Ken Clarke has denied Tory whips buried allegations of child abuse by colleagues in exchange for political loyalty in the 1970s.

The Conservative MP was quizzed by the Westminster strand of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse about an interview given by fellow whip Tim Fortescue to the BBC in 1995.

The 78-year-old is the longest serving member of the House of Commons having been elected in 1970, and served in the whips’ office between 1972 and 1974.

In the documentary Westminster Secret Service, Mr Fortescue said the whips were on the hunt for anything that could be used to pressure colleagues into towing the line.

He said: “It could be debt, it might be scandal involving small boys or any kind of scandal in which a member seemed likely to be mixed up in.

“They would come and ask if we could help, and if we could, we did. We would do everything we could because we would store up brownie points.”

He added: “If we could get a chap out of trouble they would do as you liked for ever more.”

But Mr Clarke said he did not see or hear any suggestion of child abuse by members during his time in the whips’ office, but said homosexuality was intensely disapproved of when he was first elected.

“Gay people were a risk – they had to keep it a deadly secret,” he said.

When asked if he had heard scandals about “small boys”, he said: “I would have remembered. It would have been quite a problem – I would have remembered that.

“If I had come across someone sexually molesting children I would have remembered it.”

He questioned whether Mr Fortescue had “really thought through” the examples he used when he gave the BBC interview.

“A paedophile is really rather strongly disapproved of and would have found the House of Commons a really rather difficult place to work if we had had one,” he said.

“There are 600 members in the House of Commons – over the years I must have worked with thousands of MPs – it would be astonishing if amongst those there weren’t one or two paedophiles.

“After I was in the whips office there were of course rumours about one or two (but) – with the exception of Cyril Smith – none I would have believed.”

He continued: “Once people start gossiping about some sexual scandal it gets repeated.

“I think the allegations about Ted Heath and Leon Brittan were just ludicrous,” he added.

Cyril SmithCyril Smith (PA)

“Once people start gossiping, all the people who like to pretend they are in the know just repeat it.”

Referring To Cyril Smith, he said: “At first he was just a larger than life character – he really was larger than life, full of bonhomie.”

He said it was only later it became apparent Smith was “rather wily”.

Mr Clarke said he had followed the allegations about Smith in the newspapers.

“It’s established now that he engaged in a lot of paedophile activity that put him into total disgrace. When I was a new member of parliament he was just a great big jolly fat guy,” he said.

Mr Clarke described the atmosphere in the whips’ office as “like an old boys club” in which potentially damaging information on colleagues was written “in a big black book”.

He said the vast majority of the information contained in the book related to Tory members’ political leanings, their attitude to legislation and comments made about their parliamentary colleagues.

He said that people were never threatened with having embarrassing information about them released if they refused to obey the party whip.

“The words ‘whips’ office’ conjure up sinister men twisting arms and so on, which is a parody of what’s a perfectly straightforward political activity,” he said.”

But he continued: “If you go back 50 years ago it was a different culture – paedophilia was disapproved of but prosecution of it was rare compared to today.”

He cited the example of his old school where it was an open secret that one of the teachers was abusing pupils, but nobody did anything to try and prevent it.

“I don’t think people appreciated the lasting damage it did to the victims,” he said.

Referring to the Conservative party, he said: “I wouldn’t have covered up for a paedophile if I had discovered someone was a paedophile.

“If I found the whips knew about it and did nothing about it, I don’t know what I would have done – it would have been a serious moral dilemma,” he said.

He added: “Fortunately that dilemma never arose.

“I never had any factual knowledge of a paedophile in the House of Commons or anywhere else, so I’m sorry I can’t help you.”

The Westminster strand of the far-reaching inquiry into historical sexual abuse in British institutions is expected to last three weeks and is due to conclude on March 22.