Scotland Yard has apologised for causing distress to the bereaved widow of Lord Brittan by not telling the couple before he died that he had been exonerated of a false rape claim.
In a letter to Lady Brittan’s lawyers, seen by the Guardian, deputy assistant commissioner Steve Rodhouse confirmed that the former home secretary would have faced no further action over the allegation.
Brittan died in January, aged 75, not knowing that police had already concluded he had no case to answer over the allegation that he raped a 19-year-old student at his London flat in 1967, before he became an MP. In the letter to Lady Brittan on Tuesday – 10 months after the politician’s death – Rodhouse wrote: “I do recognise that this clarity should have been provided at an earlier stage and I apologise for any distress that this has caused to Lady Brittan.”
The Metropolitan police investigated the allegation in 2013 but decided to take no further action due to insufficient evidence. Brittan was questioned under caution in June 2014 following a review of the investigation after Tom Watson, the campaigning deputy Labour leader, wrote to Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, raising concerns about the police’s handling of the case.
Scotland Yard’s apology comes a day after a BBC Panorama investigation into allegations of a Westminster-based paedophile ring, which is accused of the murder of three boys in the 1970s and 1980s.
The film included an interview with a vulnerable man who had made sexual abuse allegations against high-profile figures including Brittan, but now says that he “just went along with” names that were initially suggested as a joke.
The man, who Panorama referred to as David, said he may have been led into making the claims by campaigners who provided the names of a number of high-profile figures “as a joke suggestion to start with”, but which were later repeated in earnest. The film has prompted concerns from senior police chiefs that thousands of victims of abuse may be deterred from coming forward in the future if they fear they will not be believed.
Gabrielle Shaw, the chief executive of National Association of People Abused in Childhood (Napac), one of Britain’s biggest child abuse charities, said a number of distressed abuse victims had called the charity’s helpline after watching the Panorama film.
She said: “The main feeling from that was one of upset, and a word that’s been used is ‘triggering’ – it’s brought it all back. Not just the experience of what happened to them but it’s a negative experience of – these people are telling their story and they’re being torn apart.”
Shaw praised the documentary makers for highlighting the complexity of investigations into historical sex abuse allegations and for raising the issue of the vulnerability of key witnesses. But she expressed concern about how some survivors had been treated, including by Exaro News, the investigative news website that has published hundreds of stories based on claims of an establishment sex ring.
“We’re dealing with really vulnerable people here. It’s laudable that people want to get to the truth - the concern for us is around supporting victims and survivors appropriately,” she said.
“If it was me [considering speaking about being abused] I would be given pause as well – will I be torn apart by the media, is my story not going to be believed? Why would I want to re-victimise myself by telling that story again and again and be put on trial in front of the country?”
In the programme, the witness “David” alleged that he called the police with concerns that Chris Fay, who worked for the now-defunct National Association of Young People in Care, was “putting words in his mouth” when suggesting possible suspects to him.
Fay, 69, claimed in the film that he may have been pressured by a second high-profile campaigner, although they were never named. He said he “disputed” Panorama’s allegations when contacted by the Guardian at his south London flat on Wednesday morning, but declined to comment further.
Labour MP John Mann, who has given a dossier of allegations of historical abuse to Scotland Yard, described the Panorama investigation as “an insult to the dozens of survivors who have confided in me, often knowing that a prosecution is now impossible”.
He added: “I get huge numbers of allegations every month, many clearly nonsense. Sometimes from very distraught survivors of abuse. I also get detailed and credible evidence.
“Any good journalist would be investigating why child abuse had been so prevalent, how survivors can get any justice decades on and why they were ignored for so long.”
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