David Steel has quit the Liberal Democrats and announced his retirement from the House of Lords in the wake of a new report into historical child sexual abuse.
The former Liberal leader told the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that he had failed to act on allegations against prominent colleague Sir Cyril Smith, even though he believed them to be true, because it was “past history”.
As the IICSA published its long-awaited report, Lord Steel said: “Knowing all I know now, I condemn Cyril Smith’s actions towards children.”
But the former Holyrood presiding officer said that with the IICSA “not having secured a parliamentary scalp, I fear that I have been made a proxy for Cyril Smith”.
The politician, who served at both Westminster and the Scottish Parliament, made clear in a lengthy statement that “children deserve protection from predators, especially those in authority”.
With reports suggesting there could be a fresh investigation into his behaviour – despite the Scottish Liberal Democrats last year concluding there were “no grounds for action” against him – he announced he had quit the party with immediate effect.
He 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 also said he would be leaving the House of Lords “as soon as possible”, to spend more time with his wife and “enjoy a quiet retirement from public life”.
The IICSA report told how the political establishment spent decades turning “a blind eye” to allegations of child sexual abuse, with high-profile politicians protected from police action as whips sought to avoid “gossip and scandal” which would damage the parties.
The long-awaited investigation into historical allegations against MPs, peers and civil servants working in Westminster found political institutions “significantly failed in their responses to allegations of child sexual abuse”.
Lord Steel’s evidence to the inquiry was cited as an example of this.
But he insisted that Cyril Smith did not “admit to me the truth of the allegations”.
“He admitted that there had been an investigation by police of acts alleged against him whilst he was a councillor in another political party, as was reported,” he said. “Smith and I did not discuss further what IICSA counsel himself correctly described as ‘a very, very brief conversation’ in 1979.”
But he added: “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.”
Lord Steel was also critical of the way the inquiry was carried out, saying he struggled to hear questions, and did not have legal representation.
He said: “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 it was right that Lord Steel had left the party and was stepping down from public life.
Mr 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.”