Skip to main content

Sir Edward Heath: Operation Conifer

Volume 833: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to establish an independent inquiry to review the seven allegations of child sex abuse against Sir Edward Heath left unresolved at the end of Operation Conifer in 2017.

The Government have no plans to establish an independent inquiry to review the outstanding allegations against Sir Edward Heath. It remains for the local police and crime commissioner to consider whether an inquiry is necessary.

My Lords, I first express sincere thanks for the support that I, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and cross-party allies received from all quarters and parts of this House during the long period before Mike Veale, former chief constable first of Wiltshire and then of Cleveland, was found guilty of gross misconduct and barred from policing for life. In view of that July judgment, is it not imperative to carry out an independent review of the seven allegations made against Sir Edward Heath long after his death, which Veale failed to clear up after a long investigation that one of his officers contemptibly publicised on television in front of Ted Heath’s house in Salisbury? Must there not be a strong suspicion that Veale left these allegations open, neither proved nor disproved, to save face after failing to find a single shred of evidence to support any of the accusations, despite getting his officers to rifle through all of Heath’s private papers, box after box, in the Bodleian Library during an operation that cost over £1 million, paid for by the Home Office?

Finally—I apologise for speaking at some length—do we not owe it to the memory of a dead statesman, the only First Minister of the Crown ever to be suspected of such serious crimes, to get at the truth of this grave matter and settle the doubts created by the disgraced Veale?

I agree with my noble friend: it is unfortunate that Operation Conifer was not able to resolve conclusively the position in respect of all the allegations made against Sir Edward. I obviously recognise the House’s desire to find a solution, but the investigation has already been subject to considerable external scrutiny and the Government do not see the grounds for government intervention. The fact that it involved a former Prime Minister does not of itself warrant government intervention. The Operation Conifer summary closure report emphasised that

“no inference of guilt should be drawn from the fact that Sir Edward Heath would have been interviewed under caution”

had he still been alive.

My Lords, is not the news that the Northern Ireland Assembly is amending the law on anonymity in rape cases to be greatly welcomed? If the law in England had been similarly amended, it is highly unlikely that the injustices in the cases of Sir Edward Heath, Lord Leon Brittan, Sir Cliff Richard, Mr Harvey Proctor and Mr Paul Gambaccini, and in the Janner case, would ever have arisen. Is it not time to reopen the debate on pre-charge anonymity in the rest of the United Kingdom?

The noble Lord is quite right that these new laws have come into force in Northern Ireland, but the authorised professional practice guidance on media relations, issued by the College of Policing, already makes clear that the police

“will not name those arrested or suspected of a crime, other than in exceptional circumstances where there is a legitimate policing purpose to do so”.

In May 2018, the college updated this guidance to make it clear that it applies where allegations are “made against deceased persons”.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us from all parts of this House believe it is vital that there is an independent review of the shockingly unresolved allegations against Sir Edward Heath? Is he further aware that one of the reasons for a review is that it is hard to feel complete confidence in the 2017 official review, including a senior investigating officer from Operation Hydrant, since Veale’s decisions were examined by police officers who perhaps lacked sufficient independence from him?

I say to the noble Lord that I am of course aware of this. There were three main forms of scrutiny during the investigation. There was an independent scrutiny panel to ensure proportionality; the role of the panel members was to check and test the decision-making and approach in the investigation. At the end of the investigation the panel issued a statement. The noble Lord referred to Operation Hydrant. In September 2016 and May 2017, there were two reviews which concluded that the investigation was proportionate, legitimate and in accordance with national guidance. Finally, there was a review in January 2017 by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, as it then was, of whether the resources assigned to the investigation by the Home Office were being deployed in accordance with value for money principles. The review concluded that they were.

My Lords, the noble Lord has indicated that there will not be an independent inquiry under this Government’s watch. Given that this is an issue which needs to bring closure to both the alleged victims and to the family of Sir Edward Heath, what does the Minister suggest should be the way forward as an alternative to allowing this damaging situation to drift on?

As I said to other noble Lords, of course we all regret the fact that the damaging situation arose in the first place, I am sure. However, this is a matter for the local police and crime commissioner and, as recently as 2019, the then police and crime commissioner said that Operation Conifer was scrutinised by an independent review and found to have been “reasonable and proportionate”, and he remained satisfied then that this was still the case.

My Lords, my noble friend is hearing the voice of the House. It is difficult to understand the reluctance of the Government to bring this matter to a clear closure. Now the police side has in some ways settled, here we have these foul-mouthed accusations from a totally unreliable source allowed to drift in the wind with no attempt to tidy up and bring closure to the whole situation. Is this not a stain on British justice? Is it not up to the Government now to take very firm action to follow the advice of my noble friend Lord Lexden, and indeed many others, and bring this matter to honest clarity, instead of leaving it in the ill-mannered way in which at present the debate stands?

As I have said repeatedly, I of course understand my noble friend’s concerns. But the fact is that the Government are of the opinion that the original investigation has been scrutinised to a very high degree and that no further government action is therefore necessary.

My Lords, the Government have made it clear that they do not propose to have an investigation into the allegations against the former Prime Minister. However, there is a wider question which remains, which is how the wider system allowed Mike Veale to continue within policing and the wider policing family, despite two separate sets of allegations against him. There are also questions about the accountability of our PCCs and how they dealt with that particular situation. Does the Minister think there is a case for looking at the way disciplinary actions are expedited and sometimes abused, to maintain the public’s faith in the police force and the PCCs?

I would say to the noble Lord that of course we have arrived at a situation where Mr Veale has been held to account, so the public should therefore have faith. It perhaps took too long, but he was appropriately investigated along the way. In November 2017, the PCC in Wiltshire referred two matters concerning Mr Veale to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. The investigation related partly to an allegation that a mobile belonging to Wiltshire police was deliberately damaged. He was subject to a management action plan—that was felt to be appropriate after the investigation by the various authorities. So I think it is unfair to say that nothing happened to Mr Veale, but perhaps it did take too long to reach a conclusion. As noble Lords might appreciate, I would certainly agree with that.

My Lords, does my noble friend understand that many of us simply do not comprehend how a relatively senior police officer could have given credence to allegations that were such patent rubbish?

My Lords, with hindsight of course we can call them “patent rubbish” but, at the time, all these allegations had to be investigated; I do not think there is any doubt about that.

My Lords, while all friends and admirers of Sir Edward Heath must be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and others for the way they have pursued this, is it not the case that with the jailing of the man who first made these allegations and the conviction of the former chief constable for gross misconduct we can take comfort in the fact that the allegations against Sir Edward have been effectively resolved and disposed of?

My Lords, it would be unwise of me to get too much into the weeds of what the original investigation looked at and the various aspects of it, but I should stress that in the two weeks after Wiltshire police made a media appeal for anyone with information to come forward, 118 people contacted them. It is definitely more than just one man’s word.