Tom Watson accuses May of "a cover-up" over child abuse claims

Labour MP says inquiry into allegations involving a senior Conservative politician is "the next stage of a cover-up".

After criticising the BBC for failing to respond adequately to allegations of child abuse by Jimmy Savile, the government is determined not to be seen to make the same mistake in the case of the alleged north Wales paedophile ring.

In a Commons statement earlier today, Theresa May announced the details of two inquiries into allegations of sexual abuse involving a former senior Conservative politician. The Home Secretary told MPs that north Wales police chief Mark Polin had invited Keith Bristow, the director general of the National Crime Agency, to "assess the allegations recently received, to review the historic police investigations and investigate any fresh allegations". He will produce an initial report on the case by April 2013. In addition, May confirmed that the government would ask "a senior independent figure" to lead an investigation into the 1996-2000 Waterhouse Inquiry, which is accused of failing to consider all allegations of abuse. "Given the seriousness of the allegations, we will make sure that this work is completed urgently," she added.

Responding for Labour, Yvette Cooper warned that having more than one inquiry risked causing confusion and called for "a single, overarching review". But it was Tom Watson, who first aired the new allegations at PMQs last month, who made the most notable intervention when he accused May of instituting "the next stage of a cover-up". The Labour MP told the Commons:

The lesson of Hillsborough and hacking is that a narrow-down investigation is the basic building block of a cover-up. To limit this inquiry to north Wales and Savile would in my view be a dereliction of the Home Secretary's duty. It would guarantee that many sickening crimes will remain uninvestigated and some of the most despicable paedophiles will remain protected by the establishment that has shielded them for 30 years.

Whether you were raped or tortured as a child in Wales or in Whitehall you are entitled to be heard. The media may be transfixed by the spectre of a paedophile cabinet minster abusing children, but what actually matters is that thousands and thousands of children, whose lives have been ground into nothing, who prefer to kill themselves than carry on, who have nowhere to turn, to whom nobody listens, whom nobody helps. Does she sincerely want to start making amends or can she live with being what she’s just announced – the next stage of a cover-up.

May was careful to warn MPs that using parliamentary privilege to name the Thatcher-era Tory could jeopardise any future prosecution. For the record, the individual in question has denied all of the allegations. He told the Daily Telegraph:

Some guy said I was in the habit of taking young men from Wrexham in my Rolls-Royce.

But I have only been to Wrexham once and I didn’t visit the children’s home, I made a speech to the constituency. I was with an official at all times. I never had a Rolls Royce.

When the inquiry was taking place I hired a lawyer to watch it in case there was any mention of my name. The point is that it is totally without any grounds whatsoever.

Labour MP Tom Watson warned that "many sickening crimes will remain uninvestigated". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.