Railways and Transport Safety Bill

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Miss McIntosh: May I seek clarification? The Minister said that under clause 31, the police services agreements mean that the force has the jurisdiction under clause 29? Does that change the way in which the BTP goes about its business? That question arises from one of the notes that the Minister helpfully clarified a moment ago. Will he repeat the relationship between the police services agreement in clause 31 and provisions in clause 29?

Mr. Jamieson: Nothing will change substantially. The hon. Lady asked what would happen if the relationship broke down, and we will cover that when we move on to clause 33.

Miss McIntosh: The debate has been immensely helpful and shows why we should have the opportunity to hear about the clause from the Minister. I want to put down a marker to show why I am worried about the clause and why I shall return to the matter. We have established that the clause is necessary in order to develop and agree police services agreements. I do not want to pre-empt what I shall say about clause 48, but that clause will give great power to the Secretary of State to set the police authority a set of objectives for policing the railways during the financial year. The clause says that before giving such directions

    ''the Secretary of State shall consult . . . the Authority, and . . . the Chief Constable.''

It is curious that the clause omits a provision for any form of consultation with the railway industry, although the industry will be asked to pay.

Mr. Foster: I congratulate the hon. Lady on teasing some information from the Minister. Does she share my anxiety that we have not yet heard from the Minister a clear statement of why it is necessary to have such a complex and bizarre form of funding for one police service when all the Home Office police forces are funded directly through taxation? The businesses and members of the public that are served and protected by those forces are not expected to enter into such agreements. Why is there a different arrangement for the railways?

Miss McIntosh: One hates to put words in the Minister's mouth, but I am sure that the industry would say that the reason is that it is being asked to pay. That is the key difference between the BTP and the regular police force—the Home Office bobbies.

I would not want to admit to being over-anxious because that might make the Committee overly apprehensive and I do not want to take it down that path. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Bath. Part 3 of the Bill is deeply confusing. I am not an expert in this field, but if I find it confusing, the industry—and the parties to it—must find it equally so. Perhaps there could be an easier and clearer way of doing this?

The industry is a poor third party here. The Government are party to the agreement, as it has

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been approved in writing by the Secretary of State, and the police forces are party to it, but the poor relation is the industry, the very companies which are being asked to pay for it. An alarm bell starting ringing for me when the Minister mentioned the sunset clauses of the 2001 Act. Those will be repealed only if there is a review, but how will Parliament be informed of that? I assume that we will not be informed of the detail of the police services agreements after the Bill has left Committee and become statute. I agree with the hon. Member for Bath that there must be a clearer and easier way of acting. At the end of the day, the buck stops with the train companies, and they are shabbily treated by the agreements.

Mr. Foster: I apologise for detaining the Committee. A sedentary comment from the Minister caused me to rise: he asked whether I was suggesting that the taxpayer should pay for the police? I am prepared to be convinced that police service agreements are the way forward in funding the British Transport police, but there is an onus on the Minister to make that case.

All other police forces are funded directly by taxpayers, and they provide the service of protection in their areas. The British Transport police protect members of the public that travel on our railways, and the employees of the railway companies. They are of benefit to the various train companies—train operating companies, rolling stock operating companies, Network Rail and so forth. The situation is unique. We expect those companies to employ their own police force, even though it serves the public at large.

The Minister asked if I wanted the taxpayer to pay instead? He may smile, but he knows that the taxpayer pays anyway, through the funding we provide to the train operating companies. We have recently seen the Government give an extra £58 million to one train operating company—Connex—in order to keep it going, and in addition to all the other sums that it has already received.

The taxpayer is paying already, and now has to pay through the complex mechanism of the Bill. Despite the Minister's claim to the hon. Member for Vale of York that matters are not changing significantly, they are changing dramatically. The railway companies' side of the deal has been removed. They cannot specify how policing takes place, nor the premises on which it will occur. The jurisdiction now given to the British Transport police is covered by earlier clauses.

What we now have is merely a funding mechanism. That is a significant change from the previous arrangements, and it is a complex arrangement. Why is it necessary to act in that way, rather than employing the arrangements used for all other police forces.

Mr. Jamieson: The Government's policy is that the British Transport police should continue to be funded by the railways industry. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Bath that the Government supports the British transport police indirectly through subsidy and funding for the industry. Obviously, the industry likes that method of funding, and is not keen

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for change. That method has worked well for the last 10 years, and we understand the value of continuity. I would be interested to know whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that a separate, discrete force, directly paid for by the taxpayer, would be more appropriate, although I know that he did not say as much. We think that the new arrangements are the most appropriate.

The services agreements will be drafted with reference to the objectives, plans and targets for policing. The train operating companies—which are, after all, private companies—will then learn what they get for their money. On the issue of whether there are similar arrangements for other forms of transport, other transport industries pay for policing. Airports do so, for example.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 32

Compulsory police services agreement

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Miss McIntosh: My next point follows on neatly from the issues raised by clause 31. Under clause 32, the Secretary of State may, for the first time, make it compulsory by order for a train company to

    ''enter into a police services agreement''

with the British Transport police. I understand that that is quite a significant change. For the first time, failure to enter into such an agreement will become a statutory offence. We are told that the company will be subject

    ''on conviction on indictment, to a fine.''

The fine may be small or large. It would help to have guidance on how the fine will compare with those for offences under existing legislation.

To my limited knowledge, there is no such provision for constables under the Home Office remit. The issue is greatly exercising the minds of train operating companies. Clearly, it is in their interests to enter into a police services agreement. The Minister will understand that the railway industry is under extreme pressure, even without the current increased terrorism threat security alert and, as I have mentioned, trains and stations are something of a soft target. Also, companies are undergoing significant refranchising negotiations, and if they do not negotiate a successful franchise, they will no longer be players.

This is a very difficult time for train operating companies, and I wonder whether it sends the right message to make failing to enter into an agreement a statutory offence. The industry put that argument to me; I am not a great expert in the field, and if the Minister were to contradict me, that in itself would be helpful. The industry's understanding is that the clause will create a new statutory offence that is subject to a civil penalty in the form of a fine. A large fine would

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make it even more difficult for train companies to operate.

Perhaps the Minister can envisage circumstances in which it might be difficult for a train operating company to reach an agreement with the police. In what time frame do we imagine the train-operating company will have to come to such an agreement? I am sure that the Committee would find it helpful to know the philosophy behind that. I think that companies have had to enter into police service agreements in the past. Have there been particular difficulties? Have the Government experienced intransigence?

Last year's annual report does not appear to state that this has been a problem that the Government have had to tackle. I wonder what message that gives to the train operating company and its passengers—my constituents and me—about the circumstances that may arise or have arisen to create difficulties that would prevent the conclusion of such an agreement. I share the concerns of the industry and the train-operating companies about why it has been felt to be necessary to make this a statutory offence. How much time will be allowed? What has been the thinking behind this decision?

9.45 am

I cannot speak for the train operating companies, although Committee members will remember that I have an interest in First Group, which still has a franchise and some buses. I should not have mentioned that because, knowing the Minister, he will now ensure that it does not have a franchise.

The clause could prove regrettable, and I wonder whether the Minister would like to take this opportunity to justify it. I am unaware of any circumstances that have created difficulties in the past. Why do we need the clause? I cannot see how it takes us forward. It would be putting it too strongly to say that it is getting the backs of the industry up, but it is another little niggling thing for it to worry about at what is already a very difficult time.

 
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Prepared 13 February 2003