Clause 37 - British Transport Police Federation

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 13th February 2003.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

The British Transport Police Federation has a key role in determining the morale of the police force. Police officers welcome the provisions relating to jurisdiction being placed on a statutory, rather than a contractual, footing. They believe that an independent authority will help to address perceptions of partiality, and of whether the force is too weak or too tough on the industry.

When we considered the previous clause on terms of employment, concern was expressed about the British Transport police becoming subject to increasingly demanding work, given the level of terrorist threat and security alert. We will be making more demands on them, and that will be important in our

consideration of the British Transport Police Federation's role. I referred to concern expressed by officers currently employed by the British Transport police regarding pensions. We have already debated that and can look at it further under the relevant clause.

What regulations can the authority make under the clause? In setting up the British Transport Police Federation, are the Government doing anything other than putting matters on a statutory footing and recognising that the British Transport police authority becomes the employer?

The welfare and efficiency of the British Transport police is a matter of great concern. Low morale is often reflected by people taking sick leave. When I first represented the Vale of York in 1997, the force there had one of the worst records of sick leave and early retirement of any in the country. I am pleased that the situation has changed because of a succession of chief constables. I must be getting long in the tooth as I am on to my third chief constable in only five years. I am speaking only for myself, Mr. Hood, when I say that the police seem to get younger, while we get older. We cannot underestimate the role that the federation will play. I am sure that the Minister will keep a watching brief on sick leave and early retirement, which are a significant drain on resources. In my own police force there are fewer operational officers than there are on deferred or actual pensions.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, Westbury 10:45 am, 13th February 2003

I am interested in what my hon. Friend has to say, especially in connection with sick leave. A comparative study could usefully be made between the British Transport police and other specialist forces, such as the Ministry of Defence police. The Minister may wish to know the reasons for any differences between the forces.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am told that that subject is risky territory because existing officers of the British Transport police believe that there is a likelihood of being linked to the Ministry of Defence police. My hon. Friend's comments are especially appropriate and perhaps the Minister will recall this more clearly, but I understand that the MOD police were rebuffed about two years ago when they sought wider jurisdiction in an appeal to the House of Lords.

Officers from the British Transport police would wish to record that they differ substantially from the MOD police, as we have already heard in our discussions on the Bill. Does the Minister agree that, especially following the passing of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, we are likely to make comparisons—wrongly, the Minister would probably say—with the work of the MOD now that British Transport police officers have been given extra jurisdiction?

The federation may wish to consider whether officers should be armed. They are not armed at present. As we know, they routinely inspect and police public areas, as opposed to MOD police who, by definition, inspect military bases. I understand that British Transport police train at Home Office rather than MOD establishments and are full members of the

Association of Chief Police Officers. We must be careful not to draw too close a comparison and it is not a path that I would seek to go down.

We are obviously conscious of the increasing terrorist threat. Has the Minister been approached by a representative of the British Transport police? I understand that they are all unarmed. Has there been a request in the past two years, especially since 11 September 2001, for certain members of the British Transport police to be armed? Clearly, from the public's point of view, it would be an alarming development.

Although I do not understand the terrorist or criminal mind, if we put all our efforts into securing airports and planes, by definition, we make railway stations and property more vulnerable. They will be perceived to be weaker targets. Have the Minister or his ministerial colleagues been approached by the federation or any serving British Transport police officer requesting a higher security presence?

Like the twin towers, Big Ben is our national symbol, and it is meant to put us at ease to see large numbers of police walking around in flak jackets and carrying semi-automatic rifles. I am not sure that seeing them when I come to my place of work has the desired effect. Obviously, if a missile is launched at us, I do not think policemen with flak jackets and machine guns will be of much assistance in defending either themselves or us. However, I can envisage circumstances imminently when it may be in our interest to consider such a request from the British Transport police. Their officers may wish to remain unarmed for the same reasons that the general police force wishes largely to be unarmed. I understand that the federation welcomes the statutory basis that lies behind the Bill, and its recruitment and employer changing. It welcomes that the legislation places the pay and conditions of the British Transport police within the regulatory framework that is governed by the Secretary of State as a helpful move to support the force to modernise and to achieve comparability with the Home Office police forces. I also welcome that because it must be good for the force's morale.

Circumstances can arise that dent the morale of the police force—for example, if someone is promoted who is deemed by their peers not to be eligible for such promotion, or if a member of the British Transport police is thought to have been disciplined incorrectly. Does the Minister have examples of such circumstances in mind? I can think of one example that we do not like to discuss in north Yorkshire. It led to a large pay-out—£1 million—to a lady constable in a town in the region. Therefore, I am aware of how greatly morale can be dented. It would be helpful to know that the regulations that we are told can be laid under clause 37 to set up the British Transport police federation are exactly the same as those that currently exist, or if there are any differences.

There is a concern in certain quarters of the British Transport police that the police authority might attract criticism in the future. The Metropolitan police authority made overtures that it would like to take over the policing of the London underground. I hope that the Minister will clarify today whether there

is any chance of that happening. If the British Transport police achieve an authority of their own that sets up a federation under this clause, does the Minister share its concern that it may attract criticism as a result of the fact that it has become the employer?

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

The federation is effectively the trade union for the British Transport police and it is always important that trade unions are consulted when legislation is brought forward. Can my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary say to what extent it has been consulted and whether there have been any sharp differences of view between what the federation would like and what the Government are proposing?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The clause establishes the British Transport police federation on a statutory basis and allows the authority to make regulations regarding the federation. These provisions are modelled on sections 60 and 61 of the Police Act 1996, which establishes the Police Federation of England and Wales. The purpose of the British Transport police federation will be the same as that of its Home Office counterpart. It will represent British Transport police officers in matters of welfare and efficiency, except in promotion and discipline matters.

The hon. Member for Vale of York referred to an individual case. It would be inappropriate for the federation to be involved in an individual disciplinary case rather than in general matters of welfare. That is the difference between the federation's role and that of the trade union.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) that the current British Transport police federation has been widely consulted on these matters. It is proper that they should be and I understand that it broadly supports the proposals that are being made.

The authority will be given powers to make non-statutory regulations concerning the British Transport police federation. As with other regulations, they must be based on the equivalent regulations made by the Home Secretary under powers in the Police Act 1996. They may only be different to meet the specific needs of the British Transport police. If the Home Office regulations change, it will be the responsibility of the authority to ensure that the non-statutory British Transport police regulations remain consistent. As with the main Police Federation, the British Transport police federation will be prohibited from being affiliated with other organisations unless the Secretary of State approves.

I am not sure whether, during the short exchange between the hon. Members for Westbury and for Vale of York, there was a suggestion that there might have been a merger of the British Transport police with the Ministry of Defence. It is an issue that has been raised occasionally. Perhaps the hon. Member for Westbury was alluding to the benchmarking of one authority against the other. However, perhaps it would be inappropriate for me to engage in that debate now.

The hon. Lady raised the matter of the excellent and demanding work of the British Transport police.

It undeniably plays a vital role in our transport system. As in all matters of criminality or terrorism, our transport system is vulnerable. She asked whether the British Transport police should be armed. At present, they do not have powers to carry guns and there are no proposals to change that. I am not aware of any proposal or approach by the federation to that end. The British Transport police can carry CS gas for use in appropriate circumstances.

I sympathised with the hon. Lady when she said that she has dealt with three different chief constables since she was elected. In the Home Office police force in my area, not only have we had three chief constables, but now I find that the new chief constable is considerably younger than me. That is of increasing concern when we have been in this place a certain length of time. Promotion and discipline in the British Transport police are based on the same procedures as in the Home Office police force and that will continue to be so under the Bill.

There was a question about the London underground area and how that will be tackled. The Government have been looking at ways to improve further the close co-operation between the British Transport police and the Metropolitan police in that regard. The merger of the British Transport police London underground area with that of the Metropolitan police authority was one of several possibilities explored in conjunction with the British Transport police, the Metropolitan police and Transport for London.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

At column 158 of the Hansard report of our deliberations earlier this week, the Minister of State sadly failed to give a direct answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) about whether there were any proposals for the Metropolitan police to take over responsibilities currently carried out by the British Transport police. In the Minister of State's reply to the hon. Member for Vale of York, he said that discussions had taken place, but he did not tell us what the outcome was. Will the Under-Secretary confirm once and for all that it will not happen?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The outcome of those discussions was that there should be closer co-operation between the police forces in tackling crime on public transport and around other interchanges.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

There was one question that I omitted. I apologise to the Committee, to you, Mr. Hood, and to the Minister for that. In his helpful replies to my questions about the clause, he touched on the possibility of the Met and the British Transport police merging with regard to the London underground area. The question of airport policing has also been exercising the minds of the British Transport police. They have not given detailed consideration to the possibility of policing all airports, but they would argue that clear benefits could emerge from that.

The Wheeler report—I am not sure in which year that was adopted—identified shortcomings in the security arrangements at airports across the UK. The

report referred to the need to improve co-ordination, consistency and clarity. Perhaps, given today's activities at airports, it is appropriate to consider that in relation to the British Transport police's suggestion. A single police force with national responsibilities could assist in achieving the goals of the report and provide a simple mechanism for speedily implementing national policy.

Airports are transport hubs. In most cases, they are lucky enough to have train access. That is not true of Leeds-Bradford international and Teesside international airports, but I am making representations on the matter, and I take the opportunity to do so now. If the Minister has a little money left, it could perhaps be used on railway connections to those two airports. That would be helpful. Underground and mainline railways are often a key method of access to airports. Although there is good co-operation between the British Transport police, who police the railways, and the Home Office forces, who police the airports, it could be argued that a single force with overall responsibility would remove that boundary, which could result in different responses to threats in proximate geographical areas.

The geographical boundaries are often indistinct. There is direct access to Heathrow via the Heathrow express and the London underground, and to Gatwick via the Gatwick express. Airports pay for policing, and that is a substantial cost, particularly at present. The British Transport police are familiar with that commercial interface and operating environment. Have the Government considered whether a national police force would fit well with a national airports authority? I am just probing the Minister; I am not saying that the Conservatives are calling for that. I understand that the present arrangements are working extremely well, but I am mindful that we do not know whether the terrorist threat will concern an airport or rail access to it.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 11:00 am, 13th February 2003

There are no proposals for the British Transport police to work at airports. Obviously, there is an interface, as forces work in co-operation with each other. Of course, the British Transport police can police airports if they are requested to do so, as is provided for under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. However, that would not be the norm.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.