David Steel quits Lib Dems and House of Lords after criticism in child sex abuse report
David Steel has resigned from the Lib Dems and quit the House of Lords in the wake of criticism at his handling of allegations of child abuse against Cyril Smith.
The 81-year-old former Liberal Party leader was accused of an "abdication of responsibility" by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
Lord Steel came under fire last year when he told the inquiry that he saw “no reason, or no locus to go back to” allegations against Smith, the former Liberal MP for Rochdale, because they related to the time before he joined the party.
The IICSA labeled this "an example of a highly placed politician turning a blind eye to something that was potentially troublesome to his party, with no apparent regard for criminal acts which might have occurred or for any victims, past or future".
In a lengthy statement, Lord Steel defended his actions, but said he would be retiring from the House of Lords “as soon as possible” and had resigned from his party “with immediate effect”.
He said: “Knowing all I know now, I condemn Cyril Smith’s actions towards children. Children deserve protection from predators, especially those in authority.
"Dealing with such cases is the IICSA’s legitimate role. I believe in the highest standards of human rights, particularly for young and vulnerable people.
"I regret the time spent on pursuing Leon Brittan, Lord Bramall and others, who it is clear had done no wrong. Not having secured a parliamentary scalp, I fear that I have been made a proxy for Cyril Smith."
Lord Steel continued: “Nowhere do IICSA explain what powers I was supposed to possess to investigate 14 year old allegations against someone (who at the time of the actions alleged was not even a member of my party), that the police and successive DPPs reviewed with access to all files.”
The peer pointed out that he had been cleared of any wrongdoing following an investigation by the Scottish Lib Dems, but said he was aware that some party members were threatening to resign unless he was disciplined.
"I wish to avoid any such turmoil in my party and to prevent further distress to my family," he said. "I have therefore thanked my local party secretary for their stalwart support through the whole IICSA process, and have informed the local Party that my resignation is with immediate effect.
"As to membership of the House of Lords, friends and colleagues including The Lord Speaker are aware that I have been contemplating retirement next month to coincide with the 55th anniversary of my election as an MP. With considerable personal sorrow, and thanks to all I have worked with in the Party and more widely, I have now decided this is what I should do as soon as possible.
"My wife has suffered poor health this past year. I shall now stop the weekly travel from Scotland to London and enjoy a quiet retirement from public life."
His statement came after a lawyer representing eight of Smith's victims joined calls for the peer to be expelled from the Lords.
Richard Scorer, from Slater and Gordon, said: “Steel’s total inaction after being told by Smith himself that he had molested young boys is unforgivable, most of all for those victims whose abuse he could have stopped."
The specialist abuse lawyer also dismissed claims that the ex-Liberal leader was taking the fall for Sir Cyril.
He added: “To suggest Steel is a scapegoat, as some have done, is grasping at straws. A pathetic attempt to excuse a man who admitted he knowingly turned a blind eye to Smith’s crimes.
“He is not being blamed for them but for his own failure to stop Smith when he had the chance."
Mr Scorer later said he welcomed Lord Steel's departure, but said it was "disappointing" that the peer was "playing the victim".
“What my clients would really like to hear is an honest and sincere apology that, as vulnerable youngsters, he let them down, and a promise from those in power that lessons will be learned from this and the mistakes of the past will not be repeated," the lawyer added.
A Lib Dem spokesperson said: "Cyril Smith’s acts were vile and repugnant. We have nothing but sympathy for those who lives he ruined.
"The Liberal Democrats take the issue of vigilance and safeguarding seriously and constantly work to improve our party processes, including the introduction of a new complaints process last year. This Inquiry has set out a list of important recommendations which all institutions should take seriously and seek to learn from."
They added: "Following the publication of the report, David Steel has resigned from the party and retired from public life."