OLLIE Wright reported for The Conservative Woman on Friday the extraordinary evidence given by David Steel to the Inquiry into Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse linked to Westminster. Steel’s confession that in 1979 he did nothing about Cyril Smith, in spite of ‘assuming’ his guilt in relation to offences concerning young boys, has now caused the Liberal Democrats to suspend the former party leader.
One question regarding this suspension for the LibDems to answer is: why now? The party did not act in 2014 when Lord Steel admitted taking no action against Smith because, according to former MP David (now Lord) Alton, at the time Steel had regarded the accusations as ‘no different from what went on in public schools all over the country’.
In 1979 Steel had quizzed the grotesque Smith over a story in Rochdale’s Alternative Paper which had been given a wider audience by Private Eye: the allegation was that a decade earlier the then Labour Councillor had, while having access to a Rochdale care home, given teenage boys punishment spankings and intimate ‘medical inspections’. It was Steel’s insouciant reaction and lack of a response to the credible accusations – ‘These allegations all related to a period some years before [Smith] was even an MP and before he was even a member of the party, therefore it did not seem to me that I had any position in the matter at all’ – upon which he was this week cross-examined at the hearing (from page 113 of the transcript).
David Steel appears to have been remarkably incurious during his discussion with Cyril Smith: Steel elicited the fact that there had at the time been a police investigation but, asked whether he had ‘come away from that meeting not really knowing if [Smith] had committed these offences at all’ (page 126), Steel only ‘assumed’ that he had. From his evidence, Lord Steel seems not to have directly tackled Smith on his innocence or guilt.
Amongst several surprising answers Steel gave the inquiry, perhaps the most eyebrow-raising was: ‘It seemed to me [Smith] had possibly exceeded his role as a local Labour councillor . . . he claimed some supervisory role in the hostel as a councillor which entitled him to do these things, which I disagreed with, but, still, that was his view.’ (Pages 124-125.)
Yes, David: even in unenlightened 1979, when your discussion with Cyril Smith took place, the remit of a local councillor did not extend to ‘medical inspections’ of teenage boys’ testicles. Small wonder the LibDems have now been embarrassed into suspending Lord Steel.
Nonchalant in 1979, Steel’s evidence to the abuse inquiry renders all the more remarkable an interview given to BBC’s Newsnight last year, when the screening of A Very English Scandal had brought Jeremy Thorpe back into public consciousness. Steel had already defended the Liberals allowing Thorpe to remain an MP when (at 4:00) Evan Davis asserted that Cyril Smith, who died in 2010, is now ‘widely regarded as having abused a number of young men’.
‘Be careful what you say about Cyril Smith,’ interjected Lord Steel, ‘nothing has been proved against him at all, it’s all been scurrilous hearsay . . . it’s wrong to characterise him in that way.’
A year later, his evidence to the abuse inquiry regarding Cyril Smith was rather different. Fortunately for Lord Steel of Aikwood, as an interviewee on Newsnight he was not under oath.