Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Conservative 3:29 pm, 20th December 2018

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests declared in the register, in particular my tenure as honorary chair of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation until earlier this year. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, on securing this debate and associate myself with all the points he so eloquently and passionately made.

We all of course accept the need for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. We also all accept the need for it to be operationally independent, just as we accept the need for the police to be operationally independent. However, this does not mean that such bodies are entitled to rewrite their own remits, nor that we as parliamentarians should stand by and watch silently as manifest instances of injustice occur. There must be no power without responsibility. That would negate every precious principle of the rule of law.

I will first deal with the allegations made against the late Sir Edward Heath and their relationship, such as it is, to IICSA. In the wake of the deeply unsatisfactory Operation Conifer, Wiltshire Police deliberately and knowingly left seven accusations against Sir Edward Heath hanging in the air. It would, it claimed, have sought to interview Sir Edward under caution about those seven accusations had he still been alive.

I understand that at no cost to the hard-pressed taxpayer—what a breath of fresh air that is—a certain amount of further research has just been undertaken that has swiftly put at least three of those accusations to the sword. If we were allowed to know more about the accusations, I am confident that the others could be dispatched just as easily. Any remaining shadow or taint on the name of Ted Heath—slight though it now is, for I know of no one credible who believes a word of it—would be laid to rest once and for all.

As the then chair of the Heath foundation, in 2017 I had to consider whether the foundation should apply for core participant status with IICSA. I had my doubts, given that the accusations against Ted Heath had already been so widely discredited. Others of my colleagues, however, made the valid point that core participant status might give the trustees privileged access to more information about the accusations, which could be vital as we all sought to disprove them.

So I went for a meeting at IICSA. It became clear during the course of that meeting that establishing the likely guilt or innocence of individuals was outside the inquiry’s remit. This was subsequently confirmed publicly by the inquiry and in correspondence with me. It has been the stated view of IICSA all along, considering its remit and the first-class legal advice to which it has access, that investigating the truth or otherwise of allegations of child sexual abuse against individual parliamentarians would be neither necessary nor proportionate for the inquiry. I was reassured that there would be no kangaroo court. I quickly concluded that the disadvantages of core participant status far outweighed any possible advantages. No one in their right mind believed that Ted Heath was guilty of these supposed crimes, so there would be no good purpose at all in the foundation associating itself publicly with IICSA.

Subsequently, we have found ourselves in a ludicrous impasse where everyone agrees that someone impartial with judicial authority should examine the seven remaining accusations against Ted Heath, but no one is willing to initiate such an inquiry. The police and crime commissioner for Swindon and Wiltshire, Angus Macpherson, has repeatedly said that he too accepts that there should be such an inquiry, but he has consistently refused to fund it. In 2017, he wrote to IICSA asking it to take on responsibility for establishing whether there was any substance to the accusations. I must confess I found this a shameful abrogation of responsibility and felt confident that, when it came, the answer from IICSA would be pretty dusty, and so it proved. Quite rightly and properly, IICSA has declined Mr Macpherson’s request to undertake a line of investigation for which it would lack statutory authority. The Inquiries Act 2005 does not empower an inquiry such as IICSA to commission a review of accusations by a retired judge. It is also not for such an inquiry to establish the likely innocence or guilt of any individual.

So who will commission a suitable inquiry? That question remains hanging and the reputation of a former Prime Minister unjustifiably continues to carry the faintest of taints. Do I need to say more? I know that the Minister has already had a taste of the strength of feeling in this House on all sides, so perhaps I should just move on for now.

That brings me to the question that inspired this debate: the so-called Janner strand of IICSA. Here I must declare an interest, not in the formal, parliamentary sense, but as an individual. I knew Greville Janner well. I do not believe for one moment that he was guilty of offences against children. I shall never forget the day when I finally left the Cabinet in 1995 to return to my law firm as senior partner and found Greville Janner waiting for me. He said, “David, you were chair of the parliamentary committee against anti-Semitism and racism. It’s time for you to return to that role”. I worked closely with him for many years, particularly with the Holocaust Educational Trust. I now have the great honour of being the HET’s vice-president.

Far more important than the opinion of one individual, so far as Greville Janner is concerned, is the fact that the law of the land declares him innocent. The accusations against him have been thoroughly investigated several times and found to be without foundation. Civil cases against him and his estate, with a far lower bar of proof than criminal cases, have also completely collapsed. Yet he is now principally commemorated not for his tireless work on behalf of Holocaust victims, nor for his long and distinguished political career, but as a strand of IICSA.

Implicitly, even explicitly, by naming a strand after Greville Janner, as well as giving privileged platforms to those who make wild, unsubstantiated claims about him, IICSA, in advance of its own hearings, has publicly proclaimed his guilt. In doing so, it has surely breached its own guiding principle. It is simply ludicrous to equate one man, against whom nothing has been proven, with major state and non-state institutions. Without the benefit of trial, IICSA has trashed the good name of Greville Janner. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has set out a persuasive—some would say overwhelming—case for the defence. Why has this case fallen on deaf ears with IICSA?

Unfortunately, it is inevitable that all such inquiries with open-ended budgets, wide remits and sensitivity to public scrutiny and criticism are vulnerable to “mission creep”. The so-called Janner strand suggests that IICSA may already have succumbed.

Numerous institutions in this country have failed to protect vulnerable children from the vile attentions of sexual predators. That is to our shame as a nation, and we must do everything we can both to help genuine victims to heal and to prevent further such abuse.

IICSA certainly has a job to do. However, that job does not require it, enable it or empower it to make definitive judgments on the innocence or guilt of individuals. That is a matter for the courts. Rightly, IICSA has absolved itself of any responsibility for considering the credibility of the seven accusations against Sir Edward Heath. Why, then, does it treat Greville Janner differently? That must be the question on which I hope my noble friend the Minister will give us an answer. Why may his name be sullied in this arbitrary fashion? This is not just about the good names of two men, both notable public servants; it is also about the very nature of our nation and our society.

The principle of someone being innocent until proven guilty is the foundation stone of the rule of law, all our freedoms and surely our very way of life. That principle is every bit as important for the dead as it is for the living. While retaining their cherished operational independence, police forces and independent inquiries such as IICSA must be ever mindful of that fact or no one’s reputation will ever be safe again.

In matters of justice, the buck ultimately stops here with us. I hope my noble friend the Minister can provide some reassurance that, even in death, Sir Edward Heath, Greville Janner and others who have been subject to unproven accusations are entitled to justice and untainted reputations.