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Session 2002 - 03
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Standing Committee Debates
Railways and Transport Safety Bill

Railways and Transport Safety Bill

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Standing Committee D

Tuesday 11 February 2003

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Jimmy Hood in the Chair]

Railways and Transport Safety Bill

Clause 17

The British Transport Police Authority

Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.

2.30 pm

Question again proposed.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I had just begun to endorse the tributes paid to the work and effectiveness of the British Transport police. I must emphasise, however, that it is a police force for the railways and deals with railway-specific offences, apart from emergency situations when it can act outside the railways. Therefore, offences that are non-railway specific, such as bigamy, are the appropriate jurisdiction of county forces. Obviously, my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, who represents a constituency in the south-west, can tell me what it is in Wiltshire that makes bigamy of such interest to the county police force there.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, especially as he mentioned Wiltshire and bigamy. My purpose in mentioning bigamy this morning was to emphasise the diminishing number of offences in relation to which the British Transport police are not empowered to act. I wanted to probe the Minister—if that is the correct phrase—on which offences come outside the powers of the BTP, because bigamy is the only one that I could find.

Mr. Spellar: In essence, it is offences that are not likely to be railway specific.

Questions have been asked about how the role of the British Transport police compares with that of county forces. The questions took two forms. The first related to the chief constable and the chairmanship. I can tell the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) formally, as I did informally, that the force is not unique in having its chief constable appointed by the Secretary of State. The Ministry of Defence police and the National Criminal Intelligence Service are similar in that respect. The simple reason is that the authorities that govern those forces are all appointed and have no democratically elected element, as exists in county forces. In the context of the BTP and the Ministry of Defence police, the Secretary of State is the elected representative who can be held democratically accountable through the parliamentary process.

Secondly, I was asked why there should be rail-specific work. The policing of the railway requires a specialist police service to deal with the threat of terrorism, the problems of trespass and vandalism, and the network nature of the railway system, which provides an easy escape mechanism for criminals. The

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Government, therefore, consider that the railways are best protected by a unified police force, which can provide seamless security to the entire network.

Dr. Murrison: In that case, why do airports and ports and all the other multifarious forms of transport for getting people around the country not have their own specialist police forces?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman may be aware—or he may not, as his constituency is landlocked—that several major ports have their own police services, and that only in the case of smaller ports is policing the responsibility of the county forces. That subject was raised in the Chamber by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay).

We shall explore the appointment of the chief constable during our consideration of later amendments, although, I hope, at shorter length than might have been expected. We shall also explore the jurisdiction of BTP outside the railways, particularly under the sunset clauses of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, when we discuss the appropriate amendments

Clause 17 sets up a police authority to oversee and manage the British Transport police. It will replace the BTP committee appointed by the Strategic Rail Authority, which currently oversees the running of the force. The Government's guiding principle is to mirror for the BTP as far as possible the way in which local police authorities are organised and governed under the Police Act 1996. The creation of an independent authority for the BTP is a vital step in improving the public status and accountability of the force.

Schedule 4 sets out the details of membership and proceedings of the authority, and its financial arrangements. No doubt those will be discussed when we debate that schedule. It is clear that the impact of any cost increase in the funding requirement must be matched. That ties in with the question of the increase in national insurance contributions. The Committee will have to take decisions on levels of policing with advice from the chief constable.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. He touched, rightly, on the fact that I raised the matter of the national insurance contribution. The British Transport police already operates as a national force. It has only recently had jurisdiction outside the railways, under section 100 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. Together, that Act and sections 75 and 76 of the Police Reform Act 2002 gave it additional powers. My concern has not been quelled. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) raised the matter of additional resources on Second Reading.

The British Transport police will be at the forefront of any incident on the railways or—now that it has additional powers—elsewhere. Its anti-terrorism role, and that as a security force in combating terrorism, is a new one. In addition to the increase in national insurance contributions, there is also the question of the pay reviews of different professions, which has featured in the press, and we must consider inflation.

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In addition, the cost of the police reform programme will presumably impinge equally on the BTP force which, like other forces, will have to renew the equipment—not least radio communications equipment—that will be needed in the event of a terrorist attack. I imagine that we would wish to give it the best possible equipment.

I repeat my comment that, as with other police forces, it appears that we are not going to increase the resources that we make available. Therefore, the force faces, at best, a standstill budget for the current year, despite the additional responsibilities allocated to it. The work of the force deserves recognition; it has been given additional responsibilities and its work has been commendable. The fact that we have not experienced a terrorist incident is in no small part due to its work, but I fear for its morale. It should be given the best resources.

I should like to hear from the Minister what discussions his Department has had with the Treasury in making a special case for the force, given its recent additional responsibilities, and the fact that it will have to deal with inflation, national insurance contributions and the costs of the police reform programme and new equipment.

Dr. Murrison: I endorse my hon. Friend's comments about the British Transport police. The force seems to be a most professional organisation. Nevertheless, does she agree that there is no room for complacency, particularly in the light of rising levels of reported crime on railways and a falling detection rate?

Miss McIntosh: I take great pleasure in agreeing with my hon. Friend, whose point goes to the heart of BTP morale. It is important that we provide the resources, particularly in relation to clause 17, for the establishment of the BTP authority under a statutory regime.

Will the Minister answer my questions on the establishment of what will be a statutory national BTP force? How many police are currently operational under the BTP authority, how many officers are retired, and what are the projected retirements over the next five to seven years? I assume that projected retirements will reflect the rest of the country and that a sizeable proportion of officers will be approaching retirement. On the back of that question, what proportion of the operational budget currently goes to pay the pensions of retired officers? I cannot believe that the BTP is any different from other police forces. Indeed, it may be in a worse position as it provides a national police service. That information would be tremendously helpful, and we may wish to return to the point in our debate on schedule 4.

Mr. Spellar: As the hon. Lady was speaking about the financial pressures on the BTP, and I heard no proposals from her to remedy them, I wondered how the problems would be solved by her party's proposed 20 per cent. cut in public expenditure.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I hope that my point is germane, Mr. Hood, because it relates to public expenditure, which the Minister just raised. The

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Lord Chancellor's Department has just spent £232 million on 11,000 computers, at a price of £20,000 per computer. That is how money is being wasted by this Administration.

The Chairman: Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was just testing the Chair. He will not try again.

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman has been influenced by the Arts Council of England's grant of £11,000 to someone in his constituency to walk around kicking a McDonalds package. He obviously feels that that citizen must not outdo him for irrelevance.

The hon. Members for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) spoke about morale and effectiveness. We should reiterate that the BTP's figures are among the best in the country, particularly those that relate to the reduction of robbery. The force is increasingly effective in taking criminal elements out of the rail system, not only on the London underground, but throughout the country. I hope that hon. Members from all parties will encourage local magistrates courts to expedite and facilitate the granting of antisocial behaviour orders when the BTP applies for them to exclude undesirable elements from the railway system.

 
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Prepared 11 February 2003