Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1095 - 1099)




  1095. Good afternoon to everyone and I particularly give a very warm welcome to the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Hoon, and also to welcome Mr Comben, who has certainly come and given very helpful evidence to us before, and Mr Legge. Thank you very much indeed for coming before the Committee this afternoon. My intention is to try and ensure that every member of the Committee who has a question to ask is given the opportunity to do so and, depending on whether there is any time then available, we may be able to open it up for further questions. Can I begin—

  (Mr Hoon) Before you do, could I thank the Committee for its willingness to meet on this occasion at this time, having regard to very difficult commitments that I had on Monday and Tuesday. I do very much appreciate that.

  1096. Thank you very much, Secretary of State. Can I begin by saying that the members of the Committee may come in with a range of questions but in the evidence we have heard over the last few weeks there is one particular area which has come to somewhat dominate our thinking, and that is clauses 31 and 32 of the Bill, dealing with an extension of jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence Police. I would say that my perception has certainly been reformed over the last few weeks because prior to this Committee my contact with my local Ministry of Defence Police had been a very positive one, I had certainly never heard any concerns raised about their operation either by the community or by the local police service, and indeed my main contact with the MDP and their Federation was some years ago under the previous Government when they were concerned about their changing role, the reduction in their numbers and how this could lead to them operating increasingly in mixed civilian and defence environments and what this might lead to. I would really like to open up with the first question, Mr Hoon, which is, what is the motivation of yourself and your Department behind extending the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence Police as outlined in the clauses of this Bill?
  (Mr Hoon) I think it is fair to say clauses 31 and 32 are very modest changes in the powers of the Ministry of Defence Police, and the need for those very modest changes arises for three reasons. Firstly, we now have some considerable experience, 13 years I think, of the operation of the 1987 Act which consolidated the powers in relation to the Ministry of Defence Police, which has demonstrated certain weaknesses, not significant weaknesses but areas where we judge it appropriate to bring the law up to date to reflect the current reality, and therefore these modest changes are designed to achieve that in the first place. Secondly, there have been some changes in the way in which the Ministry of Defence Police have operated since 1987, and in particular they have become more mobile, they have a jurisdiction in defence establishments but when they are organised to travel between defence establishments it seems to make sense, to me at any rate, that they should have certain rights between defence establishments. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly as far as the number of changes are concerned, to facilitate co-operation between the Ministry of Defence Police and other police forces, to ensure that there is mutual support between people wearing police uniforms, and really the existing arrangements do not allow that to happen to the extent we believe should be appropriate.

  Chairman: Thank you.

Mr Crausby

  1097. How would you argue against the statement that this is a non-accountable national police force, or at least steps towards it? I accept these changes are modest in the beginning but who initiated these changes? Are these changes a request from the MoD Police or do they come from the MoD themselves?
  (Mr Hoon) We have had 13 years' operation, or thereabouts, of the 1987 Act. I am not quite sure how many changes there have been to policing legislation in the comparable period but quite a considerable number. In the course of those 13 years we have found difficulties that arise, practical circumstances occur and, frankly, there is a process of learning. That is true of all legislation. It is that process which has led to the conclusions which are in clauses 31 and 32. As I say, they are extremely modest and they are reflecting the fact, broadly speaking, the 1987 Act at the time was sufficient but now, particularly given the kind of practical changes we have seen, we believe it is time to bring it up to date. These are not dramatic changes, they are incremental changes. As far as accountability is concerned, when you describe it as a national police force, it is a national police force in the sense the defence estate for which the Ministry of Defence Police is responsible is organised nationally but it could equally well be the case that if we were considering the British Transport Police that they are a national police force. The accountability for both of those organisations is very similar and since this is a matter for the defence estate and it is subject clearly to the Ministry of Defence, it is right that the accountability is through me as Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr Watts

  1098. The role of the MoD Police has developed, as you said, over the last few years. When making these changes, how permanent do you think those changes will be? Or do you think we will be here in five or six years developing different roles for the MoD and, if so, what do you think those roles would be?
  (Mr Hoon) I think the biggest single change we are having to deal with since 1987—and I suspect it was probably a change which was already underway then—is that historically and traditionally Ministry of Defence Police were allocated to particular bases and particular parts of the defence estate and their jurisdiction therefore was confined to that estate or the vicinity thereof. What we have now is a situation where clearly some defence estate actually has a relatively small number of people on it and we cannot necessarily justify allocating particular police officers to those quite small bases, and in those circumstances what has happened since 1987 is that a number—I think it is 16—mobile policing units have been established and they will travel and have responsibility for a number of different defence estates. In those circumstances they will travel from one to the other. The issue is whether in the course of their travel, the police officers wearing uniform should not be allowed, if they perceive an offence occurring, particularly a crime of violence, to use the authority that should flow from their position as police officers to deal with that problem. I know the Committee has been concerned about that. Nearly all the members of this Committee are fairly regular visitors to the Ministry of Defence estate and I would invite each of you to consider what would your view be if, having visited a Ministry of Defence base, you were travelling away from there and found yourself under attack, you saw a police officer in a uniform who to all intents and purposes looked like a police officer because he was a member of the Ministry of Defence Police but who stopped, looked at your predicament, looked at you being attacked and said, "I am terribly sorry, I do not have the legal powers to intervene, and if I did intervene my legal position would be subject to very considerable challenge", and as a result he then moves on. I suspect none of you would be very happy and I anticipate receiving a letter in due course. This is designed to deal with precisely that kind of situation.

  1099. I think the reasons behind the proposal are clear, but what I was trying to get from you, Secretary of State, was whether you thought the new arrangements would be permanent or whether they were fluid and there would be further changes in future years.
  (Mr Hoon) Obviously these changes are to deal with the kind of changes I have set out to the Committee already. They will bring up to date if Parliament approves them the legal rights and responsibilities of police officers in the kinds of circumstances that I have described, to reflect the changes and events which have occurred since 1987. I do not anticipate significant further changes. I am not ruling them out but I cannot think of any off-hand which would require further changes. Were there to be further changes, we would be asking Parliament to consider alterations in the legislation appropriately, but I am not aware there are any.

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