Nick Timothy is Director of the New Schools Network and a former Chief of Staff to Theresa May.

On 24 October 2012, Tom Watson – the MP for West Bromwich East and now the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party – was called by the Speaker to ask the Prime Minister a question in the House of Commons. What he said caused a sensation. A file of evidence, he claimed, which in 1992 was used to convict a paedophile called Peter Righton, “contains clear intelligence of a widespread paedophile ring. One of its members boasts of his links to a senior aide of a former Prime Minister…The leads were not followed up, but if the file still exists I want to ensure that the Metropolitan Police secure the evidence, re-examine it and investigate clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and Number Ten.”

In the three years or so that have passed since Watson’s incendiary claim, there has been a confusing mixture of irresponsible innuendo, false allegations and proven facts. Rumours have swirled around Westminster about the identity of an unnamed former minister who is alleged to have been a paedophile, while last summer, Wiltshire Police staged a press conference outside Sir Edward Heath’s old home in Salisbury and appealed for his “victims” to come forward.

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, is reportedly preparing to apologise to Lord Bramall, the D-Day veteran and former Chief of the Defence Staff, after the Met badly mishandled its investigation into allegations against him that appear to have been baseless. There are similar calls for the police to apologise for their handling of allegations made about Lord Brittan, the former Home Secretary, and Harvey Proctor, the former Member of Parliament.

These events have prompted some people to criticise the investigation of old alleged crimes, even when it turns out that the accused have been guilty. Lord Lawson has questioned “how much [money] the police is spending now on chasing up often unsubstantiated accusations of historic sex abuse.” The Daily Telegraph recently splashed with the headline, “Murders rise amid police sex probes” as though the investigation of the latter explained the rise in the former. Charles Moore has complained that “if you ring the police today and say you are (or were forty years ago) the victim of child sex abuse, they have, according to the rules, to believe you. They have to interview you, log you as an abuse statistic and investigate your accusations.”

But while nobody should want the police to suspend disbelief and pursue allegations that upon investigation are clearly baseless, we should want them – in child abuse cases and other crimes – to listen to the alleged victim, interview them, record what they have said, and investigate. That is what the police are there to do. If they did not do these things, they would be negligent, and many crimes would go unpunished.

The lessons from the investigation into Lord Bramall and the other errors made by the police come down to simple competence. It was plainly wrong for Wiltshire Police to hold a press conference in front of Sir Edward Heath’s home and to talk about his “victims” as though it was a matter of fact that he was guilty. As the Metropolitan Police have admitted, it was wrong for them to describe publicly allegations about the existence of a Westminster paedophile ring as “credible and true” when they did not know they were. And it is wrong for the police to routinely leak the names of suspects to the media, just as it is wrong for them to keep people in limbo on bail for many months and sometimes even years.

But police incompetence is not just bad for the innocent people accused of crimes they did not commit. In far too many cases, and for too many years, police incompetence has meant that the guilty have got away with their crimes. The independent report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, by Professor Alexis Jay, for example, says that “the police gave no priority to CSE, regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime.” Exactly the same could be said about the police response to organised child sexual abuse in Rochdale, Derby and Oxford. Likewise, the independent inquiry into the handling of allegations about Lord Janner found that he could have been prosecuted for indecent assault in 1991, 2002 and 2007 but each time did not face justice because of police failures. And of course the police were forced to apologise for failing to act on the multiple allegations made about Jimmy Savile.

So the conclusion we should draw from the case of Lord Bramall is that we need to deal with police incompetence, not adopt new policies and rules that make prosecutions of real criminals harder. If the police adopt a sceptical attitude when alleged victims of child abuse come forward, we risk returning to the culture of disbelief described by Alexis Jay that meant for decades few child abuse allegations were properly investigated. And if we decide that the police should not investigate old cases, we will be letting down the victims and telling other offenders like Janner and Savile that they can get away with appalling crimes. We will also send a dangerous signal to younger and more recent victims: that child abuse is not a crime we take seriously.

That would be a terrible turn for the worse, not least because we are beginning to learn that the sexual abuse of children is a much bigger social problem than any of us has realised until now. According to the National Crime Agency, at least one per cent of adult men could have a sexual interest in minors, while police leaders believe that the internet is facilitating the abuse of children, by making available hundreds of millions of images of abuse and bringing together online communities of abusers who would not previously have been able to communicate with one another.

It is difficult not to discern in some of the critics of the police investigations into child abuse – and indeed the critics of the Government’s decision to hold an inquiry into child sexual abuse – a distaste for simply discussing the subject as well as an intolerance of the campaigners who want to see it given greater public prominence. This intolerance – demonstrated well by John Humphrys in this interview with Peter Saunders from the National Association for People Abused in Childhood – mirrors the curious tolerance our society has shown to child abuse in the past. Popular references to “dodgy uncles”, “that teacher”, and men who “like little boys” all show we know child abuse is in our midst, yet we do remarkably little about it. Schools, councils, charities, children’s homes, even the BBC have all failed in their duty of care to young people. Some have been actively complicit in the abuse of children. Many families hid it. The authorities often dismissed it. And the result was that many thousands of victims suffered the double trauma of first being abused and then ignored.

So while it is certainly true that the likes of Tom Watson need to show more responsibility and the police need to show more professionalism, we must not draw the wrong conclusions about the Lord Bramall case and others like it. We need to face up to the scale of child abuse, we need to be prepared to talk about things we find uncomfortable, and we need to do everything we can to reduce the number of innocent young people who suffer these unspeakable crimes.

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