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Operation Conifer: Sir Edward Heath

Volume 793: debated on Thursday 11 October 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will reconsider their decision not to institute an independent inquiry into Operation Conifer carried out by the Wiltshire Constabulary in relation to Sir Edward Heath.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary recently had the opportunity to discuss Operation Conifer with the noble Lords, Lord Armstrong, Lord Hunt and Lord MacGregor. He and I recognise the continuing interest of this House in the issue, but remain of the view that there are no grounds for the Government to intervene.

My Lords, is it not quite disgraceful that, a year after the completion of the deeply flawed Operation Conifer, nothing whatever has been done about the slur which unsubstantiated allegations have left on the reputation of Sir Edward Heath? The Wiltshire police and crime commissioner—Conservative, I am sorry to say—has made it clear time and again that he will take no action. The responsibility passes to the Government, and the Government must not evade that responsibility. Does my noble friend recall that when I last raised this burning injustice on 12 July, the noble Lord, Lord Blair of Boughton, pointed out that all the Government have to do is ask Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary to send one of Her Majesty’s inspectors to Wiltshire? Why has this not been done?

My noble friend will know that HMIC, as it then was, could investigate aspects of police operations or the function of the police. It would not be in a position, as I think I have explained previously, to investigate this allegation. I completely recognise the desire of noble Lords to find a solution to this and it is unfortunate that Operation Conifer was not able to resolve conclusively the position in relation to the allegations made against Sir Ted Heath.

My Lords, with the attempts to destroy the reputations of Sir Edward Heath, Paul Gambaccini, Sir Cliff Richard, Harvey Proctor, Leon Brittan, Lord Bramall and now Greville Janner, on the back of either false or unproven allegations and without a shred of evidence being brought before the courts, and often with statutory compensation in mind, is it not about time that the Government stopped turning a blind eye to these huge breaches of human rights and reviewed the law, particularly in the areas of anonymity and statutory compensation? British justice is being trashed and we are witnesses to it.

I absolutely recognise the strength of feeling from noble Lords, particularly in relation to those who have died and are not here to speak for themselves. Of course, if those individuals are dead, any inquiry that might be conducted would obviously depend on the evidence brought before it. The police are operationally independent of government and we must recognise that. The Government would step in only where all other avenues had been exhausted.

My Lords, Operation Conifer spent two years and £1.5 million conducting a range of interviews with those who had known Sir Edward Heath or worked for him, and produced not a scintilla of evidence to support allegations of child abuse. The operation examined 42 such allegations; 35 of them were dismissed out of hand. Seven allegations remained on which those involved said they would have wished to interview Sir Edward Heath had he still been alive; those remain, as it were, open and unresolved. It is now evident that four of those allegations are baseless and it seems highly likely that the other three are equally baseless. One can only speculate on why the Wiltshire Police decided to leave them unresolved. Is it not a reasonable measure of justice that somebody should examine these seven allegations to confirm that there is no reality to them and to clear the suspicion that has been hanging over Sir Edward Heath since the Wiltshire Police publicly instituted its investigation in 1915?

I think that the noble Lord might have meant 2015 but I absolutely take his point. A review, which of course it would be open to the PCC to instigate, may consider whether any of the allegations that he talks about—the remaining six—would have justified a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute. But as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, the ability of the reviewer to do this would depend on the evidence that was brought forward.

My Lords, there is no doubt that the chief constable has not been effectively held to account for Operation Conifer. The Minister says that it is not a failure of the Home Office. It must therefore be a failure of the police and crime commissioner. Is it not time to break up the often too cosy one-to-one relationship between chief constables and police and crime commissioners and revert to police authorities?

Noble Lords may laugh, particularly on the Labour side, but we have had many Labour PCCs. There have been two in my area: Andy Burnham and Tony Lloyd. The system is accepted to have worked well. In addition, the Home Affairs Select Committee has supported the way PCCs have operated and their visibility to the public. I was on a police authority and I am absolutely sure that at that time nobody knew the membership of that police authority, but they certainly know who their PCC is. In your Lordships’ House we have the only parliamentarian who is a PCC.

Will my noble friend accept that the reply she read out first really will not do? I hate to say that because I admire my noble friend as one of our best Ministers and I think she handles her portfolio brilliantly, but in this case I have to ask her to take that reply back to the Home Office. A dead statesman has had his reputation almost fatally tarnished on very dodgy evidence and it is time that justice was injected into this situation. This should be the time to do that.

I thank my noble friend for those very kind words. I have twice gone back to two successive Home Secretaries and my right honourable friends have seen my noble friends in regard to this matter. The most recent meeting was in the past few weeks, and that remains the position of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.