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Mr. Campbell: I thank the Minister for giving way, especially as he has now caught up with my intervention. He will be aware that in relation to the Bill to ratify the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, the relevant Department adopted the procedure of issuing a draft Bill and inviting consultation. Will he consider adopting the same approach to the Bill which he has just outlined?
In the meantime, we need to ensure that the existing body of legislation is effective. That is what the remainder of the Bill seeks to achieve. The more serious offences under the service discipline Acts are investigated by the service police, who generally operate in accordance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, much as the civilian police do. Indeed, some provisions in PACE, such as those dealing with finger printing, already apply to the service police. However, in particular areas the service police act on the basis of commanding officers' inherent powers, rather than on any statutory basis, when they are investigating offences. We consider that the basis on which the service police exercise those functions needs to be clarified by being put on a statutory footing. That will enable those who are subject to the powers to have a clear understanding of the scopes and limits of police powers. That is dealt with in clauses 2 to 16.
Clause 2 defines the circumstances in which a member of the service police may stop and search somebody, subject to service law, or stop and search service and certain other vehicles. Those circumstances apply where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a search will reveal items such as stolen goods or controlled drugs. Service police are not ubiquitous, and it may sometimes be necessary for a search to be undertaken when they are not available. Clause 4 therefore provides residual powers for commanding officers to exercise the powers described in clause 2 through members of the armed forces who are not service policemen, but only where the timely assistance of the police cannot be secured.
Inevitably, the investigation of an offence may call for the searching of someone's living accommodation. Clause 5 requires a service policeman to apply for a warrant from a judicial officer if he needs to search the home or living accommodation of service personnel in the course of an investigation into a serious offence. Clause 7 provides a residual power for a commanding officer to authorise the conducting of such a search by members of the armed forces who are not service policemen or by service police without a warrant. The commanding officer will be able to use the power only if using the service police or obtaining a warrant is not practicable.
As under PACE, the power to search is limited to certain serious offences. Clause 8 makes the exercise of the commanding officer's powers to authorise a search subject to retrospective review by a judicial officer if anything has been seized during the search.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I should like to ask a question about that point, as I see that I have not been lucky enough to catch the selector's eye for the Select Committee that will consider the Bill. The retrospective review applies only when property is seized, but should it not apply in all circumstances? What are the arguments that made the Minister reach his conclusion on that point?
Mr. Blunt: I apologise for not having made myself completely clear. The search can be hurtful and demeaning to the person under investigation. Even if no seizure is made, there may be an impression that a military officer is exceeding his authority in the peculiar circumstances in which he must make his judgments. Why should not review also occur in such circumstances, even when no seizure is made?
Mr. Spellar: That comes back to the further qualification: the commanding officer can use the power only if using the service police or obtaining a warrant is not practicable. The power to search is limited by the Bill, as it is by PACE, to certain serious offences. Of course, I shall consider the matter in further detail and write to the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry that the Conservative business managers did not see fit to bless the Select Committee with his presence.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Will the measure apply to living accommodation within the barracks as well as to residential accommodation such as a quarter? How will it impact on those blessed things that I remember and which I fear might still occur--room inspections?
Mr. Spellar: That is an entirely different issue. We are discussing the exercise of search functions. We are not talking about inspections for dust or about straightening beds; we are talking about searches for stolen goods or controlled substances, and the commanding officer's powers--and his accountability in exercising them--when service police are not available, or when a warrant cannot be obtained.
I would expect hon. Members to welcome this provision, because notwithstanding the wide variety of circumstances in which the services operate, it maintains the flexibility that allows a commanding officer to exercise his powers, and to do so with accountability. The measure deals with concerns that have been expressed, and accords with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984; but it also deals with specific circumstances in military life. As I said, I would expect that to be welcomed by hon. Members whose sometimes justifiable criticisms rest on the need to take such particular and varied circumstances into account.
Clause 9 defines the powers to enter premises without a warrant for the purpose of effecting an arrest. They may generally be exercised only by a member of the service police, but if the arrest is in respect of a serious offence and if the delay in waiting for a policeman is likely to
Clause 10 deals with the powers of search exercisable following arrest. Those powers reflect the fact that the service discipline Acts give powers of arrest to service personnel generally, not just to service police. Under clause 10, an arrested person may be searched if there are reasonable grounds for believing that he may be a danger to himself or others. The clause also provides for search for evidence, or for things that may aid an escape. However, the powers will generally be exercisable only by service policemen, unless one is unlikely to be available in time.
The principles underlying the proposals in clauses 2 to 16 are clear. They provide a sound basis for an important area of service police activity, modelled on civilian procedures. They define the circumstances in which police powers may be exercised, making them subject to judicial supervision where appropriate. As I stressed earlier, however, the principles also recognise the realities of service life. An investigation should not be paralysed because the assistance of a service policeman cannot be secured in time. Instead, there is a clear framework within which the commanding officer will be able to authorise action.
Will the commanding officer, or officers acting on his behalf, have access to living accommodation in barracks, or in quasi-operational circumstances such as those operating in Northern Ireland? It is important to determine now whether the commanding officer--company commander, platoon commander or officer commanding a unit--will have access to such accommodation during the normal run of things, and whether it will be possible to search it with the commanding officer's authority.
Mr. Spellar: That will depend on the availability of service policemen to undertake their proper role, and their ability to obtain warrants within an appropriate time scale. If that is not possible--which is unlikely, in the circumstances described by the hon. Gentleman-- the commandant can instruct other personnel. It matches the provisions under PACE, but at the same time provides the necessary flexibility for a commanding officer to be able to undertake the role.