Railways and Transport Safety Bill

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Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Just so that the Minister's information is totally up to date, may I tell him that the said gentleman is currently my agent.

Mr. Spellar: It can only go downhill from there.

Miss McIntosh: That may be why the Liberal Democrats prefer to focus more on vandalism than hooliganism.

Mr. Spellar: I cannot possibly comment on the motivation of Liberal Democrats.

I shall clarify several points raised by the hon. Member for Vale of York, which she could have ascertained for herself from reading the Bill. On the Bill's application to Scotland, I refer the hon. Lady to clause 65(3), which states:

    ''In their application in relation to the Police Force by virtue of this section, sections 89 and 90 of that Act shall have effect throughout England and Wales and Scotland.''

On special constables, clause 24(5), which we already discussed, states that ''constable'' includes special constables. That ensures that they are covered.

I can also inform the hon. Lady that the British Transport police will continue to be covered by existing offences that apply to the force, such as bribery and firearms. She asked about the figures that I gave on assaults. I understand that those are the figures for offences committed.

I also understand that mens rea—the mental element—does not extend to whether someone knew that the person was a constable. What matters is the fact that the person is a constable. Having indicated to the hon. Lady that we will consider the question of assault on a person assisting a constable, I commend the clause to the Committee.

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9.15 am

Miss McIntosh: That is all very interesting—particularly what we learned about the Liberal Democrat agent, although I will leave that point with the hon. Member for Bath.

I specifically asked whether there had been a drafting error, and the Minister has been good enough to say that the Government will return to that. However, as the Government have already tabled a number of amendments, they had the opportunity to table an amendment on that issue. We would like to see a reference to assault on a person assisting a constable included in the Bill, and will consider returning to the matter later.

I heard what the Minister said about special constables. However, whereas section 90 of the Police Act 1996 refers to a police constable and a special constable for the purpose of the offence of impersonation, section 89 does not specify that a special constable is also included. I am trying to be helpful to the Minister, because I believe that any bright lawyer would be able to poke a number of holes in the Bill, because of earlier references to a special constable. If the Government are satisfied with the drafting and want to put it to the test in the courts, then so be it. However, this might have been an opportunity for the Government to clarify that.

I understand what the Minister said about mens rea, but we in the 1981 case of Annan v. Tait in the Scottish courts—I am sure that there has been a similar case in the English courts—it was said that

    ''a reasonable and honest belief in the ignorance of the constable's status as a constable by the accused will entitle an acquittal.''

I believe that that weakens the whole purpose of the provision on assault. As I said at the outset, we should at the earliest opportunity include a reference to anyone coming to help a British Transport police constable or a special constable in the course of their duties.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 65 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: Order. May I remind members that the knife falls at 11.25 am today in respect of new clauses and new schedules relating to part 3?

Clause 66

Part III of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 (c. 53)

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

Miss McIntosh: How do the responsibilities of the British Transport police relate to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988? I would have thought that the main responsibilities of the British Transport police related to railways and the underground.

Mr. Spellar: The provision is primarily to enable the British Transport police to deal more effectively with routine motoring offences, and particularly those committed at level crossings.

Miss McIntosh: That is helpful. That raises the question of what proportion of their time the British

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Transport police spend on traffic duties and what proportion on general duties. Obviously the imposition of fines on people at level crossings falls rightfully within their purview. I could imagine a situation in which they might be asked, if they were close to the scene of an incident, to assist the regular traffic police. What proportion of their time does that involve?

Incidentally, I was delighted to find in the Library that Wilkinson is still the authority on road traffic offences. It has been the leading authority for some considerable time. I simply want to use this little debate to ask not only about the interrelationship with level crossings, but about the role of the British Transport police in wider traffic duties and the proportion of its time that it spends on such duties.

Mr. Spellar: That does not take a great part of the British Transport police's time, but the BTP is concerned about level crossings and, in particular, deterring motorists from committing offences. In 2001–02, there were 27 recorded train incidents at level crossings and three fatalities when trains struck road vehicles. There are some 8,100 level crossings on the national rail network, and 725 of them are in Scotland.

In early 2000, Network Rail in Scotland, together with the BTP, introduced red light enforcement cameras at eight level crossings. One crossing camera alone was activated 1,191 times in the 15 months after it was installed. Some 83 per cent. of camera activations have resulted in prosecutions. The good news is that there has been a rapid decrease in the initially high figure for the number of activations at that site. Other areas in the vicinity of stations are also covered by cameras.

The prime purpose of the clause is to enable the BTP and to regularise its position with regard to the level crossings that provide the interface between the road network and the rail network, for which the BTP is responsible.

Miss McIntosh: That was a staggeringly high number. The Minister used the expression ''in the vicinity of ''. My understanding was that that was used generally, so we tried to write it into the Bill, but the Government were not minded to allow that. Is the Minister saying that by implication there is a common law acceptance that ''in the vicinity of'' will remain?

The Selby rail crash involved a huge amount of police resources from the North Yorkshire force. In that incident, a Land Rover came off the road at a bridge and crashed on to the line in the path of an oncoming train, causing devastation. I understand that for the most part it was the regular North Yorkshire police who were involved in the investigation, but I should have thought that there was a specific call to involve the British Transport police as well.

What is the relationship between two forces in such circumstances? Am I correct in assuming that the local force would take the lead in bringing a prosecution? That is slightly bizarre, because although the Selby incident involved a road vehicle, the devastation was caused on the rail track. Obviously, it was a train on

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the track that caused all the fatalities and the huge number of injuries. I imagine that that would have been an opportunity for the British Transport police to take the lead. In normal circumstances, what would be the relationship between the British Transport police and the local police?

Mr. Spellar: The British Transport police co-operated fully with the North Yorkshire police in the investigation of the Selby accident. That shows the very good general relationship between county forces and the BTP, and particularly the relationship in regard to road accidents.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 67

International assistance

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

Miss McIntosh: Under the clause, the authority is given a discretionary power to provide advice or assistance or to arrange for the British Transport police to provide advice or assistance to a body that has responsibilities in relation to the policing of a railway outside Great Britain. We discussed the policing of Eurotunnel. I wondered in the event of a major incident whether they would be seconded as provided for under clause 67(2) or whether they would be invited to assist for a short time.

My understanding is that secondment would be for a matter of months; three months, six months or more. But if there were a major incident—God forbid—in Eurotunnel—[Interruption.] I keep saying Eurotunnel, but I mean the channel tunnel. Having shares in Eurotunnel, one grows blinkered and hopes that it will do better, although it has done quite well recently.

I refer to the British Transport police being called to help with an incident in the channel tunnel. Would that be for a short period of time or for a longer period, such as a secondment? If it were a secondment, would British Transport police officers continue to be paid out of their funds or would they be paid by those to whom they were seconded?

Since the treaty on European Union was signed at Maastricht in February 1992, with the close co-operation of European member states on justice and home affairs, there is now much greater provision for police to co-operate with each other. That is done formally through the EU-wide system of exchanging information within the European Police Office, known as Europol. I am not completely up to date on this point; will the Minister say where Europol's office is based? I thought it was going to have an office in Strasbourg, but I am not sure whether that came about and whether we have reached the right stage in the Bill for me to ask.

As it is now 11 years since that co-operation agreement was signed in the treaty of European Union, it would be of great assistance to us to know

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the extent to which we are formally co-operating. The TREVI group was the forerunner of Europol.

When I was a Member of the European Parliament I invited a group of Essex police officers to Brussels for a briefing from the internal officers of the Commission. I am playing for time to help the Minister find the information I asked for. Among the officers was a very nice gentleman, the head of the Criminal Investigation Department in the Essex force, whose name was Mr. Crook—obviously, it was easy to remember. To my chagrin—it was the first time it had ever happened—he had his rather nice Italian raincoat stolen while we were in the restaurant of the European Parliament building. They went on a tour to see the red light district of Brussels, on which I accompanied them out of my own interest. They then went on to the red light district of Holland to see how the different—

 
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