Lib Dem recordings: what they said

Shock, horror! Coalition makes Lib Dems feel uncomfortable.

As promised, the Telegraph has published recordings of conversations with more Lib Dem MPs, taped by undercover reporters at the constituency surgeries of Michael Moore, Steve Webb and Ed Davey. But although they include a few titbits of information – the cuts to housing benefits came as a surprise to Lib Dem MPs, for example – there's nothing in them as exciting as Vince Cable's claim that he could topple the government by standing down.

The comments merely confirm what many people suspected about coalition politics: it's a furtive, acrimonious business, and many Lib Dems are worried about what it is doing to the country and to their party.

Michael Moore, Scottish Secretary and MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

  • Cutting child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers is "blatantly not a consistent and fair thing to do".
  • The increase in tuition fees to a maximum £9,000 is "the biggest, ugliest, most horrific thing in all of this . . . a car crash, a train wreck".
  • He feels bad about it: "I signed a pledge that promised not to do this. I've just done the worst crime a politician can commit, the reason most folk distrust us as a breed. I've had to break a pledge and very, very publicly."
  • The tuition fees increase will be "deeply damaging" for the Lib Dems.
  • Conservative right-wingers "hate us with a passion – and I can't say it's unreciprocated".
  • Lib Dem sacrifices are justified by an obscure sense of duty to the coalition: "What we've all had to weigh up is the greater sense of what the coalition is about."

Steve Webb, MP for Thornbury and Yate and pensions minister

  • He is concerned about looking "too cosy" with the Conservatives by hiding the disasgreements underlying the coalition: "But if people see us sniping at each other and bickering publicly . . . I know we perhaps risk looking a bit too lovey-dovey, don't we? That's the problem; it looks a bit too cosy."
  • The Lib Dems have acted behind the scenes to stop Tory proposals: "There's a lot of stuff that goes on behind, you know, a lot of things that will never see the light of day because we stop them."
  • He is worried about the child benefit cut, which will penalise couples in which one partner earns just above the higher-rate threshold: "I have written to the Treasury about this and, to be honest, the answer I got back wasn't good enough . . . I don't have a problem with the general principle but I don't think the way we're doing it is terribly clever."

Ed Davey, MP for Kingston and Surbiton

  • Plans to limit housing benefit would hit some of the poorest in society: "Their housing benefit cuts are going to mean, in my view, if they go through, that some people who are on the breadline will be put below the breadline. And that's just deeply unacceptable."
  • He had not heard of the proposal before its announcement at the Conservative party conference.
  • Middle-class families will be "very badly hit" by the cuts to housing benefit.

Nothing to see here

Unless anybody had thought that all the Liberal Democrats sold their consciences when they went into coalition with the Conservatives, the news that Michael Moore feels guilty about tuition fees is not surprising. Likewise the non-revelations that some Conservatives don't like the Lib Dems very much, that the Lib Dems are worried about losing their identity as a distinct grouping from the coalition, and that the Conservatives scheme behind their coalition partners' backs.

The lack of more shocking admissions – unless more are being kept in reserve – might frustrate the Telegraph. The paper's decision not to publish Cable's incendiary remarks about Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB takeover backfired. These latest revelations will not distract attention from the awkward situation the paper has got itself into.

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.