Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper. Photo: Getty
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MP paedophile ring allegations: Labour’s response

The Labour party's response to the alleged Eighties Westminster paedophile ring story strikes a good balance.

It has been a tempestuous time for politics past and present in the last few days. Discussion in the home affairs select committee, and among around 130 MPs –including Simon Danczuk, who previously helped expose Cyril Smith’s crimes – of an alleged ring of high-profile Westminster paedophiles from the Eighties came to a head this weekend.

Last week, it came to light that the Home Office lost a dossier containing details of the allegations, and yesterday we learnt that the then home secretary to whom these documents were handed, Leon Brittan, reportedly was himself taken in for questioning last month by police over a historical allegation of rape, an allegation which it is understood he strongly denied.

The Home Secretary Theresa May is to make a statement today in parliament, addressing concerns about her department’s handling of the historical sex abuse claims.

But it's Labour’s response that is worth noting here. The opposition would gain little sympathy from MPs in general if it played politics with this dark and sensitive story, but the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has found a good balance.

While she is backing what No 10 and the Deputy Prime Minister have said, that the police must pursue the allegations – “proper police investigations” – she is also calling for a “wide-ranging inquiry”, as she described it on this morning’s Today programme on Radio 4.

The latter is something over a 130 MPs have been calling for over the past week, signing up their support for a public inquiry, and is also an action encouraged by a number of newspapers this morning – the Mail in its editorial refers to the “stench of an establishment cover-up”. However, in spite of this growing appetite for an over-arching “Hillsborough-style” inquiry, as Danczuk describes it, both Downing Street and Nick Clegg have so far called this a matter just for the police to pursue. The BBC’s Nick Robinson is reporting that there will be a wide-ranging inquiry – but it will be a public inquiry “without a capital ‘p’”, ie, with no judge, and that ministers are reluctant to refer to it as a “Hillsborough-style” inquiry, in order not to seem as if they are capitulating to their critics.

Cooper has trod the tightrope of tasteless politicking and picking up on popular opinion deftly over the weekend and today. Her “threefold” response she articulated on Today has something for everyone – a police investigation and “justice and support for the victims”, an “over-arching review” to look at the NHS and Jimmy Savile, the BBC, the Home Office, and elsewhere in Whitehall “to make sure all of the lessons are learnt”, and pulling together all these investigations to think “what does this mean for our child protection system in the future?”

So there is a hint of proposing reform for child protection services there as well; a policy area the Labour party should explore, as it would be a rare bit of decision-making it can plan to do for which there is immediate public appetite, or at least to which some attention will finally be paid. After all, plans for rejigging local government can only get the opposition so far.
 

Here's the letter Cooper wrote to May yesterday:

Dear Theresa,

I am concerned that the Home Office is not yet doing enough to respond to the recent serious issues raised over child abuse.

In the last two years our country’s child protection system has been found wanting, from historic cases of seemingly unrestricted and heinous celebrity paedophiles, to the more recent failure to protect children in Rochdale and Rotherham from groups of sex offenders.

Again in recent days legitimate concerns have been raised that the Home Office, Whitehall and parts of the criminal justice system not only failed to prevent this abuse, but also failed to investigate or take proper action when allegations were raised.

The Government must take these concerns extremely seriously - to make sure justice is done for victims of abuse no matter how long ago, to make sure that any institutional failure is uncovered, and to make sure that lessons are learnt and the child protection system is as effective as possible for the future.

My concerns are threefold. First, I am sure you will agree that all allegations of criminal wrongdoing must see thorough criminal investigation by the police.

It is extremely important that any victims of abuse get support, including for historic abuse, and that full police investigations take place to uncover the truth and get justice for anyone who may have been abused.

Operation Fernbridge is currently looking into allegations at a defined address – with the help of the NSPCC, CEOP and Richmond Social Services. We need to know from the Home Office that any files the Government has been made aware of have been passed to the police and that any other allegations through correspondence have been passed to the police. We need to know whether all the recent allegations and evidence are being pursued and whether the criminal investigation is wide enough. We also need assurance from you that the police will be provided with the necessary resources to investigate these allegations as the Metropolitan Police has done with Operation Yewtree. What support are you giving to ensure every allegation is investigated?

Second, I have serious concerns about the handling of a Home Office review last year into the existence and whereabouts of files linked to child sex abuse.

This review carried out by the Home Office Permanent Secretary Mark Sedwill reportedly found more than 100 files containing such information had gone missing and potentially been destroyed. Yet this has only come to light as a result of recent media interest. Why wasn’t this brought to the attention of Parliament last year?

Were you shown the full report last year and why was a decision taken not to publish the entire report?

I note the Prime Minister has since asked for a further review of this process, but this is insufficient. As an immediate step I hope you can agree to publish the full 2013 review so Parliament and the public can see what has triggered the Prime Minister’s decision to order a fresh investigation.

But the announcement by your Permanent Secretary of a ‘review of a review’ is insufficient - especially given the number of missing files and the Home Office failure to be transparent on this issue so far.

We need a wide ranging review that can look at how all the allegations put to the Home Office in the 80s and 90s were handled. The scope of this investigation must look at how the Home Office, other parts of Whitehall, the police and prosecutions agencies handled allegations when they were put to them. But it also needs the flexibility to follow the evidence. Any stones left unturned will leave concerns of institutional malaise, or worse a cover-up, unaddressed.

Thirdly, the news emerging in recent days are sadly the latest in a line of disturbing allegations and events.

It is time for the Home Office to stop taking a backseat as more of these serious allegations emerge. Some real leadership is now needed to ask the difficult questions of our child protection infrastructure and whether it is as strong as it needs to be.

As I said to you and called for over 18 months ago when the crimes of Jimmy Savile were being investigated and the Home Affairs Select Committee were concluding that the “there are still places in the UK where victims of child sexual exploitation are being failed by statutory agencies” – we need an overarching review led by child protection experts to draw together the lessons from all these investigations, assess the failures of the system to protect children, and set out any needed reforms.

This review must cover the institutional failures of the past – but from the prime focus of child protection – and examine the systems we have in place that continue to fail children to this day.

People are increasingly concerned that a myriad of small reviews and investigations will fail to draw together a holistic conclusion – or lead to real change. 80 or 90 lessons for each local hospital, the national broadcaster, care homes or other institutions will not increase protection for every child in the UK, and that must be the aim.

As Home Secretary you have not yet responded to these concerns over the Home Office handling of these issues. The Home Office Permanent Secretary has responded and the Prime Minister has intervened - however this is still insufficient.

It is no longer enough to introduce yet another, narrowly defined review into these serious allegations. We need a process people believe will deliver – for victims of the past and children in the future. You will have our full support if you do so.

Yours

Yvette Cooper MP

Shadow Home Secretary

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left