Clause 68 - Exercise of functions by Secretary of State

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 27th 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) 9:45 am, 27th February 2003

I wish to pull together several strands that relate to part 3 on the British Transport police. Many representations have been made to us—I cannot believe that they have not been made to the Government—and we share the concerns expressed in them. We would deplore any centralisation of control to Government in the exercise of the Secretary of State's powers in clause 68. The British Transport police should operate with full autonomy as far as possible. Clauses 55, 48, 40 and 33 offer the Secretary of State a whole raft of opportunities to be a little heavier handed than his predecessors.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) pointed out that this is the first time that the Department for Transport will assume responsibilities in this regard. We now have a more concentrated Department focusing exclusively on transport issues. That is welcome. We just want to put down a marker that it should be for the British Transport police primarily to determine the most efficient and effective way for them to operate. They obviously work under the auspices of the British Transport police authority. They will be paid by the industry and as we have seen there will be extensive consultation between members of the authority, the police and other interested parties. The British Transport police feel very strongly, as do the Royal National Institute of the Blind and a number of other organisations that have made forceful representations, about the exercise of the functions of the Secretary of State. I hope that the Under-Secretary can reassure us that the Secretary of State and the Department do not intend to micromanage the British Transport police.

We record again, for the sake of clarity, our deep appreciation of the work of the British Transport

police as a whole and its individual officers, constables, specials and cadets. We cannot pay them enough tribute. They work in very difficult circumstances for a lot of the time and see some horrendous incidents and crimes. I hope that the Under-Secretary will take the opportunity yet again to confirm that the Department and the Secretary of State will take a light touch in this regard.

I am still a little concerned how the Department will assume that role when the Bill comes into force, bearing in mind that it does not intend to appoint any new members of staff but will simply redistribute the responsibilities around its excellent officials. It would help to know how it will be structured and how it will organise itself in this regard. Unlike some Departments, it is still not the most transparent of bodies. It is significant that we will have an annual railways policing plan, a three-year strategy plan and annual reports by the chief constable and the British Transport police authority. We stress our concern that the Secretary of State's ability to set performance targets might contradict the efficiency and effectiveness of the authority in exercising its duty. We wait with great interest to hear whether the Under-Secretary can put our minds at rest.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me this opportunity to explain briefly one or two matters relevant to the clause. The Bill provides the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions with a number of functions and duties regarding the British Transport police, the proposed authority and the policing of the railways.

The clause places a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to exercise these functions,

''for the purpose of promoting the efficiency and effectiveness of the Police Force''.

As we found in our previous deliberations, it is equivalent to section 36 of the Police Act 1996, which places the same requirement on the Home Secretary regarding local police forces. I assure the hon. Lady that this is not about centralisation or micromanagement of the British Transport police. I do not know whether she has noticed, but the Department has one or two other matters to attend to from time to time. There is no ambition to be involved in more detail than necessary with the British Transport police.

The clause merely provides that where the Secretary of State has a function in part 3, he must use it to promote the efficiency and effectiveness of the British Transport police. That could be done in a number of ways: by the appointment of members; supporting the authority outside and so on. All the Secretary of State's powers regarding the British Transport police either exist already—for example, the arbitration under clause 33—or are modelled on the powers that the Home Secretary has for local police forces—for example, clause 48 is modelled on section 37 of the Police Act 1996.

For the avoidance of doubt, the Department has been responsible for the British Transport police for

many years, so this will not be an entirely new function for the Department. The hon. Lady also alluded to the annual plans and reports and the three-year strategy; all those already happen. I hope with that explanation we can move to the vote on the clause.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

That is all very interesting. The Under-Secretary will be aware that under section 36 of the 1996 Act there is no residual power for the Secretary of State to take over the running of a police force that is failing in its duties. However, it establishes a general duty on the Secretary of State to exercise his powers in a manner to promote efficiency and effectiveness. I do not envisage it being the case, but if the British Transport police ever reached a stage where they were deemed to be failing in their duties, what would the Department's reaction be? What are its powers under existing legislation and is it envisaged that it would ever take on an increased role?

I am slightly disappointed by the Under-Secretary's reaction to the serious representations made throughout the responses to the consultation paper on this part of the Bill, which related to the policing aspect alone. The theme in those responses was that while those duties have already been exercised hitherto, as the Under-Secretary explained, the Bill goes much further. We have analysed individual clauses where that is the case, given the Secretary of State's new potential powers for centralising. The representations that we have read and have some sympathy with arise from alarm bells ringing among organisations, but they appear to have fallen on deaf ears. How does the Under-Secretary respond to those concerns?

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

I have nothing more to add to the debate. The procedures are well set out and we have clearly explained the purpose of the clause. Clauses 62 and 63 allow the Secretary of State to require remedial action and to make action plans, if required. Our debates in earlier sittings comprehensively covered the necessary procedure should there be any failure of the British Transport police.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 68 ordered to stand part of the Bill.