Observer 2 March 2014
A 1970s campaign to lower the age of consent has returned to haunt Harriet Harman, Patricia Hewitt and Jack Dromey. But in such a liberal climate, it wasn't hard for a small, determined group to exploit a commitment to free speech
They were members of a rounders league that played in a park in Gospel Oak, north London, in the 1970s. Drawn from organisations such as Shelter, the Child Poverty Action Group, the National Council for One Parent Families, the Legal Action Group and the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), they played together, socialised together and planned a better world together. After the matches they would retire to a pub for beer-fuelled debates on such cerebral topics as the limits of freedom and morality.
Some members of the rounders teams, notably Harriet Harman, her husband, Jack Dromey, and the former health secretary Patricia Hewitt, all NCCL stalwarts, would go on to great things in the Labour party. Others became heads of charities, eminent judges or gained seats on the boards of arts trusts and FTSE companies. It was a fertile time for those on the left. Many of the friendships, alliances and ideas forged then carry on today.
But how did the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), whose affiliation to the NCCL has been exhaustively investigated by the Daily Mail, come to get a ticket to the party?
"It was an extraordinarily liberal period," said Harry Fletcher, a criminal justice expert who at the time was the senior social worker for the National Council for One Parent Families. "The abortion laws had come in and capital punishment had been abolished." People were pushing at every boundary – sexual, moral, legal. Fletcher recalled how the groups would spend hours debating whether the NCCL, which became the campaign group Liberty, should defend the right of someone with racist or homophobic views to express themselves. The discussion about defending the National Front's right to march went on for months.
But by far the most divisive topic centred on the lowering of the age of consent. Many on the left thought that criminalising sexual behaviour between consenting teenagers was misguided and wanted it lowered to 14, a proposal endorsed by the NCCL's executive committee. Others, like Fletcher, felt such a move would give a licence to older men to prey on young girls. Into this permissive climate crept the PIE, a group that actively promoted sex between children and adults and that was allowed not only to affiliate to the NCCL (in return for paying a £15 subscription) but enjoyed considerable recognition and support for its right to speak out on such issues.
The group inveigled itself so successfully into the NCCL that, as reported in the May 1978 edition of its magazine MagPIE, the council's annual meeting passed a motion in support of PIE's rights. Motion 39 stated: "This AGM reaffirms the right of free discussion and freedom to hold meetings for all organisations and individuals doing so within the law. Accordingly, whilst reaffirming the NCCL policy on the age of consent and the rights of children; particularly the need to protect those of prepubertal age, this AGM condemns the physical and other attacks on those who have discussed or attempted to discuss paedophilia, and reaffirms the NCCL's condemnation of harassment and unlawful attacks on such persons."
That motion was passed two years after Harman has claimed that the group no longer wielded influence in the NCCL. "They had been pushed to the margins before I actually went to NCCL and to allege that I was involved in collusion with paedophilia or apologising for paedophilia is quite wrong and is a smear," she told the BBC last week. She said her husband had successfully fought to stop PIE having any influence in the NCCL in 1976 – two years before she joined as its legal officer.
Admittedly, any group could join the NCCL, which had more than 1,000 affiliate member organisations and the council's motion probably owed more to defending the principle of free speech than defending PIE. And it would be wrong to portray PIE as a major force. Being small, comprising only a handful of activists and with a membership estimated to be between 300 and 1,000, PIE was not a powerful voice at a time when the main debates within the council were about sexual equality and race relations. But its views were so profoundly abhorrent to most of Britain that it is still hard to see why the council did not do more to disown PIE from the start.
Fletcher said such views might seem extraordinary now but they were a product of their time. "Back then a lot of people [on the left] felt they had to be ultra-tolerant to small groups and take them seriously," he said.
Nevertheless, newspaper cuttings from the late 70s and early 80s, before PIE was kicked out of the NCCL, show many people were disturbed by its activities. One headmaster, Charles Oxley, was so incensed by its existence that he infiltrated it and fed intelligence back to the police. The Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens regularly attacked PIE in parliament.
In September 1983 the home secretary, Leon Brittan, described PIE's views as "utterly repugnant". And yet the same day that Brittan condemned PIE, the NCCL's legal secretary, Marie Staunton, was forced to offer a more qualified view, hamstrung by the fact that the paedophile group was still affiliated to her organisation. "Unless something is unlawful, people should not be prosecuted for the opinions they hold," she told the Daily Mail. "The NCCL is campaigning to change the law to lower the age of consent to 14. An affiliate group like the Paedophile Information Exchange would agree with our policy. That does not mean it's a mutual thing and we have to agree with theirs. The question is not whether this group seeks respectability. Their opinions are their own."
PIE was supremely adept at exploiting such ambiguity, turning such views into endorsements, part of a wider strategy that sought to misappropriate the views of other credible organisations. The Albany Trust, a government-backed counselling organisation that promoted sexual health, found its translation of a Dutch academic report examining the age of consent for homosexuals seized on by PIE as evidence that the age of consent should be lowered.
The respected mental health charity Mind, which organised a workshop examining sexuality that included interviews with a paedophile, a transvestite, a gay man, a lesbian and a transsexual, found itself accused of playing to PIE's agenda after a report about the meeting somehow found its way into the wider public domain.
Staunton told the Observer: "PIE was a vile and devious organisation which was disaffiliated from NCCL in 1983, the year I joined. I did not defend PIE and made it clear that PIE's opinions were their own and they were not opinions that were shared by NCCL. I am sorry if anything I ever said may have sounded as though I was defending PIE – nothing could be further from my intent."
But anything that got people talking about PIE was considered a victory by those within the group. As Keith Hose, its first chairman, wrote in its 1976 annual report: "The only way for PIE to survive was to seek out as much publicity for the organisation as possible … If we got bad publicity we would not run into a corner but stand and fight. We felt that the only way to get more paedophiles joining PIE … was to seek out and try to get all kinds of publications to print our organisation's name and address and to make paedophilia a real public issue."
This philosophy guided the organisation down the years with its subsequent chairman, Tom O'Carroll, gaining significant publicity for the group after being invited, and then barred, from addressing students at several universities, including Swansea, Liverpool and Oxford.
By 1978 PIE felt so confident that its views were gaining backing that it sent every member of the House of Commons and many in the Lords a copy of its booklet Paedophilia – Some Questions and Answers. Almost 200 newspapers and magazines received a press release promoting the event. "They were pretty clever people," recalls one person who came across them at the time. "They were basically the political wing of paedophilia. They were quite intellectual and very plausible."
One anecdote perhaps illustrates how plausible they were. Oxley was shocked to discover that one of PIE's key members, Steven Smith, worked for the Home Office in its security and maintenance staff. Smith, it transpired, used his work phone to organise PIE events and Home Office notepaper for the organisation's correspondence.
HISTORY OF PIE
■ PIE was formed in 1974.
■ It campaigned for what it described as "children's sexuality", calling on the government to axe or lower the age of consent. It offered support to adults "in legal difficulties concerning sexual acts with consenting 'underage' partners".
■ By its second birthday in October 1976, the organisation had 200 members. In 1983, reports said this number had grown to about 1,000.
■ PIE was affiliated to the National Council for Civil Liberties - now Liberty - in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
■ The group existed for more than a decade and was disbanded in 1984.