HC Deb 09 May 1996 vol 277 cc389-401 4.42 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I beg to move amendment No. 81, in page 2, line 10, at end insert `Provided that no regulations shall be made under paragraphs (j) and (k) above until a full report on the consultative process and pilot studies relating to the Ministry of Defence police has been made to the House.'. I move this amendment with some reluctance because I was hoping that the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill would agree with my general attitude on the future of the Ministry of Defence police, which the clause addresses. If implemented, the clause would cause considerable damage to that fine organisation. Unfortunately, the Committee—with the casting vote of an excellent Chairman, who had this one lapse—did not agree. Because the voting was five to five, and the Chairman's vote consigned the amendment not to the clause but to the relevant part of the report, I thought that I should give the House an opportunity to consider the two views on the matter—which are not and should not be party political—and to discuss clause 2 and what it entails, particularly for the MOD police.

The MOD police is a non-Home Department police force that has served with great distinction for many years. My intention is not to try to wreck the concept, but merely to give the House an opportunity to consider in more detail what the MOD has in mind for the future of the MOD police. As we all know, the clause is intended to set up a new organisation, which will clearly have a detrimental effect on existing organisations. I repeat that my amendment is intended not to wreck anything but to give the House an opportunity to debate what the MOD is still in the process of doing—undertaking a series of consultations on the future of defence organisations and defence concepts. If my amendment secures sufficient support, I hope that the MOD will pause and give some thought to those matters.

No monopoly on wisdom is held by any individual or political party anywhere in relation to security policy. In relation to defence, which is the responsibility of the MOD, clearly the right decisions have to be made. Unfortunately, over the years other members of the Select Committee on Defence and myself have reached the conclusion that the MOD does not always get things right on policing and security.

The Defence Committee was largely responsible for stopping the privatisation of security at the royal ordnance factories when they were taken out of Government control in the early 1980s. Later, that Committee played an enormous part in ensuring that, when British Aerospace took over the royal ordnance factories, it took with it the MOD police. The Committee produced a very critical report on the MOD Deal barracks bombing, and it is currently in the midst of another evaluation of a substantial change being considered by the MOD.

The Defence Committee is still examining the report produced by the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, of which I was a member. Unfortunately, the MOD police and security have been subject to almost constant examination. I recall the Broadbent report in 1984, the "Guarding of Defence Installations" report in 1989, the Blelloch inquiries and the Rucker report—some of which was made public. There have been investigations on several occasions by the inspectorate of constabulary, and internal inquiries. I fear that the MOD is getting it wrong again, and I want to give it time more seriously to consider what could be a precipitate decision.

If the MOD police were reduced to 2,500 in number—an almost inevitable consequence of the process of change that is being undertaken by the MOD, which will certainly be accelerated should clause 2 be passed—I fear that it would be extremely traumatic. If that happened, morale would sink very low and many of the best MOD police officers would leave, taking advantage of the compulsory redundancy terms on offer. For some years, the quality of the MOD police is likely to be impaired, but it would eventually recover.

Sir Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

In terms of the morale of the MOD police, I know that the hon. Gentleman knows that Chilwell and Chetwynd barracks are carved into my heart. I find that it will be the pilot scheme for this change. It will happen by April 1997—less than a year. There is considerable concern among the MOD police on the site in my constituency and among the local population, who feel that soldiers parading the fences around the depot would not have the same force as policemen, who have the power to intervene with all sorts of people in cases of burglary, car theft or whatever. So I am listening carefully to what my colleague is saying. I should say to my hon. Friend the Minister that it will be difficult for me to vote against the amendment.

Mr. George

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. His comments reinforce the point that I have sought to make over the years, that security should never be seen as a party political issue. The fact that members of the Defence Committee agree with much of what I say suggests that the Government should proceed with considerable caution.

My amendment of the text of the Select Committee report was intended to say, "Look, the MOD is making a series of inquiries into the future of policing and security. Please do not take any major decisions until that inquiry has been completed, evaluated and passed on to the House and its Defence Committee for evaluation." Surely there is nothing too dramatic about that. Nothing should be done until the Defence Committee has completed its overall examination based on the evidence that has been given to us and the forthcoming visit by the Minister, to which we are all looking forward, and reported. Nothing should be done until the pilot studies to which the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester) referred have been evaluated—I suggest that they should be evaluated independently as well as by the MOD. Only when all those legitimate conditions have been fulfilled should the Ministry of Defence proceed to make the changes that it appears hellbent on making.

It is my considered judgment that the MOD already has a mix of policing and security forces, from which it can draw to meet any future requirements, without recourse to the establishment of yet another organisation. There is surely a super-abundance of security and policing organisations. As yet, no justification has been given for creating one more.

Military home service engagement is a spurious concept that has not been properly explained. Nor has it secured the support of the House of Commons. It is in my view a further attempt to get at the MOD police because it is perceived that costs are too high. I say that security must not be tampered with and that the ultimate criterion by which we evaluate good policing and security is its success in catching adversaries, criminals and fraudsters and deterring potential ones. One should not be profligate, but surely one should not drive down costs to such a level that the organisation's future is in jeopardy.

I presume that, if the scheme goes ahead, soldiers recruited will be given redundancy payments and then re-employed. That is a distinct possibility. They will serve according to different conditions of service from those under which they serve in the armed forces.

We are several thousand soldiers short at present. The Navy and the Air Force want nothing to do with the scheme. It is hard to keep soldiers in the Army and to attract more soldiers to join the armed forces. Soldiers are now given a bounty if they can recruit a mate. If we cannot keep soldiers in the Army at existing pay rates, how are we to entice them in with lower pay, no overtime, no benefits and lower status? They will not have access to free housing or a housing allowance. I wonder how these men and, I presume, women are to be recruited. They will be expected to serve Queen and country, yet this bizarre little organisation is being set up, which requires men and women to serve only in a limited area.

All of us who watch the Napoleonic wars being fought out weekly on the television are familiar with the old redcoat song, "Over the hills and far away." If the clause is accepted tonight, the song will need a slight amendment. It will go: Queen Anne commands and we'll obey

Over the hills and as far as Wolverhampton. People recruited in the west midlands will be required to serve Queen or King and country only within the travel-to-work area. It seems to me that it will be rather difficult to motivate people in those circumstances. Whatever the Minister says, it will be a second-class, inferior Army. That will make it even more difficult to recruit.

The MOD tested opinion among a few hundred soldiers and asked whether they would like to serve in some future guarding force. Twenty-five per cent. said that they would be interested, but they were not told what the wages would be, that they would not be allowed to work overtime or that they would not receive a housing allowance. So that little survey was spurious.

The Ministry of Defence police are being attacked and attacked fundamentally. Will the Minister tell us what will be the administration costs of the new guarding force? Will he tell us what witnesses were not able to tell either the Defence Committee or the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill how much it is all going to cost? The Defence Committee was told that it would cost some £42,000 to make a MOD policeman redundant. That figure went up a few months later to £85,000.

Then the Government said that it would take between seven and 11 years to reach break-even point. In other words, all this disruption to the MOD police and the guarding and policing of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and their families will not even pay off financially for between seven and 11 years. If my experience of MOD statistics is anything to go by, it will be even longer before there will be any achievement of profit, if that is the criterion.

It is estimated that the number of MOD police, which was 5,000 a few years ago, will be driven down to perhaps between 2,600 and 3,000—a cut of between 40 and 50 per cent. That will surely have an adverse effect on morale. The MOD police perform their tasks well. Will a force the size of which has been driven down by between 40 and 50 per cent. realise its functions of guarding, exercising constabulary powers, fulfilling its role in transition to war, fraud detection—of increasing importance—dealing with emergencies and assisting Home Office forces?

The future of policing within the MOD is threatened by what the Government intend to do. The Government must prove to us that the cost saving will be worth all the disruption. We shall have to have more information about whether the Treasury will fund the cost of the change. I suspect that, in a couple of years, any financial assistance from the Treasury will be withdrawn and that all the costs will fall on the MOD.

Therefore, I urge both sides of the Committee to join me in asking the Ministry of Defence not to proceed so quickly, as there are critical decisions to be made. The Ministry of Defence has embarked on at least three consultative exercises. It should conclude them before consulting the Defence Committee, not so that we can exercise our veto, but to discuss security and policing.

Although pilot studies are under way, the Government should make no further reductions beyond those proposed and those already achieved through redundancies. Only if the proposed changes are successful, valid and necessary in the exceedingly dangerous world in which we live, and only if the Government can prove that to the organisation concerned, the House and the Defence Committee, should those substantial changes be made.

If I receive assurances that there will be no major further changes, I shall be delighted not to divide the Committee, but if I do not receive those assurances, I shall seek the support of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee in forcing the amendment to a vote.

5 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

It is now more than a decade since the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and I served on the Ministry of Defence Police Bill. We have followed the security interests of the Ministry of Defence police and all the other police and security forces in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force since then. It is important that hon. Members are aware that there is support on both sides of the Committee for much of what the hon. Gentleman has said.

The Ministry of Defence police must be the most reviewed police force ever. There is real anger among Ministry of Defence policemen, not just in my constituency, where I met the Ministry of Defence police from Land Command only 10 days ago, and had an extremely fruitful discussion. Part of the trouble was that they did not know what was happening, although it would affect their numbers, and their lives and careers and those of their families.

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I shall be unable to support him if he seeks to divide the Committee, for reasons that I explained to the Select Committee. In addition, I believe that there is merit in the proposal for local service engagement, which I would not wish to prevent. I am glad that it has been recommended that the Defence Committee should review the matter, so that we can press the Minister and his officials on future security arrangements.

We should bear it in mind, however, that the agencies now established in the Ministry of Defence pay for their own security. There is downward financial pressure on them, so they seek to achieve the best possible use of the most appropriate policing techniques. That might well involve more use of soldiers or service men and women as well as new security arrangements, in addition to the guard force.

I continue to be concerned by the interface with the Home Office police. In areas of military concentration such as my constituency—as well as in Colchester and other places—there are real issues to be addressed. It is assumed that if there is a reduction in the numbers of Ministry of Defence police, there will be substitution by the Home Office police to achieve the same level of policing. I do not believe that that will happen. However, constructive discussions are taking place about joint control rooms, for example, and there is best practice of county constabularies to be followed around the country, on such matters as joint patrolling. In Colchester, for example, there is an outstanding system whereby the Ministry of Defence police and the military police patrol with the county constabulary. That may be the way ahead.

I am much reassured by the chief constable of the Ministry of Defence police and by the answer that I received to a recent parliamentary question, informing me that radio communications between the county constabularies and the Ministry of Defence police are much better than they were even a year or two ago.

Local service engagements are a good idea. Whatever is decided for the future role of the Ministry of Defence police, there will be a role for local service engagements, but I view with great concern the contraction of the Ministry of Defence police, especially as—except in Whitehall—it is not quite clear exactly what will happen. The concept of area policing teams for Ministry of Defence police should be developed much further, but this is not the place to do it. It is a matter for the Defence Committee.

I am grateful for the opportunity to put on record my misgivings about what is happening to the Ministry of Defence police and to pay tribute to their work. It is of a very high standard and it is unique in that they now have full constabulary powers. They play an important role in the policing of our civilian communities and are often the first people to whom married quarters personnel turn when there is trouble on Army estates. My hon. Friend the Minister should be fully aware of the concern on both sides of the Committee.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

I cannot claim the length of commitment of the two hon. Members who have already spoken, but, as a member of the Defence Committee, I have had the opportunity to hear evidence on some of the matters with which the amendment is concerned and, at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), I visited his constituency which contains the atomic weapons establishments at Burfield and Aldermaston. The Ministry of Defence police have a significant, important and considerable role in ensuring proper practice in and around those establishments.

If the clause were to become law, it would not be mandatory, but permissive. It would allow the Ministry of Defence—if it so chose—to introduce a system of local service engagements. The nature of the debate so far, and in particular the misgivings that were expressed by the two hon. Gentlemen who have spoken, seems to argue strongly against the introduction of such a service.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester), in an intervention, identified the central issue. The Ministry of Defence police do not function merely as armed guards. They possess full police powers, so they can prevent crime and deal directly with criminals and all other categories of person. Those inducted under a system of local service engagements would have a limited capability. They would have legal powers over service personnel only and there is much evidence to suggest that civilians constitute the main threat to the security of defence property.

If the basis of the proposal is the desire to make savings, any savings that may be made by reducing the number of Ministry of Defence police must be set against the cost of making members of that force redundant, establishing a new organisation and—what is not always fully considered—the effect of the substantial sums, perhaps running into millions of pounds, that must be saved every year by virtue of their ability to prevent and detect crime, a capability that those on local service engagements could not possess.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) rightly drew attention to the rather curious conditions that may attach to service in such a force. Recruits are to be drawn from ex-service personnel. They will be offered considerably lower rates of pay than those available in the Army, their conditions of service will be much inferior to those currently enjoyed in the Army and there will be no long-term job security. They will have to observe service discipline, and their principal activity will be static armed guarding, which is notoriously unpopular in the armed services. It seems that the proposition in respect of local service engagements is hardly attractive, so there must be considerable doubt whether enough people of the right calibre could be recruited on those terms.

If the Ministry of Defence police are removed from an area, it will still require policing. That burden will inevitably fall on what are described as the Home Department police—the local force in any area—and it is one that, so far, they have not been required to bear. I shall be interested to know what the reactions of chief constables throughout the land will be when they find themselves subject to an additional policing burden when there is continuing pressure from hon. Members in all parts of the House for the police to be more active and effective in preventing and detecting crime.

A concept similar to local service engagement has been presented on no fewer than three previous occasions, but it has been abandoned as unviable. The Government's proposals do not take sufficient account of the vital considerations of security, safety and crime prevention. If the hon. Member for Walsall, South feels compelled to force his amendment to a Division, he will certainly have my support.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

I am certainly not opposed to change. I have often supported revolutionary change, but I appeal to the Minister to acknowledge that the proposed amendment is sensible and reasonable. Its purpose is not to overturn Government policy, but to suggest that there should at some stage be a review of a pilot scheme. I have seen many changes that were well intentioned but which turned out to provide a poorer service at greater expense. The Government's proposal is not new, but has been tried on three previous occasions and, as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said, it was abandoned because it could not work.

In 1985—probably before most of the hon. Members present entered the House, but I was here—the royal ordnance factories were privatised. They were purchased by British Aerospace but, as a result of serious doubts about lack of security expressed by the Defence Committee, the MOD police were forced on Royal Ordnance as a condition of sale. The House insisted that privatisation be subject to the provision of MOD police.

We must bear in mind the dangers of establishing new organisations. I know that the Government are wholly opposed to quangos—I am sure we all are—but, these days, there seem to be more and more little offices and officials, and more people supervising something. Somebody will have to supervise military local service engagement, monitor its operation and how good it is, its conditions and whether the interests of the law-abiding public are properly represented. Has consideration been given to the cost?

The removal of a well-respected police force with a record of success often has a serious effect on an organisation's security. The Minister is not only cautious, but thorough and talented. I hope that he acknowledges there is always a danger of clever people—unlike those of us on the Back Benches—with great ideas being carried away with implementing them, without in every case anticipating how they will turn out in practice.

The amendment is saying, "This is a wonderful idea, and it will provide a better service at lower cost"—as Conservatives always want to do—"but let us check in case it is not the right idea." There is a case for caution, because the concept was tried before and did not work. The amendment seems to make sound, common sense. Although revolutionaries such as me and other Back Benchers always want big changes, there is always the risk that things that are working perfectly well will be upset.

I ought to declare a constituency interest in that Southend, East is the location of DTEO Shoeburyness. The P and EE, as we used to call it, is now run by another organisation that I do not entirely understand—although I met its chief executive the other day. He has a nice big office. He is a splendid man, and I am sure that he does a great job. He told me that there is no doubt in the local community that the MOD police have a superb reputation, command great respect, and have a great tradition of success.

The proposed revolutionary change of halving the number of MOD police from 5,000 to 2,500 should not proceed until we can see that it will work. I appeal to the Minister to accept the spirit of the amendment, if not the amendment. We are not asking him to abandon a brilliant idea. It may be brilliant, although some people, like me, do not think so. Let us try to establish whether it is a brilliant idea before going ahead with it. The Government, as we all know, have been wonderful. They have great ideas and have made many great changes. Let us not spoil our record of success by going ahead with a change that might not work as brilliantly as all the other measures that they have introduced.

5.15 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Speaking as a reformist rather than as a revolutionary, I must at the outset declare a constituency interest. A goodly number of my constituents work across the Firth of Clyde at Calport and Faslane—some of them as police men and women. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) reasonably and sanely argued against the Ministry of Defence taking a precipitate decision about the terms and conditions of employment for those men and women. They are a fine body of decent, loyal, hard-working and highly skilled officers who deserve much better than that which the Bill proposes.

No change should be made before there is a genuine consultative process that involves those police officers or their representatives. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) spoke of the range of duties performed by MOD police, and he made the significant point that they often have to act against civilians. That is most clearly seen on the other side of the Clyde when there are demonstrations against nuclear submarines entering the river. As I have witnessed some of those demonstrations over the past 25 years, I can say with confidence that MOD police handle those often difficult situations in a mature and level-headed way.

I am not sure how many MOD police officers are employed at Calport and Faslane, but they must number 200 or 300. They, with their colleagues elsewhere in Scotland and south of the border, deserve fair-minded treatment. If they are to be presented with change, it can be legitimate only when it meets some of the understandable concerns and worries felt by those officers. I ask the Minister to accept the amendment and to ensure that any change is made only after genuine consultation with the representatives of the police officers in question.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I share the regard for the dedicated service given by Ministry of Defence police. I voted, as Chairman of the Select Committee on the Bill, against a comparable amendment, for two reasons—the Minister gave a categorical assurance that there would be a genuine pilot study of local service engagements, and there are two ways in which the MLSE concept can be scrutinised. One is by the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, which has effectively ceased to exist because we have reported; the other is through the Select Committee on Defence, of which the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and others are members. There are two Committees.

The question is not whether the pilot scheme should be subject to scrutiny, but how that scrutiny should be carried out. The right way to maintain scrutiny of the pilot study is through the Select Committee on Defence. My hon. Friend the Minister was good enough to brief the Select Committee when the concept of local service engagements was first put forward, and he is to appear before the Committee on 4 June. We will continue our study and scrutiny, and that is the right way to do it.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

Since everyone else has had a say, I am more or less obliged to say something. This is an important issue, but there are other important issues before us tonight, so I shall keep my comments brief. The Minister knows my views, which I have expressed. I am not convinced that we need another guard service or that we will be able to recruit the members of such a service as he suggests. I am thoroughly unconvinced that the figures for supposed costings have been prepared well, since we do not even know yet what the redundancy payments for the Ministry of Defence police would be.

The matter was discussed at length in Committee, and it has been voted on. It has been the subject of an investigation and it will continue to be investigated by the Defence Committee. The Minister has already given assurances. I hope that he will repeat his assurances tonight about the genuine nature of the pilot scheme and I hope that that will be sufficient to allow my hon. Friends not to push the amendment to a Division, which would unnecessarily divide us across parties.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), and I am happy to repeat to the House the same assurances that my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) set out.

We have had a good debate. The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) feels very strongly about such matters, and I have a great deal of respect for him. His knowledge of defence matters is positively daunting, and I look forward to what I understand will be a cheerful and, I hope, brief exchange with him in the Defence Committee. I am sure that the business will be dealt with and dispatched with the vigour and speed that is well known. I should be in and out in about 15 minutes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) has, throughout, expressed great concern and interest in the Ministry of Defence police, and not just because the Ministry of Defence police do an admirable job in his constituency. My hon. Friend is aware that many of the defence agencies, which operate extremely effectively in his constituency, often make representations to him about the importance of trying to bear down on the costs of guarding, which are very high.

I am aware of the visit to Newbury by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North—East (Mr. Campbell) and of his views, because he was good enough to discuss them with me earlier. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) paid a warm tribute to the brilliance of the Government and I share that view wholeheartedly. My hon. Friend has always regarded me as a paralysed wet when it comes to his views on revolutions. The changes are not a revolution, but a nice adjustment. I noted carefully what my hon. Friend said and I shall deal with the important points that he raised.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) also has an extensive MOD police presence in his constituency. He and I discussed this matter when he came to see me the other day. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport was an able and admirable Chairman of the Select Committee and I am sure that we all wish to pay tribute to his work. I am happy to extend to him again the reassurances that I gave the Select Committee.

Clause 2 will give the armed forces the flexibility to recruit personnel for military service in a specified locality rather than worldwide. As the hon. Member for Walsall, South knows, that is not an attempt to get at the MOD police—but nothing will ever persuade him that it is not, because he has it fixed in his mind firmly that we are trying to get at them. I wish to join the hon. Gentleman and all those hon. Members who paid tribute to the work of the MOD police. They do a splendid job and are a fine force that is greatly respected.

There are some tasks that might be unattractive to, or inappropriate for, full engagement regulars, but they might none the less best be carried out by uniformed service personnel rather than by civilians or police officers. The reasons for considering the use of local service personnel could vary according to the circumstances of the case. There are no plans or proposals for the general introduction of local service schemes other than for guarding. The Bill would give the option to introduce such schemes if the services saw a need for them before the next Armed Forces Bill in five years' time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport said, the matter has been carefully discussed in the Committee, and we have been round this buoy on several occasions. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury raised an important point about joint working. As he knows, I wholly endorse his views. I am determined to press forward on the matter, and I know that there is already a joint arrangement on Salisbury plain, which my hon. Friend has seen and which is extremely impressive and works well. I note his comments and I am well aware of his views.

On current assumptions, the size of the MOD police is expected to fall to between 2,500 and 3,000 by the early years of the next century. I want to make it plain to the House that it is my intention that they remain a substantial force able to provide a civil policing service, where that is required, throughout the whole Department. The chief constable and I are entirely confident that a force of 2,500 to 3,000, properly structured and resourced, will be able to do so. The force will lose some of the work that does not need to be done by police officers. In future, it will concentrate more on its constabulary role, as Sir John Blelloch recommended.

I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, South that the MOD police must be the most reviewed police force in the country. It has emerged from all the reviews with great credit, and the suggestion that morale is low is not true. They have had a difficult time, as have other parts of the Ministry of Defence, during a period of great change. The Select Committee heard from the chief constable that morale is not as low as some hon. Members have suggested.

Sir Jim Lester

One of the pilot schemes is taking place in my constituency. I can assure my hon. Friend that morale is not very high. The MOD police have been visited by somebody who talked about redundancy and how quickly the pilot scheme could be brought in. With respect, I request my hon. Friend to be sensitive to the people affected by the pilot schemes—never mind the bigger schemes—before any final decision is made.

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend will never deal with a more sensitive Minister than me. He has my assurance that I shall be extremely sensitive.

One of the new developments to which I referred concerns the MOD police area policing teams. As some hon. Members will know, we have already set up three teams, and I have now decided that the concept should be extended to other areas in Great Britain where teams are needed. That will require some additional MOD police posts, which should reduce the need for voluntary early retirements or severances during the Military Provost Guard Service—MPGS—pilot scheme.

Another factor that should reduce the need for MOD police voluntary early retirements or severances is the position of the royal ordnance factories. We had proposed to withdraw them from three royal ordnance factories when some important security enhancements had been completed to the satisfaction of the licensing authorities. The chief constables concerned and the Health and Safety Executive told us that they had no objections. In the event of an armed response being required at one of those factories, the local police would have provided it. I have now decided, however, that, in view of the current terrorist threat, this is not the right time to implement the proposal. I have therefore deferred the measure for two years, and we will consider the situation again in the light of the terrorist threat at that time.

Hon. Members have said that they foresee difficulties with recruiting for the military local service engagements. It is the considered judgment of the Ministry of Defence and the Army that that will not be the case. The members of the Select Committee who have made visits to familiarise themselves with the situation will realise that there are many young men and women who wish to leave the services but to continue their close association with service life. We believe that we will indeed be able to attract people of sufficient calibre to such a scheme.

If the MPGS pilot scheme were successful, the main scheme would follow on after about two years. About 500 further MOD police officers, employed only on guarding duties, would be replaced by military local service engagement soldiers. The earliest date for the beginning of the main scheme would be 1 April 1999. I expect to be ready to consult about the main scheme locations during the autumn. It will not be possible to do so earlier because of on-site complementary reviews that are still required at some sites that are under consideration. I have heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester) said about Chilwell. He is only too aware that he has discussed the matter with me on many occasions. He understands that I am entirely aware of the situation.

5.30 pm

Since the MPGS investment appraisals and affordability assessments were prepared last spring, a great deal of work has been done to develop the scheme. Much work has been done also on all the other proposals set out in all the various policing and guarding consultative documents. It is not surprising that some of the assumptions made last spring have needed some adjustment. I have therefore announced that the Ministry of Defence is preparing a new investment appraisal and affordability assessment to reflect the necessary changes. I have promised to make the results known to the Select Committee on Defence when I give evidence on 4 June. I am looking forward enormously to that occasion. I have ordered a new set of armour for it.

The new investment appraisal and affordability assessment will be set out also in a new consultative document, which will be issued shortly. That will be subject to further consultation. Although work on the new investment appraisal has not been completed, it is clear that it will confirm that the proposal offers the Ministry the prospect of significant resource-cost saving over the medium to long term without reduction in security standards. I am aware that the hon. Member for Walsall, South attaches the highest importance to that.

Concern has been expressed about the cost of redundancies. We are not expecting any compulsory redundancies. The planned reduction in size is enabling a number of officers, who wish to do so, to leave the force on voluntary early retirement or voluntary early severance terms. For reasons unconnected with the MPGS proposal, 331 officers left the force in that way last year. Until now, we have had to assume that the implementation of the MPGS pilot scheme next year will require consequential MPGS losses to be covered by a further scheme.

The amendment is defective. It might prevent any pilot scheme ever being implemented, which I am sure is not the intention. It might be interpreted as not allowing regulations permitting the introduction of MLSE to be made until a report has been made on the MPGS pilot scheme. In fact, the pilot scheme cannot be introduced until the MLSE regulations have been made.s

I note the concerns that have been expressed on both sides of the Committee. I hope that the assurance that I gave in the Select Committee will be accepted by the Committee of the whole House. I note especially the points that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East, to whom I defer in many ways. He says, importantly, that there is no point in change for the sake of change. My hon. Friend feels that something that works well should not be changed.

I accept that the system works very well, but it is expensive. I know that my hon. Friend will agree that the Ministry of Defence, which has had to bear down throughout its budget in every department, must examine carefully where high costs, which might be reduced, are incurred.

I ask the Committee to reject the amendment.

Mr. George

I assure the Minister that he need bring with him to the Select Committee on Defence not a suit of armour, but another suit. No one except the Minister appears to be enthusiastic about the proposal in clause 2. Most hon. Members seem to be downright opposed to it. Those who have not have been less than enthusiastic. To retain the bipartisan approach of the House of Commons and of the Select Committee on Defence, which will be meeting the Minister shortly—it will be an occasion when we can explain and probe rather more fully than is possible in the Chamber—I shall take into account the partial concessions that have been offered.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 2 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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