Historical Child Sex Abuse - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:28 pm on 30th June 2016.

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Photo of Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Crossbench 12:28 pm, 30th June 2016

My Lords, I should like to express my total agreement with those who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and thank him for raising this matter on his Motion today. It is a serious matter and his proposals for resolving the problem certainly need to be very closely considered. I can see that there are difficulties about such guidance, but it is very badly needed.

I will confine my comments to the case of Sir Edward Heath. Your Lordships will know that, in the absence of any close relatives of his, I have expressed publicly my view that Sir Edward Heath was not guilty of any criminal offences of child abuse, and that remains my view. It is not my view only but the view of many others, and that is the position from which I come. I fully acknowledge that that is not evidence, unless there is no other evidence which is contrary to it, but it remains my belief that Sir Edward Heath was not a child abuser in that way or, indeed, in any way.

Much has been said today about Wiltshire Police’s investigation—Operation Conifer, they call it—of Sir Edward Heath’s case, particularly of the way in which a senior officer of Wiltshire Police stood in front of Sir Edward’s house in The Close in Salisbury, in effect appealing for witnesses to come forward. Since I last spoke about this in the House, I have had the advantage of a long meeting with the chief constable of Wiltshire Police on the matter. It was a confidential meeting and I do not propose to breach that confidence but, in fairness to him, I should like to put it on record that he has apologised for the conduct of that officer outside Arundells and he repeated that apology in our meeting the other day. He cannot of course tell me, your Lordships or anybody else what allegations are being investigated, nor do I expect him to do so.

However, the fact is that the inquiry has been ongoing for some time and is very wide in terms of the number of people being interviewed in connection with the operation. I have described it as a fishing expedition, and the chief constable was not wholly able to convince me that it was otherwise. The police have interviewed, are interviewing, or have proposed to interview a great number of people. The operation has already cost £400,000 and is likely to run for at least another six—probably 12—months and cost more than £1 million. A number of retired policemen and other people from outside the force have been recruited to help conduct the investigation. From the number of people and the breadth of the interviews, it looks much more like a fishing expedition than an inquiry—indeed, if I may put it this way, a dynamite fishing expedition and not a skilful casting of the line, which would be entirely understandable and right in this situation. I am sure that the chief constable thinks that what is going on is proportionate; I have not been convinced of that myself. I hope that he will, as he has said that he would, keep a clear eye on that aspect of the operation.

The existence of Operation Conifer became known partly, but not only, because of the disgraceful activity of the senior officer standing outside Arundells. There were other reasons as well, such as the publication by the Independent Police Complaints Commission of a report as to whether another investigation had been put off or stopped on account of the possible damage to the reputation of Sir Edward Heath. That was found to be unfounded, but the publication of the report of course drew attention to the fact that the matter was being investigated.

It has been said that such operations should be conducted in confidentiality and that there should not be revelations to the media. What happened in the case of Sir Cliff Richard—and, likewise, what happened with the officer standing outside Arundells—was shameful. If you are going to conduct an operation such as Operation Conifer, with a wide range of interviews, it is perhaps optimistic to hope that the existence of the operation can remain confidential. A number of people are being interviewed, and they will talk among themselves. It is almost inevitable these days that some echo of that will reach the media and the police force concerned will find itself pursued by the media.

I think the chief constable would allow me to say that he assured me that his force was not proposing to search the archives of Sir Edward Heath, which are now in the Bodleian Library. They would only wish to find out, if they could, details of his diary—where he was on particular days. Some of that information for when he was Prime Minister certainly exists in the National Archives. I do not know whether anything of it is left in the archives in the Bodleian Library.

The chief constable emphasised to me that the duty of the police in these matters is not to judge but to produce evidence—to find and pursue evidence that will corroborate other evidence. It is not their business to judge the results of that; that is for the prosecuting authorities and, ultimately, for a judge and jury. But of course, in the case of a man who has been dead for over 10 years, that is almost a travesty of justice. As the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, pointed out, we are at risk of turning upside down the standard principle that you are innocent unless you are proved guilty.

The police inquiry could produce evidence only if Sir Edward was still alive; no doubt that evidence would come before a court if it was sufficient, and it would be tested in the procedure in the court. That is impossible, because Sir Edward has been dead for over 10 years. We have the judicial inquiry led by Justice Goddard, and no doubt the result of the Wiltshire inquiries will eventually go to that body. However, that is not a very good substitute but a separate assessment of the balance of probability on the evidence; the best one can hope for is in effect a verdict of not proven. The situation seems very unsatisfactory in that historic allegations—which in this case have to be more than 11 years old, and are probably much older—are still floating around, being pursued, and reflecting on the memory and the probable innocence of a man of the stature of Sir Edward Heath.