The Prime Minister has led tributes to Lord Brittan, the former Home Secretary, whose retirement after years of public service has been dogged by controversy over the alleged cover-up of child abuse on his watch.
The death of Lord Brittan, at the age of 75 from cancer, was greeted with sorrow by his family and the admiration of his political peers, but with disappointment from abuse victims’ groups seeking answers about an alleged establishment paedophile ring.
As the youngest Home Secretary since Winston Churchill, Lord Brittan was a key member of Cabinet after the Conservative landslide of 1983 swept Margaret Thatcher back to power.
He was a central figure in the controversy over the policing of the miners’ strike and the Libyan embassy siege that resulted in the fatal shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher. He was forced to resign from the cabinet over the Westland affair and spent a decade in Brussels as one of the UK’s European commissioners.
“Leon Brittan was a dedicated and fiercely intelligent public servant,” David Cameron said. “As a central figure in Margaret Thatcher’s government, he helped her transform our country for the better by giving distinguished service as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
“He went on to play a leading role at the European Commission where he did so much to promote free trade in Europe and across the world. My thoughts are with Leon’s family and friends at this sad time for them.” Sir John Major said Lord Brittan had one of the most “acute and perceptive brains” in politics that he used unsparingly for the public good.
But victims’ groups spoke of their disappointment that he would not be able to face questioning by the Government’s own troubled child-abuse inquiry, which was set up in part because of controversy over missing files that dated back to Lord Brittan’s time as Home Secretary.
He was handed a 40-page dossier by the Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens in 1983, which allegedly documented the involvement of well-known figures in a child sex ring. The dossier has gone missing, but Lord Brittan had denied failing to act on the file.
Lord Heseltine – the other main player in the Westland helicopter affair – said that the peer had been badly affected by being dragged into claims of a cover-up of child abuse by Westminster figures.
He said he hoped he would be judged by his achievements in politics. “I believe he was a man of considerable integrity,” he said. He added there was no way a Home Secretary “can tell someone to lose a document”.
The Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk said the peer should have faced questions and been compelled to give evidence to the embattled inquiry into child sexual abuse.
“It’s fair to say that a cloud has hung over him for a long time. If we’re going to get to the truth of what happened then Theresa May needs to start making progress,” the MP said. “A lot of the people who need to give evidence are in advanced years and we’re running out of time.”
Peter Saunders, the head of Napac, the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, said: “I hope that it impresses upon the Home Secretary the urgency of acting to get it right, and getting it going.
“It [the inquiry] has zero credibility and it has no leadership. I don’t think that the inquiry is any less important now because of the death of the former Home Secretary.”