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Column 62car. It is a matter of fact that that police car was a British Transport police vehicle. As things stand, those officers had no power to intervene in crimes being committed in that vicinity other than the powers that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hold as ordinary citizens. I am also told--this also relates to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras--that such a situation does not prevail in Scotland.
We have an opportunity to remedy that situation and to clarify the jurisdiction of the BTP instead of fudging and confusing the issue. My objection to the details of the Bill, to the extent that I am able to understand them, is that far from clarifying the powers of the BTP, the Bill will cause confusion. I used the example that I did to demonstrate how, if my amendments were considered and accepted by the Committee of the whole House, we could clarify the powers of British Transport police officers outside of railway premises. The police officers who are at the sharp end would welcome clarification of their powers.
I take a great interest in uniforms, regalia and cap badges. When I left St. Stephen's entrance recently I saw a British Transport police officer. To an ordinary member of the public he was simply a police officer. Most members of the public would have assumed that he was a member of the Metropolitan police. Had there been an incident outside St. Stephen's entrance, the public would not have paused to consider whether that officer was a Metropolitan police officer or a British Transport police officer. To Joe public, someone wearing a policeman's uniform is a police officer for 24 hours of the day and the public would have expected that officer to respond to an incident in that area. The way things are at present, however, that police officer would have been constrained from getting involved in any incident. Indeed, he would have put himself in jeopardy. He would have had to make a split-second decision whether to intervene, and if he had intervened he would have had only the same powers as ordinary citizens.
I appeal to hon. Members to pause for a moment and consider whether we are doing justice to the police and to the institution of Parliament by treating such a serious matter in what I regard as a flip way in the manner in which the Bill is being pushed through. The Bill must be read a Second time and it must reach the statute book because it is much needed : it is inescapable that the powers must be restored to the British Transport police. But we could have an improved Bill--one which would bring credit rather than discredit to Parliament--if we concluded the Second Reading today and the Bill went into a Committee of the whole House on another occasion or, indeed, was referred to a Standing Committee. Hon. Members and people outside the House could then improve the Bill and, above all, understand its contents. For that reason, I support the Second Reading, but I hope that even at this stage Parliament can be persuaded to give the Bill the proper scrutiny that such an important matter deserves. 6.20 pm
The British Transport police sets an excellent example to other forces. It is a force some 2,000 strong. It is noted for its efficiency and the calibre of its officers. In its
Column 63organisation, it was ahead of many of the reforms that are now being introduced by the Home Office forces. It is led by a well-respected chief constable.
The British Transport police have a particular and serious problem in that they are dealing daily with a large number of terrorist threats and suspect parcels left on railway premises, amounting to something like 4,500 incidents each year. Every one of those incidents must be dealt with sensibly and correctly by the officers who respond to them. That is a considerable responsibility which descends at times on the shoulders of junior and young officers. There is more than one explosion every month on railway premises. Apart from their normal task of policing the railways and ensuring the safety and security of passengers and those who work on the railways, the BTP now face a very considerable added burden from terrorism.
I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on one thing at least--the need for the powers of the British Transport police to be extended, especially in circumstances in which BTP officers are the first to respond to a terrorist situation outside railway premises. At Bishopsgate, the first inspector to arrive on the scene was a British Transport police inspector. He did what had to be done but he did not in fact have the power to do it. He got by by using his common sense and his uniform. It is true that to the public the British Transport police are policemen, and all policemen are the same. The issue needs to be sorted out. If it cannot be sorted out in this Bill, which is making a remarkably rapid passage through the House so that it can become law before 31 March, I shall certainly return to it, and I suspect that the hon. Member for Thurrock will return to it as well.
In the past 18 months, we have seen a great deal of uncertainty inevitably as a result of rail privatisation. During that time, my right hon. Friend the Minister and I have had numerous meetings with federation representatives. My right hon. Friend has always been fully supportive at those meetings. He made it clear from the start that he agreed that the force should remain as a national and unified force--there has been no suggestion that it should be split up and its role handed to local Home Office forces.
It is regrettable that we need to spend time today debating the powers of the BTP in this way. It would have been much better if the whole issue had been decided when the Bill went through the House of Lords. However, so many political points were raised in the debates about privatisation that such sensible points were guillotined at the end of the day.
Mr. Wilson : I find the hon. Gentleman's comments absolutely stunning. Is he suggesting that the issues that detained the House of Lords and threw the unwanted legislation into chaos were unimportant ? Which issues does he think were unimportant--perhaps the concessionary travel for old age pensioners and the discounted through ticketing ? Can he name the unimportant matters that detained both Houses of Parliament ? Incidentally, will he declare his interest in the matter ?
Column 64well aware that I represent the British Transport Police Federation. The delays to the passage of the Bill in the House of Commons were often on tedious and irrelevant points. If it had not been for delays on matters of no great moment, there would have been more time to debate the issues of substance.
I shall return to the situation that the BTP face in the changed circumstances of privatisation. The essential factor is that there will be a stipulation that all of those who operate the railways in the future will be required to use the British Transport police force for their principal core police activities. That this stipulation will apply has been amply confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Minister.
I have no doubt whatever that the force will have the same important role to play in the future of the railways as it has had in the past. It will continue to police the railways, to ensure security and safety and to follow up crimes that are committed in connection with the railways. It is important for the BTP to have powers not only on railway premises but also to follow up offences related to the railways in areas outside railway premises. That is what the Bill seeks to do.
In the future, Railtrack will have an important part to play in the organisation of the BTP. I took it upon myself recently to meet Robert Horton, the chairman of Railtrack. I asked him to put in writing what he told me, and it will be helpful to the House if I spell out what he said :
"I am happy to be able to let you know my views on BTP and my resolve to make sure that they are properly funded and that this is not an optional extra' for the franchisees."
Representatives of the federation will meet me and Mr. Horton in the near future.
I have no doubt that the BTP will retain their present position as the national force policing the railway system. They will continue to fulfil excellently their vital role, and as a result of this Bill they will obtain the powers that they need to continue in the way that they should. Therefore, I commend the Bill to the House. 6.27 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : It is worth raising a few points about the Bill before it zips through the House. The Bill is before the House because of an error made by the Department of Transport, the relevant Ministers and the civil service advisers. We shall spend half a day in Parliament remedying an omission in previous legislation.
The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), who is a paid representative of the British Transport police, argued that we are debating this Bill because we spent time debating the rest of the privatisation legislation and issues, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) said, such as the through ticketing system which will be non- existent, the universal concessions to pensioners and other concessions, and the whole panoply of absurd right-wing extremism which the Bill represents. Two right-wing representatives of the Tories are present in the Chamber--the Minister for Public Transport and the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick), who is grinning. He is a well-known right-wing extremist in the Tory party, and undoubtedly proud of it. The Bill is one of the consequences of rushing through legislation to break up a national service which is so complex in its application. It is not the fault of the House that the omission of the British Transport police was allowed to go through ; it is the fact that we had to spend so much time getting explanations from the Minister as to
Column 65how the whole thing would work without bringing to a halt the railway service in one or more parts. I predicted then, and I predict now, that privatisation of the railway will do just that. It is not the House's fault ; it is the Government's fault in producing such absurdly complex legislation, which will have the effect of producing a deteriorating standard of service.
I want to raise some points in relation to the transport police. It is not only the serious and dramatic incidents of potential terrorist activity and the planting of bombs on the railway system which are of concern. The British Transport police must police 11,000 route miles, and it also polices the retention of the protection on both sides of the track, which makes 22,000 route miles of fencing.
British Rail, unlike continental railways, was established not with open access, but with the requirement that people should be shielded from access to the railway by two lines of fencing. Therefore, the British Transport police have a duty and an obligation to try their level best--it is difficult in the present circumstances--to reduce the amount of vandalism, which can be sometimes encouraged by the lack of maintenance to fencing on either side of the track.
The Government are the pillars of capitalism and they impose their philosophy on the public sector willy-nilly. They impose what they call efficiency, and their efficiency is sacking as many people as can be sacked. That is why 4 million people have been on the dole in about 10 of the 15 years that the Government have been in office. Vandalism has increased on the railways. Signal boxes have been closed, and stations are unstaffed.
We heard earlier this afternoon at Question Time that 80 per cent. of the 1,000 stations in London are unstaffed after 6 o'clock. That means that, in winter, the stations are unstaffed after dark, and that is clearly an encouragement to vandalism. There are hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of our cities. Some of them are homeless because of the Government's housing policies, and some are wandering the streets because they are unemployed and have nothing to do because of the Government's wretched and wicked philosophies. Those philosophies are all about putting people out of work and imposing so-called efficiencies--which are really false
efficiencies--on the public utilities and elsewhere. The British Transport police have an important and enormous day-to-day task in trying to preserve life and limb by ensuring that people cannot get on to the railways, which can represent an enormous danger. What about developments which have taken place ? It is curious that the legislation provides that a British Transport police constable can act as a constable only
"to the extent that he is acting as a constable in pursuance of a transport police services agreement" ;
"he shall . . . only so act in accordance with the terms of that agreement."
One of the ways that British Rail has tried to reduce the financial burdens which have been placed upon it by the Government is to get rid of the obligations of maintenance of overhead bridges. If it can get rid of an overhead bridge by transferring it to either a private body, if it is an access bridge, or a public body such as a local authority, it does so. It has been encouraged by the Government to do just that. Maintenance will be carried out by the local authority under the terms and conditions which have been laid down by the civil engineer of British Rail.
Column 66What happens when somebody on a bridge is throwing obstacles at a train, either to encourage a derailment or simply to hit the driver ? That is not unknown. That bridge, and the local authority which is maintaining it, presumably must be subject to an agreement for the British Transport police constable to have jurisdiction. If there is not a service agreement in existence, the constable will merely be able to stand to one side and say that he has no jurisdiction. Under the legislation, he will not be allowed to intervene as he is not a police constable in transport terms on the bridge. That bridge is owned by a private organisation because British Rail has sold it to get rid of the statutory obligations ; and the Government want them to do that anyhow.
A number of intriguing circumstances could arise. What about the miles of desert which have been created by all the clever people at the Department of Transport who love road transport so much and have denigrated and denuded a fine railway system ? Freight depots and marshalling yards have been closed, and British Rail has been encouraged to sell them off. It has relied on the selling of assets for a significant percentage of its revenue.
All those assets must now be subject to an agreement if British Transport police officers are to have jurisdiction over those assets in relation to the track which runs alongside, between or through them. If there is to be comprehensive policing alongside the 11,000 route miles--over and above the 11,000 route miles where trains run--it is possible that we will need a large number of service agreements to make sure that constables have adequate jurisdiction where railways have some access and where sections of land have been sold off as a result of pressure from the Government.
My hon. Friends have raised an important matter which has been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides--except, curiously enough, the hon. Member for Tynemouth, who is a representative of the British Transport Police Federation. The hon. Gentleman simply accepted the legislation, and did not think anything about it. He believed that the House should rubber-stamp the Bill and pass it, in spite of the difficulties which will be created by the legislation for the operation of the powers of the British Transport police.
We should debate the matter so that the Minister can give us a comprehensive answer. There are other areas in which the British Transport police operate well away from operating lines, and there is the question of vandalism by children where a special duty of care applies to keep people off the railway tracks.
When the franchise holders take over, will Railtrack be encouraged to contract out such requirements as the statutory obligation for the maintenance of fencing ? Will that create a greater burden on the transport police through children having access to tracks and creating difficulties for drivers ? The Minister knows that British Rail has to run what are called Q trains to catch trespassers and warn them of the dangers. Trespassing can result in rapid injury and death because of the pace of trains, particularly the electrified trains which are much quieter than their steam and diesel predecessors.
Lastly, I want to raise the question of sections of former British Rail property which are well away from the railways. For example, if a preserved viaduct is taken over by a preservation society, it can at the moment be supervised and guarded against vandalism by the BTP. What happens if there is an agreement, as there is in one
Column 67case, about a viaduct which has been refurbished and preserved ? The example to which I refer is a grade 2 listed monument in Cumbria.
What happens when a structure such as that is taken over by a trust to look after it and to give people the opportunity of looking at a great architectural structure ? Does there have to be a separate agreement for the BTP to operate in an area where a private organisation is involved in the maintenance and operation of the viaduct, albeit a public trust ? The trust is dedicated not to profit but to the retention of the viaduct for public access in conjunction with a nature reserve.
The more one thinks about it, the greater the potential for these agreements to be combined into one huge volume. A transport constable will look at a situation, and he will have to turn to page 1,035 to check whether the area is subject to an agreement before he can take action. By the time he has looked up the relevant page and clause, the people will have disappeared. So the constable will not be so effective.
I regret to say that the paid representative of the British Transport Police Federation has departed the Chamber-- [Interruption.] --and has returned perhaps to take part in the debate, having arrived late in any case. I wonder whether the British Transport Police Federation thinks that it is getting value for money. I can say with confidence that, if there is a cause for anxiety, Opposition Members will take it up without being paid to do so.
I hope that the Minister will give us some answers. I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). He asked why the Bill was being pushed through in such a short time. The Minister is surely a little trusting to present to the House the notion that the business managers alone determine the way in which business is conducted. Do not Ministers have some comment to make when a proposal is made ? Do not they say, for example, that they would like longer or that the amount of time is all right because a measure will go through on the nod ?
Surely Ministers are not so completely remote from the business managers that they cannot say, "We have made one terrible error already. This legislation is the result of that error. Should not we linger over it a little longer to allow more time for amendments to be tabled so that we do not make any errors the second time round ?" I do not believe that the Minister could not make such
representations or that the Leader of the House would ignore them if he did. So I believe that the Minister is content at his own risk to push the Bill through in the most rapid time that he regards as convenient. The House is not here to be convenient for the Executive. The longer that we take over examination of the Bill, the more likely it is that it will be better legislation.
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) : We have been far too beastly to the Minister. We should thank him for giving us the opportunity to debate a subject rarely debated in the House--policing outside the Home Department police forces. Perhaps that was his motive. Perhaps he wanted to give us that opportunity.
I did not serve on the Committee that considered what became the Railways Act 1993, section 132 of which says :
Column 68"The Secretary of State may make a scheme".
When I read that, I wondered what it reminded me of. It occurred to me that it was obvious. Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a rally in Birmingham that was led by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition. It was hosted by Tony Robinson, who plays the part of Baldrick in "Blackadder", who always says something like, "I have a scheme" or, "I have a cunning plan." The element of farce in the Bill is obvious.
This is the time for apologies. I must apologise to the Minister for missing his speech. He has apologised for missing the British Transport police. As I am deeply interested in history, I looked up the history of the British Transport police force. I found that it went back to the 1830s and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company. The officers appointed had constabulary powers. One would have thought that the 160 years or so since the origins of the British Transport police would have allowed our scintillating civil servants, known to be the best in the world, the opportunity to learn about the powers of those officers. If the civil servants were not aware of the powers of the transport police in England, they could have looked more closely at the powers of the transport police in Scotland or other non-Home Department police forces. Therefore, the error was inexcusable.
That error illustrates the contempt of the Executive for the legislature. The Executive say, "It does not really matter. We can make legislation swiftly, the legislature is not up to it. After all, half the Committee will be placemen from our side. All they are interested in doing is their correspondence or their crosswords. As for the Opposition, they are not smart enough to spot our errors." In many ways, the House has been reduced to the level of the old eastern European rubber-stamp legislatures.
The Government's reputation for political competence is in tatters. Their reputation, if they have any left, for administrative competence is even more shredded. This little error has been exposed not as a result of internal examination but by people on the outside saying that the Government have got it wrong. If the error had not been corrected, the transport police would have been in a bizarre position after 1 April. A couple of British Rail transport policemen running to apprehend an alleged criminal who was leaving British Rail premises would have panted to each other, "Do we have the power to pursue ? Yes, we have the powers of the ordinary citizen." While they were debating their constitutional position, the hood would have made his exit. Perhaps 1 April has an element of farce about it. We are having to debate the Bill rather swiftly. On Friday only a photocopied Bill was available to us. It is rather embarrassing and humiliating that the House of Commons, given two or three days to investigate a failure of drafting, is sent a photocopy and has to wait until the day of the debate to have a proper copy made available to Members.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : Has my hon. Friend thought that the last Bill that went through this place at exactly this speed was the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974, which is not exactly noted for being the most beautifully crafted piece of legislation that the House of Commons has ever accepted ?
Column 69with which the Executive has treated the House--not only the Opposition--must accept that the Bill is further evidence of the need to bring it to the attention of the Government that they must treat the House with rather more respect than they have shown so far. We have an opportunity now briefly to discuss policing outside our Home Office police forces.
What has happened with the Bill has shown elements of farce and a lack of political and administrative competence. It is an example--this is my crucial point--of the indifference bordering on contempt that the Government have shown not just to the House but to the non-Home Department police forces. We forget about them. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) said that people did not know the difference between transport policemen and other police officers. They look alike and they dress alike. Their vehicles are similar. They have somewhat similar powers. They are trained in exactly the same way. They have, at least until the Bill is passed, more or less analogous powers and they are exceedingly competent. Non-Home Department police forces are suffering because some of their responsibilities have been eliminated as a result of the collapse of industry and because the Government are intent on privatisation. The Government's mania for privatisation is manifest in industry, but they have had to develop a more cunning plan to deal with the health service--witness trusts. They have had greater difficulty in dealing with the military, but they are privatising in the best way that they can.
The Government are privatising police forces. That process will continue. The Home Office is defining core police functions. I am sure that they will be the responsibility of the police and everything else will be up for grabs by the private sector, which will muscle in. What is more, that will be an unregulated private sector.
Mr. Mackinlay : Has my hon. Friend noticed that it is intended that as from 1 April the British Transport police will be vested in Railtrack and that the Government have announced their not medium-term intention that Railtrack should be privatised ? Is not that a matter for grave concern to the British Transport police and other non-Home Office forces who are threatened by the Government with privatisation ?
Mr. George : One of the advantages of the absurd timing is that I am able to give some publicity for a conference that I am organising in Committee Room 14 on Monday, which will consider the future of policing, public and private. It is fortuitous that one of the speakers will be the chief constable of the Ministry of Defence police, who will speak about the future of the non-Home Department police forces. I do not know what he will say ; I am only the organiser of the conference. The content will be entirely his. However, in my opinion, the future of the non-Home Department forces--if the Bill is anything to go by--is uncertain, at least during the next two or three years. It is uncertain because the Government cannot even draft the legislation properly when they deal with it, and they are privatising where they can.
There is an even greater threat to the Ministry of Defence police. As a result of the Blelloch report, they will apparently be replaced by redundant service men. It seems patently bizarre--I know that I use that word frequently
Column 70--if, to deal with redundancy in one sector of the Ministry of Defence, one creates redundancy in another sector, but that is an example.
The Government do not like the non-Home Department police forces. I am worried about the transport police. There may not be a direct threat to them now, but I know exactly what will happen once privatisation takes hold. The privatised entities will say to the Minister, probably unofficially, "This is very expensive. After all, we are paying full policing rates for these guys. They are going through so much training. Surely we can train them less effectively than the training college that the fools have to go through to become as competent as police officers. It is much too costly. Minister, can't we find a way to reduce our costs ?"
Obviously the Government are intent on doing that. It has happened in the Ministry of Defence with the royal ordnance factories, and the sidelining of the Ministry of Defence police in many areas. It is a continuation of the mania for cheap policing, but cheap policing is poor policing. One may appear to gain, looking at a balance sheet, but I can say, with some experience, that one will not gain if policing and security personnel are not trained to a level that is commensurate with the growing threat from the criminal and from terrorism. The international situation will deteriorate so that there will be more targets, static and mobile, requiring better, not deteriorating, policing.
I believe that there should be a future for the transport police. They should not have to look behind them to see whether private companies are muscling in on the work that they do. There is an enormous vacuum in the Home Office's knowledge of policing and it appears to be indifferent to the way in which the contract security industry is evolving. There is no regulatory system for guarding, for private investigators, for retail security. That requires investigation, as does the way in which the Home Department police forces, including the transport police, operate.
I hope that, as a result of receiving this little slap across the wrist from the legislature, the Minister will take the transport police more seriously than his Department has done hitherto, and his colleagues will take the non-Home Department police forces more seriously. Morale is a subject that we must all, including the Executive, tackle. What will be the future of those forces ? Is there a real future for them ? Is their future merely to await the time when the private sector is able to move in and take over ? We know exactly what will happen unless that private sector operates under a system of regulation. Standards will deteriorate and standards of security will diminish even further.
If British Rail or what succeeds it moves as swiftly as the Government have moved with this legislation, we should see trains moving far more swiftly. I hope that the Minister will be mindful of the criticism to which he has been subjected and that the drafting process will be improved. I hope that hon. Members will develop the enthusiasm to challenge the Executive and to provide a better system of scrutiny.
If one thing emerges from this farce, it is that Parliament's capacity to scrutinise is woefully weak. Should that continue, we shall be replacing the old Supreme Soviet in the legislatures of eastern Europe as the superfluous Parliament in the western world.
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Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : Tonight we must learn the lesson that when Governments legislate in an autocratic and hasty way, they soon regret it. Few Bills have been more deeply unpopular than that which became the Railways Act 1993. It was condemned by the Transport Select Committee unanimously, by members of all parties, and many Members of the House have the right to claim that we were wise before the event.
So unpopular was the Bill that at one time the Transport Select Committee sought from extremist organisations, such as the right-wing think tanks, support for the Government's intention. The Committee went so far as to take the unique step of advertising in the press for anyone who was willing to support the Government's plans, and no one came forward to support them. Throughout the long hours on that Committee, the only people who said anything in the Bill's favour were those who had a vested interest in its outcome.
The 1993 Act is an atrocious piece of legislation. We all remember the comments that were made in the House when the Act went through. The resistance from the other place and this House was deep and serious. The Government chose to ignore it and behaved like an elective dictatorship.
Another argument is going on at the moment about decisions taken by another organisation that is a union of countries--the European Union. The Government are pressing for a blocking motion on that by 27 members or 23 members, which amounts to 34 per cent. of the membership of that organisation. I have asked the Prime Minister, in my usual helpful, constructive way, whether he would support in the House a blocking measure on Bills if it were supported by 34 per cent. of Members of the House. His answer, which I have just received, was disappointingly brief and consisted of one word, which was no. As a democracy, we are in serious trouble because if there were such a blocking motion in the House as the Government are demanding in the other union of nations, the European Union, we would have far better legislation. The Government would have to persuade the Members of the House of the wisdom of their policies. We would not have had the Railways Act. We would not have had the poll tax. We would not have had all the other damaging pieces of legislation. We have a Government who have managed to be popular for a few days every five years, following which their popularity disappears rapidly for a long period.
We have had two Bills recently that apply to my country, Wales--and Wales only. Eighty-four per cent. of the elected Members for Wales have opposed those Bills, yet they have passed through the House, pushed through by elected Members from other parts of the United Kingdom, who have no interest in those Bills, who do not understand them and whose constituents will not be affected.
We are here tonight to mark a major error by the Government. Although I apologise for not being here to hear the Minister's statement, unfortunately I would not have missed an apology by the Government. They should apologise to the House for that major error.
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Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : We are discussing a rushed piece of legislation, introduced with 10 days to go before the unwanted fragmentation of our railways, to avoid leaving the British Transport police virtually bereft of powers. The sole reason for that state of affairs is the Government's failure to deal with the issue during the progress of that demented and discredited piece of legislation, the Railways Act 1993, which poses such a threat to the future of our rail network.
I put that statement of fact on the record because, listening to the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), one might have had to suspend disbelief. He appears to regard it as an irksome necessity to drop in occasionally to earn his consultancy fees. First, he objected to this matter being treated as controversial. He expected us to turn up, vote the Bill through and go home. Ten days before the unwanted upheaval in the British railways system, no legislation is on the statute book to give the British Transport police, which the hon. Gentleman is supposed to represent in this House, the powers which they need. We have before us tonight a Bill with which the British Transport police are not happy and the hon. Gentleman wonders why we must waste more than 20 minutes discussing it. He wants us simply to wave it through and go to dinner. I hope that the British Transport police read the transcript of these proceedings.
The hon. Member for Tynemouth then suggested that we need not be here at all. The matter could have been dealt with months ago, had not all the footling other matters for which he is not the paid consultant had to be dealt with in this House and the other place. I invite the hon. Gentleman to cast his mind back to the issues that took the Government to the wire on the Railways Act. I do not know whether he has received letters from railway pensioners or whether he has railway pensioners in his constituency, but my hon. Friends and I and many Tory Members who are missing from those Benches have received hundreds of letters expressing genuine concern that the Government are seeking to use the mask of rail privatisation to get the Treasury's hands on the railway pension fund. That issue exercised the House night after night and encouraged Members on both sides of the House of Lords to try to force Ministers, until the last possible moment, to rescind their policy and accept railway pensioners' rights. A few short months later, the hon. Member for Tynemouth has the cheek to make a brief appearance in the Chamber and say that this matter could have been dismissed lightly for his convenience and that of the Minister.
Only one set of people is responsible for the fact that we are back here tonight. Those same people are responsible for this legislation in the first place and for trying to perpetrate that dreadful act against railway pensioners--the Government, represented tonight by the Minister for Public Transport. I do not recall the hon. Member for Tynemouth, in defence of the interests of the British Transport police, British Rail pensioners or those of our rail network, questioning or voting against a dot or comma of the Railways Act. For him to complain that it is the fault of anyone but the Government that we are in this position is offensive. With his throw-away remarks that we are wasting our time here and could have rubber-stamped the substance of tonight's Bill months ago, he has introduced an element of controversy into tonight's debate.
Column 73Many serious questions must be asked about the Bill. Most of them centre around the phrase in line 29 of clause 1, "transport police services agreement". The hon. Member for Tynemouth probably thinks that it is a wonderful idea that, instead of one integrated British Transport police serving every element of the network, it should be like catering contracts put out to Macdonalds with the transport police obliged to seek service agreements. Each component part of our fragmented rail network will have to make those agreements with the British Transport police.
Opposition Members and the British Transport police are concerned about the word "agreement". Will the Minister explain much more clearly whether that implies that two parties must agree on something, or whether it is an obligation ? Is there an obligation to have an agreement and accept what is in that agreement ? Is there a fixed set of terms within that agreement or is it literally a case of bargaining in each specific case until an agreement is reached ? The only guidance which we have from the Minister is in his letter of 21 March--today's date--to David Rayner, chairman of the British Transport police. But it does not resolve the ambiguity, because it says : "Since all licence holders referred to above must have an agreement approved by the Secretary of State for the provision of core police services determined by the Police Committee, you have my assurance that the Secretary of State will ensure consistency of agreements. In particular, he will seek to ensure that provisions in the agreements, which might affect the jurisdiction of constables, are consistent so that British Transport Police constables can have a clear and unambiguous understanding of their jurisdiction." So many questions are raised by those two sentences that I might have expected the paid advisor of the transport police to ask some of them but, as he did not, it has been left for my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and others to ask them.
The Minister is aware of the difference between precise and imprecise language. What does "consistency of agreements" mean ? Will agreements all be the same ? Will they be a matter of negotiation ? The Minister's letter says that he will "seek" to ensure that provisions in the agreement are consistent. What does "seek" mean ? To anyone who uses the English language normally, it means that he will have a go and try to encourage the parties to come to an agreement. But if the parties say that they do not want that agreement, the search might be in vain and the Minister may have to seek again next year or the year after. The language is imprecise about whether there will be an element of compunction within those agreements or whether they will be negotiable.
What the Minister has told us tonight and the transport police in that letter does not answer the question but opens up new questions. Either there is an obligation on licence holders--the companies that will be established by the Railways Act--to enter into obligations to use the British Transport police on certain terms, or there is not. If there is no such obligation, there will be massive uncertainties and precisely the situation to which my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras referred will arise. Depending on which fragmented element of the railway the British Transport police are working for at any time, they will have to check the handbook to see whether the terms of that agreement are what they understand them to be. If that is what the Minister is offering the House, it is inadequate. He must understand that as well as any Opposition Members, but will he admit it ?
Column 74Will the Minister clarify the term, "licence holders" ? This is an exploratory question and I might be going up the wrong alleyway. To what extent is the term cross-referrable with the Railways (Class and Miscellaneous Exemptions) Order 1994, which has not yet been agreed to on the Floor of the House or in Committee ? It contains a large number of exemptions from the requirement to hold a licence. Many are perfectly understandable, such as exemptions for steam railways and certain maintenance depots. Even within the context that we are discussing tonight, some exemptions would be understandable. But is an exemption from the requirement to hold a licence under the Railways Act translatable as being not subject to the provisions of this Bill ? If a company is not a licence holder, must it still use the British Transport police ?
The Minister will understand that my concern about that matter is strengthened by the repeated use of the phrase "licence holders" in his letter to David Rayner.
I reserve the right to return to this question, but an intervention from the Minister would be very welcome. The hon. Gentleman could bring the debate to a conclusion right now. If licence holders are the only operators or companies to be covered by the legislation, the Minister may--totally inadvertently--have been a little misleading in replies to questions that I put to him earlier. He may wish to clarify his thinking, especially in respect of the channel tunnel and the Heathrow express. At this stage, what we need is
clarification--very important clarification, I suggest.
We are dealing with a world that will begin to develop only on 1 April. I hope that it will not go very far, but it may go a little further than I should like. Some very undesirable operators may be brought on to the scene. Mr. James Sherwood, the man who bought and sold Sealink and British Transport Hotels, is on record as having said that the last thing he wants to do is employ the British Transport police. We are not dealing here with something hypothetical ; we are dealing with Mr. Sherwood and, I believe, with other operators, one of whose early aims is to get rid of the British Transport police and employ private security firms. Thus we must know how strong are the guarantees concerning retention of the services of that force.
We must know also who will determine how much has to be paid for those services and how the money will be collected. Once again, is it a matter for negotiation, or is it a question of somebody--I shall come in a moment to the question of which somebody--being able to lay down the charges and then, in effect, precept the companies, saying, "These are the charges, and you will pay them as a condition of continuing to operate services or any other function of the railway" ? Who will lay down the charges, what rights of enforcement will there be, and what will happen to a franchisee who fails to pay up ? It is very important that these questions be answered.
I should like to deal now with the question of jurisdiction. If everyone thinks that the way in which things work in Scotland is right, that there is no need for new legislation for Scotland, where the British Transport police have the right to pursue and investigate in a more liberal way than in the rest of Britain, why in heaven's name should not we use the opportunity of this legislation to create uniformity throughout the country ?
In his letter to David Rayner, the Minister says :
"It was never intended that the Bill would do other than address the defect in the Railways Act 1993. Jurisdiction in
Column 75respect of non-railway activities is a separate issue, which is not the subject of this legislation."
Fair enough, but why ? When next will the House of Commons deal with legislation dealing specifically with the British Transport police ? If we agree that there is a better legislative model in operation elsewhere in the United Kingdom, why should not we incorporate it in the Bill ? I hope that in the course of tonight's debate the Minister will look sympathetically at that argument. There is no case against uniformity.
On a specific point of detail, it has been suggested to me that I should ask the Minister who is on the police committee and how future membership will be determined.
Mr. Mackinlay : As I am confused, I should like to underline my hon. Friend's request. We need to be told, not only for our own sake but for the sake of officers of the British Transport police, whether it is the intention that, on a day-to-day basis, this body will be under the control and stewardship of Railtrack--I believe that to be the position--or at arm's length from Railtrack.
I should like to return to a point that I flagged earlier : the Government's expressed intention to privatise Railtrack. Whether or not the British Transport police are to be under the control of Railtrack from 1 April, what would be the position if the Government were given an opportunity to put privatisation legislation through the House ? The threat of privatisation, either in whole or in part, of the functions of the British Transport police is felt by every police officer. We need and have a right to know what the Government's intention is.
Mr. Wilson : The Minister will have noted my hon. Friend's remarks. On the question of the privatisation of Railtrack, we shall cross that viaduct when we come to it. However, I do not think that that will happen this side of a general election, unless the Government are taking the suicide pills again. My hon. Friend's question concerning structure is one in respect of which I should value more elucidation. My understanding is that the British Transport police continues to be a subsidiary of the British Railways Board--and that much I welcome--but, with regard to the precise relationship with Railtrack, I understand that body to be a client of the British Railways Board in securing the services of the British Transport police, much along the lines of any of the other entities being created by the Railways Act. No doubt the Minister will fill us in. I do not want to detain the House, but these are immensely important questions concerning not just matters of detail but the basis of the Bill and the extent to which it will meet the very legitimate concerns of the British Transport police and the public. Eventually, as in the case of everything to do with this legislation, it is the public who should be borne in mind. A shocking proportion of crimes of violence are committed within a very narrow radius of railway stations. There is enormous fear, particularly among women using railway stations late at night. That, as a by-product of this legislation--a short Bill to be rushed through 10 days before it takes effect--the powers of the British Transport police are to be seriously diluted is an unacceptable proposition and one in respect of which the Minister must answer much more satisfactorily to the House. All of this is a product of rail privatisation legislation.