Police guarding Britain’s nuclear weapons bases and other sensitive military facilities are so overstretched that officers are forced to work “huge amounts” of overtime to maintain security, a Ministry of Defence (MoD) report has warned.
Current staffing levels at the Ministry of Defence Police (MDP) are “not sustainable” without risking security according to the annual report of the Ministry of Defence Police Committee, which is responsible for overseeing the work of the force.
The MDP guards over 120 military sites around the UK, including the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) and the Faslane and Coulport nuclear weapons bases. Staff shortages in the force are now so severe that MoD is said to have given “serious consideration” to the option of using the army to guard nuclear weapon sites and other key facilities, as reported by the Independent on Sunday newspaper.
MDP staffing levels have fallen from 3,645 officers in 2009/10 to around 2,600 today - a cut of almost a third. Almost one in ten MDP officers is currently on long-term sick leave or unable to handle firearms because of mental health problems. As a result the force is currently reliant on officers working “excessive overtime” to maintain security, and needs to expand by 300 officers a year to restore its strength.
However despite a recruitment drive which began three years ago, recruitment efforts in 2014/15 resulted in a net increase of only 5 officers in post “due to retirements and other departures". Since then a lack of cash has forced the MDP to suspend recruitment altogether.
David Riddle, Chair of the MoD Police Committee, said the force’s results in 2014/15 had been “acceptable”, but warned: “This level of performance effect is only achieved with huge amounts of overtime working… this is not sustainable without risks to employees and security.”
Although the MDP has managed to keep "most" sites fully protected, the annual report states that there can be “no absolute assurance” that incidents such as the one at AWE Berkshire in 2013 – where seven officers resigned amid allegations of police sleeping on duty and failing to undertake patrols – would not happen again.
Between 2014 and 2015 the number of unauthorised entries to the UK’s military bases almost doubled, rising from 24 incidents to 44. The MoD recorded 1,611 other security breaches in 2015, an increase of around 50 per cent, while the number of thefts or losses of classified material also increased.
The report also warns that the force is being stretched further by new demands. MDP officers have recently taken on responsibility for guarding the GCHQ spy agency in Cheltenham, which has “added extra demand on an already overstretched organisation”. The report also says that more recruits are urgently needed for deployment at HM Naval Base Portsmouth.
Concerns about the state of the MDP have heightened since it emerged that a flagship pledge in the government's 2015 Comprehensive Spending Review to protect police budgets does not extend to forces outside the Home Office’s budget. The Ministry of Defence Police, along with the Civil Nuclear Constabulary and British Transport Police, falls outside ring-fenced budgets.
Eamon Keating of the Ministry of Defence Police Federation said he was “not confident” that security at UK military sites was good enough. He said officers felt “incredibly undervalued” and were trying to do their jobs “in a very difficult environment”.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said that the MDP is currently around 95 per cent staffed and has recruited 450 officers in the past two years, with plans in place to recruit a further 200 in the next financial year.