Magazine article The Spectator

A National Police Force Is Being Assembled, and Newspapers Are Looking the Other Way

Magazine article The Spectator

A National Police Force Is Being Assembled, and Newspapers Are Looking the Other Way

Article excerpt

When people say that this government has a tyrant's heart I usually take it with a pinch of salt. Surely Tony Blair and nice Jack Straw and that strange Geoff Hoon can't really be trying to deprive us of our hard-won liberties. Granted there are worrying examples, such as the plan to limit jury trials. But need we get so het up?

Yes we do. Unnoticed by most newspapers, and ignored by all lobby correspondents, a select committee has been considering the Armed Forces Bill. Tacked on to this is a separate section relating to the powers of the Ministry of Defence police. The effect of these proposals, if adopted, would be to create a national police force for the first time, directly answerable to the Secretary of State for Defence.

Let me go back a bit. In 1987 the powers of the Ministry of Defence police were extended under the Ministry of Defence Police Bill. However, the relevant minister, Archie Hamilton, gave an assurance that all 'serious crimes [would be] passed on to the domestic police department'. In other words, the MoD police would still be largely restricted to the no doubt important work of guarding Ministry of Defence property and investigating minor crimes committed by MoD personnel. This undertaking has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Increasingly, the MoD police have been investigating serious crimes. More ominously, they have been acting as an arm of the state against civilians. Readers may remember the cases of Tony Geraghty and Nigel Wylde, two utterly decent men, and both of them civilians, whose houses were raided by MoD police in December 1998. Charges against both men were later dropped, but not before they had been harassed and intimidated.

So the powers of the MoD police have been gradually and stealthily increased. Now the government wants to extend them further. If the Armed Forces Bill becomes law, the Ministry of Defence police will have full jurisdiction and investigative powers anywhere in the United Kingdom. But whereas existing constabularies face local accountability, the Ministry of Defence police would be accountable only to the Secretary of State for Defence. They would be perfectly within their rights if they raided your house or mine, or arrested us in the street. The Bill requires that the local chief constable agree, but that is all.

Perhaps you think I am being a little paranoid. We are all British, after all. Surely the MoD police would not overstep the mark. Well, I wouldn't count on it. Nigel Wylde has uncovered an extraordinary speech made by Walter Boreham, the retiring chief constable of the MoD police, last October. Mr Boreham was addressing the Defence Police Federation conference, and was rather indiscreet. He revealed that during the fuel protests the previous month he had been approached by the government and asked for assistance. 'I wrote back to the second permanent under-secretary,' said Mr Boreham, `and told him that he could have as many officers as reasonably practicable but he wouldn't be able to use them for the specific role the Home Office had intended - of aiding fuel convoys or policing picketed oil refineries. Having explained our dilemma in great legislative detail, it wasn't long before the second permanent under-secretary was on the case. …

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