MPs who sexually abused children were protected from prosecution and their crimes covered up for decades, an explosive report has found.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, commissioned to examine whether Westminster “turned a blind eye” to allegations of paedophilia, ruled political institutions had “failed significantly”.
But crucially the inquiry found no evidence of an organised paedophile ring, or that party whips had deliberately suppressed information about child sex abuse.
“It is clear that there have been significant failures by Westminster institutions in their dealing with, and confrontation of, allegations of child sexual abuse,” wrote the authors of the report. “This has included not recognising it, turning a blind eye to it, actively shieldin
g and protecting perpetrators, and covering up allegations of child sexual abuse.”
Allegations against the late Liberal Party MP Cyril Smith and Tory MP Peter Morrison, who later became Margaret Thatcher’s parliamentary private secretary, were not investigated properly, and the Conservative Party was found to have failed to pass information on to police.
In fact Morrison, who died in 1995, was given a knighthood, despite having been caught molesting a 15-year-old boy on a train at Crewe.
His party “made efforts to suppress rumours” about his behaviour rather than carry out a formal investigation, the inquiry said, and it was claimed then-PM Thatcher “did nothing”, despite being aware.
Smith, who before becoming an MP held a role in a youth hostel which he claimed permitted him to carry out “medical inspections”, was accused of multiple incidents of sexual assault against teenage boys.
But former Liberal Party leader Lord Steel told the inquiry that because allegations against Smith had arisen before he joined the party, he saw “no reason, or no locus to go back to [it]”.
“This failure to recognise the risks was an abdication of responsibility, and the fact the offences were non-recent was irrelevant,” the inquiry, which published its report on Tuesday, ruled.
The ex-Lib Dem leader announced he would quit the party and retire from the Lords in the wake of its publication.
Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer at Slater and Gordon, representing eight of Smith’s victims, said: “What my clients would really like to hear is an honest and sincere apology that, as vulnerable youngsters, he [Steel] let them down, and a promise from those in power that lessons will be learned from this and the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.”
The Lib Dems said they were “constantly” working to improve party complaints procedures.
A spokesperson added: “Cyril Smith’s acts were vile and repugnant. We have nothing but sympathy for those whose lives he ruined.”
Meanwhile Victor Montagu, the former MP for South Dorset and 10th Earl of Sandwich, was let off with a caution after a 10-year-old boy alleged he had indecently assaulted him.
Montagu’s son Robert, who he also sexually abused for over five years, said the decision not to prosecute was “entirely wrong and very indicative of the attitude towards people in public positions”.
“There has clearly been a significant problem with deference towards people of public prominence,” the inquiry found, “from the whips’ offices to the police and prosecutors.”
And as recently as 2017, Green Party election candidate Aimee Challenor was able to appoint her father as election agent, despite the fact that he had been charged with sexually assaulting a child and was later convicted.
The report concluded that “these are examples of a political culture which values its reputation far higher than the fate of the children involved”.
The inquiry, launched in 2019, saw 505 witnesses called to evidence, including 10 bishops, three archbishops, one cardinal, 31 chief constables and other senior police officers, 13 lords and ladies, six former government ministers, a former director general of MI5, two ex-prime ministers and the heir to the throne.
It also investigated the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), which campaigned in the 1970s to lower the age of consent, as well as public acceptance of paedophilia.
A number of its members sexually abused children, including Sir Peter Hayman, a former High Commissioner to Canada.
The report said PIE was “given foolish and misguided support for several years by organisations who should have known better, such as the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Albany Trust”.
Inquiry chair Professor Alexis Jay said: “It is clear to see that Westminster institutions have repeatedly failed to deal with allegations of child sexual abuse, from turning a blind eye to actively shielding abusers.
“A consistent pattern emerged of failures to put the welfare of children above political status, although we found no evidence of an organised network of paedophiles within government.”
The report noted “on several occasions throughout the evidence [...] a distinct difference in the way wealthy or well‐connected individuals have been treated, as opposed to those who were poorer or more deprived and without access to networks of influence.”
It went on: “We have formed the distinct impression that wealth and social status have played a key role in insulating perpetrators of child sexual abuse from being brought to justice, and the poverty of victims has led to allegations of child sexual abuse being taken less seriously.”
The inquiry also found that the current Conservative Party, Plaid Cymru, UKIP and the Cooperative Party still do not have proper safeguarding policies in place, and none met all of the requirements for child safeguarding policies and procedures considered necessary by experts.
It made a number of recommendations, including a request to the Cabinet Office to re-examine the posthumous stripping of honours from those found to have been involved in wrongdoing; that every political institution has proper whistleblowing procedures in place; and that every government department reviews its child safeguarding policies.
“We hope this report and its recommendations will lead political institutions to
prioritise the needs and safety of vulnerable children,” Professor Jay said.