I extend my thanks to Sir Gerald Howarth for securing the debate.
As more and more allegations of historical child sex abuse come to light, more focus is inevitably placed on how our police forces handle such important matters. We have had Operation Yewtree into the Jimmy Savile cases; the umbrella inquiry, Operation Fairbank, which investigated politicians and other high-profile public figures; and Operation Midland, which is our particular focus today. Operation Midland was closed without any charges being brought.
As is now agreed, the allegations of historical child sex abuse that gave rise to Operation Midland were mishandled at best and shambolic at worst. In the event, worryingly, 40 areas of concern were identified in Sir Richard Henriques’s report, including the “automatic believing” of the allegations of the person known as Nick, whom we have heard about. Nick, the principal complainant, was treated as being “credible and true”, to use Henriques’s words.
Although there can be no further doubt that Operation Midland is an example of investigation at its worst of most serious allegations, and that lessons must be learned so that such allegations in the future are properly and fully investigated, it is also essential that those who allege they have suffered sexual abuse always remain at the heart of police investigations and feel able, supported and confident about coming forward to report crimes in future.
Although the Henriques report spoke of police failings in automatically believing the complainant Nick, whose account and allegations contained inconsistencies that ought to have made investigators more sceptical and more questioning, he is only one person, and all future complainants should not be tarred with the same brush. False allegations of historical sexual abuse, or any sexual abuse, are not seriously believed by many people to be widespread, and we must remember that.
However, concerns about this entire unfortunate episode persist. There has been much criticism of the fact that only around 10% of the Henriques report will be published. What does that mean for full transparency in such a serious matter? The fact that its publication coincided with the day of the presidential election in America has also raised concerns about attempts to bury bad news, but bad news such as this is like Banquo’s ghost; it will appear at the most inopportune moments to haunt those concerned. This attempt to bury bad news does not reassure the public or gratify those who feel they were unfairly targeted as part of Operation Midland.
Scotland Yard has been accused of attempting to limit the damage to its reputation by heavily redacting the report. The main complainant who gave rise to Operation Midland has now been dismissed, as we have heard, as a fantasist who faces potential charges. We must also remember that, by their very nature, allegations of historical sex abuse can be extremely challenging to investigate and very difficult to prove in court. Amid all the criticism, we need to remember that the police have an extremely difficult task. If they were not to be seen to investigate such allegations, they could be accused of being conflicted over investigating establishment figures. Clearly, that would lead to a loss of public confidence.
Investigating in a heavy-handed and gung-ho all-guns-blazing procedure is not appropriate, either. A balance must be struck that most people would agree was not struck in Operation Midland. That should be a cause of great concern to us all. It is a concern that there should not be and must not be any negative implications for how such allegations are treated in future. It is a concern that the police learn the lessons and investigate all such allegations in future without fear or favour and go wherever their investigations take them. It is a concern that victims of such abuse are not dismissed out of hand and have confidence that allegations will be fully and properly investigated. It is a concern that the public must feel that establishment figures will be fully investigated properly and transparently when such allegations are made against them in future, in the same way as such allegations should be investigated against any ordinary person. Those are important points, as more allegations of historical sex abuse emerge from the world of football as we speak.
Child sex abuse is the dirty little secret that is slowly exposing itself more and more as more people find the courage to come forward. We need to treat such allegations with proper care and attention and investigate them correctly. We owe that to every single person who has lived through such horrific abuse. It is important that no one is seen to be above the law, and no matter how historical the allegations are, they must be subject to full analysis. When there is sufficient evidence, those who are found to be guilty must be punished.
Mistakes in Operation Midland should serve warning of the importance of getting this right for both alleged victims and alleged abusers. It should not and must not be used as a barrier or a reason to automatically disbelieve future allegations. We need to get this right. I hope that today the Minister will reassure us that the Government are placing a strong emphasis on making sure they get this right in future.