fiona hanson
© Fiona Hanson/PAFormer Labour cabinet minister Patricia Hewitt served as general secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties from 1974 to 1983.
Former cabinet minister Patricia Hewitt has said that the organisation to which she and her former Labour colleague Harriet Harman belonged was "naive and wrong" to accept the assurances of a paedophile group that it was a campaigning and counselling organisation.

Hewitt said that, as general secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties in the 1970s, she took responsibility for the mistakes that were made and apologised for having "got it wrong" on the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE). The two organisations were affiliated for eight years from 1975 to 1983.

In her first public statement since the scandal came to light earlier this week, Hewitt said: "I got it wrong on PIE and I apologise for having done so.

"NCCL in the 1970s, along with many others, was naive and wrong to accept PIE's claim to be a 'campaigning and counselling organisation' that 'does not promote unlawful acts'," she said.

Hewitt added: "As general secretary then, I take responsibility for the mistakes we made.

"I should have urged the executive committee to take stronger measures to protect NCCL's integrity from the activities of PIE members and sympathisers and I deeply regret not having done so."

She rejected claims that she had condoned the "vile crimes" of child abusers.

The link-up was in place during the time that Hewitt, a former health secretary, was general secretary of the NCCL, now called Liberty. Labour deputy leader Harman was its legal officer and her husband, Jack Dromey, now a Labour home affairs spokesman, was on the executive.

Among the policies of the PIE was decriminalising sex with children as young as four, and at least seven members were jailed for paedophilia offences.

Harman has said that she regretted the links between the two groups, but insisted that she was the victim of a "politically motivated smear campaign" for allegations she said were "horrible and untrue".

Hewitt acknowledged that it was the NCCL's policy to lower the age of consent under her stewardship, but denied she was behind the idea. She sought to defend both Dromey and Harman over their roles with the organisation in the 1970s and insisted that there were still lessons to learn on child protection today.

In her statement, she said: "I do not support reducing the age of consent or legalising incest. As the NCCL archives demonstrate, I consistently distinguished between consenting relationships between homosexual men, on the one hand, and the abuse of children on the other.

"When Jack Dromey, as NCCL chairman in 1976, vigorously opposed PIE at the NCCL AGM, he did so with the full support of the executive committee and myself as general secretary.

"Harriet [Harman] did not join the NCCL staff until 1978. She was one of two legal officers, neither of whom was a member of the executive committee."

She added that the organisation played a leading role in anti-discrimination and equality campaigns.

She said: "We helped to secure the Sex Discrimination Act, anonymity for rape victims and an end to discriminatory immigration rules against British women with a foreign husband. We also built support for equalising the age of consent for homosexual men - a change eventually made in 1998.

"Although the evil of child sexual abuse is now properly recognised, as a society we still have a long way to go in protecting children, tackling the sexualisation of girls and supporting the survivors of sexual abuse. I hope the lessons that are being learnt from the mistakes of the 1970s will contribute to those goals."