David Steel responds to Cyril Smith allegations: “Idle gossip is not a basis for any inquiry at all”

Former Liberal leader Lord (David) Steel has responded on today’s BBC Radio 4 World at One to accusations that he failed to take seriously allegations levelled in 1979 by Private Eye magazine that Cyril Smith abused boys at a Rochdale hostel. You can listen to Martha Kearney’s interview with him here:

Here’s an excerpt from the accompanying BBC report:

Lord Steel said he challenged Cyril Smith about allegations in 1979 he abused boys at a Rochdale hostel. The ex-Liberal leader told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One the claims in Private Eye dated back to Smith’s time as a Labour councillor in the 1960s. Smith told him police had investigated the claims and taken no action. Asked if he had looked into rumours about Smith’s behaviour while a Liberal MP, he said: “We are a political party – not a detective agency.”

He added: “Idle gossip is not a basis for any inquiry at all and my basic point is not a single story emerged – not even a rumour emerged – about him misbehaving as an MP. If that had happened of course we would have inquired.” Cyril Smith, who was the Liberal MP for Rochdale from 1972 to 1992, died in 2010. …

Lord Steel, asked whether he should have acted in the 1970s in the light of the allegations about one of his MP’s behaviour, said: “I had no locus in the matter at all. They were ancient allegations about his time as a local councillor. They were nothing to do with his life as an MP.”

Asked about allegations he had not taken the abuse claims seriously, Lord Steel said: “This was a different era. Corporal punishment was permitted. It would be totally illegal now. There would be no question he’d be up for assault now but in those days it went on.”

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said the party had asked every current Lib Dem MP and peer who was around at the time of Smith’s alleged abuse if they had known anything and none had. Lord Steel said: “I don’t think I was included in that. I don’t remember being asked about it.”

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  • “Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said the party had asked every current Lib Dem MP and peer who was around at the time of Smith’s alleged abuse if they had known anything and none had. Lord Steel said: “I don’t think I was included in that. I don’t remember being asked about it.””

    So are we being asked to believe that when the whips were questioning the party’s parliamentarians about this in 2012, they were careless enough to overlook Lord Steel, who was the party leader when the allegations were published by Private Eye in 1979 – and who now confirms he was aware of them? Sorry, but that really isn’t believable.

  • It wasn’t ‘idle gossip’. People had gone to the police and files were passed to the CPS. For whatever reason, soon to be the subject of inquiry, no action was taken.

    Also, Steel is flat out contradicting Clegg’s claim he asked everybody in parliament who was around at that time.

  • There was no CPS in the 1960s. It started operating in 1986 so no files could have been passed to it about this matter.

  • Tony Greaves 29th Apr '14 - 5:57pm

    Has anyone got a copy of the 1979 article in Private Eye? It would be good to see it again because I think it would counter some of the hysterical accusation being made about cover-ups etc. The fact that was known at the time was that there had been accusations some 15 years previously when Cyril Smith was a prominent member of another political party. They had been investigated by the police, and they had been found wanting. If there were inadequacies at the time in the police investigations, even cover-ups in the police or in Rochdale Council, that could not have been known to the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1979 or indeed at any other time. (Indeed the facts of any alleged cover-ups have still not been established).

    What was David Steel or anyone else supposed to do in 1979 on the basis of what looked like typical PE scurrility? We knew that stuff had appeared in the Rochdale Alternative Press, which if I remember correctly was the basis of the PE story. But I saw RAP from time to time and it rarely had a week without an attack on Cyril Smith for all manner of things, some of them ridiculous. It was difficult to take seriously what they said about any particular thing – just another personal attack on a figure they loathed. (It’s worth remembering just how much Cyril Smith was hatred locally by political opponents in the Laoour Party and on the left generally).

    I have not read Danczuk’s book but I understand he makes generalised claims of a “paedophile ring” at Westminster at some time or other. If this is so, it’s a much bigger story than anything to do with Cyril Smith and the Liberal Party. So why are the media not pursuing it? Perhaps because it is all a phantom of Danczuk’s fertile imagination? Or because it involved people in the media – or other living persons they want to protect? Or because there is no hard evidence? Or because it does not fit their agenda of stirring up the muck-midden about Liberals during an election campaign?

    I should say that Danczuk contacted me (or rather his ghost writer did) while he was writing his book and said he was very interested in talking to me about Cyril Smith and community politics and local campaigning. I told him I was not interested. Danczuk then left several messages on my phone but I ignored them since I would not trust Labour politicians of his ilk with my granny’s little finger. I guess I took the right decision.

    Tony Greaves

  • Sorry Manfarang, my comment should be corrected to read ‘passed to the predecessors of the CPS’.

    This doesn’t alter the point one iota.

  • @ Tony Greaves

    The Private Eye May 1979 piece is shown here:

    Have to say I find it remarkable that no Liberals apparently read Private Eye, or if they did not one of them phoned party HQ to pass the allegations on or told other party members about it.

  • Well done Tony Greaves – you are absolutely correct in everything you say – I just wish some of our parliamentarians would stop shooting their mouths off without any real evidence – Dimwits book is certainly not evidence – we should wait and see if there is any real evidence from the police enquiry – and theres me still thinking one is innocent until proven guilty – even when you are dead. There are many allegations floating around Rochdale of a certain MP and the issue of domestic violence – but of course they are only allegations……

  • This is appalling. Steel does not really seem to grasp the gravity of the issue (he treats it as if it were a subject for situational ethics) nor does he really seem to understand that his failure to act shoulders him with a measure of responsibility.

  • Stephen Donnelly 29th Apr '14 - 8:37pm

    Patrick Mercer, a former Conservative frontbencher, has dramatically resigned his seat after he allegedly asked questions in parliament in exchange for thousands of pounds from a fake lobbying firm.

    I just wonder whether this will get more or less coverage than unproven allegations about a former MP who died in 2010.

  • Peter Chegwyn 29th Apr '14 - 9:40pm

    Funny how these 35-50 year old allegations appear in a book by a Labour MP, serialised in the right-wing Tory press, just a couple of weeks before local and Euro elections.

    Didn’t something similar happen with other allegations about a prominent Lib. Dem. just prior to the Eastleigh by-election and last year’s local elections?

    Coincidence? Or an attempt by our opponents to discredit our party just prior to each election.

  • Why did’nt Steel pay for private investigator? Party leaders potentially have the finger on the nuclear trigger and definitely
    have the ability to send the country to war. The lack of curiosity and determination to obtain the truth is worrying.

  • Tony Greaves 29th Apr '14 - 11:49pm

    Thanks for the PE page. It is a very interesting page indeed for anyone prepared to put themselves back in 1979. For instance the cartoon would horrify “right-thinking” people nowadays for its political incorrectness. And I think the Thorpe story worried us a lot more at the time than the Smith story.

    Of course we all read this story at the time and I am interested to find how accurately I remembered it. So why did none of the mainstream media pick it up? Why was it a story with no “legs”? One truth, remarkable for younger people who don’t realise just how much opinions have changed, is that the alleged actions described were not thought in 1979 to constitute serious “abuse” – in fact the word “abuse” had not adopted the meanings it has today and was not really used in such contexts.

    Plus, as I wrote above, few people took RAP’s regular attacks on Cyril Smith seriously. The simple answer to the shocked question asked by people in today’s febrile atmosphere in relation to sexual and personal violence – why did the Liberal leadership at the time not launch a formal inquiry? – is that no-one thought such allegations were particularly serious (as well as not regarding the source of them as in any way reliable). By ‘no-one’ I mean no-one in the political sphere in any party (or there would have been a series of serious political attacks, which did not happen) and no-one in the media or police. (Or why did the Mail or Telegraph at the time not launch a major character assassination as they would today?) It is also true that the word of the police was accepted and respected to a much greater extent then than now. So when allegations relating to 15 years previously appeared in two (widely regarded as scurrilous) publications, on a matter that had been investigated by the police and found to be without substance, why should they have been treated as requiring – what?

    I am not in any way defending or justifying the general attitudes that were prevalent in 1979. I am merely pointing out the climate in which such an article in PE was read and received. In the past 35 years things have changed a great deal in the area of “personal politics” – in many ways hugely for the better, in some ways for the worse. But you cannot judge actions and events 35 and 50 years ago without understanding the mores of the time.

    I will also add that while the actions alleged in the PE article are repugnant, they do not amount to the most serious levels of sexual abuse. Indeed they are clearly about personal power relationships (something well understood now but much less so in 1979) but not obviously about sex. (Indeed it was generally assumed by a lot of people without any evidence other than his physical disability that Cyril Smith was sexually impotent).

    If the inquiries in Rochdale produce hard evidence of serious misdeeds – and most of the people involved in any such things will now be very old – Cyril Smith may turn out to have been if not a bit player, at least one of a few or more than a few. Danczuk should perhaps be careful what he wishes for.

    Tony Greaves

  • g
    “This doesn’t alter the point one iota.”
    In the early 1960s corporal punishment was widespread and would not be considered an offence . Homosexuality was an offence though.
    These days teachers are murdered.

  • John Broggio 30th Apr '14 - 9:30am

    Fortunately it is only a singular teacher that has been murdered; hyperbole is not needed nor is it particularly good taste to conflate these very different cases.

    Corporal punishment may well have been the norm in schools in the 1960s and 1970s but I very much doubt anyone reasonably expected it to be administered by anyone other than a member of the school staff. This rather odd administration of corporal punishment, even for the day, does not remotely explain why a non medic was giving boys (to be extremely charitable) “physical examinations” or “washing” parts of their bodies.

    Those seeking to deflect or minimise what happened are going to look like an offshoot of the RCC.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Apr '14 - 1:52pm

    Tony Greaves, why should Simon Danczuk be careful what he wishes for? You are not taking this seriously enough.

  • Tony Greaves 30th Apr '14 - 8:26pm

    We may find out in due course, if the Rochdale investigations are thorough. But a lot of institutions in those days were not pleasant places – children’s homes, borstals, old people’s homes, mental hospitals, even some ordinary hospitals and schools. Corporal punishment was rife, and not just by teachers. If every such institution was now to be the subject of a detailed and rigorous forensic investigation, a lot of living old people would be exposed to public condemnation and the cost would be huge. To what ends? The real (and often successful) struggles have been to improve the way things are done rather than for ever root out the past and judge it by the standards of now. Or devote more attention to tackling things that are still not good.

    By all means be shocked at what used to do on. But use your energies to make sure that they don’t happen now.

    Tony Greaves

  • @ Tony Greaves,

    your post strangely skips over any prospect of the still living victims of abusers, in favour of “oh well that couldn’t possibly happen now and no point digging it all up”.

    Also I’d like to point out that a really big improvement in standards over the past might be actual investigations into such allegations rather than dismissing them out of hand because they might be embarrasing. Or shifting the topic into something vaguely related but not directly relevant, where you can pretend to hold moral righteousness. Such as “Never mind all that stuff that may or may not have happened in the past to people who are still alive and living with it today, let’s focus on more recent allegations of abuse, about which I’m very cross!”

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd May '14 - 12:20pm

    When these cases of abuse in institutions first came up as a big public concern, there was a huge amount of hypocrisy in the way that people hid the fact that such abuse was treated much less seriously in the past than it is now. We have learnt just how damaging this abuse can be to its victims, and just how persistent can be the urge in its perpetrators. But this has only been in the past decade or two. The reality was before then it was often assumed that the best way of treating it was not to make a fuss, to help the victim “forget about it”, to warn the perpetrator not to do it again, and then just to move everyone on without further action.

    As evidence of different attitudes, consider the Oz magazine trial – still held up as a landmark in advances of freedom, yet it was about defence of a publication which had images with a strong streak of paedophilia. There were things in that magazine that would be condemned more strongly now than they were then. Consider also the Rocky Horror Show, still thought of as a piece of light-hearted 1970s ephemera, yet its central message is that non-consensual sex i.e. rape can be liberating.

    When it is pretended that in the past child sex abuse was always treated with horror, its perpetrators immediately dealt with harshly, criminal action taken for granted, it is often done for politically motivated reasons, and those doing it should be aware of how it can be turned against them. This was show by the recent recollection of the links between the NCCL and the PIE. Yes, it really was the case in the past that a group advocating sex with children was thought to be making a valid point, perhaps a bit avant garde, but it was not treated with the horror it would be now, and those who did react with horror to it rather than understanding were thought to be a bit stuffy and old-fashioned. Often it was spoken about in a rather jokey way – the PE teacher or scout master who had rather too much fondness for boys’ bodies treated as a figure of fun, not as an evil monster.

    The change came about when widespread child sex abuse cases started emerging in the Catholic Church. People leapt on this in order to indulge in Catholic-bashing, making out that the Catholic Church was evil because of the way it had handled these things – even though it handled them in the way that was usual back then. Some of those throwing the biggest stones at the RC Church were those who had similar attitudes or behaviour themselves. Note, for example, the several BBC documentaries on this issue made at the same time the BBC was sheltering Jimmy Savile.

    What is now coming out was that this was not something peculiar to the Catholic Church, not something caused by some evil aspect of Catholicism. Rather, it really was widespread in almost all organisation where adults had contact with children. We have seen it coming out in the music world, sports world and so on. In order to deal with this properly, I think we need to accept how it is treated has altered. Using it as a political weapon, throwing accusations at ones enemies which rely on hiding how attitudes have changed won’t help with this. As we have seen, the result is just that it causes the truth to be hidden even more, as so much of it is one person’s word against another. In so many of these cases what we really want is for the perpetrator to feel free to come out and make a sincere apology and for the victims to be acknowledged as such, rather than exposed to a long trial where the results are often unsatisfactory because of the “innocent until proven guilty” principle.

  • I find these attempts at chronological relativism to be rather obnoxious — and, from a political point of view, the most damaging things that could possibly be said. The fact is that child abuse (whether corporal or sexual) is wrong now, was wrong then, was known to be wrong then, and that some people in authority were minded to treat it as trivial or to ignore it at the time (something which, of course, still goes on today) does not excuse them but rather inculpates them. It does not take some sort of new revelation to realize that this sort of activity is a repugnant, dangerous form of aggression against the powerless; it merely takes empathy.

  • Some people are missing the point, many of the victims of abuse are still alive, should they be denied justice now because ‘attitudes were different then’? Also, some of the accused, and those who helped cover up the abuse are alive, should they not also face justice?

    If people think there should be a statute of limitations for abuse based on either time, or differing social attitudes, then by all means state their case here.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 3rd May '14 - 11:23am

    It got beyond idle gossip many many years ago as you know all too well Mr Steel. You used to be a politician I respected.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th May '14 - 6:30am


    Some people are missing the point,

    Yes, you are, what you have written completely misses the point I was making.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th May '14 - 6:58am


    If people think there should be a statute of limitations for abuse based on either time, or differing social attitudes, then by all means state their case here

    That’s not what I was saying. What I was saying is that we need the truth to come out. Part of that truth is that there were different attitudes in the past. The problem with throwing around accusations in a way that ignores that is that it causes people to clam up and deny what they knew. THAT’S my point. We are seeing that here right now. I think if we were to accept that attitudes were different in the past because it wasn’t realised just how damaging this abuse can be, then it is more likely that those who knew what was happening will come forward and say.

    We can see here that the fear of how they will be treated if they admitted it most likely IS stopping people who knew about what Cyril Smith was doing coming forward and stating it. Instead we are getting all these denials. If the truth can only be dragged out through a long criminal trial with heavy penalties at the end, that’s all you will get, and many cases will never be revealed at all. If Mr Steel really does know more than he is letting on, how can he best be got to admit it? Threatening him with draconian penalties for “covering up” abuse, or saying “ok, we accept that at the time attitudes were different so you behaved in a way you wouldn’t now – so now, tell us what you REALLY knew”?

    If the truth comes out more readily, then victims will receive more readily what they most need – acknowledgement that they were victims of abuse and therefore acknowledgement of the damage done. Using this as a political football won’t encourage that to happen.

  • Matthew, I simply cannot accept that in general people were tolerant of child abuse before the 1980s.

    I can accept that people thought, rightly or wrongly, that the best response to child abuse was to have a quiet word with the abuser, or shuffle them on to a different parish or position rather than involve the authorities. We now know this was wrong.
    What got the Catholic Church into trouble was not the initial abuse, it was the continued cover up, the repeated secret warnings to abusers, but no sanctions, the quiet rearrangements of position, maybe a muttered word that this person should be watched. It seems such attitudes were present in politics too, and doubtless within other professions.

    If you don’t want politicians, and in particular the Liberal Democrats, to have the reputation the Catholic Church now has you have to act differently from them. You don’t attempt to distract, as Tony Greaves is doing, by complaining about cartoons in Private Eye, or local press hostility at the time, nor do you advocate a softly softly approach as you are doing.

    What we need, as the response to the conviction of Max Clifford shows – where other abused individuals are now able to come forward, is public inquiry and high profile prosecutions.

    It also doesn’t help that Nick Clegg is making statements that he asked and was told nobody knows anything, with admissions from Steel and Greaves that they’d heard rumours.

    It creates an impression of either a cover up or an unwillingness to investigate too hard.

    I’d suggest you might want to look at the response to abuse the Scouting movement takes in the UK. It swiftly dealt with abusers in its ranks, throwing them out, and reporting them to the police, no quiet cover ups, no attempts to ignore the situation.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th May '14 - 1:50pm


    Matthew, I simply cannot accept that in general people were tolerant of child abuse before the 1980s.

    There’s a difference between “tolerant” which implies that it was actually accepted, and what I am saying which was that it wasn’t taken as seriously because it wasn’t realised how damaging it could be. I quoted two examples which I thought would be well enough known for people to get the point, but I can think of many other minor things from back in the 1970s and early 1980s which indicate that various forms of sexual abuse just weren’t treated as lightly as they are now. For example, I remember a “rape joke” being made by a well-known television personality on a light entertainment show, which now would have lost that person his job, but then was considered so innocuous that it was not even commented on and so now is forgotten.

    What got the Catholic Church into trouble was not the initial abuse, it was the continued cover up, the repeated secret warnings to abusers, but no sanctions, the quiet rearrangements of position, maybe a muttered word that this person should be watched.

    Yes, but that’s in contradiction to what you wrote in the previous paragraph. First of all you write that you can see how people might have thought this way, even though it was wrong. Then you say that what got them into trouble was thinking this way. My point is that if we start with accepting that people got it wrong in the past and don’t judge them as if they knew then what we know now, it is more likely to cause an honest admission now. However, if you start throwing around accusations which assume that back then it was the norm to treat child abuse as we would treat it now, so anyone who didn’t is an evil person, you will cause just the sort of defensive reaction we are seeing. This is just what we saw with the Catholic Church – because a lot of people jumped on it as a Catholic-bashing thing, and hid the fact that the way the Catholic Church treated it back then was the way that it tended to be treated in general, the response was the over-defensive one you saw.

    I’d suggest you might want to look at the response to abuse the Scouting movement takes in the UK. It swiftly dealt with abusers in its ranks, throwing them out, and reporting them to the police, no quiet cover ups, no attempts to ignore the situation

    Yes, but did it always do this? Perhaps what it does is more acknowledged because there isn’t a big team of people who are into scout-bashing, and so only too ready to bring up past cases of abuse and throw charges and accusations about them which ignore the fact that attitudes and procedures have changed since then.

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