David Bergman

Don’t blame police officers for the botched Carl Beech probe

Don't blame police officers for the botched Carl Beech probe
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There are few assessments of a police investigation more damning than the one written by retired judge Sir Richard Henriques, published last week, concerning how the Metropolitan Police investigated the allegations of a man called “Nick” over the course of 15 months.

Yet the Independent Office for Police Conduct's report, published a few days later, was right to conclude that no disciplinary or criminal action should be taken against any individual police officers.

At the end of 2014, “Nick” – whose real name was Carl Beech – had told detectives that as a boy in the 1970s and 1980s he was one of dozens of victims of a VIP sex ring comprising high profile establishment figures who raped young boys. The police believed him, and at a press conference told the public that the allegations, which included claims that an ex-Tory MP was involved in the murder of two boys, were “credible and true”.

The lives of the accused men – including D-Day veteran Lord Bramall, former home secretary Leon Brittan and ex-Tory MP Harvey Proctor – were turned upside down as their names were reported in the media, their houses searched and they were brought in for questioning. It was not until March 2016 that the police announced they had no evidence corroborating Beech’s assertion and were taking no further action. 

Henriques thought the whole investigation was a travesty. His report concluded that police should have closed down its investigation “after a comparatively short period.” He pointed out that there were clear contradictions that should have been obvious to the police between what Beech had told them at the beginning of the investigation and the interviews he had previously given to Wiltshire police two years earlier, as well as in the various blogs he had written.

These contradictions, the retired judge said, should have raised serious doubts as to the credibility of Beech. He argues that had the police made certain enquiries “immediately” – for example interviewing his mother, obtaining his medical records and asking to see his computer and mobile phone – the police would have concluded quickly that Beech was a liar.

Indeed a subsequent investigation by Northumbria police found that Nick had entirely fabricated the allegations he made to the Met. In July this year, Carl Beech was convicted of twelve counts of perverting the course of justice and one count of fraud and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment.

After Henriques's report, one might have expected that heads would roll at the Met. Yet a few days after his report was published, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, a body independent of the police and the government, announced that there would be no disciplinary action taken against any police officer.

This news did not go down well. In an article in the Daily Mail, Henrique described the investigation as “one of the most unsatisfactory and error-ridden criminal operations in history”. He also criticised the IOPC report as “minimal, unprofessional and … flawed” and went on to say that “I find it difficult to conceive that no misconduct or criminality was involved by at least one officer.” 

David Blunkett, the former Labour home secretary also called the IOPC report a “whitewash” and criticised its failure to take action against any individual police officers. 

Yet a full reading of the IOPC report shows why this is a fair outcome. Why? Because the police investigation is a perfect example of where conduct and decisions considered "wrong" or "mistaken" should not be blamed on the individual officers who made them but instead on the policy of the organisation which the officers were following.

At the time of the investigation, the Metropolitan Police policy on investigation of rape crimes was found in a special notice from 2002, which stated:

“It is the policy of the MPS to accept allegations made by the victim in the first instance as being truthful. An allegation will only be considered as falling short of a substantiated allegation after a full and through investigation.”

And just as the investigation into Beech’s allegations started, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, published a report that recommended that:

'The presumption that the victim should always be believed should be institutionalised.’

From this perspective, just about all of the key individual “mistakes” identified by Henriques are the result of the police following this policy. As the IOPC says in its report:

"It cannot be a breach of the standards of professional behaviour, even for senior police officers, to act in accordance with this policy guidance. Indeed, so far as it was an instruction, they were required to do so."

This also applies to Henriques’s main criticism of the police that they “misled” the judge when applying for search warrants by failing to inform him about inconsistencies between the account that Beech had told them and the earlier interviews he gave to Wiltshire police.

However, as the IOPC report says, by the time the application for the search warrants was made in February 2015, the police had not created a “rolling log of inconsistencies” as the credibility of Beech was not required to be the primary focus of their initial investigations.

What's more, according to the IOPC report, police saw Beech’s account as a “developing” one (something which is not uncommon amongst complainants of historic offences) and that while officers accepted that inconsistencies “can be a reflection of untruthfulness”, they could also be considered to be a “reflection of the passage of time, human frailty, trauma, confusion and other similar factors”. 

And while Henriques, Blunkett and others are critical of the police, it's important to remember that when Henriques wrote his report in 2016, he praised the officers involved:

“Notwithstanding the many mistakes I have enumerated above, the officers had conducted this investigation in a conscientious manner and with propriety and honesty.” 

Clearly much went wrong in the investigation of Beech. But instead of blaming the officers involved, the criticism should focus instead on the policy that drives how individual police officers are required to conduct their investigations.