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Operation Conifer

Volume 836: debated on Monday 11 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they plan to appoint a senior lawyer to review the seven allegations against Sir Edward Heath left unresolved at the end of Operation Conifer in 2017.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to appoint a senior lawyer to review the outstanding allegations against Sir Edward Heath. It remains for the local police and crime commissioner to consider whether an inquiry, or any other form of further review, is necessary.

My Lords, I am accustomed to disappointing replies, but I had hoped for something a little more positive on this occasion. I remind the House of the wide cross-party support that has been expressed on numerous occasions for action to address the grave harm done to the reputation of Sir Edward Heath by the failure of the police investigation in Wiltshire to clear up all the foul allegations made against him long after his death. Is it not important to remember that four of the seven unresolved allegations to which my Question refers could not possibly be true, as I made clear in a debate in January? There is good reason to suppose that the other allegations are also groundless, which is why a limited review of these seven unresolved allegations is imperative.

My Lords, in October 2018, the then Home Secretary, Sir Sajid Javid, wrote to Lord Armstrong following a meeting with him and other Peers to discuss Operation Conifer and related matters. In that correspondence, the then Home Secretary wrote:

“As I think you would agree, the real issue here is not so much Operation Conifer itself, but the inconclusive nature of its findings and what you describe as ‘the cloud of suspicion that … continues to hang over Sir Edward Heath’s memory and reputation’ … it is not clear to what extent a further review of the existing evidence by a judge or retired prosecutor would resolve this. It remains my view that the handling of this is properly a matter for the local PCC and that it would not be appropriate for me to seek to persuade him how he should go about it”.

That largely remains the case, and the current Home Secretary wrote in answer to a Parliamentary Question on 7 February that

“the Government has no plans to commission a review of either the conduct of the investigation … or the findings”.

We are aware of no direct precedent for the type of review that my noble friend calls for. However, I am happy to ask officials to look into this to see whether it is either possible or viable, and I will report back in due course.

My Lords, why perpetuate the existence of these allegations by refusing to establish the independent review we have all called for for years? No one has ever produced a shred of evidence. The allegations are based on the early ranting of Carl Beech, a proven liar now languishing in prison. What possible benefit is to be gained by leaving on the table accusations that tarnish the reputation of a former British Prime Minister, over which historians will argue? I simply cannot understand the Government’s hesitation, and neither can anybody else I speak to.

The noble Lord obviously makes a good point, and I have just committed that we will certainly look into this. But, as he will be aware, there were a number of forms of scrutiny during the investigation. There was an independent scrutiny panel to ensure proportionality. There were two reviews by Operation Hydrant, in September 2016 and May 2017, which concluded that the investigation was proportionate, legitimate and in accordance with national guidance. There was a review in January 2017 by HMICFRS, as it was then, into whether the resources assigned to the investigation by the Home Office were being deployed in accordance with value for money principles. In November 2017, the PCC referred two matters concerning the then chief constable to the IOPC. This has been extensively looked at by external and independent bodies already, but we will, as I say, look into the possibility or viability of other reviews.

My Lords, for decades, Edward Heath was guarded day and night by police and supported by domestic staff. As a young television producer, I met him many times. Indeed, I made a one-hour documentary about him while he was Prime Minister, spending a lot of time in his presence and talking widely, during the course of the making of this, to many people who knew him well. I find it hard to believe—indeed, I think it is impossible—that Edward Heath was a practising paedophile, and it is deeply unjust that a shadow of suspicion should be allowed to hang over him unresolved. We have a dreadful record in this country—a long list in recent times—of wrongs that have not been righted. Please can we put this wrong right?

My Lords, I reiterate that the investigation summary closure report stressed that no inference of guilt should be drawn from the conclusion that Sir Edward would have been interviewed in a very few cases. I shall not go further to comment on the operational nature of the original investigation.

My Lords, is not there a puzzle here, in that the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, is a decent and fair man? Surely he understands that it is unacceptable that a former Prime Minister, a man of great integrity, should still have these unsubstantiated allegations circulating around him, which could besmirch his reputation. Does my noble friend the Minister not agree? If he could come to this House to say that the Home Secretary is taking action on this point, it would command great support across all parts of the House.

Well, as I have said, and I say again to my noble friend, I have heard the strength of feeling in the House on a number of occasions, which is why I asked the Home Secretary to review the Hansard of our recent debate in some detail. He replied to that debate on 7 February, and I really cannot improve on what he said.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is right to be disappointed with the reply that he received from the Minister. No police service has a right to review its own special operation. In this country, we have what we commonly call the police conduct authority. Would the Minister recommend to the authority that it looks at the results of the Conifer investigation to see whether the decision that it reached was legal, honest, decent and true?

My Lords, I remind the noble Lord that I have just gone through the various forms of independent scrutiny to which this investigation was subject in some detail, and I shall not refer to it again. As I say, the IOPC and others have looked into this in some detail.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, at the end of his response to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, he seemed to throw out just a little bit of encouraging information. I welcome that, and hope that the Minister goes back, recognising the very widespread feeling around this House that justice has not been done to the reputation of a Prime Minister who has been unfairly treated, right up to this time. It is important that justice is done soon, rather than the issue hanging on for year after year of non-action.

I can only repeat that I have said that I shall ask officials to look into the possibility or viability of this—I cannot possibly prejudge what they may come back to me with, but I shall come back to the House in due course.

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and the House take a little encouragement from what the Minister said today. When the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, had his last debate, I entered the debate thinking that it was not worth having the expense of a public inquiry into reports that nobody believed, and I was persuaded by the debate that we could not leave this injustice on the table. This suggestion seems to me to be an economical way of disposing of it—a report by a distinguished lawyer. Could the Minister please encourage the Home Secretary to look very carefully at that and allow it to happen?

I cannot honestly say whether it would be economic or not, for obvious reasons—I do not know yet. But I shall certainly make the strength of feeling known once again to the Home Secretary.

I recognise now that my noble friend the Minister is aware that the mood and will of this House is very much behind my noble friend Lord Lexden and his call for justice. Whatever his briefings may say, there really has been no independent investigation of the flawed processes of Operation Conifer. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, has just said, perhaps there is at last an opportunity. Please would my noble friend the Minister take every advantage of this opportunity and put right the injustice that we all feel so deeply has been done?

Well, once again I hear what my noble friend says, and I shall certainly do my best to represent the views that have been very firmly expressed in the House by taking them back to the Home Secretary and the Home Office.

My Lords, is it not the case that this is not a unique case? The problem is that names are released before people are charged. Is it not about time that we looked at that as an issue, not just for this case but for many others?