British Transport Police

Part of 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.