The Government has been accused of trying to suppress a dossier of secret files which reveal that Margaret Thatcher knew about child sex abuse allegations against the MP Cyril Smith – before he was knighted.
The documents, only made public this week after an intervention from the Information Commissioner, include an undated letter marked “secret” warning Ms Thatcher that there was “the risk that such an award could give rise to adverse criticism”.
Smith, who died in 2010, served as the Liberal and later Liberal Democrat MP for Rochdale between 1972 and 1992. He was accused of abusing eight boys in the late 1960s and, though he was not prosecuted at the time, police say procedural changes mean he would be today.
The Cabinet Office last night denied a “cover-up” after releasing the 19-page file following repeated demands from the Mail on Sunday, and said the case was “sensitive and complex”.
Among the letters relating to the decision to knight Smith in 1988, the warning letter from Political Honours Scrutiny Committee member Lord Shackleton spelled out to Ms Thatcher that police had investigated Smith in 1970 for “indecent assault against teenage boys”.
It said that that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had decided “there was no reasonable prospect of conviction”.
The letter to the then prime minister said the case was reported in the Rochdale Alternative Press and Private Eye, adding: “One may regret this kind of press reporting but it could be revived if an award to Mr Smith were made.”
Lord Shackleton said it would be “slightly unfortunate” if this “episode” stopped Smith receiving the honour but added: “We felt it right to warn the honours system would be at some risk if the award were to be made and announced.”
The Mail on Sunday reported that another letter in the file, from Britain’s most senior civil servant at the time, the cabinet secretary Sir Robin Butler, asking the DPP why Smith was never prosecuted.
He said: “The case for taking the exceptional step of writing to you in this way is to protect the Prime Minister (and The Queen) while also being fair to Mr Smith.”
He said the committee wanted to know “whether the case against Mr Smith was not well founded: or whether it was a sound case, but that the evidence was not likely to stand up in court”.
The newspaper said no reply from the DPP is recorded in the file.
The papers were only released following five requests by the Mail on Sunday and an intervention from the Information Commissioner, and campaigning Labour MP Simon Danczuk – who has written a book about the allegations against Smith – accused the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of aiding a cover-up.
He told the Mail on Sunday: “Nick Clegg and David Cameron have colluded in covering this up… Both men need to come clean and make a personal commitment to revealing everything that is now held by Government departments.
“The Prime Minister promised there would be no stone unturned into the inquiry of historic sex abuse in Westminster. But the Cabinet Office seems to be doing the opposite.”
A statement from the Cabinet Office read: “There is no cover up nor was the Cabinet Office forced to release this information by the Information Commissioner.
“This is a sensitive and complex case and it is right that we considered advice from a range of officials. After considering the advice, the Cabinet Office decided to disclose information.”
Additional reporting by agencies