WILLIE Rennie has repeatedly refused to condemn the former Liberal Democrat peer Lord Steel for turning a blind eye to the paedophile MP Cyril Smith.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader even praised his former colleague for his work against apartheid after being confronted by the media at the Scottish Parliament.

Pressed multiple times, he refused to condemn Lord Steel in any way, and refused to apologise for the Scottish party’s exoneration of him.

He also refused to say if he still considered Lord Steel his friend.

In May 2019, the Scottish LibDems said there were “no grounds for action” against Lord Steel, despite him admitting he did nothing after suspecting Smith was a child abuser.

Mr Rennie said at the time: “David Steel’s national and international reputation is beyond doubt... the Liberal Democrats will always investigate such serious matters.”

Smith, who became the Liberal MP for Rochdale in 1972, had been investigated by police in the 1960s over the alleged abuse of teenage boys.

Lord Steel last year told the Independent Inquiry into Child Abuse (IICSA) that he had been made aware of the allegations and “assumed” they were true, but considered them “nothing to do with me” because they predated Smith’s time in Parliament.

He also said that in 1979, when he was Liberal leader, he had discussed the allegations with Smith after Private Eye reported them, and Smith said the article was accurate.

This week the IICSA accused Lord Steel of an “abdication of responsibility”, prompting the peer to announce he was quitting the House of Lords and retiring from public life.

The first Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, Lord Steel said he wanted to avoid distress for his family, but also whined he was being made "a proxy for Cyril Smith".

Lawyers for Smith’s victims later said it had been “completely unacceptable” for the Scottish LibDems to say no action was needed against Lord Steel, effectively pre-empting the IICSA.

Asked about his previous praise for Lord Steel in light of the IICSA finding, Mr Rennie praised him some more.

He said: “David has a very long career in politics, where’s contributed in terms of anti-apartheid, in terms of women’s rights and abortion, and that needs to be reflected.

“Of course he’s resigned from the party and withdrawn from public life because of the inquiry’s conclusion and I think that was the right decision.”

He denied the Scottish party’s investigation of Lord Steel’s conduct was a "whitewash".

He said: “We took the decision that there was no action to be taken at that time, we knew there was a further inquiry to come that was going to look into these issues in a wider remit and with more depth, and we knew they would come to a conclusion this year.”

Asked if the party had made a mistake, he said: “I think what we did is we took the evidence at the time and we drew the conclusion there was no further action to be taken at that time.”

Asked what signal that decision sent to victims of predators like Smith, Mr Rennie said: “I think what signal it sends to victims is we’ve got a public inquiry that listens to them, that understands the pain they’ve gone through, and they’ve drawn conclusions.

“I think that’s good for public life because it’s making sure that victims will be heard when they haven’t been heard in the past.”

Asked about lawyers for the victims of Mr Smith saying the LibDems had put the party before victims, he said: “That’s not true.”

Asked if the Scottish LibDems had protected Lord Steel last year, Mr Rennie said: “No, we took the decision last year that there was further no grounds for action at that time.”

Asked if he could see why victims would feel let down by the Scottish LibDems, he said: “I think victims for a long time have felt let down. They’ve not been heard. This report has given them that voice.”

Asked if he condemned Lord Steel, he said: “I think David has made the right decision to withdraw from public life, to resign from the Liberal Democrats. He’s reflected on all of that and I think that’s the right thing to do.”

Pressed on whether Lord Steel had mishandled the Smith case, he said: “I think David has reflected, he’s admitted himself about the issues and the decisions he took.”

Pressed again on whether Lord Steel made an error over Smith, Mr Rennie said: “David has reflected on the report. By the fact he has resigned he has accepted that mistakes have been made in the past, and he’s withdrawn from public life.

“David has recognised this very powerful report. He’s understood that victims have felt let down. He’s understood the turmoil it has caused and therefore he’s withdrawn from public life.”

Reminded Lord Steel had nominated Smith for the knighthood - which he received in 1988 a decade after the Private Eye story - he said: “The Liberal Democrats did not know. David did not know at that time when those decisions were made. All of that became public later.”