On 17 January 2024 the House of Lords will consider the following question for short debate (QSD):

Lord Lexden (Conservative) to ask His Majesty’s Government whether they will reconsider the case for holding an independent inquiry into the allegations against Sir Edward Heath that remained unresolved at the end of Operation Conifer.

1. What was Operation Conifer?

Operation Conifer was the codename used for an investigation led by Wiltshire Police in the mid-2010s into historic allegations of sexual offences involving children made against former prime minister Sir Edward Heath. The investigation covered allegations in 14 police force areas across the United Kingdom and the Channel Islands of offences dating between 1956 and 1992. Sir Edward Heath died on 17 July 2005.

Wiltshire Police published its report, closing the investigation, on 5 October 2017.[1] The 109-page report set out the force’s findings and details of how the investigation was conducted.

The report stated that if Sir Edward had still been alive he would have been interviewed under criminal caution in respect of seven of the disclosures raised. However, it also stressed that no inference of guilt should be drawn from this:

The senior investigating officer [Sean Memory] concluded that there is sufficient suspicion to have interviewed Sir Edward Heath under criminal caution regarding his suspected involvement in child sexual abuse. This conclusion relates to seven of the 42 disclosures [three of the 42 disclosures involved the same person] that were considered by the Operation Conifer investigation. Where this threshold was not met, the reasons have been set out.

Where it is concluded that, if he had still been alive Sir Edward Heath would have been interviewed under caution to gain an account, it is important to state that his account would be as important as other evidence gathered as part of the wider investigation. Accordingly, no inference of guilt should be drawn by the fact that he would have been interviewed under caution.[2]

No further action was recommended in the report.

The investigation cost almost £1.5mn and the then chief constable of Wiltshire Police, Mike Veale, and gold commander, Paul Mills, set out their view that it had been conducted “diligently, proportionately, objectively and in accordance with the relevant national advice”.[3]

2. What has been said about the investigation?

The Operation Conifer investigation has attracted criticism on a number of grounds. These included the lack of corroborative evidence for the accusations, criticisms about the way the investigation was launched and publicised, the fact that it was impossible for Sir Edward to answer the allegations, the way the investigation was carried out, and concerns about some of the individuals involved in the investigation.[4] However, the Guardian newspaper was among media outlets to stress the importance of undertaking such investigations to ensure there was public confidence that the system took claims of abuse and the protection of children seriously.[5]

A number of the concerns about Operation Conifer have been raised in the House of Lords, with members stressing the negative impact of the investigation on Sir Edward’s reputation. This has included repeated calls for an independent inquiry into Operation Conifer and the unresolved allegations.

The most recent parliamentary proceeding on the matter was an oral question taken on 24 October 2023.[6] Setting out his position when asking the initial question, Lord Lexden (Conservative), who has also tabled the QSD being considered on 17 January 2024, again stressed the need for an independent review of the unresolved allegations against Sir Edward. He said this was particularly pertinent in light of recent developments involving Mike Veale, who was barred from serving in the police in July 2023 following a finding of gross misconduct relating to his actions as head of Cleveland Police in 2018.[7]

Lord Lexden concluded his comments by asking:

[D]o we not owe it to the memory of a dead statesman, the only first minister of the Crown ever to be suspected of such serious crimes, to get at the truth of this grave matter and settle the doubts created by the disgraced Veale?[8]

A similar view was expressed by Lord Bach (Labour), who said that it was “hard to feel complete confidence” in the investigation and indicated many members across the House believed an independent review was “vital”.[9]

Responding to these calls for an independent investigation, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, parliamentary under secretary of state for the Home Office, said the government had no plans to establish an independent inquiry and that it would be a decision for the local police and crime commissioner. Expanding on this viewpoint in response to Lord Lexden’s concerns, the minister said:

I agree with my noble friend: 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 obviously recognise the House’s desire to find a solution, but the investigation has already been subject to considerable external scrutiny and the government do not see the grounds for government intervention. The fact that it involved a former prime minister does not of itself warrant government intervention. The Operation Conifer summary closure report emphasised that “no inference of guilt should be drawn from the fact that Sir Edward Heath would have been interviewed under caution” had he still been alive.[10]

Commenting on the government’s stated position that there were no grounds for government intervention, Baroness Randerson (Liberal Democrat) asked what could instead be done to put the issue to rest:

Given that this is an issue which needs to bring closure to both the alleged victims and to the family of Sir Edward Heath, what does the minister suggest should be the way forward as an alternative to allowing this damaging situation to drift on?[11]

Lord Sharpe indicated that the matter had been independently reviewed and the former police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire had said in 2019 the review had found the investigation “reasonable and proportionate”:

As I said to other noble Lords, of course we all regret the fact that the damaging situation arose in the first place, I am sure. However, this is a matter for the local police and crime commissioner and, as recently as 2019, the then police and crime commissioner said that Operation Conifer was scrutinised by an independent review and found to have been “reasonable and proportionate”, and he remained satisfied then that this was still the case.[12]

However, the then police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire had in 2019 also called for a “sharply-focused statutory inquiry” to close the matter for those making allegations and Sir Edward’s family and friends. Speaking to the BBC at the time, he said:

A sharply-focused statutory inquiry, with powers to question witnesses and scrutinise documents, can now be the only way the small number of remaining allegations against Sir Edward can be discounted or given credence.

Only the government can initiate that inquiry and provide those individuals who made the allegations with closure, while also answering the calls of Sir Edward’s family and friends who seek to clear his name.

I have pressed successive home secretaries on this and believe the government should act without further delay.[13].

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Cover image by Maggie Yap on Unsplash.