HC Deb 11 May 2001 vol 368 cc376-81

Lords amendment: No. 1, leave out clause 31.

10.13 am
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker

With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 5 to 11.

Mr. Spellar

Despite the official form of words, the Government very much regret losing such useful measures. The amendments remove from the Bill the whole of part IV, which deals with Ministry of Defence police, and all other references that are relevant to part IV.

It is interesting to reflect that, only a few months ago, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) told the House during the debate on the Queen's Speech on 11 December that he welcomed the proposals on the MOD police. As I recall, he did not single out any other part of the Bill for favourable treatment. That positive reaction came as no great surprise to us. After all, the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) had in April last year asked the Secretary of State for Defence:

"if he will bring forward legislation to extend the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence Police to give them the same constabulary powers as the Home Office police".—[Official Report. 18 April 2000; Vol. 348. c. 430W.]

We did not go that far, but in that light, I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome our proposals. Indeed, he continued in the same vein on Second Reading on 9 January, when moving a reasoned amendment that did not mention the MOD police.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Is the hon. Gentleman therefore intending, if the Government are fortunate enough to be re-elected, to reintroduce the measures?

Mr. Spellar

As always, we shall have to consider the availability of parliamentary time, as hon. Members know full well. That is why it is so unfortunate that the Opposition have behaved so disgracefully.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Before the Minister goes any further down that path, I should point out that it is not the Opposition who have contrived matters, but the Government who have conceded something in the other place. It is nonsense to rant about things that I said some years ago. Of course it is true that I wanted to extend the jurisdiction. We warned the Government that they were heading for trouble, but they would not listen and have had to climb down as a result. That is entirely the Minister's fault.

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman is disingenuous. Conservative Members in the other place blocked the

measures at the instigation of Conservative Front Benchers in this House—despite what they have said to the MOD police and in the House and in Committee.

In moving the reasoned amendment, the hon. Gentleman said on the proposal to extend the jurisdiction of the MOD police:

We broadly welcome that, although we will want to examine in depth the interface between the MOD, Home Office and military police and how the proposals will affect those relationships. That is quite right. He went on: The alignment of the forces discipline procedures with those of Home Department police forces has taken a long time to achieve. We will need to ensure that the procedures will be satisfactory."— [Official Report, 9 January 2001; Vol. 360, c. 905.] Rightly, the hon. Gentleman wanted to consider the matter. Indeed, a Select Committee deliberated on the Bill and produced a special report—which was agreed unanimously, without any amendment being moved by the Opposition, let alone defeated.

The Select Committee said of the proposals: We believe that there is a case for giving MDP officers greater powers than that of a citizen when they are attempting to deal with emergency situations which they come across in fulfilling their normal duties. That is absolutely right. It went on to say that effective co-operation and co-ordination of activities between the MDP and local police forces is a matter fundamental to public confidence in policing. We welcome the Secretary of State's assurance that the revised Protocols, once agreed, will be published and made readily available to the general public. That is a broad welcome.

The Select Committee also reported with approval that the witness for the Association of Chief Police Officers said that it believed the legislation would improve the current position by providing clarity and transparency in what was currently 'a grey area'. Let us move to deliberations in Standing Committee. Clauses 31 and 32 were agreed without a Division. Let us move to 2 April and proceedings on Report. The Opposition divided on clause 31, suddenly opposing it, but chose not to divide on clause 32. When the Bill reached the other end of the Palace, their lordships, at the instigation of Conservative Front Benchers, blocked both useful measures.

Let me describe what the measures aimed to achieve. They were modest adjustments to the jurisdiction of the MOD police in the light of experience since the Ministry of Defence Police Act 1987. In the professional assessment of MOD police themselves, gaps and other areas that needed to be improved had appeared. Far from being an agenda to expand the role of the force, the proposals were designed to enable it to operate effectively in meeting the demands placed on it.

The proposals were also designed to ensure that individual MDP officers were not placed in the impossible position, when faced with an emergency, of choosing between refusing to assist or acting in a way that might leave them at risk of legal challenge. Such situations are now more likely to arise than in 1987, because individual MDP officers are expected to move frequently between different defence establishments in order to discharge their responsibilities at those establishments. Indeed, as I said, the Select Committee noted that there is a case for giving MDP officers greater powers than that of a citizen when they are attempting to deal with emergency situations". The Lords amendments also propose that we lose clause 32 and, consequentially, schedule 5. Those provisions included important but completely uncontroversial proposals. As I have said throughout the Bill's passage, they would have made a significant difference to the administration of the Ministry of Defence police and enabled their disciplinary procedures to be brought into line with those of other police forces—which would, incidentally, have addressed the Opposition's apparent concern that ministerial involvement in the affairs of the Ministry of Defence police should be reduced. They would also have regularised the position of potential recruits who handle firearms during the assessment of their fitness for service and achieved the regime for statutory inspection of the Ministry of Defence police for which the Opposition pressed. Indeed, with the exception of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), they welcomed the relevant money resolution in the House, and we amended the Bill expressly to meet their concerns on that score.

On Third Reading, the hon. Member for Salisbury spoke about visiting the MDP headquarters at Weathersfield and went on to say some warm words about the Ministry of Defence police. He said: I look forward to visiting Weathersfield. He might want to leave a suitable interlude before doing so. He went on to say: I have been invited and I shall certainly go, because I am convinced now that it is a mature police force and that its training is up to Home Office standard. Not only is it inspected by the Home Office constabularies, but it trains Home Office forces in a number of areas; we must dispel the myth. This is a criticism not of the police, but of the Government".—[Official Report, 2 April 2001; Vol. 366, c. 125.] That is about playing party political games; it is not concern about effective policing.

The way in which the Opposition have behaved is an insult to the Ministry of Defence police and to their fine representatives in the Defence Police Federation. We will hear much from Conservatives in the next few weeks about law and order and their opposition to crime, but what do they do when a modest proposal is made in that regard? They block it in order to play political games. I am not sure whether that is due to the general election or whether the Opposition spokesman on defence, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, who is not present, is trying to bolster up his credentials for the only election in which Conservative Members are interested: that which will occur after the general election, when they choose a new Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Key

I invite the Minister to calm down. He is looking awfully red and flustered. Indeed, I cannot remember when I last heard so much bluster and fluster from a Minister. If he cannot handle his own business in the House better, I shudder to think what would happen if he were ever to manage a crisis. He has just presented us with the most withered fig leaf that I have seen a Minister use for some time, in an attempt to cover up his own inadequacy. It is astonishing that he believes that the Opposition can block a measure either in the other place or in this House. The Government still have an enormous majority—for the time being. I hope that he will consider these matters slightly more rationally. After all, he revealed that he does not know what is going on in Scotland in respect of the Scottish brigades. He seems also to be unaware of what is happening in his Department. I hope, therefore, that we can approach the debate a little more rationally.

We welcome the amendments. It is entirely the Government's fault that they have got themselves tied up in knots. For a start, they need not have opted to have an election now at all: it is a year early. The Prime Minister has cut and run, which has caused the problem. I was not privy to negotiations in the other place, but I know that Cross Benchers expressed serious concern. It must have been serious, if the Government were prepared to cave in so quickly there. They did not take the matter to the wire. They did not try very hard or even press for a Division. It is no good the Minister blustering; he failed to negotiate in the House of Lords and was not prepared to press the matter.

Let us get the record straight. The Ministry of Defence police have their proud origins back in the days of Samuel Pepys. They are a great security service. It was a Conservative Government who delivered the Ministry of Defence Police Act 1987, as a result of a careful and thorough report that was produced for the Ministry of Defence. The report was specific about the limits of the Ministry of Defence police. We have just spent some three months in Committee exploring the is me of jurisdiction. We were convinced that jurisdiction was being reasonably extended. We have no quarrel with that, but we voted in the final stages of the Bill's passage through this House against the clauses standing part of the Bill. I explained our reasons then and I do not want to repeat them now.

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman said that the Opposition voted against the clauses. Will he confirm that they voted against clause 31, but not clause 32?

Mr. Key

That is correct. We thought that it was important to make the point. We wanted to make it clear that we had reservations about the Bill. Our concern related not to jurisdiction, but to the way in which the provisions were introduced.

Mr. Spellar

In that case, why did the Opposition oppose clause 32 as well as clause 31 in the other place, at the hon. Gentleman's behest?

Mr. Key

I have already said that I was not privy to the negotiations in the other place, which is independent of this House. That is what the Government have never managed to understand. They do not realise that the House of Lords is independent; the Conservative party in the Lords does not take instructions from the House of Commons. [Interruption.] The Minister can snigger, but their attitude to the Lords symbolises everything that is wrong with this rotten Government and the way in which they have eroded the democracy of Parliament for the past four years.

For four years, this Labour Government knew that they could have introduced in a measured way the legislation that was necessary to increase the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence police, but they chose not to do so. In the end, they were bounced into it, and we heard about that only because of the incautious remarks that the out-going former chief constable of the Ministry of Defence police made in response to last autumn's fuel protests, when his service was caught without being able to provide proper police cover. That was the motive for tacking the clauses on to the Bill.

For four years, the Government could have done something sensible. They could have waited for the first of the quinquennial reviews, which has been under way since last October and with which the Ministry of Defence police have been fully engaged. They could have considered the review, done a proper job and then introduced a Bill. The fact is, however, that after four years they have failed to deliver. Ministers have let down more than 3,000 Ministry of Defence policemen and their families. Those people are doing a thoroughly professional job—that is not in question—but they have a different regime. They do not have the standard disciplinary procedures of the Home Office police force, but they should have, and that is what the Opposition have been asking for. We gave the Government the benefit of the doubt in the House of Commons, but the Lords said that they were not convinced.

It is important to stress that we are not opposed in principle to the extension of the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence police. The more that we scrutinised the clauses, however, the more that we realised that they were a stop-gap, piecemeal response to the fuel protests. We will undertake a review of the role of the Ministry of Defence police. Indeed, I might say that we will do so in government, in a few weeks' time.

I think that the Minister has overlooked the problem of disciplinary procedures, which remain without a statutory basis. He has also overlooked the concerns that have been expressed by hon. Members from all parties, including his own, about the problem of protocols between the Home Office police forces and the Ministry of Defence police. We were told by the Ministry of Defence that there would be standing arrangements at a high level that would be subject not to legislation or even to statutory instruments, but to deals made between the Ministry of Defence and Home Office police forces after the Bill was enacted.

We also raised severe and difficult issues about jurisdiction over civilians and about increasing investigation of serious crime by the Ministry of Defence police. I have no quarrel with that, as it is a natural evolution of the service that they provide. They have shown that they perform to the highest Home Office standards, which is why I accepted the invitation to go to Weathersfield. I think that the Minister might be surprised, as he seems to think that every Ministry of Defence policeman will suddenly be outraged that the Government backed down in the Lords. What will outrage the Ministry of Defence police is the fact that he has caved in and is now trying to shift the blame.

Above all, we raised serious issues about the accountability of the Ministry of Defence police and the transparency of their operations and their relationship with Ministers. We also asked about the independence or otherwise of a chief constable, who can be "instructed" by a Minister—the very word that the Minister used in the Chamber today in answer to a parliamentary question.

The aspect of the Bill that we are considering is a fiasco of the Government's making. We look forward to reverting to the matter as soon as possible. I can understand why the Minister is a little scratchy about it; he probably hoped to be back in his constituency campaigning by now. However, parliamentary democracy and proper scrutiny have been well served by their lordships' action yesterday. I do not know why the Minister and his colleagues in another place caved in, but that is what they did.

We shall support the Ministry of Defence police on the ground as we have always done. We look forward to the return of the subject that we have been considering.

10.30 am
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Before the debate, I was told that the Government had graciously agreed in another place to drop the relevant clauses. I therefore feel that I have wandered into a hornet's nest without much armour to protect me from the stings.

I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). The Government must accept that there are serious reservations about military police invasion, if I may use that word, of civilian territory. It is important to deal with the matter in much more detail, and at leisure, not in a great hurry at the end of a Parliament.

Some people cynically expressed the view that lack of civilian police has led the Government to believe that it might be helpful if the military police moved into their territory. The Government must therefore accept that there are genuine reservations about the provisions, calm down and reflect on them after the election.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 3 agreed to.

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