The response to the police report on Operation Conifer, the Wiltshire force’s investigation into child abuse allegations against former prime minister Edward Heath, has been predictably polarised. Heath’s friends and family have rushed to defend him after an investigation they say unfairly and irrevocably sullied his reputation. Others have strenuously backed the police.
The debate might well be more nuanced if everyone publicly commenting on Conifer read two things. I defy anyone to turn the pages of the independent report on child sex abuse in Rotherham without burning with anger at its revelations that police officers believed girls as young as 11 were capable of having consensual sex with groups of men three times their age. The police saw these powerless children as young sluts not worth the bother.
Equally, it’s impossible to read the independent Henriques review into the Met’s handling of a Westminster paedophile ring and not feel deep sympathy for men caught up in the rumours. They had their reputation trashed by a police force that declared early on that the allegations against them were “credible and true”. It was clear from the start that Conifer was never going to shed light on whether Heath was guilty of the crimes of which he was accused. Guilt can only be established by the courts and the dead cannot stand trial. That’s not to say that a police investigation of someone deceased isn’t justified – it may identify living offenders and people still at risk. This wasn’t the case with Conifer, but the police were right to look into it.
Another stated objective of Conifer was to establish the facts. Here, caution must be exercised. There may be very few facts that can be established in decades-old allegations of sex abuse, given the lack of contemporary forensic evidence. That doesn’t necessarily mean an investigation is futile. In the case of the late Jimmy Savile, hundreds of alleged victims and witnesses came forward, enabling the police to corroborate their accounts, producing an account of significant institutional failings at the BBC and in the NHS.
In contrast, the police involved in Conifer found seven allegations out of the 43 under consideration, which, they say, they would have asked Heath to respond to in interview under caution. The £1.5m investigation does not leave us any the wiser as to what happened. Conifer shows that it is possible to spend large amounts of police resources and time on an investigation that sheds little meaningful light on the facts. That is something we can and, indeed, should live with as a society. What we shouldn’t accept is the way the police have shown a casual disregard for Heath’s reputation, despite his being innocent before the law. The Crown Prosecution Service is rightly clear that it does not say whether someone dead would have met the threshold for charging. To do so would be to cast an aspersion on those who cannot be tried by the courts.
In contrast, the police have no qualms about saying that they would have interviewed Heath under caution, for which there is a much lower evidentiary bar. This information is meaningless in relation to Heath’s guilt. The only possible reason for the police revealing it is to justify their use of public funds in the investigation. But we would be right to question their impartiality.
The police investigation has been beset by leaks of the lurid allegations against Heath, which have found their way into sections of the press. One paper reported a source close to Mike Veale, Wiltshire’s chief constable, as saying he was “120%” certain the allegations against Heath were true, which he was later forced to deny. It is true that the police came under sustained pressure from some quarters to drop the investigation, but these sort of leaks are completely unacceptable.
The Conifer report consistently uses the word “victim” to describe Heath’s alleged accusers, despite the fact that their allegations against him remain unproved. This is common in police investigations relating to child sex abuse, but was strongly criticised by the Henriques review of the Met’s Operation Midland. It closely relates to College of Policing guidance that states that “at the point when someone makes an allegation of crime, the police should believe the account given”.
These practices were adopted as a result of mounting evidence of police prejudice and disbelief of women coming forwards to report rape, something particularly pernicious given the under-reporting of sexual violence and the evidence that any hint of disbelief or cynicism from police officers puts women off reporting these crimes. But they are the wrong fix, subject to dangerous misinterpretation by police officers in a world where, for reasons that are not always malicious, false allegations exist. The Henriques review links them to serious failings in Operation Midland, in which officers did not properly investigate false allegations because they were too quick to take witness statements at face value.
Of course we should do everything possible to give confidence in the system to those reporting rape, but it must not come at the expense of the system’s impartiality. It would be far better properly to resource the underfunded specialist support for those reporting rape and ensure officers are trained to treat them with respect, dignity and empathy, while making it clear that allegations will be taken very seriously and investigated without fear or favour.
Conifer also serves as an important reminder of the imperfect nature of our justice system. We rightly have a high evidentiary bar: people are innocent until found guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” by a jury. As a result, some people who are probably guilty walk free. That means that, by its very nature, our justice system cannot hope to provide the closure of a guilty verdict for all victims of crime. That is difficult for victims to bear, but we can make it easier by vastly improving the support we provide to process the trauma of their experiences.