No public inquiry into child sex abuse… for now
Theresa May has reacted to growing public concern over allegations of a Westminster paedophile ring with an inquiry which falls short of being full and public, but retains the power to do so if its chairman demands it.
The home secretary announced a review into the Home Office's treatment of allegations about child sex abuse by parliamentarians in the 1980s and a larger inquiry into whether public bodies and non-state organisations failed in their duty of care towards children.
The larger inquiry will not publish its final report until after the general election but it will publish intermediary findings before next May.
A chairman will be appointed to put together a panel of legal and child protection experts.
It will be a non-statutory independent inquiry, meaning witnesses will not give evidence on oath and it will not need to be headed by a judge.
But if the panel chairman deems it necessary, the government "is prepared" to turn it into a full public inquiry in line with the Inquiries Act.
Labour MP Tom Watson, who campaigned on the issue for over a year, asked if it would have full access to government documents.
"Frightened survivors of child abuse deserve the truth and I hope and think they'll welcome today's announcement," he told May across the Commons chamber.
"Will the inquiry team be able to see the files of special branch, the intelligence services and submissions made to previous prime ministers?"
May responded: "My intention is the fullest possible access should be made to government papers in relation to these matters."
The home secretary said some files may need to be redacted but she expected "it to be possible all government papers are available".
She said the government would "do everything we can" to make sure there is a full investigation of child abuse, that it would adopt a policy of "maximum transparency" and that where it had failed to protect children it would "expose those failures".
At the centre of the row is a dossier handed to then-home secretary Lord Brittan in 1983 by late Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens detailing the alleged activities of several paedophiles inside Westminster.
Lord Brittan admitted today he had been interviewed by police about an allegation of rape against him dating to 1967.
"It is true that I have been questioned by the police about a serious allegation made against me. This allegation is wholly without foundation," he said this morning.
"It has been alleged that when I was home secretary I failed to deal adequately with the bundle of papers containing allegations of serious sexual impropriety that I received from the late Geoff Dickens MP.
"This too is completely without foundation – as evidence from the Home Office's own report supports.
"I wrote to Mr Dickens on 20 March 1984 informing him of the conclusions of the director of public prosecutions about these matters."
In 2013, Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwil commissioned a review into allegations that the Home Office had lost or destroyed the allegations of sex abuse by leading establishment figures, possibly as part of a cover-up.
It concluded that there was no single Dickens dossier but that he had sent a number of letters to several home secretaries over several years containing allegations.
Copies of the letters were not kept but the investigation found 13 items, nine of which were already known to the police. The other four were given to them immediately.
That is just the tip of the iceberg however, with May admitting 114 "potentially relevant" files were not available.
May said she only saw the executive summary of the report but did not think it proper to read the full report because it covered the alleged behaviour of Tory MPs and it was therefore more suitable for it to be done by a civil servant.
She has now asked Peter Wanless, chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, to lead a review of the Sedwell investigation and also "how the police and prosecutors handled any related information that was handed to them".
The response from May comes as the government adopts a tougher stance than it had shown over the weekend, when it was stung by complaints of complacency.
The prime minister said he took a "close interest" in the case over the weekend and held "detailed discussions" with his team.
"It's also vital that we learn the lessons right across the board from these things that have gone wrong," he said.
"We're going to leave no stone unturned to find out the truth."
Lord Tebbit, who served in the Cabinet under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, appeared on the Andrew Marr programme to insist 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 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.
Sedwill has been asked to appear in front of the home affairs committee tomorrow, where he will be asked by chairman Keith Vaz how the files were lost in the first place and what the scope of his investigation is.
There is considerable uncertainty about what precisely was in the dossier and files handed to the Home Office, although it is alleged they included claims of abuse by late Liberal MP Cyril Smith and involved paedophile parties attended by politicians.
There are also reports they involved a system of 'recycling' teachers who had been accused of inappropriate conduct.