SWINDON, England (Reuters) - Former British prime minister Edward Heath would have been questioned about claims he sexually abused boys if he were alive today, police said on Thursday after a two-year investigation into the allegations.
Supporters of Heath, who never married, have said the investigation was an expensive, flawed witch-hunt.
Heath, who was prime minister from 1970 to 1974 and died 12 years ago, would have been interviewed under caution over seven allegations including raping an 11-year-old boy and indecently assaulting men and other boys, one aged 10.
The alleged incidents occurred from 1956 to 1992 while he was a member of Parliament but not prime minister, said Wiltshire Police, the force in western England which headed the national investigation named Operation Conifer.
“I am satisfied there were compelling and obvious reasons to investigate allegations made against Sir Edward Heath,” Wiltshire Chief Constable Mike Veale told reporters, adding the report did not suggest or conclude guilt.
“The allegations against him were of the utmost seriousness and from a significant number of people. It would be an indefensible dereliction of my public duty as a chief constable not to have investigated such serious allegations against a former prime minister, even though he is deceased.”
In total, 40 individuals came forward with accusations against Heath. Of these, evidence undermining the claims were found in 19 cases and three accusers later concluded they were mistaken in naming the ex-prime minister.
But Heath would have been quizzed over seven accusations, although police refused to say whether there was other corroborating evidence.
The first occurred in 1961 when Heath, who then had the title “Lord Privy Seal”, is alleged to have raped and indecently assaulted a boy “during a paid sexual encounter in a private dwelling”.
Other claims also related to “paid encounters”, including one when he was trade minister, as well as during chance meetings. Paul Mills, the officer who led the investigation, said no accusations had been made against Heath while he was alive and there had been no missed opportunities by police.
Heath became prime minister in 1970 and most notably negotiated Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, which later became the European Union. He was ousted from office in 1974 when he lost two elections after a miners’ strike helped bring down the government.
He then lost the Conservative party leadership in 1975 to Margaret Thatcher, whom he never forgave and repeatedly criticised in what detractors described as “the longest sulk in history”. He remained a lawmaker until 2001 and four years later aged 89.
An artillery officer in World War Two, Heath was very private and was widely regarded as an awkward, prickly man with little gift for small talk. He was passionate about music and sailing, owning five racing yachts named Morning Cloud, and once winning the Sydney-to-Hobart race.
“TELLS US NOTHING”
Heath’s godson, artist Lincoln Seligman, said the 1.5 million pound ($2 million) police investigation had cast a stain on a man who could not defend himself.
“If allegations are out there he might easily have been called in for questioning,” he told BBC radio. “So, yes, they had to question him, but that tells us nothing.”
In a joint statement, Robert Armstrong, Heath’s former Cabinet secretary, and David Hunt, chairman of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation, said there should be a judge-led review of the evidence. They called the police report “highly unsatisfactory”.
“All those who knew Sir Edward Heath or worked with him are, without exception, convinced that the allegations of child abuse will all be found to be groundless,” they said.
Britain has been jolted by a series of high-profile child abuse scandals in recent years. The most notable involved the late TV and radio presenter Jimmy Savile. A five-year public inquiry is now looking into whether powerful figures in politics, churches, or local government helped hide abuses.
Additional reporting by Polina Ivanova; editing by Stephen Addison and Mark Heinrich