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The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling):
The role of the British Transport police, including its role in delivering security on the railways, was last reviewed in the summer of 2004 as part of the rail review. However, as I said in my written statement this morningI wrote to the right hon. Gentleman in connection with itin the context of the current review of the 43 local police forces being undertaken by the Home Secretary, I will also be reviewing the role of the British Transport police.
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Mr. Jack: I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in advising me of his review and I am delighted that my question has already resulted in a complete review of the British Transport police. In that context, will he consider the balance of recent funding increases? In particular, will he reflect on the 23.9 per cent. increase in funding for overground policingpart of the 200508 planscompared with the 3 per cent. increase for underground policing? In view of what happened this July, there will be immense public interest in increased resources to improve security on the underground. I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would confirm that the review will look carefully into that aspect.
Mr. Darling: Funding for the British Transport police is important and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman and the House that a 21.5 per cent. increase in the budget has been approved this year. That increase has enabled the BTP to recruit 118 extra police officers and 177 extra police staff, including 40 community support officers. Funding has been increased, but if there is to be a reduction in the number of constabularies in England and Wales, it is bound to have an effect on the BTP because in some parts of the country it relies heavily on the availability of police from the county forces. We need to examine the two aspects together. However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government are acutely aware that the BTP has a major role to play in the security of both the underground and the overground. In London they work very closely with the Metropolitan police, and through the British Transport police authority we have been able to ensure that their funding has been substantially increased.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): The British Transport police, with the other emergency services, played a remarkable role at the time of the appalling bombing. The Secretary of State will know that they have specialised knowledge, come up to the standard and achieve wonders in comparison with other forces. However, will he bear in mind the fact that they are a specialised force, with different backgrounds and experience, and it would be very sad if that special quality was lost in any way?
My hon. Friend is right; the BTP have significant expertise, and working on a railway involves a great deal of skill and detailed knowledge. A lot of the work that they dofor example, what is now, sadly, the weekly occurrence of suicides on railway linesinvolves specialist policing, first to deal with the immediate situation, but then to get the trains running on time. When other police forces have come on to the lines, lack of expertise has caused some unhappy experiences. However, there is no doubt that some of the anti-terrorist work that needs to be carried out is specialised, too. We have to ensure that the BTP are sufficiently funded and structured to deal with a whole variety of work; we also have to take account of the fact that other work, especially anti-terrorism work, is specialised in its own way, and that the Metropolitan police have an expertise that is probably unrivalled, certainly in the British isles. All those issues need to be considered, but it makes sense for us, parallel to the
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Home Secretary's examination of the structure of police forces, to examine the BTPand the chief constable of the BTP is fully involved in that.
Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Is the Secretary of State awareI am sure that he isthat although the British Transport police do a wonderful job, one of their concerns is that when they catch the young hoodlums who make commuters' lives a misery, those people come before the legal system and are let off with either small fines or no fine at all? Will he have a word with the Department for Constitutional Affairs to ensure that the BTP get the support that they need, and that when they catch serial offenders on trains and other public transport, those people get custodial sentences and are prevented from preying on commuters?
Mr. Darling: I think that I largely agree. Indeed, this matter has been raised before; I think that the last time was in the previous Parliament. The BTP can be helped and supported in catching people, and it is extremely frustrating when judges do not take crimes on the railways seriously. People who are terrorised on trains, or are affected by those who go on to the tracks and put lives at risk, expect the courts to protect them, and the courts should get the right balance between concern about an individual and concern about the rest of us.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend include in his review the role of the British Transport police on and around the Heathrow Express? I know that there is a significant and extensive network of surveillance cameras, but it would reassure the travelling public if we could see additional security personnel on and around that service.
Mr. Darling: The British Transport police are deployed from time to time on trains. The decision where to deploy police officers is a decision for the chief constable; it is an operational matter. I know that my hon. Friend uses the Heathrow Express, presumably twice a week if not more, and he will undoubtedly have noticed that police officers are seen on those trains from time to time. However, as I have said to the House before, there are many forms of surveillance in place around our stations, some of which are obvious and some of which are not.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): We welcome the Secretary of State's review, and will make representations to him in connection with it, but does he realise that public order offences on our railways are up by 27 per cent. overall, and that in the last year alone there were 9,748 violent attacks not only on passengers but on staff, many of them alcohol related? Why, then, are Ministers about to make matters worse by introducing longer licensing hours? That is not just my opinion, but that of Ian Johnston, the chief constable of the British Transport police. At a time of high risk from terror attacks, instead of overstretching police resources, why does the Secretary of State not stand up for law-abiding rail passengers, and tell his Cabinet colleagues to drop their plans for 24-hour drinking?
First, overall crime on the railways fell last year by just under 2 per cent. and the number of
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robberies on the rail system fell by some 20 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman is right that violent crime has increased, in common with the trend in other areas. However, I do not believe that the Government's proposals for licensing hours will make the difference that he suggests. If someone is determined to drink alcohol and commit a crime, they can get that alcohol from many different places. As I said earlier, what is important is that the people who cause problems are arrested, charged andmost importantlyare dealt with appropriately by the courts.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): Bids were received from the five short-listed bidders at the end of July. Bids are currently being analysed and we intend to announce the successful bidder before the end of the year.
Mr. Gale: I do not blame the Minister, because he was not in the job at the time, but he will be aware that the project is now running two years behind schedule. That has had a damaging effect on the economy of Kent in general and east Kent in particular. It has particularly affected the employment prospects of Pfizer, which is based in the constituency of the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), and Manston airport.
Now that the responsibility for the project has been transferred from the Strategic Rail Authority to the Minister for a decision, will he give a clear undertaking to ensure that the preferred bidder has a commitment to the domestic fast link and that it will serve Manston airport?
Derek Twigg: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will obviously make the decision on the franchise. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about the delay, but it is worth pointing out that the franchise will result in several improvements, including an increase of 10 per cent. in arrivals in London during the morning peak. Some £600 million of investment in rolling stock and infrastructure has already been made in the area and, indeed, last week I visited South Eastern Trains to see the excellent work that it has done on the rolling stock.
Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)
(Lab): My hon. Friend will recall the prophets of doom who said that the domestic channel tunnel rail link would never happen, but we have placed the orderand very welcome it is, too. However, is he aware that it is more than 40 years since the Kent rail network timetable was reviewed? Will he assure the House that we will not have to wait a further 40 years, but that route review will be dynamic and ongoing, as work patterns change, especially for commuters to London and given the development of St. Pancras station?
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Derek Twigg: I agree with my hon. Friend about the historical problems on the line and we must keep the issue under review to ensure the best capacity and reliability of the network. We are already hitting 85.1 per cent. on the public performance measure ahead of the March deadline, so progress is being made in the right direction. We must examine how we can continue to improve the service.
Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Is the Minister aware that my constituents are also awaiting the decision, which they would like as soon as possible? Whoever gets the franchise should take more notice of the travelling public's wishes than their own ideas. In particular, the service from South Eastern Trains in our area has not been as good as we would have liked, with booking offices closed at rush hour and some of the trains being most uncomfortable. Will the Minister ensure that whoever gets the new franchise listens to the wishes of the travelling public?
Derek Twigg: The franchise process was, of course, subject to public consultation, which included Members of Parliament, and we have listened to what has been said. It is important to reiterate that we have seen an improvement in performance on the service and a £600 million investment in rolling stock and infrastructure. Other trains have also been refurbished.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): For many years, my constituents suffered under the Connex franchise. Since Connex was removed from the management of the franchise, the performance has improved consistently, month by month. That has led to expectations from my constituents and others that when the franchise is finally issued the service will continue to improve. We will need extra capacity on the network and an improvement in services, such as the promised Victoria line link on the Sidcup loop for my constituents, which is much needed and long overdue. Will my hon. Friend pass on my views to the successful bidder when he has an opportunity to speak to them?
Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend is right, of course, that it is important that services are improved where possible, and I also take on board what he said about the future. However, I repeat that there has been a welcome improvement in the public performance measure for that service. Obviously, that improvement is down to the hard work done by South Eastern trains, but it also stems from the better operation of Network Rail.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
(Con): Will the Minister answer the question on Manston airport posed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale)? He may wish to discuss the matter with his colleague the Minister of State, who is sitting next to him. Earlier, the Secretary of State was right to say that we need investment in the railways. Which factor does the Minister think is more likely to encourage the long-term investment needed by travellers in Kent the inordinate delay in the placing of the contract, the politicisation of the Strategic Rail Authority management, or the fiasco over Railtrack?
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Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman is right that Railtrack was a fiasco, but there has been no firm proposal in respect of Manston airport from the county council, the district council or the airport itself. My point is that there has been a big improvement in the service: overall, the network is ahead of schedule, having achieved 85.1 per cent. of its performance measure target for next March. The organisation that wins the franchise will have to meet the specification, and offer value for money as well. As I said earlier, there will be a 10 per cent. increase in train arrivals in London at morning peak times, and only last week I went down to South Eastern trains to see how a total of £600 million is being invested in new rolling stock and infrastructure.
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