Railways and Transport Safety Bill

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Mr. Foster: Taken as a piece, clauses 31, 32 and 33 demonstrate the Government's thinking about how the British Transport police will be funded. When we debated clause 31, we discussed the British Transport police authority entering into agreements with various train operators and other industry bodies. Clause 32 states that the

    ''Secretary of State may by order''

require various categories of person to enter into such agreements. Why is the word ''may'' used? I am aware that that word is part of parliamentary language, but can the Minister confirm that even if it is correct in the context, ''may'' should be interpreted as ''will'' because everyone will be required to enter into such agreements? The various rail industry bodies might extend the details of their agreements and pay the British Transport police more for a gold-plated service, but they will in any case be required to offer the basic service, so ''may'' is a strange word to use.

The hon. Member for Vale of York shares my concerns about the unnecessary complexity of these

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arrangements and has rightly asked why an offence has to be created in the way that is described. I wish to suggest an alternative way forward that would avoid that problem, and to ask the Minister why the Government have not followed that route. Would it not be possible to impose as a franchise requirement on, for example, a train operating body the requirement that it has a police services agreement? That would remove criminalisation.

When we start to think about it, the whole scheme seems to be nonsense. When we come to address clause 33, we will probably discuss the arrangements for arbitration by the Secretary of State in relation to disputes that may occur: through nobody's fault—simply because there is a need for arbitration to resolve a disagreement—there will be periods when a police services agreement is not in place, yet during that period I assume and hope that the British Transport police will still operate in the premises and vicinity of the train operating company that still has to finalise an agreement. The reality is that the British Transport police will continue to operate even on occasions when the PSA is not in place. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case?

Mr. Jamieson: Clause 32 gives the Secretary of State power to make orders requiring certain railway operators to enter into police services agreements. Such operators will commit an offence and be subject to a fine if they provide railway services without having entered into an agreement. The British Transport police authority will be under a duty to take reasonable steps to facilitate compliance by those required to enter into police services agreements and the Secretary of State will consult with those on whom he is considering imposing a requirement before he imposes it.

The hon. Member for Vale of York asked about the fine. It will be limited to the statutory maximum of £5,000 unless the company is convicted on indictment, when the fine could be unlimited. The fine is to ensure that the train companies take the need to enter into the agreement seriously. Of course, without that, the British Transport police could not be funded.

Let me clarify the point about the existing situation. At the moment the rail regulator cannot grant a licence to operate a railway asset unless the operator has a police services agreement with the employer of the British Transport police—that is, the Strategic Rail Authority. Any company that operates a railway asset without a licence—unless there are circumstances that exempt them—could receive a maximum fine under the circumstances that currently apply.

The hon. Member for Bath asks why it should be made an offence not to have a police services agreement via the licence? The simple answer to that is that it is already an offence. The hon. Member for Vale of York used the expression ''not to worry'' as advice to the train operating companies. There is no need to worry, because the situation has not changed materially—but the Bill must set that out clearly. She asks why that has to be enshrined in law and if there have been any difficulties with setting up the agreements. I do not know of any difficulties that have been created up to now, but she will appreciate

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that the law has to anticipate every circumstance. As an advocate herself, the hon. Lady will know that the law has to look towards any circumstances that may arise in the future, and not restrict itself to those of the past. That is why the matter has been contained in the law.

Miss McIntosh: Again, the clause stand part debate shows why it is important to tease out information from the Minister. I cannot speak for the hon. Member for Bath, but I am not convinced that the provision is necessary. It could amount to more than a niggle to the train companies. Under current circumstances, they pay for the British Transport Police and are the main beneficiaries of its work. The provision could lead to difficulties in relations between the British Transport police and train operating companies. The Minister dismisses that concern, saying that the law must have regard not only to what has happened in the past, but to circumstances that may arise in the future. I submit that we ought to wait until such time as that has become an issue; there is not an issue at the moment.

For the first time, we will have a situation in which an operator will be required to enter into a PSA and if it fails to do so, it will commit an offence if it then provides railway services as defined in clause 72(2). That is highly regrettable, and I think that we shall return to the matter.

Mr. Foster: I must be going deaf—the remaining 5 per cent. of the Under-Secretary's argument has not reached me yet. I have not yet heard an answer to my basic question. Arbitration under clause 33 could be lengthy, given that the matter could be taken to the High Court.

The Chairman: Order. The Committee is discussing clause 32.

Mr. Foster: My point is that, during an arbitration period under clause 33, a PSA will not be in place, which is required under clause 32. Will the British Transport police continue to operate in those circumstances? I need a simple yes or no.

Mr. Jamieson: As there is an obligation under the licence for a police services agreement to be in place, negotiations would take place before the company could operate. If the company were already in operation, a PSA would exist. If discussions were taking place about a new agreement, the existing agreement would hold until the new one came into force.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 33

Arbitration by Secretary of State

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

Miss McIntosh: I want to tease a little more out of the Under-Secretary. He is wriggling in his seat, and I hope that that is not a sign of discomfort. We established, under clause 32, the potential for an offence. The explanatory notes from the Library state

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that not all providers of rail services will be obliged to enter into such an agreement. However, providers such as London underground, Croydon tramlink, the docklands light railway and Eurostar will be obliged to enter an agreement. Presumably, a dispute for the purposes of clause 33 does not relate to the fact that a company has failed to enter into an agreement because, since that is a civil offence, it cannot be classified as a dispute.

Will the Under-Secretary clarify the nature of a dispute? How will the remit of the Secretary of State compare with his present remit? Clearly, he or a nominated person will have the power to give the party in dispute the opportunity to make representations? To what extent does Parliament have the power to oversee the work of the Secretary of State? Must we wait for the annual report to alert us to the fact that there has been a dispute? Is that the traditional way in which such disputes are dealt with? Will there be an independent body to which the parties could turn? We are told that if there were a dispute on a point of law, recourse would be made to the relevant court in England or Scotland. Will the Minister set out the current arrangements? What will be the exact remit of the Secretary of State? What power will we, as elected parliamentarians who have an interest in railways, have to oversee the Secretary of State to keep him on the right track?

Mr. Foster: Clause 33 refers to a dispute between the British Transport police authority and the person who has entered into a police service agreement. We are discussing an agreement that has already been reached, but over which there is a dispute about the way in which it operates. The problem is that I do not understand why the clause does not cover the problem of parties unable to reach agreement on the introduction of a police services agreement. If there is disagreement, how will such matters be handled? Do we simply rely on clause 32, which states that people must enter into an agreement anyway, and that if they do not like it, there is no opportunity to do anything about it?

Clause 32 suggests that people are required to enter the agreement whether or not they like the

    ''terms construction or operation of the agreement''.

Do they enter into it under clause 32 and then, under clause 33, immediately have a dispute about it? That would be bizarre.

10 am

Mr. Jamieson: Clause 33 provides for the Secretary of State to determine disputes relating to a police services agreement between the authority and the operator. The clause also provides a means of appeal to the courts on the Secretary of State's determination, but only on a point of law. That places in legislation the current informal arrangements for dealing with disputes involving the Strategic Rail Authority, as the employer of British Transport police.

The hon. Member for Vale of York asked whether operators were required to enter into the police services agreement. Some operators might argue that

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it is not essential to enter into the agreement—a freight depot employing its own security staff, for example. The Government would consult the operators before requiring them to enter into an agreement, but most are likely to be required to do so. The hon. Lady asked how disputes will be dealt with. They will be handled in exactly the same way as they are now. I emphasise that clause 33(1) is about

    ''the terms, construction or operation of the agreement''

and not about whether a person should enter into the agreement.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Bath, there is no question that operators should have to enter into the agreement. When a dispute about the terms has not been resolved after the police services agreement has been established, the Secretary of State, or someone appointed by him, would resolve the dispute.

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Prepared 13 February 2003