British Transport Police

Petition – in the House of Commons at 10:15 am on 22 May 1981.

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Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark , South Shields 10:15, 22 May 1981

I raise the subject of the complaints procedure in the British Transport Police not lightly but after deep thought. In a sense, I wish that I did not need to raise it. It arises out of a constituency problem which has drawn to my attention the inadequacy of the complaints procedure as operated by the British Transport Police.

At the outset, I must emphasise that in all that I say this morning I feel that the British Transport Police as a civil force does a particulary good job. In raising the subject, I in no way condone trespassing on railway property. It is vital that the message should emanate from the House that it is extremely dangerous for young people to trespass on the railways. In South Tyneside alone, and area to which I shall allude, there have been a number of serious accidents. I therefore plead with parents and young people to keep off railway property because trespassing on it is extremely dangerous.

I have already expressed my admiration for the police service in this country. But my holding of that view depends upon an efficient appeals procedure and an efficient complaints procedure, so that if wrong is done it may be brought into the open and we can all see what the situation is. That underpins my confidence in the civil police. The 1976 Act provides facilities for a complaints procedure. The Act makes provision, which I believe that the Secretary of State has used, to extend the complaints procedure to the British Transport Police. I shall return to that in a moment.

The background to the complaint that I make, or my explanation of the weakness of the present system, can be illustrated by alluding to a constituency problem. On Sunday 15 June last year, three young people aged 14 in my constituency were apprehended trespassing on railway property which, as I have said, is a dangerous playground and a dangerous occupation. They were apprehended by a constable of the British Transport Police and escorted off British Rail land. They accepted that they had been trespassing.

At the beginning of November, a constituent came to see me because he was very upset at what he saw as an inadequacy in the complaints procedure against the British Transport Police. His son—I have permission to mention his name—Trevor Giles, was charged, taken to court and fined. There are no doubts about that. I emphasise that his parents are not complaining about that. But they were surprised to discover that their son was the only one of the three boys, who were all of the same age and apprehended at the same time, to be charged.

I regarded this as a serious instance in which justice did not appear to have been done. I therefore raised the matter with British Rail officials, at Newcastle in the first instance.

I pay a compliment, which I suspect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you may wish to echo, to the work of British Railways' North-Eastern divisional office and of the people who staff it. We are grateful for that work which is often done with inadequate and out-of-date stock. The old DMUs operate on the Sunderland and South Shields line, and we should very much like them to be replaced by something more modern.

I raised this matter with Mr. Thomson, the divisional manager. He looked into the case. In reply to my letter of 3 November he gave a full and frank reply. He explained that Trevor Giles was charged and that the other two boys were not because British Railways and the British Transport Police like to retain flexibility. I appreciate that. There is no need for a high-handed approach. He explained that one of the boys had not been charged because since the apprehension he had been remanded at Low Newton centre. That is a matter of judgment, and, having discussed it with others, I am not particularly happy about it. Not to charge a youngster with an offence simply because he has committed another crime of a completely different nature is a dubious approach. The logic of that is that if someone commits enough crimes he should be charged with only one.

The other explanation was that the third boy was aged 12. On the face of it I fully accept that as a good reason for not charging him. British Rail had quibbled about the Low Newton case, but I accepted this point. My constituent, however, said that Mr. Thomson was wrong. All of the boys were 14, he said. One of them, he said, had been horn in the same hospital at roughly the same time as his son. They were at school together.

I was by this time becoming most unhappy. I wrote to Sir Peter Parker on 18 November and he acknowledged my letter. I heard nothing for two months. I wrote again on 19 January asking whether I could expect a reply. Nothing came. I wrote again on 16 February to remind Sir Peter. After a number of telephone calls I finally received a reply on 10 March. That reply substantiated the opinion and advice given to me by Mr. Thomson. The letter said: In reaching decisions clearly a guiding principle is that justice should be seen to be done. So BR accepts the point that I am making—that justice should be seen to be done. However, to interpret that inflexibily so that all offenders acting together are treated in the same manner prevents the police from using their discretion in the treatment of juvenile offenders. I do not want to challenge that discretion, but I was worried, because the letter was just a repeat of the one that I had received in November from a different source.

Again I wrote to British Railways and spoke to them on the telephone. Finally, on 29 April I managed to draw from them a letter which admitted that they had made an error. They admitted that, on checking, they discovered that the boy whom they had alleged was 12—and who for that reason had not been charged—was 14. I fully accept that that was a genuine error—my constituent and I do not dispute that—but it raises a number of problems. The fact that it took a Member of Parliament six months and a dozen letters to arrive at the truth perhaps suggests that all is not well with the complaints procedure for the British Transport Police. Neither I nor my constituent was offered an apology or even much more of an explanation in the reply from the British Transport Police.

If we are to keep the flexible approach while showing that justice has been done, surely my constituent has a genuine complaint if, after three youngsters of the same age are arrested at the same time for the same offence, only one is charged. I in no way support the following assertion, but it does not need much to make tongues wag. It does not need much for people to add two and two and make the answer five. That is what often happens in a local community. If that has happened in one case could it not happen in others? Let me take a hypothetical case. Let us assume that a fictitious British Transport policeman apprehends three young people, charges one and lets two go free. Could they be the sons of the police constable's friend? I am not suggesting that that is so in this case, but the Minister will take the point that I am making.

I return to the inadequacy of the complaints procedure for the British Transport Police. There is provision under the Police Act 1976 to extend the complaints procedure to other statutory and police bodies. That matter was considered by the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure which issued a report, research study No. 10. It was dated August 1980, but it was received in the Library of the House on 17 December. That document states: negotiations are in hand to bring the BTP within the jurisdiction of the Police Complaints Board in accordance with the provisions of the Police Act 1976. The Royal Commission therefore thought last August that that was happening. Only a week before that I had had cause during my parliamentary duties to inquire about another complaint against the police, one that was subsequently not pursued. The Home Office investigating the matter, kindly sent me a booklet called "Police and public", which is basically a citizens' guide on complaints against the police. Its opening remarks are: This leaflet explains the procedure for members of the public who consider they have grounds for complaint against the conduct of a member of a police force in England and Wales. Having studied that booklet carefully, I can find nowhere a reference to the possibility of complaints being made against any actions by the British Transport Police. I suspect, however, that the Minister will tell the House that there is such a complaints procedure. It is strange that the Royal Commission does not refer to it. It dealt, in a document issued at the end of last year but dated August 1980, only with negotiations that were taking place at that time. However, I have a feeling that the necessary steps were taken by the Government to extend the complaints procedure before that date. A leaflet I received only last week from the Home Office explaining citizens' rights gives no indication that the British Transport Police are covered.

One matter causes me even more serious concern. I have been in contact with British Rail on about a dozen occasions by letter. The Minister has copies of the correspondence, including the replies, and will know that what I say is correct. I have also spoken to British Rail on eight or nine occasions by telephone. At no stage did British Rail tell me about the right to use the complaints procedure if my constituent or I had wanted to make a complaint against the British Transport Police. I am not saying that the complaint was justified—that is not the point—but my constituent has the right to make a complaint. If it is not upheld, that is a matter for the complaints procedure.

The only recourse for my constituent was to come to me. After six months, my only recourse is to raise the issue on the Floor of the House, relating it to the responsibilities of the Minister under the Police Act 1976. This is a cumbersome manner in which to try to draw to the attention of the House and the country a weakness in the system. The apparatus, I understand, now exists. The only problem is that no one knows about it. The Home Office has not passed the information to me. I presume that British Rail was not deceiving me which must mean that it did not know.

Similarly, the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure did not appear to be aware in August that a final decision had been made. I have much admiration for British Rail. I hope that today, within three hours of leaving Kings Cross, I shall be travelling across the River Tyne to Newcastle. I wish that I did not have to raise this problem on the Floor of the House. If, however, a Member of Parliament feels that an injustice has been done or that an injustice appears to have been done, it is his duty to put aside other prejudices and perhaps embarrass his friends—I regard British Rail as my friend—on the Floor of the House in a case such as that which I have described. I am sure that it appears to many people in my constituency that justice has not been seen to be done.

I believe that the British Transport Police should check their prosecuting policies. This is a suitable occasion to try to highlight the rights of people to pursue the correct procedure if they have a justifiable complaint against the British Transport Police. That assumes that the Minister will say that there is a complaints procedure. The hon. and learned Gentleman has indicated that this is the case.

I repeat myself because it is important to get the message home. Railways are dangerous places. Youngsters should not play on railway lines. Nor should adults trespass on them. There has been a tragic accident in South Tyneside within the last couple of weeks. British Rail's philosophy is that it is better to take people to the juvenile court than to the coroner's court. I agree with that philosophy. That approach must, however, be pursued with openness and frankness.

I appeal to parents to make sure that their youngsters do not trespass on British Rail land. Railway lines are dangerous places. They are especially dangerous where unscheduled trains take coal from pits, as in my constituency, to be transported to London. In those areas, the problem is acute.

I hope that I have convinced the House that there is something wrong in the case that I have outlined. I hope that the Minister can give me an assurance that it is an exception. We need better and more open publicity on the matter. I hope that this debate will make more widely known not only the dangers of trespassing on the railway but also the fact that if people have a complaint against the British Transport Police there is an opportunity to raise it without having to resort to such a draconian process as an hon. Member raising it on the Floor of the House.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport 10:35, 22 May 1981

The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) expressed several times his regret about having to raise a complaint of this kind on the Floor of the House. I am also sorry, in many ways, that he felt that it was necessary to do so. I have a genuine regard for the hon. Gentleman's judgment. He is not one of the tiny minority of hon. Members who might raise malicious or ill-founded allegations against the police. His presentation of the case shows that he feels strongly that his constituent, the parent of the boy, has a legitimate grievance about the manner in which the case was handled. I find that view difficult to understand. I have examined the case. I feel that the sense of injustice is wide of the mark. I shall deal with that aspect further in due course.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman about the complaints procedure. The British Transport Police are subject to exactly the same complaints procedure as the civil police. The hon. Gentleman may be right in saying that this is not widely appreciated. This debate will perhaps serve the purpose of making the facts better known, certainly in South Shields where I am sure it will be reported.

The case arises out of a question of trespassing on railway property. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees that this is quite a serious matter. Obviously, it is not a serious criminal offence. There is no lasting stain on the character of the boy. The offence must be seen in proportion. As a small boy, I was a keen train spotter. I did not always have the consent of the railways when visiting engine sheds. I have probably many years of undetected crime behind me. With hindsight, however, I can see that I would have had no legitimate complaint if I had been prosecuted. More discouragement against going onto railway premises would have been good for me.

Prosecution of children, in particular, for this offence is one of the odd areas of the law where the step is taken for the protection of the child and the public. There would be a public outcry if the British Transport Police ceased to apply fairly rigorously the rules about trespassing on railway property. Children are killed on the railways quite frequently. I understand that in 1980 13 children were killed trespassing on the railway. To trespass is dangerous not only for the trespassers themselves but for railway staff, drivers and even, sometimes, passengers. In 1980, 28,351 cases of trespassing on railway property were reported. There were 6,169 prosecutions of offenders, of whom 2,308 were juveniles.

A considerable burden is placed on the British Transport Police to deal with cases of trespass. They do not see prosecution and routine police work as the primary method of dealing with the problem. They take part in special presentations in schools, in the hope that children will learn the dangers. I agree with the hon. Gentleman—as I am sure will the police—that parents have a responsibility to keep down the level of trespassing on the railway. In some cases the police have to enforce the law. That is inevitably part of their duty.

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of the British Transport Police. Trespass on the railways is obviously only a small part of their duties. They deal with vandals, hooligans, thieves and thugs of all types. I am sure that the public will agree with both of us that they do an extremely valuable job of protection. We are seeking to step up police activity on British Rail and London Transport, as a result of the unfortunate increase in vandalism and hooliganism on our trains. Last year we made an extra £1 million available, so that the police could set up mobile groups that could move more quickly to deal with vandalism and attacks on staff, which occur both on London Transport and British Rail.

In a way, the debate is topical, because tomorrow the England v. Scotland match will take place in London. Unfortunately, as we all know, that will place great responsibility on the British Transport Police. I am sure that they will protect the public to the best of their ability and with their usual skill and discretion. The hon. Gentleman will agree with what I have said about the police force in general. However, he complained about a prosecution and the way in which his complaint was handled.

The case concerns the exercise of discretion whether to prosecute the three boys involved. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have no responsibility for the British Transport Police in this area of activity. The investigation of offences relating to British Rail's property is the responsibility of the chief constable and assistant chief constables of the British Transport Police, who are also responsible for deciding, in general, in the light of all the information available, whether to take proceedings. The discretion is theirs. My right hon. Friend has no power to direct which course British Transport Police officers should follow in any particular case. Obviously, I do not wish to comment in detail on the court proceedings. That is the same position as that held by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in relation to the ordinary police authorities.

The responsibility is, therefore, that of the chief constable of the British Transport Police, who is the chief of a force that numbers about 2,000 men. He is responsible to a police committee, chaired by a member of the British Railways Board, which includes representatives from the bodies for which the British Transport Police provide police services. Apart from British Rail, that means London Transport and the British Transport Docks Board.

The committee reports to the chairman of the British Railways Board. But, again, his overall supervision of the British Transport Police does not extend to giving him any power to excercise detailed control over such matters as prosecutions. The British Transport Police need to be able to exercise discretion whether to prosecute in particular cases, just as the ordinary police do. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it would be a great mistake if the police were automatically obliged to take an offender to court in every case. There must be room for caution, and that means that in some cases a difficult judgement will have to be made.

The policy on prosecutions carried out by the British Transport Police is similar to that of other police forces. British Transport Police prosecutions are undertaken by considering particular circumstances of the offence and the facts relating to the individual concerned. Each case is considered on its merits. Children and young persons who commit minor offences are generally cautioned and not prosecuted unless they have committed previous offences and been dealt with for them, or unless there are special circumstances. Even then, prosecutions are undertaken only after consultation with the social services department of the local authority in the case of children and young persons.

I understand that that policy was followed in the case raised by the hon. Gentleman. He has taken the matter up, and I have seen the correspondence with the chairman of the British Railways Board. I shall not deal with the personalities involved, but three 14-year-old boys were caught trespassing on the railway and only one of them was prosecuted. The father of that boy feels indignant and his indignation is shared by the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark , South Shields

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman saying that there were consultations with the social services department of South Tyneside council before the decision was taken to prosecute that one boy, or were all three cases discussed with the department before the decision was taken? There is an important difference.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

I have outlined the policy, which in the case of children of that age would include consultation with the social services department. I do not know whether the case as a whole was put to the department. The department may have been consulted on the question whether to prosecute the boy who was prosecuted. Off the cuff, I do not know whether it was explained to the social services department that two other boys were involved.

As the hon. Gentleman said, one of the other two boys was already at a remand centre. It was thought pointless to bring him back to be dealt with for what in his case was a minor offence of trespassing on the railway. The other boy was believed to be 12 years old. That is the source of the complaint. Unfortunately, the parent of that, child, deliberately or accidentally, misled the policeman who went to the house. The police were led to believe that the boy was 12 years old. In error, that child was not prosecuted. However, the third boy was prosecuted and was plainly not innocent of the offence. He was fined £10.

I suggest that the case does not give rise to a deep grievance, because the boy was rightly prosecuted and fined for trespass. The hon. Gentleman is saying only that the two other people were not prosecuted. One of them was not prosecuted because he was in more serious trouble and the other was not prosecuted because, unfortunately, his mother had apparently lied about his true age. That may give rise to a feeling of injustice, but it is not the worst case of injustice that I have heard of.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

I shall give way in a moment. The hon. Gentleman has already strenuously taken up his complaint with British Rail. I am sure that the chairman of British Rail will see what he has said about the length of time that it took to reply to letters. Ministers have many letters to reply to, and I am the last one to be heavily critical of delays in replying. However, it does seem to have taken a long time to reply to those letters. I am sure that the chief constable will consider whether the apology given was adequate.

Nevertheless, eventually the hon. Gentleman received a full reply. As the issue turns on the unfortunate error in the age of the child I should put on record the fact that, as was clearly explained in the board's letter of 29 April, the information that misled everybody originated from the boy's mother. The board's director of public affairs wrote: When the police officer went to interview her following the offence, she was ill in bed and had to get up, despite her condition, to answer his questions. The officer took a statement and as the boy did not appear to be older than the twelve years he was said to be, the officer had no reason to suspect the information to be untrue. In the circumstances, he saw no reason to prolong the interview unduly, a decision which I believe was not unreasonable in a matter of this nature as there is always a wish to avoid any accusation of harrassment. That was the explanation. The boy's mother was ill, and no doubt the policeman was anxious not to bully or pressurise her excessively. She appears to have lied about her son's age. Some time thereafter—it was already far too late to do anything about it—it was discovered that the boy had avoided prosecution. It is an old case, which has now been thoroughly aired. I am sure that the police regret it if there was a mistake. However, the issue does not call into question the way in which this chief constable or the force as a whole exercise discretion over prosecutions.

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark , South Shields

I take the point that we are using the case as an example. However, the Minister said that when the British Transport Police decided whether to prosecute they held consultations with the social services department. I do not expect the Minister to know the answer, but I wish to ask an important question. If the British Transport Police had gone to the social services department and told it that three boys had been arrested, the department might have known their ages. That might well have been the case. It is possible that the parent did not lie and that the constable made a mistake when he wrote down the individual's date of birth. It is not good enough that British Transport Police should raise with the social services department the one case in respect of which it contemplates bringing charges. It is important that all those involved should be discussed. That might obviate these difficulties. In addition, it would act as another check against human error, which can easily occur if someone slurs a word or has to write down a statement.

I hope that the Minister will take that point and, perhaps, hold informal consultations with the British Transport Police on that point.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

I have not made inquiries in depth into the case, because, apart from anything else, much would have emerged about the personal circumstances of the children and their families. The police follow a policy of consulting social service departments, presumably to discover more about the individual circumstances of children and their families. However, the police cannot hand over responsibility for prosecution to social service departments and I do not think that the British Transport Police would accept an inviolable rule to prosecute all three or only one. There are often circumstances justifying the prosecution of only one of a group. Perhaps the error in this case would have been discovered by the social service department. I regret that that did not happen.

The hon. Gentleman raised an important general point when he said that he had had difficulty in discovering details of the complaints procedure. The difficulty may be that the complaints procedure against the police does not extend to discretion whether to prosecute. An impossible situation would be created if people prosecuted for a crime were able to go through the complaints procedure and argue whether they should have been prosecuted or cautioned. Such matters are not normally in the mainstream of complaints, which usually concern allegations of misbehaviour by police officers in the course of their duties.

The usual procedure for making complaints against police officers applies to officers of the British Transport Police. The Police Act 1976, which provided for the setting up of the Police Complaints Board to deal with complaints by members of the public against members of ordinary police forces, also enables the board to make arrangements to deal with complaints against members of other police forces. Such arrangements have been in operation since November 1979, as a result of an agreement between the complaints board and the British Railways Board in respect of the British Transport Police.

If the hon. Member or a member of the public feels that he has a legitimate complaint against an officer of the British Transport Police, it is open to him to write to the chief constable of the force and initiate the complaints procedure, with which hon. Members are more familiar in relation to the ordinary police.

The complaint will be investigated in the ordinary way. If, following the investigation, no disciplinary charge is brought, the papers will automatically be sent to the complaints board, which has the power, if it disagrees with the original decision, to direct that a disciplinary charge must be brought. The complainant is informed of the ultimate outcome.

Leaflets on how to make a complaint about a police officer are available at police stations, including British Transport Police offices, public libraries and citizens' advice bureaux. The Home Office includes the British Transport Police among those to whom it circulates information on the complaints procedure from time to time.

The position in Scotland is different. There is no police complaints board there. Complaints against the police in Scotland are investigated by a chief constable, who, if there is any suggestion of a criminal offence, must refer the matter to the prosecuting authority, the procurator-fiscal, who decides, as an independent investigator, what action to take. The British Transport Police also follow that procedure in Scotland, and I understand that it is generally regarded as satisfactory.

I am told that in 1980 the complaints board dealt with 61 complaints about the British Transport Police. Two resulted in disciplinary charges being brought against individual British Transport police officers, and nine were followed by British Transport Police officers being formally interviewed by a senior officer.

It seems that there is an effective complaints procedure and there is no need for concern that no such procedure exists. I am not aware of any general dissatisfaction with the way in which the British Transport Police operate, given that in 1980 they dealt with nearly 200,000 offences and their activities gave rise to a comparatively tiny number of complaints.

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark , South Shields

I understand that if my constituent had wanted to make a complaint against the British Transport Police he would have been allowed to go ahead and make it, even though it may have been ruled out of court. My complaint is that there appears to be no information in the leaflet to suggest that the complaints procedure covers the British Transport Police.

I believe that British Rail should have advised me of the procedure. I was not aware of it; nor were many other people. That would have saved a lot of time and I ask the Under-Secretary to draw to the attention of the British Railways Board the fact that in such cases they should inform hon. Members and the public that there is a complaints procedure that can be used against the British Transport Police. I feel aggrieved that in all my correspondence and contacts with British Rail I was never told that my constituent could have tried to make a complaint through the complaints procedure.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the leaflet. I shall make sure that his comments are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Home Office, so that when the leaflet is next revised or issued they can consider whether it ought to contain an explicit reference to the British Transport Police.

The complaints procedure that I have described is normally concerned with cases of individual police officers who are said to have misbehaved in the course of investigating a criminal offence. The hon. Gentleman's complaint is against the chief constable, or those directly answerable to him, because of the way in which they exercised their discretion to prosecute. He is really querying a policy adopted within that discretion, though it turns out that the problem arose from an error made during investigation of the children's ages. That is not the sort of complaint that would normally be dealt with by the procedure relating to disciplinary offences.

The hon. Gentleman probably dealt with the matter correctly by direct correspondence with the chief constable, who is responsible in this case. If the policy is to be reconsidered by anybody, it will be considered by the committee that British Rail has set up, and eventual responsibility rests with the chairman of British Rail.

The hon. Gentleman has explored all those avenues and has received his reply. Unfortunately, apart from the hon. Gentleman, no one accepts that the boy's father has cause to be particularly aggrieved. I am sure that everyone regrets that an error was made and that it took so long for the hon. Gentleman to receive answers from every quarter.

On the general point of what happens if an individual member of the public has a complaint about the way in which he is treated by a member of the British Transport Police, I confirm that the ordinary complaints procedure will apply and should be pursued in the ordinary way. The British Transport Police, like other police forces, can point with pride to the fact that although that procedure is used it gives rise to an insignificant number of proven allegations. The British Transport Police do an extremely good job of policing our railway and passenger systems. Present standards of behaviour on the railways are such that the public have had cause to be more grateful to them in recent years than they have been in the past.