FOLLOWING attending my party’s annual conference in Manchester at the beginning of this week and speaking at several events relating to my ministerial responsibilities, this week has been building up to today’s release of the Operation Conifer report. This report examines the historic allegations of sexual abuse levelled at former Prime Minister and Salisbury resident Sir Edward Heath.

I did something that is, for me, very rare – accepting an invitation from one of the Sunday national newspapers to write a comment piece about the investigation in advance of the publication of the report.

I decided to speak out because, regardless of the eventual verdict on the report or its impact on Sir Edward’s reputation, I have been deeply disquieted by the personal and ferocious attacks on Wiltshire’s Chief Constable that have taken place throughout the investigation.

I have been surprised at the apparent willingness of so many people to publicly question whether the police should even be allowed to do their job – namely, to impartially examine the evidence put before them. Too many reports have casually conflated Operation Conifer with previous discredited inquiries, as though unfounded allegations levelled at one set of politicians automatically disprove others in perpetuity. To me, nothing could be more damaging to public trust in our police and indeed, in our political system.

Each and every allegation of such a serious crime must be judged on its own merits, however unpleasant and controversial that course of action may be.

In any extended investigation, mistakes will have been made, unfounded claims put forward and unreliable witnesses spoken to. But Mr Veale made extraordinary efforts to ensure that this inquiry has been appropriate and proportionate. He appointed an independent panel of experts to oversee the investigation to ensure that it went only where the credible evidence led. To my mind, the public should expect no less of the police.

The march of time means that the accusers will never have their day in court. It is not for me – or any of us – to presume to comment on guilt or innocence but, if there are indeed victims of historic child sex abuse in this case, they deserve to be heard and to have their allegations properly investigated. I could not stand by while pressure was put on the police to deny them the right to do the job they are there to do.