Tom Watson Says He Had A 'Duty' To Pass On Leon Brittan Allegations To Authorities, But Wrong To Say Peer Was 'Close To Evil'

Deputy Leader Tom Watson delivering speech on the final day of the annual Labour party conference at the Brighton Centre in Brighton, Sussex.
Deputy Leader Tom Watson delivering speech on the final day of the annual Labour party conference at the Brighton Centre in Brighton, Sussex.
Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson has responded to demands for an apology over his role in the Leon Brittan sex abuse row, saying he is sorry for the distress caused and admitting that he should not have described the former Cabinet Minister as "close to evil".

But in a blog for The Huffington Post UK, the Labour MP insists that he had a "duty" to pass on to police allegations made about Lord Brittan and defends his decision to raise the case in Parliament and to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Mr Watson, who has long campaigned on the topic, says he has apologised for the distress caused to Lord Brittan's relatives as they grieved over his death early this year 'but I wanted the claims against him properly investigated'.

Lord Brittan died of cancer earlier this year, unaware that police had decided there was no case for him to answer over allegations that he raped a 19-year-old student in 1967.

The Crown Prosecution Service found in July 2013 that there was not enough evidence for a prosecution, but the decision was never passed on to the peer.

The case was reopened last year after Mr Watson wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions and Lord Brittan was interviewed under caution, when he was seriously ill.

Writing for The Huffington Post UK, Mr Watson said: "In October 2012 I asked a question in Parliament about a network of paedophiles. An investigation into their activities had been closed down before reaching a conclusion. Two of them have now been convicted and they are serving long sentences. I have passed more information to the police since then and a third man has also been sent to prison partly as a result of this. My motivation throughout has been to help victims as best as I could.

"In 2014 I wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions asking her to look into serious allegations that had been made against Leon Brittan. Let me set out as clearly as I can why I wrote that letter. I had been told of multiple allegations about Leon Brittan and I had met some of the people making those allegations at their request. I did not and could not know if they were true but I did believe their claims should be fully investigated.

"I felt the testimony of one of those people was particularly compelling. But it was for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to reach a judgment on that after examining all the available evidence. That is the approach I have always followed when contacted by people who claim they are victims of child abuse or other serious sexual crimes.

"I have said in the past that I am sorry for the distress Leon Brittan’s family experienced as they grieved for him. I still am. But I wanted the claims made against him properly investigated. I think most people would assume that when an individual is facing multiple allegations of sexual crimes from people who are independent of each other, the police would want to interview them. As it happens, I think that Leon Brittan would have been interviewed even if I hadn’t intervened because the DPP made it clear in her reply to my letter that the police investigation into him was ongoing."

Watson said: "The lessons of the Jimmy Savile affair couldn’t be clearer. Theresa May has said that we have only seen "the tip of the iceberg" when it comes to child abuse. That's why we can never return to the days when survivors of child abuse felt unable to speak out because they were ignored or even ridiculed. It does not matter who you are, what you do or how powerful you might be, when someone makes an allegation against you it has to be treated seriously.

"I have heard many disturbing and harrowing accounts of child abuse since I asked that question in the House of Commons. It is impossible not to become deeply upset and angry when listening to them. When the death of Leon Brittan was announced, I worried that the justice system would no longer take its course and that the allegations would never be thoroughly investigated. As the tributes flowed in from his lifelong friends I felt for those people who claimed he abused them. I repeated a line used by one of the alleged survivors, who said: “He is close to evil as any human being could get”. I shouldn’t have repeated such an emotive phrase.

"The choice facing anyone who is presented with testimony of this kind is whether to pass it on to the authorities and urge them to investigate or to ignore it. I chose the first option. I felt it was my duty to do so."

Former Conservative chancellor Norman Lamont, a friend of Lord Brittan, said police investigations of historical sex abuse risked becoming a "witch-hunt".

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said: "I visited Lord Brittan several times in his last days and saw the suffering of a man under the shadow of the vilest accusations. This was an extremely painful time for his wife.

"After his death came the police raid on his two houses, while his widow was still sorting out his belongings, some of which were carted away. As with Cliff Richard, the police were accompanied by press and television.

"Before Lord Brittan died, the police, referring to a rape accusation, suggested he should take part in an identity parade. That seems beyond satire. How could a well-known public person, already named and identified by his accuser, usefully take part in such a charade?"

The case had been "mishandled at every level", Lord Lamont added.