Labour's Patricia Hewitt Sorry For Paedophile Rights Group's Links With Civil Liberties Group

Former Labour cabinet minister Patricia Hewitt has apologised for the links between the civil liberties organisation she headed and a paedophile rights campaign.

Hewitt said the National Council for Civil Liberties had been "naive and wrong" about the Paedophile Information Exchange in the 1970s, and that as general secretary at the time, she took responsibility for the mistakes that had been made.

"I got it wrong on PIE and I apologise for having done so," she said in her first public comments since the current controversy broke last week in the Daily Mail.

Former Labour cabinet minister Patricia Hewitt has apologised for her former group's links to PIE

Hewitt - who said she was only able now to respond to the reports having been away for the past 12 days - said any suggestion she had condoned or supported the "vile crimes" of child abusers was "completely untrue".

An NCCL press release published in March 1976 with only Ms Hewitt's name on it called for both the age of consent to be lowered to 10 and for incest to be legalised, according to The Sun.

The document, the newspaper claims, says: "NCCL proposes that the age of consent should be lowered to 14, with special provision for situations where the partners are close in age, or where consent of a child over ten can be proved."

Referring to an NCCL report on reforming sex laws, it reportedly says: "The report argues that the crime of incest should be abolished. It says, 'In our view, no benefit accrues to anyone by making incest a crime when committed between mutually consenting persons over the age of consent'."

The Sun also claimed to have seen minutes of an NCCL executive committee meeting in London in January 1976 which proposed reforms saying that a person under the age of 10 in a sexual relationship is incapable of giving consent.

But, the minutes said, if a sexual partner is over 10 and under 14, while there is a "rebuttable presumption" that no consent was given, a defendant "should have to prove that the child consented and understood the nature of the act to which consent was given".

Hewitt, a former health secretary, acknowledged that it had been NCCL policy to cut the age of consent - although she said the proposal to do so had not been hers.

"I do not support reducing the age of consent or legalising incest," Hewitt said. "As the NCCL archives demonstrate, I consistently distinguished between consenting relationships between homosexual men, on the one hand, and the abuse of children on the other."

Hewitt's willingness to apologise for past errors is in sharp contrast to Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, who has insisted she has nothing to apologise for over her involvement with the NCCL at the time.

Harman has accused the Mail of mounting a campaign of "smear and innuendo" after it used documents unearthed in the NCCL's archives to highlight its links with PIE at a time when she, her husband Jack Dromey, and Hewitt were all prominent in the organisation.

In her statement Hewitt, who was general secretary from 1974-83, said she should have done more to protect the integrity of the NCCL from the activities of PIE, which was allowed to join the organisation as an affiliate member.

"NCCL in the 1970s, along with many others, was naive and wrong to accept PIE's claim to be a 'campaigning and counselling organisation' that 'does not promote unlawful acts'," she said.

"As general secretary then, I take responsibility for the mistakes we made. I got it wrong on PIE and I apologise for having done so.

"I should have urged the executive committee to take stronger measures to protect NCCL's integrity from the activities of PIE members and sympathisers and I deeply regret not having done so."

In particular, she said that PIE secretary Tom O'Carroll should never have been allowed to join the NCCL's gay rights sub-committee.

Hewitt also defended the roles played by Harman and Dromey - who is also now a Labour frontbencher.

"When Jack Dromey, as NCCL chairman in 1976, vigorously opposed PIE at the NCCL AGM, he did so with the full support of the executive committee and myself as general secretary," she said.

"Harriet did not join the NCCL staff until 1978. She was one of two legal officers, neither of whom was a member of the executive committee."

While Hewitt said that there were still lessons to be learned about the need to protect children from sexual abuse, she said she was proud of the achievements of the NCCL during her time as general secretary.

"Although the evil of child sexual abuse is now properly recognised, as a society we still have a long way to go in protecting children, tackling the sexualisation of girls and supporting the survivors of sexual abuse," she said.

"I hope the lessons that are being learnt from the mistakes of the 1970s will contribute to those goals."