Borders peer Lord Steel suspended by party over Cyril Smith child sex abuse scandal

Lord Steel pictured in Stow in January.
Lord Steel pictured in Stow in January.

Borders peer Lord Steel of Aikwood has been suspended by the Liberal Democrats pending an investigation into evidence he gave to an inquiry about child abuse claims made against former MP Cyril Smith.

That move was announced by the party last night, March 14, following the former Scottish Parliament presiding officer’s appearance at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse the day before.

Lord Steel, centre, with Cyril Smith, left, and then party leader Jeremy Thorpe at the 1973 Liberal Party conference in Southport. (Photo by Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images)

Lord Steel, centre, with Cyril Smith, left, and then party leader Jeremy Thorpe at the 1973 Liberal Party conference in Southport. (Photo by Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images)

The party had already announced it would begin disciplinary proceedings against the 80-year-old, of Selkirk, after he told the inquiry a conversation with Smith left him assuming the allegations were correct but then opted not to investigate them any further.

The ex-Borders MP’s suspension follows a meeting of Scottish party chiefs last night.

A statement issued by the Scottish branch of the party says: “Following the evidence concerning Cyril Smith given by Lord Steel to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse on March 13, 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.

Liberal Party leader David Steel, centre, and his frontbench team, including Cyril Smith, third from right, at the SDP-Liberal alliance conference at Llandudno in 1981. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Liberal Party leader David Steel, centre, and his frontbench team, including Cyril Smith, third from right, at the SDP-Liberal alliance conference at Llandudno in 1981. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“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.”

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said the decision to suspend Lord Steel was taken by the party in Scotland “quickly, properly and in an orderly way”.

He told BBC2’s Newsnight programme last night: “There was very serious concern about what he said, serious allegations. They have got to be investigated.”

In a statement issued yesterday prior to his suspension, Lord Steel said he wished to “clarify what happened in 1979 when I asked Cyril Smith about the report in Private Eye”.

The peer, knighted in 1997, explained: “As I told the inquiry yesterday, I did not have that report with me when I tackled him, nor did we discuss the details in it.

“He admitted to me that the report was correct, in that he had been investigated by the police at the time and no action taken against him.

“I had already told the inquiry in writing that, in my opinion, he had been abusing his position on Rochdale Council, but that had been properly a matter for the police and the council, and not for me as he was neither an MP nor even a member of the Liberal Party at the time.

“I was in no position to reopen the investigation.”

Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer representing some victims giving evidence to the inquiry, said: “My clients will welcome the news that Steel is finally being made to face the consequences of his inaction.

“His failure to stop Smith in 1979, allowing him to go on and abuse more young boys, is inexcusable and he must be held to account.”

During his evidence session, the former Borders MP denied “hiding his head in the sand” over child abuse allegations against the late Smith.

Lord Steel, leader of the Liberal Party from 1976 to 1988 and briefly of the Liberal Democrats afterwards, told told the inquiry that he’d asked Smith in 1979 about claims he had abused boys at a Rochdale hostel and learned that they dated back to his time as a Labour councillor in the 1960s.

He came away from that conversation assuming that Smith had committed the offences he was accused of because he did not deny them, said Lord Steel.

He said Smith had told him the police had investigated the claims and taken no action.

No formal inquiry was then held by the party into the claims, and it was suggested that that was because Lord Steel did not want to get involved in a confrontation with Smith, but he told the hearing: “I wouldn’t have been hiding my head in the sand.

“These allegations all related to a period some years before he was even an MP and before he was even a member of the party, therefore it did not seem to me that I had any position in the matter at all.”

Smith, MP for Rochdale in Lancashire from 1972 to 1992, was accused of sexually abusing numerous boys, and in 2012, two years after his death at the age of 82, the Crown Prosecution Service formally admitted that charges should have been brought against him years previously.

Lord Steel’s conversation with Smith was prompted by a story in the political magazine Private Eye, and that report, in turn, was based on news broken by the Rochdale Alternative Press in 1979 that the police had investigated Smith over allegations of abuse against teenagers at the town’s Cambridge House hostel.

Lord Steel told the inquiry: “He accepted the story was correct. Obviously I disapproved, but as far as I was concerned it was past history.”

Inquiry counsel Brian Altman then asked him: “What gave you confidence that if Cyril Smith was confessing to you in 1979 that 10 years or more before that he assaulted children that he wasn’t continuing to do it on your watch?”

The peer – MP, as David Steel, for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles from 1965 to 1983 and for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale from 1983 to 1997 – replied: “He was no longer involved within the children’s home and indeed it had closed down.”

Mr Altman went on: “In a sense, he is confessing to you he has committed these acts which have been alleged against him.

“I am seeking to understand from you why that was the end of the matter?”

The former Scottish Parliament presiding officer told him: “He was not an MP at the time. He wasn’t even a member of the party.

“I did not feel I had any locus in it all other than being a reader of the paper.

“The party was unaware of all this, and I could easily have been unaware of it if I had not been a subscriber of Private Eye.”

Mr Altman suggested: “He could, for all you knew, still be offending against children.”

Lord Steel said: “I have to admit that never occurred to me, and I am not sure it would occur to me even today.

“If I had any suspicion that these activities had been continuing or he had been involved in it as an MP, I certainly would not have recommended him for a knighthood. That would have been my natural instinct.”

In a June 2018 appearance on BBC2’s Newsnight programme, the Fife-born peer appeared to describe child sex abuse allegations against Smith as “tittle-tattle” and “scurrilous hearsay”, but he now insists that was a misunderstanding.

He told the hearing he thought he was not talking about the conversation he’d had with Smith, knighted in 1988, but about claims made in a book by another former Rochdale MP, Simon Danczuk.

He explained that he recalled speaking to Mr Danczuk after the book was published and said: “I told him what I thought a lot of it was very doubtful.”