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PM leads tributes to Leon Brittan

Former Home Secretary Lord Brittan has died of cancer
Former Home Secretary Lord Brittan has died of cancer

Prime Minister David Cameron has led tributes to former home secretary and European Commission vice-president Lord Brittan of Spennithorne, who has died aged 75 after a long battle with cancer.

As Leon Brittan, he was a senior member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet until forced to resign over the Westland affair, and he later spent a decade in Brussels as one of the UK's European Commissioners.

He was recently caught up in a row over allegations that he failed to act on evidence of child abuse by senior figures in Westminster in the 1980s.

Mr Cameron said: "Leon Brittan was a dedicated and fiercely intelligent public servant. As a central figure in Margaret Thatcher's government, he helped her transform our country for the better by giving distinguished service as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

"He went on to play a leading role at the European Commission where he did so much to promote free trade in Europe and across the world. More recently, he made an active contribution to the House of Lords. My thoughts are with Leon's family and friends at this sad time for them."

Announcing Lord Brittan's death, his family said in a statement: "Leon passed away last night at his home in London after a long battle with cancer. We shall miss him enormously."

They added: "As a family, we should like to pay tribute to him as a beloved husband to Diana and brother to Samuel, and a supportive and loving stepfather to Katharine and Victoria, and step-grandfather to their children.

"We also salute his extraordinary commitment to British public life as a member of parliament, minister, cabinet minister, European commissioner and peer - together with a distinguished career in law, and latterly in business."

Former prime minister Sir John Major - who served alongside Lord Brittan in the Thatcher administration - said: "Leon Brittan had one of the most acute and perceptive brains in politics and he used it unsparingly for the public good.

"A shy but kindly man, he was always more likely to encourage than condemn and he will leave his wide circle of friends in and out of politics with many memories to cherish."

Lord Brittan's death came as controversy continued over the inquiry into child sex abuse allegations triggered by questions surrounding a dossier handed to him as home secretary by then-Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens.

After coming under pressure to explain what he knew about the file, Lord Brittan confirmed last July that he had a meeting with Mr Dickens in 1983 and was given a file, which he passed on to officials, adding: "I do not recall being contacted further about these matters by Home Office officials or by Mr Dickens or by anyone else."

The department later released an extract of a letter Lord Brittan sent to Mr Dickens the following March explaining that the material had been assessed as worth pursuing by the director of public prosecutions (DPP) and was "now being passed to the appropriate authorities".

An independent review commissioned by the Home Office in 2013 found that the department had not retained the dossier.

The furore over the allegations led to an independent review by NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless, whose report last November found no evidence of a cover-up - but warned it was impossible to draw firm conclusions because of the absence of complete paperwork from the period.

A second, more wide-ranging, inquiry into official handling of abuse claims was also commissioned by Home Secretary Theresa May, but its proposed chair Fiona Woolf stood down after questions were raised about her social links with Lord Brittan, who was a near neighbour.

A barrister by training, who was appointed QC in 1978, Brittan entered the House of Commons in 1974, serving as MP for Cleveland & Whitby until 1983 and for Richmond, Yorkshire, from 1983 to 1988.

He was a Home Office minister in Mrs Thatcher's first government in 1979 and joined the Cabinet as chief secretary to the Treasury in 1981. His appointment as home secretary in 1983 made him the youngest person to hold the post since Sir Winston Churchill.

His tenure at the Home Office saw the siege at the Libyan People's Bureau in London during which WPc Yvonne Fletcher was shot, and the controversial deployment of police in large numbers during the national miners' strike.

As home secretary, he was dogged by rumours about a supposed sex scandal involving a senior Cabinet minister and under-age boys.

The rumours were denounced as false in Private Eye, which alleged an MI5 plot to force him from office. In a remarkable development, then-Press Association political editor Chris Moncrieff was summoned to Brittan's office to be shown an early copy of the magazine by the home secretary, who forcefully told him: "It's all lies."

Brittan was appointed trade and industry secretary in a 1985 reshuffle, but within months was embroiled in the row over helicopter company Westland which eventually led to his resignation and that of then-defence secretary Michael Heseltine.

Following a heated dispute within the Cabinet over whether the Somerset-based company should link up with an American or European backer, Lord Brittan resigned in 1986 after being forced to apologise to Parliament over a letter which he had denied receiving from British Aerospace. This was followed by the revelation that he had authorised the leak of a law officer's letter which was critical of the defence secretary.

Lord Heseltine said today they remained good friends despite their respective roles in the affair. Paying tribute to his former Cabinet colleague as "a man of considerable integrity", he said Brittan was "very badly treated by No 10" over the crisis.

Following his departure from government, Brittan reportedly rejected the offer of a peerage in favour of appointment as European commissioner in 1989, taking the briefs for competition, trade and external relations and serving as vice-president from 1989/93 and 1995/99.

His career in Brussels also ended with a resignation, when he and the other members of Jacques Santer's Commission quit en masse amid allegations of fraud. Lord Brittan continued to serve as vice-president for a few months under interim president Manuel Marin, but was then replaced by Chris Patten.

Lord Brittan was made a life peer in 2000, and took up positions in business, serving as vice-chairman of the UBS investment bank from 2000/14. He was appointed a trade adviser to Mr Cameron following the formation of the coalition Government in 2010.

His family said there will be a private funeral service for family only, and a memorial service will be announced.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who worked in Lord Brittan's office at the European Commission before entering politics, said: "Leon was one of the most intelligent figures in modern British public life.

"When I worked for Leon in Brussels almost 20 years ago, his forensic understanding of detailed issues combined with his passionate belief in internationalism was evident to everyone.

"His courage in sticking up for his pro-European views, despite huge pressure to the contrary, never wavered.

"His intellectual curiosity about politics; the arts; history; and literature was encyclopedic.

"Even as illness affected him badly in recent years, he kept up his lifelong habit of reading a constant flow of books on a huge range of subjects.

"My heart goes out to Diana Brittan and Leon's family at this very sad time."

Last year reports emerged that Lord Brittan had been questioned by police in connection with a historic rape allegation.

Tonight Scotland Yard issued a statement saying that its inquiries are ongoing.

The force said: "In late 2012, a woman alleged to the Metropolitan Police Service that she was raped by a man in 1967 at an address in London.

"The woman was over the age of 18 at the time of the incident.

"An investigation was commenced by officers from the Sexual Offences, Exploitation and Child Abuse Command. Advice was sought from the CPS, and both police and the CPS agreed at that time that there was insufficient evidence to proceed.

"A subsequent review of the case was carried out and further lines of inquiry were conducted.

"This included in June 2014, a man aged in his 70s being interviewed under caution by appointment at a central London location in connection with the allegation. He was not arrested.

"After further consultation with the CPS, it was confirmed that those additional inquiries had not strengthened the original evidence; but police have subsequently been carrying out a further review of the case which remains ongoing."

In a statement issued following the reports through his lawyers last July, Lord Brittan said: "It is true that I have been questioned by the police about a serious allegation made against me. This allegation is wholly without foundation."


From Belfast Telegraph