Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420 - 439)



  420. You report not to the Home Secretary but to another minister, to the Secretary of State for Defence.
  (Mr Comben) My reference to the Home Secretary was the capacity of the Home Secretary to ask for a report about any matter or incident.

  421. Nevertheless the position is, as I have just described it, your employer is the Ministry of Defence. What sort of instructions do you get from your employer, let us say from the Secretary of State or from his civil servants or junior ministers as to how you should conduct investigations, because you made that point clear about how you should develop your particular role? What sort of emphasis or priorities should you be focusing on, and so forth?
  (Mr Comben) The Ministry of Defence police are also a Next Steps agency. The police committee's chairman is also the owner of the agency. Each year there is a process of negotiation about priorities, about resources, key targets that are established, non-key targets, ambitions are set down in plans and we try to achieve those priorities in much the same way as in recent years, as other civilian police forces are required to do.

  422. Do you draft this annual business plan yourself and submit it to the Ministry of Defence for approval or do they draft something to you and then you have an opportunity to argue about it or to make suggestions as to the modifications of it?
  (Mr Comben) There is an annual circular, programme or procedure, where at the end of one year lessons are learned from that, observations are made on that and are fed into the new process. At an early stage we submit proposals to the owner of the agency, which we would pick up from things like environmental scanning, development in Home Department police forces and other ways in which priorities for police forces are established. The Macpherson Report would be a good example of policing priorities. From another direction there is process of discussion, of negotiation about those key targets and then key targets are set down in the spring and are laid before Parliament and are announced in Parliament.

  423. I am going to repeat my question because I am not clear about how that process starts, you describe it as a circular process, somebody takes an initiative, is it you who then submits it to the Ministry of Defence or is the initiative taken by the Ministry of Defence? Do they tell you what is expected of you and you then respond to that?
  (Mr Comben) It is a process of discussion and consultation, but we start the process in that sense. We would prepare the first draft.

  424. You are running your own show, you report to—
  (Mr Comben) I do not think it is fair to say we run our own show. We are a public service and we consult our customers. We consult other police forces.

  425. How do you define your customers?
  (Mr Comben) Anyone we police would be an easy definition.

  426. You consult individual servicemen and servicewomen.
  (Mr Comben) Yes, we do.

  427. You send out questionnaires and you get answers on the basis of this.
  (Mr Comben) Yes.

  428. You frame your annual plan and submit it to the MoD. In practice, since you have had responsibility of this, since you have been involved in this—this is my final question—how much of your original draft plan has been accepted by the MoD and how much has been modified or contributed by the MoD? Is the ultimate plan for the year a basic 80 per cent or 90 per cent as originally drafted by you or is it substantially and subsequently imposed by the MoD?
  (Mr Comben) I think the general areas are because they are not just our ideas, we are picking up things, and I used Macpherson as an example.

  429. A bad example if you regard that as an inspiration for effective policing.
  (Mr Comben) I would say using that as an example is regarded as so important by a large number of people that it is unlikely to disappear out of the plan. It is so important it goes in. Then there is the process of fine tuning. On matters like financial targets the Ministry of Defence would have more impact upon that because they are our paymasters and they are responsible for delivering our resources. It is a bit of a mixture. I would say that the major key issues that we put forward we are not putting them forward because we think it is a good idea, it is because we are absorbing the views of lots of people in the consultation process, so they tend to stay. What happens is there is some fine tuning and, certainly, in terms of financial targets they are, perhaps, placed upon us with more Ministry of Defence wishes rather than coming from us.
  (Mr Crowther) Might I add, the term "customers" here is not used in the general or loose sense. We have a definite list of customers who are customers for particular parts of our activity, these include the Service commands.

Mr Keetch

  430. I want to come directly to some questions I asked Mr Crowther in the last session. I want to come back to the operational circumstances and the practicalities of what is going to happen if a Ministry of Defence Policeman is going from one base to another in the wilds of some county and comes across an incident. Firstly, can you tell us about the carrying of arms? That is one distinct difference between you and a host of home department police. You regularly carry arms. What is the current procedure? Will there be a change to the current procedure of carrying arms at base or travelling between bases?
  (Mr Comben) There is nothing in the Bill that will impact upon the carrying of arms. It does not make any changes to the existing situation, other than in the training and assessment part of it. That is not really what you are talking about, I do not think. As a general statement Ministry of Defence police officers who are required to be armed within the MoD estate often, generally, do not carry firearms outside of the MoD estate. I said "generally" because there are a very small number of exceptions. We escort very sensitive loads of material up and down the country and there are a very small number, one or two other special circumstances. All those special circumstances are operating today. They are the subject of ACPO and ACPOS agreements and those arrangements are in writing and firmly controlled. They are in today and they will not change under the new legislation.

  431. Can you give us an assurance that it is not the practice of MoD police whilst travelling between bases to carry arms?
  (Mr Comben) I can repeat the absolute assurance I gave to the Home Office and the absolute assurance to this Committee, that other than in the special circumstances I have alluded to today MoD officers cannot carry firearms and ammunition outside during their duty. If we have to move firearms from one establishment to another very special arrangements are in hand. Ammunition and firearms are not transported together, so they cannot be used. This is very similar to military arrangements or in the civilian industry when firearms and ammunition have to be moved around the country by manufacturers. If firearms and ammunition are moved around the country in those kind of circumstances the ammunition and firearms do not move together. That is a bit of a side issue. In terms of controlling or moving between establishments, we do not patrol outside of the MoD estate generally and our officers are not armed, that is an absolute assurance.

  432. In areas where there are bases of the same regiment several miles apart it has been suggested that MoD officers move from one base to another because they are going to do different duties and during the movement they carry their side arms. You are saying that is not the case.
  (Mr Comben) Absolutely not.

  433. What would happen if whilst moving—we now know unarmed—they come across an incident and they stop to deal with that incident, would they announce themselves as being MoD police? You look like a police officer to me. In terms of announcing your presence on the scene, would you announce you are an MoD police officer or would you go in and start to break up the brawl as any other police officer would do?
  (Mr Comben) Perhaps I can start with the uniform. The great strength of the uniformity of the civilian police uniform in Great Britain—where there are something like 55 constabularies or jurisdictions—is the public know they are dealing with a constable, someone who holds at least the office of constable. We make it clear whenever an MoD officer approaches anybody they announce themselves as a Ministry of Defence police officer, they produce their warrant card—which is exactly the same, with a slightly regional variation, as the warrant card that every constable in every force carries. If not in uniform you walk up and you say whatever rank you are, Detective Sergeant Comben, and produce your warrant card, even produce it if you are in uniform, if asked for, it and say who you are and announce what you want to do.

Mr Key

  434. Could I, once again, start by saying that any comments I make are not criticisms of the Ministry of Defence Police per se. The Ministry of Defence is asking us to report to the House on changes to the Ministry of Defence police and it is our duty to understand the motive behind this. We are not a standing Committee going line by line through legislation, we are meant to investigate. It is increasingly important to get it on the record if the Ministry of Defence seek to change the law because court procedure changed a decade ago and now the courts will look back at standing committees and this Select Committee to see what ministers and officials said in order to determine what the purpose was. Could I start with the Home Office circular 17/1999, which is the protocol which I think you are very familiar with, Mr Comben. Following on from what Mr Keetch just said, paragraph 7 of that is about armed duty on public roads. You have been very clear. I come at this from a different perspective. We suffered, I use that word advisedly, the withdrawal of Ministry of Defence police in large numbers from Land Command Wilton to the detriment of married quarters. We are just under a new area of patrolling system for Ministry of Defence police, whose duty it is to patrol many, many miles from their headquarters on the Salisbury Plain to various married quarters, including Land Command, Porton Down and Boscombe Down. I am a bit worried if you are not armed on those patrols. Are there circumstances under which you would have an arrangement with the Chief Constable of Wiltshire that on certain patrols you might carry arms?
  (Mr Comben) Generally, no, we are not armed. The arrangements I have mentioned are very, very special and it would not be translated into patrolling or moving between establishments, no.

  435. Thank you. In the protocol there is just something I would be grateful if you could clarify, in paragraph 2(2)—it is unfair because you do not have it in front of you—I will remind you of what it says, "Recognising the mutuality of the agreement chief constables will endeavour to ensure regular consultation", and it refers to the cases of criminal offences concerning Ministry of Defence property which come to the notice of local chief constables. Later on in paragraph four it says, "The chief constable of the MoD police will ensure prior consultation with the local chief constable". That is rather different, obviously, from "coming to the notice". All of the way through the legislation, which we were dealing with in 1987, it was a question of the imputation of the Home Office police force to the Ministry of Defence Police to assist. That was the basic premise in the concordat. How has this apparent discrepancy arisen that some of the time it might come to the notice of the chief constables and on other occasion it is prior consultation?
  (Mr Comben) The absolute primacy of geographical constabularies is not challenged, that has been repeated in the protocols, but for the run-of-the-mill day-to-day crime and other policing duties if those offences occur within the Ministry of Defence estate and community the MDP will deal with them and if they come to the notice of the Home Office force first they will pass them over to us. If they are in the MoD estate, say somebody from a married quarters rang the Home Department police headquarters and said, "I have been burgled", if it is clearly in an MoD estate then the Home Office force under the protocol will inform the MDP and we will take up the investigation and deal with it. It is always a matter of consultation and agreement. There are some exceptions. In terms of offences involving sudden or suspicious death or any offence relating to terrorism then it is a much more formal procedure of a case-by-case basis and discussion at senior chief officer level and it is for the Chief Constable of the Home Office force who should deal with it and the Chief Constable of the Home Office force has the primacy of saying, "No MDP, I want my force to deal with it". Although the actual answer is often, "I want my force to lead on it, can we undertake this investigation together". It is not a contest. We are a part of British civilian policing, and in Northern Ireland as well, and it is a question of working together. I can imagine circumstances where it would be something that we would normally want to deal with, but for special reasons, because it is linked with something else that is going on in the Home Department Force, a drugs ring or something like that, even though formally we would investigate it our contact and liaison say, "No, this is a better one for you to lead on and we will help you, we will assist you from our knowledge of the MoD community because this is linked with other things and it is far more effective and efficient for you to do that".

  436. I agree with everything you say, it makes perfect sense for the Ministry of Defence police to deal with a burglary in married quarters and the Home Office police to investigate a murder but in the legislation as it passed through the House there was a distinction drawn between petty offences and serious offences. Where does that boundary fall now between petty offences which would be investigated by you and serious offences that would automatically go to the Home Office force?
  (Mr Comben) "Petty offences" is not a term that we use because it is a little bit difficult to define. Any crime or incident can start off small and become very, very serious, even murder. Under the protocol it is open for us to discuss who should investigate this murder and for the Home Office force to say, "You are the most effective, efficient people to deal with it".

  437. Has that ever happened?
  (Mr Comben) Yes. Though they are tragic, every murder must be tragic by definition, as an investigation it can be quite straightforward and simple. If you have somebody who admitted the offence it is all resolved fairly quickly. You can have a theft of some fairly low valued property which in a complex investigation can lead on to bigger things. Everything is done by discussion. Nothing much has changed in terms of murder and terrorism offences at all since 1987. What has changed since 1987 is that provided domestic burglary is clearly within the MoD estate we deal with those routinely and in terms of sexual offences if they are limited to the MoD estate and we have the technical ability to support such an investigation then we will deal with those as well, invariably cases of that nature are always discussed with the Home Department force. We cannot deal with them in isolation because you cannot afford to because offences like that are often not the first offence, they are not isolated and they are connected with other matters.

  438. That all makes perfectly good sense. At question 216 in the last session Mr Miller told us that the aim of these changes was to allow standing arrangements to be agreed at a high level under which the Ministry of Defence police may take on the performance of agreed policing duties in areas close to defence land. Can you explain a little more about what these standing arrangements are going to be and whether it will mean that the Ministry of Defence police will be patrolling garrison towns, civilian or not, what does it all mean?
  (Mr Comben) I am pleased to get the opportunity to explain it. It gives the impression that it is a lot more than it is in some sense. At the moment the main jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence police is confined to Ministry of Defence land. Routinely that involves stepping outside of the Ministry of Defence land in order to protect and police defence property, Crown property, as you have heard in discussions. If something particular happens, like a demonstration or something like that, then, at the moment, we can only have jurisdiction outside the wire on a case-by-case basis, from an invitation from the Chief Constable of the local force. What this will allow—it applies at a senior level—is for someone to say, "Okay for the next three months within a defined period where we have some notification of the threat your officers can do this part of the patrol outside and we in the Home Office will do some other part of the operation". It is limited to very much in the vicinity and very close to the MoD estate, or a matter concerning the MoD estate and MoD personnel. It is not meant to be a long-term agreement. It was never intended to be any kind of agreement where at senior level you could have MDP officers patrolling the centre of your town in support of your general policing. It is not meant for that. That is that part of it. The other part deals with secondments. I do not think that is at all controversial, it is where our officers go for career development and other purposes to other forces to work and that happens today. At the moment there is some slightly technical difficulty in making sure that they can only go to the other force if he or she can have the relevant powers and authorities. That is what is clearly set up.

  439. Thank you very much. I think the bottom line for me is that the Ministry of Defence Police have been evolving very successfully over a decade now, that was inevitable. Evolution has brought quite a substantial change. If we go back to the reason why constabulary powers were given to the Ministry of Defence police in the first place we need to go back to the report of the Ministry of Defence Police Review Committee published in July 1986. That Committee was very, very clear about the role and extent of involvement of Ministry of Defence police at paragraph 57, this was the Broadbent Committee, "It was represented to us that security considerations would preclude the entry of the civil police into some establishments for the investigation of crime, but we do not accept this view although an escort may sometimes be necessary. The professional arguments for relying as far as possible on the CIDs of civil forces are in our judgment overriding." They were quite clear about that. They also said in paragraph 112, recommendation (v) "The scale and division of CID operations should be agreed between each civil police force and the MOD bases in its area based on the general principle that the MDP's CID activities should be predominantly related to petty crime on-base and mainly to that involving Crown property. As cases are opened by the MDP the local civil police should be advised so as to ensure that statistics of crime reported nationally are comprehensive". That was a very clear position of the Broadbent Committee and it was reiterated by the Minister at Second Reading when Sir Archie Hamilton said: "MoD police are able to investigate crime on MoD property, so if the crime is committed in family quarters, they would be in a position to investigate it, but this has to be done in the closest conjunction and co-operation with the Home Department Forces, and it has to be cleared by them." Later on, the Minister also said that: "The Ministry of Defence police would hand over responsibility for such crimes . . ." that was serious crimes ". . . at once". Now that has quite clearly changed. It may be right that it has changed but that is what we are now considering, a change in the jurisdiction, both geographically and in terms of people. I wonder why this change has come about? It is important to us to consider this because on a number of occasions where the Ministry of Defence Police have investigated serious crime it has not worked out for the best. I wonder, for example, why the Ministry of Defence took two years of investigation, with the Ministry of Defence Police and the Royal Military Police, in the case of Major Milos Stankovic, a case which came to nothing? Why did the Ministry of Defence Police ever get involved in that?
  (Mr Comben) Okay. Perhaps I will deal with issues like that first and then go back to the issues of why we have changed.

  Chairman: Can I remind Members of the Committee we are looking to conclude taking evidence in general from MoD officials this morning.

  Mr Key: Yes.

  Chairman: Mr Randall, I know, has been patiently waiting for over half an hour to try and come in and although we are getting into it, we still have not got to Clause 32.

  Mr Key: Absolutely.

  Chairman: This is an extremely useful session.

  Mr Key: We may need another session this afternoon.

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