Early one morning in March 2015, one of my constituents opened the front door of her home in Wensleydale to find a group of police officers standing there, with a warrant to search her house. Having lost her husband of 35 years just weeks before, she watched while the officers upturned every inch of the home they had shared. She told me it was
“like seeing your house burgled in front of your eyes”.
My constituent is Lady Diana Brittan, and her husband Leon was once my constituency’s representative in this House.
By any measure, Leon Brittan was a great man. Our nation’s youngest Home Secretary since Churchill, he helped to guide the country through the long night of the miners’ strikes. As Secretary of State for Trade, he played an instrumental role in creating the World Trade Organisation and, as Britain’s EU Commissioner, he won the nickname “Bulldozer” for his immovable commitment to UK interests. In pursuing what he knew to be right, regardless of who told him otherwise, Leon soon proved that he had, in spirit at least, been a son of Yorkshire all along.
However, in the last year of his life, when he was dying from cancer, he received a phone call from the Metropolitan police. He was told that he was to be investigated for an allegation of rape some 48 years old. The phone call was made despite the fact that the officer in charge of the case described the investigation as “grossly disproportionate”, and despite the fact that, as the Director of Public Prosecutions would later confirm, the case “at no time” met the necessary threshold for a realistic prospect of conviction. No one is above the law. It is of course right that the police should vigorously pursue allegations of criminality. However, in the case of my constituent it is clear that the Metropolitan police committed grave errors. As the Select Committee on Home Affairs said, the police acted in fear of
“media criticism and public cynicism”.
That is not a proper basis for police operations. The pursuit of justice is not an exercise in public relations.
Commissioner Hogan-Howe is to be commended for initiating the excellent independent Henriques review of the Met’s performance. However, the report is damning and lists more than 40 different failings, of which I will touch on three. First, current police guidance dictates that officers must “believe” a complainant’s allegations and that complainants should be referred to as “victims”. That is a dangerous principle. It flies in the face of the most fundamental principle of our justice system: that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. It goes beyond the reasonable requirement that officers should treat any allegations seriously and respectfully, and it creates a mindset where investigators may be tempted to fit facts to an accusation rather than approach their investigation with an open mind. It was precisely such thinking that led officers allegedly to mislead a judge about the credibility of a witness, thereby obtaining an unjustified search warrant and causing my constituent Lady Brittan so much distress.
Secondly, there were serious shortcomings in the way that the Metropolitan police interacted with the media. Our laws rightly preserve the anonymity of the accuser for sexual offences. Yet for the accused, our protections have repeatedly proved inadequate. Current police practice of confirming to the media the age and location of suspects is clearly incompatible with the police policy that suspects should maintain their anonymity until charged. For Leon, whose long years of public service made him easily identifiable, anonymity was lost well before it should have been, with devastating consequences. Lady Brittan, who was a dedicated magistrate, described to me how she and Leon, who was then in the late stages of cancer, were chased down narrow Yorkshire lanes by photographers and how their daughters fended off journalists outside their home. I appreciate the delicate arguments involved in considering statutory pre-charge protection of anonymity, but the failings of Operation Midland provide a compelling case for review.
Lastly, and most unforgivably of all, the police failed to inform the Brittan family that they were no longer pursuing their investigations. They found the time to inform the complainant, but it was not until nine months later that Lady Brittan read in a newspaper what she had known all along: that her husband had done nothing wrong. That delay meant that Leon died without ever seeing his innocence confirmed. It is shameful that the man who led our police force through one of its most challenging periods found himself so poorly repaid at its hands.
In conclusion, I have no doubt that if Leon, with his fierce intellect, had been standing in my place today, he would have made a far better case than I ever could. However, foremost in his mind would have been that the lessons must be learned, and learned properly. No one should ever suffer the injustice that he and his family have had to endure.