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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 4 March 2003


[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]

Railways and Transport Safety Bill

Clause 81

Detention pending arrival of police

8.55 am

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

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Good morning, Mr. Hurst. Welcome back to the Chair.

In Committee last Thursday, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport said:

    ''I am sorry that the hon. Member for Vale of York has left the Room for a moment. Since she is not here, now is perhaps the moment to complete my remarks.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 27 February 2003; c. 408.]

I did not intend to appear rude or disrespectful to the Under-Secretary, but I had not had the chance to wash my hands in three and a half hours. I am sorry that while I was responding to a call of nature, the Under-Secretary refused to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) to intervene on my behalf for precisely one minute. I am sure that we will be sitting for equally long periods between now and the end of the Committee proceedings, so may I make a plea for a comfort stop before we continue to a later hour, Mr. Hurst?

The clause deals with detention pending arrival of the police and refers to the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, among others. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 will of course also apply. [Interruption.] The Committee is especially noisy today; it is good to see its members in such good heart.

The very useful explanatory notes, which I presume the Department provided, tell us:

    ''At present, local bye-laws allow some harbour authority officials to exercise powers to detain ships whose pilots are suspected to be committing an offence of being impaired by drink or drugs. Clause 81 extends this regime to allow marine officials to detain a vessel when they reasonably suspect that a person on board is committing an offence under this Part. However, this clause does not apply to ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in order not to affect the operational effectiveness of the armed forces.''

I do not know whether it is appropriate to make that point now or when we come to clause 87, but suffice it to say that one hopes that separate checks are carried out in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary to ensure that its personnel would not fall foul of the Bill. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will put my mind at rest when he replies. That raises another question, which I am sure the Under-Secretary will want to address. If a harbour master or harbour official is invited to carry out checks under the clause, will they fall foul of the strict provisions on intoxication?

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): May I remind the hon. Lady that I previously moved an amendment suggesting that harbour masters should be included in a list earlier in

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the Bill? If I have an opportunity to bring that amendment back, I hope that she may be willing to support me.

Miss McIntosh: As my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge said, we would certainly look at that. It would be an extremely useful probing amendment.

Obviously, one is grateful for the thoughts of the industry. In February, the newspaper of the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers, the NUMAST Telegraph, stated:

    ''The Bill will give police new powers to test seafarers for alcohol and drugs after an accident or where they have reason to believe an offence is being committed, and to arrest them without warrant.''

The article, which is on page 20, states:

    ''Harbourmasters will also be able to detain ships until police arrive if they believe a seafarer on board is over the limit.''

The article gives a little of the background. In relation to a point that has been well made in Committee, it states:

    ''During consultations over the new laws, the government took onboard NUMAST's argument that ships are effectively homes as well as workplaces—determining that the regulations would not normally apply to off-duty seafarers unless they would need to safeguard passengers in an emergency.''

That is particularly appropriate. The article states:

    ''While not resisting the new regulations, the Union had argued that existing provisions within section 58 of the Merchant Shipping Act gave the authorities adequate powers to address any alcohol abuse at sea.''

I believe that that is a serious charge, and I urge the Under-Secretary to address it today. The point was well and forcefully made by as eminent a union as NUMAST during the consultations, and presumably that was the purpose of having, at considerable expense, such lengthy consultations.

If the point was well made, we should like to know, although we broadly support the Bill, why the Government felt it important to go further and introduce the new law. We want to know why section 58 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 did not, in the Government's view, give the authorities adequate powers to address any alcohol abuse at sea. Why do they so dramatically part company from NUMAST, which is highly respected?

Powerful points were made by a number of other bodies during consultation. We have some concern, along with the Liberal Democrats, as to who the ''marine official'' will be. The relevant points were well made last week. A ship may be some considerable way from a police station, so detaining a ship pending the arrival of the police could put marine officials under considerable stress.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Perhaps my hon. Friend can help me out. The clause applies not only to the sea, but to inland water. However, ''marine'' implies to me the sea. Is another part of the clause concerned with inland waterways?

Miss McIntosh: My hon. Friend raises a very serious point. The Bill appears to be silent—perhaps we are missing something—on who the arresting official would be in the event of a vessel or craft committing an offence on an inland waterway. As the Committee will recall, I have a particular concern

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about inland waterways. I cannot claim that Vale of York is a coastal constituency. Although we are under water a lot of the time, it is inland. The Bill is defective in that regard. Who would the marine official be? Do the Government expect it to be a member of the police force, in which case would it be a local police officer, or would it be a British Transport police officer? The Government must answer that question.

We recognise that there have been few instances in which clauses 80 or 81 would have been invoked. The dreadful tragedy of the Marchioness disaster is probably the most graphic example to date. Although the Under-Secretary argued that section 58 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 was sufficient, there probably is a need for further powers. The industry as a whole puts safety first and is therefore hopeful that it can work with all the authorities. However, even the industry has some concern about who the marine official would be.

It would be helpful if the Minister could give us some idea of the penalties. I referred briefly to NUMAST's concern about whether section 58 of the Merchant Shipping Act was sufficient. It sets out a fine of £5,000 or two years' imprisonment for a master or seaman who is guilty of endangering his ship or other ships while under the influence of drink or drugs. I do not immediately see a clause on penalties. Obviously, the Bill is not mine, but the Government's, so why is there such a serious gap? We will spend time this morning looking at detention, arrest without warrant and right of entry, but I do not see where the penalties are set out. Will we rely on the penalties in the Merchant Shipping Act, and if we will, why do we not rely on the other provisions of that Act?

According to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, a marine official has said that the provision relates to coastal areas or shipping in United Kingdom waters. Certainly the British Marine Federation would like the Bill to differentiate between commercial shipping and recreational boating. I mentioned that I was a guest of the BMF at the London boat show. I saw some magnificent river and inland waterways craft there that would appeal to both my hon. Friends the Members for Uxbridge and for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), and which obviously sail on different waters and face different conditions. How will the clause differentiate between the types of vessel?

The clause refers to detention. I am not sure whether clauses 80 and 81 tell us where the tests would be carried out. The consultation document set out the problems. As the industry recognised, time is critical in the test analysis process. The practicality and cost of carrying out tests on vessels that may be a considerable distance from the shore would make random testing neither justified nor practical. The industry believes that such checks should be carried out only following an incident.

The question of at what point and on what occasion the tests would be carried out is a constant theme in the Government's responses to consultation on this part of the Bill. I said at our last sitting how difficult it was to get hold of those replies, as they are not on the

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web. The Government usefully supplied a summary on the web of their replies to responses to the consultation paper on part 3, relating to the British Transport police. I have had to rely on the Library and the good services of the House to provide the replies to part 4, which is highly regrettable because a lot of useful information from the consultation process has yet to be addressed.

It is not clear from clause 81 whether the Government will introduce random testing on inland waterway and sea craft plying UK waters. Is it implicit that a test will be carried out only if an accident, or what might be described as a near miss, has occurred? If the Government do not satisfactorily answer that, we may return to the matter on Report.

It is extremely important to know who will carry out the tests. The clause refers to detention pending the arrival of police, which could be a considerable time. It is considered that the police service can be the only body equipped to enforce legislation; other agencies such as harbour authorities and navigation bodies are not trained or equipped to carry out the task of arresting members of the public, submitting them to breath-testing procedures, and dealing with the associated court appearances. The Liberal Democrats said that harbour masters should also be treated—[Interruption.] I hope that that cough is not serious; I refuse to be distracted. Harbour masters and marine or navigation officials should be above reproach in that regard; they must show that they, too, have not consumed alcohol or drugs, and that should be written into the Bill.

As we said in debates on part 1, in view of the extensive powers being given to investigators and inspectors of the rail accident investigation branch, we would prefer them to be accompanied in every eventuality by a British Transport police constable. Police officers are best equipped in that respect as they are trained to cope with difficult situations. We can all imagine anyone who is the worse for the drink in charge of a craft—


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