Lord David Steel has resigned from the Liberal Democrats and from “public life” after a Westminster inquiry into historic claims of child sexual abuse accused him of “an abdication of responsibility”.
The Scottish peer spoke to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) last March regarding allegations against former MP and party colleague Sir Cyril Smith.
Lord Steel, 81, told the inquiry how, in 1979 as the then-Liberal party leader, he failed to pass on allegations against Smith made in a story in Private Eye – even though he “assumed” them to be true – because it was “past history”.
He subsequently recommended the then-Rochdale MP for a knighthood.
Six years ago, police apologised after concluding that Smith, who died in 2010, should have been charged on three separate occasions in the 1960s and the 1990s for a string of indecent assaults, including against children.
Lord Steel was briefly suspended by the Scottish Liberal Democrats over his remarks to the inquiry before the party reinstated him, saying there were “no grounds for action” against him.
But in light of the inquiry’s findings, the Scottish Lib Dems said the peer was “right” to quit the party and the House of Lords.
Lord Steel said a faulty hearing aids system during his appearance before the IICSA led to miscommunication as he had difficulty hearing all the questions put to him.
The inquiry’s report, published on Tuesday, said of the former Liberal leader: “Failure to recognise the risks was an abdication of responsibility, and the fact the offences were non-recent was irrelevant.”
In a statement following the report’s publication, Lord Steel said: “Knowing all I know now, I condemn Cyril Smith’s actions towards children.
“Children deserve protection from predators, especially those in authority. Dealing with such cases is the IICSA’s legitimate role.
“I believe in the highest standards of human rights, particularly for young and vulnerable people.”
He confirmed he had quit the Liberal Democrats and would be retiring from public life.
Lord Steel said: “I have received indications that some in the Liberal Democrat party wish me suspended and investigated again, despite a previous disciplinary process in Scotland which concluded that no further action was required.
“I am told that others are threatening to resign if a new investigation is started.
“I wish to avoid any such turmoil in my party and to prevent further distress to my family.
“I have therefore thanked my local party secretary for their stalwart support through the whole IICSA process, and have informed the local party that my resignation is with immediate effect.”
He added: “As to membership of the House of Lords, friends and colleagues including The Lord Speaker are aware that I have been contemplating retirement next month to coincide with the 55th anniversary of my election as an MP.
“With considerable personal sorrow, and thanks to all I have worked with in the party and more widely, I have now decided this is what I should do as soon as possible.
“My wife has suffered poor health this past year. I shall now stop the weekly travel from Scotland to London and enjoy a quiet retirement from public life.”
‘It is right that David Steel has decided to resign from the Liberal Democrats and retire from public life.’Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie
But Lord Steel was also hit back against the inquiry, saying: “Nowhere do IICSA explain what powers I was supposed to possess to investigate 14-year-old allegations against someone (who at the time of the actions alleged was not even a member of my party), that the police and successive DPPs reviewed with access to all files.
“IICSA refused my offer of clarification on my oral testimony to them, which has since been widely reported.”
He added: “Contrary to some reports, at no point did Cyril Smith admit to me the truth of the allegations in the Private Eye report…
“My legal advisers have expressed concern to me that the inquiry should have delayed my appearance until they had sorted their failed ‘loop’ hearing system for my hearing aids.
“They are right, and I did not have legal representation when giving evidence to IICSA.
“I should have asked for a delay myself as the transcript shows, I had difficulty hearing their questions.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “Cyril Smith’s acts were vile and repugnant and I have nothing but sympathy for those affected.
“This is a powerful report that has lessons for everyone including David Steel, the Liberal Democrats and the wider political sphere.
“It is therefore right that David Steel has decided to resign from the Liberal Democrats and retire from public life including the House of Lords.”