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Mr. Blunt: I am tempted to follow the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) down the track on the merits of the MOD police in toto, but that course might be better left until the debate on clause stand part. I am grateful to you, Mrs. Heal, for your indication in that respect. I shall address myself to amendments Nos. 2 and 3 and will try to catch your eye during clause stand part to deal with some of his points.
To put the matter in perspective, I share some of the concerns expressed about the MOD police. However, I note that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friends provides that the MOD police can go to the assistance of other police forces
When my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) replies to the debate, I should be grateful if he could explain that point. Perhaps I have misunderstood the effect of the amendments. Although I have concerns about the MOD police, it seems to me that the effect of the amendments would be that the MOD police could not operate at the request of other forces--presumably under their direction. I look forward to the remarks of my hon. Friend and the Minister.
In the greater Portsmouth area, between a dozen and 20 establishments are serviced by the MOD police either full time or in a visiting capacity by a mobile unit. Those police officers move extensively around our part of south Hampshire. For example, Whale island, which has an MOD police presence, is close to the ferry port. In the past, several legal, peaceful demonstrations against the transport and export of live animals through our ferry port have entailed the involvement of the civil police, and occasionally the roads in and around the ferry port, including the access road to Whale island, have been blocked. Perhaps the extension would mean that the MOD police would have the right to be involved in such demonstrations, but they are very difficult matters for them to become involved in.
Likewise, MOD police moving from one establishment in the south of Portsmouth to another at the eastern end of Portsmouth would travel along the seafront. On Friday or Saturday nights, it would not be uncommon to see several police vehicles parked opposite South Parade pier in Portsmouth, and probably at least one patrol wagon from the naval provost. If a significant incident were to occur outside one of the clubs on another part of the seafront while an MOD police patrol was passing, the MOD police might deem it their responsibility to intervene and stop a fight or an affray.
I should be interested to know whether the Minister thinks that the extension would give the MOD police the right to take part in preventing such a disturbance from gathering strength, and whether they would have proper protection under the law and in their job descriptions to allow them to act as policemen. Is it not important that, where a heavy concentration of MOD police is found, the civilian population should be made fully aware of what the extension of MOD police rights involves? For example, people should know when MOD policemen have the right to follow them to their homes and to take action inside or outside their homes, once having seen them commit an offence.
I am full of admiration for the MOD police. I was particularly inspired by their conduct when a young MOD constable at the main gate of Portsmouth dockyard made a very senior Royal Marine general very angry by making him comply with the regulations in operation for other staff going in and out of the naval base. The MOD police stuck to their line, and I am glad that they were supported, but that very disgruntled senior general in the Royal Marines retired from the service, for ever carrying a grudge against the MOD police. Anyone who wants to insist that a general toe the same line as everyone else has my support, and their willingness to stand in the front line and regularly confront such situations involves a pretty worthwhile job--ensuring that rank carries no sway with the police.
As the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said, the MOD police have been heavily criticised in the past, sometimes cynically and for motives not wholly germane to the argument being pursued at the time. I should like to think that the House will be fair to the MOD police. I am not against their powers being extended, but what those extensions involve, when they can be brought into operation, and what rights the civilian population have if they are confronted by an MOD policemen, alone or with another officer, must all be made clear. It will be no good if the powers are extended but the bulk of the civilian population are totally ignorant of their rights.
Few people who speed on the motorways in and around south Hampshire would slow down when they saw an MOD police car behind them. The implication is that the MOD police might think it their duty to pull those people over and at least caution them, but will they have the power to do so? When did the Select Committee think that the emergency would arise in which the MOD police could exercise their powers along the same lines as the civilian police? I can guess what those circumstances might be, but I should be interested if the Minister or the Chairman of the Select Committee explained what the Committee was thinking when it included that in its report.
Mr. Gerald Howarth: I rise to support much of what the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) said. In quoting the Committee's conclusions, he probably reflected what the bulk of the population feel about the relationship between the MOD police and our own Home Office and county constabularies. Clearly, if MOD police officers come across an incident while travelling between bases, it is entirely proper that they should be able to assist other police officers in trying to prevent crime. None of us would object to that.
There is concern that what the clause proposes is, to a large extent, open-ended. My hon. Friends have sought to table amendments to seek some limitation on the role of the MOD police. The public would not accept the MOD police being increasingly brought in, as a matter of routine, to support Home Office police forces, which we know are overstretched; numbers are down by 2,500 since the Conservatives left office in 1997. We are concerned that local constabularies might be encouraged to resort to MOD police forces to make up for their lack of numbers.
The evidence taken on 6 February by the Committee included a letter from the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers general policing committee to the police resource unit of the Home Office. It said: