Edward Heath child abuse investigation ‘not a witch-hunt’
Wiltshire chief constable says significant number of people have disclosed claims of historical abuse against ex-prime minister
Vikram Dodd and Owen Bowcott
Friday 2 December 2016 14.52 EST
The chief constable of the force investigating claims that Sir Edward Heath sexually abused children has vowed not to buckle under “unacceptable” media pressure, insisting the investigation into the late prime minister is not a “fishing trip” or a “witch-hunt”.
A “significant number of individuals have disclosed allegations of abuse”, the Wiltshire police chief, Mike Veale, said on Friday in an extraordinary 1,600-word statement that sought to rebuff media criticism and keep the 15-month investigation on track.
The Guardian understands that at least 15 people have made allegations to the police around the country claiming Heath, who died in 2005, was involved in the sexual abuse of children.
Multiple sources say the Wiltshire-led Operation Conifer remains live and the claims are regarded by police as credible, with inquiries continuing into whether they can be shown to be true or disproved. Police are describing the complainants as “victims” in private.
One police source said the fact police were continuing the investigation demonstrated the belief in the credibility of the complaints. “If we did not believe that, we would have shut the investigation down. The fact is we are continuing.”
Police have taken advice from the Crown Prosecution Service, and a senior officer from Wiltshire has been moved into a role with full-time oversight of the inquiry into Heath and others.
Veale’s three-page statement, rare during the middle of a high-profile investigation, came after months of attacks in the media on Operation Conifer, which began in August 2015.
The chief constable criticised the undue pressure on his officers and said police were under a greater duty to investigate because Heath had held the highest office in the UK.
“Sir Edward Heath was an extremely prominent, influential and high-profile person, who was arguably one of the most powerful people in the world commensurate with the publicly elected office he held.
“It is clear that I am expected to conduct a proportionate investigation which will result in a distinct outcome or report and the closer the suspect is to the state the greater the obligation and the more probing the investigation should be.”
Heath was prime minister from 1970-74. A world-class yachtsman in his spare time, he took Britain into what was then the European Economic Community. His time in power was beset by industrial strife, and confrontations with the then powerful trade unions plunged Britain into a three-day week.
He was elected leader of the the Conservative party in 1965 and won the 1970 election. He lost the premiership in 1974 to Labour’s Harold Wilson and lost the Conservative party leadership the following year when challenged and defeated by Margaret Thatcher, of whom he became a bitter and vocal critic. Heath, who never married, died at home in Salisbury in July 2005, aged 89.
Dr Rachel Hoskins, an expert on ritual sacrifice who has been asked by detectives to examine claims made against Heath and others as part of Operation Conifer, has been highly critical of the investigation.
Veale said: “This is not a ‘fishing trip’ or ‘witch-hunt’ – both of these terms have been unfairly levelled at us.” He cited the constitutional principle of policing being free of undue influence from the state, as he pledged the investigation would continue.
“I take my responsibilities of operational independence, which is the bedrock of British policing, very seriously indeed. Therefore I will remain operationally independent and will not be influenced by inappropriate and unacceptable pressure from people who don’t know the detail of this case.
“I will not be buckling under pressure to not investigate or to conclude the investigation prematurely.”
Veale said even though Heath was dead, detectives might be able to track down any accomplices and support any victims.
“There remains the likelihood that witnesses that can serve to corroborate or, equally as important, negate the allegations, are still alive. If abuse has occurred then it remains relevant to support those affected and seek to bring to justice any person still living who may have committed associated criminal offences. It is important to identify any vulnerable individuals who require safeguarding today.”
Several police forces across Britain have received claims about Heath. The investigation is being co-ordinated and led by police in Wiltshire, where Heath had a home in Salisbury.
Veale said a thorough inquiry could exonerate Heath and that some claims had been dropped by detectives.
The media debate about the investigation has characterised it as unfounded, but within policing the view is largely different.
Public faith in police competence around investigating historical sexual abuse claims against high-profile individuals has been rocked by the fallout from a Scotland Yard inquiry, Operation Midland, which examined claims from the 1970s and 80s.
A report earlier this month castigated police for falling for false claims made by a complainant called “Nick”. In that case, police chiefs were among the last to realise the inquiry, which wrongly targeted establishment figures, was beset by failings.
Veale said “Nick” had not been spoken to as part of the Wiltshire-led investigation. In the Met inquiry he is believed to have made claims, widely thought to be false, about Heath.
Other police investigations into historical sexual abuse claims have led to convictions. Police have also faced accusations that they have covered up or failed to investigate abuse claims against powerful people.
At the end of their investigation, Wiltshire police plan to write a report assessing whether the evidence gathered would have been sufficient to charge Heath, put him on trial, and convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt of his guilt.
Two people have been arrested as part of Operation Conifer. Police will only say the arrests are related to “child protection issues” and that the two, who have been bailed, are suspects but are not directly linked to the Heath investigation.
Wiltshire’s police and crime commissioner, Angus Macpherson, who has strategic oversight of the force, backed its right to investigate the claims and said public interest was adding to pressure on officers.
“I believe the root cause of this pressure is a legitimate concern that the reputation of a former prime minister may be tarnished without there being credible evidence of guilt,” Macpherson said.
“The chief constable and I are of one mind: the police cannot act as judge and jury in their own cause. Once the police have conducted the investigation to a conclusion, there must be an alternative avenue to assess the credibility of any evidence that has been gathered.”
The Guardian understands that Det Supt Sean Memory, who was Wiltshire’s head of crime, has been moved from his post to oversee the inquiry into Heath full-time, as well as another inquiry into historical allegations which emerged during the investigation into Heath.
Wiltshire police said: “Further to a restructure of portfolios Det Supt Memory is the new head of Legacy Investigations and continues in his role as senior investigating officer for Operation Conifer.”
The CPS confirmed it had given advice to the police investigation.
In August 2015 Memory made a public appeal, controversially outside Heath’s Salisbury home, saying: “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.”
View on theguardian.com