Clause 48 - Policing objectives: Secretary of State

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm 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)

I am grateful for the opportunity to air our serious concerns about the proposal.

I hope that the Minister will explain the present situation to the Committee. I understand that the Strategic Rail Authority will moderate and rule on the British Transport Police Authority in this regard. I believe that under the current arrangement the Secretary of State may not enjoy the power of direction, and it would be helpful to know the position. The clause gives the Secretary of State a power of direction over the authority to set objectives for policing the railways. The only people to be consulted on the issuing of such a direction would be the authority and the chief constable. Subsection (4) refers to Scotland.

The railway safety levy, which we will discuss in clause 102, is considered by the industry to be a tax, effectively. The industry is therefore raising money for increased security and the policing of the railways. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for explaining who the rail industry representatives were. However, I would draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the concerns put to me by the industry, which believes that the powers given in clause 48 are wide-ranging.

I am always sceptical when a Secretary of State is given powers of direction, as he has been over the rail regulator. The previous Secretary of State was swift to

tell the rail regulator in no uncertain terms that he was minded to use that power of direction. We have difficulty with granting such a power for the reasons given by the Under-Secretary. The Home Secretary has always been clear that, as the head of the force, the chief constable should decide the operational objectives. The chief constable should be given similar operational powers for the British Transport police.

Under clause 48, the Secretary of State is apparently given sweeping powers that do not seem to be curtailed or proscribed in any way. Obviously, the Secretary of State will receive representations from Scottish Ministers on the matter. I am sure that that will put the Under-Secretary's mind at rest about policing the railways in Scotland. Surely the Government would wish to give operational direction and control as far as possible to the respective chief constables in Scotland, England and Wales.

What is the thinking behind the clause? Why is the operational autonomy of the chief constables—monitored and overseen by the authority—being removed? What circumstances would lead to the power of direction? Perhaps I am wrong and there are existing circumstances in which such a power of direction exists, but the power in clause 48 seems to be extensive.

What did the Government have in mind when they chose to go down the path set out in clause 48? Presumably there was a consultation process to discover the views of the industry. I would be surprised if the industry expressed its overwhelming support in that consultation process. Will the Minister confirm that the representations that he received were not overwhelmingly in support of such a power of direction, and will he explain the thinking behind the clause? Why does the industry feel aggrieved? I am sure that it has had opportunities to discuss the matter at some length with the Government, especially in the extensive consultation, but the industry, through the Association of Train Operating Companies, has shown that it is concerned. I believe that the independence and autonomy of the authority, the chief constable and the police force may be put at risk, and the people paying for it are being compromised by not having sufficient representation in the consultation process. We must bear in mind that their representation will decrease dramatically from four in nine to four in 13 members of the authority.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department for Transport) 4:30 pm, 13th February 2003

I fear that the hon. Lady may be getting confused. First, she spoke on several occasions about directions to the chief constable, but the clause states clearly that directions will be made to the authority. Secondly, she asked about the thinking behind the clause. I can only refer her to the fact that the clause follows the provisions of the Police Act 1996. I recall that my party was not in government at that time, so the Act was passed by her party to apply to local police forces and to govern the setting of objectives and related performance targets. Clause 48 merely applies similar requirements to the British Transport police, and the power is no wider than the

equivalent for the Home Secretary under section 37 of the 1996 Act. There is definitely a degree of confusion.

For the purposes of explanation, I should say that we expect that the power will be used only in limited circumstances. Nevertheless, it is right that the Secretary of State should be able to set objectives for the British Transport police authority because he is accountable to Parliament for its activities. However, it is also right that before doing so, the Secretary of State should consult the authority and the chief constable, as well as considering the views of Scottish Ministers about objectives for policing the railways in Scotland, for reasons that we have covered several times.

I should also say to the hon. Lady that 11 train companies and organisations responded to the consultation process, and none raised direct concerns about the power in its response.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister was obviously right to commend the Police Act 1996. My party was then sitting where he is sitting, and his party was sitting where we are now sitting.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

It is good to know that the hon. Member for Bath is still with us.

The Minister's clarification is helpful, but if the provision has been in existence since 1996, he should be able to satisfy the Committee by telling us what the specific circumstances would be. He referred to ''limited circumstances'' in which the power of direction would be used. I take his point of correction that the power of direction is to the authority rather than the chief constable, but it will still affect the autonomy of the police authority. Clause 47 relates to the police authority's role to set the objectives, and I mentioned some problems about that earlier.

It would be helpful to know about the circumstances in which the British Transport police authority would be deemed to have got it so wrong in setting its policing objectives. I am mindful of the Government's experience since 1997. They have had nearly five years in power. They had the opportunity to scrutinise the 1996 Act. In the light of that experience, 15 hours—not nearly enough—has been devoted to this part of the Bill. If it is possible to make it better, that is what the Committee should aim to do. Could the Minister, with the benefit of nearly five years' experience, explain the circumstances in which the authority will be deemed to have got it so badly wrong, however limited they might be? That would greatly assist the Committee in understanding the parallels with 1996, if any.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department for Transport)

It is a slightly odd question. The Government draft clauses such as this for the reasons that applied in relation to previous legislation—because it is difficult to envisage the possible breakdown in relationships that might lead in such a direction. Nevertheless, it is felt to be necessary and desirable for such powers to be available to the democratically elected and accountable representative, so that the public interest might be served. I am sure

that the previous Administration acted on similar principles in 1996, and it is our thinking with regard to clause 48.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

It has been a useful discussion. I am sorry that the Minister has been slightly reluctant to respond, but his comments have been most helpful to our understanding. We shall continue to explore all possibilities in relation to the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 48 ordered to stand part of the Bill.