David Steel is facing suspension from the Liberal Democrats after admitting he was aware that Cyril Smith was a child sex abuser but failed to assess whether he was a risk to children.
Party officials will meet on Thursday night to discuss whether Lord Steel, the former leader of the Liberal party, should have the whip withdrawn and face a formal investigation.
It follows the peer’s testimony to an inquiry that in 1979 the late MP for Rochdale confirmed reports that he had assaulted children.
Rather than launch an investigation into Smith, Steel said he allowed him to continue in office and waived through a recommendation for a knighthood.
In a statement on Thursday night, Steel defended his decision not to investigate Smith and claimed the media had generated “sensationalist headlines” by distorting his testimony to the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse.
“It is unfortunate that some sections of the media have chosen to extract certain passages of evidence and present them without the full context,” he said.
In the statement, Steel wrote he had been in no position to investigate the allegations of abuse against Smith because the offences, which were highlighted in Private Eye, had already been investigated by the police and took place when Smith was neither an MP nor a Lib Dem.
Smith stepped down as an MP in 1992 and died in 2010. He faced claims that he abused young boys from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Any suspension will be a blow for Steel, 80, who has been a central figure in centre-party politics since the 1970s.
A meeting of senior Scottish Liberal Democrats will discuss whether to suspend his membership, a spokesman told the Guardian. A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said: “Following his remarks at the inquiry, the party has begun an investigation into Lord Steel.”
Jo Swinson, the MP for East Dunbartonshire, wrote on Twitter: “The party has rightly begun a disciplinary investigation into Lord Steel following his revelations. Clearly this is incredibly serious and he should be suspended while this takes place.”
Under questioning at the inquiry, Steel said he confronted Smith about the allegations of child sexual abuse in 1979 after reading them in the magazine.
Young boys in Rochdale children’s homes had said that their local MP had stripped, spanked and bathed their buttocks, and fondled their genitals, Private Eye reported.
Steel told the inquiry he questioned Smith about the allegations during a meeting in the House of Commons. “What I said to him was: ‘What’s all this about you in Private Eye?’
“He said, rather to my surprise, ‘It is correct’ that he had been in charge of or had some supervisory role in a children’s hostel, that he’d been investigated by the police, and that they had taken no further action, and that was the end of the story,” the peer said.
Allegations of sexual assault by Smith had been investigated by Lancashire police in 1969 but no action was taken.
Steel said that he did not question Smith further about specific child abuse claims but concluded that the allegations were true. The inquiry counsel, Brian Altman QC, asked: “So you understood that he’d actually committed these offences, from what he said to you?” Steel responded: “I assumed that.”
Steel said he did not ask the party to launch any form of formal inquiry into Smith because, at that time, the alleged incidents took place before Smith was voted in as an MP in 1972. He went on to pass a recommendation that Smith should receive a knighthood in 1988, which was successful.
In a June 2018 appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, Steel described child sex abuse allegations against Smith as “tittle-tattle”. Steel told the hearing he thought he was referring in the interview to claims made in a book by the former Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk.
Steel, the son of a Scottish church minister, was the Liberal leader from 1976 to 1981, led the party into an alliance with the SDP and served as an MSP from 1999 to 2003. He has been a life peer since 1997.