Why risk putting bottom line ahead of security?

Eamon Keating, national chairman of the Defence Police Federation, describes how planned budget cuts for the MoD Police could leave sensitive sites vulnerable to attack, with less officers available to ensure security is kept

When HMS Queen Elizabeth, the UK’s new aircraft carrier, left Rosyth on its maiden voyage at the end of June, we heard about its dimensions. We heard about how it left its dock with mere inches to spare on either side of the keel. We heard about how it would project British military might – albeit prompting discussion as to whether such an asset was of greatest priority at a time when numbers in the Army are falling.

And we also heard about the cost of the project. Together, HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister, HMS Prince of Wales, cost more than £6 billion to build – more if you add the cost of the aircraft that should be based on them. And the UK will be embarking on renewing the nation’s nuclear deterrent in the coming years. That will cost tens of billions on top of what is spent to maintain Trident at the moment.

The bottom line is that the UK is spending huge amounts of money on what would be termed ‘big ticket’ items for the Ministry of Defence (MOD), designed to safeguard national security and project force if appropriate. This isn’t an argument that such spending is right or wrong – although commentators are entirely accurate to question the decreasing size of our Armed Forces. But it is a simple statement of fact that the country has, is, and will continue to make massive investments in critical defensive assets. So, surely it makes sense to properly guard and protect those assets?

That’s what would happen in virtually any other walk of life. If you buy, for example, a new TV for your home, you would protect that asset by making sure it’s insured. If you are in the fortunate position of having a sum of money at your disposal – perhaps from diligent savings – you would want to protect that asset.

Worryingly, this logic isn’t being applied by the MOD, which in recent months has demanded a further saving of £12.5 million from this year’s budget of the civilian MoD Police (MDP) entrusted with guarding the establishments that will be home to the new aircraft carriers, and who are responsible for protecting the current Trident system and, you would imagine, its successor.

Cutting asset security
The MDP is a unique proposition amongst the security options the MOD has at its disposal. It is unique to other police services because every officer has to be firearms trained. And it is unique to other MOD workforces because its officers hold civilian constabulary authority. What that means in practice is MDP officers can operate both within and outside the perimeter of a MOD site, meaning the defensive line for an establishment is not the wire on the perimeter of an establishment, but the area and community outside. It also means that if officers have to manage incidents involving civilians, such as an anti-nuclear demonstration for example, they do so in line with police complaints procedures and specialist training to deal with civilians.

You may be thinking that £12.5 million off the MDP budget is no big deal. After all, the Metropolitan Police is expected to make savings of £400 million over the coming years. But, now consider the MDP’s budget is around £160 million a year. And that to make savings almost every year over the past decade, the MDP has stripped out its back-office functions, sold its assets and reduced its number of officers by more than half. It’s a big deal – particularly when the workforce is now the only asset from which the MDP can make savings.

The MDP should have just over 2,600 officers – a workforce less than half of what it was a decade ago thanks to persistent cuts to its budget. It’s currently around 300 officers short of what it should have – the product of recruitment not keeping pace with workforce reductions. And in the absence of any other assets on which to make savings, the MDP senior leadership is ‘re-setting’ the size of the workforce to make 2,300 the ‘new normal.’

In other words, at a time when we’re spending tens of billions on massive MOD projects with critical importance to national security, we’re cutting the security of those assets in order to make figures add up on a spreadsheet. Of course, the MoD should insist on value for money, but these demands go well beyond that. The MDP has cut everything it has, but is still being asked for more. That cannot lead to effective security. The MDP has always demonstrated exceptional value for money and have met every savings target set, but this one is absolutely a step too far.

The implications of this decision are two-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, effectively cutting the number of MDP officers is terrible for public safety and national security. The most expensive and sensitive weapons in our national arsenal will have less people to guard them unless MDP resources are focused on the likes of Trident and the naval bases housing the new aircraft carriers. But that means withdrawing security from other sites, such as munitions depots, making them less safe from terrorist or criminal activity.

Officer recognition
It impacts on public safety and the role of the Armed Forces. The MDP deploys officers to support the Home Office in the event of national emergency. This significantly bolsters armed policing numbers and provides valuable armed policing capacity. That cannot be delivered with fewer officers.

The reduction in officers could also require greater use of the Armed Forces for guarding duties. But what this means is that service personnel detailed to guarding cannot then be deployed overseas. And it puts them in jeopardy. MDP officers are subject to police complaints processes. If they do something wrong when interacting with the public, there’s a review and investigation process in place. That’s not the case for Armed Forces personnel if they have to work in civilian environments on UK soil. If we ask a soldier, trained for combat, to deal with a civilian anti-nuclear protest, and they have to use any form of force, the process is they have to be investigated under the criminal law processes. And that must surely be unacceptable.

The second implication of this force ‘re-set’ is the message it sends, which is a terrible one. By requiring an effective reduction in police numbers, the MOD is saying that cost is more important than security. That’s a dangerous position to be in, not least when we’re talking about the amount of public money spent on the likes of the new aircraft carriers. It sets an extremely dangerous precedent – one in which the bottom line has priority. What they are saying is the protection of the nuclear deterrent and support to national emergencies has less priority than making financial savings that are minute within the total MOD budget.

And by acquiescing to the MoD’s budgetary demands, the MDP senior leadership is setting itself up for further requests for savings in future financial years. This will only lead to a managed decline in the effectiveness of the MDP, which is again to the detriment of public safety and national security.

So, what should happen? Quite simply, there must be recognition of the importance of the MDP’s role in security and an acceptance that cost cannot be priority. We’re spending tens of billions a year on defence. It’s madness to then quibble over the comparatively minuscule cost of guarding those assets and personnel.

Eamon Keating, national chairman of the Defence Police Federation

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