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15 Dec 2004 : Column 287WH—continued

British Transport Police

11 am

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue here, although this is a debate that I would have preferred not to hold. I have asked for the opportunity to discuss these issues because I have run into a brick wall when I have tried to obtain answers from British Transport police. First, I pay tribute to the Minister's predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). He was as helpful and sympathetic as he could be and I am sure that I will receive just as positive a response from his successor.

This is a very complicated case and I do not have time to go into every single detail, so I will try to highlight the main points. It began on 25 August 2000 when my constituent, Ms Fiona MacKay, an off-duty officer of      British Transport police, was travelling on the 23.10   Glasgow to Newton train. She intervened to break up a fight that had broken out between two passengers and was consequently assaulted by Raymond McDevitt, a schoolteacher, who was subsequently found guilty of police assault and fined £500.

Ms MacKay sustained a scaphoid fracture and severe ulnar nerve trauma, and eventually had to retire on grounds of ill health. While the train was stationary at Crosshill station and the fight was going on, the train crew made a 999 call to BTP requesting urgent police assistance for an off-duty officer. As there was no response a further 999 call was made. Again there was no response. Ms MacKay has reason to believe that both calls were received at BTP's headquarters in Glasgow. Four years and four months later, she is still waiting for BTP to respond, which must surely qualify for the world's worst response rate from an emergency service.

No BTP assistance was dispatched even though the BTP duty officer was advised of both calls. When Ms   MacKay's colleagues asked him directly whether they should attend they were told to stand down. Ms MacKay wrote a number of letters to the BTP chief constable, Ian Johnston, requesting an explanation as to why officers did not attend. That was four years ago. She is still waiting for a reply.

In May 2003 she contacted me and I wrote to BTP in Glasgow on 14 May. I received no reply. I wrote again on 15 July. I received no reply. At this point a pattern was beginning to emerge. On 24 July I wrote to the chief constable about my concerns. That time I did receive a reply. On 1 August Mr. Johnston wrote:

No such instruction had been given by my constituent. The advice to which Mr. Johnston referred had been given the previous November, since when Ms MacKay had dismissed her solicitors. I then received another letter from Mr. Johnston apologising for the fact that he had been given wrong information and had passed it on to me, but I still got no explanation about why BTP officers did not attend to help a colleague in difficulty on 25 August.
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This is the crux of the matter. Time and time again, the BTP have tried to hide behind a veil of pretended observance of the law. They have pretended that in some way this is an ongoing legal case. If that were so, I should not have applied to hold this debate. It is not an active legal case, but time and again the BTP have tried to obfuscate and to delay responses on the basis that at some point in the future a legal case may begin. That may well be the case, but when a constituent is in such circumstances the possibility of a legal case being activated at some point in the future is no excuse for not being completely fair and upfront.

A number of other points have to be addressed. The most important is the BTP accident book. The incident was not recorded in the accident book and the BTP refused all Ms MacKay's requests for the accident to be recorded. In the letter sent to me on 11 August 2003, Chief Constable Ian Johnston wrote:

Ms MacKay has also objected to remarks included in her personnel file, made by Police Inspector Graham, who described her as

Ms MacKay made several attempts to have those remarks removed from her file. The chief constable eventually described them as remarks which "challenge her medical history" and refused to take any action over them. However, Dave Stacey, the employee relations manager at the BTP, has since advised that the remarks are "no longer relevant" and that they will be destroyed. There has been no explanation of that sudden change of opinion.

It has been suggested to me that one of the reasons why Ms MacKay has not received the level of support to which she was entitled as an employee of BTP is that she had a poor sickness and absence record prior to that incident. I do not dispute that she had a poor record in that respect. However, I do not believe that any officer of the BTP or any employee of any public organisation should expect a lower level of support from his or her employer simply because of a poor absence record. If the BTP felt that that was a way of dealing with a poor absence record, that is a very poor employee relations policy.

There is also an important issue with regard to benefits. The files supplied by the BTP show that it advised the Benefits Agency that Ms MacKay was acting outwith her duties of employment and was not authorised to take action with regard to the fight. That is factually incorrect. All off-duty police officers, whether they work for the BTP or for any other force, are expected to intervene in incidents that affect public disorder, and Ms MacKay was no exception to that. As a result of that claim made by the BTP, Ms MacKay's application for benefits was refused at a time when her wages had been stopped, which caused her severe financial difficulties.

In that context, there is another issue that is very relevant. If BTP was correct—if Ms MacKay was acting outwith her duties—the arrest of the thug McDevitt would have been illegal. If Ms MacKay was acting outwith her duties, why was McDevitt charged with
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police assault? If McDevitt's offence was not police assault, if Ms MacKay was simply a member of the public and a have-a-go hero, and not covered by the authority of the BTP, his conviction for police assault would have been a miscarriage of justice, which it certainly is not.

One further point must be made regarding the accountability of the BTP in Scotland. BTP as a whole—throughout the United Kingdom—is, as far as I am aware, ultimately accountable to the Department for   Transport and to my hon. Friend the Minister. Unfortunately, although in England and Wales the BTP are accountable to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, I have found out over the past 18 months that that is not the case in Scotland. I have yet to perceive any intervening authority between the BTP in Scotland and the Department for Transport; perhaps that is the case because rail safety is still a reserved issue in Scotland and therefore still the responsibility of Westminster rather than the Holyrood Parliament. There seems to be an issue of public accountability. To whom is the BTP in Scotland accountable other than the Department for Transport? Is there an organisation—a public body—that can authorise investigations into complaints made by members of the public against the BTP in Scotland? I should be grateful if my hon. Friend elucidated that point.

I have a small amount of time left to me, and would like to go into some of the more technical aspects relevant to the debate, although I do not expect my hon. Friend to be able to comment in detail on them.

Since February 2004 there have been a number of investigations into this incident by the BTP. In February and March 2004, Richard Hemmings, the clerk to the British Transport police authority committee, stated that there would be a full investigation into Ms MacKay's allegations, carried out by Joe McGonagall-Napier and Steve Thomas. A meeting took place on 3 March at the Holiday Inn, Glasgow. Joe McGonagall-Napier advised that the points for discussion would be based on issues contained in the document sent to Ian Johnston, the chief    constable, dated 15 August 2003. However, Mr. Johnston refused to answer the points made in that document when he originally received it in August 2003, claiming that all the information was legally privileged. It was not, because there was, and is, no legal case.

On 28 April 2004, Steve Thomas was advised that the British Transport police complaints and discipline sub-committee had reviewed his investigation and, as a result, Assistant Chief Constable David McCall in Scotland had been appointed to conduct another review. At a meeting at my constituency office with me, Steve Thomas and David Stacey, the employee relations manager, Mr. Stacey agreed to respond to questions about defamatory comments that he had refused to remove from Fiona's personnel file—comments to which I have already referred.

On 16 June, Hemmings advised me by letter of Mr.   McCall's decision to conduct another internal investigation, and in June or early July this year, a new internal investigation by Superintendent Gareth Byron was launched. Assistant Chief Constable McCall tasked him with meeting Ms MacKay to obtain a full statement of her complaint. Subsequently, Ms MacKay was assured that she would receive a full copy of his investigating officer's report.
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On 12 July 2004, Steve Thomas contacted me to offer me the opportunity to inspect all files held by British Transport police on Fiona. He told me that all files, such as copies of all internal inquiries to date, will be available for inspection. That offer was subsequently withdrawn, and I was not given the opportunity to read those files.

In an e-mail sent to me on 1 September, Mr. Thomas told me that he could not find any internal inquiry reports relating to Fiona's complaints, thereby implying that they are not there. After four years of inquiries, letters and complaints, they cannot find any information about her complaints.

I worked fairly closely with British Transport police in Scotland in my previous employment with the Strathclyde passenger transport executive. I was always impressed by its professionalism and commitment to the task of keeping our railways safe, and that remains my view. It does a fantastic job, and the railways have never been safer in Scotland. Frankly, however, the behaviour of a few men at senior levels of British Transport police in Scotland and in the rest of the United Kingdom has cast a shadow over the organisation. I have had to navigate through a jungle of misdirection, obfuscation, dissembling, half truths and incompetence. We have before us a classic case of people in positions of responsibility accepting the position but not the responsibility that comes with it.

My constituent's treatment by British Transport police has been an utter disgrace. I hope that the time has finally arrived for British Transport police to stop hiding behind procedures and loopholes and to do what is right. I am not entirely convinced that they are even capable of doing so in this case. I hope that they will not make the mistake of believing that this debate is the end of my involvement in this case. So long as Ms MacKay is my constituent and British Transport police continue to run from their responsibilities—a characteristic that one would not normally want in those charged with upholding the law—I will continue to press her case to this House.

11.14 am

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) on securing the debate, and thank him for his kind words about British Transport police, which I echo, and about my predecessor, our hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells).

I extend my full sympathy to Ms MacKay for the injury that she received while intervening in the altercation involving three men on a train. I am sorry to learn that she did not return to duty as a result of the injury that she sustained, and that she subsequently retired on the ground of ill health. Before I address the points made by my hon. Friend, it would help the Chamber if I explained the role of Ministers in the BTP.

At the time of the incident involving Ms MacKay, the employer of British Transport police was the Strategic Rail Authority, a body directly accountable to the Secretary of State for Transport. The BTP committee, appointed by the SRA, had a statutory duty to secure the maintenance of an adequate and efficient police service for the railways. As my hon. Friend will know,
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responsibility for the BTP has now passed formally to the new British Transport police authority, and there is now a direct link to the Department for Transport rather than through the SRA. The authority and its new chairman, Sir Alistair Graham, are directly accountable to the Secretary of State, who appoints the chair and other members.

Although the Secretary of State for Transport is ultimately accountable for the BTP, the BTP authority has a statutory duty to maintain an effective and efficient police force for the railways. It also makes regulations for the governance and operation of the BTP based on equivalent regulations made by the Home Secretary in respect of Home Office police forces. The chief constable of the BTP has responsibility for the direction and control of all the BTP police officers and civilian employees employed for the provision of policing services.

It would not therefore be appropriate for Ministers to become involved in the details of disputes between the BTP and individual officers. However, I want to be assured that cases such as that of Fiona MacKay are conducted in a manner appropriate to a public body such as British Transport police. For that assurance, I look to the BTP authority as the employer of the BTP, and I have asked it for its comments about the BTP's handling of the case.

My hon. Friend has already set out the main points of Ms MacKay's complaints about the BTP. It may help if I    run through the key points and summarise the response that I understand that the force and the authority have made so far and the action taken to address Ms MacKay's complaints.

The authority informs me that Fiona MacKay's complaints have been considered very seriously by the force, which has made strenuous efforts to investigate what happened on the night of the incident and the subsequent actions by the force. Where appropriate, it has also admitted its mistakes. I understand that Ms MacKay's initial complaint related to the apparent lack of response by the BTP at the time of the incident. Ms MacKay said that, despite two phone calls made to the BTP to the effect that a BTP officer had been assaulted on the train, no BTP officers attended the scene. Understandably, Ms MacKay therefore felt considerably let down by her colleagues.

I do not want to dwell on the detail, but let me say that a subsequent inquiry by a BTP detective superintendent with no previous knowledge of the case revealed that Ms   MacKay was mistaken in what she perceived happened that night. No evidence was found of two calls having been received at the BTP control room. The records show that only one call was received and that the BTP was informed that an off-duty Strathclyde police officer had been assaulted on the train and that Strathclyde officers were already at the scene and had arrested the assailant. On that basis—wrongly, as it turned out—the BTP duty inspector decided that there was no need to send BTP officers to the scene as the situation had been resolved by Strathclyde colleagues.

Mr. Harris : Without going into any detail, would my hon. Friend agree that in future it would be appropriate
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if the recordings of calls made to British Transport police on the emergency line were not discarded before a reasonable period of time had passed? We have found that the calls made on the night of 25 August were mysteriously and unhelpfully deleted.

Mr. McNulty : I would not disagree with my hon. Friend. In fact, once we have reached the stage of the final report to the relevant committee of the BTP authority, I want to ensure that all the lessons of the   case, including that one, are learned and, where necessary, that processes are changed to reflect that. That will mean that the mistakes to which the BTP have admitted will not happen again, and a colleague in such a position will not be left with some dispute about the support that they receive.

The duty inspector and a constable made their way to the Strathclyde police station where Ms MacKay had initially been taken, and on learning that she had been conveyed to hospital, they made their way there and joined her. After she had been treated, the inspector made sure she was conveyed home.

The initial misunderstanding was unfortunately compounded by the BTP officers mistakenly deeming Ms MacKay to be off duty at the time of the incident on   the train. I think everyone accepts that when she boarded the train she was off duty, but as my hon. Friend implied, when she intervened in the incident, like any off-duty police officer, she automatically became on duty. That should have been made very clear; as any officer would be expected to do, she put herself on duty. Clearly, she acted in a professional and responsible way. However, the mistake by the force meant that the incident was not recorded in the force accident book, which was a cause of further complaint by Ms MacKay, since it resulted in her not being able to claim overtime and had an impact upon her being placed on half pay.

BTP subsequently confirmed that it was wrong not to record the incident. Once the status of an off-duty police officer being involved in such an incident had been clarified, the accident book was duly completed and the force apologised to Ms MacKay and repaid any moneys incorrectly held. My hon. Friend mentioned the data protection point about Ms MacKay's personal records not being provided within the due deadline, but with the best will in the world I will pass over that. However, I understand that the BTP have admitted and accepted that a   number of Ms MacKay's complaints were fully justified, and the force has taken appropriate remedial action. Where appropriate, the BTP have apologised to Ms MacKay.

In addition, the complaints and discipline committee of the former BTP committee commissioned a procedural review of how the BTP dealt with the various complaints made by Ms MacKay. The remit of the review was to ensure that all Ms MacKay's concerns had been answered and her complaint thoroughly investigated, and that policies and procedures had been correctly followed. The outcome of that review was reported to the professional standards committee of the BTP authority on 7 December. I understand that the committee has asked for further clarification of a specific issue and work on that is currently under way. Once the committee is satisfied that all has been done to address the various complaints and allegations of Ms MacKay, a full and comprehensive response will be sent to her to record the remedial actions taken.
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At that stage, I shall also ask for a full précis of such a report, and once it is in the public domain I will be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend, with or without his constituent, to see whether crucial lessons can be and have been learnt in full.

Mr. Harris : I am very grateful for the Minister's offer and I am sure that my constituent, Ms MacKay would be more than happy to accompany me to a meeting with him. I appreciate the Minister's effort in making that offer.

Mr. McNulty : I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words.

I am confident that the allegations and complaints have been properly addressed by the force. The BTP have admitted to making certain mistakes for which they have apologised to Ms MacKay and, where appropriate, have reviewed their procedures. I am also confident that the   BTP authority is exercising properly its role of scrutinising the effectiveness and efficiency of the force and, through its professional standards committee, is ensuring that a comprehensive and thorough review of Fiona's case is being carried out. As I said before, it is imperative that we learn from Fiona's case and that the lessons learned are embedded throughout the BTP so that these mistakes do not happen again, and that the lessons learned are reflected in the BTP's procedures.

While I have a moment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I speak briefly about the new BTP authority? I have been amazed at the speed and effectiveness with which the authority has come into existence. Sir Alistair Graham and his colleagues have taken the bull by the horns and I am very encouraged by how the new authority has operated in its first six months. Rail safety   is a very important issue to the Government, as it is to the travelling public. In general, I share my hon. Friend's comments about BTP; it is an industry-specific authority and in the main it does a very professional and committed job in difficult circumstances at stations and throughout the rail network, for which we should all be grateful.

As I said, once we have a full and comprehensive report I shall be more than happy to sit down with my hon. Friend and his constituent and go through it. I shall relay any remaining concerns to the BTP, probably through the chief constable, Ian Johnson. I firmly believe that the BTP are a super police force, and I do not want any incident or set of mistakes, or any lack of procedure, to mar what is otherwise a strong, professional and dedicated police force.

11.25 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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