Clause 51 - Performance directions

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 25th 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)

This clause takes us back to our earlier discussion on best value authorities. The Secretary of State is given a discretionary power to

''give a direction to the Authority containing provision of a kind which he could make in respect of a best value authority''.

I wonder whether the Minister could clarify ''best value authority''.

I understand that in the responses to the consultation, which took place some time before the Bill was published to allow the Government to digest and translate the responses into the Bill, the Association of Police Authorities and the Hampshire police authority considered that the British Transport police authority should be statutorily designated as a best value authority and endure the full rigours of a compliance inspection and order.

The Association of Chief Police Officers also asked that consideration be given to that point. It considered best value to be an extremely powerful performance management tool, but that requiring the British Transport police authority to adopt best value principles would not be effective. Rather than allow the British Transport police authority to act as a best value authority, are the Government minded to make it incumbent on the Secretary of State to give it direction in that regard?

The Hampshire police authority also suggested that the arrangements for the British Transport police authority should take into account the outcome of the Home Office and the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions review of the best value regime. If the Government have taken it into account, will the Minister explain how that translates into clause 51, because it is not obvious?

I gather that an opposite view was put by those who considered that the British Transport police authority should be modelled on another authority but should

have no such obligation in respect of best value. I wonder whether, because of the two contrasting views in the responses, the Government feel that the matter is not as clear as it should be, and that is why clause 51 gives the Secretary of State the discretionary power to direct. Again, I did not hear the Minister say how that direction would be published. Will he be good enough to tell the Committee today how it is intended that the Secretary of State shall publish a discretionary direction under subsection (2)? Will he also say today whether the House would have an opportunity to debate that? What vehicle would be used? Would it be a statutory instrument Committee, a Select Committee, or would the matter be debated on the Floor of the House?

It is interesting that the Secretary of State is asked to consult not only the authority, but

''any other person that he thinks appropriate.''

That drafting seems extremely wide. I wonder whom the Government have it in mind that the Secretary of State might consult. Would it be a passenger transport executive or Network Rail?

Again, conflicting views were expressed at the time of the consultation. How have the Government sought to resolve in the clause the conflict in the responses to the consultation paper? In what circumstances does the Minister envisage that the discretion granted to the Secretary of State might be used? Can he give examples of the circumstances in which the Government imagine that it might be used for the purposes of the British Transport police? Corresponding examples of where that provision has been used by the Home Secretary for the local police authorities would also be welcome. To satisfy my curiosity, let me probe the Minister a little further. Who might the other person or people be whom the Secretary of State thought it appropriate to consult?

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

The British Transport police authority is not defined as a best value authority, because it relates to a national force, whereas the Home Office forces have a clear geographical area. The consultation mechanisms that are written into the best value procedures are less appropriate or less manageable than they are for the local forces, whose areas in many cases parallel those of local authorities. I understand that, for those reasons, the National Crime Squad Service Authority has agreed that the British Transport police authority should not be a best value authority under the Local Government Act 1999, and the British Transport police committee agreed with that proposal.

All agreed, however, that the principles of best value should be applied. In that context, the British Transport police are already committed on a voluntary basis to best value practices and to putting together a programme of reviews over four years, taking account of intensive consultations with railway users. That includes issues such as policing football, criminal justice, scientific support, managing sickness and crime management.

The hon. Lady asked who would be consulted. I am sure that she realises that unless one puts in a phrase that designates as appropriate, unforeseen

circumstances could undermine the legislation. We are trying to enable the Secretary of State to consult, where appropriate, as widely as possible to serve the objectives of the force. It is clear that the British Transport police do and will follow many of the principles of best value, but it is not appropriate to designate the British Transport police authority as a best value authority within the understanding of that term as it applies to local authorities and the Home Office police forces.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I should just like to record the fact that it will be disappointing for the British Transport police that they could be perceived to be in a different league from the local police forces. The Government seem to think that the reason is that a local police force has a defined geographical area, but the Under-Secretary of State said that the British Transport police will break down the figures by region, which implies that there is some sort of geographical breakdown by region.

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

I listened with great interest to the hon. Lady's concerns. Does she agree with the Minister that the difference between the British Transport police and Home Office police forces is that there are representatives of democratically elected bodies—local councils—on the Home Office police authorities, but no similar representation on the British Transport police authority? That makes a significant difference.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

That is separate to my argument. The hon. Gentleman's argument relates to the debate about the constitution of the authority. If he feels so strongly about that, I am surprised that he is raising the issue now and that he did not raise it when we had the opportunity to debate it.

I do not understand the reasons for the Government's failure to say that the British Transport police should be able to operate as a best value authority. In one respect, I almost expect the British Transport police to be relieved. If I were them, I would heave a huge sigh of relief that I do not have to commit substantial public funds to produce a glossy brochure that local authorities must produce for best value. Will the Minister give us specific examples of instances in which the Secretary of State for Transport may give a direction for the railways? In what specific instances has the Home Secretary used that power under the 1996 Act?

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

I shall have to write to the hon. Lady about the use of the legislation by the Home Secretary, but I have already indicated that the British Transport police operate in several areas. I gave a list, although not an exhaustive one, of areas in which they practise best value, albeit voluntarily. Under the clause, the Secretary of State may set further objectives if he believes them to be necessary. They would then be sent to the appropriate authority and published on the website and by other means, as appropriate. They would not, however, be debatable, save, of course, through the usual mechanisms for raising matters in the House.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister may be a more avid enthusiast for monitoring the contents of the

Government's website. I do not believe that the Government always know what is on it.

I refer back to the Government's response, which places the British Transport police in some difficulty. It states:

''The Government is not convinced that it is appropriate for the BTPA to be defined in law as a Best Value Authority.''

It continues:

''It is, however, appropriate for the BTPA to adopt the principles of Best Value, to carry out Best Value Reviews and publish an annual Best Value Performance Plan.''

The British Transport police are left in the worst of all possible worlds. They fall between two stools; they sit on neither one of them.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 51 ordered to stand part of the Bill.