It is often said that time flies when one is having fun. It is clear that the hon. Member for Vale of York is having fun; a few minutes ago she told us that the Labour Government had been in power for nearly five years. I have to tell her that it is now nearly six years.
However, far from fun are the problems caused by trespass and vandalism on our railways. Earlier in our deliberations, we discussed at some length the role of the rail accident investigation branch. Much of that discussion concentrated on the investigation of accidents, and it was assumed that we were talking primarily about train collisions, derailments and so on. The sad truth is that far more people die on railway property as a result of either tragic suicide or vandalism and trespass. The British Transport police would argue that about 300 deaths occur on the railway through those causes, of which about one third are as a result of trespass and vandalism. A hundred deaths on the railways from those causes is far more than those that occur due to collisions or derailments because of defective equipment. It is vital, therefore, to discuss trespass and vandalism on the railway. I am conscious that it is becoming an issue of concern for all of the bodies that are involved—British Transport police, Network Rail, the train operating companies and the various other bodies in the railway industry. The problem has gained a new name: instead of calling it trespass and vandalism, we are increasingly calling it route crime.
A great deal of work is now being done to publicise the difficulties and the potential dangers, and the deaths that will occur as a result. There is a growing number of education programmes. Network Rail is working to increase security fencing on either side of the railway track, for example. Much is being done. However, I contend that because it is such a serious
matter, it is important to refer to it in the Bill, and specifically for it to be part of the policing plan.
The figures are horrendous. Many acts of vandalism and trespass take place on our railways. In an earlier debate, I mentioned the 15,000 acts of vandalism and 15,000 acts of trespass that take place each year. Sadly, the figures have grown year on year, and over the past six years of the Labour Government—I do not blame them; it is a comparative figure—there has been a 10 per cent. increase. It is a matter of considerable concern.
The British Transport police recently issued a press release. It is probably the easiest way to draw attention to the seriousness of the problem. Under the heading of ''Route Crime'', it states:
''Trespass may not sound like a serious offence but, in the unforgiving environment of the railway, it can be a major safety hazard. Trespassers put themselves, rail staff and passengers in danger. Trespass often leads to other offences—it is difficult to commit vandalism or to obstruct trains without trespassing. Holes made in fences by trespassers allow children to wander onto the railway, sometimes with fatal consequences. Similarly, adults taking short cuts across tracks or walking dogs on the embankment, give a bad example to impressionable youngsters. Putting obstructions in front of trains, hanging concrete blocks and the like from bridges are sadly daily occurrences. They can lead to serious injury and can even derail trains. Vandalising vital signalling and communications equipment and obstructing trains puts lives at risk. Stone throwing is potentially fatal. Even a small stone dropped from a bridge and meeting a train travelling at 100 mph can kill.''
So it goes on.
''Route crime is among the most serious threats to the safety of railway passengers, staff and even those committing offences, but only recently has this scourge started to gain the high profile it deserves inside and outside the industry.''
Later in the same article, he wrote:
''While billions of pounds are being spent on new systems to make trains safer, the fact is that many more lives can be saved every year by implementing relatively low-cost solutions to keep trespassers off the railway such as better fencing and access across railway lines.''
I am sure that he is right.
I said that there were about 15,000 trespass and 15,000 vandalism cases, but those are only the reported cases. Surveys that asked young people whether they had been involved in acts of trespass or vandalism on the railway produced staggering results. If those surveys are even remotely accurate, it means that about 2.5 million young people admit to having trespassed on the railway at least once, and about 700,000 young people admit to having been involved in acts of vandalism such as putting something on a railway line.
The British Transport police take the matter seriously, but I argue strongly that it ought to be specifically mentioned in the Bill as part of BTP's policing plan. Although much work is being done, I question whether we really take the matter seriously enough when it comes to the prosecution of such offences. As the Minister will be well aware, most
prosecutions are brought under various byelaws, often by Network Rail or other train operating companies. In reality, few of the recorded incidents—as I said, recorded incidents are far fewer than the actual number of incidents—lead to any prosecution. In 2001–02, there were 15,000 reported cases of vandalism and, of those, only 2,200 led to any charge or court summons, and not necessarily all of them led to convictions. Similarly, in relation to trespass, there were 15,395 reported offences in 2001–02, yet there were only 903 charges or summonses to court. It worries me greatly that many people are not summoned for such offences.
The Under-Secretary reminded us earlier that many of those cases are dealt with under byelaws as civil offences. Perhaps the Minister can tell me why existing legislation, which would make such acts of vandalism and trespass criminal offences, are not more frequently used. The Minister will be well aware of legislation going back as far as 1861 that could be used, and which was designed specifically for such activities in relation to the railways. For example, the Malicious Damage Act 1861 specifically deals with the following issues:
''Placing wood, etc, on railway, taking up rails, etc, turning points, showing or hiding signals, etc, with intent to obstruct or overthrow any engine, etc''
in the quaint language of the day. The same is true of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861. That, too, was intended specifically to deal with such issues in relation to
''Doing or omitting anything so as to endanger passengers by railway.''
There are opportunities in existing legislation for such acts to be treated as criminal offences, prosecuted by the British Transport police, and if necessary, by the Crown Prosecution Service. I acknowledge that such issues are being given increasingly high priority, but they should be given even higher priority. One of the best ways of achieving that would be to prosecute more people who are found to have been involved in such acts, preferably, where appropriate, using criminal, rather than civil legislation.
I understand and appreciate the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Bath about the seriousness of crimes of vandalism and trespass. Vandalism is mentioned in the hon. Gentleman's amendment, but I wonder why these specific offences should be included in the Bill. When the Minister was asked during our sitting on 11 February about the remit of the British Transport police, following a fascinating discussion instigated by the hon. Member for Westbury about why bigamy was excluded from its remit, he said:
''The policing of the railway requires a specialist police service to deal with the threat of terrorism, the problems of trespass and vandalism''.—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 11 February 2003; c. 159.]
Those crimes are obviously within the remit of the police and I wonder why the hon. Gentleman feels that they should be mentioned specifically in the Bill.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Joan Ryan.]
Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Five o'clock till Tuesday 25 February at five minutes to Nine o'clock.