Lord Steel quits Lib Dems and House of Lords after being criticised in Westminster child sex abuse report

Tim Baker

Lord Steel has quit the Liberal Democrats and will retire as a member of the House of Lords following a devastating report into high-profile figures at Westminster turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children.

The long-awaited investigation by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse into historical allegations against MPs, peers and civil servants released the report on Tuesday that political institutions and politicians "significantly failed in their responses to allegations of child sexual abuse" despite ample evidence.

It cited as an example the evidence of the former Liberal party leader, who told the inquiry last year how he failed to pass on abuse allegations against prominent party colleague Cyril Smith, even though he believed them to be true, because it was "past history".

Announcing his resignation from the Liberal Democrats, Lord Steel said: “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.

“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.”

He added: “As to membership of the House of Lords, friends and colleagues including The Lord Speaker 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 IICA report said that those protected from prosecution despite being “known or rumoured to be active in their sexual interest in children” at the time included the MPs Sir Peter Morrison and Smith.

It describes the failure by Lord Steel to take action against Smith as “an abdication of political responsibility”, which occurred despite him being told by Smith that allegations made against him at the time were true.

Public hearings into the Westminster strand of the inquiry were held over three weeks in March last year, with the panel saying its findings would look at how institutions handled complaints rather than investigating the credibility of allegations themselves.

Lord Steel was a major political figure in the 70s and 80s, when he allied his party with the SDP, but friends reportedly fear he will be made a “scapegoat”.

During one hearing, Lord Steel denied "hiding his head in the sand" over child abuse allegations against Smith, but said he "assumed" the former Rochdale MP had abused teenagers at a hostel dating back to the 1960s.

He told the inquiry: "These allegations all related to a period some years before he 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.

"He accepted the story was correct. Obviously I disapproved but as far as I was concerned it was past history."

On recommending Smith for a knighthood, Lord Steel said: "If I had any suspicion that these activities had been continuing or he had been involved in it as an MP I certainly would not have recommended him for a knighthood - that would have been my natural instinct."

Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer at Slater and Gordon, representing eight of Smith’s victims, said: “(Lord) Steel’s total inaction after being told by Smith himself that he had molested young boys is unforgivable, most of all for those victims whose abuse he could have stopped."

"To suggest Steel is a scapegoat, as some have done, is grasping at straws - a pathetic attempt to excuse a man who admitted he knowingly turned a blind eye to Smith's crimes. He is not being blamed for them but for his own failure to stop Smith when he had the chance.

"This must surely now be the catalyst for a mandatory reporting law, compelling those who suspect child abuse to report their concerns, and for an end to this culture of deference towards those in power which allowed Smith to evade justice for so long."

This story is being updated...

Agencies have contributed to this report

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Westminster turned blind eye to child sexual abuse for decades