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Operation Conifer

Volume 790: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to establish an independent inquiry into Operation Conifer conducted by the Wiltshire Police.

My Lords, the Government have no such plans. It is for the locally elected police and crime commissioners to decide how best to hold their forces to account. The police and crime commissioner has the power to commission a review if they consider it appropriate.

Are the Government entirely content that a police operation made possible by Home Office funding, which has attracted such widespread criticism, should remain unexamined by a fully independent inquiry? Are they entirely content that the reputation of Sir Edward Heath, a Knight of the Garter, should remain under a heavy cloud of suspicion, just as it seems that the Church of England remains content that the reputation of one of its greatest bishops, George Bell, remains under a cloud of suspicion? If the Government remain content with these two things then, like the Church, they are in danger of incurring continuing grave censure.

My Lords, let us not forget that there has never been any inference of Sir Edward Heath’s guilt, but I totally understand the concern of my noble friend and the House on this matter. We believe that the PCC has the authority to commission such a review, if he considers it necessary or appropriate.

Is the Minister aware that the police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire and Swindon has consistently said that he would like to see an independent review of Operation Conifer? He has been advised that such a review could be commissioned either by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse—IICSA—or by him. IICSA has declined to undertake the task, making it clear that it is beyond its remit to review investigations of allegations of child abuse by individuals. Would the Minister now welcome a decision by the police and crime commissioner, who is the officer to whom Wiltshire Police is answerable and accountable, to set up an independent review without further delay?

My noble friend is absolutely right that IICSA is mainly looking into institutional failures when it comes to historical child sexual abuse. It is also absolutely true that the PCC himself could engineer such an inquiry. I am sure that he will be aware of the views of your Lordships’ House, which time after time has pressed for that to happen. He should also be aware of what his powers are as an elected representative.

Further to that question, I refer the House to an answer I received from the police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire and Swindon on 13 June last year. He wrote:

“I am however in agreement with you that an independent review of the evidence, perhaps by a retired judge, is required. I am in discussions with the Chief Constable as to how this can be brought about”.

So at that stage he agreed that it was required and set out the procedure for doing it. Then, on 9 October, we had a report by the much respected Fiona Hamilton, crime editor of the Times, in which she quoted Macpherson as saying that,

“he had changed his mind about the prospect of a retired judge, and IICSA was the right place”.

Then we have IICSA saying that it is not within its remit. Surely it is now about time for the Government to intervene. If they cannot agree, and we have people changing their minds when the public interest is at stake, surely it is now time that Parliament and the Government moved in to get this whole mess sorted out. The international reputation of a former Prime Minister is at stake, and the Government are standing aside and doing nothing. It is appalling.

I should make it clear to the noble Lord, as I have in the past, that I have written to the PCC for Wiltshire to outline just what his powers are. I have also written to noble Lords who have come to see me and the Home Secretary and I have met interested parties to outline the process. The police are operationally independent of government and they are clear about what the process is.

My Lords, I think we all appreciate the Minister’s difficult position and that obviously the Government cannot tell the police authorities what to do. However, does she accept that there is extremely strong feeling, not only in this House but outside, that terrible damage has been inflicted on the reputation of a deceased Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and that it is essential that someone is called to account, those responsible are shown up and the matter is carried forward with vigour? That has to be done, and it should be done now with a firm push by the Government themselves.

I am certainly aware of the very strong feeling in your Lordships’ House. I am also aware, and have made it clear to others, that there is a clear process in place should the PCC wish, as he indicated a year ago, to set it in train.

My Lords, this is not the only case. In the Cliff Richard case in the High Court yesterday, it was revealed that the police had tipped off the BBC, resulting in South Yorkshire Police feeling “forced” to tell the BBC when Sir Cliff’s home was going to be raided. Does the Minister not agree that the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s guidelines are clearly insufficient and that the time has come for legislation, as recommended by Sir Richard Henriques, to prevent the publication of the names of subjects until they have been charged with an offence, unless authorised by a Crown Court judge?

There is certainly a presumption of anonymity before charge. I know the noble Lord will appreciate that it is not appropriate for me to comment on that specific case as it is currently the subject of legal proceedings.