Clause 57 - Inquiry

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 25th February 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

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

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

Will the Minister explain the present legal basis of an inquiry into the British Transport police and whether existing legislation applies to the national police force? What is the nature of an inquiry? We have already debated circumstances surrounding the statistical bulletin. Is a complaint against an individual police constable or an action by the British Transport police covered? Is a fatal accident inquiry relevant? Under what circumstances would the Secretary of State appoint a person to conduct such an inquiry, and who might be appointed?

Under subsection (3), a person appointed

''may summon a person to attend at a specified time and place—

(a) to give evidence

(b) to produce a document.''

I am sure that the Minister would want to put our minds at rest on that. The issues overlap with debates on part 1, under which the rail accident investigation branch was established. I hope that, in the event of an accident, no potential conflict of interest in the taking

and supplying of evidence will arise. That raises the question of what sort of inquiry would be set up. If existing legislation already provides for that, what circumstances apply? Will the Minister assure us that no conflict of interest will arise in investigations undertaken by the railway accident investigation branch?

Curiously, the Secretary of State is allowed to receive a report of an inquiry insofar as he believes that it is in the public interest to publish a summary. Does that cover an inquiry into terrorist activity or a perceived public threat? Under what circumstances would such an inquiry take place in public and in private?

I understand that separate provisions apply to Scotland. Will the Minister confirm that in Scotland the Secretary of State is allowed to cite a person to attend—a legal nicety that you, Mr. Hood, and I understand, as the legal language is slightly different north of the border?

One response to the original Government consultation referred to the appointment of a treasurer and an independent financial adviser. Could an inquiry authorised under clause 57 cover financial investigations? Have the Government thought about appointing a treasurer or independent financial adviser, or can the clause be used in that regard?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department for Transport) 3:30 pm, 25th February 2003

Clauses 57 and 58 replicate section 34 of the Police Act 1997. They allow the Secretary of State to order an inquiry into a matter connected with the British Transport police. It is for the Secretary of State to determine in the circumstances of the time whether the inquiry should be held in public or in private. No statutory provisions currently exist for an inquiry into the British Transport police, and clauses 57 and 58 will remedy that. Inquiries would be on policing matters, including serious crime or crowd control at stations or other matters that the Secretary of State considers appropriate.

The rail accident investigation branch would conduct railway accident investigations. It is clear that the person appointed by the Secretary of State to conduct the inquiry should be able to summon witnesses to give evidence in person, and clause 58 will detail how that will be effected. The clause also requires the Secretary of State to publish a summary of the report of an inquiry if he thinks that it is in the public interest to do so.

Those comments cover the broader areas covered by the hon. Lady, save that there are provisions for a treasurer, which is foreseen by paragraph 11(a) of schedule 4.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

Would the inquiries include internal inquiries into police activities and complaints?

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

That would depend on the nature of the complaint and whether there were other provisions in the procedure. The Bill leaves it open to both the authority and the chief constable to deal with their own matters, but if there are questions, the clause provides that the Secretary of State can satisfy his,

public or parliamentary opinion that one is necessary. It will facilitate an inquiry and provide a mechanism that does not currently exist for the British Transport police. As I have had to reiterate many times, the clause brings British Transport police in line with the Home Office police forces. With that, I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful to the Minister for drawing the Committee's attention to paragraph 11(a) of schedule 4, which refer to a treasurer. We should have time to consider that part of the Bill.

I understood the Minister's points, but I have some remaining questions. I understand that such an inquiry would not cover any financial irregularity. Am I right in thinking that if financial irregularity were alleged on the part of the British Transport police authority, the Government would not use the mechanism in clause 57 to investigate it? On crowd control, when London gets back to normal next week after the two half-term weeks, we might need an inquiry into crowd control at underground stations following the introduction of the congestion charge.

I thank the Minister for referring to the existing provision about inquiries in section 34 of the Police Act 1997. How many times has that provision been used in the past six years, and what were the circumstances of those inquiries?

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

I shall have to write to the hon. Lady on her last question.

To avoid doubt, I should clarify the position of individual officers as opposed to that of a more general inquiry. The British Transport police currently have a voluntary agreement with the Police Complaints Authority for complaints to be handled in the same way as they are for Home Office police officers. Under the Police Reform Act 2002, the British Transport police will be subject to the new Independent Police Complaints Commission that was established by that Act. Therefore the BTP are required to enter an agreement with the new commission about the handling of complaints against BTP officers. As I pointed out earlier the case for an inquiry covers more general issues that would rightly be determined by the Secretary of State.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 57 ordered to stand part of the Bill.