Police and politicians ‘turned blind eye’ to Westminster child abuse claims

<span>Photograph: PA</span>
Photograph: PA

Political parties, police and prosecutors “turned a blind eye” to allegations of child sexual abuse connected to Westminster, ignored victims and showed excessive “deference” to MPs and ministers fighting to clear their reputations, an investigation has found.

The long-awaited report by the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse into the most politically sensitive section of its work, however, dismisses claims of any conspiracy involving an “organised Westminster paedophile network”.

The 173-page review, following hearings over the past two years, names several prominent MPs, including the Liberal MP Sir Cyril Smith and the Conservative Sir Peter Morrison, as being “known to be active in their sexual interest in children” but who escaped prosecution.

“The police paid little regard to the welfare of sexually exploited children,” the report says. “Political parties showed themselves, even very recently, to be more concerned about political fallout than safeguarding; and in some cases the honours system prioritised reputation and discretion in making awards, with little or no regard for victims of nominated persons.

“There is ample evidence that individual perpetrators of child sexual abuse have been linked to Westminster. However, there was no evidence of any kind of organised ‘Westminster paedophile network’ in which persons of prominence conspired to pass children amongst themselves for the purpose of sexual abuse.

“The source of some of the most lurid claims about a sinister network of abusers in Westminster has now been discredited with the conviction of Carl Beech.

“Nevertheless, it is clear that there have been significant failures by Westminster institutions in their responses to allegations of child sexual abuse. This included failure to recognise it, turning a blind eye to it, actively shielding and protecting child sexual abusers and covering up allegations.”

There was no evidence of any prominent individuals ever visiting the notorious Elm guest house in south London, the study concludes.

Smith and Morrison were “protected from prosecution in a number of ways, including by the police, the director of public prosecutions and political parties”, it states.

“At that time, nobody seemed to care about the fate of the children involved, with status and political concerns overriding all else. Even though we did not find evidence of a Westminster network, the lasting effect on those who suffered as children from being sexually abused by individuals linked to Westminster has been just as profound. It has been compounded by institutional complacency and indifference to the plight of child victims.”

The inquiry is highly critical of the former Liberal leader David Steel for failing to investigate allegations against Smith, whom he recommended for a knighthood without “confronting him to ask if he was still committing offences against boys”.

The report says: “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 … When attending the inquiry, far from recognising the consequences of his inaction, Lord Steel was completely unrepentant.”

The investigation went as far back as the 1960s, when expensive cars cruised around Piccadilly Circus, “viewing boys and young men, who would hang around the railings known as the ‘meat rack’ to be picked up by older men and abused”.

The then commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Sir Joe Simpson, is reported to have said at a Home Office meeting that there were “several cottages in Westminster which we don’t investigate” because “they are frequented by celebrities and MPs”. The report adds: “It is an example of a policy giving special treatment to persons of prominence and of deference towards those in power at Westminster.”

The Lib Dems had no immediate comment about whether Steel would be expelled from the party or why they had let him back in just a few months after suspending him over his conduct in March 2019. A Lib Dem spokesman said: “Cyril Smith’s acts were vile and repugnant. We have nothing but sympathy for those whose lives he ruined. This is an important inquiry and we are thoroughly reading its report.”

But Smith’s victims said they would seek to have Steel removed from Lords, their solicitor said.

Richard Scorer, who represents a number of victims, some of whom lived in children’s homes in Rochdale, said: “Our clients are very clear that Lord Steel should be kicked out of the House of Lords.”

In relation to the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), which advocated sex with children, the inquiry says the organisation’s aims were “given foolish and misguided support for several years by people and organisations who should have known better. These included the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Albany Trust. There was a fundamental failure to see the problem and a lack of moral courage to confront it.”

It finds no evidence, however, to support claims that the PIE received Home Office funding in the late 1970s. “This allegation was made by Tim Hulbert, a retired public servant and former consultant at the Voluntary Services Unit attached to the Home Office,” the report says. “Despite detailed investigation, there was no available evidence to confirm that PIE as an organisation actually received any grant of Home Office funding.

“The available contemporaneous documents and witness evidence suggest that the alleged funding was not provided. Beyond Mr Hulbert’s allegation, we have seen no evidence that any employee of the Home Office intended to fund PIE.”

The report does not pass direct judgment on the role of Tom Watson, the Labour MP whose parliamentary question in October 2012 first claimed there was “clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No 10”. Its conclusions, however, in effect refute that assertion.

On Beech, it notes: “The source of some of the most lurid claims about a sinister network of abusers in Westminster has now been discredited. In July 2019, several months after the conclusion of the hearings in this investigation, [he] was convicted at Newcastle crown court of perverting the course of justice and fraud in connection with false allegations of child sexual abuse and murder made by him against a variety of prominent political figures, including Sir Edward Heath, Lord Brittan, Lord Bramall and the former heads of MI5 and MI6. He was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment.”

The report also highlights the case of Sir Peter Hayman, a senior diplomat in the 1960s and 70s who was a leading member of the PIE. “There were longstanding public concerns about whether the decision not to prosecute, either for his involvement in PIE or for sending obscene material through the post, might have been politically motivated,” the report says.

“Two of Hayman’s potential co‐defendants (one of whom was a bus inspector) were prosecuted in court for conspiracy to send obscene material through the post. Unlike Hayman, neither defendant enjoyed high public status or roles in public office.

“It is difficult to come to any other conclusion than Hayman was treated differently from his co‐defendants on the basis of who he was. In other words, his prominent position gave rise to special pleading for which he received special treatment.”

• The NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331.