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The Bill had its Second Reading in the other place nearly a year ago, on 21 March 1988. Its progress through Parliament has been delayed not because of any special difficulties with the Bill, but through circumstances that could not have been foreseen by its promoters.
As the House will recall, the Transport Act 1962 places a duty on the board to provide rail services having
"due regard to efficiency, economy and safety".
Sad to say, over many years that aspect has been seriously undermined by those who travel on the system without paying fares. The figure currently estimated for Network SouthEast--the area within which my constituency falls--is now losing some £36 million a year, with an overall figure that could be far in excess of £50 million. That is a substantial sum, representing an enormous number of journeys on which travel is enjoyed without payment being made. It could be as many as 20 million journeys.
Research has shown that much of the evasion takes place partly as a result of failure to find proper places to buy tickets and partly as a result of opportunism by young people on short journeys. The present position cannot be allowed to continue, if it can be changed satisfactorily. It is both archaic and inefficient. It is based on the visible check of tickets at the barrier which is at best perfunctory and at worst does not take place at all. Staffed barriers are inevitably expensive. They cause queuing and problems for those with luggage, pushchairs and other encum-brances. It is worth pointing out that this is the only country in either eastern or western Europe that still uses staffed barriers to check tickets. The penalty fare, of the type that I shall explain in a moment, is becoming increasingly commonplace.
Column 705The board's plan, as outlined in the Bill, is aimed at recovering about £9 million a year as an opening, realistic objective. It is hoped that that figure will be substantially increased, but the board has that in mind as a starting figure. The requirements of the scheme, as set down by the board, are, first, that it presents an effective incentive to people to purchase tickets, secondly, that it is relatively easy to operate and, thirdly, that it will cease to be, as it is at present, a substantial burden on the courts. It is worth remembering that between 3,000 and 4,000 cases a year still come before the courts. Although this is to be not a criminal but a civil penalty, it must also be remembered that the board retains the right, in the case of serious fraud, to prosecute under the terms of the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 and its byelaw under section 67 of the 1962 Act.
The penalty will be a simple, flat rate figure. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) was correct when he said that a common feature of this Bill and that which London Regional Transport has in mind is a flat rate sum of £10. That is not in addition to the normal fare ; it is instead of the fare. However, when the cost of the journey is higher than £10, the standard full, single fare would be recovered.
Mr. McNair-Wilson : The difficulty, as the hon. Gentleman with his experience knows, is that under the 1889 Act--the principal Act that governs this problem--fraud has to be proved. That is a lengthy and, needless to say, expensive process. This is not a criminal penalty. It is a civil penalty. As I hope to explain in a moment, anybody who is confronted with it will have a number of options before him. Under the 1889 Act there would be a straightforward criminal prosecution under which the board would quite properly have to prove fraudulent intent.
The new scheme would transfer ticket examination from the station to the train. On long journeys that is a common procedure. That is why I said at the beginning that the problem tends to be at its worst on shorter journeys. With ticket inspection on trains, an additional benefit is that more staff would be travelling on the trains to carry out that duty, thereby enhancing passenger security on trains. I hope that that will reassure women and elderly people and make them feel safer. In some areas tickets are already issued on trains. The West Yorkshire passenger transport executive area is one of them. In such an area it is unlikely that any major changes will be necessary. The system is designed primarily as part of a package of measures. I pointed out earlier that opportunistic people arrive at the station, find that the ticket office is closed and rush for the train. Despite the fact that they may say to somebody that they will pay at the other end, they get off the train and, finding the ticket barrier unmanned, walk off. That can be understood, but there is another type of person who deliberately tries to avoid paying.
This package of measures, of which the Bill is but a part, will include more and better ticket issuing machines. The board's objective is that people who require tickets should not have to wait more than three minutes in the off-peak period and five minutes in the peak period to
Column 706purchase them. That would provide an incentive for people to purchase tickets. They would not then encounter the problem that I have just described.
In addition to the ticket machines, there would also be the deferred fare authority machine. It would accept any coin between 5p and £1. If purchased, that ticket would mean that no penalty fare would have to be paid. It would provide people with the opportunity to pay the rest of the fare to a properly authorised railway official. The scheme would receive full publicity. If the new scheme were properly publicised by means of notices posted throughout the railway network, it would be thoroughly advantageous.
Penalty fares will be collected by fully trained and competent "authorised persons", as they are referred to in the Bill. I make it clear on behalf of the board that this will not be just another responsibility that is to be dumped on to ticket collectors. Training does not mean training only in the general law relating to passenger travel. A special course will enable authorised persons to deal with interpersonal relationships, violence and other problems. It is hoped that the teams who will undertake these checks will consist of no fewer than two people. Perhaps small groups of people will carry out the checks.
Mr. McNair-Wilson : I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the information that he requires. More staff of a different type will be required. We are moving away from the barrier check to the on-train check. I am not aware that those who are currently carrying out this work will be put at a disadvantage. However, new and better trained teams of people will be required.
What is more important, the trained, authorised personnel will be given discretion. If a person says, "I have lost my ticket"--not a completely unknown predicament, in which some of us may have found ourselves--it will be possible for the official to say, "That is all right, you can go." There will also be a 21-day discretionary period. If a notice is issued to a passenger, he will be able to put his case in writing. The matter will then be examined by the appropriate authorities at head office. There will be no attempt to bulldoze or bully passengers. If a reasonable excuse is given, discretion can be exercised by those in authority.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Will the hon. Gentleman assure us that there is no provision for the British Railways board to insist that fares are collected--that is, to reduce the discretion that fare collectors exercise? As the hon. Gentleman knows, British Rail introduced a number of disciplinary rules recently, and I dare say that there is a fear that the board will tend to set targets for collecting money, which will, of necessity, reduce discretion.
Mr. McNair-Wilson : Happily, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that such targets are not in board members' minds. The board is anxious to create an incentive for ticket purchasing. Not everyone fails to buy a ticket for fraudulent reasons. However, at the same time, there should be a back-up penalty for people who are deliberately trying to evade the system. I hope that those
Column 707words will reassure the hon. Gentleman who, I know, is an expert on railways. I assure him that the board is not attempting to bully the travelling public.
The penalty, as I have said, will be a flat rate of £10. As I also pointed out, there will be an excess penalty for longer journeys. I wish to make it clear that no penalty fare will be issued to a passenger who has a ticket or some other authority to travel, or who found the ticket office was closed and no machines were available at the start of his journey--it is true that booking offices are often unavailable--or who has been told by a member of British Rail's staff to join the train.
Some form of penalty fare is necessary. To activate the penalty fare system it will be necessary for the Secretary of State for Transport to issue an order to that effect. The only way in which the system can be activated is by British Rail. None of the elements of the scheme can be introduced without the Secretary of State and British Rail being satisfied that the ticket machines, the deferred-payment machines and the rest are already in place. I hope that the system will be introduced not in a half-hearted, incompetent way but on the basis of providing every opportunity for those who wish to buy a ticket.
Providing that the Bill proceeds through the House, British Rail would like to start the scheme fairly swiftly. It is thinking of starting it on the Southend-Tilbury-London line and has also considered the possibility of the London to Reading line. A substantial number of the machines to which I referred are already in place. Training of the appropriate personnel is going ahead. In order to ensure that British Rail does not introduce a blanket scheme that breaks down through incompetence or inefficiency, the scheme will be introduced in places where the proper machinery is already in place. I hope that the Bill, having received an unopposed Second Reading in the other place and having satisfactorily undergone the various relevant procedures before it came before us, will now command the support of the House.
No one who has paid to travel on the railway system, be it London Underground or the wider British Rail network--the two are interconnected-- can ever feel entirely happy that a number of other people are travelling for nothing. If we want to hold down the cost of rail travel, it is essential to try to recover, as far as possible, all the moneys owing to the system.
I hope that the House will feel able to give the Bill a Second Reading and allow it to go into Committee.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : I am sure that there is no disagreement about wishing to stop people cheating when they travel. The disagreement will be about whether this measure, and that relating to the London Underground, will achieve that end. The motion in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), that the Bill should be read a Second time six months hence, is particularly appropriate. Anyone who examines the problems currently facing the railways, and studies this measure, will think it far better if British Rail and London Underground were to come forward with their proposals in six months' time rather than now.
Column 708I understand that consultations with the unions have been fairly perfunctory so far, and it would seem better for British Rail to give us assurances that the unions--whose members, both men and women, will have to operate the scheme--have been fully consulted before the scheme is introduced.
London Underground's automatic ticket barriers cause a fair amount of chaos and we should see what happens with those before the measure is enacted. In the north-west, in Greater Manchester, my constituents are certainly not in favour of any form of penalty fares : they would be more in favour of penalty refunds because of the appalling service provided by British Rail for people in south-east Manchester. There is concern about the safety of passengers on the Underground and British Rail, and there are many questions about whether these measures will improve safety.
A fundamental principle of civil rights is involved. Does the Bill transfer the onus of proof from the railway authorities, who must prove that someone set out to defraud them, to the individual, who must prove that he did not set out to defraud the railway authorities? That is an unfortunate erosion of civil rights. There is also a lack of logic in a measure which seeks to make what was a criminal offence into merely a civil one. That may encourage the gambler in many people, who may feel that it is worth trying to avoid paying the full fare, because though they risk having to pay £10 if they are caught, they will not have committed a criminal offence. The House ought to know more about deferred-payment ticket machines. They seem a good idea but I have yet to see one in operation.
Like so many other measures, the Bill is not very powerful on its own. The key lies with the Secretary of State's powers to implement it. I hope that tonight the Secretary of State or his representative will be able to give us some idea of how the Department envisages the implementation of the scheme, and of what checks it will make before it is convinced that an area is ready for the introduction of the scheme. We should also notice that, by order, the penalty can be increased from its present £10 and £5 to whatever the Minister or anyone else thinks appropriate.
British Rail has opted for a "no ticket barrier" philosophy. As I understand the documents that I have received, it wants to get rid of the barriers and ticket checking as passengers get on and off trains. On the other hand, London Underground is in favour of ticket barriers--one might say ticket barricades--so that people are checked on and off the platform. There is a fundamental difference between the two schemes.
It seems to me that in some parts of the country it will be extremely difficult for British Rail to check passengers on trains. In the north-west of England there are certain commuter lines into Manchester on which many people travel relatively short distances. It will be extremely difficult for British Rail to conduct on-train inspections of tickets because it still has so much archaic rolling stock on which it is absolutely impossible for anyone to move from carriage to carriage to check tickets. Certainly we desperately need to replace some of that old rolling stock from the north-west, and if this measure were to speed that up, I might be sympathetic.
Column 709to provide ticket conductors? I am thinking, for instance, of two two-carriage units that are not connected by a corridor. Because there are not sufficient personnel to operate in both two -car units trains often run with two cars empty. We have not received any assurance that British Rail's policy will be reversed so that we can ensure that all the DMUs are properly staffed.
Mr. Bennett : That is an important point. Certainly I would argue very strongly in support of on-train ticket checking, provided that the trains are suitable and that there are sufficient staff to carry it out. However, it is interesting--and this is a total contradiction of philosophy --that London Transport wants to go for barriers. I am particularly concerned about the question of consultation with the unions. It seems to me that it is particularly important that both British Rail and London Transport are able to give assurances to the unions that these proposals will not involve any redundancies. If, as has been claimed, the main aim is to improve the service by having, in the case of the London Underground, more people to issue tickets and, in the case of British Rail, more people to check them, it ought to be possible to give the unions an assurance about redundancies.
I believe also that there should be assurances for the staff about safety. If it becomes known that travelling conductors or guards, or the staff doing the checks on the London Underground, are likely to be carrying substantial sums of money there will be a further risk to those people who already place themselves at some risk in that they deal at night with people who may have had something to drink or who may not be particularly amenable. The promoters of the Bills should have talked to the staff and given them assurances about safety. They must also give the general public assurances about safety. First, they have to deal with the question of bogus collectors. Many people in the House were quite sympathetic to the idea of giving the police powers to collect penalty fines for motoring offences, particularly speeding, and to the idea that this could be done very quickly. But we are aware of the nasty experience arising from one or two bogus policemen operating on motorways, and, indeed, we have heard one or two instances of people assuming wrongly that officers were bogus.
We have to look into the question of the authority that the individuals collecting the penalties will have, so that it can be made absolutely clear to passengers that they are genuine collectors. This is particularly important in the case of British Rail because if the scheme is introduced in a piecemeal way many people will not be certain whether it operates in their area. I hope there can be some clarification and that there will be discussions with the unions about the safety of those individuals.
My argument for deferring the scheme for six months relates very much to the question of the Underground and the automatic ticket barriers. I notice that there have already been criticisms of the automatic ticket barriers. The fire brigade has suggested that it is not really safe if large numbers of people have to get off the platform. It may be a bit of brilliant timing by the Underground that it put the fares up in January, just as it was introducing many more machines. It seems that at the same time people are having considerable difficulty in having the right money for the machines. Every machine that I come across demands the exact money rather than offering
Column 710change. In addition, many people are finding it difficult to put the tickets into the automatic barriers. Certainly my experience is that most people go for the open gate rather than put their ticket though the machine. Surely it would have been far better for the London Underground to wait until its barriers were working and seen their effect.
Apart from anything else, I believe that if the machines work effectively they will cut fraud significantly, and there may therefore be no need at all for this measure. If the machines do not cut fraud significantly, what is the point of introducing them? I shall not say any more now about the automatic barriers ; it may be more appropriate to come back to the question later.
My constituents in Greater Manchester are very disgruntled and upset about British Rail spending so much time trying, supposedly, to improve inter- city trains through Manchester. They have had a winter of total and incomprehensible muddle so far as the local commuter trains are concerned. A constituent of mine regularly writes to me to tell me which trains are late on his journey to work. I get a letter at least every day. It would be simpler for him, and for me, if he were to write and tell me when the trains are on time. I realise that British Rail has been doing a great deal of work at Piccadilly south, but certainly the service is appalling.
As I said earlier, my constituents would like penalty refunds. I do not think that they would mind if they got a pound for every 10 minutes the trains were late. British Rail would have been bankrupt a long time ago if it had had to pay out that sort of money. It is very sad that British Rail has put so much effort into the inter-city services so that it can run trains from Blackpool to Harwich--only one little Sprinter carriage, but it goes--and from Newcastle to Liverpool via Piccadilly--yet it has not been able to maintain a commuter service through that area.
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East) : My hon. Friend is labouring under the same misapprehension that I laboured under until recently. Those trains from Harwich to Blackpool, and indeed the ones between the cities of Newcastle and Liverpool, are not part of the inter-city network. If my hon. Friend can tell me why, he is a wiser man than I.
What is particularly worrying is that British Rail seems to have felt that, in order to squeeze those trains through Piccadilly south, it was possible to squeeze out the commuter service into Manchester. I understand that the Manchester transport executive has been considering taking British Rail to court over its failure to provide the service for which it gets a subsidy. Certainly, the first thing that the people coming into that area want is trains that are reliable and efficient, and they would be much happier to pay for that service by buying tickets than to see British Rail spending its time introducing a measure like this, which will do nothing to improve public morale. I should think that anyone trying to collect tickets on those trains would spend a great deal of time getting a great deal of
Column 711earache about the unreliability of the service and would find it extremely difficult to move from one part of the train to another, even if there were corridors--and many carriages still do not have corridors.
Let me turn now to the question of safety. British Rail in particular says that if there are far more people on the trains checking tickets there will be improved safety. To a certain extent London Underground makes the same case. I am sure that we are all very concerned about the safety of passengers, but I suggest that there is not an overwhelming case for saying that people are worried about their safety on the trains as opposed to their safety on the stations. It seems that British Rail is aiming to reduce substantially the number of people on the stations. I must say that at more than one station where I wait late at night I would much prefer to know that there was someone in the booking office who, if I were attacked, would have a chance of doing something about it. He might pick up the telephone, though I would not expect him to come to my assistance in any other way. But if I knew that the ticket office was not manned, that there was merely a machine, my unease would be increased. At one or two stations in the Greater Manchester area, passengers have to go down a couple of steps and around one or two awkward corners, where somebody could lurk, before they get to the ill-lit platform. The idea that such stations will not be manned increases my anxiety, especially if the automatic ticket machines are liable to attempts by people up to mischief to take money out of them. That does not increase safety.
With London Underground, if staff are on the platform and are clearly visible at barriers, their presence is an effective deterrent. I would like more staff to travel on trains to reduce violence. I do not accept the promoters' claim that the Bills will increase passenger safety. For British Rail, it would be much preferable to have more effectively manned stations and travelling ticket collectors. With London Underground, the problem with fare default increased substantially when staff levels were reduced. The problems of violence on the tube and on stations has also increased as a result of reduced staffing.
The promoters claim that making what was previously a criminal charge a civil charge is a significant step in terms of civil rights, but it is not really all that significant for most people because most people do not want to break the law, civil or criminal--they want to be law abiding. The change, which is fairly minor in their eyes, does not justify changing the onus of proof. I understand that at the moment, London Underground and British Rail have to prove that an individual got on a train without trying to buy a ticket and intended to travel without paying. If that were difficult to prove, one would expect there to be few court cases, but the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) said that there are a substantial number of prosecutions each year.
It is extremely difficult, however, for a traveller to prove that he intended to pay. Deferred payment machines might be installed at all stations. If that is so, life will be easier for somebody who arrives at a station without an open window at which to pay to get a ticket out of the machine. I suspect that people will occasionally have only more than
Column 712a £1 coin, especially if they have travelled some distance. They can reasonably expect there to be somebody at a window to take their fare.
The presence and working conditions of a deferred payments machine must be guaranteed if the scheme is to have any justification. My experience is of going to Westminster tube station after about 11 pm and finding nobody to take the money for a ticket. A 50p machine sometimes worked before Christmas, but often there was no machine and somebody in a little wooden office counting money. I could not be certain whether he was supposed to be counting money because he had finished his shift or whether he was trying to finish early and ought to have had the window open. At the other end, there was sometimes somebody to collect the money, but sometimes there was not. If I were stopped on the train, I doubt whether I could satisfy the inspector that there was nobody at Westminster station. Indeed, I suspect that if that somebody was supposed to be at the window at Westminster station and supposed to be collecting money, he would insist firmly that he was doing just that. It would simply be my word against his. In my position, and in view of the fuss that I would make, it might not be all that difficult for me to get away with it, but a 13 or 14-year-old, or somebody who was not prepared to make a fuss, would probably find that London Underground tends to believe the person in the office rather than the individual. That gives rise to considerable difficulty.
Many people would be pressurised into paying because they would be unable to prove that, when they went to the ticket office, nobody was in it. People can also claim that they have been authorised by somebody in British Rail or London Underground uniform that they are entitled to travel without making a payment at the start of the journey. When challenged, or at an inquiry, it is extremely difficult to say who authorised the travel. There must be a much more efficient way of issuing tickets or some other authorisation for travel before the Bill is introduced.
Anyone who knows London Underground will say that the present system has broken down. If it needs the new machines and they work, very few people will defraud it. That being so, it would be no hardship to London Underground--indeed, it would be an advantage--to charge people who defraud the system with a criminal offence and make a fuss about the fact that they have been apprehended and punished. The only argument in favour of penalty fares arises when a large number of people do not pay and the burden of taking them through the courts becomes too great.
If the new barriers are worth all the fuss, they must cut the amount of fare dodging. If British Rail has efficient ticket issuing machines on the Southend line, there should be a major reduction in the number of fare dodgers. If there is, there is no hardship in treating fare dodging as a criminal offence, on which basis the fine could be much more than £10- -and much more of a deterrent. The £10 penalty fare might be considered a gambler's charter. People who have to pay £1.50 or £3.00 may think that, if they get away with it, it will have cost them nothing and that, if they are caught, the most that they will have to pay is £10. On some British Rail routes into London, people have to pay £7 or £8 for a ticket. Gambling for £10 in those circumstances becomes quite attractive. There does not seem to be much logic in that.
Column 713I would much rather have the new and supposedly efficient ticket checking and collecting systems and no resort to penalty fares. I should like a more detailed description of the deferred payment ticket machines. I would like to know how soon London Underground will add them to its exising machines. Will it be possible to say, "I got a deferred ticket because I read, Exact money' on the machine and I cannot see a space for that on the machine below the 60p"? I hope that the Minister can tell us what guarantees he wants about the sections of line to which the new arrangements will apply. With British Rail, the scheme will be phased in on the Southend line first. What guarantees will the Minister want about orders? What publicity for the new arrangements will be provided? Can the Minister assure us that he will not increase the £10 and £5 penalty fares? What will happen with the rolling stock? I hope that we shall have a guarantee that none of the new arrangements will apply when people cannot move from one carriage to the next to check fares. I have expressed most of my fears. There should certainly be some amendments on Report. I shall also be looking with considerable interest at the operation of the present London Underground system. I shall be looking for dramatic improvements in reliability and punctuality in Manchester when the new timetable is brought out. In the light of all that, I reserve my final attitude to penalty fares, although I am concerned about the principle of changing the onus of proof so that instead of someone having to prove that an individual has committed a crime the individual will have to prove that he has not committed an offence.
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo) : It may be for the convenience of the House if I set out the Government's attitude to the Bill. First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) on making so clear the purposes of the Bill. I hope that my remarks will help the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) with some of the points that he raised.
In May 1986 the Government set up a working group to look into arrangements for charging penalty fares on public transport. We accepted its recommendations that changes in the law were needed to tackle the problem of fare evasion and we gave our consent to BR and LRT to deposit the Penalty Fares Bills which we are discussing tonight.
The Government strongly support the Bill. British Rail loses large amounts of revenue every year through fraudulent travel. The new Bill is designed to deter people from embarking on a journey without a valid ticket or "deferred fare authority" which allows them to travel to their destination and then pay an excess fare.
Dr. Marek : Before the Minister continues reading his speech, may I ask him why he sought to intervene and make his speech after only one Opposition Member has been allowed to speak? My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) also wishes to make a speech. I hope that the Minister will not simply plough through his prepared speech and then take no further part in the debate or answer any questions from Opposition Members?
Mr. Portillo : The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that this is a private Bill and not a Government Bill. I am not here to wind up the discussion or reply to points. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish has raised some points about an order that the Government might make, but those points are best addressed when the Government may or may not make that order. For the moment we are dealing with private legislation.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Although I did not develop that argument in my speech, there is a great deal of worry about the order-making procedure. The orders are subject to annulment, which does not encourage debate in the House, and the best we can get is a debate for one and a half hours. That is not satisfactory. Surely it is far better for the issues to be argued in the House before we give the Minister the powers to make the orders rather than when he has those powers.
Mr. Portillo : I am trying to address the hon. Gentleman's worries by making a speech now, if I am allowed to continue. It may be that annulment does not encourage debate, but it certainly allows debate. In any case we are now debating the Second Reading of the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman feels that that part of the Bill is objectionable to him doubtless he will seek to amend it during the further stages of the Bill.
Mr. Portillo : The recovery of lost revenue through the operation of the Bill will benefit not only British Rail but both the honest passenger and the taxpayer. It should be a significant help to BR in achieving the objectives we have set--to reduce the amount of support it receives from the public purse, while improving quality of service.
Passengers will also benefit from unrestricted access to and from trains through the use of "open stations", since on-train ticket checks will allow more ticket barriers to be removed. In addition, more automatic ticket- vending machines and the introduction of deferred fare authority machines will reduce queues at ticket offices.
Many parts of the country outside London and the south-east already have open-station systems and on the whole they have been successful. On-train ticket checks are common in Europe and Britain is the only country which still relies heavily on barrier controls.
Under existing law, if a passenger is found travelling without a valid ticket, BR can charge him the full single fare to his destination. However, research has shown that most fare evasion takes place over short distances and therefore that is not an effective deterrent. The payment of a flat- rate penalty of £10--which is the same as that proposed by LRT--or the full single fare, if it is greater, will encourage people to buy a ticket before travelling. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest made clear, the penalty fare will be a civil penalty, not a criminal one, and that will mean that most offences for non-payment of fares will no longer be heard at magistrates' courts. But BR would still have the right to prosecute in serious cases of fraud.
Of course, the powers which I have just described cannot be applied to any service or group of services until my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made an activating order. Before any such order is made the Secretary of State will need to be satisfied that all the necessary arrangements are in place to operate the system
Column 715and that they include safeguards to ensure that honest passengers are not penalised if no opportunity to buy a ticket has been provided. He will therefore need to be satisfied that ticket offices are properly staffed ; that the necessary ticket and deferred authority machines are in place ; that there are satisfactory arrangements for monitoring and repairing machines ; that there are adequate publicity arrangements to inform passengers about the new system ; that ticket inspectors are properly trained to operate the system and are deployed appropriately and that they have adequate identification. We must also be assured that procedures for disputes and appeals are in place.
We believe that the introduction of penalty fares legislation will bring many benefits to passengers as well as helping to recover some of the revenue which BR is losing through fare evasion. We will need to be assured that preparations have been made to ensure that the system is operated properly and that adequate safeguards are in place to protect the honest fare-paying passengers.
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East) : The House is grateful to the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) for the customary courteous and lucid way in which he introduced the Bill. However, the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) shows that we should not allow the elaborate cloak so cleverly spun by the hon. Member for New Forest to disguise the somewhat shabby figure underneath. A number of legitimate points should be raised before the House allows the Bill to proceed. The hon. Member for New Forest referred to the need, indeed the desire, of British Rail for more and better ticket-issuing machines. So say all of us. Those of us who have travelled on, have had any dealings with or have worked on British Rail, as I have, will be aware that not so many years ago--at least it does not feel too many years ago--one went to a ticket office window, handed over the cash and very quickly was presented with a piece of cardboard on which was written the originating station and in larger letters the destination. The price on it was inevitably out of date, but the whole transaction was fairly speedy and simple.
That is not the case now. By the nature of their job, Ministers are cosseted from the realities of daily life that are faced by millions of ordinary people, but a quick visit to any mainline railway station will demonstrate that these days the system of purchasing and selling a railway ticket is much more complicated. First, the little pieces of cardboard to which I referred so fondly have all disappeared. I understand that that was known as the Edmonson system after its inventor, just to tip off the Minister in passing. Particularly at mainline terminals, the ticket issuing machines look like extras from "Doctor Who". They are enormously complex. The mere issuing of a ticket leads to an interrogation from the clerk which is understandable, given the multiplicity of tickets that BR now sells-- blue savers, white savers, singles, returns, first class, standard class--
The House will not be surprised, although the Minister might be, to find that queues at mainline stations are considerably longer than they used to be. The temptation for passengers in a hurry is to leave the queue and board the train, particularly at an open station with no barrier check. They will then pay the conductor-guard, the senior ticket examiner--I understand that that will be the new grade--or the station staff at their destination, depending on who approaches the passengers first. At the risk of the hon. Member for New Forest branding me as a potential criminal, I must confess I have acted in that way when I have seen a long ticket queue. Therefore, we need more assurances that the new and better ticket-issuing machines are on the way, because there appears to be no sign of them so far. The hon. Member for New Forest said that the British Railways board intends to try to ensure that the maximum wait at a ticket window will be between three and five minutes. That time, so optimistically referred to, is considerably exceeded for most parts of the day at, for example, Birmingham New Street which is my closest InterCity station. Despite there being up to five ticket windows open, there is often a considerable queue at each. Many passengers, including hon. Members, no longer use the outmoded system of purchasing with cash. They use credit cards or, in our fortunate case, railway warrants. Transactions involving credit cards or railway warrants take a little longer than the simple cash transactions of the past. Also, many of us seek reassurance from the person from whom we purchase the ticket that the train we want is running, that it is on time and often from which platform it departs. That causes increased congestion and delay for those in the queue. Someone whose patience expires or whose time of departure gets ever closer while complex transactions take place would be likely to head for the train and hope for the best. Under the proposed system, such a passenger would, according to the hon. Member for New Forest, have an opportunity to purchase a permit-to-travel ticket for what he describes as a "nominal fee". British Rail's idea of a nominal fee often does not coincide with the thinking of the rest of us. The hon. Member for New Forest--or more likely the person who drafted the Bill and certainly the organisation for which it was drafted--takes an optimistic view of the efficacy of the machines that accept money. The hon. Gentleman did not give the figure that British Rail has in mind, but it will probably be up to £1. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the House will be aware that some machines accept coins and then reject coins of the same denomination within seconds. We need an assurance that the machines that British Rail has in mind will be more foolproof than any we have yet seen on British Rail or London Underground such as those at, for example, Westminster tube station.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : The deferred payments machines are supposed to accept any coin up to £1. It will be interesting to see whether they can cope with any coin. I am sure that my hon. Friend will realise that such machines cannot provide essential information such as whether the train is still at the station and other information that one can obtain from an individual.
Mr. Snape : That amply illustrates the lack of concern for the travelling public so often demonstrated by those in charge of our, fortunately, still publicly owned railway and underground system. Such people are almost exclusively male. For some reason, the concept of manoevring a pram, trolley, shopping bag or a couple of recalcitrant toddlers around a railway station never impinges on their thinking because they never do it themselves. Yet, to add an additional complication to a journey is not, to put it at its mildest, likely to benefit customer relations. We will be told that it is more efficient. More efficient for whom? Is it more efficient for the accountants who run our public transport system or for those who travel on it?
The hon. Member for New Forest said that no penalty fare would be payable if no machine were available. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) pointed out the difficulty involved in proving that no machine was available or that a machine was not in proper working order. How does one prove that one has been told, in the words of the hon. Member for New Forest, by a member of British Rail staff to join the train without a ticket? British Rail has a multiplicity of staff. Some are involved directly in ticket sales, but the majority are not. Does a member of British Rail staff include a driver leaning out of a cab of a diesel multiple unit or one of the new fangled sprinters to which my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish referred? Such trains meander from Blackpool to Harwich and are staffed, at least on part of the journey, by only one person. If that one person--the driver--leans out of his cab at a station and says to a passenger staring in bewilderment at one of the ticket machines, "Will you be there all day because the train will not?", does that constitute permission to travel without a ticket or do we have to wait for my learned friends to make a bob or two in some court while deciding whether it is permission to travel without a ticket?
Most laughably of all, the Minister referred to the fact that the Secretary of State would have to give his consent before any route could switch to the penalty fares system. How many times have those who take an interest in such matters heard that said in recent years? When responsibility for public transport was taken away from the Greater London council, I remember the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), assuring us that he would be responsible for the safe running of the system and that any complaints about tickets or trains could be directed to him in the House. He and his successor were quiet after the King's Cross disaster. There was not a collection of Ministers at the Dispatch Box, beating their breasts and crying "Mea culpa" after that incident.
Therefore, I cannot believe that, given the complicated life that the Secretary of State for Transport leads and given his wide responsibilities and some of the events that have impinged on them in recent months, he can call in a group of British Rail managers, perhaps from the London-Tilbury- Southend route, and say, "Now chaps, what have you done to enable me to consent to your proceeding with the penalty fares system on your route?" We all know what will happen. He will receive a letter from British Rail saying that everything is in place for the great scheme to be implemented and he will give his consent without knowing personally what British Rail has done.
Of course, there is a lack of logic about the penalty fare system, because both the Minister and the hon. Member
Column 718for New Forest referred to the loss to British Rail and London Underground from fare evasion. I am sure that the amount is considerable and all of us, whatever our connections have been with British Rail or London Underground Limited, would deplore that. It is said that Network SouthEast is losing about £36 million from fare evasion. That is a remarkably precise figure for an imprecise science. I do not believe that anyone can know how many fares are evaded.
The Minister and the hon. Gentleman made the point that much of the evasion took place on short journeys, which was the thinking behind the £10 penalty fare. The way the system works is that, if one evades a £1 fare--not that there have been many of those since this Government came to power--one is fined 10 times the amount of the fare that one has evaded. If, for example, one tries to evade the fare between Euston and Manchester- -to use the route referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett)--presumably one is not fined at all, because that £10 has long since been swallowed up in the exorbitant price of the ticket.
The Bill says, in effect that, if one is going to fiddle, one should do it in a big way. One should fiddle not on short distance journeys, because there is a severe financial penalty, but on the long journeys--the very journeys from which British Rail are anxious to safeguard its revenue-- because under the Bill there will be no penalty.
Of course, the hon. Member for New Forest might say that there are existing statutes that would take care of such matters. That might be right, but I believe that there is an enormously illogical flaw in a scheme that can fine someone for evading a small fare, but does no such thing when there has been large-scale fare evasion.
The Minister said that there would be good publicity to explain the proposed changes to the travelling public. However, many members of the public--especially women--might catch trains only occasionally. How and where would this publicity, which will tell people that the scheme is in operation, be exhibited? We all know that the scheme will be used to reduce staff on railway stations even further. I do not want to see British Rail staff on wayside railway stations on quiet branch lines--those that are still left--sitting around doing nothing. That would be a fairly frustrating business and would not lead to any great job satisfaction. However, what we envisage here is a scheme planned by men for men. The man carrying only a briefcase will have no great difficulty. He will not have shopping or toddlers to worry about. For thousands, if not millions, of women who travel alone or with children, the introduction of this scheme and the consequent reduction of staff will mean even less security on their journeys than before.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish pointed out the problems that have already been experienced by people using London Underground in the short time that automatic barriers have been installed at many stations. Like him, and no doubt other hon. Members, I can recount many occasions when making late night journeys from Westminster tube station has meant travelling for nothing, because the ticket office at Westminster has not been manned. Unaccountably, all the machines have been switched off, although sometimes there is a 50p machine. I used to live in north London and the fare before the latest round of fare increases was about £1.60. It was quite possible to get on a train through an unmanned barrier at Westminster. One would have
Column 719thought that that was the one station on the system where there should be proper staffing. The failings at Westminster station illustrate amply the sort of contempt that past London Underground management--I do not know about the present management--had for this place and for the Secretary of State, who was supposedly in charge of its day-to- day operations, or so we were told at the time--