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House of Commons Hansard
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Operation Midland Independent Report
07 October 2019
Volume 664

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Before I call the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) to ask his urgent question, I must inform the House that I have been advised that Carl Beech has appealed his conviction and sentence. Colleagues, those appeal proceedings are therefore sub judice under the terms of this House’s resolution and no reference should be made to the merits or otherwise either of that appeal or of the sentence imposed by the court.

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(Urgent Question): May I add my commendation to the Trade Minister who responded to the previous urgent question, who did so as to the manner born?

To ask the Minister for Crime, Policing and the Fire Service if he will make a statement on the Home Office’s response to Sir Richard Henriques’s independent report on the Metropolitan police’s Operation Midland.

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This is a deeply concerning case. Operation Midland was the Metropolitan Police Service’s investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse made by Carl Beech against a range of public figures. Beech is now serving an 18-year prison sentence for perverting the course of justice. He has appealed his conviction and sentence, as you mentioned, Mr Speaker, and they are a matter for the courts to consider. This case has had a devastating impact on those he accused and their families. Sir Richard Henriques’s report on how the Met handled the investigation raises many concerns. The Met has already apologised for failings in the investigation and acted on many of Sir Richard’s recommendations, and we very much welcome the publication by the Met on Friday of the fuller detail of what Sir Richard found. I note that the commissioner of the metropolis has issued a further statement and apology today.

It is now vital that the public receive independent assurance that the Met has learned from the lessons identified in Sir Richard’s report and has made the necessary improvements. That is crucial to restoring public confidence that police handling of an investigation of such sensitive matters is both fair and impartial. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wrote last week to Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary and fire and rescue services to ask him to undertake an inspection at the earliest opportunity to follow up on Sir Richard’s review. It must be right that a body independent of Government take this work forward. She also asked that the inspection take account of the findings of the report of the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which was published this morning, and which we will be considering carefully.

The public must have faith in the impartiality of their police service, and no one should have to suffer the ignominy of public false accusations of the most heinous kind. The Government are determined to ensure that the lessons are learned by the police and that the failings of this investigation are never repeated.

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The fundamental principle of our justice system is innocent until proven guilty—a principle undermined over the past decade when the rules of police forces were amended, particularly after the Jimmy Savile scandal. The entirely understandable aim of those changes was to increase the conviction rate for sexual offences, but that has been a complete failure, with conviction rates for sex crimes having dropped dramatically in the last five years.

The price that has been paid in terms of reputational damage and ruined lives has been enormous. High-profile figures investigated under Operation Midland have had their reputations disgracefully and unjustly tarnished. The IOPC, whose report was published this morning, has failed miserably to identify the Met’s failures, identify the culpable people or resolve the issues.

However, it is not just the Met. Other police forces across the country follow policy guidelines, automatically believing all allegations brought by complainants, and therefore disbelieving the defendants. This has damaged the reputations of Cliff Richard, Paul Gambaccini, Jim Davidson, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) and many other, less well-known defendants. Will HMIC therefore review not just Operation Midland, but the judicial and policing rules and procedures covering all such cases, so that we get justice for victims and protection for the innocent?

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My right hon. Friend raises issues that are, of course, important. He rightly points out the devastating impact, as I mentioned earlier, that this episode has had on many significant public figures, one of whom was a much decorated war hero. I hope he will recognise that, in many circumstances, the police face a difficult task in trying to balance the need to give victims of crime the confidence to come forward, engage with them and report crimes, against the requirement to have justice or impartiality in an investigation at the same time.

The College of Policing, which looked at the guidelines, considered, for example, the tendency or policy that had been adopted for victims always to be believed. We have clarified the guidance that is available to police officers in those circumstances, such that, while a victim’s allegations must be heard with integrity and properly recorded once an investigation has begun, that must be done with impartiality. We hope and believe that the audit or inspection by Her Majesty’s inspector will look specifically at whether the Met has learned the lessons of this particular episode.

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I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on securing this important urgent question.

Sir Richard Henriques’s report makes for extremely sobering reading. At the heart of this case are the victims and their families, who have faced years of questions and unthinkable damage on the basis of false and malicious allegations. It is clear that this case has exposed a serious failure of the police’s investigative functions and decision making, which has had profound consequences. Officers failed to present the whole picture when seeking search warrants, and the investigation into Lord Brittan went on far too long. Of that, there is no question.

The question for the IOPC is whether the five officers involved acted deliberately or criminally. Its conclusion is that they made mistakes and that the processes failed, but that they were not guilty of gross misconduct. Indeed, Sir Richard himself acknowledged that, notwithstanding the many mistakes made, the officers conducted the investigation

“in a conscientious manner with propriety and with honesty.”

The question, therefore, for the police, for the Home Office and for us, as Parliament, is what needs to change organisationally and culturally to ensure that investigations are properly, objectively and successfully pursued. That institutional change must be our objective, but it is so often lost in the heat of the tabloids’ gaze.

It is right that our police are subject to the most intense scrutiny. The accountability of the police is a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy, and many of Sir Richard’s recommendations must be implemented in the interests of accountability. Will the Minister therefore confirm exactly how many of his 25 recommendations have already been delivered and what the timeline is for further recommendations from both Sir Richard and the IOPC to be implemented and for HMIC’s review?

Does the Minister believe that there is a systemic issue on disclosure and search warrants that must be nationally addressed? What steps will the Home Office take to lead on this work? Will he specifically look into the recommendation around the audio recording of warrant applications? Furthermore, it was disappointing that the report was selectively leaked over the last week. Is any investigation intended into those leaks?

Finally, as has been touched on, this case has reignited the debate around belief of victims by the police. That debate cannot be had outside the context of record lows for rape prosecutions, with only 3% of cases reaching the courts. Our criminal justice system does not currently deliver justice to victims of sexual abuse, and it has not done historically. From Rotherham to Oxford, and from Torbay to Rochdale, victims have been failed time and again by all institutions of the state. We must therefore think carefully before imposing sweeping changes regarding the belief of complainants by the police that would have the effect of undermining genuine victims in coming forward.

As the Victims’ Commissioner has said, complainants’ rights do not exist in competition with suspects’ rights. That is why it is right that officers believe, take seriously and treat with respect every complainant of crime in the first instance and then investigate thoroughly, without fear or favour. Does the Minister therefore agree that the right approach is currently contained in the College of Policing guidance and that this approach must always be carefully balanced against the impartiality of the subsequent investigation?

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I thank the hon. Lady for a sensible intervention and for her questions. She is quite right that, as she concluded, we face the challenge of striking the difficult balance of ensuring that victims have confidence that they can come forward, that they will be taken seriously and that their allegations will be considered, but also of ensuring that those who are alleged to have carried out crimes know that the investigation will be conducted with impartiality and balance and that, in the end, justice will be served. That is absolutely the balance that we are seeking to achieve through the guidance, which was updated recently with the College of Policing to make that clearer. Part of the inspection that we have commissioned from HMIC into the Met police will be to make sure that some of these lessons have been learned.

The hon. Lady asked specifically about the number of recommendations in the Henriques report that have already been enacted, and part of our commission with the inspector is to find out exactly that—where we have got to in terms of progress. I will certainly look at the point she raises on audio recording and consider what more action we can take on that.

The hon. Lady will understand that both the report itself, which we have seen recently in full, and the IOPC report, which was issued this morning, are large documents and contain significant implications for policing into the future. That is something that we want to consider and that the Home Secretary wants to consider as well. As to the investigation into leaks, that would obviously be a matter for the Metropolitan police, should they wish to pursue it,

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I agree completely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis): the shining jewel of our criminal justice system is that somebody is innocent until proven guilty. That is their protection against the might of Government and, of course, the might of the media when they reach a speedy judgment. It has always been a concern that the processes we are discussing have casually turned that aside and that, as far as the public have been concerned, people have been guilty until proven innocent. I hope my hon. Friend will address that. Sir Richard makes that very clear.

The other vital point, which no one has raised yet, relates to interventions by public figures trying to get the police to pursue matters further. I refer in this particular case to the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson)—

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Order. I presume that the right hon. Gentleman has informed the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) that he intends to raise this matter in the House.

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I am not making any further reference to him other than that he was raised in the report—

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I advise the right hon. Gentleman that it is important that a Member is given notice if they are going to be referred to, so I am sure he will bear that in mind in his closing comments.

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I will. I was simply referencing Sir Richard’s report. My point is a general one. Will the Minister address the reality of the police finding themselves unnecessarily influenced by public figures as to the direction of their investigations? There needs to be some method by which they can resist that.

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My right hon. Friend raises some important issues, not least the much-debated challenge of pre-charge anonymity. The guidance is clear that those against whom allegations have been made pre-charge should generally be kept anonymous until they are charged. However, I am sure that he will accept that it is appropriate in certain circumstances for the police to release the name of somebody who is suspected of a crime, not least, for example, if they are conducting a manhunt looking for a suspect in a murder.

My right hon. Friend also raises the influence or otherwise of us and other public figures on police investigations. In his long years as a constituency MP, he will no doubt have had cause to write to the police on numerous occasions with regard to investigations into his constituents or on the behalf of his constituents, which is a perfectly legitimate thing for him to do. However, we all have a duty to bear in mind the protections and privileges that are afforded to us in this place and to use them as wisely and judiciously as possible

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False allegations of sexual assault and abuse may be rare, but they do happen. They harm not only the wrongfully accused, but those who have been the victims of sexual assault and abuse by making it less likely that they will be believed, and I say that based on my experience of three years as a sex crimes prosecutor in Scotland’s national sex crimes unit. Does the Minister agree that the police owe it both to the victims of sexual crime and to the principle of innocent until proven guilty to carry out their investigations professionally and thoroughly without fear or favour? What steps will he be taking to reassure the victims of sexual crime that the mess that the Met has made of this case will not jeopardise future cases? Finally, there can be few things more serious than misleading a court, which is particularly serious when it is done by a police officer, so what repercussions will there be for the officers who unlawfully obtained warrants by misleading the court?

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The hon. and learned Lady raises an important point about the continuing confidence of victims to come forward. As she quite rightly says, false allegations not only betray those against whom the allegations are made, but those who come afterwards with similar allegations, who will naturally feel, in the wake of a large and difficult situation like this, that they are less likely to be believed. That is absolutely not the case, and we will do our best as a Government to continue the increase in public confidence, which has seen a significant rise in the number of historical allegations of child sexual abuse, into which an inquiry is under way already. People should have no fear that they will be taken seriously.

The Home Secretary has commissioned an inspection of the Met police to ensure that it is learning lessons and embedding exactly the measures to which the hon. and learned Lady aspires. Once that concludes, the inspector will no doubt make a report available to the House, and I would be more than happy to come and update the House in the future.

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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). I cannot say that on many occasions, but I agreed with every point that she made on this occasion. Following on from one of her points, the Sir Richard Henriques report is very critical of the then Deputy Assistant Commissioner Steve Rodhouse. The public will be surprised to learn that he is now the director general of operations in the National Crime Agency—an organisation for which the Minister has direct ministerial accountability. Does he have full confidence in Mr Rodhouse in that position? If so, will he tell the House why?

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I am sure that my right hon. Friend will understand that it is extremely important for credibility and trust in policing in this country not only that the police service is operationally independent, but that the organisations charged with its discipline and governance and for investigating complaints exactly such as this are also deemed to be independent. He will know that the IOPC, which is charged with that duty, has found no reason to conduct any action against that particular police officer. It would be inappropriate for me, as a Minister of the Crown, to intervene to countermand or to criticise that investigation in any way. However, both the Home Secretary and I will be carefully considering both the Henriques report and the IOPC report that came out this morning and what our next steps should be.

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If I went to the police to report that my car had been stolen, I would expect to be believed until the investigation or the evidence proved otherwise, but the situation is not the same if I were to report child abuse. I am concerned that commentators on the Beech case are using it as a way to discredit victims and survivors of child abuse and sexual assault. Will the Minister please confirm that if people do have the courage to come forward and report such crimes, they will be taken seriously, they will be supported, and the cases will be properly investigated?

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All allegations of crime, particularly such sensitive allegations, should be taken seriously, properly recorded, assessed sensitively, but then investigated with due impartiality. Those are the guidelines by which the police should be operating, and we will take steps to ensure that that is the case.

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As a neighbour of Ted Heath, an admirer of Field Marshal Bramall, a colleague of Harvey Proctor, a friend of Leon Brittan, and—this is a matter of public record—as someone twice accused of this sort of thing by people who were bad, mad or sad, the House can agree that we can support the police and let them account for their failings when they come.

Will the Minister also get the inspector to look at the GOLD Group on Operation GIANNA? A written parliamentary question on the matter was answered by his predecessor on 25 July about the case of Gurpal Virdi. A vertical slice through the Metropolitan police managed to accuse a good officer of things he had not done at places he had not been and when none of the evidence linked him to it. All the evidence showed that the complainant was untruthful, and the weapon that was supposedly used on the complainant was introduced to the police force eight years after the event that was supposed to have taken place. May I ask that Operation GIANNA is referred to the inspector to see whether it is appropriate for him to consider it as well?

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I am happy to look again at that case. I should declare that, as a previous deputy mayor for policing in London and chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, I did have dealings with Mr Virdi and his case, so it is not unfamiliar to me. I would be more than happy to meet with my hon. Friend to discuss what further steps may need to be taken, if any.

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Having sent in a copy of the Geoffrey Dickens file, I was asked to meet Operation Midland, to which I explained in some detail why I thought its lines of inquiry were fundamentally flawed, providing some documentation to back that up. I also represented 30 of my constituents for four weeks in the Nottinghamshire strand of the child abuse inquiry when, it is a fair summary to say, those who had suffered abuse were unanimous in their condemnation of the police for not believing them when they came forward. When one case was reopened, one of my constituent’s assailants ended up getting a 19-year sentence, and there are other cases that I cannot comment on because they are currently sub judice. Will the Minister ensure that nothing is done that in any way impinges on the ability of the independent inquiry to report freely and openly next year, both to Parliament and Government, when it has had the chance to conclude its full investigation, including, of course, the Westminster strand?

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I can give the hon. Gentleman those assurances, and I hope that he will have adduced from my answers today that I am studiously attempting to respect the operational independence of these organisations and inquiries.

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I was not only the policing Minister but the victims Minister, and I have real concerns following the two reports that victims need to be believed. We must make sure that the police work hard to ensure that victims have the confidence to come forward. I am deeply concerned that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services, which was created when I was the Minister, is perhaps not the right vehicle for such an inquiry, as it does not have the power to sanction police officers, although not necessarily to prosecute them. This report clearly shows that not only did police officers make mistakes but that there was malpractice, which is probably the best word.

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My right hon. Friend is right about the limits on the powers of the chief inspector of constabulary. The organisation that has the required powers is the IOPC. The IOPC has produced this report, which we will consider carefully.

Once again, my right hon. Friend is correct that we all need to do our best to reassure victims that they will be taken seriously when they come forward. We are trying to make sure with inspection that the various steps, lessons and recommendations in these reports, not least the Henriques report, are being embedded in Met police practice so that we can promulgate them across the country.

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One of the worst things about deliberately false, vexatious or overexaggerated allegations is not only that the person against whom the allegations are made is put through hell but that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said, future victims may find it more difficult to get justice. But do we not also need to look carefully at another aspect? When the press and the police have too close a relationship and, by some miracle, the whole of the regional press turn up after, frankly, being tipped off by the local police that somebody is about to be arrested, it does no justice to anybody whatsoever.

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The hon. Gentleman is right, and he will know there was a significant inquiry into the relationship between the press and the police that came to certain conclusions, and the practices, certainly the formal practices, within the police service have since changed. Having said that, although primary responsibility lies with the police, the media also have a responsibility to report such things responsibly and to recognise that they have a wider responsibility towards society beyond just selling headlines.

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Madam Deputy Speaker, you may recall that, six years ago, the then chief constable of Sussex was found to have breached privilege after an investigation by the Standards and Privileges Committee into a vexatious investigation against me. It then took the IPCC over three and a half years to uphold four of my five complaints, by which time all the officers investigated had retired, and therefore no penalties could be imposed.

It looks as though the same has now happened with the IOPC. The investigation took far too long, and only one of the officers was actually interviewed face to face. How is it that the damning Henriques report talked about Operation Midland in terms of

“incompetently, negligently and almost with institutional stupidity”,

yet today’s IOPC report refers to “shortcomings” in the handling of the whole investigation. What will the Minister now do to ascertain whether the IOPC, almost two years after it took over from the IPCC, is actually fit for purpose?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point about the timeliness of IOPC investigations. Some of the timelines in some of these investigations are unacceptably long. We have plans to introduce measures next year to urge, compel or incentivise the IOPC to complete its investigations in under 12 months. If an investigation goes beyond 12 months, the IOPC will have to issue an explanation.

My hon. Friend knows that significant reforms were introduced during the transition from the IPCC to the IOPC to try to strengthen the organisation’s governance, not least by creating a board with non-executive directors in the majority, as opposed to the previous structure in which the investigators or inspectors themselves sat as an internal board. There is now some internal scrutiny, but there will be an opportunity to continue the path of reform. If he has ideas about how we should proceed, he should please let me know.

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In the past year, there has been a 27% decrease in convictions for rape. Only 2% of reported rapes end in a conviction, so does the Minister share my concern that the recommendations pursued by Sir Richard could have a chilling effect on the already unacceptably low prosecution rate for rape and domestic abuse?

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As I have said, I am genuinely concerned, notwithstanding the Henriques report, about the confidence of victims to come forward, not least in relation to crimes of a sexual nature. Although there has been some difficulty and disappointment with the number of convictions and prosecutions for rape, the level of recorded rapes and the number of victims coming forward has increased significantly. Although, from a headline point of view, the stats do not look good, it is actually good news because it means more and more people are confident about coming forward. The hon. Lady will have seen that the Government recently promised significant financial support for the kind of counselling services and independent sexual violence advisers across the country that will enable victims to come forward more confidently and be supported through the judicial process.

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The good name of Sir Edward Heath was further dragged through the mud by the Wiltshire constabulary, led by the now thankfully suspended Chief Constable Mike Veale, when they appeared at his front gate in Salisbury to call for more victims. Some 32 officers spent two years investigating, at a cost of £2.3 million, despite the fact that the alleged perpetrator had been dead for many years. Does the Minister agree that, in addition to examining the report into Operation Midland, now is the time for the investigation into Operation Conifer—the Wiltshire police operation—to be reopened?

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As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, the decision to investigate or otherwise is not for me, but the Henriques report has a section on Operation Conifer, which I will be considering carefully.

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I regret to say that I have not heard much this evening that will reassure the widow and family of Lord Brittan and the families of all those involved, including General Bramall. This House also needs to look at itself and at the role played by Members. The police admit they were encouraged to pursue these matters by various Members. If we cannot control the outcome of some of these investigations into the police, as seemingly we cannot, we can do something to make sure that no one in this House has fallen short of the high standards expected of Members of Parliament by exerting undue pressure on the police, hastening the death of Lord Brittan and causing misery to many people who have served this country rather better than some Members.

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I am sorry that the exigencies of operational independence, plus the fact that Mr Beech has lodged an appeal against his conviction, naturally limit what I am able to say, which may come as a disappointment to some of those against whom false allegations were made. However, on my right hon. Friend’s second point, as I said earlier, it is absolutely right that the House looks at how the protections, privileges and, indeed, power exercised by hon. Members on an almost daily basis are used responsibly by finding some mechanism to ensure that those who would seek to use them irresponsibly cannot do so.

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Of course, the immediate day-to-day responsibility for the Metropolitan police lies with the Mayor of London, as my hon. Friend perhaps knows better than anybody. The Mayor of London, as we know, is normally very vocal about pretty much anything that is not in his portfolio, but this is very much within his portfolio of interests. Does my hon. Friend share my surprise that the Mayor of London has neither accepted nor even responded to the important recommendations in this report?

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Given my previous position at city hall, with responsibility for the Metropolitan police, I have been surprised at the lack of reaction from the primary accountability body for the Metropolitan police. I would certainly urge the Mayor and his deputy mayor for policing and crime to take a much more proactive and vigorous approach towards making sure that this sort of thing never happens again.

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About five years ago, I raised some concerns about the case that has come before us here, and I got a letter from Patricia Gallan, assistant commissioner, specialist crime and operations. I will not name the Member concerned, as I am being very careful about this, but the letter completely contradicted what Sir Richard has said. It stated:

“I would like to take this opportunity to reassure you that”—

the hon. Member concerned—

“played no part in influencing the subsequent investigation and as a consequence the MPS has no basis to investigate the allegation contained within your letter at this time.”

I was bang on the nail with what I put in my letter on that day five years ago, and I would like the Minister to tell me whom I should take my file to for further consideration.

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Obviously, my hon. Friend is perfectly at liberty to submit his views and evidence to the IOPC for further consideration should he wish to do so. However, I have absolutely no doubt that given the scale, nature and prominence of this episode, the Home Affairs Committee will wish, once it has digested both the IOPC report and the full Henriques report, to look further into this, call those people who have been involved, including Members, and ask them to account for their actions.