The political establishment spent decades turning “a blind eye” to allegations of child sexual abuse, with high-profile politicians protected from police action as whips sought to avoid “gossip and scandal” which would damage the parties, a scathing report has found.
The long-awaited Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) report involving MPs, peers and civil servants working in Westminster found political institutions “significantly failed in their responses to allegations of child sexual abuse”.
But it said there was no evidence of a “Westminster paedophile ring” – allegations in the House of Commons in 2012 which kick-started the multi-million-pound inquiry.
Instead, it highlighted former MPs such as Liberal grandee Sir Cyril Smith, and Tories Sir Peter Morrison and Victor Montagu as having benefited from the culture of valuing the preservation of political reputation above the rights of victims dating back more than half a century.
More recently, it cited the case of Green party candidate Aimee Challenor who was able to appoint her father David as an election agent in 2017, despite his being charged and later convicted of 20 offences including rape.
Professor Alexis Jay, who chaired the inquiry, said: “It is clear to see that Westminster institutions have repeatedly failed to deal with allegations of child sexual abuse, from turning a blind eye to actively shielding abusers.
“A consistent pattern emerged of failures to put the welfare of children above political status although we have found no evidence of an organised network of paedophiles within government.
“We hope this report and its recommendations will lead political institutions to prioritise the needs and safety of vulnerable children.”
It cited as an example the evidence of former Liberal party leader Lord Steel, who told the inquiry last year how he failed to pass on allegations against prominent colleague Smith, even though he believed them to be true, because it was “past history”.
In a statement after the findings were published, Lord Steel said he had resigned from the Liberal Democrats and would resign from the House of Lords “as soon as possible”.
He added: “Not having secured a parliamentary scalp, I fear that I have been made a proxy for Cyril Smith.”
The report identified how former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and ex-Conservative party chairman Norman (now Lord) Tebbit were aware of rumours about Morrison having “a penchant for small boys” but did nothing about it.
The report said the allegations “should have rung alarm bells in government”.
But, instead, “considerations of political embarrassment and the risk to security were paramount, while the activities of an alleged child sexual abuser who held senior positions in government and the Conservative Party were deliberately overlooked, as was the course of public justice”.
The report also found senior diplomat Sir Peter Hayman was the beneficiary of “preferential, differential and unduly deferential treatment” over claims he sent obscene material in the post, following a meeting between his solicitor and the then-director of public prosecutions.
However, his co-defendants were prosecuted for the same offence.
There was also “striking evidence” of how “wealth and social status insulated perpetrators of child sexual abuse” from being brought to justice, as in the case of Montagu.
The report made a number of suggestions including changes to the Honours system, such as stripping knighthoods from the likes of disgraced entertainer Jimmy Savile, and creating widespread and well-understood whistleblowing policies for all Westminster institutions.
The Government has also been urged to review its child safeguarding policies.
Public hearings into the Westminster strand of the inquiry were held over three weeks in March last year, during which Lord Steel denied “hiding his head in the sand” over child abuse reports in the press against Smith.
He said: “He (Smith) accepted the story was correct. Obviously I disapproved but as far as I was concerned it was past history.”
Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer at Slater and Gordon, representing eight of Smith’s victims, welcomed that Lord Steel had “finally done the decent thing” in resigning.
He added: “What my clients would really like to hear is an honest and sincere apology that, as vulnerable youngsters, he let them down, and a promise from those in power that lessons will be learned from this and the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.”
The Liberal Democrats said they were “constantly” working to improve party complaints procedures.
A spokesman for the party said: “Cyril Smith’s acts were vile and repugnant.
“We have nothing but sympathy for those whose lives he ruined.”
The report found no evidence of a coordinated “paedophile ring” in Westminster, following claims by fantasist Carl Beech of its existence, which were referenced in the Commons by former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson in 2012.
The report also stated there was no proof such a network was covered up by security services or police.
The former Labour MP was later accused of being the “cheerleader in chief” of the false claims.
The launch of the Met’s Operation Midland in 2014 saw dawn raids on the homes of the late Lord Bramall, the late Lord Brittan and former MP Harvey Proctor following a series of allegations by Beech, known during court proceedings as “Nick”, which were later discredited.
Beech is serving an 18-year prison term for 12 counts of perverting the course of justice and one count of fraud.
The panel is expected to return a decision in the coming weeks over whether to proceed with the strand focusing on allegations of abuse against Lord Janner, the late Labour peer, amid concerns over anonymous witness evidence.