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In fact, I have just written to the Minister asking him some questions. Let me repeat some of them now. Why, for instance, is the child allowance of a father caring for one of two children, while the mother has the other child, classed as income for him but not as income for the mother ? There is no logic in that ; I hope to hear a logical reply from the Minister.
Why, if that caring father's 13-year-old does a newspaper round, is the income considered to be the father's ? That seems daft to me. If the income of the working wife of an absent father is taken into consideration, why does not the same apply to the income of the caring wife's new husband or boy friend ?
It is no good the Minister's saying that that is not the case. I refer him to the CSA's operational bulletin 22/93. I hope that he will make all its operational bulletins available in the Library, so that we can see how it works. It is vital that we should be able to do that.
Why does the agency accept the caring parent's word about her income ? I have encountered case after case in which the caring parent who has made the application has acted fraudulently. When I refer such cases to the agency, I am told, "We do not inquire into the circumstances of the caring wife ; we inquire into those of the absent father." I have had to write to the Department of Social Security pointing out that the wife has been fraudulent. The agency should be working with the DSS, examining cases of fraud on the part of applicants.
Then there are the costs of the agency. It is currently holding a course to train managers, and has asked to use a hotel in Bewdley or Kidderminster. I have information from within the agency : I understand that there has been a great deal of phoning around to find out which hotel has the best swimming pool. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that the agency operates with income from absent parents. It charges for its services. It is the money of those parents that it is flinging around.
In my experience and that of my constituents, the agency's staff are of a low standard. If money is to be spent on training, it would best be spent on training staff rather than management, because the staff make the decisions.
I warn my hon. Friend the Minister that if the agency is not watched, it will outstrip the DSS in size, manpower and costs. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth : we are looking at "1984". The Child Support Act is a nanny Act, which I would have expected the Opposition to introduce. I fear that, in future, the agency will take over all the maintenance work currently done by the courts, enforcing its authoritarian views and replacing justice with inflexibility.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) on securing this Adjournment debate, and I thank him for the way in which he made his points. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) for his remarks and my hon. Friends the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) for taking a close interest in the debate. I shall do my best to answer as many questions as possible in the
Column 445time available to me, but I may not cover them all. However, this is familiar territory to the House and hon. Members know a great deal about the subject--as they should.
The first point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth concerned the collective responsibility of the House, in that the legislation was not rushed through. It was widely consulted on. Some 270 organisations, individuals and hon. Members expressed views on the White Paper, "Children Come First", published in October 1990, so the measure was not sprung fully formed on an unsuspecting House or public. Everyone agreed that the existing system needed changing and my hon. Friend was fair to say that the legislation was the responsibility of the whole House.
It was kind of my hon. Friend to make the remarks about me that he did. I fully accept my responsibility as a Member of Parliament in supporting the Child Support Bill and the responsibilities that I have now as the Minister in charge of the legislation and of the agency, under the direction of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security.
In view of the tenor of my hon. Friend's remarks and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West, I will present the other side of the coin. Anyone reading my hon. Friends' speeches would ask what the Government are doing and why they established the agency in the first place. It is important to place on record again the reasons for the CSA's existence, and also remarks made by some of the growing number, of women in particular, who see the benefit to them of the agency's work.
The White Paper "Children Come First" described the then maintenance system and presented proposals for change. I remind the House of some of the issues that it raised. The previous system was fragmented, inconsistent, slow and ineffective. The outcome was uncertain. There was no guarantee of consistency or fairness throughout the country. The average award per child was £16. In some cases, it was clear that higher awards of maintenance were affordable but not given. There was no automatic review process. Awards could take weeks or months, and half of all awards fell into arrears at least once a year.
In 1989, some 30 per cent. of lone mothers and 3 per cent. of lone fathers received regular maintenance--that was all, and some 23 per cent. of lone parents on income support received child maintenance. Ten years previously, the figure had been 50 per cent. Clearly, the then system was wrong and needed change. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West defended to some extent the previous system. When one looks back, the facts do not merit such support. The system needed changing, and changed it was.
The system established by the Child Support Act 1991 was designed to produce better maintenance support for children ; clear and consistent rules so that both parties in a separation would know their responsibilities ; consistency ; regular yearly reviews that would not require the parties to return to court to argue ; and prompt and reliable collection and enforcement--I shall return to that aspect later. There was also a determination to make sure that the taxpayer, who had unwittingly supported a growing
Column 446number of settlements over the years, would get a better deal and be relieved of some responsibility, as parents should bear prime responsibility.
In view of the often hostile comments made by many people about the CSA-- understandably, because people required to pay more under a new system naturally feel more strongly about it--it is important to place on record comments made by people personally involved, who view the agency differently. One lady quoted in The Times on 31 January stated :
"I didn't know what to do until the CSA took on the case. They have been super--really helpful. I don't want to live on state benefits if I can avoid it, and I would rather work longer hours so I can save up for my daughter's future. Whatever happens in my case, I can't fault the CSA."
In a letter published in the Daily Mail on 15 February, another lady wrote :
"Despite being obliged to bring up by children on income support, they are all healthy, have good food, shoes, outings, Christmas presents and even holidays. I haven't whinged but budgeted carefully.
Now, after the intervention of the Child Support Agency, my ex-husband must make proper maintenance payments. I am delighted and so are my children. They feel they now have a place in his life equal to his other children. We are grateful to the CSA for everything it has done, as are many other people I know. It will now be possible for me to work part-time and raise our standard of living to family credit level."
A letter published in the Lancashire Evening Post on 14 February stated :
"I have read many criticisms of the Child Support Agency, and feel that I must put pen to paper in defence.
Since 1986 we have provided a home for our granddaughter. Court appearances and solicitors visits too numerous to mention resulted in a court order, £8.33 to be paid weekly. In fact £40 some months, then no payment.
On returning to the solicitor I was told a further request had to be made to Legal Aid, and could take eight weeks or more to come through, then court applications.
In the years since 1986 the father has been in lucrative employment--and at the same address (owner of a large detached house). I rang the Child Support Agency--they sent me forms and letters of guidance the following day.
At least we feel somebody is taking notice. I think the solicitor could have advised us."
In recent weeks, a number of lone parent groups have linked to argue their side of the case. I pay tribute to the work of Lynda Sunderland, who established an organisation named Smile. It states that many lone parents are desperate for the Child Support Agency to work.
In saying all that, I do not suggest that there is not another side to the story, but emphasise that other views are held. I stand here to support the agency's work and to work through the issues raised by my hon. Friends and many others, because I believe in the principle of the CSA and can see practical benefits resulting from it. Clearly, it is part of the Government's aim and my own to make sure that acceptance of the agency's success is felt more widely.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : Now that the Minister has got all that off his chest, will he answer the specific points originally raised about the agency's competence, assessments, and so on, and not avoid them ?
Mr. Burt : I am sorry that that intervention lost 30 seconds. I turn to the issues raised by my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth described a number of operational difficulties. The agency has not worked as well as we had wished. A number of the problems that my hon. Friend mentioned should not have occurred and the agency is determined to address them. It is certainly true that a
Column 447court order and a Child Support Agency order should not be in effect at the same time. My hon. Friend is right to say that the court order should be stopped. Where there has been a breakdown in communication, it must be improved.
The forms were carefully trialled and tested--not only on people with high IQs but by a range of organisations, which presented the forms to their client groups to see how well they would work. Many forms in the benefit system are complex, but people find their way through them. We try to make sure that forms are properly written and provide the right information. If one wants to obtain as much information as possible at the first attempt, to cut costs and improve processing speed, the form must be long. The forms are constantly checked and worked through.
As to telephone help lines, attempts are being made to improve that service. We appreciate that people should not have to wait as long as they do, and we want that aspect improved. I shall take on board my hon. Friend's suggestion of calls being charged at local rates. That has not previously been considered, but I take his point. I acknowledge that the agency must improve in some areas, and I assure my hon. Friend that much work and effort is going into achieving such improvements.
Some of the agency's problems have not resulted from inefficiency. Much of its work was built on assumptions that could not be tested until it was up and running. For example, an assumption was made about how quickly people would return forms and provide information. That has taken longer than we expected and verification has proved to be more difficult. That is not a fault of the agency but one of the lessons that we learn from experience. Where the agency can improve its performance, I assure my hon. Friend that it will do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire North-West, raised a number of policy issues, which we have touched on before but which I am happy to comment on once again. The formula is rigid, but it cannot be any other way. The system is either discretionary or it provides some element of consistency. That is why the formula is as it is. Requests have been made to expand the formula to take into account some of the matters that my hon. Friend raised, such as claims for travel costs, contact costs and the like. The difficulty is that the formula was designed to make the payment of maintenance to the child the priority. Indeed, the payment of maintenance was seen as a priority by the Select Committee on Social Security, which reported at the end of last year.
The danger is that, if too many costs are allowed into the formula as exempt income for assessment purposes, the payment to the child will lose its priority. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth said, and a number of people have said the same. The Government keep the formula and the workings of the agency under review. The principle of keeping a formula is important to us.
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden) : I appreciate the Minister's courtesy in giving way. It is well known that much work is going on in the Department, particularly on an independent review process, which might at least introduce an element of flexibility in hard cases. Are we likely to get a statement before the House rises for the summer recess ?
Mr. Burt : I am not able to give the hon. Gentleman an answer. As he knows, following consideration of the Act and the agency, we made changes in February. That was an indication of our good intent : that, where we saw the need for change, it would be made. A lot of work is going into evaluating those changes, but it is not possible to say whether changes will be made. The Government should not, therefore, be held to a timetable.
My hon. Friends asked about appeals, which we have discussed before. I know that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) has thought deeply about the problem of appeals and I appreciate the way in which we have been able to conduct this debate. The problem remains that introducing an open appeal system would take us back to the discretionary system of the past ; the formula might well be second-guessed by an erudite person. There would then be no point in having the formula and we would be back where we were. If that is not to be the outcome, the appeal system must be narrowed and we must have gateways for it. I am still awaiting suggestions of where those gateways might be. It is relatively easy for politicians to say to an aggrieved group of people, "We shall have an appeal system and all your problems will be solved," but it is more difficult to say, "There will be an appeal system, but you, you and you will not be included." That is the problem and I am yet to be convinced about a means of overcoming it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth mentioned the Australian system again. Distance lends enchantment. The Australian system is not without critics in its own backyard. It is much more broadly based than ours. It is a much blunter instrument and it does not make allowance for protected income.
Someone can fall below support limits in Australia, but that is not possible here. We built housing costs into our formula ; they are not included in the Australian one. The Australian appeal system is being increasingly used and my hon. Friend will be aware that a major difference between our systems is that the Australians do not consider previous settlements, whereas we do ; they simply look forward. Pleas are now being made by those who were excluded from the new system to be included in it.
Other systems offer no easy answer. Lessons from around the world show that any system that has tried to improve the mechanism for child support has had its difficulties and critics. I recently read an article by an Australian journalist, who spoke of problems with the Australian child support agency in almost the same terms as people speak about the problems of ours.
Mr. Burt : Fraudulent claims on both sides are looked at. It is an important point of principle that if an allegation is made of a fraudulent claim by the parent with care or by the absent parent, the Child Support Agency should, if the information has not been passed on, take that up with the local benefits office. There is no instruction to accept the word of one side or the other where a complaint has been actmade but not verified.
I am grateful to have had the chance to answer some of the issues raised by colleagues. I am aware of the feelings of hon. Members. I hope that I have put the record straight on why we feel it is important to continue with the agency, and why I will continue to look carefully at what colleagues say.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Before I call the next hon. Member, I must notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts :
Insolvency (No. 2) Act 1994.
Intelligence Services Act 1994.
Church of Scotland (Properties and Investments)
Order Confirmation Act 1994.
Greater Manchester (Light Rapid Transit System) Act 1994.
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) : I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Madam Speaker for allowing time for a debate on the important subject of the Ministry of Defence police, particularly as you also called me last night. I am speaking for the second time in 24 hours and I appreciate that privilege.
For many years, the MOD police have done a good and effective job, often in difficult and, indeed, sometimes dangerous conditions. I have an interest in their problems as my constituency includes Aldermaston, Burghfield, Greenham Common, Welford and a number of other smaller defence establishments. Many of the staff in those establishments live in my constituency ; others live in Reading, north Hampshire and south Oxfordshire. I hope that hon. Members representing those regions will support me in this debate. When those establishments were first brought into use, homes were built for many of the staff in surrounding towns and villages. They were all rented homes and, to start with, most of the staff could afford to purchase their own homes. After a number of years, the MOD considered and introduced a policy of selling some of those homes to sitting tenants.
When my predecessor's predecessor was still the Member of Parliament for Newbury, I was contacted by a number of the wives of serving MOD policemen, who complained that their husbands were being discriminated against as they alone were not being allowed to purchase their own homes.
It was never clear why that discrimination was being practised. At the time, the MOD's excuse was that it was important that it maintained control over a supply of homes in the region close to the bases concerned so that it would always be in a position to offer new MOD police recruits some form of convenient accommodation. The MOD police wives ran an excellent campaign. It had to be run by the wives because their husbands, as policemen, were not allowed to participate in any political activity or to take part in demonstrations, even if they were not overtly party political. Although that was before my election as the Member of Parliament for Newbury, I was pleased and proud to be asked to play a leading part in the campaign.
I mention the campaign because I wish to give some of the background to the concerns being expressed by the MOD police and to show why we feel some mistrust in the Ministry. However, we have had some good news. In March this year, suddenly and unexpectedly, the campaign was successful. An announcement was made that the MOD police houses were, after all, to be offered to their sitting tenants in all but one or two cases, those being where the houses involved were so close to the site boundaries that security considerations prevented their sale. Unfortunately, although the news was excellent, it was entirely spoilt by the more or less simultaneous leaking to the media of plans to make most, if not all, of the current MOD police force redundant. This shocking news has, as one might expect, had a shattering effect on a comparatively small and close-knit community. The problem arises from the review set up last December into the future role, aims, objectives, structure and pay of the 5,000-strong MOD police force. The review,
Column 451led by Sir John Blelloch, was supposed to produce a report by 1 June this year, but in March a confidential interim report was leaked to the media. It proposed that Defence Ministers should actively consider the introduction of a new paramilitary force to replace the MOD police's armed guarding role. Although it was presented as a savings measure, the option is a thinly disguised attempt by service chiefs to provide employment for thousands of redundant service personnel. Let us consider the proposal in greater detail. It appears that the report proposes the creation of an armed home guard battalion to be known as the military home service engagement or MHSE. The force has the potential to become a sort of latter-day Dad's army. The official case for the MHSE is that the new battalion would be considerably cheaper to run than the existing police force and would give the armed forces greater command and control than they have over the MDP.
The financial motivation does seem to be part of the explanation for the interim report's recommendation. The inquiry has clearly been subsumed into the defence costs study programme, an initiative which is much more interested in cutting costs in the short term than in the long-term--and non-financial--considerations.
In reality, however, it is clear that the preferred option is as much the product of political expediency and internal service pressure as an attempt to obtain financial benefit. While Sir John Blelloch has been given the task of performing an objective study into the future of the MDP, he has clearly been placed under considerable pressure from a number of sources to deliver a particular verdict. First, he is under pressure from the Treasury to meet cost reductions, whatever the implications for operational efficiency. Secondly, he is under pressure from service chiefs to provide employment for redundant ex-service personnel.
Mr. Rendel : No, I do not believe that it was in his terms of reference. He was supposed to provide an objective report, but I am afraid that, to some extent, he may have been tempted to go beyond his terms of references by outside pressures.
It is widely known that the armed forces are facing a 5.1 per cent. reduction, or some 13,000 redundancies, over the next 12 months. The Government are receiving much criticism for that, which is hardly surprising, given that, at the last general election, they made great play of the suggestion that the two Opposition parties were likely to introduce defence cuts, but that they, of course, would never do such a thing. It is clearly in the interests of service chiefs and politicians alike to secure employment for redundant service personnel and I believe that pressure has been placed on Sir John Blelloch to take such concerns into account.
In advocating the formation of the MHSE, the report is colluding in the creation of a second-class soldiery. While MDP officers have a wide range of duties, only one of which is armed guarding, MHSE officers are likely to come to resent what would be their limited single function. The low job satisfaction offered by the MHSE is likely to attract only fairly low quality applicants, which can lead only to lower levels of security. That is surely a problem
Column 452which the Government should be examining seriously. Instead of being an independent and objective review, the inquiry seems to have degenerated into a service-led exercise aimed at safeguarding the military's position at the expense of the MDP.
I deal now in more detail with the economic justification for the proposal. The report suggests that because MOD police officers receive police pay, they are an expensive security option and that, in some respects, their function is inferior to that of other forces. The wide range of MDP officers' duties--policing, security, armed guarding and defence specialism --proves that that is clearly not so. MDP officers are routinely armed and possess the special expertise identified by HM inspectorate of constabulary. In fact, by securing police officers with those two additional capabilities at standard rates of police pay, the MOD is getting a very good deal. Furthermore, the limited single-role function of the MHSE would mean that other functions, such as the protection of MOD property against burglary by civilians, would in future have to be performed by other Home Department forces that possess the necessary constabulary powers. The interim report claims that the introduction of the MHSE would lead to considerable savings for the MOD. However, the possibility of savings remains merely an assumption yet to be proven. Indeed, taking into account redundancy payments for MDP officers and the huge costs of creating a new force from scratch, with all the additional training involved and the other burdens that would be placed on Home Department forces, the creation of the MHSE is likely to be more rather than less expensive.
The introduction of the MHSE would lead to the ludicrous situation in which service men and women, who have only recently received their redundancy notices and payments from the MOD, would be re-employed by the same Department in place of others who would, in turn, be made redundant and receive redundancy pay. Given the MOD's special circumstances, especially the duty of care that it must observe for all its employees, it would be wholly undesirable--and, in practice, impossible--to separate the MDP's two roles.
The MDP combines uniquely a police role with a security function. While an MDP officer is, for example, policing the community of a married quarters estate, he or she is also acting in his or her capacity as an armed guard against potential terrorist attack. If the MHSE were given the task of guarding MOD establishments, its personnel would be unable to perform that operationally invaluable and highly cost-effective dual-purpose role. Its personnel would, first, lack the appropriate levels of training and experience and, secondly, have no jurisdiction over civilians or events outside military establishments. They would not, for example, be able to undertake "base-plate" patrols on the outside of a perimeter fence, although that, as recent events at Heathrow have shown all too clearly, is an essential element in the prevention of mortar attacks by terrorists.
Unlike the MHSE, the MDP is much more than an organisation of armed guards. As the civilian police force of the MOD, it provides a full range of police services and more, including its own criminal investigation department--CID --and fraud squad, dog patrols, marine units, mobile and foot patrols, armed policing capability, protection of classified material, traffic duties, escorts and personnel protection, and community policing.
Column 453Unlike the personnel of any future MHSE, MDP officers are fully attested constables, who exercise their constabulary powers and privileges every time they patrol outside an establishment. The MDP's position as a full police service is underlined by the fact that it is frequently asked to assist neighbouring county forces--evidence that its standards of training and competence fully conform to Home Office requirements.
The MDP represents an enormous asset to the MOD and to the wider community. The broad range of experience and expertise gained by each individual officer in the course of his or her career creates a quality and value of service far beyond what could be expected from a single-function guard battalion.
Having met many of the members of the MOD police and their families I know that they are dedicated men and women, many of whom have given a lifetime of service to their country. As in any other establishment, some are better at their jobs than others. Given the difficult circumstances in which they work, it is no surprise that mistakes are sometimes made. For example, they may sometimes over-react to a perceived threat. But I believe that the vast majority of the people in my constituency, and no doubt in the rest of the country, too, would far rather suffer an occasional over-reaction by the MOD police than allow the smallest possibility of a real terrorist threat to a nuclear site.
The men and women concerned are highly trained in a specialised job. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for them to obtain elsewhere equivalent employment that would fully and properly use their skills. The Blelloch proposals would not create one extra job ; they would simply give jobs to redundant ex-service men at the expense of MOD policemen--robbing Peter of his job to give it to Paul.
I remind the House what I said when I started the debate : the MOD police do a difficult and sometimes dangerous job. They deserve our respect and gratitude, and our support.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) on his success in securing the Adjournment debate. The Ministry of Defence police is an organisation little known outside the Department--apart from in the specialist areas to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, it is well known and valued within the Department and I welcome the opportunity to inform the House of the important work that it does. The MOD police force-- or MDP, as it is now known--has been in existence in one form or another since Samuel Pepys was Secretary for Admiralty Affairs. In 1686 he issued an instruction to the commissioners of dockyards :
"to enquire after and make use of all means for preventing the embezzlement of any of our stores.. to be frequent in visiting the Workmen at their departure of our yards, keeping a Strict and Severe eye upon the respective Porters of the same and to the attendance given at the gates . . . and lastly, to be as frequent as he may in his nightly rounds in and about each of the said yards for discovering any unfaithfulness or neglect that may be found in the Watch, charged with the safety of our stores".
Column 454Some three centuries later, the MDP was formed in its present role by amalgamating the Admiralty, Army and Air Force department constabularies.
The Ministry of Defence police is a disciplined body of about 5,000 civilian police officers, who are also civil servants. They possess full constabulary powers ; they are trained along similar lines to their Home Department police force counterparts and serve under a chief constable who exercises command and control and who is appointed by the Secretary of State for Defence, to whom the MDP is accountable, in much the same way as the Metropolitan police force is accountable to the Home Secretary.
The Ministry of Defence police differ in several important respects from Home Department police forces. First, they are a national police force operating throughout the United Kingdom. Their organisation and structure has been developed to cope with the extended logistics of national deployment. As a condition of service, all MOD police officers may be required to carry arms and all are trained to do so. To that end, a training system unique to the MDP, but acceptable to the military and Home Department police forces, has been introduced. Standards of safety and proficiency are extremely high.
The training system represents a considerable investment by the Ministry of Defence in time, devoted to both initial and continuing training, and equipment. The force has a purpose-built firearms training centre at Wethersfield, equipped with the latest technology. The standards of instruction and facilities have been inspected by the School of Infantry and were assessed as being excellent. There is a continuing process of development as and when the requirements of armed policing change.
Most recently, armed response vehicle training has been introduced and instructors are preparing syllabi for rapid intervention training courses. Investment is also made in sponsoring MDP instructors on firearms courses run by their Home Office colleagues, which enables the force to keep abreast of the latest techniques in its field of armed policing. All are trained on the 9mm pistol and about 3,000 officers have been trained on the 5.56mm rifle. At any one time when the police are deployed, well over half are likely to be armed. Furthermore, the MDP is the only police force in the land that has a transition to war role. This was most recently exercised during Operation Granby in the Gulf, when it was deployed to guard key points--airfields and hospitals, among other locations.
It is perhaps also worth noting that the force's flexibility in being able to undertake 12-hour shifts means that the MDP is capable of doubling its operationally deployed manpower for special events where increased policing or guarding levels are required, such as Battle of the Atlantic ceremonies, and for the forthcoming D-day commemorations.
The chief constable of the MDP also has professional oversight of the Ministry of Defence guard service--the MGS--which is deployed at establishments not requiring armed guarding or the exercise of constabulary powers, and is trained at the police training school at Wethersfield. The MGS was set up to provide an integrated professional security organisation to deal with aspects of security not requiring the carriage of arms or police powers.
The task performed by the MDP enables its personnel to act as community beat officers across the defence estate in garrisons and married quarter estates, because they are civilian police officers. The Ministry of Defence police can
Column 455use their civilian constabulary powers to deal with members of the public. Service police forces do not have that power. Thus, they currently assist in exercising the MOD's duty of care in respect of the safety of service families and civilians using the defence estate. They are also able to use those powers to deal with anti-nuclear protesters on and off the defence estate, as well as others whose illegal activities cost the taxpayer so much money. Recently, on 25 March, I answered an Adjournment debate initiated by the late Bob Cryer, and cited the fact that a detachment of MOD police was assigned to the Menwith Hill station, which was the subject of the debate. I said that the MDP officers there were responsible for security and that the costs incurred were reimbursed by the United States, which runs the station.
However, it was worth mentioning then, and it is worth mentioning again now, that the overtime occasioned by the activities of protesters is a direct cost to the United Kingdom. That cost amounted to nearly £500,000 in the previous financial year. The protesters are not clever ; they are simply destructive and wasteful. They are certainly not acting in the national interest.
More important, in its armed guarding role the MDP is also active in the fight against terrorists. As with the Home Department police forces, the MDP, in addition to audit and other departmental inspections, is inspected by Her Majesty's inspector of constabularies every three years. The judgment resulting from the most recent inspection, in 1992, was that the MDP achieved a high level of professionalism and was an efficient and effective organisation. That is an accolade not lightly given.
A number of the specialist capabilities that have been developed by MDP in some areas are not to be found in other civil forces in the United Kingdom. The marine unit, which is the largest in the United Kingdom, is acknowledged to be a leader in its area. The patrol boats and the rigid inflatable boats will be deployed in the water off Portsmouth in just a few days' time during the 50th anniversary of D-day commemorations, as the MDP is responsible for the seaward-side protection of all naval bases.
Some MDP officers in the marine section hold deputations issued by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise which give them the legal powers of officers of Customs and Excise to stop, search and seize. All are trained to Department of Transport qualifications level, sponsored through the recognition of their marine training establishment by the Royal Yachting Association.
The MDP also has its own fraud squad which is well equipped, with a team of very experienced officers. Indeed, its activities vary enormously, and of £22 million of fraud investigated by the squad last year, it was able to secure the return of £17 million. I think that that achievement speaks for itself. A particular expertise of the CID is the investigation of defence contractual fraud. The vast majority of MOD employees are honest and hard working, and would not even think of getting involved in fraud or corruption. Unfortunately, there are a very small number of exceptions who do great damage to the Department's reputation. My Department is giving much attention to the use of sound management practices designed to make it far harder for such people to engage in such conduct. Any who do must expect to be found out and brought to justice ; for that we are indebted to the MDP.
The operational support unit specialises in public order activities, like the equivalent units in Home Department
Column 456police forces, but is also capable of rapid deployment anywhere in the United Kingdom to supplement local MDP resources. The force uses more than 400 dogs, some of them trained as arms and explosives search dogs, making that section the largest in the country for policing purposes.
The police are often deployed on special operations. I have already mentioned the 50th anniversary of D-day. They are regularly deployed during the summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge, for example, to protect MOD land locally. They were seen at Liverpool last year during the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic in support of the Royal Navy and at a number of shows, such as Farnborough, in defence of our aviation interests.
In addition to its specific defence unit duties, the MDP is deployed at United States air force bases, at Royal Ordnance factories and, with special authority from the Secretary of State, at the Royal Mint.
I think that hon. Members will agree that the MDP represents a force to be reckoned with and I am delighted to pay tribute to its professionalism and achievement.
I now turn to matters of the moment. Sir Patrick Sheehy presented his report to the Home Department last year, making certain recommendations on the conditions of service and pay arrangements for Home Department police. As my Department's police are linked to Home Department police for pay and conditions of service, it was right that the Department should consider what recommendations made by Sir Patrick should be applied to the Ministry of Defence police. Terms of reference were drawn up for a study to be made into the role, aims, objectives, pay and conditions of service of the Ministry of Defence police. This was announced last December and is being led by Sir John Blelloch, to whom the hon. Member for Newbury referred. His final report is now expected towards the end of June.
There has been some speculation in the media, and in the House today, about the proposals Sir John made in the context of the defence costs study, "Front Line First". That study has taken a radical look at all aspects of support to the front line and I trust that hon. Members will agree that it was wholly right not to exclude an examination of the MOD police. Happily, the coincidence of timings meant that Sir John Blelloch was able to conduct the work as part of his wider review. In essence, Sir John's remit was to see whether there might be scope for carrying out MOD police functions more cost effectively.