Sir Edward Heath: Operation Conifer Debate

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Department: Home Office

Sir Edward Heath: Operation Conifer

Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Excerpts
Wednesday 17th January 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Portrait Lord Macdonald of River Glaven (CB)
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My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on securing this important debate and on his perseverance in this important matter.

It is worth recalling the context for Operation Conifer. It arose in the depths, and I use that term advisedly, of the Metropolitan Police’s—frankly, weird—fixation with the criminal fantasist, Carl Beech. Noble Lords will remember that this man, now serving a richly deserved 18 years in prison, claimed to have been abused by, or witnessed others being abused by, a former Home Secretary, a former Chief of the Defence Staff, a former director-general of the Security Service, a former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service and a former Prime Minister. What were the odds? How credulous did the police have to be to take these claims seriously, notoriously publicly describing the allegations to be “credible and true”, even before the conclusion of their investigation—indeed, almost at the beginning of their investigation? This was like some macabre version of Cluedo, with distinguished public servants reduced to the status of playing cards, only they were real people with real families and real reputations being steadily shredded in real time.

It was within the midst of this storm of scandal, public outrage and credulity that Operation Conifer opened, disgracefully, with the superintendent of police of the Wiltshire Constabulary standing outside the gates of the former home of the by then dead former Prime Minister in Salisbury’s Cathedral Close, calling for “victims” of Sir Edward Heath’s alleged sex crimes to come forward.

This was a remarkable low in policing endeavour. It smacked of an unworthy attempt by the then chief constable of the Wiltshire constabulary, the since disgraced Mike Veale, to curry favour with the public by demonstrating that Wiltshire Police “got it”—that it was on board with the public outrage and would act swiftly and firmly. This behaviour was reckless; it did not smack of real policing and looked political. Therein may lie the true public scandal: not that Sir Edward Heath was guilty of crimes of sexual abuse, for plainly he was not, but that Wiltshire Police may have allowed a critical aspect of our justice system, the criminal investigation phase, to be hijacked in order that it might impress what it took to be a strong public mood.

Of course, there was never any evidence against Sir Edward. The final insult was that, when this became clear, Wiltshire Police sought to give itself spurious cover for its ill-fated investigation by releasing the completely meaningless statement that, had Sir Edward still been alive, he would have been interviewed under caution. As Veale knew then, and surely still knows now, the bar for an interview under caution is so low that its invocation in these circumstances was no more than a weaselly attempt to evade deserved criticism at someone else’s expense. It looked like a final, cruel undermining of Sir Edward’s reputation in the service of the Wiltshire constabulary retaining, as it must earnestly have hoped, some shred of credibility after this fiasco.

It seems to me that this sequence of events is so worrying and so potentially undermining of public confidence in the probity of police investigations that it demands, as noble Lords have said, a public inquiry into the allegations that Sir Edward faced, so that this matter may finally be put to rest and some measure of justice finally be dispensed.