MI5 was told that prosecutors lied to journalists about their decision not to press charges against the late MP Cyril Smith, but took no action as its role was “to defend the realm”, an inquiry has heard.
A police investigation into the Liberal politician’s alleged sexual abuse of young boys at care homes in Rochdale ended in 1970 when the director of public prosecutions (DPP) at the time, Sir Norman Skelhorn, concluded there was not enough evidence to prosecute him.
This was despite a police report that warned Smith was “sheltering behind a veneer of respectability” and had “used his unique position to indulge in a sordid series of indecent episodes with young boys towards whom he had a special responsibility”. Smith died in 2010 and was never prosecuted for his alleged crimes.
On the first day of hearings into historical allegations involving council homes and schools in Rochdale, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse heard that the office of the DPP told the Rochdale Alternative Paper (RAP) – which published a series of articles detailing the allegations against Smith in 1979 – that it had no record of the case having been referred to it.
Speaking on Monday, the lead counsel, Brian Altman QC, said the inquiry had contacted MI5 to ask for any information it had on the allegations against Smith. The security service provided documents showing it had been informed about “false representations to the press” by the DPP’s office.
Altman said: “The documents show that the security service’s legal adviser was informed of the false representations to the press from the DPP’s office. Based upon their review of the information they hold, the security service considers they took active steps to ensure that those involved in investigating allegations of child sexual abuse against Smith were made aware of all information of relevance to their inquiries.
“However, given their function was to defend the realm, at that time, and investigation was outside their remit, they simply filed the information related to the false representations that had been made to the press.”
In May 1979, days before the general election, RAP printed an article titled Strange Case, detailing allegations that Smith, the then MP for Rochdale, had subjected boys at Cambridge House hostel to a series of “bizarre medical inspections” and beatings in the 1960s. With the exception of Private Eye magazine, the claims were ignored by the national media.
The inquiry heard that when the DPP’s office was approached by the publication it said it had “failed to find a file relating to Cyril Smith”. A second approach produced the statement: “The DPP cannot trace such a case being referred to us but cannot confirm or deny receiving it.”
In a report given to Lancashire police’s chief constable in 1970, the year Smith first stood for election as an MP, Det Supt Jeffrey Leach was unsparing in his assessment of Smith, the inquiry heard. “It seems impossible to excuse his conduct over a considerable period of time whilst sheltering behind a veneer of respectability,” the report read.
“He has used his unique position to indulge in a sordid series of indecent episodes with young boys towards whom he had a special responsibility.” The officer said allegations that Smith spanked some boys’ bare bottoms and medically examined others “stood up”.
The inquiry heard that Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister at the time, had probably been informed about the allegations against Smith before awarding him a knighthood in 1988. A draft letter from Lord Shackleton on behalf of the political honours scrutiny committee to the PM directly referred to the police investigation and coverage in RAP and Private Eye.
Altman told the inquiry: “I mention this knighthood here for two reasons. First, because it demonstrates that the Lancashire investigation and the RAP article had been considered at the very highest level of politics and seemingly did not prompt more than consideration of the DPP’s decision not to prosecute.
“Second, because it is important to bear in mind the extent to which Cyril Smith continued to involve himself in serious issues related to the welfare of children. A knighthood would only have reinforced Smith’s veneer of respectability and power.”
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