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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat in the form of a Statement the response to an Urgent Question given by my honourable friend the Minister for Crime, Policing and the Fire Service in another place. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, this is a deeply concerning case. Operation Midland was the Metropolitan Police Service investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse made by Carl Beech against a range of public figures. Beech is now serving an 18-year prison sentence for perverting the course of justice. He has appealed his conviction and sentence, which is a matter for the courts to consider. This case has had a devastating impact on those he accused and their families.
Sir Richard Henriques’s report of how the Met handled this investigation raises many concerns. The Met has already apologised for failings in the investigation and acted on many of Sir Richard’s recommendations. We very much welcome the publication by the Met on Friday of the fuller detail of what Sir Richard found. I note that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service has issued a further statement and apology today.
It is now vital that the public receive independent assurance that the Met has learned from the lessons identified in Sir Richard’s report and has made the necessary improvements. This is crucial in restoring public confidence that police handling and investigation of such sensitive matters is both fair and impartial. That is why my right honourable friend the Home Secretary wrote last week to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Chief Inspector of Fire & Rescue Services to ask him to undertake an inspection at the earliest opportunity to follow up on Sir Richard’s review.
It must be right that a body independent of the Government takes this work forward. She has also asked that this inspection take account of the findings of the report of the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which was published this morning and which we will be considering carefully.
The public must have faith in the impartiality of their police service, and no one should have to suffer the ignominy of public false accusations of the most heinous kind. This Government are determined to ensure that lessons are learned and that the failings of this investigation are never repeated”.
I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question. Clearly, false allegations of serious crimes are deplorable, and all those who promote them without evidence should face the appropriate consequences. However, any lessons that are to be learned from what has happened must not lead to any downplaying of the seriousness or prevalence of the rising crimes of child sexual abuse and serious sexual assault, including rape. We cannot go back to a culture of not believing victims.
There are a few specific questions that I wish to ask the Minister. They concern the reference in the Statement to the inspection that the Home Secretary has asked Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Chief Inspector of Fire & Rescue Services to undertake. What exactly is he inspecting that would be different from a normal inspection of a force? Will he be taking the findings of the Henriques report as read or will he be able, if he so chooses, to consider whether some of its findings are valid criticisms or comment? What is meant by him taking into account the findings of the Independent Office for Police Conduct report, which has just been published? Does it mean that he will take its findings as read, or will he be able to consider, if he so wishes, whether some of its conclusions or statements are, in his view, valid or not?
I thank the noble Lord for those questions. On the point about the impact of false accusations on people who are accused, he is absolutely right: the impact must be devastating, and we have heard many a time in this House of people who are falsely accused. It is important in the context of this case to say that the case of Carl Beech is not a typical one. On the contrary, in the context of sexual offences, it is the under-reporting of the crime to the police that is known to be particularly acute. I think that that is what the noble Lord is driving at. He will know that great progress has been made in encouraging people to report crimes. In responding to the issues raised by this case, it is important that we do not undermine this progress, and that victims continue to feel confident about coming forward and that they will be listened to and taken seriously. We do not want any diminution in that, I agree.
Regarding the HMICFRS investigation, obviously, it is a matter for the inspectorate, and we now need to allow it the space to take its work forward as it sees fit. The purpose of the inspection is to consider the Metropolitan Police Service’s progress in learning from the points made by Sir Richard’s report and the learning recommendations of the IOPC report.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Answer and agree that the inspection could bring some useful results. However, we are still left with the fact that Operation Midland seemed to take no account of the inherent implausibility of so many well-known people supposedly acting together to carry out child rape and murder without the knowledge of anybody except Mr Beech. Is the Minister not worried that there is such a wide gap between the conclusions that Sir Richard Henriques drew and those that the IOPC has drawn?
To give one example, Sir Richard points out that it was possible that senior officers knew full well that no judge would grant the applications for search warrants if they were accurately drafted, setting out the undermining factors, and that junior officers with incomplete knowledge of the operation were deployed to make the applications. That is one example among many of his reaching different conclusions. Surely the Minister cannot be satisfied that there is such a wide gap between the IOPC’s conclusions and those of Sir Richard, particularly when the IOPC investigation appears to have been dilatory and lacking interrogation of officers and full examination of documents. Of course, because it was dilatory, some officers would not have appeared in front of disciplinary proceedings, even if they had been recommended. Given the amount of damage done to so many people and their families in this case, can that really be accepted?
The noble Lord points to the need for an institutional overview in the body of the HMICFRS to look into this. Clearly, the Government will look into its findings. We received the IOPC report this morning and will be looking at it with great interest. He is right that the warrants are the most contentious issue in the Henriques report. Was the district judge misled into signing off warrants to search the homes of Lord Brittan, Lord Bramall and Harvey Proctor? He is clear that the IPCC—now the IOPC—should investigate this issue.
In view of the immense public concern created by Operation Midland, with the delay in producing the full report, the further report published today, is it not important that the chief inspector’s work proceeds thoroughly but as swiftly as possible? Should he not extend his inquiry to include grave police misconduct during Operation Conifer, when some of the evil fabrications of Carl Beech seemed to have helped besmirch the reputation of Sir Edward Heath? Have the Government noted the resolution I tabled for debate last December, calling on them to establish an independent inquiry? I have been denied a debate, but I have no doubt that the House would have supported the resolution overwhelmingly. Let the inspector of constabulary examine Operation Conifer.
To answer my noble friend’s question, Operation Conifer has been subject to considerable external scrutiny and although Carl Beech was one of those who made allegations against Sir Edward, Wiltshire police has made it clear that they were discounted by Operation Conifer. Beech’s conviction is not therefore relevant to the seven unresolved allegations from the investigation and the Government do not consider that there are grounds to intervene. On my noble friend’s point about swift action, I know that the HMICFRS is keen to proceed swiftly.