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Report 7 of the 17 Feb 03 meeting of the Co-ordination and Policing Committee and which describes the Metropolitan Police Authority response to the findings Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) in the thematic inspection of Special Branch.

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HMIC thematic inspection of special branch

Report: 7
Date: 17 Feb 03
By: Clerk


This report describes the Metropolitan Police Authority response to the findings Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) in the thematic inspection of Special Branch.

A. Recommendation

That the Committee endorse and support the recommendations of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary in the thematic inspection of Special Branch, but ask the Home Office to ensure that suitable tripartite oversight arrangements accompany the proposed structural changes.

B. Supporting information

1. The following is the summary of the thematic inspection of Special Branch, ‘A Need to Know’, which examined the way in which forces meet the demands placed on Special Branch and ports units and how they strike the balance between national security and local policing issues. Phase 1 of the inspection involved a desk top review of documents provided by eight forces, ranging from the smallest to the largest, relating to their policies and strategies for the running of Special Branch and including business plans and staffing policies as well as management and performance information. It also included a review of the current national Guidelines, relevant legislation and structural arrangements. Phase 2 consisted of field visits to the eight forces and involved: interviews with branch staff, chief officers and managers; focus groups branch staff and other colleagues; examination of accommodation, security, resources as well as operating systems and procedures. Phase 3 involved field visits and interviews with key personnel from other agencies that have national responsibilities impacting on the work of Special Branch such as the Security Service, Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, Her Majesty’s Immigration Service and the National Criminal Intelligence Service.

Role and structure

2. The role of Special Branch and ports officers, as set out in the 1994 guidelines, is essentially to gather intelligence to meet national security requirements as well as to support other policing priorities such as the prevention of disorder. In the context of national security, Special Branch works closely with, and in support of, the Security Service, as well as with other national agencies. Each Special Branch remains an integral part of the local force and is accountable to the individual chief officer. HMIC noted tensions between the national and local roles of Special Branch reflected in cases where Special Branch personnel were routinely diverted to tasks outside the normal remit of the Branch. Uncertainties also arose because the Guidelines do not reflect the major changes, which have occurred since 1994 regarding the threat to national security, the operational and legal environment in which the police work, and public expectations. The resulting confusion would be reduced by clarification of the role of Special Branch and a revision of the Guidelines under which it operates.

3. There are Special Branch units in each of the 52 police forces in the UK, ranging in size from just a few officers to several hundred in the Metropolitan Police Special Branch (MPSB). Special Branch officers provide coverage of air or sea ports within their force areas on either a permanent or temporary basis depending on the size, location and nature of the port. Each branch is led by a Head of Special Branch, whose rank depends on the size and responsibilities of the unit, and may range from detective sergeant to commander in the MPS Special Branch.

4. Whilst HMIC was impressed by the dedication and commitment of Special Branch personnel across the country, it was evident that the operational capability of individual units depends very much on their size, the smaller units having neither the officers nor resources to meet the full range of operational requirements. It was also apparent that the large number of Branches and the disparities in their size, command structures and influence creates difficulties particularly in their interaction with key partners. By way of example the Security Service has to interface with forces at a variety of command levels across the 52 UK forces whilst individuals from other national agencies were unsure as to who was their point of contact. HMIC recognises that arrangements exist for mutual aid and collaboration, and for regional co-ordination, but these also differ across the country; a more formalised structure would improve consistency.

Operational activity

5. A key aspect of Special Branch Intelligence gathering is that it extends the reach of the national agencies by utilising the close links between local police and the community they serve as well as the contacts and access which the Branch itself maintains this linkage is a major strength of the UK’s national security structure, and the envy of certain other countries. Much of the intelligence gathering work of Special Branch, whether undertaken solely by the branch or jointly with agencies such as the Security Service, involves specialised operational work such as surveillance or the management of human sources for which formal authorisation is required under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2000. Such techniques may be employed by Special Branch to obtain intelligence relating to threats to national security, or in the context of serious crime or public order, whether localised or crossing force boundaries.

6. Special Branch Ports Units provide a presence at air and sea ports in keeping with their national security (mainly counter-terrorist) role as well as to counter organised crime and prevent child abduction offences. Together with the other border agencies, HM Customs and Excise and HM Immigration Service, they are able to monitor all movement into and through UK ports. Relationships between agencies are effective, particularly where accommodation and facilities are shared. Despite the importance of their role, the of status Special Branch Ports Units was found to be low in the Branch, and is reflected in the poor standards of accommodation and resources found at several ports. Although the morale and motivation of ports units was found to be high, many staff felt that their operational effectiveness would be enhanced through improvements to working facilities and resources, including secure locally and nationally networked IT. IT became a common theme of the inspection, and is an aspect which HMIC sees as in need of urgent attention.

7. Special Branch, in keeping with the rest of the Police Service, is moving towards greater openness; this is also an operational necessity if the Branch is to establish closer links to front line officers in daily contact with the community. It is important, however, that this openness is not used as an excuse to relax security; most Special Branch business involves sensitive information, equipment and techniques which must be safeguarded to national standards. This applies also to the security clearance of staff; it is important that policies relating to the vetting of Special Branch staff should be consistent nationally both to enhance operational flexibility and to prevent inappropriate disclosure of classified information. All Special Branches should maintain an effective and comprehensive security regime on the basis of which it can also provide advice and assistance to their forces regarding wider security issues.

8. The National Intelligence Model is currently being implemented under ACPO auspices throughout the Police Service; this includes Special Branch. In large Special Branches which are effectively self-sufficient for resources, the tasking and co-ordination process detailed within NIM, is largely internal to the Branch, being primarily concerned with prioritising and allocating Special Branch resources against competing Branch requirements. For smaller Special Branches, however, the competition is more likely to involve force resources, while the competition is with departments that have no need to know about sensitive Branch operations. The dilemma for the Branch therefore is whether to expose sensitive intelligence in the resource bidding process, to circumvent NIM by obtaining resources outside the bidding process, or to abandon the bid altogether. This problem was acknowledged by several forces, some of which have adopted compromise procedures. HMIC recognises that in the interests of security it may be necessary for special branches to take a pragmatic approach to NIM.

9. SB funding proved to be complicated and at times confusing. All policing provision is drawn from the main force budget, substantially funded by police and local authority grant. Where forces have exceptional security demands, the funding formula through which grant is allocated is weighted to take into account the additional pressures. There is a widespread mistaken belief that the allocative mechanism for these extra pressures requires forces to fund a particular number of posts. This is not so. Forces are concerned that there appears to be no certainty that a post currently assumed to be attracting additional funds would do so in the next year. Given this misinterpretation, HMIC considers a review of the funding mechanism to be necessary, whether or not any structural changes are made to Special Branch.

10. Special Branch training is provided on a national basis by MPS Special Branch and the Security Service with a strong in-force element of individual development. Each officer now undertakes a competency-based package, delivered over a period of time, which covers basics before moving on to specialised areas such as operational skills. This package, which is highly regarded, is managed by a national user group. HMIC found that in some forces, allocation of course vacancies tended to favour those in headquarters rather than in satellites such as Ports Units.; not only is this professionally undesirable, but it also risks further marginalising those working in remote locations.

11. HMIC also considered how Special Branch performance should best be measured. This is a problem area for all intelligence and security organisations for which the ultimate mark of success might be the absence of untoward events rather than something actually happening; but it is a question that will need to be answered in the forthcoming Best Value Review of Special Branches. HMIC examined several assessment strategies currently in use in Special Branch, all of which were based mainly on quantitative activity measurement, and most of which could be distorted by different interpretation of the criteria. It was concluded that Special Branch performance should be assessed qualitatively against clear objectives and on the basis of feedback from those with whom the objectives were drawn up, including relevant external agencies, and from Special Branch’s own management. This principle can be applied at the individual as well as the organisational level, and could be supplemented by quantitative measurement of, for example, processes involved in collection or assessment of intelligence.

Regional and national arrangements

12. Regarding the broader structure of Special Branch, HMIC found that the current regional groupings of Special Branch, chaired by ACPO regional representatives, are of varying effectiveness. Some provide forums for networking and exchange of views and perhaps some intelligence, whereas others undertake limited joint tasking, co-ordination and joint operational projects; all provide a useful platform for the security service and others to present briefings and take soundings. Some regions, however, are considering further co-ordination by, for example centralising the management and response to fluid intelligence-led operations such as the tracking of terrorists moving across the country; this might involve the establishment of permanent regional police main base stations to replace the force level structures intended mainly for static hostage-type incidents. Another example is the proposal to co-ordinate all the counter terrorism security advisers in each region to ensure consistency and continuity of advice to commerce and the public. On the ports front, the National Co-ordinator of Ports Policing (NCPP) has established regional groupings of ports which participate in joint operational initiatives, some of which have proved highly successful. These developments are welcome and groundbreaking, but HMIC concluded that the current regional structure cannot provide the cohesion necessary to strengthen Special Branch sufficiently as a national resource.

13. At the national level there is no single organisation which has overall responsibility for the co-ordination of Special Branch. ACPO (Terrorism and Allied Matters) is perhaps the national fulcrum particularly with regards to policy and structural issues, while the ACPO (TAM) Advisory Group, NCPP and several units under the aegis of MPS Special Branch are responsible for co-ordinating, but not controlling, specific areas of Special Branch activity. Outside the police service, the Security Service maintains strong bi-lateral and interactive relationships with all Special Branches, and at the national and regional levels. These links are primarily based on Special Branch’s role in supporting the Security Service, and effectively co-ordinate much of Special Branch’s intelligence and operational work. Other national agencies have similar but less extensive relationships with Special Branch, although the links with some, such as HM Customs and Excise and HM Immigration Service tend to operate at local level.

14. HMIC identified five main areas requiring urgent attention if Special Branch is fully to play its part in countering the threats to national security and public order. The main recommendations of this report relate directly to those areas as follows:

Issue Recommendation

The role and responsibilities of Special Branch are unclear; the 1994 guidelines do not reflect the changed environment.

That the Home Office review and update the current Guidelines in order to clarify the role of Special Branch thereby formalising its remit and priorities within the national security arena.

Special Branch lacks the necessary national coordination and consistency; individual units differ greatly in size and capability; some Ports units are isolated and poorly resourced.

That, in order to achieve greater effectiveness and efficiency, ACPO and chief officers consider the following structural changes. The creation of regional Special Branch units based on the current ACPO regions and under the executive control of regional directors answerable to the relevant regional chief constables management committees. The appointment at Deputy Chief Constable level of a National Co-ordinator of Special Branch, a non-executive position with overall responsibility for ports policing, policy, training and issues common to Special Branch nationally. The transfer of executive control of ports units to their respective regions, with national ports co-ordination provided by the NCPP who would be one of two deputies at Assistant Chief Constable level to the National Co-ordinator. The position of other units with national responsibilities including the NJU and NPO should be considered at this time

Arrangements for Special Branch funding are becoming over complicated and lack transparency.

That, in conjunction with structural change, the Home Office review the funding arrangements for Special Branches; this should include Dedicated Security Post arrangements.

The pressures on Special Branch staffing and resources are proving detrimental to the Branch’s ability to meet operational demands.

That, irrespective of any funding review, ACPO and chief officers should ensure Special Branches and Special Branch Ports Units are appropriately staffed and adequately resourced to meet the continued and developing threats to national security.

Special Branch lacks adequate IT; overall, a Special Branch national IT network would significantly enhance effectiveness. That, as a result of the findings of this inspection and the concerns already raised through ACPO (TAM), as a matter of priority the Home Office enables identified national Special Branch IT requirements to be implemented and most importantly funded, through a clear, robust, time-tabled strategy.

MPS viewpoint

15 The Metropolitan Police Service welcomes the report and believes that one of the regional models recommended by the HMI is necessary to provide the country with a nationally coherent Special Branch function. MPS Special Branch is already engaged on work which will assist this. The HMI recommendation on standardised IT will help here. The MPS also welcomes the appointment of a National Co-ordinator, without whom the achieving of national standards would be more difficult. A review of the funding of Special Branches, which has lacked clarity for some time, may be a useful measure.

MPA response

16 The Authority view the recommendations as significant steps forward in increasing the financial and operational efficiency of Special Branch, particularly the prospect of improved co-ordination and co-operation above Force level. We will, however, wish to consult with the Home Office to ensure that suitable tripartite oversight arrangements accompany the proposed structural changes.

C. Financial implications

The inspection report offers no exemplification or indications as to the financial scale or implications of the recommendations relating to a review of funding mechanisms, and the provision of IT and other resources. Since the MPS will be a region in its own right, the MPA response is conditional on the assumption that the recommendations are cost neutral.

D. Diversity and equality implications

No diversity or equality implications can be discerned from the HMIC report and whilst HMIC are not included in the terms of the Race Relations Amendment Act 2002, it would assist all police authorities and Forces if HMIC adopted best practice and included an impact assessment on all recommendations they make. This will be suggested to HMIC.

E. Background papers

HMIC Thematic Inspection ‘A Need to Know’

F. Contact details

Report author: Keith Dickinson, MPA.

For more information contact:

MPA general: 020 7202 0202
Media enquiries: 020 7202 0217/18

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