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Standing Committee D
Thursday 27 February 2003
[Mr Jimmy Hood in the Chair]
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): It is a great pleasure to see members of the Committee reassembled, and I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Hood.
The Police Act 1996 has been on the statute book for some considerable time, and I wish to put some questions to the Minister of State. He will agree that the Bill and the 1996 Act apply to offences against police officers, but do they also relate to a person who comes to the aid of a police officer, or is that covered by a separate offence? We obviously want to encourage civilians to assist the British Transport police in cases of hot pursuit.
The 1996 Act deals with a person who assaults a policeman in the exercise of his duty or, indeed, a person who assists a constable, so the answer is already there and we can move on. A person found guilty of an offence in that case shall be liable on conviction to a term of six months or more. That serious offence has been on the statute book since 1964.
Have any incidents relating to the British Transport police been a cause of concern? That is especially important in view of the new powers given to the British Transport police by the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and the increasing security problems that our country faces.
Other provisions relate to the equally serious crime of impersonation of a police officer. Under section 90(1) of the 1996 Act:
''Any person who with intent to deceive impersonates a member of a police force or special constable, or makes any statement or does any act calculated falsely to suggest that he is such a member or constable, shall be guilty of an offence''.
Clause 65 of the Bill refers to section 90 of the 1996 Act, which raises the question why special constables are not specifically mentioned. One would hope that the offence of an assault on a constable or any person assisting or seeking to assist a constable would by definition include special constables and cadets in the British Transport police. Now is a good opportunity to ask about that.
How many offences have there been against the British Transport police in respect of impersonating and assaulting a police officer in performance of his duty? Clearly, sections 89 and 90 of the 1996 Act also take effect in Scotland. It would be interesting to hear a breakdown of the incidence of those two offences
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against British Transport police officers to see whether it is higher or lower in Scotland than in England and Wales.
The clause appears straightforward. I hope that wasting police time will also be regarded as an offence. Are the offences the same as in the 1996 Act, or are they by implication to be read through the clause? We support the clause, but we should be interested to know the incidence of the offences and the implications of the new police powers under the 2001 Act. In particular, we should like to know why the special constables are referred to in section 90 of the 1996 Act but not in section 89.
The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mr. John Spellar): The purpose of the clause is to harmonise procedures wherever possible. Under the Police Act 1996, which extends only to England and Wales, it is an offence to impersonate or to assault a police constable. The clause confirms that it is an offence to assault both full-time and special British Transport police constables, and that that is the case in England and Wales and in Scotland. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) asked how many assaults resulted in cases for British Police constables. There were 260 cases in 2000–01 and 258 in 2001–02. In Scotland, there were 49 cases in 2000–01 and 49 in 2001–02. Fortunately, the numbers are not rising but they are still far too high. Obviously we deplore that and are taking whatever action we can to reduce them.
The offence of impersonating a constable was extended to the British Transport police by the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. The clause confirms that it is an offence to impersonate a British Transport police officer and that that is the case throughout Great Britain, as opposed to just in England and Wales. The hon. Lady rightly points out that the clause is slightly narrower than section 89 of the Police Act 1996 in that it does not make it an offence to assault a person assisting a British Transport police constable, although the offence of assault would still apply. I do not know whether the hon. Lady wants to press the matter. We may need to give it further consideration.
Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the Minister for those helpful comments. My concern is that we must take this opportunity to give the British Transport police the powers and the confidence that they need to do their job. Perhaps not making the offence a similar one is simply a drafting error. As someone who is not terribly large, I would be put off going to the assistance of a British Police constable if I knew that the would-be assailant could be prosecuted for assaulting a British Transport police constable but not for assaulting me. We will wish to return to this matter. Will the Minister tell us the philosophy behind the proposal? Has there been a deliberate omission or merely a drafting error?
I am confused about why the offence in clause 89 relates only to England and Wales, when a similar offence pertains in Scotland for regular constables. I hope that the Bill will contain an offence of assault on a constable of the British Transport police in the execution of his duty, with the corollary that there
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should be a similar offence in respect of anyone coming to the assistance of that constable in Scotland, too.
I am told that mens rea—the mental element required to prove that a person was wilfully and deliberately committing an offence, which goes to the heart of a successful prosecution—applies in clause 89 and, presumably, in clause 90, too.
On the matter of football offences, the Liberal Democrats are wedded to vandalism, but we want to consider hooliganism in connection with football matches. In view of the figures that the Minister quoted earlier, it could be difficult to prove mens rea in the case of a football supporter—I hesitate to say a drunken supporter—who has had more than a few alcoholic drinks on the day of a football match. Nevertheless, we are told that the accused's reasonable and honest ignorance of a constable's status will entitle acquittal, which would put the constable in a difficult position.
Were the figures quoted by the Minister for offences committed or for those that were successfully prosecuted? It would be in our interests to take this opportunity to tighten up the provisions and remove the need for mens rea.
I listened with great care to the Minister but did not hear him say that special constables are included in section 89 of the 1996 Act and, by implication, in clause 65. The section does not refer to special constables. However, section 90 of the 1996 Act refers to the impersonation of a member of the police force or a special constable.
I appreciate that in most circumstances British Transport police are not issued with a firearm, but by virtue of firearm legislation, it is an offence for a person to make, or to attempt to make, any use of a firearm or imitation firearm with intent to resist or prevent the lawful arrest or detention of himself or another. Although it is not in the Bill, I hope that it will continue by implication to be an offence.
We have not considered the offence of corruptly offering or agreeing to give any inducement or reward to a constable for doing or forbearing to do any act or showing or forbearing to favour or disfavour any person in connection with the discharge of the constable's responsibilities, or the knowingly giving of any receipt or other document containing a statement that is false or any material particular to a constable with the intent to deceive, which is likely to constitute an offence. Hon. Members will be aware that that offence dates back to the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906. Will the Minister confirm that it will continue to be an offence under the new provisions? Is there an omission or a drafting error? I would prefer the provision to extend to specials.
There was also a specific reference to Scotland. Section 89(3) of the 1996 Act states:
''This section also applies to a constable who is a member of a police force maintained in Scotland or Northern Ireland when he is executing a warrant, or otherwise acting in England or Wales, by
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virtue of any enactment conferring powers on him in England and Wales.''
Why does it not state that that section applies in Scotland? Is there a separate Act for Scotland? I cannot find one.
Have the Government given any thought to removing the need for mens rea? I believe that it weakens the offence whereby reasonable and honest ignorance of the constable's status on the part of the accused will entitle him to acquittal. To put it crudely, if an offender is blind drunk and says that he thought that he was assaulting a hospital porter, that might lead to a separate charge of a common or other assault under a different statute, but it should not lead to acquittal under the new provisions. I hope that the Government might seek to reverse that.
Mr. Spellar: If we have much more of this, the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) will not only be awaiting his call-up papers to go to the middle east, but will be nipping down to Portsmouth to demand to be admitted.
The question of football supporters is a touchy one for Liberal Democrats. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) will recall that one of his colleagues lost his seat by falling out with football supporters who ran a fringe candidate whose votes exceeded the majority of the successful Conservative Member.