Oh What a Tangled Web in Westminster

 It has been a tumultuous month in the halls of Westminster and Whitehall as more and more revelations come to light concerning child abuse among the highest in the land.  The scandal becomes more and more tangled and more and more alarming. Although much has happened in the last thirty days, these events have deep roots so it is worth taking a look at what has gone before.

The disturbing claims that a paedophile ring was operating within government first came to light in an investigation by Conservative politician Geoffrey Dickens. In November 1983, the MP from Greater Manchester sent a 40-page document to then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, detailing alleged VIP child abusers. The names apparently included former Liberal Party Chief Whip Cyril Smith and other senior politicians. In a newspaper interview at the time, Mr Dickens named eight 'really important public figures' that he planned to expose, and whose crimes are believed to have stretched back to the 1960s. According to his son, Barry, Mr Dickens told his family that the dossier would “blow it all apart”.

But the expected explosion never happened.

Within a week of the newspaper interview both the Manchester home and London flat of Geoffrey Dickens were burgled. Nothing was taken. Was it an attempt to find valuable information, or a warning shot, or a coincidence?  No one knows.  In March 1984 Leon Brittan advised Geoffrey Dickens that his dossier has been assessed by prosecutors and passed on to the police.

But no further action ever eventuated.  For many years all went quiet on the Westminster front. In May 1995 Geoffrey Dickens died and a short time later his widow destroyed his copy of the paedophile dossier because it was too upsetting.

In September 2010, the MP for Rochdale, Cyril Smith died without ever having been charged with sex offences.

Two years later, following the death of Jimmy Savile, many, many claims of historic child abuse emerged, including a number of witnesses claiming to have been spanked and sexually abused by Cyril Smith at a hostel he co-founded in Rochdale in the early 1960s

In October 2012, during Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour MP Tom Watson asked this question:

The evidence file used to convict paedophile Peter Righton, if it still exists, contains clear intelligence of a widespread paedophile ring. One of its members boasts of his links to a senior aide of a former Prime Minister who says he could smuggle indecent images of children from abroad. The leads were not followed up but if the file still exists, I want to ensure that the Metropolitan Police secure the evidence, re-examine it, and investigate clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and Number 10.

Tom Watson’s PMQ seems to have set off a flurry of activity.

In November 2012 Lancashire Police announced that they would be investigating claims of pre 1974 sexual abuse by Smith while the Greater Manchester Police would investigate claims relating to incidents after 1974.  Apparently police had received 144 complaints against Smith.  There were police investigations of him in 1970, 1998 and 1999 but each time the files were submitted to prosecutors they were rejected.  The CPS and Greater Manchester Police have since accepted that Smith should have been prosecuted due to “overwhelming evidence”. It does not take a conspiracy theorist to conclude that he was protected by very influential friends!

Also in November 2012, a Metropolitan Police Service investigation was set up to examine matters which related directly to Tom Watson’s question. This investigation, known as Operation Fairbank, was kept secret for several weeks. This is significant because a previous investigation into the same matters, undertaken in Hereford and Worcester in 1994, was shut down in mysterious circumstances. Tom Watson’s original source for his PMQ was a former child protection manager, Peter McKelvie. He said

We still don’t know who gave the order to shut down the original police investigation. In my opinion that person is just as guilty as Peter Righton and his network of child abusers. The decision to shut it down is likely to have been taken by Michael Howard and/or Virginia Bottomley. Howard was Home Secretary at the time, with overall responsibility for policing, and Bottomley was Health Secretary, with overall responsibility for children’s homes and social work.

It is not hard to surmise that Scotland Yard feared that Operation Fairbank might suffer the same fate if its existence were to become known.

Operation Fairbank was what is known as a “scoping exercise” aimed at forming a preliminary assessment of the evidence rather than a formal enquiry from which arrests and prosecutions might proceed. It is usual for police to give one name to a scoping operation and another to any ensuing criminal investigation. Thus out of Operation Fairbank a criminal investigation was launched in February 2013, Operation Fernbridge. The attention of Operation Fernbridge was focused on activities at the Elm Guest House in Barnes, south west London. A number of politicians, including Cyril Smith, clerics (including at least one bishop) and iconic celebrities were alleged to have frequented Elm Guest House paedophile “parties”. Further allegations of a ring of high profile paedophiles operating at the Grafton Close Children’s home in Richmond, Surrey also came to light as a result of Operation Fernbridge.  Two men, a Catholic priest from Norwich, and a man understood to be connected to Grafton Close, were arrested in February 2013 and questioned by Operation Fernbridge officers.

In June 2013 Scotland Yard confirmed that seven police officers were working full time on Operation Fernbridge and were following more than 300 leads.

In April 2014, Simon Danczuk, the current Labour MP for Rochdale, said he was convinced that there was a "network of paedophiles" operating in the House of Commons who helped to protect his predecessor, Cyril Smith. Claims were made that a 16-year-old boy had been abused by Smith at Elm Guest House.

This brings us to the tumult of the last 30 days.

On July 3 Simon Danczuk called on Leon (Lord) Brittan to say what he knew about the Dickens dossier. It emerges the dossier has now been either lost or destroyed and the Home Office admits it can find no evidence of any criminal inquiry relating to it.

On July 6 Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill revealed that 114 files relating to historic allegations of child sex abuse, from between 1979 and 1999, have disappeared from the Home Office – whether as the result of routine culling or something more sinister he could not say. The Home Office also revealed that in 2012 former Home Secretary Leon (Lord) Brittan was accused of raping a student in 1967. The allegation was not investigated until Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders ordered the Metropolitan Police to re-open the case in June this year.  Brittan has denied the allegations.

Simon Danczuk, along with six other MPs, wrote to Home Secretary Theresa May demanding a public inquiry into the missing dossier and the people who had been named in it. At that time Theresa May said that although she did not rule out such an inquiry it would not happen until after the police had finished their investigations through Operation Fernbridge, and a new offshoot from Operation Fairbank, known as Operation Cavacos.

Her position on this quickly changed. 141 Members of Parliament from all parties called for a wide ranging inquiry, and a petition launched by Tom Watson urging the government to establish an independent national inquiry into organised child abuse received 50,000 signatures in just 24 hours. It is possible that her change of mind may also have been influenced by an interview given by Norman (Lord) Tebbit, a former minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC One, he said there "may well" have been a big political cover-up over child abuse taking place at Westminster in the 1980s.

"At that time I think most people would have thought that the establishment, the system, was to be protected and if a few things had gone wrong here and there that it was more important to protect the system than to delve too far into it,” he said.

"That view, I think, was wrong then and it is spectacularly shown to be wrong because the abuses have grown."

The very next day, on July 7, Theresa May announced two inquiries. The first would be a review by the head of the NSPCC, Peter Wanless, to examine the way the Home Office, in light of the 114 missing files, handled allegations over three decades. Stopping short of the national public inquiry being sought by many, the second would be a wide ranging inquiry in which a panel of experts will examine evidence that successive governments, charities, political parties, the NHS, the BBC and the Church failed to protect children from paedophiles.

On July 8 the Home Secretary announced that the wide ranging inquiry would be chaired by Elizabeth, Baroness Butler-Sloss, a retired High Court judge.

But that, as they say, is another story.