HC Deb 27 July 1988 vol 138 cc352-4W
Mr. David Shaw

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a further statement on allegations of strip searching at Greenham Common.

Mr. Archie Hamilton

My predecessor wrote to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) on 19 July explaining the circumstances of the answer given to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) on 24 May 1984. A copy of his letter was placed in the Library on 21 July; the text is as followsJohn Wakeham promised on Thursday 7 July that a Defence Minister would be writing to you about the Point of Order that you raised on 6 July concerning the Answer 'no such strip searches have been carried out at RAF Greenham Common' given by my predecessor John Stanley on 24 May 1984. Prior to 1 January 1986 (when the relevant provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act came into effect), i.e. at the time of the alleged incident involving Ms. Mann-Cairns and at the time your original question was answered, there was no formal definition of a 'strip-search', personal searches being undertaken according to the judgment of the police officer concerned, as to what was reasonably necessary, and on the basis of common law and relevant statutory provisions. However, at that time, MOD would have taken the expression 'strip-search' to mean a requirement to remove all clothing including underclothing. A requirement to remove all clothing other than underclothing would not have been taken to constitute a 'strip-search'. The Answer given by John Stanley to your original question was based on the outcome of an investigation by the MOD Police into a specific allegation that women had been strip-searched at RAF Greenham Common. That investigation had found no evidence to support the allegation and I consider that, on the basis of the understanding of the term at that time and of all the available information, your question was properly and correctly answered. I should add that the Crown's agreement to settle in Ms. Mann-Cairns' recent case in the Newbury Crown Court resulted from the fact that, due to the emigration of a key police witness, the defence was not in a position to bring evidence to refute evidence given on oath by the plaintiff of facts which were a possible indication of liability. We therefore agreed to a settlement by way of a "judgment by consent". That, however, does not amount to an admission by the Ministry of Defence of any of the allegations made against it and the settlement does not imply acceptance by the MOD that Ms. Mann-Cairns had been strip-searched. I am sending a copy of this letter to John Wakeham and Frank Dobson.

As the letter explained, at the material time, so far as the Ministry of Defence was concerned, the term "strip search" meant a requirement to remove all clothing. To the best of our knowledge, the practice at the time did not include a requirement to remove underclothing and the inquiries of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing discovered no evidence that such strip searches had taken place. On the basis of the understanding of the term and all the available evidence, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde's question was correctly and properly answered.

In the case of Ms. Mann-Cairns, I have since received a copy of a letter from the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde in which he says that he does not accept that the recent judgment at Newbury County Court means anything other than that his former constituent was strip-searched. I have today replied to him, and the following is the text of my letter: Thank you for sending me a copy of your letter of 26 July to John Wakeham. It falls to me to reply. I cannot accept your view that the recent judgment at Newbury County Court means that your former constituent was strip searched. She herself did not claim that she was required to remove all her clothing, including underclothing, as would have constituted a strip search as the term was understood at the time, nor did the judgment of the Newbury County Court imply that this had been the case. We did take the view that there appeared to have been procedural errors during her arrest and that, on the basis of the evidence now available, the balance of probability lay in favour of Ms. Mann-Cairns having been required unlawfully to remove her clothing down to her underpants. You say that the evidence of WPC Ford, who had emigrated between the time of the incident and the case coming to court, supported Ms. Mann-Cairns' contention that strip searches took place. In her statement given in December 1984, WPC Ford estimated that she had carried out about 750 personal searches. However, she stated that she would ask the women being searched to remove their clothing 'up to their underwear'. Nakedness was not, of course, required by the Ministry of Defence Police conducting the search. She could not recall the events of the night when Ms. Mann-Cairns was arrested, but she concluded that this particular duty was routine. She added that, as many did not wear underwear, they would be naked in the search room. I should like to take this opportunity of offering your former constituent an apology for the treatment to which she was subjected and the distress which the circumstances of her arrest must have caused her. She has of course received damages consequent upon a Consent Order to that effect given in Newbury County Court. I am copying this letter to John Wakeham, Ian Stewart, Sir John Stanley and Frank Dobson.

I should also make clear that the present practice of the Ministry of Defence Police in searching persons in police custody follows the same requirements as are imposed on other police forces in England and Wales by the Police ana Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Section 54(6) of the Act is the authority for searching a person in police custody to the extent that the custody officer considers necessary".

A "strip-search" is now defined in the Home Office codes for the detention, treatment and questioning of persons by police officers which were issued under section 66 of the Act, and which took effect on 1 January 1986, as a search involving the removal of more than outer clothing". The custody officer, who will normally be a police sergeant, is required to inform the person of the reason for the search and to record the reason for all personal searches and their results in the custody record. Guidance is available to all MOD police officers who each have a personal copy of the Home Office codes of practice, and in detailed instructions based on the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 set out in force standing orders which are distributed to every MOD police station.