The official Wanless review into whether there has been a cover-up of the Home Office’s handling of child abuse allegations in the 1980s has returned a verdict of “not proven”, the home secretary,Theresa May, has told MPs.
“There might have been a cover-up,” she said. “I cannot stand here and say the Home Office was not involved in a cover-up in the 1980s and that is why I am determined to get to the truth of this.”
Peter Wanless, the chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty toChildren(NSPCC), concludes in his inquiry report into 114 missing Home Office files relating to child abuse in the 1980s that there is no evidence that they were “deliberately or systematically removed or destroyed to cover up organised child abuse”.
Wanless says the record-keeping practices inside the Home Office at the time mean it is not possible to reach a categorical conclusion on whether or not files were destroyed as part of a cover-up but says: “We found nothing specific to support a concern that the Home Office had failed in any organised or deliberate way to identify or refer individual allegations of child abuse to the police.”
The home secretary responded to Wanless’s review of the original Home Office internal investigation into the missing files by asking him to look further at how the police and prosecution authorities handled the child abuse allegations that were passed on to them by the Home Office at the time.
She has also asked Wanless and his co-author, Richard Whittam QC, to establish whether any of the material mentioned in the internal inquiry or in connection with the 114 missing files was passed to the security services, and if so, what action they took.
MI5 responded to the Wanless inquiry by carrying out a search of its own files but said it had not found any relevant to the review.
The home secretary also announced that the Metropolitan police had agreed to investigate allegations by a journalist, Don Hale, that a file of allegations involving prominent people, including MPs, passed to him by Barbara Castle, had been seized from him by special branch officers.
One new Home Office file uncovered by the Wanless review does show that specific allegations of child abuse made by the former Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens were taken seriously by Lord Brittan when he was home secretary, but they did not involve prominent politicians or celebrities.
Wanless says that one relevant 1983 Home Office file, the “Brighton assaults” file, was found after the initial investigation had been completed. It contains correspondence between officials and ministers relating to meetings between Brittan and Dickens in 1983 and 1984, mostly prompted by a desire to respond to a horrific attack on a child in Brighton that had led to front-page headlines.
The file includes a paper setting out the case for and against banning the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) that was presented to Brittan on 31 August 1983. “He is recorded in discussion as accepting advice that, with ongoing police investigation into PIE activities, it was not right to be commenting further on banning the organisation,” reports Wanless.
It also contains a departmental briefing for Brittan for a meeting with Dickens on 24 November when he handed over two letters containing specific allegations. In addition, it contains a subsequent letter from Dickens with further enclosed cases for investigation and thanking the home secretary for his “splendid support”.
The cases were passed on to the director of public prosecutions and Dickens was subsequently told that two of the cases could form the basis for police investigations.
“There is no mention of prominent politicians or celebrities in the cases under discussion [in marked contrast to media commentary about these meetings at the time],” adds Wanless.
The inquiry also reviewed the evidence of alleged funding of PIE by the Home Office’s voluntary services unit and concludes on the balance of probabilities that it did not take place. They say they cannot dismiss entirely evidence from a whistleblower that PIE might have been funded as part of a police or security service effort to infiltrate the organisation but found no evidence to support it.