Skip to main content

Sir Edward Heath: Operation Conifer

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2024

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they will reconsider the case for holding an independent inquiry into the allegations against Sir Edward Heath that remained unresolved at the end of Operation Conifer.

My Lords, this short debate is on a subject that I have raised many times in your Lordships’ House through Oral Questions and earlier debates. A grave injustice was inflicted posthumously on Sir Edward Heath, a man appointed by Her late Majesty to the highest order of chivalry as a Knight of the Garter. Ted Heath was accused of a number of child sex offences in 2015, 10 years after his death. The allegations were the subject of an investigation, known as Operation Conifer, which was carried out by the Wiltshire police force.

The operation was led by Wiltshire’s then chief constable, Mike Veale. Last July, Veale was barred from policing for life because of his gross misconduct in Cleveland, where he served as chief constable, albeit briefly, after losing his job in Wiltshire. Can it be seriously supposed that a man condemned in Cleveland for gross misconduct is likely to have met the standards required of an officer of the highest rank when he was in Wiltshire? The Independent Office for Police Conduct found him guilty of making a dishonest statement about the destruction of his mobile telephone at the end of the operation.

I will not dwell in detail on Operation Conifer. It had some very troubling features. When the investigation was in its latter stages, Veale was quoted in a national newspaper as saying that he was “120 per cent” certain that Ted Heath was guilty. A statement by Wiltshire Police that followed was notable for its careful wording. Bias against Ted Heath was evident from the start. One of Veale’s senior officers, Superintendent Sean Memory, spoke in front of TV cameras outside Heath’s former home in Salisbury. The incident, totally unprecedented in police history, I think, quickly became notorious. This is what the superintendent said:

“This is an appeal for victims: in particular, if you have been the victim of any crime from Sir Ted Heath or any historical sexual offence, or you are a witness or you have any information about this, then please come forward”.

Could there have been a clearer indication that Veale and his team deliberately set out to obtain evidence against Sir Edward? Note the use of the loaded term “victim” instead of “complainant”, which the police were supposed to use.

A very long official report was produced at the end of Operation Conifer. It has never seen the light of day. A highly abridged version was published in October 2017, much of it leaked in advance to the press. In this way, the country discovered that Veale had not cleared up all the allegations laid against Sir Edward as a result of the unprecedented TV appeal. Seven of them were unresolved. The truncated report stated that if the former Prime Minister had been alive, he would have been interviewed under caution about the seven allegations. Was this decision appropriate and right? The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, a former Director of Public Prosecutions who is contributing to this debate, condemned it at the time, saying that the police’s objective was to give

“entirely bogus credibility to their investigation ... The bar for interview is low, in most investigations as low as the police want it to be—and in the case of a dead man, virtually non-existent. They are covering their backs at the expense of a dead man. Shame on them”.”

An independent inquiry led by a retired judge should of course have been set up long ago into this shameful state of affairs, but the Home Office said no. It still says no. It has rejected all the calls that have been made for an independent inquiry, paying no attention whatever to the strong support voiced on all sides in your Lordships’ House, for which I and others seeking justice for Ted Heath are profoundly grateful. The Home Office brings a closed mind to bear on this grave issue. I hoped that a Minister might be appointed to the department who would prise open that closed mind. So far, I have been disappointed. May I ask this afternoon for a clear undertaking that the Hansard report of this debate will be given to the new Home Secretary, accompanied by a request that an independent inquiry should now be held? Perhaps the Home Secretary would circulate a letter with his response to this request to all those taking part in this debate.

The Home Secretary’s predecessors dismissed the calls for an independent inquiry by saying that Operation Conifer was

“subject to considerable external scrutiny”

when the investigation took place. There is truth in that statement. Two official bodies, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and something called Operation Hydrant, were brought in to review Operation Conifer at the time. A third body was set up specially by Veale. It was called an independent scrutiny panel. He chose its four members. One of them was paid £2,000 to provide professional advice about two of the complainants, but she insisted that her independence was not compromised as a result. The review by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary was concerned solely with the use of the financial resources—some £1.5 million—with which the investigation was equipped. The Operation Conifer report of October 2017 states that the inspectorate

“was not asked to comment on the decision to investigate allegations against Sir Edward Heath”.

This review therefore has no bearing on the matters which would be the subject of an independent inquiry.

Operation Hydrant, on the other hand, is relevant. It brought together some of our most senior police officers to co-ordinate

“multiple non-recent child sexual abuse investigations around the country”,

and Veale was known personally to most if not all of them. A leading expert in police misconduct cases observed at first hand the camaraderie that existed between them, noting

“evidence of undue favouritism towards Veale by his police peers”.

Doubt is bound to exist in the public mind when reviewers are not totally independent from those that they review, and that was the position here. So Operation Hydrant cannot be regarded as an adequate substitute for an inquiry.

That leaves Veale’s independent scrutiny panel. It produced no report—just a four-paragraph statement tacked on to the end of the October 2017 report. Veale and his team provided the panel with briefings, and panel members offered comments and asked questions. They state that they

“endeavoured as best we could, to contribute to the quality of the process”

of investigation, which their short statement praises. All four members of the panel signed confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements. These silent witnesses can therefore provide no help in settling the grave issues to which Operation Conifer gave rise.

What conclusion should be drawn from all this? It could not be clearer. The Home Office should stop using the limited reviews carried out over six years ago, which lacked complete independence, as an excuse for doing nothing today. The department should face up to the fact that Veale, now a completely discredited figure, could well have left the seven unresolved allegations hanging in the air in order to avoid having to admit that a great deal of public money had been spent—some £1.5 million altogether—and much police time employed without achieving anything at all.

The Conifer report of October 2017 states that

“it is critical to stress that no inference of guilt should be drawn from the fact that Sir Edward Heath would have been interviewed under caution”.

What sort of world do they think we are living in? Of course people were bound to make just such an inference. The unresolved allegations placed a cloud of suspicion over a dead statesman. It must be removed.

Has the Home Office studied the seven allegations? They are summarised in the Conifer report of October 2017. They are a strange miscellany. Four relate to the 1960s, one to the 1970s, none to the 1980s and two to the 1990s. Two concern adults, not children. The Edward Heath Charitable Foundation has scrutinised them, drawing on Heath’s private papers, information in the public domain and the results of freedom of information requests. Its analysis shows that four of the seven alleged incidents could not have occurred.

The Home Office has tried to give the impression that only the Wiltshire police and crime commissioner could initiate an independent inquiry. That is not so; the Government have the power to set one up. Do we not owe it to the memory of a dead statesman, the only First Minister of the Crown ever to be accused of serious criminal offences, to get at the truth of this grave matter? Sir Edward Heath has now passed into history. His career will be analysed in detail by professional historians, and the truth about this terrible matter must be available to them. Ted Heath’s honour must be restored by a judicial inquiry, having been sullied by a chief constable found to be unfit for public office.

The independent inquiry into the infamous Operation Midland showed how the police had abused their trust in the way they investigated allegations against two great public figures, Lord Bramall and Lord Brittan. The disgusting allegations against them came from a fantasist, Carl Beech, now serving a long prison sentence. Beech also said grotesque things about Ted Heath that were passed on to Veale. The mistreatment of a third great public servant, who is the subject of this debate, must also go before an independent inquiry.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for securing this debate and for introducing it with such eloquence and erudition. Operation Conifer was an investigation by Wiltshire Police into the charges of sexual abuse made against Edward Heath. The Wiltshire Police investigation covered 14 police forces and it produced its report in October 2017, after years of investigation. The report’s conclusion was that, if Sir Edward had been alive, he would have been interviewed under caution regarding seven out of 40 cases. The report did not think much of the other cases and even those seven were distilled, for a variety of reasons, from an inquiry into various examples that those 40 cases showed. This does not mean that in those seven cases, he was guilty; it simply means that those seven cases are those where he had a case to answer.

There has been a demand, ever since the report was submitted in 2017, that because the report lives and Sir Edward’s reputation is under a cloud—it does not fully exonerate him—there should be a proper, independent judge-led investigation into this. All kinds of criticisms, some very strong, have been made of the report and I want to mention five or six of them, so as to indicate the gravity of the charges made against Sir Edward. They include: the lack of corroborative evidence; the way that the investigation was launched and publicised; the fact that Heath was dead and could not refute the allegations made against him. There was also the question of the way in which the investigation was carried out and concern about some of the individuals involved in it. All these things have been raised against the report, and therefore the demand is that we should have another independent judge-led inquiry.

I have been thinking about this a great deal. I read the report three or four times, with great care, plus the literature that has grown out of it. I have asked myself: what should be my response? My honest response is simply to look first at the reasons why such an inquiry is needed and then the reasons why it would be unwise. I will leave it to your Lordships to decide what should be the overall balance of evidence.

First, should there be an independent judge-led inquiry? The answer is yes. Why? The reputation of a Prime Minister is concerned. Public confidence in our system on child abuse has to be maintained. It is also important that justice should be lent to the individual, and that truth should surround that. Innuendos and silly gossip should not be carrying on. It is also quite important that shady characters in our society, as in every other, should not be allowed to blackmail or dishonour decent men after they are dead. There are cases in the report where shady individuals said all kind of things. with no kind of responsibility at all. These are the reasons why the report is unacceptable and another independent report is due.

However, there are also reasons why an independent report should not be produced. First, the Conifer investigation, with all its limitations, is reasonable and objective. That has been said by quite a lot of people, including those who were critical early on. They felt that the evidence was collected and examined very carefully, and therefore there is no reason to believe that the report needs to be superseded.

Secondly, to investigate this would take another year or two and our public life would once again be haunted by this issue. We have only just come out of the investigations into Sir Leon Brittan and Lord Bramall and others. Let this not drag on for another long period and give a silly impression about this society. There is also the question of public reaction. When you demand this kind of inquiry, it inevitably becomes the subject of public debate on the importance of the nature of politicians in our society. The whole climate of suspicion of politicians will go on. There is also the feeling that no report will silence the critics and detractors of honourable people. Therefore, there is simply no point in producing this independent report in the hope that it will silence the critics; it will not.

What do we do? One answer is given by the report: a narrowly focused statutory inquiry. That is one answer, but what does “narrowly focused” mean? Does it mean choosing a few cases out of those seven where Sir Edward would have been interviewed under caution? What do we want to do with those cases? Will only those cases be carefully examined, and others will not? If we stop there, we will be subject to the criticism that we selected only those cases where the outcome was what we were expecting. Therefore, we will be open to the same charge that we have been open to so far.

I am a little concerned about this. All I can say is that there are arguments on both sides but on balance I am convinced that an independent judge-led inquiry is not appropriate at this stage.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for enabling some of us who worked with Mr Heath to say a word or two on this subject. I declare my interests in both senses of the word. From 1971 to 1973, I worked in the central policy review staff in the Cabinet Office, headed by the late Lord Rothschild. The unit worked very closely with the Prime Minister and his staff, helping to brief the Prime Minister and Cabinet collectively at 10 Downing Street and Chequers. I spent a good deal of time in both places—usually in the company of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, who I see in his place—preparing for these meetings.

In 1973 I left the Civil Service and joined Douglas Hurd, now the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, as his understudy as political secretary to the Prime Minister because Douglas had been selected to fight a parliamentary seat whenever the election came. In those good old days, to which we would do well to return, the extent of the political staff in No. 10 was two—Douglas and myself. When Douglas went campaigning, it was one. That may not have been enough, but I do not think it was necessary to increase the number exponentially.

When the election came in February 1974, which Mr Heath just lost, and throughout the subsequent period when he was leader of the Opposition, I led his private office. During that time Mr Heath was based principally in Wilton Street, where I would see him throughout the day and often late into the evening. When he lost the leadership election, I resigned my post but remained in fairly regular contact with him, at least until I accepted ministerial office under “that woman” in 1981 and was cast into relatively outer darkness.

I would make this point. I saw Mr Heath very close up indeed, at high and low points in his life. I travelled with him all over the United Kingdom, to the United States, to China to meet Chairman Mao and to France on holiday. I used to take him urgent papers to his racing boats. Incidentally, these were always described as yachts, but in reality, they were highly tuned racing machines on which I was forbidden to set foot in case I displaced some vital mechanism. These were not the yachts imagined in the fantasies of his accusers, who, I think, thought of something you might have a cocktail party on in St Tropez. I had to provide malt whisky at the end of the day, wherever we were, and on at least one occasion to knock on his bathroom door to get him get out of the bath and join the party waiting to leave in the election battle bus.

For that period—at least between 1973 and 1975— I was perhaps among the two or three people in the world who knew Edward Heath more closely and more continuously than anyone else. Yet—this is the first, but in a way lesser, point that I want to make—at no time was I ever questioned seriously about him by any of these so-called police investigations. It is true that, during Operation Conifer, a young contract researcher for the police, not a member of any police force, came to see me at Eton, where I was working. They were not a policeman and, without unkindness, I am afraid that I would have to say that the person in question had not the least idea what to ask me about, how No. 10 or the office of the leader of the Opposition worked, what police close protection was, or what life was like for the Prime Minister or leader of the Opposition. I remember having to explain what a private office was and the most basic facts. It struck me then, and strikes me still, as an example of the extreme amateurishness of the whole exercise that a political secretary at No. 10 and then head of the leader of the Opposition’s office was not at any point questioned by a professional about the circumstances of Heath’s life.

This case matters. I agree with the thoughtful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, that there are arguments on both sides, but it seems to me that the arguments put forward by my noble friend Lord Lexden and by the late Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, one of the greatest public servants of the post-war period, matter. In this post-truth age, we will—indeed, we do—see more of this kind of thing: wild accusations thrown at leading public figures, which are believed by mad conspiracy theorists. If they are not dealt with properly, we will find it even more difficult to tempt good people into public life and into important positions in our democratic life.

The accusations against Sir Edward Heath were, I believe, rubbish; but I do not think that we can just let rubbish lie in, as it were, our public streets in the hope that it does no damage. I believe that the state owes some duty of care to those who undertake the public service on which we all rely. Of course, we should have public inquiries—we are expert at that—to apportion blame and guilt for failure but, I would argue, we should also sometimes deploy state resources to protect those who have served the state from suffering unfair damage. That is why I endorse my noble friend Lord Lexden’s campaign.

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on securing this important debate and on his perseverance in this important matter.

It is worth recalling the context for Operation Conifer. It arose in the depths, and I use that term advisedly, of the Metropolitan Police’s—frankly, weird—fixation with the criminal fantasist, Carl Beech. Noble Lords will remember that this man, now serving a richly deserved 18 years in prison, claimed to have been abused by, or witnessed others being abused by, a former Home Secretary, a former Chief of the Defence Staff, a former director-general of the Security Service, a former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service and a former Prime Minister. What were the odds? How credulous did the police have to be to take these claims seriously, notoriously publicly describing the allegations to be “credible and true”, even before the conclusion of their investigation—indeed, almost at the beginning of their investigation? This was like some macabre version of Cluedo, with distinguished public servants reduced to the status of playing cards, only they were real people with real families and real reputations being steadily shredded in real time.

It was within the midst of this storm of scandal, public outrage and credulity that Operation Conifer opened, disgracefully, with the superintendent of police of the Wiltshire Constabulary standing outside the gates of the former home of the by then dead former Prime Minister in Salisbury’s Cathedral Close, calling for “victims” of Sir Edward Heath’s alleged sex crimes to come forward.

This was a remarkable low in policing endeavour. It smacked of an unworthy attempt by the then chief constable of the Wiltshire constabulary, the since disgraced Mike Veale, to curry favour with the public by demonstrating that Wiltshire Police “got it”—that it was on board with the public outrage and would act swiftly and firmly. This behaviour was reckless; it did not smack of real policing and looked political. Therein may lie the true public scandal: not that Sir Edward Heath was guilty of crimes of sexual abuse, for plainly he was not, but that Wiltshire Police may have allowed a critical aspect of our justice system, the criminal investigation phase, to be hijacked in order that it might impress what it took to be a strong public mood.

Of course, there was never any evidence against Sir Edward. The final insult was that, when this became clear, Wiltshire Police sought to give itself spurious cover for its ill-fated investigation by releasing the completely meaningless statement that, had Sir Edward still been alive, he would have been interviewed under caution. As Veale knew then, and surely still knows now, the bar for an interview under caution is so low that its invocation in these circumstances was no more than a weaselly attempt to evade deserved criticism at someone else’s expense. It looked like a final, cruel undermining of Sir Edward’s reputation in the service of the Wiltshire constabulary retaining, as it must earnestly have hoped, some shred of credibility after this fiasco.

It seems to me that this sequence of events is so worrying and so potentially undermining of public confidence in the probity of police investigations that it demands, as noble Lords have said, a public inquiry into the allegations that Sir Edward faced, so that this matter may finally be put to rest and some measure of justice finally be dispensed.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register, in particular as a past chair of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation. I join the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, in congratulating my noble friend Lord Lexden, not just on securing this debate but, as the noble Lord said, on his sheer doggedness in pursuing justice and on the eloquent and comprehensive nature of his opening speech. So grotesque, galling and manifestly unjust is this situation, however, that there is plenty of fertile ground remaining to be tilled by the rest of us.

I have considerable sympathy for the Minister, who has inherited this awkward and seemingly intractable problem from a series of predecessors. One of the most important responsibilities of any Minister is the necessity, on occasion, of questioning, or even rejecting, the cautionary advice of officials—the predictable advice to stonewall, to dead-bat, to kick the can down the road. Such advice will, no doubt, be supported by dark hints that any willingness to do anything, to take a decision, actively to address an injustice, would set a dangerous precedent or even worse. I respectfully remind my noble friend that this is precisely the point at which political judgment must come into play; the current leader of the Liberal Democrats is learning that to his cost. I ask the Minister to please spare himself and his successors the indignity of being called back here again and again to defend the indefensible.

The idea that Operation Conifer was anything other than an expensive, chaotic and misguided fishing expedition is, frankly, absurd. From the moment that investigating officer appeared outside Ted Heath’s former home in Salisbury, its true nature was plain to see. My noble friend Lord Lexden quoted the exact words and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, has just done so again: the policeman referred to every person being a victim, upending the historic presumption of innocence. Even the two Operation Hydrant reviews of Conifer—classic examples of police rather complacently marking their own homework—listed almost 50 shortcomings in the conduct of the investigation.

Like my noble friend Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, I was interviewed by someone who described themselves as one of the investigating officers. I had the same experience as others: namely, an interview that felt completely futile, because I was concerned only with truth—Ted Heath’s true nature—and was unwilling to fan the flames of the fantasies of others. I dare say there are others here who had a similar experience.

My wife was secretary to Ted Heath at this time and I was vice-chairman of the party, responsible for youth. If anything of this kind had happened in any way, it is quite inconceivable that we would not have known about it. She knew every step of his life during this period. She was interviewed in exactly the same incompetent way, which has been addressed. Frankly, if the Government cannot bring themselves to deal with this matter in an open way, they should be ashamed of themselves.

I am very grateful to my noble friend.

Several obvious witnesses were not contacted at all, including our former colleague and friend in this House, Lord MacGregor, who ran Ted Heath’s private office in the 1960s, and my noble friend Lord Sherbourne, who held the same position a decade later. Diaries held in the Bodleian Library, which would have disproven several of the allegations, were seemingly not properly consulted, if at all. Another of the many extraordinary aspects of Conifer was the chief constable’s decision, seemingly taken unilaterally, that he would relieve the police and crime commissioner of his responsibility for overseeing the investigation. Instead, he appointed a so-called independent panel. Did he act within his powers when he did that? Surely not. This was a case not of marking his own homework but perhaps of hand-picking his own examinations board.

Ministers tell us that the question of an independent inquiry into Conifer is a matter for the local PCC, not for them. Successive PCCs for Swindon and Wiltshire have said that they would support such an inquiry but do not have the money to pay for it. Thus the buck is passed, passed again and passed back once more, seemingly without end.

The Government found the substantial amount required to fund this disgraceful and futile fishing expedition, run by a now discredited chief constable, yet seemingly they cannot find the money to right that injustice or to help prevent this kind of terrible farrago of costly nonsense ever happening again. Where is the accountability in all this?

Several noble Lords have raised before the question of what happened to the logs painstakingly kept by the officers in the police post at Arundells throughout the time Sir Edward Heath lived there. They would certainly not have suited the narrative of the witch hunt, but where are they? It is said that they were destroyed during the course of Operation Conifer.

I end by saying to the Minister that if he wishes to earn and retain the confidence of the House, on occasion he must sense its mood and respond positively to it. An injustice has been done, and it must now be rectified.

My Lords, I echo those who have paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for his persistence and eloquence. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, referred to Robert Armstrong, who was equally persistent and once told me that this slur on Mr Heath and the inability to get it put right was one of the things that most disappointed him about his career in public life.

I did not know Prime Minister Heath; I was much too junior. My only contact with him was when I did some work for him and he went out of his way to thank me for it. Although it was not a particularly good piece of work, he maintained that it was. That is my only credential for taking part in this debate—so I thought I had better read the Operation Conifer report, or at least the published version that is available to us.

It is the most extraordinary document. It is 109 pages long but immensely repetitious. It is a long, self-justificatory description of what the police did, not of what they found—and it seems pretty clear that that is because they found absolutely nothing. They list who they interviewed. Judging by this debate, those interviews must have been very interesting. They interviewed 132 policemen who had carried out protection duties for Sir Edward, 43 private secretaries, 34 crew from his boats, and various household and nursing staff. At the end of each of those sections of the report, there is the sad sentence that “no information relevant to the allegations was found”. All those people were interviewed but no information was found. What deduction might one draw from that?

The report draws no deductions—and the language throughout is prejudicial, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said. All along, it talks of “disclosures by victims”—not allegations but disclosures, as if these were facts. The conclusions are astonishingly prejudicial, including the revelation about seven of the allegations. There were 42 allegations, but it turns out that there were actually only 40 people alleging, because one of the fantasists used three names. So it comes down to 40 allegations, of which seven would have justified an interview under caution.

I am no expert on this, but I am standing in front of a great expert who just explained how meaningless that is—yet that is what will have stuck in the public mind. It is a slur on the reputation of a distinguished Prime Minister who did great work for this country and I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, who said that if these slurs are allowed to stand, it will be more and more difficult to persuade good people to go into public life—so I strongly support the Motion.

I point out that the police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire said five years ago that what is needed now is:

“A sharply-focused statutory inquiry, with powers to question witnesses and scrutinise documents”.

If that was what the police and crime commissioner was asking the Home Office to do—he said he had asked several times—I really do not think it is enough for the Home Office to go on saying that it has been looked at frequently. Yes, it has been looked at by the police, but they have marked their own homework and found that they did a jolly good job. That is irrelevant to the question of whether Mr Heath’s reputation has been wrongly attacked. That should be put right by an inquiry now, exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, proposes.

It a privilege to take part in this debate and I begin by adding my thanks to those of others to my noble friend Lord Lexden. He has been persistent and tenacious, and time and again he has raised this matter on the Floor of your Lordships’ House. Time and again we have had answers from the Minister on duty at the time, including the present Chief Whip when she was Home Office Minister, refusing to have the sort of inquiry that is being called for today by almost everyone who has spoken—but never has a proper, logical and coherent reason been given for that refusal.

I would compare my noble friend Lord Lexden in some way with another parliamentary hero of recent days, my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot. Yesterday, we had a debate on the Post Office scandal, and of course my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot contributed to that debate. I cannot for the life of me understand why, in light of the things that have been revealed about that appalling miscarriage of justice, we still have these stonewalling, negative answers from Ministers. If only Ministers, at the beginning of the Post Office accusations, had looked at the fact that here was a group of people with a collective reputation for probity, and an individual one in their own local villages and side streets, et cetera, and asked how they had suddenly become a nest of criminal vipers. It is absolutely ludicrous, yet Minister after Minister refused to probe. The whole thing is appalling.

Here we have a different case. We have a great statesman—and he was a great statesman. He was also an awkward cuss in many ways. I did not know him anywhere near as well as my noble friends Lord Waldegrave and Lord Hunt, but he stayed in our house on one or two occasions and did dinners for me in my constituency. He could be the life and soul of the party and then could suddenly clam up. However, the fact is that he was a great statesman who served his country and changed its course—would that we could go back, as my noble friend Lord Waldegrave said, but we cannot. But what we can do is restore the reputation of a man who has been traduced by evil people saying evil things.

The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, quoted Carl Beech, that reptilian character who has caused such anguish to people most of us knew, including Lord Brittan, who died with a dark cloud over him, and his widow. There was Lord Bramall, whose wife died before he did and did not fully understand what was going on; and Sir Edward Heath, a great statesman who served his country, as I said. Collectively and individually, we owe him a lot. Above all, we owe him justice, even if it is posthumous.

I understood the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh; it was an eloquent speech and he tried to make it balanced—but he failed, I think, because I honestly believe that my noble friend Lord Lexden’s call for an inquiry must be answered positively if we are going to give justice to the reputation of a great man.

So I beg my noble friend—I have done so before in Question Time, but I do so now in support of my noble friend Lord Lexden and other noble friends and noble Lords from all over your Lordships’ House. We say that the Government does have a duty to do what the Wiltshire police and crime commissioner in 2019 asked for. He said that the Government can do this. They should do this. I would go much further and say that the Government must do this.

As for the precise form it takes—whether it is appointing a High Court judge to investigate—there are various ways they could approach this. There is a very black stain on government and Parliament’s reputation unless we honour the memory of Sir Edward by making sure that this farrago of lies and nonsense is shown to be precisely that. I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is, and we owe it not only to the memory of Sir Edward Heath but to ourselves to do this and to do it quickly. I beg my noble friend to give a positive reply for once when he winds up the debate.

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on his tenacity. I would like to widen the context a little and reflect on what is really at stake here.

Edward Heath was a politician from another era. A scholarship boy, he was the son of a maid and a carpenter. In his 20s, he was precocious, and in the thick of it: in Germany, meeting senior Nazis, opposing appeasement; in Barcelona, opposing Franco. In World War II, he was an artillery officer, in the front line in Europe, awarded for his bravery. Post-war, in a rapidly developing political career, he is best described, I think, as a technocrat: unafraid of intervention, willing to freeze wages and prices to counter inflation, willing to embrace, along with the Labour Party, the then Keynesian consensus—all of which, I fear, came to a somewhat sticky end for both main parties in the 1970s. Many of us here lived through that, with sky-high inflation, a balance of payments crisis, miners’ strikes, a three-day week, and, later still, under Labour, a humiliating bailout by the IMF. As Prime Minister, Edward Heath also had to deal with the Yom Kippur War, the oil price doubling in a day, the Troubles, direct rule and Bloody Sunday, and the sacking of Enoch Powell after the “rivers of blood” speech. We can all agree that Edward Heath presided over important but difficult times.

As a young current affairs producer working in ITV, I encountered Edward Heath many times. Indeed, in my 20s, I made a one-hour documentary about him early in his term of office as Prime Minister, spending a lot of time in his company and interviewing him at length, sailing with him—I was allowed to, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave—on “Morning Cloud”, spending a fair amount of time with his crew, and sitting alone with him on the Isle of Wight, watching the sun set. I have never encountered a politician—then or since—less concerned to charm or less able to engage in small talk.

Walking him on a fair number of occasions from a television reception area to a television studio for him to be interviewed by Peter Jay or Brian Walden was a most challenging experience. I quickly ran out of my questions and small talk. In his retirement, and when I was director-general of the BBC, I was invited with others to Sunday lunch at his Salisbury home. Despite our many previous encounters, he introduced me loudly to his other guests—and I quote—as “a Radio 1 DJ”. That is true, and there are witnesses. Throughout my long professional exposure to Edward Heath, I never doubted for one second his integrity, his complete dedication to the task in hand or his entirely selfless commitment to the good of this nation.

We now know how widespread and undetected paedophilia was in our society. We all agree that allegations must be investigated vigorously. However, we also know—many noble Lords have mentioned this—the hazards of false claimants coming forward. There was a case in the news today. Like others here, I knew Leon Brittan well. It was, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, an absolute tragedy that he died before the shadow of guilt could be lifted from him.

To put it politely, Wiltshire Police’s inquiry was inconclusive. I, together with everybody else, think that we should institute a more comprehensive, wide-ranging and nuanced inquiry; we know from the accounts that we have heard during the course of this excellent discussion that the police manifestly did not do this. We must look at the totality of his behaviours during his long life, for much of which he was under 24-hour scrutiny—whether by the police, civil servants, house- keepers or whoever else—as the noble Lords, Lord Deben and Lord Waldegrave, illuminated for us so convincingly. Many who safeguarded him will not be alive but some are; those who are not will have shared their experience of him with others who are alive. I knew, and have talked to, many people who worked closely with Edward Heath. Although there was speculation about his sexuality, no one ever suggested to me that, whatever his sexuality was, they had ever seen any expression of it whatever.

The Wiltshire Police report cannot be the last word on this important figure in our nation’s history. In justice, Edward Heath is owed, history is owed and we are all owed a much more rounded appraisal of this important man in our national story.

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in the gap and to support my noble friend Lord Lexden in his campaign; perhaps I should call it a crusade, because it has been very noble and persistent.

Why am I speaking? I must declare my interest. I did not particularly care for Ted. I did not particularly care for much of his politics. However, there is not a single shred of evidence to suggest that the allegations against him were true. They were made and he was accused, not because of what he had done but because he was a great public servant. Because of that, he, Ted Heath, was the victim in this incident.

We have heard mention of Lord Bramall and Lord Brittan. I remember the last sight I had of Leon: he was sitting on a bench outside here, with his head in his hands, knowing that he would never be able to resolve in his lifetime the allegations that had been made against him. I must say that I feel a measure of shame that I was not able to go up to him and in some way offer him some comfort.

I must say to my noble friend the Minister—and he is my friend—that I simply do not understand why the Home Office is so reluctant to do what is so blindingly bloody obvious in this: to make sure not only that justice is done but that it is seen to be done. Give us the inquiry. This Government—indeed, any Government—owe it to those in public service to defend them against great injustice.

This is not an isolated case. We are talking here not just about this particular incident. We are talking about Hillsborough, the bad blood scandal, the Chinook crash cover-up and Rochdale. There are so many examples of where the system has simply failed in its duty. And, of course, we are talking about the Post Office.

Conspiracy theorists might argue that of course there is no smoke without fire, but one could also argue that there is no great denial of justice in recent times that has not involved government or some institution of state failing in its duty. Our system of justice has not just faltered; it has failed, time and again. I believe that our public servants deserve better.

My Lords, I am grateful to be allowed to speak briefly in the gap.

Ted Heath was a family friend for a reason that we have not mentioned so far—his passionate love of music. He became a good friend of my father and would come to dinner. I was always struck by his behaviour and his sweetness.

I want to put one thing on the record, because it is very important. Many years later, when she was in her 90s, I interviewed Barbara Hosking on “Private Passions”. Many noble Lords will remember that she was a very distinguished civil servant who looked after Ted for many years. She told me that the principal thing that she managed to do for him was to save him from wearing an appalling cardigan when he was about to conduct the LSO. She said, “What are you going to wear?” He came up with a tattered thing with a hole in it and she said, “You can’t possibly wear that”.

I asked her about these allegations and said, “Would you agree with me? From my experience, Ted was if anything asexual”. She said, “Absolutely”. In all the years that she worked intimately for him, she never saw a hint of anything else. This is important, and I think she would want me to say this, because she is of course now dead. Given that we have to reconsider this man in the light of these appalling, outrageous allegations, it is important to take on evidence like that. She thought that he was probably asexual and certainly that he had nothing to do with behaviour of this sort.

My Lords, I agree with all those who have said how regrettable it is that anyone should have their name dragged through the mud, particularly when they are not here to defend themselves. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and other colleagues, for their tenacity and resolve in pursuing this matter. While Sir Edward Heath has not been proven guilty of anything at all, his life’s work and his memory are tainted by these lingering allegations. Clearly, that is very unsatisfactory.

I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, that we owe our public servants a duty of care. However, the case for a further inquiry is not predicated on the fact that Sir Edward is a former Prime Minister. If there had been a proper and robust investigation with a clear outcome, there would be no need now for raking further over the coals. But it is undeniable that very serious mistakes were made in Operation Conifer, particularly in the manner in which it was launched. It is also very clear that previous external reviews of the investigation are not seen as properly independent.

That is why, on balance, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is right is his calls for a further, final attempt to bring closure to this matter through an independent inquiry. In bringing one about, we must avoid the mistakes made by police in the past. Any inquiry must be effectively managed and properly resourced, and must work to a strict timetable. Additionally, it must not just be independent but must be seen to be independent. Its terms of reference should be made crystal clear at the outset and I suggest that it should be agreed on a cross-party basis involving interested Back-Benchers such as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, as well as Front- Benchers.

In addition to looking again at the individual allegations, there are some systemic matters to address, including how investigations of high-profile figures more generally are carried out, how complainants can be given the confidence that they will be fairly treated in cases such as these and how to reinforce the presumption of innocence.

Conversely, any fresh inquiry into the Heath allegations must be mindful of the findings of the recent Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Its report cites past

“institutional complacency and indifference to the plight of child victims”.

IICSA found that political parties and police had “turned a blind eye” to allegations of child sexual abuse connected to Westminster, had ignored victims and showed excessive “deference” to MPs fighting to clear their names. Processes such as these should never give special pleading or special treatment to high-profile figures: it is a fundamental principle of British justice that we are all equal before the law. Allegations of sexual abuse must always be taken seriously, without exception, and all complainants must be treated with the sensitivity and respect that should be afforded them as a matter of course.

To leave the Heath allegations hanging in the air does not just affect a former Prime Minister’s reputation. More importantly, it puts the credibility and seriousness of investigations of child abuse more generally at risk—and that is surely the worst injustice of all. I too hope the Minister responds constructively to this debate. Just saying “We intend to do nothing further” will not help anyone: in my view it is the Government’s duty to put things right for all involved.

My Lords, I will start by saying what a privilege it is to take part in this short debate. I will also say, as a proud Labour politician and Front-Bencher, that this debate goes to the heart of our politics. No matter which party anybody belongs too, they deserve respect and justice—that is the important point that should be made.

We started with a brilliant speech from the noble Lord, Lord Lexden—really stunning. It is a privilege to be in Parliament sometimes when speeches like that are made that challenge the state—and challenge all of us to see whether we have got it right. Before I lose it in some of the other points I want to make, I want to go to the heart of what the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said when he called for a public inquiry. He made a direct request that the new Home Secretary should be given a copy of the Hansard report of this debate and should consider the request for a public inquiry that was made by him and supported by other noble Lords who spoke. Most importantly, he asked the Minister to respond and reply to that request, with reasons that lay out why the Government think a public inquiry is necessary or why they have concluded that it is not. That is at the heart of the request. All the contributions made here by many noble Lords were moving and important.

I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave. I was a very young Labour politician in 1970; I did all I could to stop Ted Heath being elected, and failed. The important point the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, made is that we must do something about wild accusations being made against public figures, often without any basis at all. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred to this. Have we not woken up—as a system—to the fact that we have to have Ministers who challenge the advice they get, who say to people “This is what we are being told numerous times by Members of Parliament, Peers and members of the public who are coming to us and bringing forward real questions about what the state is doing and what it has got wrong and asking why it can’t respond”? How many more times, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, do we have to have a Post Office? How many more times, as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said, do we have to have another Hillsborough, or a Bloody Sunday, or many of the other scandals that we have seen? It takes decades, request after request and demand after demand before the state wakes up and answers the questions that are posed to it.

Why does it take so long? If the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is wrong, why not expose that information and evidence, and have it out in public so that we can see it and come to a determination? Surely a former Prime Minister of this country deserves the justice that would be brought about by looking at all the evidence to determine how it is.

We simply cannot have the situation in the report— I was reading it again as the debate went on and looked through it, and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, pointed it out to us. I do not know the world everyone lives in but, to me certainly, as soon as you say you will interview someone under caution, then, in the court of public opinion, the person has something to answer. That is the reality of it: the aspersions cast on the reputation of a man.

Of course, the police say, “This doesn’t mean they are guilty; it doesn’t mean anything”, but the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, as a former Director of Public Prosecutions, was absolutely right to point out that, as soon as that is said, people say, “No smoke without fire”, “Nothing to see here—oh, really?”, et cetera. A former Prime Minister of this country—in fact, anybody, from somebody living on an estate somewhere to someone holding the highest office—deserves better than that. It is simply not good enough, and something needs to be done.

What are we depending on? I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is in his place. He made a very important point in the Question that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, had towards the end of October— I will be corrected if I get this wrong. He pointed out that the case rests on a fantasist who is now in jail. A former Prime Minister of our country is suffering this slur to his reputation on the basis, originally, as I understand it, of a man who is now in jail for perverting the course of justice. Is that really what we want to base this on? The second leg of it is a former chief constable who was moved to Cleveland, then made to leave because of misconduct. A disgraced former chief constable and somebody now in jail for perverting the course of justice are the two major pillars upon which this is based. Is that really satisfactory to all of us?

Wiltshire Police investigated itself. How can that be seen to be right? I cannot remember which noble Lord pointed out that justice not only has to be done but be seen to be done. I suggest that, having one disgraced person in jail and one disgraced former chief constable as the main pillars of that, a police force which is investigating itself, whatever the rights and wrongs of a public inquiry, surely brings us all to the point where we question how the state has operated with respect to a former Prime Minister.

I finish by repeating the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden: let us see the Minister take this debate to the new Home Secretary, ask him to reconsider and come back to this Chamber with his decision. Surely a former Prime Minister deserves at least that.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for securing this debate. I recognise that this is an issue of long-standing interest for him and all other noble Lords who have contributed. I thank them particularly for their many personal experiences of Sir Edward Heath, the great statesman, especially those reminiscences from my noble friend Lord Waldegrave, and the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Birt. While I commend my noble friend Lord Lexden for his tenacity, I am afraid that my response will not differ greatly from that which I have given in the past. Nevertheless, I will again set out for the House the Government’s position.

The first point to make is that 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 appreciate the strength of feeling from Sir Edward’s friends and former colleagues that this traduces his memory, but I must, once again, make very clear the point that it does not. The Operation Conifer summary closure report emphasised that no inference of guilt should be drawn from the fact that Sir Edward would have been interviewed under caution had he been alive.

I think we can all agree that it is deeply unfortunate for all concerned that these allegations did not come to light until after Sir Edward’s death. We can certainly agree that the manner in which the then chief constable of Wiltshire Police, Mike Veale, chose to publicise those allegations deserves the censure it has rightly received. Indeed, Mr Veale has admitted that his actions in that respect were inappropriate. As the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, pointed out, and I agree, it was, in fact, a new low.

However, we must separate the understandable opprobrium for Mr Veale’s mistakes from a clear-sighted, objective and fair assessment of the investigation and its outcomes. Of course emotions run high in this case—indeed, it is laudable that noble Lords show their loyalty and long-term commitment to the cause of their friend and, as my noble friend Lord Cormack noted, a great statesman—but the Government cannot and should not be guided by emotion, nor by the status of individuals. It is certainly not a unique situation that a deceased individual has allegations made against them to which they are unable to respond, and there can be no justification for treating that individual differently because he or she was a former Prime Minister. There are important principles at stake. It is a fundamental tenet of our legal system that anyone accused of a crime is innocent until they are proven guilty. To maintain that Sir Edward’s reputation is besmirched by the fact that unproven allegations have been made about him is to undermine that precept.

Another critically important principle is at stake, however uncomfortable, and it certainly is in this instance: we must continue to uphold the right of the individual to challenge the holders of power in this country, be they institutions or those occupying high office. I can do no better than echo the words of the 2017 Guardian editorial referenced in the briefing note on Operation Conifer, which was published last Friday by the House’s Library. It said:

“Yet there is a good defence of the decision to investigate, and it must be heard. It rests on the Human Rights Act, which exists to protect individuals in their dealings with official power. The supreme court is due to rule whether the police are always obliged to investigate allegations of serious crime, after the appeal court upheld the argument that the greater the power of the agency of the state, the stronger the duty to investigate allegations made against it. So the police investigation into allegations against Edward Heath was not a futile attempt to bring a dead man to justice, but an important exercise in upholding the right of the citizen. This may be scant comfort to Heath’s friends. But it is an important principle”.

That was written in 2017, of course, but it remains pertinent. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, that upholding the rights of the citizen is paramount. Indeed, even this week we have seen many instances of the consequences of the failure to do that.

Of course, it was subsequently proved that the allegations were those of a deranged fantasist, and he is rightfully serving a very long sentence for his crimes, but we also must acknowledge—and not one speaker has mentioned this—that significant political cover was afforded to that individual by some senior politicians, including Members of your Lordships’ House. That is also regrettable and deserves to be on the record.

We cannot lose sight of our duty to uphold the rights of the citizen, whatever our personal views about the merits of the citizen’s case. In line with that principle, I reiterate that the Government have given this matter careful consideration and concluded that there are still no grounds to justify a review or intervention by the Government. The Government do not have plans to commission a review of either the conduct of the investigation into allegations made against Sir Edward or the findings of that investigation.

I know this will disappoint noble Lords, but I must underline again that the investigation has already been subject to considerable external scrutiny by an independent scrutiny panel, two reviews by Operation Hydrant in September 2016 and May 2017, and a review in January 2017 by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, as it was then. These reviews concluded that the investigation was legitimate and proportionate. Furthermore, questions about the national guidance that the force was following in conducting the investigation have already been picked up by the College of Policing.

I have explained in considerable detail at various other outings on this subject the scrutiny that the original investigation has been subjected to, so I will not repeat all that, but some noble Lords have proposed a more limited review of the allegations in respect of which Wiltshire Police has said that it would have interviewed Sir Edward had he been alive. Such a review, it is proposed, might consider whether any of those allegations would have justified a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute, but the ability of a review to do this would, of course, depend on the evidence itself. But it is not for the Government to commission reviews of evidence in respect of individuals. This would be a matter for the local force if it considered it to be appropriate.

I have to a large degree retraced—

My Lords, may I just contest the point the Minister has just made? This is not a local issue; it is a national issue. That has been made perfectly clear by the points that have been made. While I am on my feet, I will just say that when I came to this debate, my view was—and it followed a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh—that there were pros and cons for an inquiry but that the case against one was that we were just reviving charges against Sir Edward Heath that nobody now believes and that that served no purpose. I want to say, having heard the debate tonight, that I have changed my mind.

I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I did not say that it was a local matter; I said that it was for the local force to decide whether they considered that to be appropriate. I think that is an important distinction. I accept that—

Will my noble friend, at the very least, do as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, requested and give the Home Secretary a copy of this debate, and underline how unanimous the general sentiment in this House was? Will he do one other thing? Will he ask the Home Secretary to receive a deputation of Members of your Lordships’ House who have taken part in this debate?

I say to my noble friend that I am coming to that in a second.

I have to a large degree retraced a lot of old ground, which is perhaps only to be expected when considering a question that we have already discussed many times. I am reconciled to the fact that this will obviously annoy and disappoint my noble friend Lord Lexden—

Given that the reputation of the former Prime Minister has been tarnished, and my noble friend the Minister has set out the reasons why there should be no further inquiry, does he regard it as satisfactory that that reputation remains tarnished?

My Lords, I will also come to that.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lexden for securing this debate, as I said earlier, and to other noble Lords for their contributions. As regards the question that was asked of me by my noble friend Lord Lexden, which has just been reiterated by my noble friend Lord Cormack and asked also by the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Coaker, I absolutely will take this back to the current Home Secretary and make sure that he is aware of this debate and the strength of feeling, and indeed all the preceding debates we have had on this subject.

Of course, I am genuinely sorry to have to disappoint the House, but I hope that I have provided some clarity and reassurance around the current position. I stress that this is unlikely to alter without a material change to the situation, but I commit quite happily to take this back to the Home Secretary.

Will my noble friend also say to the Home Secretary that we will go on demanding this inquiry until we get it and that it would be much easier to give way now?

I am happy to provide my noble friend with that reassurance.

As regards whether I regret that Sir Edward’s memory and legacy have been in some way tarnished, of course I do. I think it is incredibly regrettable, and it is incredibly regrettable that the deranged fantasist was encouraged in the way that he was. However, he is paying the price.

As I have set out, Operation Conifer has been subject to external scrutiny, whether your Lordships agree with that scrutiny or not, and it is the Government’s assessment that there are not currently any grounds for further intervention.

My Lords, I do not think it is normal for a debate of this kind to have any final words from the person who introduced it, but I think there is perhaps an expectation that I should do so. It is important that the new Home Secretary studies this most carefully, reading the Hansard, and I hope that we will have a full and considered reply from him. This debate has not only touched on very difficult events and actions but has contained very considerable scrutiny and critique of the grounds on which the Government have previously rejected an inquiry. We need to bring this matter to a conclusion. We must have an inquiry.

House adjourned at 6.30 pm.