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Operation Conifer

Volume 779: debated on Tuesday 7 March 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the recent statement by the Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police, whether they will institute a judicial inquiry into that force’s Operation Conifer, with unrestricted access to all relevant information.

My Lords, the police are operationally independent of government. The investigation of allegations of sexual abuse and how the police conduct those investigations, including whether to commission any form of internal inquiry, are operational matters for the relevant chief officer. It is for the police and crime commissioner to hold their force to account.

My Lords, having served in the Home Office for four years, I understand about the operational independence of the police, but this matter has gone beyond operational affairs; it has become a matter of confidence in the police and the police service. The chief constable of Wiltshire has gone beyond the police duties of investigating allegations and following up evidence and has pronounced a verdict of guilty on the late Sir Edward Heath in respect of allegations of child abuse even before his inquiry is complete. The officer in charge of the inquiry, having made a stupid mistake at the beginning, has now been obliged to be withdrawn because of ill health—I think he is having a nervous breakdown. The inquiry is being pursued in a way which looks to many people more like a fishing expedition than a serious pursuit of allegations and evidence. Is it not high time that this operation was reviewed independently either by a retired judge, as in the case of Operation Midland, or by a retired chief constable of recognised efficiency and integrity?

My Lords, first, without talking about any individual investigation, I express my profound sympathy with the families and friends of people who have been wrongfully named in the press or who, after they have died, have had defamatory statements made about them. In any investigation, it is a matter for the police. On investigations of complaints against a chief officer, I know, because I took through the Bill that became the Policing and Crime Act, that we have strengthened the independence of the police complaints system and the accountability of chief officers. Any allegations of misconduct against a chief officer should be investigated by the IPCC.

I declare my interest as chair of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation. I join my predecessor in that position in asking the Minister to whom is this chief constable accountable? If it is not the police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire and Swindon, surely it is not the secret and unnamed group of people whom he has decided to appoint. There are increasing concerns about the conduct of this inquiry, and we need to know to whom this chief constable is accountable.

I thank my noble friend for that question. He will know that it is not appropriate for me to comment on individual operational matters, which are a matter for the relevant chief officer. As I have said, chief officers are held to account in respect of operational matters by their police and crime commissioner. In line with recognised best practice, Wiltshire Police also recently commissioned Operation Hydrant to undertake an independent review of the investigation to ensure its ongoing proportionality and justification. My noble friend talked about the secret and unnamed group. It is recognised as best practice and that is what Wiltshire Police has done. It has engaged a panel of independent experts outside policing who are providing ongoing scrutiny of the investigation to ensure its proportionality and justification. The membership includes individuals from the legal profession and academics.

The newspaper quotations last month came from an anonymous source claiming to know the views of the chief constable for Wiltshire. This raises the issue of the relationship between the police and the national press and makes the case for Leveson part 2 even stronger. Coming to the role of the police and crime commissioner to which the Minster has referred, the second issue relates to the call for a government-instituted judicial inquiry into Operation Conifer, the investigation by Wiltshire police. Will the Government confirm that the Wiltshire police and crime commissioner has the power to commission such a judicial inquiry into an operation by his own force? Thirdly, will the Government confirm that if any hard evidence actually emerged that the chief constable had made the comments claimed by the anonymous newspaper source, the Wiltshire police and crime commissioner could, under his powers, suspend or dismiss the chief constable? In other words, is the ball not very much in the elected Wiltshire police and crime commissioner’s court?

The noble Lord raises a very good point about the role of the police and crime commissioner in this situation. Without talking about the specific case about which the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, has asked, it is for the police and crime commissioner to make the decision to appoint, to suspend or to remove a chief constable. In making the decision to compel a chief constable to resign or to retire, a PCC is bound by certain requirements including acting reasonably, acting fairly and consulting the chief constable and the local police and crime panel. A PCC may compel a chief constable to resign or to retire under Section 38(3) of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011.