LONDON (Reuters) - One of Britain’s most senior civil servants said on Tuesday he did not know who, if anyone, had authorised the removal of over 100 missing government files that could shed light on allegations that well-known politicians abused children in the 1980s.
The disclosure, by Mark Sedwill, the top civil servant in Britain’s Home Office (interior ministry), is likely to fuel a media furore in Britain over the allegations, which have not yet been substantiated.
Child protection campaigners have said that at least 10 and possibly more than 20 public figures, including current and former politicians, should be investigated over allegations that they abused young children.
The claims have unsettled the current political elite, still recovering from scandals over parliamentarians’ expenses, at a time when Britain is grappling with revelations that several nationally beloved television personalities sexually abused children for decades.
The government on Monday pledged to launch a full-scale inquiry, with Prime Minister David Cameron promising it would leave “no stone unturned” to find out the truth.
Sedwill said last week that 114 files “potentially relevant” to the case had been destroyed or were missing, including allegations brought to the attention of a former Conservative home secretary, Leon Brittan, in the 1980s.
Brittan has said he dealt with the material correctly, but politicians and media have nevertheless raised broader concerns of a possible cover-up by an establishment protecting its own.
Asked by a parliamentary committee on Tuesday whether he knew who had authorised the removal or destruction of the files, Sedwill said: “No, I don’t.”
“Most of these files were probably destroyed because the kinds of topics that they covered would have been subject to the normal file destruction procedures that were in place at that time,” he said.
“But they can’t be confirmed to be destroyed because there isn’t a proper log of what was destroyed and what wasn’t.”
Sedwill said the fact that files were missing did not necessarily mean someone had deliberately had them removed, adding: “We shouldn’t assume there is anything sinister.”
Home Secretary (interior minister) Theresa May told parliament on Monday that an independent review would be held of a 2013 investigation carried out by her ministry into the handling of allegations that politicians had abused children.
The government will also establish an independent inquiry panel of experts to look more broadly at whether public bodies have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse, May said.
On Tuesday, Sedwill told the committee he could not recall whether he had told May about the missing files last year.
May, a member of Cameron’s Conservative party, told parliament on Monday she had deliberately not read the full report because of possible allegations that senior lawmakers, including senior Conservatives, were guilty of child abuse.
Footage has since emerged of a former Conservative MP suggesting to the BBC in 1995 that party whips - members who maintain party voting discipline - might avoid disclosing colleagues’ inappropriate behaviour, including that “involving small boys”, in order to have leverage over them.
Editing by Kevin Liffey