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House of Lords Hansard
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13 September 2017
Volume 783

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the lessons to be learned from recent police investigations into allegations of child sexual abuse in the past.

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My Lords, the Government have done more than any other to tackle child sex abuse, declaring it a national threat and investing millions of pounds to enable officers to actively seek out and bring offenders to justice. Investigations are operational matters for the police and must be free of political involvement. It is also the responsibility of the College of Policing to set the standards for policing.

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Can action be taken by means of strengthened codes of practice or other measures to ensure that police forces throughout our country conduct themselves with absolute propriety and honour when investigating allegations which, if mishandled—and some have been—can ruin the lives of innocent people and besmirch the reputations of the innocent deceased?

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My noble friend makes the crucial point that where people are falsely accused and have their names in the media, their lives can literally be ruined. Noble Lords may have seen things in the paper over the weekend. The College of Policing guidance provides that, where an investigation identifies a false allegation, it may be appropriate to support a prosecution for attempting to pervert the course of justice. Steps should be taken to test the validity of statements and corroborative accounts and to establish an accurate picture. The decision to support a prosecution would be an operational matter for the relevant chief officer.

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My Lords, Sir Richard Henriques did an independent review of the Metropolitan Police’s conduct in these matters. His conclusion was that:

“Until anonymity is enforced by statute, it is inevitable that many accused will lose their anonymity at an early stage of an investigation”.

Why will the Government not legislate?

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My Lords, we touched on that extensively on the then Policing and Crime Bill; the noble Lord was part of that debate. The police’s decision on whether to name a suspect is a matter for the chief officer, who must authorise any such disclosure. Following some of the debate, and ongoing with the College of Policing’s authorised professional practice guidance on relationships with the media, the College of Policing recently undertook a consultation on a fresh iteration of the guidance. That guidance is clear that the rationale for naming an arrested person before they are charged must be authorised by the chief officer, and that the authorising officer must also consult the Crown Prosecution Service if considering the release of a name.

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Does my noble friend agree that one of the most disturbing aspects of the way in which Operation Midland was conducted is what might be termed the malicious gullibility of the police, and that that has done a great deal to undermine public confidence in the Metropolitan Police? I think it would be appropriate in these circumstances for her to show a little more indignation and a little less calm in the face of what has been a very grave injustice.

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My Lords, I do not disagree that it has been a grave period. I apologise if I appear too calm but the police are, rightly, operationally independent of the Government. It would be a matter for the relevant chief officer to consider whether to commission any similar review of how forces’ investigations were conducted.

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My Lords, while I value the independence of each police force, will the Government consider asking the inspectorate to assess the propriety and cost of some of these investigations?

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My Lords, the Government will leave it up to the inspectorate to determine the use of funds and whether they are proportionate; they should be.

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My Lords, the noble Baroness recently told me that it was absolutely right to commission an independent review of Operation Midland, the operation by the Metropolitan Police to which reference has already been made. Does she agree that it would be no less absolutely right to commission an independent review of Operation Conifer, Wiltshire Police’s investigation of allegations relating to the late Sir Edward Heath, given the concerns expressed about the conduct of that operation?

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My Lords, I hear those concerns and I recall the comments that the noble Lord has previously made and written to me, and to the Home Secretary. I am sorry to reiterate the point but the police are independently operational of the Government, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment on a particular case. We are absolutely clear that, where allegations are made, they should be thoroughly and professionally investigated so the facts can be established.

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My Lords, why are the people who make allegations that turn out subsequently to be untrue not required to pay back the compensation they receive from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, as has indeed happened in the Heath case?

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My Lords, I think I have gone through the process for what happens with false allegations. It will be up to the determining bodies to decide whether compensation is payable.

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Does my noble friend agree that the principle of someone being innocent until proven guilty dates back to Magna Carta and must be inviolable for the dead as well as the living? Surely the evidence must be assessed rigorously, independently and fully.

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I could not agree more with my noble friend.

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My Lords, will the noble Baroness take on board the fact that on a recent case to which reference has been made, a Wiltshire village police station seemed to approach it in a most amateurish way? The standards of intelligence and training required for a major question such as this need to be considered.

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It is obviously for the local chief officer to determine the answer to the noble Lord’s question.