Leon Brittan
Leon Brittan died in January aged 75 with the rape allegation still hanging over himGetty Images

Met Police has apologised to the widow of Leon Brittan for not telling the former home secretary he had been cleared over a false rape claim before he died.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Steve Rodhouse wrote a letter to the lawyers of Lady Brittan in which he admits "clarity should have been provided" with regards to the dropping of the allegation against the former Conservative MP.

Brittan died in January from cancer aged 75 unaware that police had concluded there was no case against him over allegations he raped a 19-year-old student at a flat in London in 1967. In a letter, seen by The Times, Rodhouse wrote to Lady Brittan's lawyers, Mishcon de Reya on 7 October saying: "I do recognise that this clarity should have been provided at an earlier stage and I apologise for any distress that this has caused to Lady Brittan".

Metropolitan Police investigated the allegation in 2013, but no charges were brought against Brittan after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) ruled there was no evidence to support the claims of the woman.

However, Brittan was questioned but not arrested in 2014, just a few months before he died of cancer, after Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson wrote to Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, asking her to re-examine the case. Again, investigators could not find sufficient evidence against Brittan, but failed to inform him or his family before his death.

The apology from Scotland Yard arrives shortly after a BBC Panorama report into Operation Midland, the Met Police investigation into an alleged high-profile paedophile ring in Westminster during the 1970s and 1980s.

During the programme, one of alleged victims, known only as David, who claimed he was abused by Brittan, said the allegations started as a joke and he "just went along with it". David also admitted he may just have been confused when naming Brittan after being pressurised by "two well-known campaigners".

The programme was also critical of Watson, who used parliamentary privilege in 2012 to raise the possibility of the existence of a "widespread paedophile ring" linked to parliament. The Labour deputy leader admitted to the BBC that testimonies from some of the claimants at the heart of the investigation into an alleged Westminster paedophile ring "would prove to be unreliable".

Prior to the broadcast of the Panorama programme, the Met Police described its concern that it would "deter victims and witnesses from coming forward in future". A spokesperson added: "Seeing an individual make allegations and then be targeted by the media is not going to encourage others to speak out."

A spokesperson for the BBC dismissed the claims and said the report was "important and fair investigative journalism that rightly asks legitimate questions about the conduct of the police, journalists, campaigners and politicians in handling historic allegations of child abuse".