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Operation Conifer: Funding

Volume 792: debated on Thursday 12 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the contribution of Home Office funding to Operation Conifer conducted by the Wiltshire Police.

My Lords, in line with the normal special grant process, an assessment was carried out by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services. This report is available online. HMICFRS was content that the costs of the operation were reasonable and proportionate.

In view of the significant sum expended by the state on Operation Conifer, and in view of the relentless criticism that the operation has attracted, should not the highly unsatisfactory Conservative police and crime commissioner in Wiltshire, Mr Macpherson, be summoned to the Home Office for some pretty frank discussions? Have the Government noted the recent decision to prosecute the anonymous fantasist known as “Nick”—a decision that casts yet further doubt on the handful of unsubstantiated allegations left hanging over the reputation of Sir Edward Heath by Mr Macpherson’s flat refusal to institute an inquiry? Indeed, one of those allegations was shown to be groundless by the Times newspaper last week. How can the Government go on resisting demands for an independent inquiry, which they have the power to establish? It is essential that such an inquiry be established to show that we remain a nation committed to ensuring that justice is done.

I thank my noble friend for his questions. I know that, for certain Members of your Lordships’ House, this is still not a satisfactory situation. In terms of summoning Mr Macpherson to the Home Office, the police are operationally independent of the Government. There are several remedies open to the PCC to further investigate, including an inquiry. Again, in terms of summoning him to the Home Office, I would like to inform my noble friend that the new Home Secretary, my right honourable friend Sajid Javid, and I have written to him again to outline the position that he is quite within his power to hold an inquiry.

As regards “Nick”, my noble friend is absolutely right to bring up the issue, but obviously I cannot comment on individual cases. The general position is that the complainants in all sexual offences cases have anonymity for life, but, of course, if they are subsequently charged, they will have to go through the correct legal processes, which I understand is happening in this case.

My Lords, perhaps I may return to an issue that I raised during the recent debate on PCCs initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and turn the issue into a direct question to the Minister. Can she explain to the House why the Home Secretary or his predecessor have not asked Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary to send one of Her Majesty’s inspectors to Wiltshire to examine and report back on Operation Conifer? HMIC is funded by the Home Office, so this is essential to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. As I made clear in the previous debate, such investigations are part of the historic mission of HMIC, which will be much diminished if such action is no longer part of its remit. If the noble Baroness does not know the answer, will she write to me and place a copy in the Library of the House?

My Lords, I thought I did know the answer and that I had reiterated it on several occasions. On the question of why not HMICFRS, the Secretary of State can at any time, under Section 54(2B) of the Police Act 1996, require HMICFRS to undertake an inspection on a specific police force or forces, which can be limited to particular matters or activities or a particular part of the force that he or she is concerned about. This power enables the Home Secretary to commission urgent inspection activities, and such inspection reports must be published. The Secretary of State also has powers under Section 54(3) of the 1996 Act to direct HMICFRS to carry out,

“other duties for the purpose of furthering police efficiency and effectiveness”.

My Lords, in light of the noble Baroness’s last answer, why have the Government not used these powers to enable HMIC to go to that force and carry out the inspection, as she suggested? Legally, it is not possible to libel the dead, but in practice it clearly is. It is not time that the Government considered a change in the law?

As regards not being able to libel the dead, that has always been the case, but we keep legislation under review. The reason why this will not be done by HMICFRS is that it can carry out an inspection either of the whole force, part of the force or a particular activity of the force, and in this instance the Home Secretary does not see that this would be appropriate.

I see my noble friend’s difficulty in this matter, but would she not agree that, following the closure of the report by Wiltshire Police last year, the whole matter has been left in a most unsatisfactory state of limbo, with appalling stains left on the character of a deceased former Prime Minister? Has my noble friend noted—I am sure she has—that his accuser has now been charged with 12 counts of perverting the course of justice and one of fraud? May I urge her—I think with the backing of many of your Lordships—to take back the matter to her colleague the Home Secretary and point out that, in the interests of justice, further action is now required from his department and from the Government?

I most certainly acknowledge my noble friend’s point—that for many people this is a very unsatisfactory outcome. In terms of further things that the Home Secretary might be able to do, it is for the PCC to instigate an inquiry, should he wish to do so. He has stated to me in correspondence that he does not want to, for several reasons, but the option is open. The court case to which my noble friend refers will of course determine in due course.

I am sure that Members of the House are still somewhat baffled by the answers that have been given about why the Home Secretary has, as the Minister indicated, made his decision about an investigation by the inspectorate. However, I will move on from that and simply ask: is it not the case that Operation Conifer was more of a national investigation than simply a Wiltshire Police matter, and is not the logical extension of that that the Home Office should also be prepared to provide funding for an independent inquiry into the conduct of Operation Conifer, which in reality was simply delegated to Wiltshire Police?

Operation Conifer was led by Wiltshire Police, so it was led by a local police force and was not a national operation. In terms of the funding for it, the Home Office has already provided £1.1 million of special grant. If special grants are applied for, the Home Office will consider them.