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Councillor suspended after Rochdale abuse inquiry finds he lied during probe

A councillor has been suspended by the Labour Party after an independent inquiry into child sexual abuse in Rochdale concluded he lied during his evidence.

Richard Farnell told a panel last year he was unaware of issues of abuse involving a residential school in the town while he was leader of Rochdale Council between 1986 and 1992.

On Thursday, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) concluded authorities showed a “total lack of urgency” to address the sexual exploitation of boys at council-run Knowl View School with victims regarded as “authors of their own abuse”.

Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse
Richard Farnell has been suspended by the Labour Party (PA)

Addressing Mr Farnell’s evidence last October, the panel said: “We concluded that Richard Farnell lied to the inquiry in the course of his evidence.

“It defies belief that Mr Farnell was unaware of the events involving Knowl View School.”

The inquiry heard a paedophile had been admitted to Knowl View in September 1990, where he had sexually abused at least one boy, but Mr Farnell insisted the information was not passed on to him.

Mr Farnell said he was also unaware of a 1991 report submitted by a health authority worker which detailed claims that boys at Knowl View as young as eight were being sexually targeted by men from as far afield as Sheffield.

He told Brian Altman QC, lead counsel to the inquiry: “The council should accept responsibility for failings that happened in Knowl View, and individuals must take responsibilities for their own actions.

“I bitterly regret that the senior officers of the council never once approached me to brief me about these matters.”

However, IICSA rejected his account and concluded: “Regarding Mr Farnell’s final statements at the hearing, it was shameful that he refused to accept any personal responsibility for the young lives blighted by what happened at Knowl View while he was leader.

“Instead, he laid all blame for what occurred at the door of the senior officials in education and in social services.”

Mr Farnell regained the position of Labour council leader in 2004 but quit the position weeks after giving evidence to the panel.

In a statement, a Labour Party spokesman said: “The Labour Party condemns the abuse of children and any attempts to cover up these heinous acts.

“Any allegations and information the party received in relation to what the council may have known were passed straight to the police to be fully investigated.

“We have fully co-operated with the police and the Inquiry to support their work in investigating historic sexual abuse.”

IICSA also criticised former Lib Dem MP for Rochdale, Paul Rowen, who was council leader from 1992 to 1996.

The panel said: “As with Richard Farnell, he was prepared to blame others without acknowledging his own failures of leadership.

“At best he was insufficiently inquisitive about Knowl View School despite having knowledge of the serious problems that persisted at the school.

“At worst, as council leader he turned a blind eye to these problems and chose to give them low priority.”

Pupils at now-closed Knowl View were also sexually exploited in the town centre, the bus station and at public toilets across the road from the borough council’s offices over a 20-year period.

IICSA concluded that from 1989 onwards the police, Rochdale Council’s social services and education departments, as well as staff at Knowl View, knew youngsters were being subjected to sexual exploitation.

The panel found: “The records of individual children convey a total lack of urgency on the part of the relevant authorities to address the problem and treat the matters involved for what they were – serious sexual assaults.

“This remained the case even in the face of clear evidence of the risks to children’s health.

“The file of one young boy at Knowl View recorded that he had contracted hepatitis through ‘rent boy’ activities.

“We concluded that no-one in authority viewed child sexual exploitation as an urgent child protection issue.

“Rather, boys as young as 11 were not seen as victims but as authors of their own abuse.”

It ruled there was no “deliberate cover-up” by the authorities involved but instead a “careless and wholly inadequate response”.

Last year Greater Manchester Police found no evidence of a criminal cover-up, while shortly before IICSA’s public sessions started, the chief executive of Rochdale Council, Steve Rumbelow, apologised for the council’s “unforgivable response” at the time.

The panel also found a “valuable opportunity” was missed to prosecute the town’s former Liberal MP, Cyril Smith, during his lifetime in the late 1990s.

Cyril Smith (John Stillwell/PA)
Cyril Smith acted as a governor for several Rochdale schools (John Stillwell/PA)

Smith, a prominent councillor before he represented the town in Parliament from 1972 to 1992, acted as a governor for several Rochdale schools,  including Knowl View.

Before he died aged 82 in 2010 he was the subject of sex abuse accusations and investigations, but never faced trial and received a knighthood in 1988.

A Lancashire Police investigation into the 29-stone MP concluded in 1970, the year he first ran for public office, that he was hiding behind a “veneer of respectability” and had used his “unique position” to target eight boys at Cambridge House during the 1960s.

But the then director of public prosecutions (DPP), Sir Norman Skelhorn, chose not to charge him.

From 1997 onwards Greater Manchester Police investigated allegations of physical and sexual abuse in residential homes, with the Lancashire Police file concerning Smith and a further witness statement submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service in 1998.

Two additional statements were submitted in 1999.

The IICSA panel said the CPS branch crown prosecutor advised Smith should not be charged despite coming to the view there was a “realistic prospect of conviction”.

The panel said: “His review of that advice in 1999 did not consider that those new complaints were capable of lending further support to the case.

“A valuable opportunity was, therefore, lost to prosecute Smith during his lifetime, and for the complainants to seek justice.”