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Lib Dems launch investigation over Cyril Smith remarks

Former Liberal leader Lord Steel gave evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Politicians: Former Liberal leader Lord Steel and former MP Sir Cyril Smith.
Politicians: Former Liberal leader Lord Steel and former MP Sir Cyril Smith. Chris McAndrew / Wikimedia Commons

Former Liberal leader Lord Steel has sought to "clarify" evidence he gave to an inquiry about child abuse allegations against former MP Sir Cyril Smith.

And he warned that "sensationalist headlines" from what he told the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) could "distract from panel's search of the truth".

The former Scottish Parliament presiding officer spoke out after the Liberal Democrats started disciplinary proceedings against him, after he told the inquiry a conversation with Smith left him "assuming" the allegations were correct but the party did not investigate them.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson tweeted: "The party has rightly begun a disciplinary investigation into Lord Steel following his revelations.

"Clearly this is incredibly serious and he should be suspended while this takes place."

She spoke after Lord Steel denied he had been "hiding his head in the sand" over the child abuse allegations made against the former Rochdale MP.

Lord Steel said he asked the late politician in 1979 about claims that he abused boys at a Rochdale hostel, and found they dated back to Smith's time as a Labour councillor in the 1960s.

He told the inquiry he came away from the conversation with Smith "assuming" he had committed the offences, because he did not deny them.

Lord Steel recalled Smith had told him police had investigated the claims and taken no action.

The IICSA heard no formal inquiry was then held by the Liberal Party into the claims.

On the suggestion that no action was taken then because Lord Steel did not want to get involved in a nasty confrontation with Smith, he told the hearing: "I wouldn't have been hiding my head in the sand.

"These allegations all related to a period some years before he was even a 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."

Smith, who was a MP for Rochdale between 1972 and 1992, is accused of sexually abusing a number of boys.

Allegations against him found a greater public spotlight after he died in 2010.

Lord Steel's conversation with Smith was prompted by a story in Private Eye.

It came after the Rochdale Alternative Press published a story in 1979 saying police had investigated Smith over allegations of abuse against teenagers at the Cambridge House hostel in the town.

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

Lord Steel told the inquiry: "He accepted the story was correct. Obviously I disapproved but as far as I was concerned it was past history."

He added: "He was not a MP at the time. He wasn't even a member of the party.

"I did not feel I had any locus in it all, other than being a reader of the paper."

In a statement released on Thursday Lord Steel said he wanted to "clarify what happened in 1979 when I asked Cyril Smith about the report in Private Eye".

He added: "As I told the Inquiry yesterday, I did not have that report with me when I tackled him, nor did we discuss the details in it.

"He admitted to me that the report was correct, in that he had been investigated by the police at the time and no action taken against him.

"I had already told the inquiry in writing that in my opinion he had been abusing his position in Rochdale Council (that is to gain access to council-run children's homes), but that had been properly a matter for the police and the council, and not for me, as he was neither a MP nor even a member of the Liberal Party at the time.

"I was in no position to re-open the investigation."

Lord Steel said: "The inquiry has a serious and sensitive job to undertake and spinning evidence to generate sensationalist headlines only serves to distract from panel's search of the truth."

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