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Operation Conifer: Sir Edward Heath

Volume 794: debated on Tuesday 18 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the reply by Baroness Barran on 11 December (HL Deb, cols 1329–32), whether they will reassess the case for an independent inquiry into the seven unsubstantiated allegations against Sir Edward Heath left unresolved at the end of Operation Conifer.

The Government have given careful consideration to a review of Operation Conifer but have concluded that there are no grounds to justify review or intervention by the Government.

Will the Government heed the view expressed unanimously across this House in a debate last week that justice for Ted Heath demands the establishment of an inquiry, which they fully accept they have the power to set up? Will they stop evading their responsibilities?

I thank my noble friend for his question and respect the strength of feeling that he has on this matter. However, he is aware that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has already set out his reasoning for not instituting an inquiry, in his letter to the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, of 10 October. To recap on that: he has considered carefully the proper role of the Government in what is clearly a very sensitive matter; he notes the extensive scrutiny to which Operation Conifer has already been subject; he points out the national guidance that is being reviewed by the College of Policing; and, most importantly I think, he reflects that the inconclusive nature of Operation Conifer cannot be resolved in the absence of Sir Edward’s account of these events—that cannot be resolved.

My Lords, from my reading of the Minister’s speech on 11 December, it appears that the reputation of a deceased person cannot be cleared because, sadly, he obviously cannot be interviewed. In view of the dangers of historic complaints and the concern expressed in your Lordships’ House, will the Government seek further specific advice from the College of Policing on appropriate guidance in the exceptional circumstances of naming a deceased person before charge?

The noble and learned Lord makes an important point. Clearly, the question around deceased persons is a subject of topical debate among a number of chief constables. The Government’s position is that it is right to investigate properly what are very serious allegations, but the decision on whether or not to investigate must be based on the merits of the individual case. Given the important independence of the police, it is for the chief constable or chief officer to decide.

My Lords, in producing the Operation Conifer closure report in October 2017, the Wiltshire chief constable said that in his view a judge-led review of investigation would not provide value for money, as opposed to the £1.48 million spent on his investigation. Did any of the seven outstanding complainants make an application for criminal injuries compensation? If so, did the Wiltshire police advise them to do so or support those applications, as they would be consulted after a complaint was made? If the Minister cannot answer, is it not possible that an inquiry might establish these very salient facts?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I am afraid that I am unable to say whether any of the seven complainants making allegations applied for compensation, but I will check that and write to the noble Lord, placing a copy of the letter in the Library.

My Lords, I note the Government’s refusal, for which they must take responsibility, but surely the Home Office has a duty to ensure that police forces have the capability to run just and professional investigations into historical sex crimes that take account of the rights of the accused, the victims and the public good. What progress has the Home Office made in developing such a holistic approach?

The noble Lord is quite right that the balancing of the rights of different parties in these cases is extremely important. He will be aware that the Home Office has raised child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation as the sixth national threat and has applied significant funding, including from the police transformation fund, to address it. The Government remain committed to ensuring that victims receive quality support for both those who access the criminal justice system and those who do not.

My Lords, I realise that this is a difficult Question for my noble friend to face at, I think, her first time at the Dispatch Box, and she can get the feeling of the House very clearly. However, does she not accept, and would she not advise the Home Secretary, that what we have here is an example of an official state agency destroying the reputation of a deceased statesman, which is not a very healthy thing in a democracy? Will she pass back to the Home Secretary the fact that, aside from all the details of passing the buck on who is responsible and so on, good government has a responsibility to ensure that what is clearly a yawning injustice is corrected by an independent review?

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has acknowledged very clearly that the situation as it stands today is unsatisfactory for all concerned. However, I reiterate what he wrote in his letter to the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong: that in the absence of hearing Sir Edward’s account of events, it will be impossible to resolve this matter but that no inference of guilt should be taken from the findings of the closure report. In response to the request from my noble friend Lord Sherbourne during the debate the other day, I have sent a copy of Hansard to the Home Secretary, highlighting the strength of feeling in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness to her second innings on this crease, and I can assure her that she can look forward to many more. It is unsatisfactory that the former Home Secretary declined to mount an independent review of this matter, saying it was a local matter for the local police and crime commissioner, who in turn said it was a national matter; he would like to see a review, but feels it is for the Government to do. We need to resolve this. I suggest to the noble Baroness that she get in touch with that police and crime commissioner and suggest that, if he commissions a review, the Home Office will pay for it. That is consistent with what happened in the original Operation Conifer, more than half of which was funded by the Home Office.

I respect the noble Lord’s thoughts on this, but as my noble friend Lord Young said the other day, this is well above my pay grade. It is not for me to overrule the Secretary of State, whose view is that this was a large operation involving several forces, but it was an investigation into one individual—albeit a very high profile one—and there remains no justification for the Government intervening in the case.