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Historical Allegations:Operation Conifer

Volume 793: debated on Thursday 18 October 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the replies by Baroness Williams of Trafford on 11 October (HL Deb, cols 177–9), what steps they are taking to ensure that investigations into historical allegations do not damage the reputations of the people against whom the allegations are made in cases where such investigations are not resolved conclusively.

My Lords, decisions on how to conduct investigations are the responsibility of the force concerned following guidance issued by the College of Policing. The college’s recently updated guidance makes it clear that the names of suspects, including those who are deceased, should be released only where there is a legitimate policing purpose. Operational advice to senior officers investigating allegations of more recent child sexual abuse involving institutions or people of public prominence is also being updated.

My Lords, as the Government persist in refusing to commission an independent review of Operation Conifer, perhaps they will muster the courage to express a considered view themselves. Operation Conifer produced not a single shred of credible evidence that Sir Edward Heath might have been guilty of child abuse, and a lot of credible evidence to show that he was not. Of the 42 allegations investigated by Wiltshire Police, 35 were dismissed. Of the remaining seven unresolved allegations, four can be shown to be without foundation. The other three are probably equally baseless, the product of a conspiracy to create and disseminate false allegations of child abuse by national figures such as Lord Bramall, Lord Brittan and Sir Edward Heath. Does the Minister agree that Operation Conifer’s report falls far short of the standards of probability required to justify the institution of a criminal prosecution, if Sir Edward Heath had still been alive to be prosecuted? Does justice not require us to accept that Sir Edward Heath was not a child abuser and to consign Operation Conifer to the dustbin of history?

No one could have done more to safeguard and defend the integrity and reputation of Sir Edward Heath than the noble Lord. On the Government’s role, the noble Lord, together with my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lord MacGregor, went to see the Home Secretary on 10 September. Their meeting lasted 40 minutes and they deployed, with all the force and eloquence at their disposal, their concerns and proposals for the Government to intervene. The Home Secretary said that he would reflect on it; he has previously overturned the decisions of his predecessors where he felt that the case was made. In this case, a month after that meeting and having taken advice, he wrote to the noble Lord on 10 October. He said: “I do not think there are grounds to justify review or intervention by Government”. He then set out his reasons. Unless something has happened in the past month, I do not believe that the Home Secretary will change his decision.

On the broader issues, I find it compelling that those who knew Sir Edward personally do not believe that there is one scintilla of truth in the accusations that were made. The noble Lord asked me to state from the Dispatch Box that in my view, had Sir Edward lived, the case would not have reached the level at which the CPS would institute a case. I hope that he, as a former Cabinet Secretary, will understand that it would not be right for a Minister to make such a pronouncement.

The House will appreciate the tone of the Minister’s reply, which seemed very fair, but the excellent Question from the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, refers to historical allegations. These are not, of course, allegations by historians. We have a tradition in politics in this country of allowing these accusations to fester over decades, with the result that it is very difficult to form a clear view. If we were addressing matters that were, let us say, medical or scientific we would have authoritative and qualified people to deal with them. Could we not have appropriate scholarly authorities deal with this matter?

This whole episode illustrates the problems confronting the police. On the one hand they are conducting thorough investigations and taking complainant’s allegations seriously, and on the other avoiding unfair damage to the reputation of people who can no longer defend themselves. The College of Policing has reflected on this challenge as part of its review of guidance in this area. The previous Home Secretary asked Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to see how this guidance is working. I hope that as part of that review, HMIC will take on board the very strong views expressed on many occasions by those on all sides of the House about the way the guidance is operating.

My Lords, this House has consistently urged the Government to take action. No action has been taken. The reputation of a great statesman has been trashed and traduced. The reputation of a fine Field Marshal has been questioned. The reputation of an admirable colleague and former Home Secretary has been trashed. What do we have to do to persuade the Government to set up an independent inquiry under a judicial figure to look at these things and to report back to Parliament? Why cannot this be done?

This was precisely the proposition in respect of Sir Edward that was put to the Home Secretary at the meeting on 10 September. In his reply on 10 October the Home Secretary set out his reasons. I quote from the final paragraph: “The problem that the police encountered was their inability to interview Sir Edward himself in order to secure his account of events. I have every sympathy, but that problem will of course remain and it is not clear to what extent a further review of the existing evidence by a judge or retired prosecutor would resolve this”. For those reasons, the Home Secretary decided not to intervene. As my noble friend will know, there have been a number of independent inquiries into Operation Conifer. They concluded that the investigation was proportionate, legitimate and in accordance with national guidance. I know that it comes as a disappointment, but the Government do not believe that there are grounds for another independent inquiry into Operation Conifer.