HC Deb 04 May 1976 vol 910 cc1229-39

11. 45 p.m.

Mr. Beith

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, page 1, line 18, at end add— '(3) The carrying and use of firearms by an Authority constable shall be subject to such regulations as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State'. The Minister may understand the reason for the amendment. I am anxious to secure some change in the situation in which the Secretary of State has almost no responsibilities in relation to the Atomic Energy Authority police—indeed, so few that it is impossible to call him to account in the House for its activities. There may be alternative ways of dealing with this problem and this may not be the best drafting, but I hope that he understands the concern that hon. Members should be able to find means of question- ing the Secretary of State in this important area of the carrying and potential use of firearms.

The Secretary of State's statutory responsibilities, which I want to discuss in a little more detail on a later amendment, are very limited indeed. On a previous occasion the Minister said that his right hon. Friend had no specific responsibilities but that the Government took steps to satisfy themselves that the arrangements for safeguarding nuclear installations were adequate in the light of the circumstances prevailing. That was in answer to a specific question about the extent of the Secretary of State's specific responsibilities in relation to the police force of the authority. It is a familiar form of words that we hear in relation to many nationalized industries. It is a familiar form of words that is used when one is trying to avoid day-to-day interference by Minister in the management of commercial undertakings. One can understand why it has found a place in many statutes.

However, this cannot be so readily applied to police powers, particularly when they extend to the use of firearms. This is by no means the same as a commercial decision. In the case of the Metropolitan Police constable, we are in a position to ask the Home Secretary, because of his powers, a wide variety of questions in order to call to account the way in which police powers are exercised in the metropolis. Outside London we have a dual relationship provided partly by the responsibilities of the police authority and partly by the more limited powers of the Home Secretary. By two democratic sources it is possible for democratic accountability to be exercised. However, we arc in some difficulty in this matter in relation to the Atomic Energy Authority police.

The mere tabling of Questions presents difficulties, and there are a number of answers that Ministers are not prepared to give. Therefore, I do not see how the hon. Gentleman can write to me, as he did recently, and say that the Secretary of State would be ready to answer in the House in relation to any incident in which weapons were fired by the AEAC other than for training purposes. I accept the hon. Gentleman's assurance that this is so, but I must point out that it is an extremely limited assurance. Arms might be used without being fired. They might be used in a threatening manner or carried in a way that provoked some complaint from the public. Arms might be a source of difficulty without being fired at all.

The Secretary of State's expression of willingness to reply to Questions is not the same thing as a Member's ability to get a reply from him. Does it mean that the Secretary of State would be willing to make a statement if a serious row or a particular crisis arose? It does not mean that a Member could go to the Table Office and say "I have a letter from a Minister of the previous Government who said that the Minister would be ready to answer Questions, and may I table a Question?" He would get a polite but negative answer from the officials of the Table Office.

In the vital area of firearms it is essential that the Secretary of State has, on the face of the statute, powers that enable him to be questioned in the House about the way in which firearms training is given, the way in which firearms might be used, and so on. I understand that there might be circumstances in which it would be quite inappropriate and against the public interest to give to the House details about particular uses of firearms. But that is a familiar feature of civil police and Metropolitan Police arrangements already. The House will understand security situations in which Ministers' replies must be more guarded than they might be if such problems were not part of the question.

None of that precludes us from having a clear, precise and reliable arrangement under which the powers of the Secretary of State are such as to ensure that he takes responsibility and that he can be called to account for that responsibility. If we lack those features we shall leave the Bill in a state which seriously denies democratic accountability. In the case of a police authority carrying arms and making contact with the public, the absence of such accountability could be regarded as a very dangerous threat to our civil liberties.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I think that the way in which this proposal is most likely to work is by the Secretary of State discussing and agreeing standing orders with the Atomic Energy Authority. Those standing orders will cover the acquisition, carrying, and circumstances in which weapons may be used. That would be a satisfactory procedure, and I hope that the Minister will tell us that is what he has in mind.

The issue raised by the amendment is whether the standing orders agreed between the Secretary of State and the Atomic Energy Authority's special constables will be made known to Parliament. This is a difficult problem, because I can conceive of circumstances in which it would be unwise to make known the precise details of standing orders covering matters of this kind. I think that the House is bound to rely largely on assurances, given possibly in more general terms than we might like, by Ministers.

To what extent should Ministers, who are accountable to this House, be required to answer questions relating to the use by the authority's police of its powers under the legislation, and in particular its use of fire arms outside its own premises? This is a new matter which is being established by the Bill.

I think that the only way in which a Secretary of State can responsibly exercise his powers and duties under the Bill is more or less in the way in which he exercises similar powers and duties in respect of other nationalised industries. In short, he must be responsible generally to the House and should answer questions on general matters. The Minister ought not to have to come to the House and deal with clay-to-day management problems. That principle ought to apply to members of the Atomic Energy Authority's police and their use of weapons in the same way as it applies to all other forms of technical services provided by our nationalised industries.

There are several points which I should like the Minister to consider. I hope that he will give precise replies. The first concerns the arrangements by which guns and sub-machine guns will be made available and carried in certain circumstances across the whole range of this country on suspicion. Will the Minister tell us now whether it will be normal for Atomic Energy Authority special constables, going about armed on suspicion, to carry their pistols hidden or visible? This is an important point in the police service. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the carrying of concealed weapons is a more serious matter than the carrying of weapons overtly. Therefore, my first question is whether it is intended that, in the normal course of their duties, the armed special constables of the authority shall carry their weapons visibly or concealed.

Secondly, will they always wear uniform, so that the regular civil police and the general public will be able to recognise them for what they are? If they are to be in plain clothes, there may be certain advantages. But where they are, in general, guarding fissionable material in transit, in my view they should be seen for what they are by wearing uniforms and having their weapons unconcealed.

My third question concerns training. Will the Minister tell us that no Atomic Energy Authority special constables will go about the highways and by-ways of this country carrying weapons unless they have already received training at least to the levels required by the Metropolitan police in the use of pistols and by the Army in the use of sub-machine guns? I do not believe that it would be right or acceptable to Parliament that such weapons should be carried, unless there is an assurance that training and proficiency in the use of those weapons has been achieved to those standards.

My last question concerns the certification of proficiency and of the right to carry weapons about the country. The normal procedure is for a person to obtain a certificate to carry a gun for a specific purpose and under proper lawful authority. That person can be required by any police officer, in the discharge of his duties, to produce that certificate, thereby establishing that he is lawfully in possession of that weapon.

At a time when this country is threatened by an increase in gun crimes with the numbers of weapons which are in circulation, it is of paramount importance that the police should be able to require of any person carrying a weapon that he has a certificate in his possession which demonstrates why he has the weapon and that he is entitled to use it for the purpose set out in the certificate.

May we have an assurance that no Atomic Energy Authority special constable will go about the country carrying a weapon unless he has a certificate which can be produced on challenge to any police officer showing that he is entitled to a weapon and that he is proficient in its use?

Mr. Eadie

I think that I can give some of the assurances sought by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths). The whole House shares his desire that firearms in the hands of Atomic Energy Authority constables should be handled with care.

I shall reply in detail to the questions raised by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). He said that the accountability of the Secretary of State was crucial and that there should be clarification about the day-to-day management of nationalised industries and he raised the subject of democratic accountability. He said that he wanted further explanation than that contained in my letter to him. I tried my best to be helpful in that letter. I recognise the hon. Gentleman's difficulty over the tabling of Questions. That is a difficulty experienced by all hon. Members in their political careers, but they sometimes manage to overcome such difficulties. I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about the public interest aspect, but I must add that the subsection is not necessary to achieve his objective. The Secretary of State already has powers to give particular or general directions to the authority, subject to his being satisfied that there is an overriding national interest which requires his intervention.

It will be helpful if I clarify the Secretary of State's responsibility for the Atomic Energy Authority police. Members of the Force are sworn in by two justices of the peace under the Special Constables Act 1923. It is not a quasicivil police force but an established authority police force. It is not semi-official, as some hon. Members have suggested. Constables are sworn in on the nomination of the authority and, in accordance with provisions in the 1923 Act, they are under the exclusive control of the Atomic Energy Authority. The Secretary of State has ultimate responsibility to Parliament for the authority and has the power which I have described to give directions to it. That is the aspect of democratic accountability.

12 midnight

While it seems right that the basic position should continue, with the AEA police under the control of the AEA and the Secretary of State not responsible or answerable to Parliament for the day-to-day operations of the force, the arming of the constabulary makes it necessary for the Secretary of State to be involved in some measure. The standing orders under which firearms will be stored, carried and if necessary used by the AEA police will be agreed upon by the Secretary of State and will not be changed without his agreement.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will remember what I said about the Secretary of State's accountability to Parliament. The Secretary of State will be ready to answer in Parliament for any incident, apart from training, in which weapons are fired by the AEA police. If necessary, he could use the powers of direction to which I have referred in order to ensure that the orders reflected his view of what should be done.

Mr. Beith

I am grateful to the Minister for the great care with which he is trying to clarify the position. It is in the interests of the House to have this clarification. I hope that in the form of words the hon. Gentleman chose—that the Secretary of State would be prepared to answer to the House where weapons were fired—he was not seeking to define the absolute limit of the Secretary of State's answerability. It might well be thought right that he should answer when no weapons had been fired but serious public concern had arisen.

Mr. Eadie

I tried to show as clearly as I could the element of democratic accountability that the Secretary of State has even if no firearms are fired. I think that I met the six main points that I noted in the hon. Gentleman's speech, and I hope that my answer has alleviated his fears.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Will the Minister deal with the specific question of the use of the firearm for menacing? Will the Secretary of State expect to answer to Parliament, within his discretion, where a pistol has been used by a member of the AEA constabulary to menace a person subsequently found to be entirely innocent, who should not have been subjected to that?

Mr. Eadie

This takes us back to the long debate we had on the new clause. The hon. Gentleman is raising the question of the conduct of officers in the constabulary. The House has already reached a decision on that subject. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am wrong he can pursue the matter, but if he reflects he will realise that he is talking about conduct and whether disciplinary action should be taken against the individual.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed raised some good points about public accountability and democratic interest. It may not be very popular with some people, but I understood his point. I think that he is raising an entirely new issue. It seems to me that this way of proceeding is better than to have regulations made by the Secretary of State.

I want to deal with the important points raised by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds. He asked for a more general assurance. He had agreed my point about day-to-day management, and conceded the difficulties in that. He also raised the important role of a proper standard of training. I ask him to recollect that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State in the previous debate mentioned that the training was carried out in Dorset by civil police. The standard of training will be not lower than the standard demanded by the civil police. I can assure him that that point will not be treated lightly.

On the need for certificates, he will realise that the purpose of the Bill is to do away with certificates. If he looks at the Bill, which I think he has in his hand, he will see that the officers will now be treated as Crown servants and will not require certificates. That is an important power.

I can understand that the police are concerned. On Second Reading, in his courageous speech, the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds said that he was concerned about civil liberties. He spoke of the kind of world we would like to live in and the kind of world we were living in—I am paraphrasing—and that much as we did not like the powers, Parliament had to give them in the national interest and in the interest of all the people. The issue about certificates is one which he raised on Second Reading.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Can the hon. Member try to deal with the specific matters? He will understand that since we agree that the standing orders cannot be a matter for normal parliamentary interrogation, this is the last chance for the Government to say anything on this point in general.

Will the AEA police normally wear uniform or be in plain clothes? Will they be recognisable to the police and public? Will they carry pistols concealed, or not concealed so that the public are aware that they are worn?

Mr. Eadie

I want to give as much information as possible. The hon. Member does not have to plead. The police will be in uniform, as I think he knows. Weapons will be visible. People will be able to see them. I said to him on Second Reading that there will be circumstances which will create problems but I am authorised to say, with the Secretary of State who is sitting here, listening carefully—this is an important clause dealing with important principles and the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has put a principle to which a great part of the House is sympathetic—that the Secretary of State will try to interpret the general tenor of the debate in his conduct of the responsibilities which Parliament has laid upon him under this Bill. I trust that I have done the best I can to reply to that question.

Mr. Beith

The Under-Secretary has been courteous and careful in seeking to clarify the extent of the responsibilities of the Secretary of State. The difference between us is not one of doubt about the assurances that he has given. I do not doubt his good faith in saying how he and his right hon. Friend wish to interpret this legislation. But we are dealing with legislation, and the significance of what we do tonight may last for a very long time, through many future Governments. The authority attaching to the hon. Gentleman's assurances does not extend that far. I am always ready to accept assurances given about what Ministers will do at later stages of a Bill, but assurances which extend beyond their competence, power and even lifetime, are quite different.

The principal difficulty in my view is that in this legislation the Secretary of State does not have sufficient powers. That is an argument which might not appeal to some hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench. But it is very important, because Ministers exercise a great deal of influence and power in a matter of this kind, and that should be made clear in the Bill.

From all that the Under-Secretary said, it is clear that the Secretary of State will be closely involved in the preparation of the standing orders and will exercise a power beyond any provision contained in the Bill. But the right hon. Gentleman is given only one responsibility in the Bill, and that is concerned with the making of regulations defining "fissile material". The Bill gives a great deal of power and responsibility to the authority, but very little to the Secretary of State. The authority is not answerable to this House. The Secretary of State is—and that is the crucial issue.

It is not satisfactory to leave the Bill with so little clear responsibility in it for the Secretary of State. The Under-Secretary's assurance goes some way to set out the circumstances in which his right hon. Friend would be willing to answer questions, and I suspect that, if serious problems arose, he would answer questions. But that does not appear in the legislation in a form which guarantees this right in the future. This House should be concerned about that and

Question accordingly negatived.

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