Child abuse 'may well have been' covered up - Norman Tebbit

Lord Tebbit: "People thought that the establishment was to be protected"

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A former cabinet minister has said there "may well have been" a political cover-up of child sex abuse in the 1980s.

Lord Tebbit told the Andrew Marr Show the culture at the time was to protect "the establishment" rather than delving "too far" into such claims.

His comments come after it emerged that the Home Office could not locate 114 potentially relevant files.

Current MP Keith Vaz said files had been lost "on an industrial scale".

The government has rejected calls for an over-arching public inquiry into the various allegations of child abuse from that era.

However, a new review, to be carried out by a senior legal figure from outside Whitehall, will look into a Home Office review last year of any information it received in the 1980s and 1990s about organised child sex abuse.

Home Secretary Theresa May will make a statement on the issue to the House of Commons on Monday.

'View was wrong'

Lord Tebbit, who served in various ministerial roles under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, said at the time people had an "almost unconscious" tendency to protect "the system".

"And if a few things had gone wrong here and there that it was more important to protect the system than to delve too far into them," he said.

"That view was wrong."

Lord Tebbit said he hoped the latest review would report back "fairly quickly" so the government could decide what to do next.

Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, said there had been a "veil of secrecy over the establishment" for far too long.

Labour MP Keith Vaz: "Losing 114 files for example is the loss of files on an industrial scale"

The Home Office's 2013 review found 527 potentially relevant files which it had kept, but a further 114 were missing, destroyed or "not found".

Mr Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, said this represented loss of files "on an industrial scale" and it was "a huge surprise" that so much potential evidence had gone missing.

Among the files found, there were 13 pieces of information about alleged child abuse - nine of which were already known or had been reported to the police, including four cases involving Home Office staff, the Home Office's top civil servant Mark Sedwill said in a letter to Mr Vaz.

The four other items, which had not been previously disclosed, "have now been" passed to police, Mr Sedwill said - although a Home Office spokeswoman said "now" meant during the 2013 review, as opposed to at the time the allegations were received.

The Metropolitan Police declined to comment on the Home Office files specifically, but said it was "assessing information" as part of Operation Fairbank - which was set up in 2012 after Labour MP Tom Watson made claims about a "powerful paedophile ring" linked to a previous prime minister's "senior adviser" and Parliament.

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Analysis
The Houses of Parliament The government is under pressure to investigate claims relating to the 1980s and 1990s
By Alan Soady, BBC political correspondent

David Cameron said he wanted to "find answers" over what happened to the missing files.

But there's disagreement among politicians over what form any investigation should take.

The education secretary, Michael Gove, has gone the furthest so far in saying there will not be a full public inquiry - arguing that if there are allegations against individuals, they should be handed over to the police.

But the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said he "wouldn't rule anything out".

The documents which the Home Office didn't retain were, according to the department's own review last year, "potentially relevant".

Campaigners want to know just what that phrase means - and why the files were either destroyed or went missing.

Until there are answers, the calls for a full public inquiry look set to grow.

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Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he had an "open mind" about what other inquiries should take place, saying "whatever it takes" to uncover the truth and deliver justice should be done.

Tom Watson MP has set up an online petition calling on the prime minister to "make amends for historic failures" by establishing a national inquiry.

Peter Garsden, president of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, said the planned Home Office review would not provide "enough transparency" and only a public inquiry would suffice.

"And at the end of the day, if there isn't sufficient transparency, then the allegations of a cover-up will be that much more forceful," he said.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said a "wide-ranging review" into the Home Office's handling of the allegations was needed. She also repeated Labour's calls for an over-arching inquiry into child abuse.

But Education Secretary Michael Gove said he did not support a public inquiry.

Michael Gove: "No" to public inquiry on missing files

He said if people had "specific concerns" about abuse they should contact the police.

Mr Vaz said the new review was "the right thing to do" and that he was "a little disappointed" that he had not been made aware of last year's review at the time. He has summoned Mr Sedwill to appear before his committee on Tuesday.

The new review, announced this weekend, was set up after the prime minister asked Mr Sedwill to "find answers" to questions such as what happened to material reportedly supplied in a dossier by the late MP Geoffrey Dickens.

Former home secretary Leon Brittan said he received a "substantial bundle of papers" in the 1980s from Mr Dickens, reportedly containing abuse claims.

Lord Brittan said he handed them on to officials - but their whereabouts are currently unknown.

Lord Brittan Leon Brittan was home secretary between 1983 and 1985

Mr Sedwill said last year's Home Office investigation searched a central database for files concerning Mr Dickens, and organised child sex abuse more generally.

It "did not find a single dossier from Mr Dickens, but several sets of correspondence over a number of years to several home secretaries containing allegations of sexual offences", he said.

The report found no record of specific claims of abuse by prominent public figures, he added.

It also found the Home Office had passed to the appropriate authorities information received about child abuse which was "credible" and had "realistic potential for further investigation".

However, the new review will assess whether this investigation's conclusion is "still valid", Mr Sedwill said, "particularly in view of information now in the public domain since its completion last year".

'Pulling teeth'

Alison Millar, from the law firm Leigh Day, which represents victims of abuse, said a review simply into the whereabouts of the documents would not be sufficient.

"We believe that there needs to be a thorough and independent inquiry... drawing together the threads from all the various investigations into historic child abuse up and down the country," she told the BBC.

"I'm not saying review the conclusions of each one, but look at the kind of common themes."

Mr Dickens's son has said that his father claimed the information he was passing on would "blow the lid off" the lives of powerful and famous child abusers.

Labour MP Simon Danczuk has been urging the Home Office to locate what he calls Mr Dickens's "dossier" of information and consider publishing it.

He told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme: "In politics we have an unhealthy view of child sex abuse, to the point that some politicians would rather sweep it under the carpet, than getting it out there and confronting it."

He also said getting information about the missing information out of the Home Office or Lord Brittan had been like "pulling teeth".

But former Tory minister David Mellor, who served under Lord Brittan as a Home Office minister in the 1980s, said there had been a "witch hunt" surrounding the handling of the missing information and that the former home secretary was being unfairly "pilloried".

He said the material was spoken of within the department at the time, but it was "not a very substantive thing at all".

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