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The nerve of Steel
Cyril Smith, Issue 1492
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WELL INFORMED: Lord Steel, who learnt of his colleague Cyril Smith’s abuse of vulnerable youngsters by reading Private Eye, ‘that excellent magazine’
“HINDSIGHT is a wonderful thing, which I freely admit I do not possess,” Lord Steel wrote on our letters page in June 2014 (Eye 1368).

The former Liberal leader has sent many such missives to Lord Gnome over the years defending his astonishingly nonchalant reaction to our report in May 1979 about his colleague Cyril Smith’s sexual abuse of vulnerable youngsters at the Cambridge House boys’ hostel in Rochdale in the 1960s. Our report was based on an investigation by the Rochdale Alternative Paper (RAP).

The child sex abuse inquiry, IICSA, spent a day last week asking former Liberal bigwigs why nothing was done when serious accusations were made against one of their MPs 40 years ago. Steel revealed that after seeing the Eye piece (“I happen to be a subscriber to that excellent magazine”) he did mention it to Smith.

“What I said to him was, ‘What’s all this about you in Private Eye?’ and he said, rather to my surprise, ‘It is correct’, that he had been in charge of – or had some supervisory role in a children’s hostel, that he’d been investigated by the police, and that they had taken no further action, and that was the end of the story.”

‘Corporal punishment of boys’
Now he tells us! In November 2012 – after Greater Manchester Police publicly confirmed that “young boys were victims of physical and sexual abuse committed by Smith” – Steel told the Guardian: “All I can recall was rumour surrounding his previous behaviour relating to corporal punishment of boys.”

In April 2014, interviewed by Martha Kearney on World at One, he said the Eye’s story was no more than “idle gossip” and certainly hadn’t justified him making further inquiries. During the interview Kearney reminded him about a Liberal spokesman’s comment to RAP in 1979 when shown its story: “It’s not a very friendly gesture, publishing that. All he seems to have done is spanked a few bare bottoms.” Challenged about the “facetious remark”, Steel replied: “You say it’s a facetious remark but it also happens to be true that in those days corporal punishment was permitted and the accusation in the Private Eye version of the report was that he was simply administering corporal punishment to those boys.”

Not so. Two of the statements we quoted were indeed from boys who had been beaten – though there was more to it than “simply administering” corporal punishment. (“He trapped my hands between his legs… Afterwards, he came to my bedroom and wiped my buttocks with a sponge.”) The third boy had a different experience: “He told me to take my trousers and my pants down. He held my testicles and told me to cough.” We noted that other boys’ statements included these bogus “medical examinations”.

Wrong again…
Steel’s talk of corporal punishment being permitted ignores the fact that this was not a school and Smith was certainly no teacher. Being a former secretary of the Rochdale Hostel for Boys Associations, which helped to found Cambridge House, did not give Smith a legal carte blanche to smack and sponge boys’ naked buttocks. Still less was he a doctor or nurse. Why, then, had David Steel been so unconcerned?

Simple, he explained last week: although the police investigation wasn’t disclosed until 1979, it had happened about 10 years earlier – “before he was an MP, before he was even a member of my party. It had nothing to do with me…”

Er, wrong again. Although Smith had formerly sat as a Labour councillor and then an independent, by the time Lancashire Police concluded its inquiries, in 1970, he was not only a member of the Liberal party but also its candidate at that year’s general election. He entered parliament at a by-election in 1972.

Steel now says that when he saw the Eye’s report seven years later: “I didn't feel that I had any locus in the matter at all, other than being a reader of the magazine.” Well, other than also being the leader of the party for which, by then, Cyril Smith was an MP.

By way of an encore, in 1988 Steel nominated Smith for a knighthood. “Cyril Smith had confessed to you that he had committed the acts which the magazine had published,” counsel to the IICSA said last week. “Did you think that that was something that you should, even in confidence, tell the honours committee about?” Steel remained as nonchalant as ever: “No, it never occurred to me.” And why not? “It was all, in a sense, in the public domain through Private Eye.” So that’s all right, then!

More top stories in the latest issue:

THE COST OF BORIS
From the Garden Bridge to unusable water cannon, former London mayor Boris Johnson has spaffed, er, wasted millions (and millions) of taxpayer pounds.

BORDERLINE BELIEFS
The fantasy that the UK could leave the EU customs union yet still avoid a hard Irish border can be traced back to the be-suited brains at McKinsey.

BRIGHT SPOT ON THE HORIZON
The Post Office suffers a major court defeat over its treatment of sub-postmasters who fell victim to its controversial Horizon computer system.

MYANMAR WATCH
After the brutal persecution of the Rohingya people, Myanmar is under increasing pressure over its mistreatment of its other ethnic minorities.

VALLETTA OF THE LAW
Why the Maltese prime minister is suing the estate of a murdered campaigning journalist and her son.

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Private Eye Issue 1491