Cyril Smith: The decision made in 1970 would not be made today

On 13th November Lib Dem Voice covered an article by Paul Waugh in the Spectator which publicised allegations of child abuse against the former Liberal MP Sir Cyril Smith.

Yesterday the Crown Prosecution Service issued a statement about Cyril Smith.

It begins by describing decisions that were made in 1970 about a file of evidence handed to the Crown Prosecution Service.

The file, from Lancashire Constabulary, contained allegations made by eight men that they had been subjected to indecent assaults by Cyril Smith as teenagers. The allegations were very similar in nature, and were allegedly conducted on the pretexts of either a medical examination or punishment for misbehaviour. All the boys were either living at Cambridge House Children’s Home in Rochdale (six of them), or were dependent on Cyril Smith for either employment, financial support or some sort of guardianship. It is noted that 80 pages of evidence was supplied to the then DPP’s office with a covering note dated 11 March 1970.

The only documentation of the decision making is a one page letter to the Chief Constable of Lancashire Constabulary. It is dated 19 March, 1970, and reads:

“I have considered your file and I observe that eight young men, whose ages range from nineteen to twenty-four years, allege that between 1961 and 1966 Smith subjected them to various forms of indecency and I also observe that Smith denies their allegations. Any charges of indecent assault founded on these allegations, as well as being somewhat stale, would be, in my view, completely without corroboration. Further, the characters of some of these young men would be likely to render their evidence suspect.

“In the circumstances, I do not consider that if proceedings for indecent assault were to be taken against Smith, there would be a reasonable prospect of a conviction. I do not, therefore, advise his prosecution.” 

It is important to note that this way of thinking bears little resemblance to how such cases are assessed today or in recent years.

The statement goes on to discuss allegations in 1997 and 1998.

In April 1997, South Wales police began an investigation into sexual and physical abuse within care establishments in Wales, during which helplines were publicised by the media inviting potential victims to come forward. One man who rang the helpline alleged he was abused by Cyril Smith at Cambridge House Children’s Home in Rochdale between 1965 and 1968. This allegation was passed to Greater Manchester Police, who submitted a file of evidence, which also included the 1970 documentation, to the CPS in May 1998.

The request was to review the 1970 decision making and this was provided in a written advice from the CPS lawyer on 17 June 1998.

In light of the greater understanding of sexual abuse, the reviewing lawyer concluded that there was sufficient evidence to charge, but that a prosecution should not proceed because:

  • Cyril Smith had been told that he would not be charged for these alleged offences 28 years previously. The law and procedures followed by prosecutors in 1998 made clear that long-standing charging decisions could only be reversed in very limited circumstances, namely new evidence coming to light. This rule applied to all cases and the evidence submitted by police against Smith in 1998 was the same as in 1970.
  • If Smith had been charged, a court would have likely stopped the prosecution for the same reason.

It concludes:

Victims of historic sexual abuse are entitled to justice and prosecutions that would not have been attempted in the past are now brought successfully. As is clear from the 1998 decision making, there have been significant developments in the way the criminal justice system approaches cases such as these, and these developments have continued to this day. Prosecutors, police officers and judges have a much better understanding than ever before of how these offences are committed.

Any victims who are considering coming forward should not be dissuaded by the decisions of the past. The legal barrier to prosecution in 1998 has since been relaxed and the approach demonstrated in 1970 has now long been one rejected by the entire criminal justice system which can be seen through not only a change in attitude, but a change in the law on corroboration in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

The decision made in 1970 would not be made by the CPS today.

You can read the full statement here.


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  • The Assistant Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police made a rather stronger statement, concluding:
    “Smith cannot be charged or convicted posthumously. From the overwhelming evidence we have, it is right and proper we should publicly recognise that young boys were sexually and physically abused, and we will offer them as much support as they need should they wish to speak to us.”

  • All that amounts to saying “Of course it couldnt happen nowadays you know” & we have heard that sort of thing before.
    Yes, attitudes towards women & children hav e improved, from vile to merely appaling. Victims are still not being beleived & that is what has to change.
    On the question of our guilt, its hard to beleive that no-one in the party had any suspicions, an apology on behalf of the party would help the victims I think.

  • Geoffrey Payne 28th Nov '12 - 1:19pm

    I have no doubt that Rochdale Liberal Democrats are going to feel the heat over this. However it is the job of the police to investigate and bring to justice anyone who has committed an offence. Given that Cyril Smith was cleared on 2 occasions then it was reasonable to assume he was innocent until proved guilty. No one is saying that either the Lib Dems or Labour stood in the way of justice taking its proper course. It is the police that should apologise.

  • Dan Falchikov, oh come on, David Steel was aware of the allegations and downplayed them. It doesn’t matter which party Smith was a member of, only that it’s important to establish if any party he was a member of covered up the abuse and if he were part of a wider network involving other politicians or senior figures.

  • David Allen 28th Nov '12 - 1:45pm

    An apology would be an admission of guilt, at least at the level of culpable failure to act on reasonable suspicions. Unless anyone actually feels that this would be appropriate, the party should not make an apology as such.

    However, it should be making a statement of regret. So, no doubt, should Rochdale Labour. Just as the BBC should (and do) regret failing to pick out Savile, so our party should regret failing to pick out Smith.

    It is good to see this article on LDV, as it amounts to an acknowledgement that there are questions to answer. The official Lib Dem website says nothing at all. It is time that it did.

  • paul barker 28th Nov '12 - 1:46pm

    I feel that Dan Falchikov & Geoffrey Payne are partly missing the point. If you read the manchester police statement they are apologetic. No doubt there are lots of other institutions that will be apologising at some point but for the vast majority of those who remember cyril smith his name is linked firmly to our party.

  • “Given that Cyril Smith was cleared on 2 occasions then it was reasonable to assume he was innocent until proved guilty. No one is saying that either the Lib Dems or Labour stood in the way of justice taking its proper course. It is the police that should apologise.”

    No – the responsibility appears to rest squarely with the DPP’s office (and later the CPS).

    The Guardian reports:
    Sources close to the current Greater Manchester police (GMP) inquiry into the Smith investigations said the CPS’s statement had been released as a face-saving exercise because of intense pressure from former detectives who worked on the cases.
    Former detectives had dug out damning evidence of abuse, as well as testimony from officers recommending prosecution, sources said. GMP officers are believed to have held meetings with CPS officials last week about how best to handle the case, with GMP officers keen to release the files as soon as possible.

  • I fail to see why the Lib Dems, or for that matter Labour, need to apologise because of the information available at this time. If, as appears likely, there is substance to these allegations then the only culpable person is beyond justice.

    Any organisation could have a sex offender hiding within it, even those with the most stringent of safeguards. Unless they circumvent those processes designed to identify them (for example a school failing to carry out appropriate pre-employment checks) then they can not really be held responsible. If you are not responsible then an expression of regret may be appropriate rather than an apology.

    @Paul Barker mentions that there may have been suspicions. Certainly these allegations were not new. However, it would be fair for people to assume that the having been effectively cleared by a Police investigations the suspicions had been appropriately dealt with.

  • David Allen 28th Nov '12 - 2:42pm

    Steve Way: Why should we expect a bit of humility from the BBC, but not from a political party?

    You can guess what people will say. Arrogant politicians, that’s what they will say.

  • @David Allen
    Because the BBC issues were never the subject of a police investigation, and those who ‘knew’ allowed Saville to continue to have inappropriate access to children. At some point it is reasonable to assume a suspicion has been investigated appropriately, I would feel that one investigated by the Police should meet this point.

    If there were those within the Party that allowed abuse to continue because of the MP’s status then, like the BBC, I would agree an apology would be appropriate.

  • John Broggio 28th Nov '12 - 8:25pm

    Was not Shirley Williams in the Labour party too at the time? That might be another reason for both Labour & the Lib Dems to issue an apologetic statement – perhaps jointly even.

  • Cyril left the Labour party in about 1966 IIRC. People in the party almost certainly “had suspicions” as these allegations would have been pretty much known about at the time – and in any case were public knowledge after 1979. The issue is what should be done about those suspicions given that there had been a police investigation which had gone nowhere.

    If action was taken on the basis of any allegation – “there’s no smoke without fire” then Greville Janner’s career would have been finished in 1991 when a series of unfounded allegations were made against him.

  • Hwyell – you are absolutely right on that last point. Let’s get something put right in all of this though – and I hate to espouse legal thought over the common narrative but the CPS statement is an admission that they feel in hindsight that there was a case to answer in a court of law and as such they would have sought charges. Those charges would then have been scrutinised in court and guilt or innocence established. The CPS statement does not equal guilt or case proven and it’s an extremely dangerous precedent we as a society are going down in these cases to presume this simply because someone is dead. This kind of presumption could prejudice the fair trial also of anyone else who could be implicated in this or any other historic case where the accused has since passed away. Indeed we may yet discover alleged victims of these such cases don’t get to see their allegations get a proper hearing because a defence barrister will rightly be able to point to media coverage which talked of allegations as facts and thus for which 12 men and women may not be able to divorce from their thoughts when deliberating. This is a total mess and journalists, politicians and the police need to seriously review how these posthumous investigations are handled. These sort of allegations and the public frenzy over this kind of thing should not mean we throw out all the basic principles of innocent til proven guilty. And before anyone accuses me of being an apologist for an alleged abuser, think again. These are basic, fundamental principles which no real liberal should bow to mob pressure not to defend. It does not in anyway undermine the seriousness of allegations but that is what they remain without proper scrutiny and a CPS statement does not constitute proper scrutiny

  • Just a side note.

    Given the scale of sexual abuse towards children has long been recognised as so widespread that it touches every community and organisation in the land, any attempt to score points demeans the victims, redoubles the offence and is, quite simply, outrageous.

    Making judgements and demanding apologies for imagined crimes on behalf of others is absolutely unacceptable.

    What is necessary is to offer support to victims to enable them to speak out freely so that evidence may be collected, perpetrators dealt with and any failings put right – a liberal society seeks truth and understanding to prevent recurrence of harm.

  • Orangepan – you are absolutely right. But we also mess with the principles of innocent until proven guilty (even when dealing with things posthumously) at our peril. And as I say current media frenzy and treating as fact any allegation made by an accuser or police could in the end prejudice a trial of any living person accused in connection with these allegations or any other. That is not only a diservice to society as a whole but also to alleged victims who may yet see cases thrown out because it’s felt a defendant cannot be tried fairly as a result of press coverage treating as fact every allegation made. They remain allegations until properly scrutinised and that should be made categorically clear.

  • Exactly, prejudice opposes justice.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 29th Nov '12 - 9:11am

    As well as censoring my posts – I think many here are forgetting that many LibDems in Rochdale have had a track record for many years of taking a rather aggressive and threatening approach to those who continued to air the allegations and wanted to see them addressed. A long overdue apology is also due for the now well documented stance that Smith took in support of the asbestos manufacturers to help them deny and limit their liability to their employees whose lives they ruined and damaged, many of whom were his constituents.

    As Oranjepan says prejudice opposes justices and there were not a few Rochdale LibDems who have done this for many years in their defence of Smith – and they are the ones who should now be apologising particularly as they are still very much alive.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 29th Nov '12 - 9:34am

    “That might be another reason for both Labour & the Lib Dems to issue an apologetic statement – perhaps jointly even.”

    If there are any Labour Party members or supporters who were aware of what Smith did and assisted in the cover up which has being going on for many years then they should of course apologise and be prepared to face the full force of the law. That said it should be noted that this whole sorry mess has only now been blown apart because of the actions of Rochdale’s Labour MP and Labour members and supporters such as Chris Paul who continued to push the case despite continued opposition from many Rochdale LibDems. There is clearly one political party in Rochdale that has rather a lot to do when it comes to atonement. We perhaps should also not forget that Smith was quite forward thinking in developing deep links with many in the local Conservative Party, and defending their personal interests, well before the national party followed his lead,

  • Toryboysnevergrowup – there was no cover up as far as I can see. Allegations were investigated and not pursued by the police – that is hardly a cover up on the party of liberals or labour. None of us know the actual facts though. The CPS statement is about them saying that in hindsight they may have pursued it to court. It does not equal guilt. It would be quite good to have some proper scrutiny of the allegations to see if they do indeed stand up. Sadly we won’t get that now unless someone else is charged in connection with the allegations. My point remains though, given that these allegations are now being treated as carte Blanche fact, could a fair trial take place?

  • “The CPS statement is about them saying that in hindsight they may have pursued it to court. It does not equal guilt.”

    See the first comment above.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 29th Nov '12 - 11:05pm

    Many here are not aware of some of the specific facts about how the Rochdale Liberals have acted for many years in an aggressive and threatening manner to those who have raised these allegations over the years some of whom were the victims. This is not something that came out of the blue. The Rochdale Alternative Paper published the deatils of the allegations back in the mid 1970s and everything that has come out in the past few days is remarkably consistent with RAPs account. RAP was consistently hounded and threatened by the Rochdale Liberals and the Smith family throughout its life who did everything they could to undermine its commercial existence within the town – it was also very accurate on Smith’s relationship with the asbestos industry.

    It is also worth mentioning that there were many Liberals who left the Rochdale Party after it was taken over by Smith and his cronies – some of whom it is pretty clear already had their suspicions.

    I’m afraid that just like Jimmy Savile there are some very hard questions that need to be asked of those who failed to ask the questions and turned a blind eye while Smith continued in public life. There is one difference in the case of Smith in that those failing to ask the questions and turning a blind eye took a rather more aggressive stance to those who were.

    I also note the current deafening silence of the Rochdale LibDem organisation – not a body that was known for its silence when it came to eulogizing Smith.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 29th Nov '12 - 11:24pm

    It should also be noted that there are allegations about Smith’s behaviour at Knowl House after he became an MP and after RAP published the allegations about Cambridge House

    Although Knowl House was investigated Smith’s activities there were not and some in Rochdale are asking that such an investigation now be undertaken if only to identify and possibly prosecute those who may have collaborated with Smith. Will the Rochdale LibDems join the call for such an investigation?

  • Helen Dudden 30th Nov '12 - 9:31am

    Until, being an MP is considered to be simply, a job in the publc sector with some perks, I think we all feel for all children who have been subjected to abuse.

    Young lives spoilt for ever.

    I make no comments, as I do not have the evidence to read, but of course there should be some apology, if it is true.

  • David Allen 30th Nov '12 - 1:13pm

    Ashley and Hywel make some valid points, in principle, about the general case – where allegations are made which could be unfounded, and which have not been or cannot be resolved by a proper trial, in particular when the allegations are posthumous. A political party which is caught up in such a situation, when a prominent present or past member is the subject of serious allegations, should ask itself what evidence it has on the reality of the situation. If the Party believes that its member has been, or might have been, unjustly accused – or if it believes that the evidence is not conclusive – then it should find a way to make that belief clear. Silence is not appropriate.

    In this case, the Assistant Chief Constable of Manchester has referred to “overwhelming evidence”. Of course we do not have trial by word of police chief. However, nor can we ignore the remark.

    Steve Way and others have validly pointed out that the Party knew a police investigation had come to nothing, and that this knowledge provides a substantial measure of defence against those who would accuse the Party of culpable negligence. It does not follow that the Party can feel wholly comfortable with its position, and with what happened and was allowed to continue happening.

    As I said before – I think that in the absence of any more damning evidence involving the Party beyond Rochdale, an apology as such would not be warranted. It would amount to an admission of a greater level of culpability than is appropriate, The analogy is with the slave trade. Tony Blair should not have apologised for the slave trade, because neither he nor anyone else alive had any involvement in it. Tony Blair was however right to express regret.

    Our Party should therefore make a decision. If it believes the evidence is not conclusive and that “innocent until proven guilty” should be the key, then it should find a way to indicate that. If on the other hand it accepts that it is in much the same position as the BBC with Savile, then it should express its regret that the allegations were not put to the test at the appropriate time so that if proven correct, appropriate and timely actions could have been taken. It should match the humility shown by the CPS, who have acknowledged that past practice would not today be considered justified. It should not maintain a shameful silence.

    Finally – Look, the point is that this Party is on its knees. We came eighth for a reason, indeed multiple reasons. There are many things we should do about that, I have made my comments elsewhere, and they do not belong here. But one thing we must certainly do is to level with the public, to stop acting in an aloof and disdainful manner, to stop giving the impression that we don’t care if our grandee might have caused terrible harm. Otherwise, the public will not care about us, and they will be right not to care about us.

  • David Allen, the lib dems as an entity might have been unaware of the evidence against Smith. Very senior individuals, including David Steel, were informed, and excused his behaviour.

    At the very least that should be investigated.

    The BBC have handed the Savile fallout with more dignity and clarity than the Lib Dems who seem to want to either ignore it, or pretend it’s Labour’s fault!

  • I lived in Rochdale for about 3 years in the v. early 60’s . Smith was then a prominent Councillor, indeed aan Alderman, and a senior member of the Labour Party, and there was plenty of mud thrown at him by both Liberals and Tories. The local paper though, was a bit “prissy” about sexual matters. I wasn’t invlved in local,politics but I knew one or two people on the fringes and nothing was ever said. In any event caning a boy on the buttocks, even the bare buttocks wouldn’t have been considered that remakable.

    I subsequently moved away and became active in Liberal politics. I occasionally visited Rochdale and kept an eye on Big Cyrils activities, just because he was a big figure. I never heard of any suspicions about him, although I knew people who would have been glad to seem him fall, and would have been in a position to bring about that fall.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 2nd Dec '12 - 8:30am

    M James

    You clearly never read RAP – probably because the local Liberals were doing all they can to stop its distribution and rubbish the account of what happened at Cambridge House based upon interviews of the victims and others. Nevertheless you would appear to be in good company because David Steel is now denying ever seen any “substantive” allegations.

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