An internal review has slammed the handling of an investigation into policing shortfalls at the high security site at which Britain's nuclear weapons are assembled, concluding that junior officers were scape-goated despite a “lack of supervision” by site managers over a number of years, and that poor communication and slow progress with the investigation resulted in a “huge feeling of resentment” across the Ministry of Defence Police Force.
The investigation, conducted by the Ministry of Defence Police (MDP), took place between September 2013 and March 2016 after it was discovered that MDP officers based at the Atomic Weapons Establishment Burghfield had not been conducting their routine patrols and, in some cases, had been sleeping on the job over a four month period between May and August 2013.
After the incident the Ministry of Defence claimed that “at no point was the security of the site or its nuclear assets compromised”. However, it is now apparent that the case was deemed a “critical” incident within the MDP. Police officers under investigation were placed on duties away from AWE Burghfield and as a result it was necessary to draft in large numbers of other officers from other MoD establishments to provide cover for their absence. A special “gold cell” was set up at the Defence Equipment and Support headquarters at Abbey Wood near Bristol to handle operational issues arising from the affair.
A total of 66 police officers were investigated for failing to conduct duties at Burghfield as part of 'Operation Pease' conducted by the MDP's Professional Standards Department. Six officers were found to have committed Gross Misconduct and were subsequently dismissed and a further 25 resigned as a result of the incident. 19 more officers were required to attend misconduct meetings; six required 'management action' and 10 cases were dropped and considered to require no further action.
Papers released under the Freedom of Information Act show that an internal review of the case conducted by Len Jackson, an independent member of the MoD Police Committee, has been highly critical of the conduct of the investigation.
Mr Jackson's report highlights concerns expressed by many MDP officers and by the MoD Police Federation that no one above the rank of sergeant was disciplined regarding the matter. Although the site management team at Burghfield had been “potentially under investigation”, the Head of Nuclear and Physical Security at AWE felt that the investigation had focused on “the low-hanging fruit” rather than address the root cause of the problems, and that there had been “a lack of supervision” in the specific building involved in the misconduct allegations “over a number of years”. Jackson's report states that he agrees with this view “and can see why it has created so much anger and frustration”.
Jackson said he was “surprised” that, given the seriousness of the situation, a senior level group was not set up immediately to deal with precise terms of reference for the investigation, prepare internal and external communications strategies, and deal with customer liaison, officer welfare, investigative resources and proposed timeframes. In the event the investigation was driven solely by the force's Professional Standard Department, with not oversight and direction from MDP headquarters, resulting in a narrow focus on the misconduct allegations and neglect of the broader issues surrounding the case.
He is also critical of a “distressing and demotivating incident” referred to as 'Black Tuesday', when a number of police officers were “gathered together in the parade room and made to wait for around 30 to 40 minutes until everyone had arrived”, and then forced to listen while a Duty Inspector read out a list of names of officers who were to go into a room next door to be served with disciplinary papers. This episode “created an atmosphere of resentment which still remains at Burghfield”.
It appears that at the interview stage the officers were threatened with a "fast track" process formally known as Special Case Procedures (SCP) and it is suggested that this may have been a deliberate tactic intended to cause officers to resign en masse. Jackson was unable to find out who authorised the tactic, so the motives behind it is unclear. However, the implication that this may have been a deliberate strategy to deal quickly and quietly with a major disciplinary issue raises further questions about the management and oversight of the investigation.
Jackson's report states that it is “surprising and more than a little worrying” that the investigation took more than two years to complete, and warned that “considerable damage appears to have been done” by the uncertainties facing officers and investigators as a result of the slow pace. “It is hugely detrimental to morale to have such a serious issue drag on for in excess of two years”, he concludes. Two and a half years after the event there were still a number of officers waiting to hear the outcome of their cases.
Communications by senior MDP officers both at Burghfield and the MDP's Wethersfield headquarters had been “heavily criticised” by most of the people whom Jackson interviewed, and officers who were not personally involved in what was happening “were largely left in the dark”.
In a statement, Eamon Keating, the Defence Police Federation’s National Chairman, said "The Defence Police Federation has been deeply concerned at how this investigation has been conducted. The number of officers involved in this investigation demonstrates a total and systemic organisational failure, and this has been overlooked by the MoD Police. By taking such an approach the Force has acted punitively against officers while failing to take responsibility for the supervision that contributed to this issue. This also means important lessons for future are unlikely to be learned."
Further coverage of this story:
The Observer - Investigation into security lapses at Trident site ‘was bungled’
The Mail on Sunday - Dozens of armed police lose their jobs for 'slacking off' while they were being paid to guard Britain's nuclear bomb factory