Lord Steel suspended: Liberal Democrats investigate peer after evidence to child sex abuse inquiry on Cyril Smith
Decision follows former Liberal leader's admission about Cyril Smith
On Wednesday the former Liberal leader told the inquiry that in 1979 he had confronted Smith over allegations of child sexual abuse, prompted by a story in Private Eye reporting he had been investigated but not charged.
He said he came away from the conversation assuming the allegations were true but took no further action, as Smith was not a member of the party at the time.
The peer denied he had been ”hiding his head in the sand” over Cyril Smith’s alleged crimes.
“Following the evidence concerning Cyril Smith given by Lord Steel to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse on 13 March 2019 the office bearers of the Scottish Liberal Democrats have met and agreed that an investigation is needed,” a spokesperson for the Scottish Liberal Democrats said.
“The party membership of Lord Steel has been suspended pending the outcome of that investigation. That work will now commence.”
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, said the decision was made quickly and appropriately.
“There’s a disciplinary process, we need to establish what happens,” he told ITV News. “He is innocent until proven guilty but he is suspended and the action will follow up on that."
When asked whether it was time for Lord Steel to apologise to victims, the Liberal Democrat leader said: “No it isn’t. The investigation needs to proceed, we will look at the consequences when they happen.”
In a statement released before he was suspended on Thursday, Lord Steel said he wanted to “clarify what happened in 1979 when I asked Cyril Smith about the report in Private Eye”.
He said: “As I told the inquiry yesterday, I did not have that report with me when I tackled him, nor did we discuss the details in it. He admitted to me that the report was correct, in that he had been investigated by the police at the time and no action taken against him.
“I had already told the inquiry in writing that in my opinion he had been abusing his position in Rochdale Council (that is to gain access to council-run children’s homes), but that had been properly a matter for the police and the council, and not for me, as he was neither an MP nor even a member of the Liberal Party at the time.
“I was in no position to re-open the investigation.”
Jo Swinson, the party’s deputy leader, said suspending the peer was the right decision.
The party had earlier announced disciplinary proceedings against Lord Steel over his remarks.
An initial 1970 Lancashire Police inquiry into Smith concluded the former Rochdale councillor had used a “veneer of respectability” in order to abuse young boys in the 1960s.
The former Labour councillor and Liberal MP died in 2010 at the age of 82. Despite persistent child abuse allegations against him during his career, he never faced trial.
Additional reporting by agencies