The high-profile victims of the Operation Midland fiasco are well known – Harvey Proctor, Lord Bramall, Lady Brittan, most prominently – but there’s another one; lower profile and much closer to home for the Metropolitan Police. This victim wasn’t living in quiet seclusion in the grounds of Belvoir Castle, as Harvey Proctor was, when the VIP child abuse allegations started to surface. He was knuckling down to work as the newly appointed head of the Met’s paedophile unit.
On first meeting former DCI Paul Settle, you’d be forgiven for thinking he comes from “the old school”. More than six feet tall, heavily built, and appearing to have little truck with the fashions that come and go in policing, he certainly ticks some of the boxes.
Appearances, though, are not quite the whole picture. His CV lists periods when he helped the Met navigate through some of its choppiest waters. In 2004, he was in charge of repatriating British bodies from the Boxing Day tsunami in Asia. He was asked to accompany the assistant commissioner to Brazil to speak with the mother of Jean Charles de Menezes, the innocent man shot dead on a tube train in London by anti-terror police. By 2012, he was being trusted to be part of security planning for the London Olympics.
Then came another sensitive inquiry. One that was to end his career.
Operation Fernbridge was a precursor to Operation Midland. It examined claims that a notorious guest house in south-west London had been at the centre of a VIP paedophile network. Elm Guest House had been shut down by the police in 1982 after a Met investigation established a child was being abused there. Rumours of its connections to people in power had been circulating for years. Harvey Proctor’s name featured in a so-called “guest list” that had been published online.
“When we investigated, it was a dossier that contained anyone remotely associated with being gay in the 1980s…. Harvey Proctor had been very publicly outed so he was in the dossier.”Paul Settle, speaking to Tortoise
Paul Settle was 14 when Harvey Proctor was convicted of gross indecency in 1987, so he was dimly aware of his suspect’s past. Now he was hearing rumours that the original investigation had gathered evidence that Harvey Proctor’s offending was much more serious and had involved abusing children. He pulled the case file out of the Met’s archives
“It was a good three or four inches thick, and I went through it over a weekend…. There were all the officers’ notes and the stuff that might not have made it to court, so you can go through and form a picture of what was going on and what had happened…. I formed the opinion very early on that there was nothing to suggest that young boys were involved at all…. There was absolutely no suggestion that children were involved whatsoever.”
As Operation Fernbridge progressed, it also became clear there was no evidence to suggest Harvey Proctor had been in Elm Guest House. The so-called “dossier” or “guest list” had in fact been compiled by a conspiracy theorist who had a conviction for fraud.
“All of it was untrue, but because it had been written down and then circulated on the internet everyone thought it was gold dust.”
His investigation did get a conviction though – of a catholic Priest who’d been abusing children at a nearby children’s home. Most of the media weren’t interested in that. They focused instead on yet more allegations being made against VIPs.
The Met had been put under pressure by Labour’s then deputy leader, Tom Watson, who said it had once sat on evidence of a paedophile ring with “clear links to Number 10”. Paul Settle went into the MP’s office to collect the hundreds of leads that had been sent in to him. Again, Harvey Proctor’s name came up.
“Claims were being made against Harvey Proctor that were simply not true. People were putting things together. For example, when he stopped being an MP, he opened a shirt shop. He was attacked by two young men; there was a section that believed he was attacked in retribution for what he had done to [those two men] when he was younger. That gained momentum until you stopped and examined the facts. It was a vicious homophobic attack and Harvey Proctor was the victim. If it had happened now, people would have been screaming about it being a hate crime. Because he’d been shamed in a newspaper, it was almost acceptable that he had got his head kicked in.”
Paul Settle’s conclusions were uncomfortable for the top brass at Scotland Yard who were keen to show that investigations wouldn’t dismiss complaints made against the powerful too readily. When he refused to interview the former home secretary Leon Brittan about a rape allegation made by a woman whose story was disputed by friends she’d been with at the time, he was quickly sidelined.
“I refused to interview Lord Brittan as there was no legal basis to do so. And I was placed on the naughty step.”
Senior officers learnt Tom Watson had complained to the Director of Public Prosecutions about the decision. Paul Settle’s decision was later reversed by the Met. Leon Brittan – who was, by now, dying of cancer – was interviewed by detectives. The Met hadn’t bothered to tell him it had closed the investigation through lack of evidence by the time he died.
One lunchtime, I met Paul Settle near the central London police station where he’d been told to report to after being removed from his investigations. He told me he’d been put on “colouring-in duty”. He looked dejected and burnt out.
Around this time, Operation Midland was getting underway. Harvey Proctor was again in the frame. This time, Carl Beech was claiming the former MP had murdered two children and was implicated in the killing of another. It seemed to him like history was repeating itself.
“I tried desperately to inform people that my gut feeling was that (Carl Beech) was a fantasist, and the reason for that was everything that he had talked about was all part and parcel of the allegations we’d got for two years that had been on the internet. It was almost like he had got hold of these allegations and turned them into a script…. I said ‘slow down’, but, before you know it, we are off to the races and you have Harvey Proctor being accused of some quite simply horrific things.”
But, at this point, nobody was listening and he was an outcast. News of the heavy-handed searches of Harvey Proctor’s home left him appalled.
“I thought it was an absolute disgrace.”
It wasn’t until Richard Henriques’ report into Operation Midland in 2016 that Paul Settle was finally vindicated. The former High Court judge called his conduct “exemplary”.
But it was too late to save his career. Paul Settle took early retirement from the Met the next year.
Photographs Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images, Roland Hoskins/ANL/Shutterstock, Elizabeth Cook/PA