Select Committee on Defence First Report

Why are additional powers necessary?


18. The MDP gave two reasons for the proposal to replace the present power of MDP constables to act 'in the vicinity' of defence land with one of responding to requests from local forces for assistance in a specific investigation or operation. First, there has always been uncertainty about precisely what 'in the vicinity' means; the Assistant Chief Constable of the MDP, Mr David Ray, told us—

It is too vague and imprecise and that uncertainty leads to hesitation perhaps at a time when officers are required to take immediate decisions. It also exposes them to some vulnerability because if they have got it wrong they could be liable in law for carrying out what they think is the reasonable job of fighting terrorism.[35]

The proposal in the Anti-Terrorism Bill is more precisely drawn than the one it has replaced in the Armed Forces Bill, which would have allowed 'standing arrangements at a high level under which the MDP may take on the performance of agreed policing duties in areas close to defence land'.[36] Mr Paul Crowther, Head of the MDP Secretariat, told us that that proposal in the Armed Forces Bill had 'aroused a good deal of discussion and soul searching' and the Minister confirmed during consideration of the current Bill in the House that a decision had been taken not to pursue the proposal because of expressions of concern.[37] The present Bill sets out a narrower and more clearly defined proposal, which is much less susceptible to differences of interpretation than either the present situation or what was proposed in the Armed Forces Bill. We therefore regard it as an improvement.

19. The changed security environment since 11 September provides a further and more urgent justification for amending the MDP's powers in this way. The heightened terrorist threat and the possibility that suicide attacks might be used mean that, in the words of the Assistant Chief Constable, 'if a terrorist reaches the establishment that we are protecting he has probably succeeded' and therefore the MDP's jurisdiction needs to be capable of extending out from the bases which they cover.[38] American military bases in the UK are now regarded as more vulnerable to terrorist attack than previously. The MDP believe this changed situation puts an onus on them to respond in a different way and to be more 'proactive' in the way they carry out their role—

We now have to take our activities to counter terrorist measures further out than we have before. This takes us into the realms of Home Office policing areas and clearly it requires a lot more joint working .. Our activities ... take us further out, bring us more into the public arena, and dealing with more preparatory acts of terrorism rather than the actual offences themselves ... That means we have to be able to act outside the normal MoD property ...[39]

The MDP are already carrying out joint operations with local police forces to promote the security of military bases; examples were given of such activity in North Yorkshire and Suffolk. These currently rely on specific written agreements between local forces and the MDP. Mr Ray told us that: 'It is working very well but we are hampered to the extent that the MDP can participate by the need for this jurisdiction'.[40] Representing the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (ACPO), Mr John Giffard, Chief Constable of Staffordshire Police and Chairman of ACPO's General Policing Business Area, told us that his organisation firmly supported the Bill's proposals in the context of counter-terrorism.[41]


20. The Bill proposes that MDP officers should have the full power of a constable to deal with incidents which they come across outside the defence estate, which can be defined as emergencies, where there is no time for the MDP constable to request authority to deal with the incident. At present, MDP officers only have the power of citizen's arrest to deal with such incidents. We were told that this creates uncertainty and has the potential to make officers reluctant to act. Without a firm legal justification, they may find themselves vulnerable to subsequent legal challenge in cases where the intervention later proves to have been outside the rules. Yet there is a public expectation that someone wearing a police uniform will provide assistance.[42] The ACPO representative told us 'it is a nonsense' that the MDP, coming across a road accident outside a military base, currently have no power to stop traffic to prevent further injury or pursue the driver if he is running away.[43]

21. The Armed Forces Bill proposed remedying this by giving officers the power to act where they had reasonable grounds for believing that an offence involving violence had been committed and where action was necessary to save life or prevent injury.[44] In the present Bill, this has been broadened to any offence, not just one involving violence, and extends the power to an offence which 'is about to be committed, is being committed or has been committed'.[45]

22. The MDP regard the current proposals on emergency powers as an improvement on the Armed Forces Bill. The previous proposal's requirement that violence would have to be involved before MDP officers could act would still have left them in a difficult position in relation to the public, who may not understand the distinction of having their wallet stolen with or without violence.[46] MDP witnesses explained that the current increased threat from terrorism also meant that the power to act in an emergency needed to be a broader one: terrorist offences may not necessarily involve violence or a risk to life in the preparatory stages at which the MDP would hope to intercept suspects. As the Assistant Chief Constable explained—

The sort of offences that we envisage do not necessarily involve violence ... For example, just being a terrorist or supporting terrorism or supplying information to terrorists ... reconnaissance by terrorist-related people ... who are known to us. If we come across those people ... we still need to deal with them. Otherwise, they have a free rein to do all their preparations for terrorist activity without any intervention from us. More likely than not, you are going to come across those people very quickly and there is not much time to seek the authority of a local force.[47]

23. We believe that the powers to intervene in an emergency situation as drafted in the current Bill are more sensible and practical than the proposal in the Armed Forces Bill. The heightened threat from terrorism and the corresponding need for the MDP to take swift action when dealing with suspected terrorist activities convinces us that this aspect of the Bill's proposals is fully justified.

35  Q 3 Back

36  Explanatory Notes to the Armed Forces Bill 2001, paragraph 107 Back

37  Q 2; HC Deb, 26 November 2001, c 777 Back

38  Q 2 Back

39  Q 2 Back

40  Q 2 Back

41  Q 81 Back

42  Q 30 Back

43  Q 92 Back

44  Explanatory Notes to the Armed Forces Bill, paragraph 110 Back

45  Explanatory Notes to the Anti-Terrorism Bill, Crime and Security Bill, paragraph 243 Back

46  Q 30 Back

47  Q 26 Back

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Prepared 6 December 2001