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Police say there were grounds to suspect Edward Heath over child abuse claims

October 5, 2017 ·  By Vikram Dodd Police and crime correspondent for www.theguardian.com

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Inquiry into claims against former PM says if he was still alive he may have been formally interviewed under criminal caution

Edward Heath served as UK prime minister from 1970 to 1974. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Edward Heath served as UK prime minister from 1970 to 1974. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

A police investigation has found there were initial grounds to suspect former prime minister Sir Edward Heath over child sexual abuse allegations.

Wiltshire police will release a report into the claims against Heath next week following a two-year inquiry, and its conclusion means that if the politician had still been alive he may have been formally interviewed by detectives under criminal caution.

The report will acknowledge the difficulty in assessing the validity of such historic abuse claims which date back decades and it will not reach a conclusion on whether Heath, who died in 2005, was guilty of the allegations.

The threshold for reason to suspect is relatively low in the English criminal justice system. Officers reached the conclusion, at least in part, because of the similarities in accounts from several complainants who alleged they were abused by Heath.

The Wiltshire force believe those accounts remain credible, and nothing has been found to undermine them by detectives. In private they have described those people as “victims”.

An interview under criminal caution is a key stage in building a criminal case against a suspect, but it  also offers them an opportunity to rebut claims and dispute facts.

Heath was unmarried and his private life attracted speculation, some of it lurid and unfair. Heath became Conservative party leader in 1965 and later was the UK’s seventh postwar prime minister, serving from 1970 to 1974.

However, supporters of the former prime minister believe the findings by police are an unfair stain on Heath’s reputation and want a fresh judge-led inquiry.

Lincoln Seligman, godson of Heath, told the Guardian: “I want a judge-led review of the evidence, because that is the only way of getting to the truth. There is no other way I can see to get justice.

“I think they [the police] will suggest that the witnesses they have investigated tally with each other, therefore that makes their evidence credible. We fear the stain will remain, unfairly, for years.”

Wiltshire’s team also found material undermining the credibility of other people who came forward to make allegations against the former prime minister. Over 30 people contacted detectives.

The allegations against Heath came from people across the country and the investigation was led by Wiltshire police in western England, because the former prime minister had a home in Salisbury.

Mike Veale, the chief constable of Wiltshire, believed and will argue when the report in unveiled that the force was obliged to investigate. That need was made greater because Heath reached the very top of the British establishment and state power structure.

Veale felt his team of investigators and himself were being pressured to drop the inquiry, and faced a barrage of media criticism.

Detectives in the Heath inquiry, codenamed Operation Conifer, believe they have avoided the errors made by an earlier high-profile investigation into sexual abuse by the powerful, Scotland Yard’s ill-fated Operation Midland, which was castigated by an inquiry for falling for claims from a single alleged fantasist.

The usual resolution for a police criminal inquiry is asking prosecutors for a decision on charging. This was not available in the Heath case as the Crown Prosecution Service will not give advice in a case where the suspect is deceased, even if it is of considerable public interest.

The full report from Operation Conifer will go the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which is likely to consider it as part of an inquiry into whether the powerful were protected from proper criminal investigation.

One former detective said he had received a claim of sexual abuse by Heath while the former prime minister was still alive.

Former Scotland Yard detective chief inspector Clive Driscoll, who masterminded the breakthrough that captured Stephen Lawrence’s killers, said Wiltshire teams visited him, and he praised their professionalism: “The detectives who came to see me were dedicated, with no axe to grind, and interested only in seeking the truth.”

Seligman criticised a police appeal in August 2015, which launched outside Heath’s former home. Supt Sean Memory, who went on to be the senior investigating officer leading the Heath inquiry, appealed for “victims” of the former prime minister to contact police.

Seligman, who is essentially the chief spokesperson defending the reputation of the deceased prime minster, said: “If you broadcast an appeal for victims, that is what you get, whether they are victims or not.”

In December 2016, Veale was stung by consistent media criticism to denounce claims the Wiltshire investigation was a fishing trip. At that time he said: “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.”

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