Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 807 - 819)




  807. Can I welcome you all this morning to the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee and, in particular, welcome Mr Gopsill, Mr Geraghty and Ms Linscott. Thank you very much for coming along to give us evidence this morning. Can I, before we launch into some questions, ask you if there is any opening statement you would like to make to add to some of the written evidence we have already received?

  (Mr Gopsill) I would, thank you very much. My name is Tim Gopsill, I am the editor of The Journalist magazine, which is published by the National Union of Journalists, which always concerns itself with matters particularly of legislation affecting not just the way journalists work but the way journalists function for democracy with the responsibilities that we have. I must, first, apologise for the absence of our General Secretary, Mr Foster, who was to have come today but who could not come because of a family emergency. As I say, our concern with some sections of this Bill is the concern that we always feel when a little alarm bell goes off in our heads because we see some possible prejudice to journalists' duty fully to inform society about what is going on, which I think everybody understands and accepts. Obviously, the matters covered by this Bill are often sensitive matters and it is, as we all know, when matters are sensitive that the need to establish the freedom to work is the most important. It is most important to defend freedom at the margins, and we looked at some sections of this Bill and thought there may be, perhaps, inadvertently, included some powers given to the Ministry of Defence Police and, possibly, to the military police, taking on the powers of the civilian police that could actually have quite a serious effect on the whole of society and on our responsibility of freedom to report. I think our main concerns are about Section IV, the powers of the MoD Police, where there are three or four extensions to their powers, the first concerning the policing of "the vicinity" of military installations and establishments, where there is power to establish permanent rights to police. The reasons this concerns us, particularly, is because when there are public order events at such places journalists are always, necessarily because of their work, in the front line, particularly photographers and camera operators. I can tell you that if we were talking about demonstrations at military establishments (and there was a big one at Faslane yesterday) quite regularly photographers, particularly, find themselves arrested. I would not say they are necessarily targeted by the police but when the police decide to move everybody on and a journalist is standing in the front line, quite often they get lifted. Normally, they do not get prosecuted because we are able to intervene with the police force concerned, explain that the person—who was probably showing a press card—was doing their job and charges are very, very rarely brought. We are not so confident about the Ministry of Defence Police. The civilian police forces, which are accountable and which only have local powers and are used to dealing with the forces of civil society such as ourselves, are responsive when they have made a mistake. We are worried that if the national military establishment makes a mistake it is, shall I say, much harder for them to admit it. We see that there could be trouble that way. The second concern and, perhaps, our major concern is Section 31(4), where the Ministry of Defence Police can exercise the power of a constable. We would like to know if there is a definition here of what are the functions of the Ministry of Defence Police in this respect; the powers of a constable are considerable powers and it does worry us if the Ministry of Defence Police were actually to become a national police force with the powers of the civilian police. We cannot see any reason for this at all. If there are any shortcomings in our local police forces, strengthen the local police forces; we have a structure for that in this country. In all the great reforms that there have been over the last 20 years in this country, I have never heard anybody call for a national police force. Our police structure is considered ramshackle by some people but it is also part of our society. It seems to us that what appears to be the introduction of a national police force by the back door, stuck in at the end of a Bill about discipline in the armed forces, does raise a question in our minds. That is what we would like to say to start with. I would like to introduce our other representatives: Tony Geraghty is a very senior and well-known journalist, formerly on The Sunday Times and, incidentally, also a squadron leader in the RAF Volunteer Reserve and has seen service in several theatres. Tony has the distinction of having been arrested by the Ministry of Defence Police, though I do not think he wants to say too much about his particular case today. Gill Linscott is a journalist and book writer who has made a special study of military policing and was herself a journalist for 20 years, including a Parliamentary journalist for the BBC reporting on Parliamentary committees. So I think we have a couple of people here with us today who know what they are talking about. First I would like to ask Tony to expand on what I have said.
  (Mr Geraghty) I will keep it brief, Chairman. My colleague, Mr Gopsill, has expressed the anxiety of a national police force, and of course we know from previous hearings and the testimonies given by MDP representatives that they deny that is any kind of agenda. It is a fact, nevertheless, that the former chief constable, Mr Boreham, in an address of which I think you have taken note, used the word "poignant"; saying he regarded it as a "poignant" matter that he could not answer a request from HMG to provide a mobile police force to assist in the control of demonstrations attaching to the last fuel crisis. The significance of that action, if I may say, to my mind, as somebody who in his days as a reporter had the interesting experience of being arrested by the French riot police—the Compagnie Republicaine de Securite (CRS) in Paris in 1968 during Les Evenements—was to observe the difference of style between a mobile police nationally controlled force of that kind and the behaviour of a local, accountable police force. Our Home Department forces police by consent—that is their mantra—and they police by consent in many ways, at many levels (subject to the formal consent of committees and so on) but in addition to that there is the feeling that this is "our" police force. For that reason, indeed, the Armed Services say "We prefer to retain the structure of a the RAF Police or the Royal Military Police because it is a force to which we can relate." If you have a force being introduced in a situation which is already inflamed, dangerous and affecting public order, then one has the likelihood of a lack of sensitivity to understate the case. The flying gendarmerie can be summoned by the government and the local police force can then stand back and say "Well, I am sorry, this was taken out of our hands and we really are not responsible for what happened." I think there were some signs of this during the miners' strike. Home Department forces were in some numbers moved into areas where they had no connection. That is one, I think, very serious issue for concern. One may say "But of course", as the MDP representatives have said, "there are protocols and promises which we have yet to put down in writing, but trust us." The experience of 1987 and the passage of the 1987 Act through Parliament, you will recall, resulted in undertakings being given in good faith by the then Mr Archie—now Sir Archie—Hamilton that any serious crime would continue to remain under the jurisdiction of the home department forces, and serious crimes such as rape were specifically mentioned. We now know that up to 30 rapes a year are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence Police, and when that is questioned the MDP answer appears to be "evolution; the world changes, we have reduced the numbers, we need more mobility, we are getting around more and the barriers are breaking down." If the MDP is a dynamic force in that sense, I find no comfort in promises that may now be made at this stage of this legislation to accept that that is the situation as it would continue to be for very long once this clause is added to the Bill. There is one other point I would make, and this is that given standing powers in the vicinity of military bases—and that is a separate scenario from that which I have just been discussing—the MDP officer would be enabled to stop, say, a member of the public who is driving slowly past a military base or he would have an opportunity to, perhaps, ask a journalist "What are you doing here? Identify yourself." The man identifies himself as a journalist; journalists collect information, sometimes it is information which the government would not wish a journalist to possess and whether that information be damaging or not damaging the MDP are not going to make a distinction, and the next step can be, under the powers granted through the Official Secrets Act, that it is unlawful to possess information which is classified, being security sensitive. Therefore, we have a scenario through which the MDP use their new power to make an initial challenge to a member of the public, particularly if that person is a journalist. Thereafter, we have a rolling programme, in my view, through what I call "bolt-on" or force multiplier legislation—whether it be PACE, whether it be anti-terrorist legislation, whether OSA—through which an MDP officer would be empowered to look at anything from a bald tyre to an out-of-date tax disc to possession of cannabis—any one of a number of matters which he could then start to use by means of either genuine prosecution or for the purposes of harassment. There are certain journalists (I do not need to mention names) who are notorious for having caused discomfiture by their ability, particularly in one case, to "read" the aerial arrays at a certain base. These people are identified by the military security authorities. I myself, I now know thanks to the Data Protection Act, came to the notice of military counter-intelligence in 1995, and so the information is exchanged. MDP is not a stand-alone force, it is part of the military community and it would be, in my view, part of a process of containing, controlling, keeping under surveillance and, if necessary, harassing journalists or other people who are regarded as being awkward or objectionable in the eyes of the MoD and its compliant culture. That is all I have to say.

  808. I am just aware that time is moving on rapidly. However, Ms Linscott, I certainly should give you, at least, the opportunity to make a few remarks.
  (Ms Linscott) Thank you, Madam Chairman, and I will keep it very short because there are only two points I wanted to add to what Tony Geraghty has told you. The first is simply to say that I believe the Committee has seen the speech made by the then chief constable Walter Boreham to the Defence Police Federation Conference in October last year. I am thinking, in particular, of two paragraphs which concern a request to provide people to help police the fuel crisis, both civilian convoys and at the depots. If you thought it helpful I could make available this copy of the speech afterwards, and we can regard it as read into the minutes. Would that help?

  809. Yes, please.
  (Ms Linscott) The other point I wish to make is about what I think we might call "jurisdiction creep". Tony has made the point that certain assurances were given after the 1987 Act was passed about limitations and controls on the activities of Ministry of Defence Police which have, in some circumstances, been broken, and I will not go any further into that here. One of the important assurances given when the 1987 Act was passed was that relations between MDP and the Home Office forces would be governed by protocols updated every year by the Home Office. The first protocol was, indeed, issued in 1987, the year of the Act. The second protocol, which I have here and will happily make available to you for the sake of the date, was 25 March 1999, in other words 11 or 12 years have passed between the protocol and its updating in this key area of the relations between MDP and Home Office forces. Again, Madam Chairman, rather than take the Committee's time, if you wish me to make that available to the Clerk afterwards I will very happily do that.

  810. Thank you. We have actually seen that protocol.
  (Ms Linscott) That is all I wish to say, thank you.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. I know that Members of the Committee are certainly interested in pursuing further matters of the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence Police. We are also interested in hearing your views on Clause 6, particularly, of the Bill. But as you have opened up on the MoD Police and we have, as you have gathered, already taken some fairly extensive evidence on that, I will open up with that. I will start by calling on Mr Randall.

Mr Randall

  811. Do you have concerns about the existing jurisdiction of the MDP?
  (Mr Gopsill) If you were talking about the jurisdiction as established in the 1987 Act I would not, but I do not know whether Gill Linscott, who has greater authority on these matters than me, has.
  (Ms Linscott) I think we come back, Mr Randall and Madam Chairman, to jurisdiction creep. The powers conferred in the Act are what the MDP is governed by, obviously. It disturbs me very much that, for instance, in December 1998 the offices in London of a major civilian publisher were raided by MDP with no Metropolitan officers present. Just as it concerns me, of course, that we were raided by MDP as civilians with no West Mercia officers present. The jurisdiction in the Bill is one matter. What has been done under that jurisdiction—this question of jurisdiction creep—concerns me very much.

  812. In the case of these two raids, what would have been added by having the presence of the local Home Office force?
  (Ms Linscott) In one word, sir, accountability—direct accountability.

  813. You are concerned about the powers of the constable in Section IV. We have heard evidence that one of the problems the MDP have is where they are travelling past, in uniform, a crime is being committed and members of the public would feel uncomfortable if, effectively, they just carried travelling on, because they are in the position of making a citizen's arrest. As journalists, how would you deal with a story like that, if somebody said "Somebody was being attacked and we saw two police officers coming past but they carried on", and the reason was because they were MDP? How would you treat that as a journalistic story?
  (Mr Gopsill) I am sure it does happen, once in a long shot, that an MDP officer happens to see a crime being committed. I do not know how often, but walking around as a member of the public you see a crime committed not that often, I would think. This also happens, of course, with members of the public. Members of the public see things that are newsworthy events, and when a member of the public sees a newsworthy event they do not write the article for the newspaper themselves, they telephone the newspaper and the newspaper sends a journalist to write the article. If an MDP police officer, in a one-in-a-million chance, sees a crime being committed then they should alert the police. It is completely wrong, it seems to me, to have a force which is not accountable to the area to be policing that area.
  (Ms Linscott) I think I would like to add to that, if I may, Madam Chairman, that that is a very precise definition "travelling between bases and seeing something". Part IV, of course, as drafted, would give much wider powers than are required to deal with that eventuality.

  814. Is it actually the powers of arrest and the powers of investigation, or would you be happier if they were allowed to just arrest and then hand it over? If you like, instead of just having what we have heard in evidence at the current time is only (away from, admittedly, a rather strange definition of "the vicinity") the same rights as you and I have as citizens, it is the investigation following that which would be of more concern than the particular arrest of a wrong-doer?
  (Mr Gopsill) I can see where you are heading and certainly we would be concerned if there were any question of doing an investigation. It would have to be in the hands of the local police. If it is moving in that direction that is a positive move, but we would say that is not far enough. I think we challenge the whole idea of the MoD Police having a power of arrest. The phrase in the Bill is "the powers of a constable", which are many. That would concern us and we cannot see any need for that.

  815. Finally, from my point of view, would it be fair to say that you do not really have great faith and trust in assurances from the MDP, bearing in mind the experiences you have had?
  (Mr Gopsill) I think the Honourable Member is trying to put words into our mouths!


  816. I admit I have tended to look largely at this issue from the point of view of a Member of Parliament representating an area heavily dominated by defence, near the Rosyth Dockyard and former naval base. I think all of us, with defence-related constituencies, have seen the size of the estate, the personnel involved and the numbers shrink over the last number of years, and one of the points the MDP have made to many others and to this Committee is that they are far more mobile now than they used to be because of the number of bases and other facilities that have been shut. I also now represent an area where you have mixed housing, in somewhere like Rosyth, where you have MoD property alongside ("pepper-potted" is one of the expressions) privately owned property. So, really, to follow up your response saying clearly the jurisdiction should not be extended, if an MoD Police officer patrolling through one side of the street in somewhere like Rosyth with MoD property, perhaps, hears the screams of a woman the other side of the street, you seem to be suggesting that he should, effectively, not have any powers to intervene but should simply call up the local police constabulary? I am thinking about the realities of life in many of the areas we represent. The other thing I would ask you about is the public pressure; that they see somebody in some kind of uniform and say "Why did they walk on by and do nothing?" That is something that has been highlighted to us. I am really asking you how you see the realities of life being dealt with by the local, accountable constabulary and the MoD Police in the far more mixed up, jumbled up, civilian and defence estate that we now have?
  (Mr Geraghty) Madam Chairman, may I respond to that? With profound respect, you speak of the realities, but in practice I think we are dealing with a series of hypotheses. The only example of this sort of extra jurisdictional power being exercised by MDP was one you commended yourself, I think, here last week, and it concerned the use of citizen's arrest powers. Far from having anything to do with people screaming in the night, it had to do with inspired recognition of a child abductor and his victim, and a citizen's arrest being made with the acknowledgement that had this gone wrong then the outcome would have been unfortunate. These, I believe, are singular cases, but I would draw an analogy here with the position of the soldier serving in a more dangerous, mixed civilian/military scene in Northern Ireland. We know, from the case of Corporal Clegg, which went to appeal, that the doctrine of superior orders, for example, does not protect the soldier in that situation. I think one's view has to be that there is no perfect prescription to the manifold realities which an officer might face. He should use his own initiative, he should perhaps exercise, yet again, the powers of citizen's arrest if he is in that situation, and he should be prepared, if it goes wrong, to take the rough with the smooth—or the rough with the rough. That is life.
  (Ms Linscott) If I may briefly add something to that, Madam Chairman, the question of travelling between various Ministry of Defence properties is, obviously, a very valid one indeed. However, may I say that when it comes to what will actually be made of the powers given in this part of the Act, we need to ask ourselves, how visible will the travelling be? Will, in fact, the travelling between bases in marked cars in uniform be, effectively, a back-door way of adding to the numbers of the local police services? In other words, locals like to see police cars around because they feel safer; is it going to be a fact than an MDP police car travelling from A to B will be used in that way to reassure people about the prevalence of police on the beat? If that is the case, and if that is the intention of the Bill in Parliament, should there not then be some accountability to the local police authority written into Part IV?

Mr Keetch

  817. For the record, and I have discussed this with the Committee before, I personally know both Tony Geraghty and Gill Linscott. They live in Herefordshire, although they are not constituents of mine, but I do personally know them. I want to move away from this idea of Ministry of Defence Police happening to see something. I personally think, as citizens, if we see a crime we should intervene, but I would look at what they do beyond that, particularly in relation to what they do beyond that in terms of serious crimes. Mention has been made of the quote by the then Minister, Archie Hamilton. His exact quote was: "There is an absolute requirement for the Ministry of Defence Police to pass serious crimes, such as murder or rape, to the home department force." Ms Linscott, you mentioned two examples, under the current jurisdiction, that you knew of, one in West Mercia and one in the Metropolitan area, where the Ministry of Defence had carried out raids, in answer to a question from Mr Randall. Can you tell us, in those raids, what crimes those raids were concerned with? Were they serious crimes, or were they other crimes?
  (Ms Linscott) In both cases, Mr Keetch, they were under the Official Secrets Act. In the part of the case I am most familiar with, it would have carried a sentence of two years' imprisonment, had the person been later found guilty. I think most Members of the Committee would regard Official Secrets offences as serious.

  818. So those were clearly serious acts?
  (Ms Linscott) Yes.

  819. As a matter of interest, on either of those raids were the MDP officers concerned armed?
  (Ms Linscott) I do not know. To the best of my knowledge, in the one in which I was directly involved, the answer is no.
  (Mr Geraghty) It was rumoured during the raid on the publisher in West London that some MDP officers were armed, but I personally question that. I think it was probably corporate mythology.

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