British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed on Monday to leave “no stone unturned” in investigating allegations of historical child sex abuse including claims of a paedophile ring involving senior politicians.
His government announced a review of how officials, police and prosecutors handled accusations made against public figures in the 1980s, amid claims their failure to act was part of an establishment cover-up.
“I am absolutely determined that we are going to get to the bottom of these allegations and we’re going to leave no stone unturned to find out the truth about what happened – that is vital,” the prime minister said.
After a string of scandals involving the abuse of children at hospitals and care homes, including by late television star Jimmy Savile, ministers also promised a wider inquiry into how public bodies handle such cases.
There have long been rumours of an organised ring of paedophiles in Westminster, but they have taken on new significance following revelations of how Savile spent decades as a prolific sex offender without being caught.
The rumours focus on a dossier compiled by late lawmaker Geoffrey Dickens in 1983, which is thought to have contained allegations against a number of members of parliament and other public figures.
It was passed to the Home Office, or interior ministry, but subsequently went missing.
Fuelling fears of a cover-up, the ministry revealed this weekend that it had lost 114 files relating to complaints it received about child abuse between 1979 and 1999, saying that they were “presumed destroyed, missing or not found”.
In a statement to the House of Commons on Monday, Home Secretary Theresa May said the government was committed to “maximum transparency”.
She ordered a fresh review of how the Home Office handled allegations made involving senior public figures, to be led by the head of Britain’s most prominent children’s charity, NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless.
Details are scarce on the alleged Westminster sex ring although The Daily Telegraph reported that police had interviewed a man who was abused as an eight-year-old and had implicated a “senior political figure”.
The abuse allegedly took place at the Elm Guest House in southwest London, which is the focus of a broader investigation into claims it housed parties during the 1970s and 1980s where young boys were groomed.
The minister who led the Home Office at the time the Dickens dossier went missing, Lord Leon Brittan, has insisted he dealt with the claims appropriately.
He confirmed he had received a “bundle of papers containing allegations of serious sexual impropriety” and said he passed them onto the relevant ministry officials “as was the normal and correct practice”.
Brittan also confirmed he had himself been interviewed by police over a separate “serious allegation” that media reports said concerned a claim of rape, which he denied.
Norman Tebbit, who held a series of senior posts in Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s, said there “may well” have been a cover-up.
“At that time I think most people would have thought that the establishment, the system, was to be protected,” he told the BBC on Sunday.
“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,” he said. “That view was wrong.”
Such a blunt assessment of the priorities of an earlier Britain was explosive, prompting front-page headlines about “V.I.P. Paedos” in print media and leading national television news bulletins.
Addressing wider concerns about child sex abuse, May also announced an independent inquiry into how public bodies protect vulnerable young people in their care.
She cited the abuse by Savile and veteran entertainer Rolf Harris, a household name in his native Australia and adopted home Britain. Harris was jailed for almost six years last Friday on 12 counts of assaulting four girls, some as young as seven or eight, between 1968 and 1986.
May also referenced the “systematic abuse” of young girls by gangs of youth revealed in a string of recent court cases, which exposed the failure of social services to help them.
“Where there has been a failure to protect children from abuse, we will expose it and we will learn from it,” the home secretary told lawmakers.
The claims include allegations of abuse against the late Liberal MP Cyril Smith and allegations of paedophile activity at parties attended by politicians and other prominent figures. The missing Home Office material is reported to include details of officials, MPs and peers all implicated in child sexual abuse, including one Conservative MP at the time who was reportedly found with child abuse images but subsequently released by the police.
The Labour MP Tom Watson said the panel inquiry must be empowered to look at any papers inside government on how claims were handled. He said it was disturbing that there was special branch file on Smith containing allegations of criminality that had not been followed up.
Watson said he understood why it might be necessary for the inquiry not to take evidence under oath since this might reduce the chances of prejudicing a future criminal case. But he said he believed the issue of missing files at the Home Office may prove to be a “red herring”.
For campaigners working with the victims of child abuse, the domestic political storm shows Britain may be finally preparing to face some of the demons from its past.
“People just didn’t want to talk about it in the past,” Jon Bird, a 56-year-old who works for the National Association of People Abused in Childhood charity, said.
“You hope they are going to take it seriously and give it the resources and powers to actually get to the bottom of it,” said Bird, who was raped when he was four years old. “So far it is just words.”
Reuters, Agence France-Presse, The Guardian