Cyril Smith: “Scurrilous hearsay?”

11 minutes and 19 seconds into Sunday’s final episode of “A Very English Scandal” Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe spoke the immortal lines: “All that new blood coming through – Clement Freud, Cyril Smith. Exciting Times”.  Of course the lines are fictional but the point is well made. We now know a very great deal about those “exciting times” and how abusers hid in plain sight behind a 70’s larger than life, English eccentric, man of the people image.

All the more astonishing then that Lord Steel said on Monday’s Newsnight that the allegations against Smith were “so far scurrilous hear-say”. 

This when the CPS has already admitted that Smith should have been prosecuted in 1970 or again in 1998 and 1999. On September 16 2017 the Chief Executive of Rochdale Borough Council gave an apology to the victims. The late, great Liz MacKean’ s  extraordinarily moving Dispatches documentary from September 2013 is still available. MacKean hears from those who say they were abused by Smith. I defy anyone not to at least give those witnesses a hearing.

The Independent Inquiry into child sexual abuse (IICSA) issued its interim report about Rochdale on April 25. In no way shape or form does the interim report implicate any Liberal or Liberal Democrat figures in abuse conducted by Cyril Smith. But, terrifyingly, it makes it clear that it is very likely that Smith abused over many decades. It hears from those who say they were abused by Smith in the 90s at Knowl View School and is astonished by the decision to make him Chair of Governors in 1994. Smith’s abuse does not just relate to allegations in the 60s when he was a member of the Labour Party.

In its introduction the interim report has harsh words for a former Lib Dem MP: “It was also the view of the Chair and the Panel that Paul Rowen, Lib Dem Leader of Rochdale Borough Council from 1992-6 bore considerable responsibility for the school [Knowl] during his tenure. As with Richard Farnell [previous Labour council leader] he was prepared to blame others without acknowledging his own failures of leadership, including his decision to give the school’s problems low priority”. (My square brackets).

Paragraph 81 page 128 of the report’s conclusions states: “At best he [Rowen] was insufficiently inquisitive about Knowl View School despite having knowledge of the serious problems that persisted at the school. At worst, as council leader he turned a blind eye to these problems and chose to give them a low priority”. (My square brackets)

Our party should apologise to the victims and we should all, every single one of us, resolve that in future we should be “sufficiently inquisitive” on behalf of the vulnerable.

* Ruth Bright has been a councillor in Southwark and Parliamentary Candidate for Hampshire East

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  • On tuesday 29th April 2014 – 2:54 pm LDV ran the headline, “David Steel responds to Cyril Smith allegations: “Idle gossip is not a basis for any inquiry at all”…

    It seems Lord Steel hasn’t changed his view and there were many then backing Steel’s defence of Smith. I wonder how much has changed?

  • Ruth, very, very well said.

  • Well said, Ruth.

  • “Very likely” is not enough. Evidence that is beyond reasonable doubt is the standard of evidence required to validate a criminal conviction.

  • Cymraeg am byth 10th Jun '18 - 7:56am

    Lord Steel is right. These allegations have never been tested in a criminal trial and we now know that there have been myriad cases of failure to disclose vital evidence. The CPS is a failing organisation and there is also a distinct lack of transparency in the current justice system. Until there is a trial of the facts any views about anyone ‘s guilt will always be “idle gossip”

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 10th Jun '18 - 10:30am

    These days, allegations such as those made against Smith would lead to the suspension of that individual. I’m astonished that nothing was done to investigate them at the time. I agree with Ruth – as a party we need to be sure that our processes are now sufficient to prevent such things being swept under the carpet in the future. It isn’t just about processes – it is about culture, too, and being ready to listen to people who come forward to talk about their experiences. They need to be treated with empathy and respect and taken seriously.

  • I would urge the critics here to read the interim report on Rochdale from the IICSA. The police and CPS are clear that Smith could have been prosecuted for sexually assaulting children at Cambridge House in the 1960s. I used the words “very likely” (and accept that those words were too weak) about the allegations heard by the IICSA that Smith raped and observed rape at Knowl View school in the 1990s.

  • Cymraeg am byth 10th Jun '18 - 12:32pm

    “The police and CPS are clear” They have also been clearly withholding vital evidence in criminal trials. How can you or anyone else have full confidence in such a flawed system? There are innocent men in prison because of the current situation. However, we also have a legal system that says “innocent until proven guilty” . Perhaps you do not believe in that!

  • Ian Martin 10th Jun ’18 – 6:09am….Cymraeg am byth 10th Jun ’18 – 7:56am…..

    There were certainly enough ‘reports’to warrant an investigation by the party.

    Let’s not forget that John Walker, the joint editor of the Rochdale Alternative Press, told the BBC that the Liberal party press office told him on 22 April 1979: “It is not a very friendly gesture [publishing the allegations]. All he seems to have done is spank a few bare bottoms.”
    The truth of this report seems to have been confirmed by David Steel when, in 2014, he said, “”The accusation in the [1979] Private Eye version of the report was simply that he was administering corporal punishment to these boys which he should not have been doing.” Steel went on to say (on his conversation with Smith), “I said to him what is all this in Private Eye. He said: ‘Yes the report is true”.

    Any talk suggesting that corporal punishment was then legal is a ‘red herring’. Smith was not a member of staff at any boys’ home and should not have been involved.

  • Tony Dawson 10th Jun '18 - 9:59pm

    I think that the thing which may be missing from many people’s appreciation of what happened in Rochdale in the 1970s and 1980s is any understanding of the massively personally corrupt municipal culture of the local authority over several decades, under both Lib Dems and Labour control. The hatred which many if not most Labour and Lib Dem politicians in the town of Rochdale had for each other at that time was so extensive (a lot of it, I presume, dating back to Cyril Smith’s defection from Labour to the Liberals). it was not so bad in the other two areas of the Borough. there was a pamphlet ‘Rochdale Alternative press’ which appeared to many Liberals (including some very good ones) to be simply an anti-Smith hate sheet.

    Cyril Smith’s driver of his big Mercedes was his brother Norman who was also the chair of Rochdale MBC Social Services. Norman and Cyril were great pals of Conservative Councillor Pamela Hawton of Alkrington (Middleton), who was leader of the Tories who were in coalition with the Liberals and also Chair of the Rochdale Health Authority. The two Directors of Social Services at the time were Lyndon Price, who I found to be a somewhat strange man and his deputy, who became his successor, Gordon Littlemore who I found to be a very weak man.

    The prevailing culture in Rochdale was that both Labour and Lib/Tory sides would pretty much say anything about each other and believe things of which they had no evidence about the other. They would also loyally dismiss any allegations which they heard about relating to their own side as being obviously simply malicious and not worth investigating. The extent of this tribalism was quite phenomenal. I encountered it personally because as a local NHS watchdog I formed common ground about substantial local NHS concerns with the late Jim Dobbin, who was a member of the Rochdale Health Authority long before he became MP for Heywood. I suffered the wrath of the Smiths for the implied criticism of their Tory friend Pamela Hawton who could do no wrong in their eyes. This made life very difficult for me both professionally and personally despite the fact that i lived in the Littleborough & Saddleworth constituency.

  • Interesting that he never took the option, despite threatening to do so, of issuing legal action for libel against RAP and Private Eye. The party and Lord Steel acknowledged that he smacked boys so how can he now dismiss it as gossip.
    As other posters have pointed out the authorities acknowledge he should have been charged and certainly if still alive he would most likely have been charged. I was born and raised in Rochdale and remember the Smith brothers. I also remember reading RAP in preference to the local papers.

  • Tony, Sean, David, expats, theakes – thank you.

    cymraeg am byth – sorry that you feel that you have to remain anonymous. It is interesting that you bring gender into this. I take no pleasure whatsoever in innocent men being imprisoned. I saw what an unjust and disproportionate sentence did to my own father for an offence he DID commit.

    The lingering horror of cases of multiple abuse is often the failure to believe women and girls. In the case of Smith there has been a systematic failure over generations to believe or value working class boys and men.

  • The extent to which Rochdale was an utter mess thirty or forty years ago was that within the perennial Labour faction fighting, Paul Flowers the ‘Crystal Methodist’ was widely-considered to be one of the (relatively) ‘good guys’.

    When you had people around like Alistair Brett, (Labour’s candidate against Chris Davies) all these things were relative.

  • David Allen 11th Jun '18 - 8:43pm

    “Evidence that is beyond reasonable doubt is the standard of evidence required to validate a criminal conviction.”

    But Smith is dead, and he got away without being charged. We cannot hide behind the possible lack of evidence that is beyond reasonable doubt. We should apologise.

    Instead we see the opposite behaviour. I was appalled to hear a distinguished party speaker, at an internal party meeting, choosing to praise and endorse remarks by Cyril Smith, when there was absolutely no reason why he should have been picked out for favourable mention. This was a few years ago but it was after the validity of the allegations against Smith had become widely accepted.

  • The CPS would not have prosecuted Smith in 1970. It didn’t exist then.
    I knew someone who worked in Turing’s hut. Asked about Turing she said things were different then. Homosexuals continued to be prosecuted for various offences up until the 1980s.

  • The CPS would not have prosecuted Smith in 1970. It didn’t exist them.
    Private Eye was sused for libel countless times. It’s contents weren’t taken that seriously.

  • @Tony Dawson – an interesting point, and one which certainly would have muddied the waters when Simon Danczuk was making some of the allegations.

    Getting back to Caron’s original point, though, it’s disappointing that some senior party politicians still have a tendency to dismiss these and other allegations in such a flippant way. We have come far in dealing with these type of allegations (and I hope much further than either the Tories or Labour) but we still have some way to go.

  • We should apologise for what exactly? Apologising to the victims is about as pointless as apologising to Africa for slavery. Nobody in this party bears any responsibility for Cyril Smith.

  • Ruth Bright 12th Jun '18 - 1:18pm

    Apologies for matters of ancient history are a waste of time – I agree. The Smith saga however is not ancient history. Smith was made Chair of Governors of Knowl View school in 1994 and his role was little scrutinised by a Lib Dem Council leader. Ten days ago the victims were dismissed by a very senior Lib Dem. Again, not ancient history.

    To clarify, I said that the CPS has since said that Smith should have been prosecuted in 1970 not that it was the body to prosecute in 1970.

  • Tony Dawson 13th Jun '18 - 9:26am

    I am sure that there must have been some requests for help which were made to senior and/or relevant Liberals/ Lib Dems at various times over the past 40 years. I am sure that th Party collectively needs to recognise its failure to take steps to look into allegations raised when they came other than ‘third hand via nasty political opponents’. What concerns me still, after all this time, is the failure of the police, social services officials and prosecuting bodies during all these times. These ‘professionals’ appear to have determined that there was no significant evidence. It is difficult to conclude, if you have lived in the Pennine fringes of Greater Manchester for any number of years, other than that there may have been an undue closeness at various times between senior police officers and senior political leaders of various parties in that part of the world.

  • The problem with allegations against the deceased is that they can never be tested in court. So it cannot conclusively be said that any of the accusations are true or not. Perhaps that is why Simon Danzuk waited till Smith was dead before publishing his allegations.
    I saw the original RAP articles. I was firmly of the opinion that if there was substance to them police and court action should have followed. It didn’t. Now it is possible to suggest that this was due to an unhealthy relationship between senior police officers and politicians, but Greater Manchester Police were not known for their love of the political classes. There was a TV programme that suggested that the Labour MP whose death sparked the Rochdale By-election in 1972 had squared it with the DPP, but again no proof.
    I am, and continue to be appalled by any and all child abuse, but believe that allegations should be tested in the courts and that proven abusers should be jailed.
    Some of the younger people on this thread should bear in mind that smacking or caning children both in the home and in care was widespread until relatively recently and that David Steel’s comments reflect the climate of the time.
    I hold no brief for Cyril Smith, whom I knew quite well from 1972 until his death. I have no idea whether the more lurid accusations have any truth in them and fully accord with Tony Dawson on the vitriolic hatreds that existed in Rochdale between Labour and the Lib Dems.
    I can see no point in the party apologising for Smith’s alleged behaviour. He stepped down as an MP in 1992, barely 4 years after the creation of the party, which he opposed and for whom he never actually fought a parliamentary election.

  • Mick – I have read what you say very carefully and appreciate your measured response. It is a reasonable comment about the era’s attitude to corporal punishment. Indeed, sometime ago I wrote about different attitudes to children in the 1970s in an article for LDV called “Believe”. However, the Independent Inquiry into child sexual abuse says that Smith’s behaviour was way beyond the norm even for the time. Witnesses say Smith “examined” children for fictional ailments and misdemeanours and was called in to do so.

    Even if one is relaxed about the comments Steel made at the time one should surely see a case for him apologising for dismissing the findings of the IICSA and (therefore the witness hearings) as tittle-tattle.

  • Mick Taylor 14th Jun '18 - 4:40pm

    Ruth Bright. I have no brief for David Steel. It is a matter for him if he should apologise or not, but I do think his recent comment was highly insensitive. What I said was that the party should not get into the business of apologising.
    One more historical point. It may seem hard now to understand the very tight grip Cyril Smith had on the Liberal Party in Rochdale. There was simply no space to disagree with Cyril. If he didn’t like you you got nowhere in Liberal politics in the town. So whilst the former Liberal Council leader (and indeed former MP) should almost certainly have been more vigilant and inquisitive, people underestimate the difficulties of doing that with Cyril to contend with.

  • Ruth Bright 15th Jun '18 - 7:54pm

    Salutary stuff from Mick Taylor about the malign reach of Smith. A reminder of the toxic possibilities of an unhealthy concentration of power.

  • Laurence Cox 16th Jun '18 - 12:08am

    @Mick Taylor
    “The problem with allegations against the deceased is that they can never be tested in court.”

    In principle, there could be a trial of the facts. This normally takes place when a defendant is unfit to plead, a recent case being the accusations against Lord Janner. That case was dropped following Lord Janner’s death, but Ken MacDonald, former head of the CPS, did say that death of the defendant need not automatically terminate a trial of the facts, since it could only take place when a defendent was unfit to take part in the trial. The question that really needs to be asked is ‘is a trial of the facts when a defendant has died in the public interest?’ The result of the action taken meant that the alleged victims were denied the opportunity to put their allegations in a court of law and be cross-examined on them.

  • Simon Banks 5th Aug '18 - 6:18pm

    What stands out for me in all this comment is Tony Dawson’s explanation of the political context. Where politics becomes so viciously confrontational, it is very easy and natural to dismiss attacks. Where politics is based primarily on whether you’re for person A and against person B, or the opposite, reason and judgment go out of the window. I’m afraid some local parties are like that in their internal disputes.

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