For over five years Alistair Lexden has been campaigning alongside others to get an independent inquiry into a deeply flawed police investigation of child sexual abuse allegations against Ted Heath. On 17 January he opened a short debate of one and a half hours in the Lords in which he renewed his call for an inquiry. He asked for his request to be brought to the attention the new Home Secretary, James Cleverly. A strong supporter of this campaign for justice who watched this Lords debate commented afterwards: “The debate produced, I think, an even greater sense of anger and frustration, a more heartfelt and impatient demand for justice than any of its predecessors.” Great pressure will continue to be put on the Government—with support from right across the House of Lords.
This short debate is on a subject that I have raised many times in Your Lordships’ House through oral questions and earlier debates.
A grave injustice was inflicted posthumously on Sir Edward Heath, a man appointed by Her Late Majesty to the highest order of chivalry as a Knight of the Garter.
Ted Heath was accused of a number of child sex offences in 2015, ten years after his death. The allegations were the subject of an investigation, known as Operation Conifer, which was carried out by the Wiltshire police force.
The operation was led by Wiltshire’s then chief constable, Mike Veale. Last July, Veale was barred from policing for life because of his gross misconduct in Cleveland where he served as chief constable, albeit briefly, after losing his job in Wiltshire.
Can it be seriously supposed that a man condemned in Cleveland for gross misconduct is likely to have met the standards required of an officer of the highest rank when he was in Wiltshire? The Independent Office for Police Conduct found him guilty of making a dishonest statement about the destruction of his mobile telephone at the end of the operation.
I will not dwell in detail on Operation Conifer. It had some very troubling features. When the investigation was in its latter stages, Veale was quoted in a national newspaper as saying that he was “ 120 per cent “ certain that Ted Heath was guilty. A statement by Wiltshire police that followed was notable for its careful wording.
Bias against Ted Heath was evident from the start. One of Veale’s senior officers, Superintendent Sean Memory, spoke in front of TV cameras outside Heath’s former home in Salisbury.
The incident, totally unprecedented in police history I think , quickly became notorious. This is what the superintendent said: “This is an appeal for victims, in particular if you have been the victim of any crime from Sir Ted Heath or any historical sexual offence, or you are a witness or you have any information about this, then please come forward.”
Could there be a clearer indication that Veale and his team deliberately set out to obtain evidence against Sir Edward?
Note the use of the loaded term ‘victim’ instead of ‘complainant’, which the police were supposed to use.
A very long official report was produced at the end of Operation Conifer. It has never seen the light of day. A highly abridged version was published in October 2017, much of it leaked in advance to the press.
In this way ,the country discovered that Veale had not cleared up all the allegations laid against Sir Edward as a result of the unprecedented TV appeal . Seven of them were unresolved. The truncated report stated that if the former prime minister had been alive, he would have been interviewed under caution about these seven allegations.
Was this decision appropriate and right ? The Noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, a former Director of Public Prosecutions who is contributing to this debate, condemned it at the time as a device to conceal Veale’s failure to find any evidence against Ted Heath.
The police’s objective, he said, was to give “entirely bogus credibility to their investigation. The bar for interview is low, in most investigations as low as the police want it to be—and in the case of a dead man, virtually non-existent. They are covering their backs at the expense of a dead man. Shame on them.”
An independent inquiry led by a retired judge should of course have been set up long ago into this shameful state of affairs.
But the Home Office said no. It still says no. It has rejected all the calls that have been made for an independent inquiry, paying no attention whatsoever to the strong support voiced on all sides in Your Lordships’ House—for which I and others seeking justice for Ted Heath are profoundly grateful.
The Home Office brings a closed mind to bear on this grave issue. I hoped that a Minister might be appointed to the department who would prise open that closed mind. So far, I have been disappointed.
May I ask for a clear undertaking that the Hansard report of this debate will be given to the new Home Secretary, accompanied by a request that an independent inquiry should now be held? Perhaps the Home Secretary would circulate a letter with his response to all those taking part in this debate.
His predecessors dismissed the calls for an independent inquiry by saying that Operation Conifer was “ subject to considerable external scrutiny” when the investigation took place.
There is truth in this statement. Two official bodies, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and something called Operation Hydrant , were brought in to review Operation Conifer at the time.
A third body was set up specially by Veale. It was called an Independent Scrutiny Panel. He chose its four members.
One of them was paid £2,000 to provide professional advice about two of the complainants, but she insisted that her independence was not compromised as a result.
The review by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary was concerned solely with the use of the financial resources—some £1.5 million—with which the investigation was equipped.
The Conifer report of October 2017 states that the Inspectorate “was not asked to comment on the decision to investigate allegations against Sir Edward Heath.” This review therefore has no bearing at all on the matters which would be the subject of an independent inquiry.
Operation Hydrant, on the other hand, is relevant. It brought together some of our most senior police officers to “co-ordinate multiple non-recent child sexual investigations around the country.” Veale was known personally to most, if not, all of them.
A leading expert in police misconduct cases observed at first hand the camaraderie that existed between them, noting “evidence of undue favouritism towards Veale by his police peers.”
Doubt is bound to exist in the public mind when reviewers are not totally independent from those they review—and that was the position here.
So Operation Hydrant cannot be regarded as an adequate substitute for an t inquiry . That leaves Veale’s Independent Scrutiny Panel. It produced no report-- just a four-paragraph statement tacked on to the end of the October 2017 report.
Veale and his team provided the Panel with briefings; the Panel members offered comments and asked questions. They state that they “endeavoured as best we could to contribute to the quality of the process” of investigation, which their short statement praises.
All four members of the Panel signed confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements. These silent witnesses can therefore provide no help in settling the grave issues to which Operation Conifer gave rise.
What conclusion should be drawn from all this? It could not be clearer. The Home Office should stop using the limited reviews carried out over six years ago, which lacked complete independence, as an excuse for doing nothing today.
The department should face up to the fact that Veale, now a completely discredited figure, could well have left the seven unresolved allegations hanging in the air in order to avoid having to admit that a great deal of public money had been spent—some £1.5million altogether—and much police time employed, without achieving anything at all.
He had not found a single shred of evidence against the former prime minister.
The Conifer report of October 2017 states: “it is critical to stress that no inference of guilt should be drawn from the fact that Sir Edward Heath would have been interviewed under caution.”
What sort of world do they think we are living in? People were bound to make just such an inference.
The unresolved allegations placed a cloud of suspicion over a dead statesman. It must be removed.
Has the Home Office studied the seven allegations? They are summarised in the Conifer report of October 2017.
They are a strange miscellany. Four relate to the 1960s; one to the 1970s; none to the 1980s; and two to the 1990s.
Two concern adults, not children.
The Edward Heath Charitable Foundation has scrutinised them, drawing on Heath’s private papers, information in the public domain and the results of Freedom of Information requests.
Its analysis shows that four of the seven alleged incidents could not have occurred.
The Home Office has tried to give the impression that only the Wiltshire Police and Crime Commissioner could initiate an independent inquiry. That is not so. The Government have the power to set it up.
Do we not owe it to the memory of a dead statesman, the only First Minister of the Crown ever to be accused of serious criminal offences, to get at the truth of this grave matter?
Sir Edward Heath has now passed into history. His career will be analysed in detail by professional historians. The truth about this terrible matter must be available to them.
The Home Office has said time and again that it “does not see the grounds for government intervention.” The grounds stare them in the face.
Ted Heath’s honour must be restored by a judicial inquiry, having been sullied by a chief constable found to be unfit for public office.
The independent inquiry into the infamous Operation Midland showed how the police had abused their trust in the way they investigated allegations against two great public figures, Lord Brammall and Lord Brittan.
The disgusting allegations against them came from a fantasist, Carl Beech, now serving a long prison sentence.
Beech also said grotesque things about Ted Heath that were passed on to Veale. The mistreatment of a third great public servant, who is the subject of this debate, must also go before an independent inquiry.