Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I am concerned about areas such as Wiltshire, where half the British Army is based. A large part is based in my constituency. I am pleased to say that the soldiers in my constituency are, to a man, well behaved and unlikely to commit any of the offences in clause 1. However, by definition, the 19 to 21-year-old testosterone-fuelled, drunken—I break off there, because I should not say that soldiers are like that. They will ring me up this afternoon to tell me how unfair I was to them.

However, there is a possibility that those who serve in the armed forces might be liable to commit offences under clause 1. I am concerned about areas such as Wiltshire, where the police are badly under strength because they cannot recruit enough officers. Currently, there are 35 too few in Wiltshire, and I am sure that the situation is similar in other military areas. If the new powers are introduced, Wiltshire constabulary will be under severe pressure if military personnel offend and the MOD police and regimental police are not given powers to issue fixed penalty notices. Will the Minister consult his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence about whether the military police would be interested in such a role, which might bring public order benefits to areas such as mine?

Mr. Blunt: I wish to add to the points that my hon. Friend has made. I hope that my comments are helpful to the Minister. I have some experience. Having been a service man myself and dealt with the Ministry of Defence police, I might have a marginally more informed idea of the differences between regimental police, the Royal Military Police and MOD police. The services have collected a variety of police forces.

Clearly, the measure should not apply to the Royal Military Police or to regimental police, because they are not constables in the ordinary nature of their business, but I believe that not including MOD police is an oversight. They are likely to deal with demonstrations such as those at Greenham common, and their responsibility for land on some of the routes to Stonehenge, for example, regularly requires them to deal with the sort of people who are likely to offend under clause 1.

MOD police protect areas in which some form of illegal demonstration that could lead to an offence under clause 1 is likely to take place, so I hope that the Minister will consult his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to determine whether they think it appropriate, as I do, that the MOD police should have the powers described in the Bill.

Mr. Hawkins: I want briefly to add to the important points made by my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, I have large numbers of troops based in my constituency. The Royal Logistic Corps has its headquarters there, and we also have the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst next door, and various parts of the support systems for the defence medical services, including some ordinary soldiers working as ward orderlies and nurses at the Ministry of Defence health unit at Frimley Park hospital. My constituency does not contain as great a proportion of the UK-based British Army as that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, but it holds quite a number.

Sadly, late on Friday and Saturday nights in Camberley, which is the main town in my constituency, substantial incidents involving private soldiers occasionally occur. Usually, they are the victims of attack by non-soldiers, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate said of his experiences, Ministry of Defence police may become involved with certain issues.

My hon. Friend made the important distinction, about which he knows more than I do, between regimental police, the Royal Military Police and Ministry of Defence police, who may police bases. The entrances to the Royal Military Academy and the former staff college at Camberley are on the main A30 and the Ministry of Defence police are responsible for the guard posts on that road as the academy is a service base. Camberley town centre comes right up to the A30, and the guarding officers on the spot, who are Ministry of Defence police, have assisted civilian police during trouble that often begins outside the main nightclub, so as my hon. Friend said, it might be necessary for their powers to be included.

After listening to my hon. Friends and to me, I hope that the Minister and his officials will undertake to consider the matter during next week's recess and that the Government may table an appropriate amendment on Report, although they may not agree to that today. His initial response to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire was firm, but I hope that, having heard all four of us describe our personal experiences, he will be prepared to consult his officials. He might consult officials in the Ministry of Defence who dealt with the Armed Forces Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate referred to the previous Armed Forces Bill, which was considered in 1996. He served on the Committee and I was the Government Whip for that quinquennial measure, which performs the important function of bringing military law in line with civilian law. I hope that the Minister will contact his opposite numbers to gain from their experience and discuss the interlinking between the two different kinds of police.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I am glad that I got to my feet so quickly, Mr. Gale.

My only question is about registrable sums. On receipt of a fixed penalty notice, people might mischievously or maliciously give the name and address of an acquaintance, rather than their own. Eventually, the registered penalty would arrive through the letterbox of that unfortunate acquaintance. Would the sum be treated as registrable, or could the victim of the misdemeanour reopen the matter under clauses 12, 10 and 4?

Mr. Clarke: I am not sure whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point flows from his not being quick enough to catch your eye earlier, Mr. Gale.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Quite correct.

Mr. Clarke: It has been confirmed that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's earlier dilatoriness led him to raise that point now. I will not say that that is out of order; it would be wrong to do so. He is a very intelligent and senior Conservative lawyer—and therefore, by definition, an exciting and vibrant lawyer.

In clause 13,

    ```registrable sum' has the meaning given in section 10(4).''

Proposed section 10(4) says:

    ``Registrable sum'' means a sum that may be registered under this section as a result of section 4(5).''

Proposed section 4(5) states:

    ``If, by the end of the suspended enforcement period— (a) the penalty has not been paid in accordance with this Chapter and (b) A has not made a request to be tried, a sum equal to one and a half times the amount of the penalty may be registered under section 10 for enforcement against A as a fine.''

That line of logic is very clear and is clearly set out in the Bill. I have no more to say on the subject.

The MOD police are an interesting subject for debate. As luck would have it, I was in Wiltshire yesterday morning. I went there after we had finished our proceedings on Tuesday night. Because of my devotion to Government business—

Mr. Gray: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke: No. I went down to Wiltshire, to Devizes—not to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, if that was the trivial point that he was going to make—on one of my regular visits to regional police forces to discuss policing issues of local concern. I had informed the party chairman, in the normal way, that I would be going. I discussed many issues with the Wiltshire police both in Devizes and in Swindon. Amazingly, the role of the MOD police did not arise in that context.

I am interested to see than no amendment has been tabled on these questions, as could easily have been done. The role of the MOD police is an important and significant issue. The changes that are currently being made to the Armed Forces Bill are important, and not uncontroversial. There are many in the police who think that it is wrong to give the MOD police some of the powers set out in that Bill. While that is not necessarily a party political matter, it is a serious issue in relation to these questions. The Government would not give the MOD police extra powers in such matters unless there was a powerful reason to do so. No such reason has been advanced by the MOD police themselves, because it is important to have proper protocols of arrangement between the MOD police and other forces.

I saw that actively demonstrated yesterday in Wiltshire, where I was talking to the officers involved in the Porton Down inquiry, in which MOD police are working together with the Wiltshire force. It was also clear at the Farnborough air display last summer, when the MOD police were back to back with the Hampshire police discussing how to operate. There are complicated and important protocols of agreement between the MOD police and territorial forces about how such relationships should operate. That is one of the issues being addressed in the Armed Forces Bill.

The Government would not lightly introduce legislation giving the MOD police greater powers, because we would not want to jeopardise such relationships. The Bill gives extra powers are given to the British Transport police because there is a particular offence in clause 1 relating to the country's transport system. They were therefore included, at their request, because that was the right thing to do.

I do not accept the Opposition's points. If they seriously suggest that the MOD police should be included, they should table an amendment, which should be debated and then discussed with the MOD police. That is not said in a spirit of hostility. Getting such relationships right is important. It is not easy or straightforward, but the Armed Forces Bill is an attempt to do that in relation to general areas of concern. I hope that we can agree that the clause should stand part of the Bill despite the entertaining diversion that we have just had on the role of the MOD police.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire has clearly been so affected that Hansard will not be able to report the tears in his eyes at the power of my rhetoric, which has persuaded him not to intervene on the matter—or perhaps not.

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Prepared 15 February 2001