Bishop of Salisbury supports call for review into Operation Conifer

On 11th December 2018 the House of Lords debated a Motion from Lord Lexden, “That this House regrets the failure by Her Majesty’s Government to institute an independent inquiry into Operation Conifer conducted by the Wiltshire police into allegations of child sex abuse against Sir Edward Heath; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to make proposals for an independent review of the seven unsubstantiated allegations left unresolved at the end of Operation Conifer.” The Bishop of Salisbury, Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Salisbury: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for his doggedness in persisting with this, and the other Members of the House who have also done so.

I come at this from something of a different angle. We are dealing with an extremely difficult issue as a society. The Church of England knows something about it—but so do we all. This is really difficult stuff. It would not be enough to have an inquiry into the seven unresolved and said to be unsubstantiated allegations. It is about what we have learned from our experience, about good practice, about what has gone wrong and about how we develop things for the future.

The persistence in asking for a review has much more in it, because it is not right to elide from one operation to another in the way that has happened in this debate, where I think some untruths have been spoken—I am sure unintentionally. We are collecting this stuff together and we need forensically to analyse what is going on in these different cases.

There is an opportunity to learn from Operation Conifer for the good of the country—for the good of all of us. Some important principles are at stake. ​Salisbury has the best of the earliest copies of Magna Carta. No one is above the law. That is a really important principle for us. Victims must have the confidence in every circumstance to make complaints which are then properly investigated by the police.

We do not know the evidence in relation to the 42 allegations, of which seven remain allegations that would have been investigated under caution, because they have not been published. They were viewed by an independent scrutiny panel. That gives us some assurance that there must be something there—but we do not know.

What is to be made of this? There is clearly a problem about the reputation of Sir Edward Heath. That point has been made repeatedly in the House and elsewhere and put well tonight. I am grateful to those who, in the latter stages of the debate, spoke about the reputation of the Wiltshire Police. That matters to me a great deal. It does not help, without evidence, simply to make allegations which do not or will not necessarily stand up. Wiltshire Police’s reputation also needs reviewing to get this on to a basis where we can have confidence in one another.

Had Sir Edward still been alive, he would have been interviewed. He is not. The matter would have had to have been decided in a court of law. It cannot be. Would that the Church of England had learned from that. When the Operation Conifer report was published, I felt that that was a helpful principle to establish. But there will be more lessons to learn from it—for both Sir Edward’s reputation and for Wiltshire Police, but also for the country at large. In the very difficult process that we are going through, an independent, probably judicial, review would be very helpful to establish what lessons can be learned from this. This is not a matter to be financed just from Wiltshire: the police and crime commissioner has made that clear. This investigation was conducted on behalf of 14 forces. Therefore, it is appropriate to put this as a problem to the Government and to say that a review needs to be undertaken for the good of all.


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