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Operation Conifer

Volume 785: debated on Wednesday 11 October 2017

Private Notice Question

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will commission an independent judicial review of the investigation Operation Conifer by Wiltshire Police, a summary closure report on which was published on 5 October 2017.

My Lords, we are very clear that the police are operationally independent of government. It is quite right that chief officers should decide how best to fulfil their duty to the public and it is for the locally elected police and crime commissioner to ensure that chief officers are held to account for properly conducting their investigations. The vital principle at the heart of British policing is that the police can carry out their duties independently and make decisions free from political influence. As such, the commissioning of any independent review, judge-led or otherwise, would be a matter for the police.

My Lords, the Minister has used that argument before, while the operation was still in progress, but it will not wash now that it is concluded and we have to deal with its consequences. Edward Heath’s reputation has been under a cloud of suspicion since August 2015, when an officer of the Wiltshire Police made an ill-judged public appeal outside Sir Edward’s house in Salisbury for victims of child abuse by Sir Edward Heath and others to come forward and make themselves known to the police.

The report of the investigation published last Thursday, more than two years later, does nothing either to justify or to dispel that suspicion since it leaves unresolved seven allegations on which the police say they would have interviewed Edward Heath, had he been alive. As he is dead, the normal provisions and processes of the law are not available to resolve the matter, and the cloud of suspicion remains hanging in the air indefinitely.

Justice delayed is justice denied. The dead deserve justice no less than the living. Does the noble Baroness not agree that the best—perhaps the only—way of arriving at some finality of judgment would be to set up an independent review of the police investigation by a retired judge with unrestricted access to all the evidence collected by the police?

My Lords, on the first question, the police officer’s comments outside the home of Sir Edward Heath were probably ill judged. Matters of police conduct can be referred to the IPCC, and I understand that the Sir Edward Heath trust has done that. It was stated that Sir Edward Heath would have been interviewed under caution, but the bar for being interviewed under caution is very low and, as the report said, it in no way implies guilt on the part of Sir Edward Heath. As for the cloud of suspicion and whether an independent inquiry should be held, Operation Conifer is, as I have said, an independent police investigation. It is not appropriate for government Ministers to comment on an operationally independent investigation. Any decision to follow this by an inquiry would be a matter for the chief officer.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, I once worked for Sir Edward Heath, and I should like to associate myself entirely with everything that the noble Lord said. There is one other aspect. Would it not be appropriate also, on top of what he has suggested, for the Comptroller and Auditor-General to look into what has been a grotesque misuse of large sums of public money?

My Lords, I take what my noble friend says, but it is very important to understand that part of an investigation of this sort also looks towards whether there are any contemporary child safeguarding issues around the living. If members of the public bring complaints and allegations forward to the police, it is right that the police investigate them, particularly if there are any ongoing or current misdemeanours to be looked into in addition.

My Lords, my understanding, which may well be incorrect, is that Wiltshire Police undertook this investigation in effect as the lead for a number of police forces, as the Operation Conifer investigation was not confined to alleged matters or to people in Wiltshire. In the light of the concerns expressed in some quarters about the investigation, and in the light of the response the Minister has given to the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, can she clarify this point? Which elected person, if any, had the statutory power—if they so chose to use it—to challenge how the Operation Conifer investigation was being conducted or even to stop it? Did the Home Secretary have that power? Did the Wiltshire police and crime commissioner have that power? Did some other elected figure have that power—or did no elected figure have that power?

The elected power who would have the authority to undertake any of the issues that the noble Lord is talking about would be the PCC. It would be up to him whether to call for an investigation and it would be for him to, perhaps, refer matters to the IPCC. He is the elected power.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I worked very closely with Edward Heath when he was leader of the Opposition and I was head of his private office in the mid-1960s. The most damning indictment of Operation Conifer came from the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven—the former Director of Public Prosecutions—who was in the best position to know, when he called it a sham. There is another problem: if distinguished contributors to our public life, such as Edward Heath, are treated in this way, is that not a major disincentive to others who wish to enter public life? I urge the Government to think again.

My Lords, it is a matter for the police to follow up any allegations of criminal activity that are brought to them. The public would rightly complain if allegations were brought forward that were ignored by the police. I can see the sensitivities on all sides of both Houses of Parliament on this; nevertheless, if an allegation is brought forward, the police must investigate it.

My Lords, I remind the House of the shoot-to-kill investigation in Northern Ireland. At that time, I was working for the Chief Inspector of Constabulary. It was quite clear that the chief inspector was the person who could actually intervene in this matter and we could start there. Whether it is a judicial inquiry that follows, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary is the person to whom a Government should look for an inquiry to begin into whether this has been done properly. The example of Operation Midland, investigated by Lord Justice Henriques, has been incredibly helpful to the police, and there is no reason why, if the Chief Inspector of Constabulary is convinced that something should be done, it should not be done.

My Lords, far be it from me in any way to contradict the noble Lord, but I understand that the PCCs are locally elected and democratically accountable. It is their role to hold the local police and the chief constables to account. Any inquiry or review of the police investigation would be a matter for the PCC and the chief constable.

My Lords, Chief Constable Veale says that his investigation—this sham investigation—complied with national guidance. If that is the case, why can the guidance not be reviewed? Is that not the function of the inquiry that we are now demanding? Secondly, when is this man “Nick” going to be prosecuted?

The noble Lord makes a very good point about false allegations. Of course, they can certainly be dealt with in relation to perverting the course of justice. As for the other question asked by the noble Lord, it is up to the PCC and the chief constable to decide whether a review of the police investigation should be held.