Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 1040 - 1051)

TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001 Afternoon sitting



  1040. We will have the opportunity tomorrow afternoon of asking the Secretary of State for Defence directly about some of the issues that Mr Key and other Committee Members have raised in connection with the Ministry of Defence Police. Having earlier said that perhaps the views of the American Government on an issue were not entirely relevant to this Bill, can I ask you about the realities of enforcing discipline in a multinational situation? As has already been commented, each national force has its own distinct set of rules and disciplinary measures. What came across to us clearly in Kosovo, for instance, was that those rules apply, even when they are operating under a UN remit. Have you found that the differences that exist between the way national forces deal with disciplinary matters has an impact when you are in a multinational situation, when our forces are able to contrast and compare how they are dealt with with how someone from a different country's force is dealt with when it appears that the incident is very similar?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I have no experience of that myself. I have no doubt that there have been times when one of our soldiers and a soldier from another country have committed some similar offence and been taken away to be dealt with by their own authorities. What I do not know is how those would have been dealt with, and indeed, whether the other side would have known how it was dealt with in any case. I have no personal experience of that, and I am not even aware of any anecdotal evidence of that particular point that you are making. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of soldiers and sailors drawing comparisons about conditions of service, etc, as compared with their opposite numbers from another country, but I am not aware of any anecdotal evidence of comparisons being drawn about the way they are treated in the disciplinary sense.

Mr Keetch

  1041. To take you back to the policing role, you made a distinction, which I think is absolutely correct, between what you described as the constabulary powers of the MDP and the more military ethos of the Service police—the red berets, whatever. Under this Bill the suggestion is being made that the Ministry of Defence Police would under certain circumstances go beyond simply policing the outside of military bases and might get involved in other police operations, and indeed, Mr Key made reference to the suggestion that they were on standby to be available in the fuel dispute. Do you think therefore it is logical that, given what you yourself accept is a distinction between the constabulary powers of the MDP and the Service ethos of the military police, it might not be a bad idea actually for the Ministry of Defence Police to be a normal Home Office Department Police, accountable to the Home Office, to the Home Secretary, and not necessarily, as it is at the moment, simply accountable to the Secretary of State for Defence?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I really have not given that any thought, Mr Keetch. It is an interesting idea. I do not frankly have a view about that. I think the Ministry of Defence Police do a very good job for us in the role that they have. They operate within our establishments. We get to know them and trust them. They guard our gates and help us look after ourselves and so forth. As to their wider role and their future employment and whether they are with the right Department or not I really do not think is a question for me to answer. It is probably for ministers.

  Mr Keetch: No doubt we will ask the Minister tomorrow.

Mr Davies

  1042. Can I ask you a question about your naval experience and present responsibilities? I suppose it would be generally acknowledged that serving in the Navy brings out and requires qualities for a high degree of inter-dependence, group loyalty and discipline, including self-discipline, and absolute respect for the position and decision of the captain, because people hang together, and if those values are not sustained, everybody's lives are put at risk. That is correct, is it not?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Yes.

  1043. I just wondered to what extent you feel that the ever-increasing introduction from civil society of new rules and procedures which are fundamentally based on individualistic, contractual, rights-driven concepts may run counter to those essential military values and may end up eroding that essential culture within the Navy.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) It is a very good point, Mr Davies, and it is something we have been watching very carefully at each iteration of the Armed Forces Bill, for the very reasons you have mentioned—and it is not just the Navy, of course, but also the Army and Air Force as well. The power of the commanding officer, or the authority of the commanding officer, must be one which he can apply without being trammelled by things which are incidental and peripheral to his delivery of operational effectiveness. But, as I said earlier on, I very much see at the heart of that question the authority of the commanding officer. Nothing has happened so far in the construction of this Bill or previous Bills which I believe has in any way undermined the authority of the commanding officer.

  1044. What I am describing is a process, is it not? Every year now something comes forward which is based on these new concepts and which is being imposed on the military. What I am concerned about is how this process is going to be controlled or where this process is going to lead.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I suspect the process is unstoppable. We are going to be continually challenged on a year on year basis to examine whether what we are doing is right in law and right in society, and I am confident that we will continue to maintain our line that we do nothing which actually undermines our operational effectiveness and the authority of the commanding officer.

  1045. If you put that argument to ministers and they did not accept it, would you be prepared to go public with your concerns on that matter in the interests of the forces and indeed the future defence of the country?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) This is absolutely the opposite of what has happened so far. When ministers have asked us for our advice on legislative matters coming through, they have been extremely supportive and understanding about what our concerns are and represent them very strongly, so it has not been a situation which has arisen so far, and I would hope it would not happen in the future.

  1046. But if it was necessary, you would not resile from the necessity or the obligation to go public with your concerns if they were sufficiently important and you could not bring those considerations to bear on ministers of the day?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) My job must always be to serve the government and provide military advice to the government. When ministers have heard my advice, they weigh that against other considerations they are taking before they decide their policy, and they will make their decision. If that decision is something which I cannot live with because I think it will undermine the effectiveness of the armed forces, I will have to decide how I act after that.

  1047. You would not exclude, at least in theory, in terms of your perception of your role, your duty, that a CDS might in some circumstances correctly decide to go public with his own reservations?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) This is very speculative, but I think if those reservations are held so strongly, one would have to consider one's position and whether one could properly serve the government.

  Chairman: I think there are wider societal and general concerns about going more and more down the road of individualism rather than also recognising collective responsibility. It is a responsibility for us as politicians to look to how we can deal with that and balance it.

Mr Randall

  1048. Sir Michael, you said you did not think there was anything in the Bill which restricts the power, for want of a better word, of the commanding officer. In clause 7 the power of the commanding officer to authorise entry to search premises is, I believe, reduced. Do you think that is correct?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I said "power", but I did correct myself. I said the authority of the commanding officer, and I would draw a small distinction between the two. The commanding officer's powers have changed over the years. You used to be able to hang them as a commanding officer if you were displeased, or hang, draw and quarter them. That is a power which has been taken away, and quite rightly so! The power will from time to time be adjusted in the line of social mores and so forth. My concern is to make sure the authority of the commanding officer is never in any way undermined.

  1049. Does the commanding officer at the present time have the authority for a random search?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) As I understand it from the new Bill, under exceptional circumstances the commanding officer can order a search.

  1050. Is that roughly the status quo?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I think he was in a weaker position. He is in a stronger position now.


  1051. Are there any final points you would like to make, Admiral?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) No, thank you very much. I must say that I believe the rigour with which the Committee is approaching this is very helpful to the armed forces.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. It was remiss of me not to formally congratulate you at the beginning of this meeting. I know that all members of the Committee will look forward very much to continuing to do whatever we can to maintain the international reputation for high standards and professionalism that our armed forces have worldwide. Thank you very much indeed, and thank you very much for the Service personnel you represent.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 19 March 2001