Borders peer Lord Steel in clear after probe into child abuse inquiry evidence

Lord Steel in January this year.
Lord Steel in January this year.

Borders peer Lord Steel of Aikwood has been cleared by an internal party probe prompted by controversy over evidence he gave to a public inquiry into child sex abuse.

The former Liberal Party leader has told of his relief that an investigation launched after he gave evidence about child abuse allegations against late MP Cyril Smith concluded there are no grounds for disciplinary action against him.

Cyril Smith and David Steel at the 1973 Liberal Party conference.  (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Cyril Smith and David Steel at the 1973 Liberal Party conference. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Lord Steel, 81, of Selkirk, had been suspended by the Liberal Democrats since mid-March while being investigated, but that suspension has now been lifted.

That investigation was carried out by the executive of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and its leader Willie Rennie, MSP for North East Fife, said it had “determined, after careful consideration, that there are no grounds for action against David Steel”.

Lord Steel – MP, as David Steel, for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles from 1965 to 1983 and for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale from 1983 to 1997 and MSP for the Lothians from 1999 to 2003 – said: “I am naturally pleased and relieved the executive of the Scottish Liberal Democrats has completed their investigation and, after fully considering my responses to questions at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), has lifted my suspension from the party and cleared my name.

“I believe in the highest standards of safeguarding for young and vulnerable people.

Cyril Smith at the 1979 Liberal Party conference with David Steel. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Cyril Smith at the 1979 Liberal Party conference with David Steel. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“As such, I voluntarily attended the IICSA hearing and offered open and honest answers, some of which have been erroneously reported and taken out of context.

“These inaccurate elements led some to question my own such commitment.

“Opinions and assumptions are not facts, and those expressed in some quarters have caused me great personal distress.

“Throughout my career, I have always acted to uphold the highest standards.

“I look forward to contributing to the party’s cause and focusing on the shared commitment we have had for many years, which is to lead to improve the life opportunities of all young people, especially those who have had the toughest start.”

Mr Rennie added: “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.

“David has also welcomed the changes to the country’s laws, procedures and policies on child protection and that the party’s procedure for handling complaints about its members has improved.

“David makes clear his lifelong commitment to safeguarding and vigilance with a recommendation to the party on how to strengthen the system of candidate approval.

“David Steel’s national and international reputation is beyond doubt, and this has been a difficult matter for us to consider, but it is important for everyone to understand that the Liberal Democrats will always investigate such serious matters.”

The Fife-born peer, leader of the Liberal Party from 1976 to 1988 and briefly of the Liberal Democrats afterwards, was suspended after telling an inquiry into historic child abuse that he had confronted Smith, Liberal MP for Rochdale in Lancashire from 1972 to 1992, in 1979 about media reports that he had been investigated by police over allegations of child sex abuse.

Smith was accused of having abused children at several children’s homes in Greater Manchester from the 1960s to the 1980s.

He died in 2010 at the age of 82.

Giving evidence, Lord Steel, knighted in 1997, told the inquiry: “What I said to him was ‘what’s all this about you in Private Eye?’

“He said, rather to my surprise, ‘it is correct’ that he had been in charge of or had some supervisory role in a children’s hostel, that he’d been investigated by the police and that they had taken no further action, and that was the end of the story.

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