Sir Edward Heath: Operation Conifer

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Wednesday 17th January 2024

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for securing this debate. I recognise that this is an issue of long-standing interest for him and all other noble Lords who have contributed. I thank them particularly for their many personal experiences of Sir Edward Heath, the great statesman, especially those reminiscences from my noble friend Lord Waldegrave, and the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Birt. While I commend my noble friend Lord Lexden for his tenacity, I am afraid that my response will not differ greatly from that which I have given in the past. Nevertheless, I will again set out for the House the Government’s position.

The first point to make is that it is unfortunate that Operation Conifer was not able to resolve conclusively the position in respect of all the allegations made against Sir Edward. I appreciate the strength of feeling from Sir Edward’s friends and former colleagues that this traduces his memory, but I must, once again, make very clear the point that it does not. The Operation Conifer summary closure report emphasised that no inference of guilt should be drawn from the fact that Sir Edward would have been interviewed under caution had he been alive.

I think we can all agree that it is deeply unfortunate for all concerned that these allegations did not come to light until after Sir Edward’s death. We can certainly agree that the manner in which the then chief constable of Wiltshire Police, Mike Veale, chose to publicise those allegations deserves the censure it has rightly received. Indeed, Mr Veale has admitted that his actions in that respect were inappropriate. As the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, pointed out, and I agree, it was, in fact, a new low.

However, we must separate the understandable opprobrium for Mr Veale’s mistakes from a clear-sighted, objective and fair assessment of the investigation and its outcomes. Of course emotions run high in this case—indeed, it is laudable that noble Lords show their loyalty and long-term commitment to the cause of their friend and, as my noble friend Lord Cormack noted, a great statesman—but the Government cannot and should not be guided by emotion, nor by the status of individuals. It is certainly not a unique situation that a deceased individual has allegations made against them to which they are unable to respond, and there can be no justification for treating that individual differently because he or she was a former Prime Minister. There are important principles at stake. It is a fundamental tenet of our legal system that anyone accused of a crime is innocent until they are proven guilty. To maintain that Sir Edward’s reputation is besmirched by the fact that unproven allegations have been made about him is to undermine that precept.

Another critically important principle is at stake, however uncomfortable, and it certainly is in this instance: we must continue to uphold the right of the individual to challenge the holders of power in this country, be they institutions or those occupying high office. I can do no better than echo the words of the 2017 Guardian editorial referenced in the briefing note on Operation Conifer, which was published last Friday by the House’s Library. It said:

“Yet there is a good defence of the decision to investigate, and it must be heard. It rests on the Human Rights Act, which exists to protect individuals in their dealings with official power. The supreme court is due to rule whether the police are always obliged to investigate allegations of serious crime, after the appeal court upheld the argument that the greater the power of the agency of the state, the stronger the duty to investigate allegations made against it. So the police investigation into allegations against Edward Heath was not a futile attempt to bring a dead man to justice, but an important exercise in upholding the right of the citizen. This may be scant comfort to Heath’s friends. But it is an important principle”.

That was written in 2017, of course, but it remains pertinent. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, that upholding the rights of the citizen is paramount. Indeed, even this week we have seen many instances of the consequences of the failure to do that.

Of course, it was subsequently proved that the allegations were those of a deranged fantasist, and he is rightfully serving a very long sentence for his crimes, but we also must acknowledge—and not one speaker has mentioned this—that significant political cover was afforded to that individual by some senior politicians, including Members of your Lordships’ House. That is also regrettable and deserves to be on the record.

We cannot lose sight of our duty to uphold the rights of the citizen, whatever our personal views about the merits of the citizen’s case. In line with that principle, I reiterate that the Government have given this matter careful consideration and concluded that there are still no grounds to justify a review or intervention by the Government. The Government do not have plans to commission a review of either the conduct of the investigation into allegations made against Sir Edward or the findings of that investigation.

I know this will disappoint noble Lords, but I must underline again that the investigation has already been subject to considerable external scrutiny by an independent scrutiny panel, two reviews by Operation Hydrant in September 2016 and May 2017, and a review in January 2017 by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, as it was then. These reviews concluded that the investigation was legitimate and proportionate. Furthermore, questions about the national guidance that the force was following in conducting the investigation have already been picked up by the College of Policing.

I have explained in considerable detail at various other outings on this subject the scrutiny that the original investigation has been subjected to, so I will not repeat all that, but some noble Lords have proposed a more limited review of the allegations in respect of which Wiltshire Police has said that it would have interviewed Sir Edward had he been alive. Such a review, it is proposed, might consider whether any of those allegations would have justified a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute, but the ability of a review to do this would, of course, depend on the evidence itself. But it is not for the Government to commission reviews of evidence in respect of individuals. This would be a matter for the local force if it considered it to be appropriate.

I have to a large degree retraced—

Lord Butler of Brockwell Portrait Lord Butler of Brockwell (CB)
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My Lords, may I just contest the point the Minister has just made? This is not a local issue; it is a national issue. That has been made perfectly clear by the points that have been made. While I am on my feet, I will just say that when I came to this debate, my view was—and it followed a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh—that there were pros and cons for an inquiry but that the case against one was that we were just reviving charges against Sir Edward Heath that nobody now believes and that that served no purpose. I want to say, having heard the debate tonight, that I have changed my mind.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I did not say that it was a local matter; I said that it was for the local force to decide whether they considered that to be appropriate. I think that is an important distinction. I accept that—

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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Will my noble friend, at the very least, do as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, requested and give the Home Secretary a copy of this debate, and underline how unanimous the general sentiment in this House was? Will he do one other thing? Will he ask the Home Secretary to receive a deputation of Members of your Lordships’ House who have taken part in this debate?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I say to my noble friend that I am coming to that in a second.

I have to a large degree retraced a lot of old ground, which is perhaps only to be expected when considering a question that we have already discussed many times. I am reconciled to the fact that this will obviously annoy and disappoint my noble friend Lord Lexden—

Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Portrait Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury (Con)
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Given that the reputation of the former Prime Minister has been tarnished, and my noble friend the Minister has set out the reasons why there should be no further inquiry, does he regard it as satisfactory that that reputation remains tarnished?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I will also come to that.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lexden for securing this debate, as I said earlier, and to other noble Lords for their contributions. As regards the question that was asked of me by my noble friend Lord Lexden, which has just been reiterated by my noble friend Lord Cormack and asked also by the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Coaker, I absolutely will take this back to the current Home Secretary and make sure that he is aware of this debate and the strength of feeling, and indeed all the preceding debates we have had on this subject.

Of course, I am genuinely sorry to have to disappoint the House, but I hope that I have provided some clarity and reassurance around the current position. I stress that this is unlikely to alter without a material change to the situation, but I commit quite happily to take this back to the Home Secretary.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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Will my noble friend also say to the Home Secretary that we will go on demanding this inquiry until we get it and that it would be much easier to give way now?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am happy to provide my noble friend with that reassurance.

As regards whether I regret that Sir Edward’s memory and legacy have been in some way tarnished, of course I do. I think it is incredibly regrettable, and it is incredibly regrettable that the deranged fantasist was encouraged in the way that he was. However, he is paying the price.

As I have set out, Operation Conifer has been subject to external scrutiny, whether your Lordships agree with that scrutiny or not, and it is the Government’s assessment that there are not currently any grounds for further intervention.

Lord Lexden Portrait Lord Lexden (Con)
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My Lords, I do not think it is normal for a debate of this kind to have any final words from the person who introduced it, but I think there is perhaps an expectation that I should do so. It is important that the new Home Secretary studies this most carefully, reading the Hansard, and I hope that we will have a full and considered reply from him. This debate has not only touched on very difficult events and actions but has contained very considerable scrutiny and critique of the grounds on which the Government have previously rejected an inquiry. We need to bring this matter to a conclusion. We must have an inquiry.