Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Welcome back to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. I have various questions to put to the Minister about the new clause, but I must say that there are advantages to the proposed extension to the railways. In particular, I should like to refer to what the Minister has called the railway-specific parts of the proposal.

Are there other ways of improving security on our transport system? How was an alternative model for improving the safety of the travelling public chosen in London? The transport commissioner for London, Mr. Kiley, has done a deal under which fully trained and qualified serving police officers will be seconded to travel on buses and tubes, and payments will be made to guarantee that those officers travel on the buses and trains.

That might be a better model to follow. It has been negotiated successfully between the Government, the Metropolitan police, the Mayor of London and the transport commissioner, with all his experience of the United States of America. I wonder why the Government are not following that model. There was quite a lot of news coverage on the television on a related issue as recently as last night involving the Minister for Transport, who appeared with various officers and talked about people being seconded as special constables. As there is so much publicity on the subject, I should be interested to hear whether the Minister thinks that there is any overlap or contradiction between the two ways of approaching the issue.

As co-chairman of the all-party rail group with the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn), I have an interest in what happens on the railways. I welcome the fact that the Government have chosen to go down that line with their proposals, and that there are the railway-specific offences in relation to trespassing on the railway and throwing stones or other things on to trains and railways. There can be few more serious types of attack, and many accidents, some fatal, have been caused or contributed to by vandalism on the railways.

As recently as a year ago, Nick Sutcliffe, who sits on Guildford borough council but represents a ward in my constituency as part of it is in Guildford borough, was travelling on a late evening train in the winter. The train lights were clearly visible to those outside and the train was stoned. It was clearly a deliberate attempt by a group of youths in my constituency to injure passengers in that part of the carriage. Councillor Sutcliffe told me that, when he tried to obtain action from the transport police to apprehend those responsible for throwing stones at him and other passengers on the train in the middle of a winter evening, it took him about two days to receive a response. Although profuse apologies were given in due course and promises were made that more attention would be paid by the transport police to the area in which it was known that some out-of-controls youths could get close to the track, it reinforced the

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fact that more needs to be done in respect of rail security. I have spoken about the incident to parliamentary colleagues on both sides of the House, and they said that they had never seen a transport policeman and asked what such officers look like.

If, as a result of the proposals, people will be much more aware of security provisions being in place from other than railway staff, it will be welcomed by the travelling public. I have had dealings at a fairly senior level with transport police officers and I know that they do a good job, even though they may not be numerous enough for the public. After a distinguished period as chief constable in my county, Mr. David Williams became chief constable of the British Transport police.

When looking at asylum seekers trying to jump on trains on the far side of the channel at the beginning of the Easter recess, I was accompanied by Superintendent David Hatcher, known to television viewers as one of the senior police officers who appeared regularly on the BBC ''Crimewatch'' programme. He was advising us on the problems at Sangatte and the surrounding area, which was helpful. The visit was organised by the noble Lord Berkeley. I hope that the Minister can deal with the matters that I have raised. I do not oppose the new clause, but we should like to hear a little more about how the proposals will fit in with other developments.

Norman Baker (Lewes): I welcome you to our proceedings, Mr. O'Brien. Undoubtedly, there is a need to improve security on our railways. I am sure that most of us receive letters on that theme from our constituents, but I wonder whether the new clause is the right way in which to approach the problem. There is a need for safer stations and for there to be more staff at stations, which is clearly way beyond the Bill's remit. Unstaffed stations are an invitation to vandalism, and there is a need for CCTV on trains and at stations, which was a point that was made this morning.

There is a need for an improved police presence, in general. I agree with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). I do not think that I have ever seen a transport police officer. I do not know how many there are, but they keep themselves very much to themselves, or perhaps they travel in plain clothes. The new clause suggests that there should be a low tier of personnel with the power to deal with low-level incidents, but probably not the matters that are of most concern to the travelling public, which is the fear that they—especially women—may be attacked on trains or at badly lit or unstaffed stations. The new clause would deal with less of an issue, such as someone who may be making too much noise on a train because they had been drinking too much alcohol. Is that the right way to deal with even that problem?

The Minister will know of our philosophical problems with the idea of giving private sector employees powers to give fixed penalty tickets to members of the public and to operate as a private police force within certain tightly defined boundaries. I have a problem with that, in particular in the case of the railway industry, where private-sector companies

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have not exactly covered themselves with glory. The idea of Railtrack, or, even worse, Jarvis, handing out fixed penalty notices does not fill me with much enthusiasm. It may be the wrong kind of police on the line as far as the public are concerned.

Having said that, I have some sympathy with the Minister's suggestion that there should be a power to deal with nuisances, caused, I suppose, by young people, such as throwing stones or trespassing. If we could do something to stop that, I have some sympathy with his point. However, presumably the trespassing powers will be unable to deal with the many hunts that seem to roam across railway lines willy-nilly and do not seem to be controlled or stopped by anyone, let alone operatives under such a scheme.

4.45 pm

I listened carefully to the Minister, and he may correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that his proposal is that people who are accredited under the railway safety scheme will have not only those two extra powers but powers that apply in a community safety scheme.

Mr. Denham indicated assent.

Norman Baker: The Minister nods. I fail to understand why it is necessary to give people who are accredited under the scheme powers that enable them to deal with cycling on the footway, dog fouling or abandoned vehicles. I hope that we do not have abandoned vehicles on railway lines too often. Several powers seem surplus to requirements, and I would have more sympathy with the proposal if it were limited specifically to railway-related issues, such as throwing stones at trains or trespassing on the railway.

Why will the wider powers in schedule 5, which seem to have little relevance to railways, be included in the powers available to such people? Why do they need powers to deal with cycling on footways or dog fouling, for example?

In addition, will the Minister clarify the definition of behaving in an antisocial manner? As he understands, that will apply to the railway. Will it apply to people busking at railway stations, for example? Some people might regard that as antisocial; I would not. Who will define antisocial in a railway context? Having expressed my reservations about the new clause, I hope that the Minister will respond to my questions.

Mr. Denham: The hon. Member for Surrey Heath asked several questions around a central theme. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) made a wide-ranging but none the less curmudgeonly contribution to the debate, as we have become used to.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath asked how the proposals will fit alongside different initiatives being introduced at the moment. Some useful initiatives have been introduced, all of which combined are helpful. We would need to look to the local chief officer of the Home Office police force, together with the chief officer of the BTP, to ensure that local arrangements were satisfactory.

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There have been proposals to encourage police officers to travel on several transport systems. I believe that one London commuter line already offers free travel to officers in its area. The Metropolitan police intends to dedicate some of its CSOs to transport routes. I am not sure what stage the discussions have reached, but there has also been talk of Transport for London possibly partially financing some of the officers who would be supplied by the Metropolitan police.

In the welcome initiative to which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath referred earlier, Connex has made an arrangement to encourage members of staff to train and serve as special constables. It will not pay them for being specials but will reward them with an additional payment. I hope that that model of an employer supporting the recruitment of the special constabulary, which will be discussed in more detail when we debate a later new clause, will be adopted more generally. It is a good initiative.

There are big differences between the different types of scheme. Travel schemes may benefit from the presence of a police officer who is travelling to or from work, but who will not be there for the entire working day. Although a railway company will benefit in many ways by having somebody on its staff who is trained in the skills of a special, the duties of a special lie in the officer's own time, rather than in their working time. Arrangements such as the one where the Metropolitan police can supply CSOs on transport routes complement such initiatives, but only this one for the railways will look at railway staff who are properly trained and accredited to exercise the functions of the CSO, and that is the key issue. They will be members of staff whose full-time job is to deal with railway safety and antisocial issues.

In any case, all the signs are that this is the way that the railway industry is moving. Several train operating companies—such as Railtrack, which is responsible for stations—are already recruiting and developing staff to play such roles. We are seeking to provide a framework within which those different initiatives can be co-ordinated by the BTP across the entire railway system. That is better than having each train operating company coming up with a slightly different variation on the same theme of travel safety. A framework such as ours will help to provide national consistency, which is important on a rail network.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that although it is easy to list a diversity of approaches to this issue, they fit together and complement each other. Where there are issues of possible overlap of different initiatives—which is more likely to happen in London than anywhere else, because of the work that the Metropolitan police does with the BTP—we can rely on the chief officers of the two forces to sort out operational issues with the transport operators.

The hon. Gentleman also described the types of distressing incident on which we wish to crack down. I hope that by complementing the force of the BTP—which currently has 2,100 officers, I think—it will be possible for more effort to be devoted to following up incidents of that sort.

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The hon. Member for Lewes asked several questions. One of them was about the range of powers. It makes sense that the full range of powers that would otherwise be available to ACSOs should be available to the BTP when it establishes its accreditation scheme. The BTP's jurisdiction covers railways and their vicinity, so it is possible that issues involving dog fouling, cycling—and, perhaps, buskers, where there is no authorised scheme for them—will be dealt with in the areas that the BTP covers, although offenders will have to fall foul of the particular offences that are set out in the legislation.

There is merit in allowing the force, when it sets up its accredited scheme, to look through the menu of powers and to say whether it thinks that each of them is appropriate. However, the evidence from my officials' discussions with the BTP about the possible establishment of its scheme suggests that it would like the full range of powers that are in the legislation, as well as the two additional powers that have been mentioned.

The hon. Gentleman has rehearsed the argument that he put this morning about private sector officers having these powers. Train operating companies are developing railway security schemes. It makes sense to bring those schemes into a national framework, and to allow the modest extension of minor powers to the relevant employees, if the chief officer of the BTP thinks that it would add to the security of passengers on the railway system. As I said this morning, I think that we can rely on the responsibilities that rest with the chief officer and his judgment of whether a decision is appropriate. We must accept the principle today.

 
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