It seems almost impossible today to witness a broadly intelligent, balanced and considered discussion in Parliament, so when we saw a debate looking at ways to address police mistakes over the handling of certain child sex abuse allegations, we decided not to hold out breath.
Good thing we didn’t.
The debate, hosted by Conservative MP for Aldershot, Gerald Howarth looks at Operation Midland and the Henriques Report.
Operation Midland was set up to look at allegations of child sexual abuse within what was called a VIP paedophile ring, believed to be based in London’s Dolphin Square. The main complainant was a man known to the media as Nick. His testimony was later set aside and doubts were raised over whether his allegations were sound. Police conduct during the investigation was also questioned and a review of the Operation followed. That review, The Henriques Report, set out several concerns relating to the weight police gave to Nick’s evidence and the way in which high profile suspects were treated.
Howarth’s main concern in the debate, which took place this week, is the way in which these high profile suspects were treated by investigating officers.
It all starts out well enough. Howarth says how important it is to reinforce the principle that high profile individuals who have committed crimes are not above the law. He also expresses concern at the way police handled the investigation into Dolphin Square.
And then he loses it.
A paragraph down, Howarth tells us that he intends to look at what he feels are grave miscarriages of justice against Lords Brittan and Bramall, and Harvey Proctor. All people, it turns out, who are or were friends or colleagues of Howarth’s. And instead of having a sophisticated and thought provoking debate about the need to balance complainants’ rights with those of suspects, he just decides to have a good rant.
Howarth suggests that because he knows these former suspects well and considers them to be of good character, that alone should have been enough to confirm their innocence. This, after opening his speech with the sentiment that no man, or woman, is above the law. And then goes on to criticise the police for not sticking to protocol when trying to gather evidence, accusing them of a lack of common sense and inability to follow due process. It’s like reading a transcript from Yes Minister. It’s just not terribly funny.
Keeping it personal, he describes Lady Brittan’s distress at having her home searched, how she had to suffer “the indignity” of her possessions being touched as officers “invaded” her house, and that it was like “witnessing a robbery of one’s treasured possessions.”
Whilst we have every sympathy for this scenario, this is what happens to thousands of ordinary citizens a year who are under investigation.
Howarth then defends his friend Harvey Proctor, who was convicted in 1987 of sexual offences against two teenagers, complaining on Proctor’s behalf that Operation Midland cost him his job and his home.
And although this shouldn’t happen, this does and will happen to thousands of ordinary citizens every year who are under investigation.
Clearly missing from Howarth’s speech is the need to ensure that the general public are treated fairly by the police during any evidence gathering process, but he’s too busy defending “People in public life.”
The debate is Tory heavy, but Labour’s Simon Danczuk makes an appearance, and his contribution is worth reading. It is a thoughtful and balanced speech, from someone who has been investigated, and also as an advocate encouraging victims and survivors to speak out. He expresses his thoughts about Nick with sensitivity and a rare grace for the House, though he isn’t without controversy. Others too, add much needed equilibrium to Howarth’s tantrum, and the whole debate, which isn’t very long is worth a read if you have five gingersnaps and some chocolate milk.
For our part, we very much hope that this debate and the Henriques Report, will spread out and affect the handling of criminal investigations nationwide, so that the general public can benefit from any measures eventually put in place to make the investigation process more humane and less demeaning. Justice and fair treatment are not just for the famous and the financially well off, they are for everyone.