Home Secretary Theresa May answers an urgent question about historical child sex abuse claims
Allegations of “unnatural sexual” behaviour at Westminster contained in a file found at the National Archives may have already been seen by an inquiry into the Home Office’s handling of historic sex abuse claims, Theresa May has said.
The Home Secretary said the previously top-secret file may be a duplicate of one that was already looked at by NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless and barrister Richard Whittam QC’s inquiry into paedophile ring allegations in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
University lecturer Dr Chris Murphy uncovered the once-classified document late last year at the archives in Kew, south west London.
Mrs May was answering an urgent question from shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper on the the current institutional child sex abuse inquiry.
After being questioned on the file, which was marked to indicate it had passed through former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s office, Mrs May told the Commons: “You have made reference to the file that has come to light.
“We are checking that today but as I understand it we believe it may be a duplicate of a file that was at the Home Office which was seen by Wanless and Whittam during their review but of course we are checking that.
“Any allegations in relation to that file will be passed to the police and those concerned to ensure that they are looked at properly.”
The file which was found by Dr Murphy in November came to light yesterday.
It was entitled: “PREM19/588 – SECURITY. Allegations against former public (word missing) of unnatural sexual proclivities; security aspects 1980 Oct 27 – 1981 Mar 20.”
The “PREM” category of files covers documents and correspondence that passed through the prime minister’s office. Sir Bernhard Ingham, former press secretary of Mrs Thatcher, told reporters he could not recall the file.
The Cabinet Office has said the file was “kept closed and retained as it contained information from the security services and advice from the Law Officers” but that any documents pertinent to the sex abuse inquiry would be passed to it.
Mrs May set up the inquiry in July to find out whether public bodies had neglected or covered up allegations of child sex abuse in the wake of claims paedophiles had operated in Westminster in the 1980s.
She announced today that a new chair would be appointed by the end of the month following a series of problems, including the resignation of two previous chairs over their alleged links to Establishment figures of the time.
The Home Secretary will also decide whether it will take the form of a statutory inquiry or a royal commission by the end of January, with both options having the power to compel witnesses and full access to evidence.
Mrs May said: “I am clear that the new chairman must be someone who commands that confidence and who has the necessary skills and experience to carry out this vital work.
“In my work to find that person, as I told the House I would do, I have undertaken a number of meetings with the survivors of child abuse and their representative bodies And I have been deeply moved by the candour and the courage they have shown in telling me their harrowing stories and the experiences they have been through.
“I am absolutely committed to finding them the right chairman to ensure they get the answers they deserve.
“But not only does this inquiry need the right Chairman, it also needs the right powers.
“That means the ability to compel witnesses, and full access to all the necessary evidence.
“In December I wrote to panel members to set out the three options which could give the inquiry these powers.
“I confirmed those options in my evidence that month to the Home Affairs Select Committee, and I also confirmed that I would make my decision on the right model for the inquiry and the chairman by the end of January.
“It remains my intention to make a statement to the House shortly after I have made that decision and after the necessary interviews and careful due diligence work have taken place.”
Ms Cooper called for the inquiry to be scrapped and relaunched with a new chair and statutory powers.
The Labour frontbencher said: “Since November the allegations have become more serious.
“The police are now investigating allegations of child murder involving senior figures linked to Dolphin Square.
“A government file has emerged containing further potential allegations of abuse, clearly not seen by the Wanless review.
“These need to be investigated by the police, not just an inquiry, but it makes it even more vital that a serious and credible inquiry is under way with the confidence of the public and survivors.
“Given the seriousness of this, I now fear there is no choice but to start this inquiry again properly with a new chair and statutory powers and proper consideration of the scope and purpose involving the survivors themselves.
“This should not be beyond the wit of the Home Secretary.”
Mrs May came under pressure to publish the file from MPs including campaigner Labour’s Simon Danzcuk (Rochdale), who said the inquiry was starting to make Chilcot look “punctual and efficient”.
He asked: “Why doesn’t the Government now publish that file so that we can judge its importance?”
The Home Secretary replied: “My understanding is that the Cabinet Office file is being looked at. They are looking at the file making sure it can be passed to the National Archives.
“That would of course effectively make it public. That may require some redaction to take place.
“But I think everybody is aware that we want to ensure that the information that needs to be available is available.”
Labour’s Tom Watson (West Bromwich East), who has also campaigned on the issue, said there was a “clear public interest” in knowing whether a former prime minister had received a briefing on sexual crimes allegedly committed by a senior intelligence officer or officers.
He went on: “Regardless of whether the inquiry gets to see the document, can you not commit to publish the document now in the public interest or at least commit to give it to members of the Home Affairs Select Committee as part of their inquiry?”
Mrs May said again that the file had been passed to the police, adding: “I can assure the House that the file will be made available as it is my intention that all files should be made available to the inquiry.
“So it can be appropriately looked at and considered in the work they are doing.”
Labour’s Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak), a former social worker, then added his voice to the call for publication suggesting it should only take a few days to establish whether the document was indeed a duplicate.
He said: “Given the cloud of suspicion, I can’t believe it can take more than a couple of days to clarify whether it is a duplicate or a withheld file.
“Will you agree to come back to the House next week and tell us which it is?”
Mrs May said she would cover the issue of the file in the statement she makes on the chairmanship of the inquiry panel, due before the end of this month.
The Home Secretary was also criticised for the delays to the inquiry.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said Mrs May was “in danger of losing control of the process” and raised concerns about the allegation of bullying of a panel member by the inquiry’s barrister.
Mrs May said survivor Sharon Evans’s complaint had been investigated and no evidence of bullying found by Ben Emmerson QC.
Labour’s Sarah Champion (Rotherham) said the inquiry had now become a “farce” and her veteran colleague David Winnick (Walsall North) said even someone with the aim of sabotage could not have done a better job of throwing it off course.
He said: “If someone had set out to wreck the whole process from the very beginning, that person could not have done a more effective job. It is a tragedy.
“As far as the survivors are concerned, what has occurred is a tragedy, first that they were abused and now what appears to them at least is a farce since the inquiry was first established.”
Labour’s Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) asked Mrs May if she had considered resigning over the inquiry.
He said: “There have been a lot of casualties in this very sensitive process. Have you, with the great authority that the Home Office holds, have you ever considered that you might be the problem?
“Have you considered the unthinkable? Have you considered resigning?”
Mrs May said she was firmly committed to getting the inquiry up and running fully with a chairman.
She added: “I have apologised to the House. I have apologised to survivors for the fact that two chairmen resigned.
“But I also say to you it is this Government that has agreed to set up this inquiry. Yes we are now in a position where we have to look at a further chairman. But we have an inquiry set up in terms of a panel.
“We have an intention to ensure the inquiry does get fully up and running with a chairman and that we get to the truth. That is what everybody wants.”
Conservative Philip Hollobone (Kettering) asked whether Mrs May had been able to cut the long list of candidates for the new chairman down to a shortlist.
She said it was now “quite a short list” but would not go further than that.
Labour’s Paul Flynn (Newport West) suggested the Government look again at the scope of the inquiry given the vast areas to be covered, including allegations that whips concealed evidence of paedophilia by MPs so they could blackmail them in the division lobbies.
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Mrs May said it was important not to leave out any matters.