr Goldenberg was unable to recall what the allegations were, and the late George Carman QC had been aware of the alleged abuse of boys by Smith before the Thorpe trial in 1979.

24. The evidence we have heard makes it clear that Cyril Smith’s reselection for the Rochdale by-election was likely to have been directed centrally at Westminster. If, as is highly likely, the Liberal Party knew about the allegations, they did nothing about them.

25. Mr Wheeler is now deceased. Whatever he did with the information, it did not prevent Cyril Smith standing for the Liberals at the Rochdale by-election in 1972. This allowed a man accused of crimes of sexual abuse of vulnerable children to enter the Westminster Parliament, where he was to cement his power further and where he remained as an MP for two decades until 1992.

26. If there were such rumours about Cyril Smith, no political capital was made of them by his rivals. It is unclear whether the Labour Party knew of the rumours but took a deliberate decision not to deploy them during the campaign in the Rochdale by-election or did not know about them. We have seen an election leaflet for the 1970 general election which was all about Smith, rather than the Liberal Party, boasting of his working-class background and his good works for youth and poor children.[32] Yet the incumbent Labour Party in Rochdale, who were the main opposition party, made nothing of the allegations as part of their campaign to hold the seat. Baroness Brinton, who told us of the hatred between the two parties, could not explain why Labour made no use of it.[33]

27. In our Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale investigation, we found there was no evidence of a pact between Labour and the Liberal Party at a local level in Rochdale.[34] We have heard nothing during the Westminster investigation to suggest there was any such pact at Westminster either.

The Liberal Party’s response to the allegations about Sir Cyril Smith

The procedures

28. Michael Steed could not say what action would have been taken in response to an allegation of child sexual abuse on the part of a prominent member of the Liberal Party, and he doubted anyone else from the period could do so.[35] He also was unable to say how misconduct by members of the Liberal Party was dealt with in the 1970s.

29. Baroness Brinton told us that, since the merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1988, there were more formal procedures and rules to deal with misconduct. Prior to 1992, there were no established procedures. Complaints would be handled by the local party association, which could take whatever action they felt appropriate. If key officers were involved, the state or regional party in the case of England would deal with it. Complaints “very rarely got to HQ”. Baroness Brinton explained that, unlike now, at that time HQ would never have been aware of complaints or about the disciplinary process as it would have been handled at local level.[36]

30. She also told us that, as cases started to surface, the Liberal Party rethought its approach to safeguarding rather than simply saying ‘you must go to the police’. In 2013 the Party created the post of pastoral care officer to provide support for complainants and for staff, and to act as a first point of contact for complainants. We were told the system was brought into being, in part, as a result of the Cyril Smith allegations which emerged in 2012 and, in part, due to a review by Helena Morrissey into the Party’s disciplinary procedures regarding sexual harassment. Lord MacDonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, was also asked to review the Party’s disciplinary processes in 2017.[37]

31. Baroness Brinton said that Lord MacDonald was a Liberal Party member and was not independent but held no office with the Party. However, the Party had not had their policies and procedures independently reviewed. She also confirmed that at no time was anyone commissioned to look at the handling of the Cyril Smith allegations.[38]

32. Des Wilson, who had been on the inside and the outside of the Liberal Party at different times between 1973 and 1992, was asked what ought to have been the Party’s response to the allegations in Private Eye. He was in no doubt that Cyril Smith should have been called in by the leader and the Chief Whip and given a “real going over”, and they should have set up an internal inquiry. His understanding had been that Smith had met David Steel, that Smith had said the police had taken no action and it was all in the past, and David Steel decided to leave it there. Mr Wilson said it was incredible that the Party did not look into it properly immediately.[39] Mr Wilson found extraordinary Michael Steed’s response to the Private Eye article that the story was no more “than the stories one heard in those days”. He did not agree with Mr Steed’s view that the story was “politically embarrassing (just like Cyril’s known view on corporal punishment), but not as potentially embarrassing as what he might do when capital punishment came before the 1979 parliament”.[40]

33. In April 2014, the Mail Online asked Mr Wilson to review Simon Danczuk’s book Smile for the Camera.[41] In asking whether there had been a deliberate, cynical cover-up by the leadership, Mr Wilson commented that he was “a believer in the cock-up theory of politics rather than the conspiracy one”,[42] and he posed two questions:

(1) Should Smith be confronted with the rumours? I doubt anyone had the appetite for that. Personally, it was a frightening prospect.

(2) Should there be a formal inquiry? Coming so soon after the Jeremy Thorpe scandal, politically it was potentially catastrophic.[43]

Mr Wilson continued:

I think they got the biggest spade they could find, dug the biggest hole in the sand they could manage, and buried their collective heads in it, hoping the rumours were unfounded or that it would all go away. In other words, it was cowardice rather than conspiracy.[44]

34. He expected there to have been a confrontation or a formal inquiry as there had been in the case of Jeremy Thorpe. But David Steel, the Party leader at the time, did not like confrontation; cowardice was, said Mr Wilson, an element of “cock-up”.[45] He added:

“as Liberal leader, [David Steel] hated confrontation; that’s why he didn’t want to hear about the nocturnal behaviour of some of those round that table … And herein lies part of the answer to the question: ‘Why was Smith not questioned about the rumours beginning to emerge from his political fortress of Rochdale, rumours that at the time were publicly referred to in Private Eye?’ Apart from the fact no one would have had the courage to confront the Rochdale bully, a significant number of the wider parliamentary party had a guilty secret of one sort or another. They had no desire for questions to be raised about what MPs did in their ample spare time.”[46]

By “guilty secret”, he did not mean “child abuse or activity of that sort”. It might, he said, be drinking too much. Mr Wilson was making the point that quite a few MPs engaged in extracurricular activity in their lives which they would not want exposed to public discussion.[47] He was also asked to explain what he meant when he wrote in the Mail Online review “Smith was protected as much by the culture within the parliamentary party as Savile was by the culture within the BBC”.[48] He told us he was talking about a culture of self-interest, adding that, in David Steel’s case, he had seen Cyril Smith but nothing had emerged from it, some other MPs had not even read the Private Eye article and no inquiry was set up.[49]

35. Mr Wilson said that the allegations in Private Eye should have been addressed definitively at the time but no one felt the need to push it, either because they did not know about it, they had missed it completely or because they simply did not want to start stirring things up. It was, he said, amazing that the parliamentary Liberal Party failed to act but he could not explain why they failed to do so. There was a clear distinction to be made between criminal allegations and other activities such as drinking too much or extra-marital affairs. Mr Wilson would have expected criminal allegations of the kind made about Cyril Smith to have been treated “with the utmost seriousness”.[50] Mr Wilson’s description painted a picture of a chaotic and dysfunctional party at that time.

36. David Steel (Lord Steel of Aikwood as he is today) was Liberal Party leader between 1976 and 1988 and leader of the Liberal Democrats between March and July 1988, as well as chief whip between 1970 and 1975–76.[51]

37. In Lord Steel’s witness statement to the Inquiry,[52] he said he had read the report published by Private Eye which contained allegations about Cyril Smith and he tackled him about it. Smith had said that the story was correct – that he had been investigated by the police at the time and that no further action had been taken. Lord Steel added that he had taken no further action because the report referred to events before Smith was even a member of the Liberal Party but it seemed to him that Smith had “possibly exceeded his role as a local Labour Councillor in the place for which he had some responsibility”.[53] He said the matter had been fully investigated and there was nothing more for him to do.

38. In the course of Lord Steel’s oral evidence to the Inquiry, parts of the Private Eye article were read to him. Those parts were allegations of the spanking of boys’ bare bottoms and the fondling of a boy’s testicles during a fake medical examination. Lord Steel was asked whether he accepted that the allegations were not limited to the spanking of bare bottoms but included allegations which were far more serious. Lord Steel’s response was “Well, I accepted the article as presumably correct, which is why I questioned Cyril Smith about it”.[54]

39. Lord Steel said he knew that the allegations were old and had arisen before Cyril Smith had become an MP and before he had even become a member of the Liberal Party, that he had gone on to become Mayor of Rochdale, received an MBE for services to local government, then joined the Liberal Party and had been elected as an MP with increasing majorities four times, adding:

So I saw no reason, or no locus, to go back to something that had happened during his time as a councillor in Rochdale.[55]

It is therefore unclear why Lord Steel tackled Smith about the allegations, if he was not going to do anything about it. His answer was he was concerned, having read the Private Eye report, it seemed the natural thing to do and his concern was that the allegations might be true. He said he did not know at the time that the investigation had come to nothing, and he did not recall any mention of the Director of Public Prosecutions during the conversation. He raised it with Smith as he thought it “only right” he did so.[56]

40. He was asked what he had meant by saying in his witness statement that it had seemed to him that Cyril Smith had “possibly exceeded his role as a local Labour Councillor in the place for which he had some responsibility”.[57] Lord Steel told us Smith had claimed to have some supervisory role in the hostel which entitled him to do these things but Lord Steel said he had disagreed. The impression Smith had given him was that his supervisory role had permitted him to perform medical inspections.[58]

41. Counsel to the Inquiry then asked Lord Steel whether he had come away from the meeting not knowing if Cyril Smith had in fact “committed these offences”. Lord Steel’s response was both forthright and immediate:

Well, I assumed he had because he said the account was correct. Why would he have been investigated if he hadn’t done something that was possibly wrong?[59]

In light of that answer, Lord Steel was asked whether, from what Smith had said to him, he had understood that Smith had actually committed the offences. Lord Steel provided an unequivocal answer: “I assumed that”.[60] He was asked, therefore, whether that did not provide more reason for Lord Steel to hold some form of inquiry, to which he responded, “No, because it was, as I say, before he was an MP, before he was even a member of my party. It had nothing to do with me.[61]

42. We disagree. It had everything to do with Lord Steel as leader of the Liberal Party for which Cyril Smith was Rochdale’s MP in 1979. The mere fact that the offences were not recent and were committed before Smith became an MP or before he was a member of the Liberal Party was an irrelevance and did not begin to relieve Lord Steel of a responsibility as Party leader to inquire further. Indeed, as Des Wilson told us, there had been a formal inquiry into Jeremy Thorpe and there should have been one into Smith.[62] Lord Steel considered that the Thorpe scandal was current and Smith’s was not, so a formal inquiry was justified in Jeremy Thorpe’s case but not in Smith’s.[63] That overlooked the fact that Lord Steel had assumed Smith had committed the offences. Because of that response, Lord Steel was asked how he could have any confidence that Smith was not continuing to sexually abuse children on his watch. Lord Steel’s response to this was to say Smith was no longer involved with the children’s home as it had closed down and he said he had no suspicion or reason to think he could have had access to children by other means.[64] However, as Lord Steel admitted, he had never heard of Knowl View School (a residential school for vulnerable boys in Rochdale, with which Smith had a longstanding connection; Smith was the subject of further allegations of serious sexual offences against boys resident there[65]).

43. Counsel suggested to Lord Steel that Cyril Smith could still have been offending against children. His response was:

I have to admit that never occurred to me and I’m not sure it would occur to me even today”.[66]

This answer demonstrated a failure to accept the seriousness of what he had been told by Smith. In his answer, there was no suggestion he would act any differently today or recognition that his inaction had been completely misguided. However, in recent correspondence with the Inquiry, it was said on behalf of Lord Steel that:

With hindsight, and with the insight of observing abuse cases reported in recent years, Lord Steel accepts that he would have acted differently now, and is sorry that he did not do so then.

44. Lord Steel was referred next in his evidence to the first Rochdale Alternative Paper article published in May 1979, in which there appeared a quotation attributed to Lord Steel’s press office of 22 April 1979 which reads “It’s not a very friendly gesture publishing that. All he seems to have done is spanked a few bare bottoms.[67] Lord Steel told us that he had no press officer so it may have been the Party press officer who said this but he did not know, and he said this statement had never been brought to his attention.[68] It is unclear if Lord Steel was personally responsible for the press statement quoted by the Rochdale Alternative Paper in May 1979 but what is clear is that someone within the Liberal Party was aware of these serious allegations in April 1979 during the run-up to the May elections. As Slater & Gordon for the complainant core participants argue in their written closing submissions, the content and the date of the press statement confirm institutional knowledge on the part of the Liberal Party at Westminster of the allegations against Cyril Smith before the Rochdale Alternative Paper article was published which is at odds with Lord Steel’s claims that he only found out about the allegations for the first time when he read the Private Eye article.[69] In light of the fact the Liberal Party press office made this press statement before any allegations about Smith were published, we do not understand why they were not brought to the attention of the party leader. Lord Steel told us he was likely to have been campaigning in Scotland due to the May 1979 election and nowhere near party headquarters.[70] That would not have prevented him being told about the allegations.

45. These allegations emerged at the time Jeremy Thorpe was being tried in court for conspiracy to murder. Lord Steel told us that he saw no connection between the two things. He dismissed the idea that the Liberal Party’s inaction regarding Cyril Smith was to avoid another scandal at the same time as that of Jeremy Thorpe.[71]

46. Lord Steel denied hiding his head in the sand rather than getting involved in a nasty confrontation. He told us that he tended his whole political life to be more in favour of seeking compromise rather than confrontation.[72]

47. The Liberal Party’s inaction, in light of its understanding of the serious nature of the allegations being made about Cyril Smith as revealed by the statement made to the Rochdale Alternative Paper on 22 April 1979, and Lord Steel’s personal inaction, given his understanding from Smith that the allegations were true, is inexplicable unless it was borne of a fear of more scandal at a time when the Party could not afford it. We do not accept Lord Steel’s reasons for doing nothing, ie that he had “no locus” as it was all in the past when Smith was not an MP or a Liberal Party member. It ignored the fact that Lord Steel was uniquely in possession of an account from Smith of having committed acts of abuse. It ignored also the obvious risk that Smith was potentially a continuing danger to children. For all Lord Steel knew, Smith was continuing to offend against children.

48. Lord Steel, as leader of the Liberal Party, and the Party at Westminster, had a responsibility to inquire into the allegations and the risk that Cyril Smith posed to children as a powerful Westminster MP.

49. Later, Lord Steel recommended Cyril Smith for a knighthood without confronting him to ask if he was still committing offences against boys. Lord Steel said he had no reason to.[73] We disagree. He had every reason to do so. He assumed from his conversation with him in 1979 that Smith had committed criminal offences involving child sexual abuse. The Political Honours Scrutiny Committee, which considered the 1970 police investigation and the various press articles, concluded it was open to the Prime Minister to recommend Smith for a knighthood. There was little further investigation into the allegations against him by the committee.[74] Had Lord Steel’s assumption that Smith had committed the offences been communicated to the committee, they may well have come to a different view about whether the Prime Minister should recommend Smith for a knighthood. In Part I of this report (Honours System), we consider other aspects of the granting of Smith’s knighthood.

50. Lord Steel should have provided leadership. Instead, he abdicated his responsibility. He looked at Cyril Smith not through the lens of child protection but through the lens of political expediency. As suggested in the written closing submissions on behalf of the complainant core participants, when attending the Inquiry, far from recognising the consequences of his inaction, Lord Steel was completely unrepentant.[75]

51. We agree with Des Wilson regarding Lord Steel and the Liberal Party:

I think they got the biggest spade they could find, dug the biggest hole in the sand they could manage, and buried their collective heads in it, hoping the rumours were unfounded or that it would all go away. In other words, it was cowardice rather than conspiracy.[76]

52. On 14 March 2019, the day following Lord Steel’s evidence, the Liberal Democrats issued a statement saying:

Following the evidence concerning Cyril Smith given by Lord Steel to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse on 13th March 2019 the office bearers of the Scottish Liberal Democrats have met and agreed that an investigation is needed. The party membership of Lord Steel has been suspended pending the outcome of that investigation. That work will now commence. It is important that everyone in the party, and in wider society, understands the importance of vigilance and safeguarding to protect people from abuse, and that everyone has confidence in the seriousness with which we take it. We appreciate the difficult work that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is doing on behalf of the victims and survivors of abuse, and the country as a whole.[77]

53. The Guardian newspaper reported that Lord Steel sought to defend his decision not to investigate Cyril Smith, complaining that the media had generated “sensationalist headlines”. The newspaper quoted him as saying “It is unfortunate that some sections of the media have chosen to extract certain passages of evidence and present them without the full context.[78]

54. On the evening of 14 March 2019, Lord Steel sent the Inquiry an email,[79] suggesting that he could be recalled to give evidence. He registered his surprise that he had not been sent the Inquiry’s Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale investigation report (which Inquiry staff had emailed him after his evidence on 13 March 2019), of which he said he had previously been unaware. In the email, Lord Steel also claimed to have had difficulty hearing questions and said he “did not pick up Counsel’s use of the word ‘confess’” in some of the questions. He said what Cyril Smith had admitted to him was that he had been investigated by the police and no action had been taken. It was wrong to say that Smith had “confessed” to the alleged abuse.

55. On 19 March 2019, the Solicitor to the Inquiry responded to Lord Steel’s email, answering his points, and asked him to copy the letter to the Liberal Democrats “in the event you seek to explain your evidence to the Inquiry during the course of its disciplinary investigation”.[80] The Inquiry did not hear from the Scottish Liberal Democrats. On 14 May 2019, Lord Steel’s suspension was lifted. Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP was reported as saying the executive had:

determined, after careful consideration, that there are no grounds for action against David Steel. We take the issue of vigilance and safeguarding incredibly seriously, so it was important to investigate following the evidence that David Steel gave to the independent public inquiry. In part because of a hearing difficulty and a lack of precision in providing some answers it was necessary to seek further information from him for clarification. The clarifications that David Steel has provided to us state clearly that Cyril Smith did not confess to any criminality which is why he took no further action at the time.[81]

56. On 16 May 2019, Sir Vince Cable, then leader of the Westminster Liberal Democrats, denied that the inquiry into Lord Steel was a whitewash:

He had made some comments at the child abuse inquiry that weren’t clear, so there was a detailed inquiry by the Scottish party  as he’s a member of the Scottish party  and there was nothing ultimately to answer.[82]

57. As is plain from Lord Steel’s evidence to the Inquiry, it was Lord Steel who volunteered that he had “assumed” from what he was told – that is, he accepted as true – that Cyril Smith had committed the offences. The word “confess” (and derivations of it) was used several times in the course of questioning without demur from Lord Steel. The only time he raised an objection was to Counsel’s use of the word “guilty” but that was only because no action was taken against Smith.[83]

58. Lord Steel had every opportunity to correct or clarify his evidence to this Inquiry if it lacked clarity, or was misunderstood or misrepresented. He did not do so at that time. He also had every opportunity to say if he was struggling to hear or understand the questions. As the video recording[84] and the transcript of Lord Steel’s evidence show, there was only a single occasion when Lord Steel said he could not hear a question but that question had nothing to do with Smith’s account to him.[85] For the rest of his evidence, Lord Steel answered the questions immediately and without seeking or providing clarification.

59. In our view, on a fair and complete reading of the whole of his evidence to the Inquiry, it is clear that Lord Steel assumed from what Cyril Smith told him that he had committed the offences which Private Eye had reported, yet he did nothing about it.

60. Regarding Lord Steel’s claim that he was unaware of the Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale investigation report (published in April 2018[86]), the Inquiry held three weeks of hearings in October 2017 including allegations about Cyril Smith. This was highly publicised. In the course of his evidence, Lord Steel was asked about an interview he gave to BBC’s Newsnight on 4 June 2018,[87] during which Lord Steel described the allegations against Smith as “scurrilous hearsay”. He advised the interviewer that care should be taken, adding “we are waiting for the final outcome of the Inquiry … we have to wait till the Inquiry has finished its work”, and that he did not think it right to say Smith was guilty just because of “tittle-tattle”. Lord Steel told us that in using the terms “scurrilous hearsay” and “tittle-tattle” he did not have in mind the fact that “Cyril Smith had confessed” to him in 1979 but allegations featuring in the Danczuk book Smile for the Camera.[88]

61. In evidence, Lord Steel said he could not recall if he was aware of the Inquiry at the time of the Newsnight interview in June 2018.[89] In our view, he did know about this Inquiry and was well aware that part of it related to Cyril Smith and Rochdale. Lord Steel also told us that he had never read the Inquiry’s Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale investigation report.[90] The report details the compelling accounts of several complainants about the abuse they alleged they had suffered at the hands of Smith. Lord Steel says he remained ignorant of it when he came to give evidence to the Inquiry.

The decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions on the 1969–70 investigation

62. Our Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale investigation dealt with the decision-making of the Director of Public Prosecutions on the 1969–70 police investigation. In the report following our investigation we commented on the cursory nature of the analysis and the speed with which the case was dispatched and Cyril Smith told of the outcome.[91]

63. Lord Jopling gave evidence to the Inquiry on 15 March 2019. He was an MP between 1964 and 1997. He was a junior whip in the Heath government in the early 1970s, he was chief whip between 1979 and 1983, and was thereafter Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In 1997 he was made a life peer.[92]

64. Lord Jopling provided the Inquiry with a second witness statement on 12 March 2019,[93] the day before Lord Steel gave evidence. In it, Lord Jopling recalled some 50 years previously a private conversation with John Cobb QC (later Sir John Cobb), who told him in an informal capacity that he had been asked by the police or the Director of Public Prosecutions “to look at papers regarding child abuse allegations against Cyril Smith”. Lord Jopling said that John Cobb QC had told him that, after going through all the papers, he had advised the police or the Director of Public Prosecutions that he did not think there was evidence sufficiently strong to get a conviction.

65. Lord Jopling added that he heard a few years ago that Lord Steel was being criticised about a potential cover-up of evidence against Cyril Smith. He told Lord Steel informally about his conversation with John Cobb QC and believed that Lord Steel had subsequently referred publicly to the conversation without naming him. Lord Steel was asked if he had any recollection of the conversation with Lord Jopling. He said he did remember it but said he could not recall referring to the matter publicly.[94]

66. Lord Jopling was sure he had not confused the conversation with something else or another case.[95] We reported in the Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale investigation that, on Friday 13 March 1970, the Lancashire Constabulary file (comprising over 80 pages of material) was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. It was received on Monday 16 March 1970, and the Director of Public Prosecutions provided his advice by letter dated Thursday 19 March 1970. This timeline allowed for a total of three working days for the papers to be read and advice produced.[96] There was no reference to any advice in writing or otherwise from counsel in any of the material we saw during that investigation. If the Director of Public Prosecutions had sought Leading Counsel’s advice, we consider it highly unlikely that there should have been no reference to it in the decision letter the Director of Public Prosecutions sent to the police. Indeed, in the pre-digital age when everything was done on paper, there was a very short time for counsel to receive the papers, which were not insubstantial, and advise the Director of Public Prosecutions on them (whether in writing or verbally) in order for the Director of Public Prosecutions to revert to the police within three working days with a decision.

67. It has been suggested on behalf of the complainant core participants[97] that an opinion could not have been obtained from Leading Counsel in that very short window, so that the conversation Lord Jopling had with John Cobb QC cannot have been about the Lancashire investigation. They suggest this raises the concern that there may have been a separate police investigation on which the Director of Public Prosecutions sought counsel’s opinion but it was not this one. This is nothing but a speculative possibility with no evidence to support it and we reject it. If the advice was sought not by the Director of Public Prosecutions but by the police then there would have been ample time for John Cobb QC to have considered the papers. However, this possibility raises a further issue. If Lancashire Constabulary sought the advice, why did they make no mention of it in the papers they submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions? In the absence of any evidence to assist resolution of the issue, it would be wrong to speculate about it.

68. Whether or not advice was sought by the police or the Director of Public Prosecutions from John Cobb QC, we saw no mention of any advice from counsel in all the material that was placed before us in the course of the Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale investigation. Whether the Director of Public Prosecutions received any independent advice before making the decision we cannot determine now. Gregor McGill, Director of Legal Services at the Crown Prosecution Service, who gave evidence in the Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale investigation about the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions in the case of Cyril Smith, was asked about Lord Jopling’s evidence. He was unable to say from what he had read whether counsel had been instructed by the police or the Director of Public Prosecutions. He said he had seen nothing to suggest counsel had been instructed.[98]

69. If the Director of Public Prosecutions did receive independent advice on the Lancashire case from Leading Counsel, then direct reference to that fact in the Director of Public Prosecutions’ decision letter might have firmly established that his decision had not been the subject of improper influence. All we were able to say in the Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale investigation report was that, on the material we had seen, it would be no more than speculation to say there had been improper influence by those interested in the matter.[99]


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