Operation Conifer: Sir Edward Heath - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:46 pm on 12th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 2:46 pm, 12th November 2018

To ask Her Majesty's Government, further to the reply by Baroness Williams of Trafford on 11 October (HL Deb, col 179), whether they will commission an independent assessment of the seven allegations against Sir Edward Heath left open at the end of Operation Conifer.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham said in the House on 18 October, the Home Secretary has concluded, after careful consideration, that there are no,

“grounds to justify review or intervention by Government”.—[Official Report, 18/10/18; col. 566.]

He set out that view in a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, on 10 October and a copy has been placed in the Library.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

Do the Government realise that they are defying the wishes of this House? Not one point has been made in their support during the long series of Questions that have been asked about the injustice done to Sir Edward Heath. Do the Government realise that Prime Ministers occupy a prominent position in history and it is their obligation to help establish the truth about the unsubstantiated allegations that have stained a deceased Prime Minister’s reputation, particularly since they subsidised the now discredited Operation Confiner with more than £1 million of taxpayers’ money? Finally, do the Government realise that we the living have a duty to this deceased Prime Minister that must not be shirked? We must have an independent inquiry.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

My Lords, I of all people cannot be in any doubt as to the feelings of this House on this matter. I agree that former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath occupied a prominent position in public life, but I think I have outlined on several occasions why the Government do not feel that they should be the body responsible for carrying out a review. Any review or inquiry, should one be carried out, should be the decision of the PCC.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the Answer of 1 November to my Written Question in which I asked whether any of the 40 complainants in Operation Conifer had applied for compensation under the criminal injuries compensation scheme. The Answer was that:

“The information requested could only be obtained at disproportionate cost”.

Does she agree that it is precisely that sort of information that an independent inquiry would find very pertinent in considering the motivation of the complainants?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

The noble Lord is right that an inquiry may well look into such a matter but, as I have just outlined, an inquiry is a matter for the police and crime commissioner.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, I understand that the review of Operation Midland cost approximately £200,000. That was a review of Nick’s accusations against Sir Edward Heath and others. What does the Civil Service or others estimate it would cost to review Operation Conifer? If Ministers are not able to give us that figure today—I suspect it is available within the department—can we be assured that we will be given it in a Written Answer?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

It would be hard for me to give the cost of a review of Operation Conifer, given that a review has not been commissioned.

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, several weeks ago I offered to the Minister a contact who has a great deal of information which would entirely refute every one of these seven allegations. Has she made contact with that person?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

My Lords, I am still looking forward to hearing from the noble Countess. If she has sent me an email I have not received it. Perhaps we can catch up on this after this Question.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations Committee

My Lords, it is not only a question of the opinion of this House—although that is, I hope, valuable and respected; it is also a question of continuity and the web of history. If we allow the slandering of the dead on an unsubstantiated basis to be thrown around and damage our reputation as a nation and how we have been governed, is that not a matter where the Government should use their best offices to put it right? They cannot stand aside on this matter. There must be action.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

In terms of slandering the dead, I am not sure that, legally, the dead can be slandered. However, I am not taking away from the strength of feeling that both my noble friend and the House express in this matter. As I say, there is a route open for an inquiry. There have been several levels of scrutiny of Operation Conifer, and I really can say no more about it.

Photo of Lord Morgan Lord Morgan Labour

My Lords, an American political scientist once said that the curse of public life in this country is the curse of secrecy. Is this not a classic example of it? The Government are, in effect, colluding with the police and refusing to divulge evidence. The real victims—if you think about it—are the police, whose spokesman so far has been a tittle-tattling chief constable and not someone who is capable of giving a rational and legal view of this grave and dishonourable situation.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

I totally refute, both from my own and the Government’s point of view, that there has been any cloak of secrecy around this. The Home Office has given information to IICSA in the past and there is a clear route for any inquiry. As I say, Operation Conifer has been subject to extensive scrutiny.