Written by journalist and filmmaker Tim Tate and reproduced in full with permission. Originally posted – timtate.co.uk
Over recent months two separate police forces have been carrying out enquiries into a snippet of 30-year-old gossip about a dead man. The Met and North Yorkshire Police have been interviewing people who, in the early to mid 1980s, heard a rumour that the then Home Secretary Leon Brittan had molested a young boy at a weekend retreat. I am one of them.
There are a number of oddities to this story, and, together with the rest of the strange saga of Leon Brittan, they shine a light on the frustratingly opaque progress of historic child sex abuse investigations. They also provide a litmus test for Lord Justice Goddard’s Independent panel Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
The rumour first. In the early 1980s I was a researcher on Roger Cook’s BBC Radio 4 investigative programme, “Checkpoint”. The editor of the series had a source inside 10 Downing Street who was in the habit of passing on juicy titbits of scurrilous gossip about members of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet.
Why he did this was something of a mystery: “Checkpoint” was a fine programme, but it rarely strayed into political investigations. I never met the source, but according to our editor, he simply enjoyed gossiping over drinks at a private club both belonged to. To my knowledge, nothing had ever been done with the tittle-tattle he related.
The Brittan story, though, was different. According to the source, Brittan had been attending a weekend house party somewhere in North Yorkshire (he was initially MP for Cleveland & Whitby, then Richmond, N. Yorks): at some point he was supposed to have molested a young boy. Local police allegedly attended, but very quickly were ordered off the case by Special Branch officers. There were no details of where exactly this happened, nor what exactly Brittan was supposed to have done.
Despite the sketchy nature of the rumour – and perhaps because I still lived in Yorkshire and had some relevant police contacts – I was instructed by my editor and the BBC’s (then) assistant director-general, Alan Protheroe, to make some discreet enquiries.
Over several weeks I spoke to a succession of contacts within the police. All said they knew nothing. Finally, I approached an officer in the neighbouring West Yorkshire Police Special Branch with whom I had an occasional, if slightly uneasy, working relationship. He agreed – reluctantly – to make some enquiries: very quickly thereafter he told me he was not going to pursue them.
And there our own investigations stopped. We told Alan Protheroe that we could find no evidence to support the rumour and I went back to work on more regular “Checkpoint” stories.
We were not, of course, alone in hearing this rumour. Private Eye had also picked it up and subsequently ran a short piece suggesting that members of the security service were trying to smear Brittan with false child abuse allegations.
Over the next decades I made a succession of films and wrote a number of books, investigating child sexual abuse and paedophile networks. But I rarely gave any thought to the Brittan allegations until claims about paedophile parties at the Elm Guest House in south-west London surfaced in late 2013.
A report on the Exaro news website, repeated in national newspapers and over the internet, claimed a video tape had been seized by Operation Fairbank (later known as Fernbridge),the Metropolitan Police’s unit investigating allegations of historic “VIP” child sexual abuse. According to Exaro the tape showed a senior former Tory minister – plainly Brittan, though since he was still alive he was not named – in compromising circumstances at the guest house.
I had a contact in Operation Fernbridge, Immediately after the story appeared, I met up with him: he denied absolutely – and vehemently – that any such tape had been seized. But because no official denial was issued by New Scotland Yard, the story fed into the growing public rumour-mill about ‘paedophile politicians’.
Two further issues quickly emerged which further inflamed the mood. The first was the mystery over what had happened to a dossier given in 1984 to Leon Brittan (while he was Home Secretary) by a back-bench Conservative MP, Geoffrey Dickens. Newspapers at the time had reported that this dossier – which stemmed from Dickens’ earlier attempts to have the Paedophile Information Exchange proscribed – named a number of high-profile active child abusers.
In dealing with enquiries (in 2013) about what had happened to the Dickens material The Home Office did not exactly cover itself in glory: it initially claimed that it could not find 11 files, some of which included the dossier; then was forced (after a succession of Freedom of Information Act requests and demands by the Home Affairs Select Committee) to disclose that it had discovered the remnants of not 11, but 114 files relating to correspondence from Dickens or other MPs about alleged paedophiles and the prosecution of child sexual abuse.
The Home Office had also maintained in 2013 that the files themselves had been destroyed in line with “applicable document retention policies” at the time. Yet a year later it was forced to admit in response to my FOI request that it didn’t actually have a copy of this policy: it did not explain the apparent conflict between the absence of this policy and its previous assurance that the child abuse documents had been properly destroyed.
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Leon Brittan, for his part, was initially unable to recall the Dickens’ dossier before later remembering that he had passed it on to his officials who had in turn discussed it with the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The second incident was a story in the Express and on the Exaro News website alleging that in 1982 a Customs Office called Maganlal Solanki had seized child pornography films or videotapes sent or brought to the UK by Russell Tricker, a convicted British paedophile living in Amsterdam: one of these allegedly showed a former Tory cabinet minister sexually abusing children. Once again, Brittan was not named, but there were clear hints in the stories that he was the politician in question (in 1982 he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury).
Mr Solanki had unquestionably seized the tapes and films referred to. An official 1982 notice in the London Gazette recorded the seizure and his name was shown as the Customs officer responsible.
This did not specify the exact nature of the material – child pornography was then not legally defined, nor indeed was simple possession of it specifically illegal: the notice simply stated that the films and tape were indecent. Crucially, though, it listed the title of the video as “LB”. [Note: in the 1980s there was a commercially-produced series of child pornography films entitled “Loverboys”.]
The coincidence of these initials with those of Leon Brittan led the Express reporter to doorstep Mr Solanki at his home in Leicester. The reporter recorded the conversation. The Express and Exaro claimed that during the interview the now-retired Customs officer confirmed clearly that the seized material showed the politician sexually abusing children.
I obtained a copy of the recording and transcribed it. Far from confirming the Express/Exaro claims, this clearly showed that Mr Solanki had repeatedly refused to confirm the reporter’s allegations that Leon Brittan was shown on the tapes. The most he appeared to concede was that the ex-minister was “involved” somehow with a tape: but he made clear that he was not at liberty to talk and told the reporter to speak to H.M. Customs.
However, the story had another twist in it. In April 2014 I met with the senior Operation Fernbridge detective with whom I had previously spoken. Over the course of a two hour, off the record interview he told me that his officers had also interviewed Mr Solanki. The former Customs officer had, according to the detective, insisted that he couldn’t remember anything about the 1982 Tricker seizure – much less having viewed the tape and films. (Mr Solanki is in his 80s and somewhat infirm).
But what he said next was even more potentially explosive. He told the officers that he clearly remembered stopping Leon Brittan on another occasion – he could not recall the year, but it was at some point in the 1980s – when the politician came into the port of Dover from Europe. Mr Solanki recalled that he was on normal duty, working in a two-person team with another officer. Mr Solanki observed the driver of a car behaving suspiciously: he pulled it over and the two officers discovered video tapes inside. Mr Solanki told the Fernbridge detectives that he took the tapes away to his office, viewed them and saw that they were child pornography. The detectives asked what exactly was on the tapes: Mr Solanki was embarrassed, but said they depicted boys and girls, clearly under 12, having sex with each other.
How, the detectives asked, did he know the man he stopped was Leon Brittan ? Mr Solanki explained that he had asked to see the man’s passport. Additionally, Brittan had described himself as “an MEP”.
This posed a problem. Leon Brittan was never an MEP. He went from being a government minister to the backbenches following the Westland Affair, before being knighted and appointed European Commissioner For Competition in 1989. The detectives eventually decided that Mr Solanki was telling the truth as he recalled it, but that he had most likely misheard (or misremembered) the phrase “MEP”, when in fact Brittan had said “MP”.
Mr Solanki also told the detectives that he had seized the tapes, sent Brittan on his way and referred the incident to his superiors. He indicated that the videotape seizure would have been recorded in the log book kept by Customs officers at Dover. The senior Fernbridge detective was making plans to look for these when we spoke. He was also trying to locate the date on which – according to vaguely remembered details – late one evening in the 1980s the Westminster press lobby gathered, at short notice, outside Downing Street, apparently having been briefed to expect an announcement concerning Leon Brittan.
Meanwhile, he was simultaneously following another two lines of investigation concerning Brittan and child sexual abuse. The first was the old rumour about him molesting a boy at the weekend house party. In the intervening years, the incident now had two separate alleged locations: North Yorkshire and London. But Operation Fernbridge had been unable to trace anyone who had any first hand knowledge: most importantly no alleged victim could be found in either place, and the detective now believed that the story was something of an urban myth which had probably arisen out of the mysterious late-night gathering of press in Downing Street.
The second lead was very much firmer – and very much more disturbing. It involved Elm Guest House in south-west London. In 1982 the Metropolitan Police had raided the guest house believing – correctly – that it was being used for (adult) male prostitution. The officer in charge of the raid had alerted the local social services department that there was a possibility at least one child might be on the premises and that, if so, a social worker and a temporary place of safety would be needed.
The police did indeed find one child – a boy of around eight years old – in the guest house. He was taken to a local children’s home and, according to a document the Fernbridge detective found in the council archives, was jointly interviewed by a detective constable and a social worker.
Fernbridge tracked down the (now-retired) officer in question. He was interviewed and described the boy as being the most sexualised child he had ever seen. He also said that the boy described being sodomised by nine adult men at the guest house, but seemed somewhat surprised that the police were concerned. He told his interviewers that “Uncle Leon” would take care of the problem, and that “Uncle Leon” worked up at “the big house”. The former officer said he had understood this to be a reference to Parliament and had realised that Uncle Leon was probably Leon Brittan.
All of this should have been recorded in a statement. But the Fernbridge team was surprised to discover that although a statement of sorts did exist, it was not signed by the boy; nor did it make any mention of “Uncle Leon”. They questioned the retired constable: he explained that it was late at night when the boy was questioned and he had taken a joint decision with the social worker that the statement could be signed after the boy had got some sleep. But next morning the boy had “acted out” and refused to sign.
The Fernbridge officers also questioned the retired officer about why he hadn’t recorded the “Uncle Leon” information in the (unsigned) statement: he then apparently became uncooperative, giving the distinct impression that he was concerned about either disciplinary proceedings or a potential threat to his police pension.
Fernbridge went on to track down the boy – now a man in his early 40s and living in America. A US Marshall, previously on secondment to the Metropolitan Police, went to see him. Although the man initially seemed willing to speak, he later refused to do so.
Shortly after the Fernbridge detective gave me the above information, he left the unit. I have not spoken with him since and do not know whether he was ever able to progress the investigations into Leon Brittan.
What I do know is that he was absolutely convinced that there was prime facie evidence that Brittan had a sexual interest in children; and that – unless he was lying to me (which I doubt) – Operation Fernbridge holds documentary evidence suggesting that Brittan was involved in either the attempted importation of child pornography, or the sexual abuse of a young boy. Or both.
In November 2014 a separate Metropolitan Police investigation – Operation Midland – was established to examine claims of historical child sex abuse and murder at the Dolphin Square apartment block near Westminster. Exaro News claimed the credit for this, alleging that its reporting of allegations by two men it called “Nick” and “Darren” had forced the Met to open the inquiry. The men claimed that their abusers had included two former Conservative MPs, one of them a former Cabinet Minister.
Leon Brittan (who had been ennobled as Baron Brittan of Spennithorne in 2000) died in January this year. Within a week Exaro named him as the former Cabinet Minister being investigated by Operation Midland.
In February, the Sunday Times columnist Dominic Lawson (son of former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson) defended his father’s former Cabinet colleague. He attacked the Exaro allegations as part of what he saw as a long-standing campaign by “foil-hatted conspiracy theorists who see the Palace of Westminster as nothing other than a cover for satanic rituals”.
The thrust of Lawson’s attack – that irresponsible reporting of anonymous allegations was tarnishing the names of dead men whom he simply presumed to be honourable – was given more life than it deserved by Exaro’s involvement in an Australian television programme in July. Whilst it unquestionably raised the profile of the story internationally, the 60 Minutes Special presented the claims by Exaro’s stable of complainants as established facts rather than allegations under police investigation. It named Leon Brittan as an abuser.
I have no means of knowing whether the claims by “Nick”, “Darren” and the other complainants whose cause Exaro has promoted are accurate. They are very serious allegations and are rightly being examined by the Met. But in so far as they relate to Leon Brittan, this police investigation poses a problem.
Because Brittan passed away in January this year, there can be no criminal proceedings. Therefore none of the evidence being collected by Operation Midland – nor the documentary evidence already held by Operation Fernbridge (let alone the enquiries still being made by North Yorkshire and Scotland Yard detectives into the mysterious house party rumour) – will ever be produced in court.
There is only one forum now in which the allegations about Leon Brittan can publicly be examined: Lord Justice Goddard’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
This week I formally asked the Inquiry’s press office the following questions:
- Has the Inquiry yet established direct contact with Operation Fernbridge ?
- Will the Inquiry be examining documentary evidence held by Operation Fernbridge concerning its investigations into the late Baron Brittan ?
- Specifically, will the Inquiry secure from Operation Fernbridge copies of all such documents including, but not limited to, formal statements made under caution, officers’ notebooks, internal memoranda and historical documents acquired during its investigation into the late Baron Brittan ?
- Does the Inquiry plan to require public testimony from the current head of Operation Fernbridge, AND its former senior investigating officer, [NAME REDACTED HERE] concerning the late Baron Brittan?
- Does the Inquiry plan to require public testimony from the former Customs and Excise officer Maganlal Solanki who gave evidence to Operation Fernbridge concerning the alleged seizure of child pornography from the late Baron Brittan ?
- Does the Inquiry plan to take evidence from the US Marshall formerly attached to Operation Fernbridge in connection with a visit he made at the request of Operation Fernbridge to a suspected victim of Baron Brittan ?
- Does the Inquiry plan to publish the documents acquired and/or generated by Operation Fernbridge during the course of its investigation into Baron Brittan ?
The Inquiry has yet to provide a response.
The long, strange saga of Leon Brittan is a litmus test of how rigorous and open Lord Justice Godard’s enquiry intends be. The enquiry must summons – as it has the power to do – Mr. Solanki and the officers from operation Fernbridge to give evidence on oath. It must also obtain all the statements taken by Fernbridge which relate to Brittan.
Leon Brittan was no obscure politician or ordinary Cabinet Minister. For more than two years he occupied one of the three great offices of state: Home Secretary. Unquestionably, he should have been subjected to positive vetting by MI5 before being appointed: Goddard must insist on seeing those vetting reports. She must also discover what, if any, subsequent vetting took place before David Cameron appointed Brittan as a trade advisor in 2010.
And, just as crucially, she must reveal all of this evidence to the public which is, after all, paying for the Inquiry.
There remain, too, legitimate and unanswered questions about Brittan’s opposition to proscribing the Paedophile Information Exchange (and indeed about PIE’s alleged involvement with the Home Office itself while he was a Minister Of State there between 1979 and 1981).
The announcement last week that further (and previously undisclosed) Cabinet papers from the era had been located and in some unspecified way referred to Brittan, make it even more vital for the Inquiry to examine – publicly – the claims that the former Home Secretary was involved in the sexual abuse of children.
If it does not, then the public will have every right to doubt the integrity of the Goddard enquiry – and to question why substantial sums of public money are being devoted to a series of police investigations which will never see the light of day.
And rightly or wrongly the as yet unproven allegations of an overarching Westminster plot to protect a powerful paedophile politician will become entrenched in the public mind as unchallenged fact.