Political institutions failed to respond to historical claims of child sexual abuse but there was no evidence of an organised paedophile network at Westminster, an inquiry has found.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse said there had been a “significant problem” of deference towards people of public prominence.
A long-awaited report into allegations criticised political parties and police for not acting on information.
They turned a “blind eye”, it said.
The report found that institutions “regularly put their own reputations or political interests before child protection”.
It cited as an example the former Liberal party leader, Lord Steel, who was criticised for not acting on information that the late MP Cyril Smith had abused children.
Lord Steel told the inquiry last year how in 1979 he failed to pass on allegations against the then MP for Rochdale – even though he believed them to be true – because it was “past history”.
He subsequently recommended Smith for a knighthood.
‘Playing down rumours’
Prof Alexis Jay, who chaired the inquiry, said: “It is clear to see that Westminster institutions have repeatedly failed to deal with allegations of child sexual abuse, from turning a blind eye to actively shielding abusers.”
However, the report found no evidence of a coordinated “paedophile ring” in Westminster, following claims by fantasist Carl Beech, who was jailed last year for making false allegations.
It stated there was no proof such a network was covered up by security services or police.
The report also highlighted how former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and ex-Conservative party chairman Norman Tebbit were aware in the 1980s of rumours about MP Peter Morrison having “a penchant for small boys” but did nothing about it.
The allegations “should have rung alarm bells in government”, it said.
It found there had been a “consistent culture for years” in the Tory whips’ offices to “protect the image” of their party by “playing down rumours and protecting politicians from gossip or scandal at all costs”.
The report said that at that time “nobody seemed to care about the fate of the children involved, with status and political concerns overriding all else”.
“Even though we did not find evidence of a Westminster network, the lasting effect on those who suffered as children from being sexually abused by individuals linked to Westminster has been just as profound,” it added.
Steel inaction ‘unforgivable’
After Lord Steel gave evidence to the inquiry, he was suspended by the Scottish Liberal Democrats. But the party later determined that there were “no grounds for action” against the politician, who is also a former MSP and Holyrood presiding officer.
A Liberal Democrats spokeswoman said the party would be “thoroughly reading” this latest report, adding that “Cyril Smith’s acts were vile and repugnant”.
A lawyer representing eight of Smith’s victims said Lord Steel’s “inaction” after being told by Smith himself that he had molested young boys was “unforgivable”.
Richard Scorer said Lord Steel was not being blamed for Smith’s crimes but “for his own failure to stop Smith when he had the chance”.
“This must surely now be the catalyst for a mandatory reporting law, compelling those who suspect child abuse to report their concerns,” he added.
The report made a number of suggestions, including re-examining the policy on forfeiting honours after the death of the recipient – which would strip knighthoods from the likes of disgraced entertainer Jimmy Savile.
It also recommended creating widespread and well-understood whistleblowing policies for all Westminster institutions.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales, set up in 2014, has been investigating claims against local authorities, religious organisations, the armed forces and public and private institutions – as well as people in the public eye.
Launched following the Savile scandal, the inquiry’s investigation into Westminster is one of 15 separate investigations, which are expected to be completed later this year.