Child abuse inquiry report prompts Borders peer to quit politics

Borders peer Lord Steel has quit the Liberal Democrats and announced his imminent retirement from the House of Lords following the publication of a new report into historical child sexual abuse.

By Darin Hutson
Tuesday, 25th February 2020, 6:44 pm
Updated Tuesday, 25th February 2020, 7:07 pm
Lord Steel at Westminster Abbey in London in September 2019. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images)
Lord Steel at Westminster Abbey in London in September 2019. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images)

The 81-year-old, of Selkirk, has opted to leave the party he led, in its previous guise, from 1976 to 1988 and turn his back on public life rather than face the prospect of a second internal investigation.

The former Borders MP was cleared in May last year by a previous party probe into evidence he’d given to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) two months previously, but reports had been circulating that a fresh investigation was to be launched and that he might face a further suspension.

Lord Steel – MP for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles from 1965 to 1983 and for its successor seat of Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale from 1983 to 1997 – admitted that he’d failed to act on allegations against then party colleague Cyril Smith even though he believed them to be true because they were “past history”.

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

The Fife-born peer has partly blamed his controversial evidence to the London inquiry on being hard of hearing and thus unable to make out some of the questions put to him about child abuse allegations made against the late Smith, MP for Rochdale in Greater Manchester from 1972 to 1992, by the magazine Private Eye in 1979.

He also claims to have been made a scapegoat to compensate for previous probes having failed to substantiate allegations made against other high-profile public figures such as Leon Brittan and Edwin Bramall or for Smith to be prosecuted during his lifetime.

In his resignation statement, the former Scottish Parliament presiding officer seeks to distance himself from Smith, saying: “I have been made aware of press speculation about the IICSA report, which I have now been able to read after its publication. I am angered by it, as many others will be.

“Knowing all I know now, I condemn Cyril Smith’s actions towards children.

“Children deserve protection from predators, especially those in authority.

“Dealing with such cases is the IICSA’s legitimate role.

“I believe in the highest standards of human rights, particularly for young and vulnerable people.

“I regret the time spent on pursuing Leon Brittan, Lord Bramall and others, who it is clear had done no wrong.

“Not having secured a parliamentary scalp, I fear that I have been made a proxy for Cyril Smith.

“Nowhere does the IICSA explain what powers I was supposed to possess to investigate 14-year-old allegations against someone who, at the time of the actions alleged was not even a member of my party and that the police and successive directors of public prosecutions reviewed with access to all files.

“The IICSA refused my offer of clarification on my oral testimony to them.

“Contrary to some reports, at no point did Cyril Smith admit to me the truth of the allegations in the Private Eye report.

“He admitted that there had been an investigation by police of acts alleged against him whilst he was a councillor in another political party, as was reported.

“Smith and I did not discuss further what the IICSA counsel himself correctly described as “a very, very brief conversation” in 1979.

“That Smith was never a friend of mine is exemplified by his public decision not to speak for any constituency party which had voted for me as leader in 1976.”

Lord Steel, MSP for the Lothians from 1999 to 2003, is also critical of how the inquiry was conducted, saying: “My legal advisers have expressed concern to me that the inquiry should have delayed my appearance until they had sorted their failed loop hearing system for my hearing aids. They are right, and I did not have legal representation when giving evidence to the IICSA.

“I should have asked for a delay myself as the transcript shows I had difficulty hearing their questions.”

He adds that he hopes his resignation will avert further controversy and division within the party he was a member of for over half a century, as well as allowing him to spend more time with wife Judith.

“I have received indications that some in the Liberal Democrat Party wish me suspended and investigated again despite a previous disciplinary process in Scotland which concluded that no further action was required,” he writes.

“I am told that others are threatening to resign if a new investigation is started.

“I wish to avoid any such turmoil in my party and to prevent further distress to my family.

“I have therefore thanked my local party secretary for their stalwart support through the whole IICSA process and have informed the local party that my resignation is with immediate effect.

“As to membership of the House of Lords, friends and colleagues are aware that I have been contemplating retirement next month to coincide with the 55th anniversary of my election as an MP.

“With considerable personal sorrow, and thanks to all I have worked with in the party and more widely, I have now decided this is what I should do as soon as possible.

“My wife has suffered poor health this past year.

“I shall now stop the weekly travel from Scotland to London and enjoy a quiet retirement from public life.”

The report that prompted the resignation of the veteran politician, made Baron Steel of Aikwood in 1997, accuses Britain’s political establishment of spending decades turning a blind eye to allegations of child sexual abuse.

High-profile politicians were protected from police action as whips sought to avoid “gossip and scandal” that would damage their parties, it claims.

Investigation of historical allegations against MPs, peers and civil servants working in Westminster found political institutions “significantly failed in their responses to allegations of child sexual abuse”, it says, and Lord Steel’s evidence to the inquiry is cited as an example of that.

Lord Steel’s resignation has been welcomed by Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, saying: “Cyril Smith’s acts were vile and repugnant, and I have nothing but sympathy for those affected.

“This is a powerful report that has lessons for everyone, including David Steel, the Liberal Democrats and the wider political sphere.

“It is therefore right that David Steel has decided to resign from the Liberal Democrats and retire from public life, including the House of Lords.”