The Metropolitan Police’s handling of Operation Midland has been a source of huge controversy over recent months.
Many believe there should be an apology for the treatment of Field Marshall Lord Bramall, the ninety-two-year-old former chief of the defence staff, whose house was raided by twenty police officers looking for evidence while he was having breakfast with his dying wife and who had to wait ten months before the Met admitted there was no evidence on which to charge him. There has also been strong criticism of several other so-called VIPs including the late Lord Brittan, the former Tory MP, Harvey Proctor and the broadcaster, Paul Gambaccini. But the handling of these high profile cases is not the only reason for the criticism levelled at the Met.
Its whole approach to dealing with historical child sexual abuse claims has been attacked. Now the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, has called in a retired judge to make an inquiry into the Met’s inquiries. But the judge’s inquiry will be secret and only a summary of his conclusions will be made public. Is this the right way to deal with public unease or is it, as some say, a way of kicking a tricky and inconvenient public relations fiasco into the long grass? And is Sir Paul right to cast doubt on the way people who say they were abused should be regarded?
Operation Midland was set up following the claims of a single man called Nick, who says he himself was a victim of a paedophile ring operating in Westminster in the late 1970s and 1980s in which prominent figures in British life sexually abused children and that three of them had been murdered. Lord Bramall was cited as one of those figures. Harvey Proctor (who remains under investigation) was alleged to have conspired with the former prime minister, Edward Heath, in the murder of a child at a sex party.
In addition, Operation Midland looked into an allegation made by a woman that she had been raped in the 1960s by the late Lord Brittan, who became Margaret Thatcher’s home secretary in the mid-1980s. What made some suspect that an establishment cover-up had been in force since the 1980s was that when he was home secretary, Leon Brittan was handed by a Tory backbencher, Geoffrey Dickens, a dossier outlining alleged child sex abuse involving senior figures. Nothing happened. When asked about it years later, Lord Brittain said that he had looked at it and passed it on to the Crown Prosecution Service who had concluded there was insufficient in it on which to proceed to any criminal charges. But the dossier itself mysteriously went missing.
The evidence of Nick was said by one of Sir Bernard’s officers to be ‘credible and true’. This apparently sweeping endorsement of Nick’s evidence was subsequently withdrawn as being too definitive and the Met came under criticism for, in effect, believing it despite the fact there was no other corroborative evidence. Nick’s reliability as an accuser was not, apparently, investigated. Apparently he was simply believed.
Indeed police officers investigating such allegations had been encouraged to exercise a bias in favour of believing the claims of those who alleged they had been victims of historic sexual child abuse. This bias came in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal in which a cover-up of his paedophile activity had been in place for years and the claims of his victims appeared not to have been taken seriously. Operation Midland was determined to prove different.
But the Met’s handling of the claims of Nick have been hugely criticised. The early assertion (albeit later withdrawn) that his claims were ‘credible and true’ went far beyond what any officer should say in public: it is for a court not a policeman to decide whether an accusation is true. Furthermore, the Met has been criticised for failing to check evidence, for leaking information to the press, and for the long periods of police bail figures under investigation, such as Lord Bramall and Paul Gambaccini, have had to endure before being told there was no case to answer.
When, finally, Lord Bramall and the family of the late Lord Brittan were informed there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the cases, it seemed to many that a vast injustice had been perpetrated by the police against these public figures and that they deserved an apology. But Sir Bernard refuses to give one. He said: ‘I cannot apologise for carrying out an inquiry into a serious allegation. That’s our job, that’s what we’re here to do.’
Instead he has called in a retired judge, Sir Richard Henriques, (who earlier investigated the Crown Prosecution Service’s handling of allegations of historical child sexual abuse against the late Lord Janner) to conduct an inquiry into how the Met conducted Operation Midland. Sir Richard’s inquiry will be held in secret and only a summary of its conclusions, not the full report, will be made public, though the full report will be passed on to the Goddard Inquiry into historic child abuse.
Sir Bernard has already conceded that it was a mistake to encourage officers to ‘believe’ the claims of alleged victims, or at least that the word ‘believe’ may have misled some officers into thinking they were required to believe that what accuser were saying was true. Instead, his guidance is for officers to be ‘empathetic’ to people coming forward with allegations. He said: ‘The public should be clear that officers do not believe unconditionally what anyone tells them.’
Others think the Henriques inquiry will need to come up with many further recommendations. They say that unannounced raids on people’s homes, such as Lord Bramall endured, should happen only at the end of an investigation, and not until other tests on the likely veracity of the allegations have been made. In particular more needs to be done to assess whether accusers are genuine or fantasists. They also suggest that those accused of such historic crimes should be afforded anonymity until they are charged, unless a judge decides that publicity would be beneficial by prompting other former victims to come forward.
But some think that the setting up of the Henriques inquiry is simply a PR device to kick the problems of Operation Midland into the long grass. He’ll now be able to bat off any difficult questions by saying that it’s for Henriques to answer them. Harvey Proctor was scathing about the new inquiry, dismissing it as part of a PR strategy and saying he would not cooperate with it. Sir Bernard, however, says it is the sensible way to proceed. The day after he announced the inquiry the Home Secretary Theresa May made her own announcement. Sir Bernard would be given a one-year extension to his contract as Commissioner, which was due to expire in September.
What’s your view? What do you think about the way the Met has handled Operation Midland? Do you think Lord Bramall and others deserve an apology from Sir Bernard? And is the setting up of the Henriques Inquiry a good idea or not? Does it matter or not that only a summary of his conclusions will be made public?
Let us know what you think.