The Truth Shall Make You
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
LEON BRITTAN AND THE INDEPENDENT INQUIRY INTO CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
The much-delayed Independent Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry hearings into the Westminster paedophilia allegations finally began this morning with a lengthy opening statement by its lead counsel, Brian Altman QC.
Full disclosure: I provided a written submission to the Inquiry, which has now been issued to the Core Participants in the Westminster hearings. I have previously published my submission on this blog and do so again below.Submission to the IICSA - redacted version
Much of Mr. Altman’s opening speech was devoted to the historical context in which sensational claims, made in Parliament and in the media, led the Home Office to set up IICSA. This happened, as he noted, way back in March 2015 when Theresa May was still Home Secretary.
Although – in Mr. Altman’s own words – the Inquiry offers “an unprecedented opportunity to examine the extent to which institutions and organisations in England & Wales have taken seriously their responsibility to protect children”, he stressed that it would not “make findings as to whether individual allegations of child sexual abuse that have been made against Westminster figures are true. That is a matter for the police and for the courts.” Instead, it would examine whether the various political and governmental organisations had handled the claims appropriately.
Not for the first time in the vexed history of government-ordered child sexual abuse enquiries, this poses a fundamental and logically insoluble problem. If no verdict is reached on whether the allegations were accurate, how can any sensible conclusion be reached on whether official responses to them were appropriate ?
The same conundrum affected – badly – the judge-led Inquiry into the 1987 Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis. Under the remit imposed on Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, this was forbidden from deciding whether any of the 121 children involved had been sexually abused; instead its £5 million investigations were tasked with reporting on how the allegations had been handled.
This is the stuff of madness: IICSA, like Butler-Sloss before it, is spending vast sums of taxpayers’ money on considering the probity of official responses to a substantial elephant in the room, whilst being prohibited from considering whether or not the elephant actually existed.
There is also a second and rather more specific problem. Since at least some of those “Westminster figures” about whom allegations have been – very publicly – made are now dead, there is absolutely no prospect of any police or judicial verdict on their guilt or innocence. IICSA is all there is. And that leads us on to the curious case of Leon Brittan, former occupant of Theresa May’s old desk at the Home Office.
Mr. Brittan was one of the central figures in the tangled and multiple skeins of media claims. The most prominent of these were very loudly trumpeted by the now-defunct independent website, Exaro News and – in particular – its soi-disant “editor in Chief”, Mark Watts . In December 2013 Exaro and Mr. Watts claimed that detectives from the Metropolitan Police’s twin operations Fairbank and Fernbridge had “seized a video that places a former Cabinet minister at one of several parties where boys were sexually abused by men … Exaro has also learned that police have ‘talked to’ the ex-minister about his attendance a the sex party”. [The original webpage for this Exaro story is no longer functioning].
The story was picked up and subsequently reported by rather more mainstream news organisations. Although Exaro did not name the ex-minister, it was common knowledge amongst journalists (and on social media) that the man identified and allegedly interviewed by detectives was Leon Brittan – then still alive.
In March 2014, Exaro and the Sunday Express followed this up with a further story. They claimed hat in 1982 H.M. Customs and Excise had seized a videotape which showed “child abuse in the presence of a former cabinet minister”. Once again, Mr. Brittan was not named , but every journalist and Twitter follower of what Mr. Watts called “undoubtedly, the biggest political scandal in post-war Britain” knew he was the politician allegedly involved.
I interviewed one of the senior officers in Operation Fairbank/Fernbridge after each of these stories broke. He insisted – vehemently – that neither was remotely true. Instead he told me that his officers had gathered different – and potentially far more damning – information suggesting prime facie evidence that Leon Brittan had an interest in child sexual abuse. I published the story on these officer’s claims this blog on 4 August, 2015. [“The Politician, The Paedophiles & The Press: The Long Strange Saga of Leon Brittan”: it is still there to be read by those with the stamina to scroll back through the posts].
His evidence rested on two planks. The first was an interview the detective said his team had carried out with the Customs officer identified in the Exaro story. This man had told Fernbridge’s officers that the tapes seized in 1982 did not depict the former cabinet minister and that he had made this clear to the Exaro and Express journalists. A tape recording of that encounter, which I obtained, transcribed and published, bore him out.
However, he also volunteered to the officers that on another occasion he had stopped a man who he believed to be Leon Brittan at Dover customs and had seized child pornography from him. He had reported this to his superiors and suggested that Fernbridge locate the Customs seizure logs. The detective I spoke to in 2014 told me that this line of enquiry was on-going.
The second thread of evidence relating to Mr. Brittan concerned Elm Guest House, the much-discussed B&B for gay men, closed after a police raid in 1982. According to the Fernbridge officer, a young boy had been found on the premises on the night of the raid and in an interview with a police officer and social worker had told them not to worry about the abuse he had suffered because “Uncle Leon” from “the Big House” would sort everything out.
Operation Fernbridge got this information – so the detective said – from the police officer, but was surprised to find that the boy’s (unsigned) written statement made no mention of “Uncle Leon”. The team then tracked down the boy – now in his early 40s; he initially agreed to speak to them, but subsequently refused to do so. Nonetheless, the senior officer who I interviewed told me that he was convinced Leon Brittan had an active sexual interest in children.
The opening statement today by Brian Altman QC incudes the following notable statement in its section on Elm Guest House.
“It appeared that one boy, aged 10, had been sexually abused on the premises. The boy made a statement to the police that he had been raped by adult males at the house. A social worker claimed that the boy made an allegation in relation to ‘Uncle Leon’.”
[Transcript; Page 8].
There is no follow-up to this remarkable passage in any of Mr. Altman’s published remarks. It is simply left there to dangle in the wind. And yet it seems to establish as a finding of fact at least one section of the story the Fernbridge detective told me.
I made clear in my published story that I had no means to establish the accuracy of what the senior Fernbridge officer said – though he seemed to have no motive to be making it up. However, in my submission to IICSA, which detailed all of his allegations, I urged the Inquiry to interview the detective and the Customs officer. I stressed that the latter was in his late 80s and in failing health and that therefore time was of the essence. The published IICSA timetable for the first week of the Westminster hearings does not include either of their names. Nor does it include mine. Although I repeatedly asked to give oral evidence to support my lengthy written submission, its lawyers refused to allow me to do so. They also declined to give an explanation for this.
If the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is serious in its ambition to establish facts of this highly-polarized controversy it must allow the evidence to be heard – and tested – in public. The Fernbridge detective and the Customs officer must be called to testify and their claims about Leon Brittan must be examined.
To do otherwise is to ignore the fundamental question about the elephant in the room. And that is fair neither to the public, which is footing the bill to find out the truth, or to now-deceased politicians such as Leon Brittan who cannot defend themselves.