British Transport Police

Part of Petition – in the House of Commons at 10:35 am on 22 May 1981.

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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.