HC Deb 06 April 1976 vol 909 cc308-66

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed. That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the hon. Member for Islington, South and Fins-bury (Mr. Cunningham) I should tell the House that I have selected Instruction No. 1 for discussion.

7.2 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I have been asked by British Railways Board to present this Bill to the House. Hon. Members will have received a copy of the Board's notes on the clauses of the Bill. I intend to amplify those notes briefly, particularly with regard to Clauses 18 and 19, which have given rise to dispute. Depending upon what happens during this Second Reading debate, if it seems appropriate I shall ask leave of the House at the end of the debate to reply to questions or comments.

I should draw the attention of the House at this stage to a misprint which appears in Clause 17, page 14, line 24 of the text, where the word "matter" ought to read "manner". No doubt whatever steps are necessary to correct that misprint will be taken in Committee.

Like many other public authorities, British Rail is obliged to seek authorisation from Parliament from time to time for quite a number of its activities. In the case of British Rail this need arises almost every year and authorisation is sought by means of an appropriate Bill promoted to the House and explained in this way, and the Bill does not stand in the name of the Government. Hon. Members will be familiar—I stress this point—with the extremely rigorous procedures that Parliament has adopted for the examination of the content of Private Bills. If the Bill tonight is given a Second Reading, it will go forward to a Private Bill Committee where its content will be examined in the very rigorous, quasi-judicial atmosphere of such a Committee. Tonight we are giving approval in principle to the Bill subject to its passing those later stages.

I do not intend to go through every clause. The clauses can be divided into three groups. First, there are the technical provisions about title, interpretation, amalgamation with previous Acts, and so on. Secondly, there are clauses authorising local works of one kind or another, none of which this year, apart from the two I have mentioned, so far as I know gives rise to objection; and there are the powers of land acquisition associated with such local works. Finally, there are the two matters of police powers and the Tilbury-Gravesend Ferry, to which I shall come at the end.

The local works provisions are in Clauses 6 to 9. The provisions prescribing the extent and manner of land acquisition are in Clauses 10 to 17. Some of the works are for the Board's own benefit and some are to fulfil the needs of passenger traffic executives. For example, Works Nos. 1 and 2 are new railways in Benton, near Newcastle-on-Tyne. The Tyne and Wear Transport Executive intends to construct a local rail network and Works 1 and 2 will enable that network and the British Rail system to be separated so that they are not obliged to double up on certain stretches of track.

As regards land acquisition, the procedure laid down by the Bill is the same as that of the Compulsory Purchase Act 1965 by reference, and in the usual way there is a time limit for acquisition under the Bill, which is the end of 1979. Similarly, in accordance with normal practice. Clause 25 means that if the authority of the Bill is not used within 10 years, the automatic planning permission conferred by the Bill will lapse.

I come now to the two more controversial clauses. The first is Clause 19, which deals with the Tilbury-Gravesend Ferry. Although in common sense the Tilbury-Gravesend Ferry is one ferry, legally it is two, one going north from Gravesend to Tilbury and one going south from Tilbury to Gravesend, and each has a distinct legal basis. These ferries are not just services that happen to be provided: they are both franchise or common law ferries thought to originate—"thought" because their origin is so ancient—in grants from the Crown. That means that they are corporeal hereditaments, a form of real estate which may be sold, leased or assigned, but which cannot be extinguished unless it reverts to the Crown or by Act of Parliament. That is the purpose of this part of the Bill.

Without going too much into history, I take this occasion to say that British Rail owns the freehold of the northbound ferry and has a leasehold on the south-bound ferry which will terminate in 1980. It is in the nature of such a franchise or common law ferry that it carries not only rights but conditions and, indeed, onerous conditions. Under the burden of that legal obligation, the British Transport Commission and now the Board have been providing a service between 5.15 a.m. and 6.20 a.m. on Sundays—and 11.50 p.m. This service employs two boats and four crews, with supporting clerical staff. It is a 15-minute service in peak hours and a 20-minute service at other times.

Before the Dartford Tunnel was opened, the ferry was running at a profit carrying passengers and vehicles. Since the tunnel was opened, traffic has fallen off dramatically, as would be expected. In 1961, 3.3 million passengers were carried, and the figure in 1965 was 750,000. This year, 1976, the estimate is 650,000. The ferry has made a loss in every year since the tunnel was opened in 1963. Kent and Essex County Councils made grants of £36,000 towards the cost of the ferry in 1974–75 and £46,000 in 1975–76, but both county councils have now stated that they cannot continue the grant, and it ceased as from 31st March 1976. Even with the grant, the estimated loss for 1976 was £116,000.

The obligation to ferry vehicles was terminated by Act of Parliament around the time the tunnel was being constructed. Now the Board seeks the termination of the common lay duty with respect to the rest of the obligation. Petitions have been lodged against this clause and I have been authorised to tell the House that British Rail is prepared to undertake to seek leave in Committee to amend Clause 19 so that while the common law duty will be removed, the Board will continue to run the ferry service between Tilbury and Gravesend until such time as the Secretary of State gives his consent to its discontinuance.

Further, no such consent shall be given until the relevant area transport users' consultative committee or committees have considered representations made as a result of Section 54 of the Transport Act 1962, which requires publication of the Board's intention to discontinue shipping services, and until the area committee or committees have made a recommendation to the Central Transport Users' Consultative Committee and that Committee has considered the representations and made its own recommendation to the Secretary of State. I understand that this proposal has the support of the Department of the Environment, but no doubt the Minister will intervene later to say so directly.

I think that the House will agree that the opening of the Dartford Tunnel and the consequent loss of traffic on the ferry, together with the cessation of grants from the local county councils and the scale of losses daily being incurred, are grounds for removing this ancient obligation. British Rail has demonstrated its concern for passengers' interests by the statement I have just made and the new clause which will be moved in Committee. I hope that this arrangement allays the anxiety felt by some hon. Members about this matter.

Clause 18 deals with the powers of the British Transport Police. When the British Transport Commission was formed in 1948, it inherited from its predecessors—the four main line companies and the London Transport Passenger Board—five separate police forces. These were amalgamated after nationalisation into a single force, which is among the largest police forces in the United Kingdom. Under the Transport Act 1962 and the British Transport Police Force Scheme of 1964 the forces continued as a single force under the British Railways Board, making it services available to other nationalised transport authorities.

The four main-line railway companies each obtained powers before nationalisation under which any constable was entitled to stop, search and arrest without a warrant persons employed by, on or upon the property of the railways who was reasonably suspected of having in his possession anything stolen or unlawfully obtained on or from railway premises and under which such persons might be convicted summarily of having in their possession articles reasonably suspected of having been stolen or unlaw- fully obtained if they were not able to account satisfactorily to the court for being in possession thereof. These powers, in substantially the same form, have been passed in previous legislation, relating, for example, to the Metropolitan Police.

After the British Transport Commission came into being, those powers were replaced by Section 54 of the British Transport Commission Act 1949, the powers of which, like those of the London and North-Eastern Railways Company, applied throughout the Commission's area and not only in selected parts, but they were similarly limited to a period of years. This limitation of the powers to a fixed time gives rise to the necessity for British Rail to put something in its Bills from time to time to extend the period of validity of the powers.

Parliament has since granted four successive extensions of five years and one of two years and five months in the Commission Acts of 1954 and 1959 and the British Rail Acts of 1964, 1969 and 1975. Unless they are accepted, these powers will expire at the end of this year.

The House may wish to have some statistics on the use of these powers. In 1975, 311 people were detained under Section 54, of whom 44 were acquitted. Of the 267 who were convicted, 260 were convicted of theft and seven of unlawful possession. It is the view of British Rail that if these powers of search were not provided in Section 54, few of these people would have been detected.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)

My hon. Friend talks about Section 54(1) and the powers of arrest and search and quotes statistics of convictions which relate to theft. Is there any requirement for Section 54(2) and have there been any convictions under this part of the section?

Mr. Cunningham

I am trying to give statistics which relate in part to subsection (1) and in part to subsection (2). I did not say that persons had been convicted under the Theft Act. I said that 260 were convicted of theft and seven of unlawful possession—which would have been under Section 54(2) of the British Transport Commission Act.

The value of the property stolen in the cases dealt with by the British Transport Police was £2.3 million in 1974 and £2.2 million in 1975. I could respond more fully to the gist of the intervention by the Minister, but since I understand he intends to speak later, it would be better for me to comment, if necessary, after hearing what he has to say.

I know that there is a feeling among many hon. Members—and there has been on every occasion when these powers have come up for renewal—that such important police powers, affecting the right of arrest and creating an offence, should be in public and not private legislation. I have some sympathy with that view, but Parliament has brought about the situation in which British Rail is obliged to seek the authority of this House and another place for repeated extensions of its powers in private legislation. British Rail did not draw up the British Transport Commission Act 1949 and it was not in its power to put these provisions into public law on a permanent basis.

British Rail's duty is to ensure that the police for whom it is responsible continue to have the powers given by Parliament in the first place, on precedents, and which they need if they are to continue to do the job for which Parliament created them. These powers will expire on the last day of December this year unless they are renewed. If the Home Office thinks that it would be a good idea for this kind of power to be provided for in public legislation, J hope that Ministers will say that, before 31st December, they have some chance of bringing in and passing through all its stages a Bill to achieve that purpose.

British Rail has done its job in bringing in the Bill and in correspondence with the Home Office before the Bill came to the House. There has been notification by British Rail to the Department of the Environment, as is required by statute, of the coming forward of the Bill and its content. As is required by statute, the Government's approval was given to the coming forward of the Bill, with this clause in it.

Although such approval does not commit the Government to supporting any clause, preparatory steps to change the situation could have been taken many months ago. British Rail has done its part to ensure that these powers are extended as necessary. If in some part of the Whitehall forest there has been something less than alacrity and attention to duty in changing matters which it is apparently intended now to change, no blame can attach to British Rail for that. Large public corporations should not be subjected in the management of their affairs to last-minute harassment by Government Departments.

I hope, therefore, whatever doubt hon. Members may have, as I have, about the desirability in the long term of legislating for this purpose in a Private Bill, or in this language, they will ensure that the Bill has its Second Reading tonight without any Instruction with regard to Clause 18, and that—as has so often been promised in the past but has never been done—some time, long before a Bill comes forward further to extend these powers, Whitehall will do its job and take steps well in time before the next occasion when we discuss these matters.

I am grateful for the patience of the House in listening to my long introduction. If points are raised during the debate to which it would be appropriate for me to reply, I shall ask the leave of the House to do so.

7.22 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Irving (Dartford)

The need for the debate and the reason for the blocking motion arise from the inclusion in the Bill of Clause 19 which releases British Rail from the obligation to run a ferry from Gravesend to Tilbury. This action was precipitated by the decision of Kent and Essex County Councils to withdraw the subsidy of £23,000 each which they had been paying to British Rail to continue the ferry service.

I regret that it was impossible for the county councils to continue the subsidy, because the ferry provides a service for the people who work on one or other side of the river which can be provided in no other satisfactory way, as the cost of travelling from the area of the ferry to the Dartford tunnel, under the Dartford tunnel and back, is prohibitive in time and money, especially for those who have to go to work very early in the morning. Incidentally, there is an application to double the total charge for the tunnel.

Mr. George Cunningham

That applies particularly to people who have no motor car.

Mr. Irving

It applies especially for those who have no motor car. For people who need the ferry to enable them to get to work, its discontinuance would mean that they would either have to move house or find another job. The £23,000 was not too high a price to pay to avoid such hardship.

I recognise the problems of British Rail in keeping going uneconomic services, and I cannot blame British Rail for seeking some relief both from the common law and the statutory obligation to keep the ferry going and also from the loss involved.

British Rail has come a long way in trying to meet the objections of hon. Members and of the local authorities concerned by being prepared to accept the amendment announced by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Fins-bury (Mr. Cunningham). The amendment would continue a statutory obligation to maintain the ferry although not quite to the standard sustained by the two boats at present in commission. The proposed amendment virtually puts the proposal for the closure of the remaining ferry on all fours with the ordinary rail passenger service, invoking the full procedure of Sections 54 and 56 of the 1962 Act to require reference to the Central and Area Consultative Committees with the final decision to be taken by the Secretary of State.

Although I am prepared to accept the amendment to allow the Bill to make progress, there are two matters which I wish to raise. First, I am advised by my local authority—the Dartford District Council—that while it welcomes the amendment, it feels that to meet its full objections the amendment should include provision for notice to local authorities of the wish of British Rail to close the ferry, and for the holding of a local inquiry, with the requirement that it should take into account social need. The council will press this requirement in Committee, and I hope that the promoters of the Bill will do their best to meet it.

Secondly, while I congratulate British Rail on its action in proposing the amendment, I cannot congratulate it on its further action in proposing that 18 jobs should disappear. This would mean that British Rail is going much beyond the requirements of the amendment and is seeking to save a greater amount than the present loss of income caused by the action of the county councils in withdrawing the subsidy. British Rail has said that the withdrawal of the subsidy would mean a comprehensive review of all aspects of the service, including fare levels, methods of operation and other factors. Surely these measures can make some contribution to saving money, and British Rail should withdraw its proposals for redundancies and reconsider the matter.

The ferry meets a real need of some of my constituents and its withdrawal would cause serious hardship. I hope that British Rail will continue to run the ferry and be able to mitigate the worst effect of the redundancies by reconsidering its proposals.

7.26 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)

I wish to draw the House's attention to Clause 19 which deals with the ferry between Tilbury and Gravesend. The liability on British Rail is to maintain the ferry service for the benefit of the public. When my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) described the ferry, he did not emphasise this aspect of public benefit. He gave the impression that the ferry service was an ancient service going back for centuries which was not very useful at present.

To people who live in Tilbury and Thurrock, and indeed on both sides of the river, the ferry is an essential method of public transport. It is true that the number of passengers has decreased since the building of the Dartford-Purfleet tunnel but, as my hon. Friend said, 750,000 passengers crossed by the ferry in one year according to the latest available figures. That is a large number of passengers, and they will be seriously inconvenienced if the ferry is discontinued.

To alleviate our fears, my hon. Friend told us that British Rail would move an amendment in Committee. The amendment is to the effect that the Secretary of State may discontinue the service after he has heard representations from the Area Committee and the Central Committee. That amendment does not satisfy us. The Secretary of State alone will still have the power, no matter what the Committee says, to discontinue the service. According to the amendment, the Secretary of State may or may not accept the recommendations of the Central Committee. In its turn, the Central Committee may or may not accept the recommendations of the Area Committee. It is not obliged to listen to representations from anybody or from any group of persons, although the Department of the Environment says that it will apply the full procedure of the Transport Act 1962 under Sections 54 and 58.

In effect, it will do nothing of the kind. There is no provision for the advertisement of any proposals. There is no machinery for receiving or considering any representations which are made. There is no provision for verbal representations. There is no provision even for the holding of a public inquiry. There is no direction how the Area Committee is to arrive at the recommendations that it makes to the Minister.

Notice of any proposed closure need be given only by advertisement in a local paper for two consecutive weeks. That does not seem very satisfactory. There is no direction about hearing objections. The recommendations and conclusions of the Committee are not notified to the objectors. The objections of the Area Committee to the Central Committee, or those of the Central Committee to the Secretary of State, need not even be published. Furthermore, there is no appeal procedure.

The present proposal is that the closure remains a matter for decision only by the Secretary of State. The matter will be decided by the Secretary of State and by no one else. That does not satisfy the authorities on either side of the river which are especially concerned about the service. My hon. Friends and I maintain that if the service is to be discontinued now or at any other time it should be a matter for the courts or Parliament, and not only for the Secretary of State. That is our main grievance against the clause.

When British Rail says that the ferry service should not be treated as a real rail passenger service, I believe that it is making a mistake. We all know that British Rail makes that claim because a subsidy will not be attracted as in the case of the rail services. We have heard about the loss that the Tilbury Ferry made last year, but I remind the House that the profit made on the rail service between Fenchurch Street and Tilbury was more than twice as much as the loss made on the Tilbury Ferry. British Rail has not been anxious to publish those figures, but they are true.

Although the amendment gives some relief, and although we have had talks about it with the British Rail agents, it does not go as far as the local authorities would wish. It appears that the ferry service should be deemed part of the rail service and should attract a subsidy. Although we shall not vote on the Instruction on your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I urge the Committee—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. There has been some misunderstanding. I have given no such ruling.

Mr. Delargy

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thought you said that Instruction I was to be called—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I said nothing about a Division. Instruction No. 1 will be called if we reach it in time. We are now discussing the Bill's Second Reading.

Mr. Delargy

I thought you said that only Instruction No. I was to be called, Mr. Deputy Speaker. One of us is making a mistake, and probably I am at fault.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Mr. Speaker indicated that he had selected Instruction No. 1. We are now discussing the Bill's Second Reading.

Mr. Delargy

Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I ask the Committee to examine closely the proposed amendment from British Rail. It looks very nice on first reading, but it is not as good as it seems. It does not give my hon. Friends and me the satisfaction that we wish. It gives too much power to the Secretary of State and takes power away from the courts and Parliament. It would be greatly to the inconvenience of hundreds of thousands of working people.

7.36 p.m.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

My interest in the Bill is limited solely to Clause 19, the clause that is concerned with the Gravesend-Tilbury Ferry. I shall detain the House only briefly. Other hon. Members have a much greater and more direct interest in the matter.

My concern arises from the fact that my own district council, the Swale District Council on the Kent side of the river, expressed the desire that as the local Member of Parliament I should oppose the clause. I believe that other district councils in the area have also taken that view on the basis that the ferry link is of strategic importance to Kent.

Having received such a request from the Swale District Council, I proceeded to make further inquiries of British Rail and Kent County Council about the logic behind the proposition that the legal obligation to continue the service should be terminated.

My inquiries have left me in the unfortunate position of being totally open-minded, in a position of not being quite clear what decision should be taken about the service. I can well imagine that if I represented Gravesend or Tilbury I should be concerned about the closure of a service that is still widely used today, even allowing for the enormous decline in numbers. I believe that it is used every day by 1,000 people to get to their places of work.

Mr. Delargy

It is used by many more.

Mr. Moate

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to correct my figure if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In any event, the ferry is used by many people who would find it difficult to take up alternative means of getting to and from their traditional places of employment. I can well understand their alarm at the prospect of closure.

On the other hand, the facts of life are harsh and clear. In the past decade or so the traffic has fallen from several million a year. It has fallen quite dramatically for clear and precise reasons.

It has already been said that the usage has declined because of the opening of the Dartford Tunnel. Other reasons were given in the county councils' evidence. It said that a reason for the decline in patronage of the ferry is the opening of the Dartford Tunnel. It said that another reason is the reduction in job opportuni- ties in the area served by the ferry. Improved railway services in Essex, and the provision of a free ferry service for employees of the Ford Motor Company between Belvedere and Dagenham, have all contributed in lesser or greater degree to the decline in usage.

Those are sound economic reasons and strong arguments against fossilising traditional transport services regardless of changed economic circumstances. This is not an argument involving political philosophy. It would be illogical blindly to continue to subsidise a ferry service that has been largely replaced by the more modern facilities of a tunnel. I can well understand the arguments put forward by the Kent and Essex County Councils.

British Rail, having subsidised the service for two years and being faced with heavy losses, must examine the situation carefully in the light of current economic facts. It seems reasonable that British Rail should say that it cannot continue to operate on the present lines. I understand that the loss would be about £142,000 for 1976 without a subsidy. That is a considerable sum. It is understandable that British Rail should seek to be relieved of its obligation.

I believe that the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving) said that there is a proposal that the service be reduced to one vessel. I have not seen that proposal in any of the documents in my possession.

Mr. Irving

I think that that proposal may be involved in the amendment which reduces the obligation and which was part of the conversation that took place with the agents and the promoters of the Bill.

Mr. Moate

It seems to be a logical proposition, but it is not referred to in the amendment.

I should be interested to know whether British Rail will be able to reduce the service to one vessel or to make any other reasonable economies in the provision of ferries within the present legal obligations, or whether there is a need for it to be relieved of those obligations in order to make sensible and desirable economies.

Despite the request made to me that I should oppose the clause, I believe that there is a strong case for the matter to be examined in Committee. One hopes that some way will be found to preserve some kind of service for the people of Tilbury and Gravesend. In the belief that the Committee will examine this matter in far greater depth, I shall not seek to oppose the clause. I shall remain open-minded and hope that the Committee will give the matter the deep and searching scrutiny required.

7.42 p.m.

Mr. John Ovenden (Gravesend)

I seek to address the House solely on Clause 19 of the Bill. Most of us would agree that the major part of the Bill is unobjectionable, and indeed many of its provisions may be beneficial. I sought to table a blocking provision, and I certainly express the strongest misgivings and the objections of my constituents to the proposals in Clause 19. That clause seeks to remove from British Rail an obligation to provide a Gravesend-Tilbury link.

The ferry goes back a long way in history. There has been a ferry service operating at this point on the Thames for many years. The first recorded reference in local history was the year 1399, but it is generally thought that the ferry operated in Roman times.

Throughout the centuries, the job of running the ferry has devolved on various individuals and organisations. It was eventually acquired in 1854 by the former London, Tilbury and Southend Railway. That company later took on a mandatory obligation to operate the ferry in a northerly direction and the right to operate it in a southerly direction. As a result of successive company mergers and eventual nationalisation in 1948, the ferry now forms part of the British Rail's Shipping and International Services Division. There is apparently no support from public funds for that section of railway operations.

The House should examine closely whether it is logical for a service, which by its nature is internal, to be regarded as part of an international division. The ferry is in no way comparable to cross-Channel services or shipping operations but is directly comparable to normal road and rail transport services. It seems ludicrous that although vast sums of public money are expended on uneconomic rail services, internal ferry services are expec- ted to be profitable or to face the prospects of closure.

Perhaps I may quote one example in my constituency. For many years vast subsidies have been poured into the Ashford-Hastings railway line. That can never be an economic proposition yet, for social reasons, successive Governments have rejected the idea of closure. I claim that the Gravesend-Tilbury Ferry has a far greater claim on public funds and that its closure would be a catastrophic blow to the area concerned.

British Rail must answer the question why it is pursuing the ferry problem in a way proposed in Clause 19 rather than by seeking powers to transfer the service to a division where it could be treated as a candidate for subsidy, or by seeking an amendment to present legislation enabling it to continue this type of service as a subsidised service.

There is an overwhelming case for the service to be viewed on social grounds. The ferry is vitally important to my constituents and to the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving), and indeed to people in much wider areas throughout Kent and Sussex.

It is an indisputable fact that ferry traffic has declined since the opening of the Dartford-Purfleet tunnel. However, the ferry link is still vital for hundreds of people. Journeys may have declined to 750,000 a year, but that still represents a thousand return passenger journeys per day on that ferry. According to a British Rail survey in 1973, 63 per cent. of journeys were made for purposes of employment. There is no reason to believe that the proportion has changed and therefore over 600 people depend on the ferry link to reach their jobs every working day.

A large number of my constituents in Gravesend work in the Tilbury docks, and although employment has declined in recent years the go-ahead has just been given to a £16 million expansion project at Tilbury. We are hoping, optimistically, that that will provide an expansion of employment in the area.

But what will happen if the ferry closes? Even for those ferry users who have access to private cars, the closure of the ferry would cause serious inconvenience. The alternative is a 15-mile round trip by road via the Dartford-Purfleet tunnel. That would be costly, inconvenient and time-consuming. In addition, it would add extra traffic to an already crowded A2 trunk road between Gravesend and Dartford. Any increase in the amount of road traffic occasioned by closure would be a factor weighing heavily in the decision as to the future of the ferry.

For many ferry users without private cars, closure would be a major disaster. The only alternative would be to travel into London either to the Woolwich free ferry or to a London rail terminus and out again on the other side of the river. The cost involved, and also the extension of the working day, would be an intolerable burden that few could afford to carry. For some the journey would be impossible. For those people who start work early in the morning on the Tilbury side of the river it would be impossible to get in to London by train and out again in time to begin work. Therefore, any closure of the ferry would deal a grave blow to the economic life of Gravesend and its surrounding district and also to the Essex side of the river.

The economic and commercial activity of North Kent and South Essex are closely interwoven. Without the ferry, people on the Kent bank would be isolated from their jobs in Tilbury docks and the Essex factories. This would result in an intolerable increase in unemployment of both sides of the river and a general decline in economic and commercial activities. It is a prospect which no public respresentative in either area could allow to happen.

We see Clause 19 of the Bill as a serious threat to the ferry service and to the economy of our area. Everybody involved in the fight to save the ferry has received virtually the same assurances about British Rail's intentions. We are told that there is no intention to close the service but only to remove the common law obligation to provide it. The sceptic might rightly ask why, if there is no intention to close the ferry, the promoters should pursue this costly and involved Private Bill procedure at all. There are fears in my constituency that once the obligation is removed, we shall have no protection against eventual closure. If the petitioners against the Bill are to be persuaded to withdraw their objections, they must have clear and categorical assurances about the ferry's future.

Unless agreement can be reached in Committee, those of us who represent constituencies which are affected must carefully examine our position when this Bill returns to the House at a later stage. We are prepared to allow the Bill to proceed to Committee without Division so that the petitioners may put their case to the Committee. However, if a satisfactory solution cannot be reached in Committee, I shall oppose the Bill in its further stages.

So far British Rail has proposed an amended form of Clause 19. According to the promoters, this new clause will mean the involvement of the Secretary of State. It will mean that the Secretary of State will make the final decision. It will involve the Area Consultative Committees and, we are told, a machinery that will protect the rights of ferry users and the public in general. I welcome that move. This is a great improvement on the Bill in its original form, but it still leaves very grave doubts.

It has been implied by some that the new wording means applying to the ferry the same procedures to protect the user as currently operate in the case of railway closures, but closer examination reveals that it does not. It goes nowhere near far enough to afford that sort of protection. The procedure laid down in the Transport Act in respect of railway closures is far more specific, and the full inclusion of this type of procedure in the Bill in respect of the ferry is the minimum offer that the petitioners can consider as acceptable. The procedures laid down for railway closures require publication of newspaper notices of proposals and refer specifically to the rights of users to object in writing. In addition, the Area Committee dealing with objections is specifically required to take into account and to report to the Minister on the question of hardship and proposals for alleviating hardship. There is no procedure of that kind referred to even in the amended Clause 19 that the promoters are now offering.

I hope that the Bill's sponsor could perhaps, even tonight, give us an undertaking that the full procedure that applies to railway closures will be included in full in the Bill by an amendment in Committee. If not, perhaps the Bill's sponsor could inform the House when he replies to the debate why such procedures cannot be applied to the ferry and what is special about the position regarding any future closure of the ferry that makes it separate and different from the procedures which are applied to railway closures. I cannot see why British Rail cannot give us this point and satisfy the petitioners on the matter.

If that is done we shall have some protection against ultimate closure, but we must have more than that. We must have firm assurances about the level of service in the future. We may have protection against closure, but what protection are we to have against a whittling away of the service? Ultimate closure will be in the hands of the Secretary of State, but there is nothing to prevent British Rail, as soon as the Bill becomes law, from embarking upon a course of progressive run-down of the ferry. Against that we have no statutory protection either within the present clause or within the new proposals put up by British Rail for consideration in Committee. We have no protection on the same lines as that currently afforded to us by the present common law obligation. Why should we and our local authorities be asked to surrender that right unless British Rail can assure us that the ferry service will continue in a viable and effective form?

There is no doubt in anyone's mind that the present common law obligation is a far better safeguard than any possible compromise, but we appreciate the problems that British Rail faces—problems which stem almost entirely from the most irresponsible and arrogant attitude of the Kent County Council and the Essex County Council in withdrawing their subsidy. That action probably makes service reductions inevitable, and such reductions are obviously inconsistent with the common law obligation that is currently imposed upon British Rail.

It is evident that no such reduction could take place while this common law obligation exists. If and when service reductions take place, as I think they inevitably will, the blame must rest fairly and squarely on the shoulders of those county councillors in Kent and Essex who so wantonly abdicated their responsibilities for the maintenance of a vital public service, which is one of their responsibilities as a transport authority.

However, while we are all prepared to be realistic about British Rail's problems and about the need for a possible scaling down in its operations, the present proposals by British Rail to its staff go too far, and they put in jeopardy the maintenance of an effective service. The proposals issued only a few days ago by British Rail to its staff involve not only a cut-down from a two-boat operation to a one-boat operation but include reductions in staffing levels to the new statutory minimum crewing level.

That means, in effect, that should any of the men involved in the service fail for one reason or another—sickness, most likely, but for any reason—to report for duty, the operation of this service is in jeopardy and it cannot run at all. Therefore, the reaction of the staff of the ferry last week in withdrawing their labour for a limited period and holding a meeting to discuss this proposal was quite understandable and legitimate in the circumstances.

We think that this service can be operated effectively with one boat, but it cannot be operated effectively if the crewing level is such that it puts the operation and the running of that boat in jeopardy.

We are also told by British Rail that it is quite possible to run this service on a one-boat basis because it is possible to bring in a replacement boat if necessary. I have been told by people who have a great deal of experience on the river that there are very few boats that are licensed to carry the number of passengers involved, and that it would, therefore, be extremely difficult to bring in a boat at short notice to take over this service.

I ask British Rail to look again at this matter and to try to give us some assurance that an effective service can be provided with one boat, and that proper procedures are laid down for bringing in a reserve boat. I ask British Rail to look again at the proposal put forward for staffing, which reduces the staffing level to a dangerous point, and to agree to undertake consultations not only with the staff involved but with the local authorities involved, and, if possible, with the trade unions involved, whose members are concerned with their travel-to-work problems.

I ask British Rail to go into all facets of this problem before it goes ahead with the type of proposal that was put to the staff last week. As a demonstration of British Rail's good faith in this matter, I hope that this document will be withdrawn immediately. It creates little cause for optimism about British Rail's future intentions, should it get the Bill carried into law, when we see British Rail immediately publishing proposals to reduce the ferry service to a dangerously low level even before the Bill has received its Second Reading. Those of us who say that we are worried that British Rail will use the Bill to whittle away the service to an intolerably low level have some justification for such statements because they are based upon the action of British Rail within the last week.

I ask British Rail to reconsider all aspects of this problem and to give the assurance for which I have asked. If British Rail cannot agree with the petitioners and give a satisfactory assurance in Committee, my hon. Friends and I must reserve our right to oppose the Bill at its further stages in the House.

7.58 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

It may surprise hon. Members, but the Bill refers to a lot of matters other than ferries. I do not blame my hon. Friends for taking up a matter of obviously great importance in their area. In the past I have fought ferry battles in my part of the world, and I sympathise with my hon. Friends. However, I am concerned with a relatively brief issue concerning Clause 6, which relates to the question of building new track in the North-East—not on the Thames but in the North-East—very near to my home and my constituency.

The importance of the provision in Clause 6, as the explanatory statement makes clear, is that it is related to the exciting new development in transport of our rapid transit scheme on Tyneside, and is required to enable British Rail to possess separate rail facilities in a stretch of this new rapid transit scheme where otherwise there might be some danger of blockage of traffic or some difficulties about traffic flow, for British Rail or the new transit scheme. I should like to know whether a considerable financial contribution is being made to this proposed section of line by the Tyne Wear Passenger Transport Executive which is responsible for the main development of the new rapid transit scheme—a contribution which I believe runs into some millions of pounds.

I should like to know also whether we can assume from the Bill that British Rail is fully determined to come to an agreement and an understanding with the Executive in order to ensure the efficient and effective operation of a scheme which is costing the public large sums of money. Many of us in the North-East are concerned because some of the statements by British Rail seem to suggest that it is unwilling to allow this new and exciting development in transport to operate unless it has complete control of it, and that would be a tragic situation. I should like confirmation or otherwise on this point because we all understood that an earlier agreement of a very different character had been reached. I want an assurance before we part with this Bill that British Rail will not attempt to put a block upon this exciting new development in the North-East.

Presumably, we can assume from the Bill that it will not do anything of the sort. It would be absurd to provide in the Bill for the laying down of new line unless it was intended to ensure that the new rapid transport scheme was likely to go forward. It would be only right and proper that the House at some stage should have a full assurance on this matter before the authority is granted.

8.3 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Envionment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I intervene at this time since it may be helpful to the House to know the Government's attitude to the proposals in the Bill. Our view on this occasion is quite simple. We have no objections to the powers being sought by the British Railways Board and we recognise that most of the provisions will be of assistance to the Board in the improvement and effective operation of its undertaking.

It may also assist the House if I comment briefly on the Instructions that seek to amend the Bill. The first, which has been put down by the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be commenting upon it.

The second Instruction concerns Clause 19, which is designed to extinguish the present obligation upon the British Railways Board to operate a ferry between Tilbury and Gravesend. This is, of course, one of the British Rail's shipping services. The general principle, set out in the 1962 Transport Act and continued in the 1968 Act, is that shipping services should be run by the British Railways Board where it thinks that they will contribute to its overall financial objective—to break even, taking one year with another. The general principle is, therefore, that the Board should be free to start new services on routes for which powers exist or to close existing services as it judges most sensible from its point of view.

This does not mean, however, that there is no provision for the public interest to be taken into account. Whenever the Board proposes to close a shipping service, it gives notice to the public and arranges for the local transport users' consultative committee to consider any objections received. If the TUCC and, in England, the Central Transport Consultative Committee recommend that the service be maintained, it is open to my right hon. Friend to direct the Board to continue the service even though the Board thinks it would be commercially better advised to close it. Obviously, if this were to happen, it would be necessary for the Government to consider such questions as to how the service might be financed.

To this general scheme, the Tilbury-Gravesend Ferry is an exception. I do not need to go into the history of the case. It is sufficient to say that in the course of the last century or more the railways have acquired a common law obligation to provide a ferry. I understand that the duties can be quite onerous.

The Bill therefore makes the changes necessary in order to put this shipping service on the same footing as practically all other British Rail shipping services. As the Bill stands at the moment, this would mean that the usual procedure, involving a reference to the transport users' consultative committee, would be followed. I understand that the R ad-ways Board proposes spelling out these safeguards in greater detail in amendments. These would also make it necessary for my right hon. Friend to give a specific consent before the Railways Board could withdraw the ferry service. The Bill, therefore, would not deprive the users of this service of any of the rights enjoyed by users of similar British Rail services such as the ferry between Hull and New Holland on the Humber or between Portsmouth and Ryde on the Solent.

Mr. Ovenden

Although it docs not deprive the users of this service of any other rights enjoyed by the users of other ferries, will my hon. Friend make it quite clear that it does not bestow upon them the same rights bestowed by legislation upon users of the railway services? Why should there be a different approach on the two issues?

Mr. Marks

There is a difference between railways and other railway services, but there is an opportunity for subsidy by the county councils concerned and it is largely because of the withdrawal of this subsidy that this matter has arisen.

The number of people using this ferry has dropped very substantially since the opening of the Dartford Tunnel. In 1962, before the tunnel was opened, 3,387,000 journeys were made on the ferry. Last year the number of journeys was 740,000, which was about 1,000 people a day. I understand that the boats make about 50 trips a day and the capacity of the boats is round about 475.

The common law obligation has continued unchanged, which means that the pattern of operation is perhaps no longer that best suited to current demand. In the same way it may be that there are better ways of satisfying this demand than by the present type of ferry operation. I do not know. But I am certain that it would be sensible for there to be an examination of these questions. While this common law obligation persists, however, there would be no point in spending time and money in carrying out such an examination.

The Government therefore agree that it would be sensible for the Board to be relieved of its common law obligation so that it can complete its present review of the ferry operation and make such changes as it thinks sensible—subject always to the right of the transport users' consultative committee to consider the questions, and to the requirement which would be introduced by the amendment that no closure could take place without the Secretary of State's consent.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) mentioned the issue of the Tyne and Wear. I would prefer not to go into great detail on this matter, but I hope that British Rail, and Tyne and Wear PTE and all those concerned with the future operation of that railway will take careful note of what my hon. Friend said.

I therefore hope that the Houes will give this Bill a Second Reading and thus allow the Select Committee to examine the proposals with the benefit of expert evidence. I am sure that what my hon. Friends have said will be noted when that takes place.

8.14 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham

As a number of my hon. Friends and others have asked me to respond at the end of the debate, may I briefly say that they will understand the difficulty which exists when an hon. Member is presenting a Private Bill to the House in responding to requests for specific assurances, particularly if they are new points? I must therefore tell my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) that I cannot respond to him on the question of the Tyne and Wear system. I feel sure, however, that the kind of assurances he seeks could be pursued in correspondence after the Second Reading has been disposed of.

On the same ground it is difficult for me to respond exactly to the requests for assurances by some of my hon. Friends about the ferry. The difficulty is that British Rail is not directly represented in this House, but, by wisdom of Parliament, it will be directly represented in the Committee to which the Bill will be referred if it is given a Second Reading. That gives the opportunity for local authorities directly to make their case as petitioners and for British Rail directly to reply.

The common law obligation according to advice given to British Rail is extremely onerous. The obligation almost certainly, among other things, includes an obligation to ferry those who wish to be ferried and are to pay the toll at any reasonable time. The Bill covers times which would not have been appropriate when the tunnel was not there. I hope that the points that I have made will be examined and I feel sure that the warnings sounded about what might happen when the Bill comes back from the Private Bill Committee have been well noted in the appropriate quarter.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.

8.13 p.m.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I beg to move, That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill to leave out Clause 18. I table this Instruction for three reasons—first, to draw the attention of the House to the existing powers of what is in effect a private police force; secondly, to raise the question whether this power to stop and search should be in the hands of what is in effect a private police force; and, thirdly, to take exception to a far-reaching and important proposal which, because of the obscurity of the drafting of the Bill, might have gone unnoticed.

The debating of the matter satisfies my first grievance. On my second reason, I am far from happy that such a power to stop and search should be vested in such a police force, because it is a power which is not generally enjoyed in this country and is wider than that which is generally given to the State police forces. I was impressed to some extent by the figures given by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Fins-bury (Mr. Cunningham) and I shall leave aside in this debate too declamatory or powerful a condemnation of that power. For the moment I shall reserve my position. I would prefer at this stage to concentrate my fire on that part of Clause 18 which would endorse Section 54(2) of the parent Act. It is that which gives to a prosecution by the British Transport Police a totally unacceptable power which eats into one of the most fundamental rules which safeguard the liberty of the subject in Britain—the still widely supported, golden rule of the right to silence. I must frankly confess that I am one of those who believes that this right has been so eaten into by the ravages of time and expediency that we could perhaps by re-designing our approach to criminal justice give it a decent burial, in due course. Meanwhile, the right to silence remains a cherished principle but the Bill reduces that right. The House should be aware that this is happening and be given an opportunity to voice its disapproval if it does not wish it to happen. That has been discussed at some length by lawyers on this side of the House who have expressed considerable concern. If that were not so, we would not have sought to delay the Bill.

Clause 18 provides for the reactivation of Section 54 of the British Transport Commission Act 1949 and extends it to 1st January 1982. Section 54(2) of the British Transport Commission Act reads, Every such person who shall be brought before any court of summary jurisdiction charged with having in his possession or conveying in any manner anything which may be reasonably suspected of being stolen or unlawfully obtained and who shall not give an account to the satisfaction of such court how he came by the same shall be guilty of an offence …".

The nub of the matter is that although our criminal law gives an accused person the right to remain silent at all times during the criminal process, this provision places the burden upon him of giving an explanation to the court how he came by the article which was in his possession. If the accused person remains silent and invokes the fundamental right which would apply in other circumstances, he will fail to give an account to the satisfaction of such court and will be guilty of an offence.

I shall now deal with some of the points which might be thought to limit the force of my objections. In promoting the Bill, the hon. Member did not allude to the argument that the Bill is limited in its effect to persons employed by the railway authority. It does not extend to railway passengers but can be used against persons employed on railway premises. My answer to that argument is that employees are citizens like everyone else, and although they may be properly fettered by the rules of civil law governing their employment, they should be able to enjoy the same freedoms as everyone else. They should not have fewer rights under the criminal law than those who are not so employed.

We are talking about reducing the rights of many thousands of citizens employed by British Rail—not just those who walk about railway stations, but also those who work in hotels and other commercial premises covered by the British Transport Police. Although that point, therefore, may to some extent limit the effect of the powers sought, in my view it does not reduce the importance of these powers in any way.

There were one or two other perhaps less persuasive justifications advanced by the hon. Member. He said that the provision is one which the Transport Police have enjoyed since 1949, and implied that it is now too late to reverse it. My answer is that it is never too late to reassert a freedom which is properly one's own and which has been taken away without the guardians of that freedom noticing or caring. I do not know what happened when this matter was originally raised in 1949, but this is no reason why we should not show concern now for something that went too easily out of the window in 1949.

If the principle is one which is widely respected and ought to be jealously guarded, it is no credit to any legislature that it let it carelessly slip through its fingers, nor is it too late for a more alert legislature—as I hope this is today—to reclaim that which was wrongly lost.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

The hon. Gentleman appears to be using the argument against the right of the British Transport Docks Board to use police for the purpose of protecting property. Is he not aware that the police employed by the British Transport Docks Board have had these powers for many years and that if it had not been for the engagement of these police, many millions of pounds worth of goods from ships unloading or loading would have been stolen? I think we ought to give credit to the British Transport Docks Board police for the good work they are doing.

Mr. Lawrence

I am grateful to the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs), who seems to have walked into a debate on the wrong Bill. However, I take the point he makes, and I support his point about the Transport Police in whichever function they are operating. I would not seek at all, in anything I say, to derogate from the excellent job done by the Transport Police, but the lion. Gentleman would have difficulty, I think, in proving that these powers have been responsible for achieving anything in particular. Merely to cite figures of the number of prosecutions and convictions is not by itself proof that those figures result from the rather exceptional powers claimed in this legislation. However, I am dealing with the point that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Fins-bury has made—that it is a power which has been in its hands since 1949, and that it is now rather too late to take it away. My answer—

Mr. George Cunningham

I would never dream of stating a case on that basis, and I did not do so.

Mr. Lawrence

If the hon. Gentleman did not do so, I am afraid I misunderstood him. He made specific mention of the fact that it had been in existence in 1949. If I am tilting at a windmill by thinking he was advancing more in his argument than he was advancing, I cease tilting.

It is a power which has already been given to the police in the Police Courts (Metropolis) Act 1839, but I think that a distinction must be drawn between the powers which result from prosecutions by State police forces and the powers entrusted to what is in effect a private police force in its prosecutions.

I also draw a further distinction between the rights of the citizen which are surrendered to expediency after full and public debate on the Floor of the House, as in the Police Courts (Metropolis) Act, and the procedure of a Private Bill which would never have been publicly debated had I and other hon. Gentlemen not raised these matters.

Although not raised by the hon. Gentleman, the point has been raised that, although similar power exists in recent legislation—for example, the Port of London Police Authority has it, and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company received it in 1975—both pieces of legislation were Private Acts. They were never publicly debated and were both passed by negative resolution. In any event, carelessness on other occasions should not be used as an entrenched precedent for perpetuating the carelessness.

It is also argued—again not by the hon. Gentleman, who I expect was trying to be brief in the interests of saving the valuable time of the House, which I also have in mind—that this power is particularly useful in overcoming the problem of identification of pilfered goods and establishing the place from which they were removed. It is said also that this power acts as a deterrent, and that the deterrent effect is of greater importance than the number of convictions obtained.

My answer is that sheer expediency is seldom a good basis for depriving an individual citizen of fundamental rights. It would always be expedient for the prosecution not to have to bother to identify goods which it claims are stolen, and it is often difficult for such an identification to be made. Yet if we were to be asked to give the prosecution everywhere the right claimed for the British Transport Police—that it does not have to identify the loss—what would our answer be? Why should the Transport Police enjoy a privilege which is not enjoyed by the State police forces generally throughout the country?

There is no need at all, under the general law of theft, always to identify the exact loss, because the handler of stolen property may still be found guilty under the general rules of our criminal law, and particularly under the rule laid down in the case of Fuschillo. The circumstances of his possession of the goods may be sufficient to prove that the goods were stolen, and it is not necessary to have other evidence of theft. That being the fact, I cannot see that the proper application of the general rules of criminal law would be any less of a deterrent to the wrongdoer than the exceptional power which the promoters seek to retain.

I hope that I have dealt reasonably with the arguments advanced by the hon. Gentleman and those which have been advanced in the run-up to the debate by the promoters. Perhaps I might very shortly just state the ground of my objection. The object of the clause is to make it easier for prosecutions brought by the British Transport Police to succeed. Because of that, the rights of the individual are diminished. It therefore makes it a little more likely that a person who is innocent of the offence of unlawful possession might be convicted. Magistrates' court justice—although it is usually in this country of a very high quality—is comparatively peremptory justice. The offenders are arrested during the night, or even in the early morning, and may be brought almost immediately before the court. The shock, the lack of legal advice, as sometimes happens, or perhaps the need for an interpreter, if a foreigner is involved, and any number of other factors may make it difficult for the accused to be fairly judged on his failure to give an explanation—a failure which, apart from this measure, would be his right. Because this provision is a substantial variation from a time-honoured principle which this House has always upheld—invariably, as far as I can follow, in public debate in regard to State police forces—I object to it.

I do not blame British Rail for trying to obtain this measure. It is obviously easier and simpler for it to have it. I have great respect for the Transport Police, having been with them on both sides in a number of cases in which I have had the honour to appear. But I do not see why they should have a wider power than most other State police forces have.

We have always been jealous to guard the rights of the individual against the State's police forces. How much greater must be our jealousy lest the rights given to private police forces be excessive! We would not dream of giving this power to prosecutions brought by a supermarket, Bovis, ICI or Lyons, all of which employ people who might perhaps be said in certain circumstances, when loss has been identified, to be suspected of pilfering. Why, then, should we give this power to the Transport Police?

Surely the Airport Police would have liked such powers, but they did not seek them in the Policing of Airports Act 1974, which we recently debated. Doubtless there are a number of other examples where the power would have been most useful but was not even sought, let alone granted.

The House must be all the more careful when such a power is sought not by the process of public debate on a Public Bill but by the Private Bill procedure, lest in that way what remains of our freedoms disappears behind our very backs in the name of expediency.

A further point that needs to be mentioned is the way in which this important power is included in the Bill. It is not immediately obvious when one reads Clause 18 that it deprives a person who is charged under the provisions included therein of the right to silence. It is a matter of some good sense that legislation of this kind should be set out very much as the similar power of stop and search was set out in the Policing of Airports Act—fully, on the face of it, without legislation by reference, which in any circumstances must be deplored but particularly in Private Bills which do not normally receive the attention that Public Bills . receive here. I am not against the fullest reasonable powers being given to the police in their fight against crime, but I am not in favour of powers which are wider than the general powers accorded to the State's police forces.

In short, my objections are, first, that the Bill contains powers so important that they should be contained in public legislation, if at all; secondly, that this should not be a power which is vested in private police forces in any event; and, thirdly, that this should not be a power which is not clearly set out on the face of the legislation.

Now is the time to expunge the clause. If the matter is left to Committee, anything might happen. I should welcome any assurance the hon. Gentleman might care to give that the clause will be dropped, at any rate in so far as it relates to Section 54(2) of the British Transport Commission Act 1949. If I receive that assurance, or something like it, I am sure that my hon. Friends will not seek to divide the House on the matter.

8.33 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) will reply to the debate. Therefore, it may be for the convenience of the House if I indicate the Government's position now and, I hope, limit the amount of controversy that the discussion may create.

The hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has limited his criticism of the section in the main Act, the 1949 Act, to the second subsection. I think that he was wise to do so, although at the end he widened his attack to cover the general powers of the British Transport Police and whether they should have such powers under private legislation.

I think that anyone who considers the matter will agree that public corporations, because they have on their premises a considerable number of the public at any given time, are in rather a different situation from, say, Joe Lyon or ICI, which have mainly to supervise their own workpeople. It is that which gives any justification that there is for the provision of a separate police force for the British Transport Commission or any of the other public authorities.

That has been recognised by the House, and the powers have been voted, on many occasions. It would be wrong at this stage to reconsider that position. When we discussed the Policing of Airports Bill it was reconsidered in relation to one aspect of a public corporation, and in due course it may be necessary to reconsider it for the British Transport Police.

But that position has not arrived and therefore we have a police force which ought to have sufficient power to continue its operations properly. I suggest that that power must include the right to stop and search and, if need be, to arrest without warrant people who are acting in a way which leads to a reasonable suspicion that they have committed an arrestable offence as defined in the general law.

That power is no wider than the power conferred on an ordinary constable in a normal police force and I suggest that Section 54(1) is not an onerous extension of the power of the ordinary constable. But Section 54(2) is a rather surprising piece of legislation. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Burton, and if it was the hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) who first noted this provision, we all owe him a debt. When I came to look at it I could not understand how it ever got into the 1947 Act.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Fins-bury, whose interest in British Rail affairs I find a little curious but none the less revealing and who, as I know from his other activities, would be categorically against any such provision, will share my distaste for a provision which puts the burden on a defendant to show that he is not guilty of committing a serious criminal offence. I hope that on reflection British Rail will recognise that it is not necessary to have this power.

The very figures that the hon. Gentleman quoted indicated that. He quoted an all-over figure of about 300 people having been stopped and searched and about 260 having been charged with an offence against the existing substantive law of theft, and only seven having been convicted of this offence under Section 54(2). If it is needed for only seven offenders over the period that it has been in operation, I do not see that there is any real reason for it to continue. I am quite certain that the allegations could have been laid under the Theft Act, even in those seven cases. If the justification for those seven cases was that the evidence was not sufficiently strong to allege a charge of theft, that increases my disquiet about the existence of this section, because that suggests that it is used only on occasions when under the ordinary common law it would be quite inappropriate to charge anybody.

I suggest, therefore, that the hon. Member for Burton should withdraw his Instruction, because it would deprive British Rail of the power under Section 54(1), and when the Bill goes to Committee the Committee should note the strong criticism he has voiced about Section 54(2) and remove that subsection from the major Act, and perhaps reconsider whether in those circumstances it is necessary to have a time limit upon Section 54(1). I suspect that the time limit has been included in the past because of the wide nature of the power under Section 54(2) but, given that Section 54(1) is a fairly reasonable power, there does not seem to be any reason why there should be any limitation of five years for reconsideration by this House. If that is the only reason that British Rail had to come back to this House, it would clearly be a ridiculous situation for it to propose an entire Bill just for the purpose of extending this power, which everybody will agree British Rail requires.

The Committee could look at Section 54 again and limit it to what is reasonable and then remove any time limit upon the power. I hope that in those circumstances it might be possible to reach all-round agreement. I hope that my original intervention, which seemed to irk my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury into making castigatory remarks about the Home Office, does not cause him to look askance at my suggestion.

If we were a little delayed in reaching our destination it may have been because we were travelling by British Rail, but I assure him that we have given great consideration to the point and I have in my possession but one letter which British Rail has written to us on this matter. It received a reply to that letter saying that we were to take the action I have indicated—namely, not to oppose Section 54 (1) but probably to oppose Section 54 (2). If the hon. Member for Burton takes advice from the sponsors, I believe that he will find that I am not wrong, but if he wishes to intervene I will let him do so before my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Fins-bury.

Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his proposition should be carried one stage further? If Section 54(1) were to be retained and subsection (2) abandoned—a proposition with which we entirely agree—would not the better course be for Clause 18 to be replaced by a short clause explaining the position? Everybody would then see what the situation was. We should not be faced with the difficulty of having to get out several Acts to see what the clause means.

Mr. Lyon

It is probably better to leave that to the Committee. It is for the Committee to decide how to deal with the situation. Off the cuff, I do not dissent from what the hon. and learned Gentleman said. The 1949 Act is the major Act. To replace that in an amending measure would make the major Act look defective. It might be better to remove Clause 18 and to put in a new clause which, in effect, amends Section 54 of the major Act. That would make clear what was intended.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury wishes to intervene at this moment.

Mr. George Cunningham

My hon. Friend is asking for an undertaking from the sponsors of the Bill. Is he in a position to undertake on behalf of the Government that legislation containing provisions similar to, though not verbally identical with, Section 54(2) of the British Transport Commission Act, which place on the defendant an obligation to give an explanation, will be removed from the statute book in the same time scale?

Mr. Lyon

My hon. Friend has some degree of ire about this point. I cannot understand why. All we need to do is to ask the Committee to look at this point in Section 54 and to make the amendment therein. It is then done in this legislation. I do not understand why the Government should have to introduce legislation in their overcrowed timetable to remove this difficulty.

Mr. George Cunningham

I apologise to my hon. Friend for interrupting again. I have not made myself clear. Section 54(2) of the 1949 Act could be disposed of in Committee. However, if there is other public legislation similar in nature—and there is—will the Government give me the kind of assurance which they are asking the sponsors of the Bill to give tonight? Will they for their part in the same time scale remove similar provisions for which they have responsibility?

Mr. Lyon

That is a different point. If my hon. Friend is asking me to review the whole of the statute book, I should tell him that if this point arises in any other legislation for which I have any responsibility, steps will be taken to amend that legislation as soon as is reasonably practicable and as soon as the Lord President will allow me time to do so. After all, I am from the Department which my hon. Friend has been criticising.

However, I understand that there is no such provision anywhere else in the statute book. I say that with trepidation, because I know that if my hon. Friend says that there is, there must be somewhere. I should think that he probably found it in Scottish law somewhere. If it exists, it ought not to exist. In so far as I am able to commit the Government—of which I may not be a member for much longer—if it lies within my power, I shall see that we get rid of that kind of provision.

I do not know of any other provision like this. It came as a shock when I found it. I gather that there may be such a provision in another piece of private legislation which will be coming up for discussion later in the week. I hope that it may be enough to circumvent discussion on that if I say that the Government will take the same view about this and that the Committee which considers that legislation might also consider this point. If I find the principle I have stated anywhere in public legislation, I am happy to give my hon. Friend the undertaking that we shall review it at the earliest possible moment.

8.46 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Cold-field)

Whether the hon. Gentleman is a member of the Government after the next few days or not, one thing is certain—that after his remarks about travel on British Rail he will not be moved to the Ministry of Transport. There are basically three points on this Instruction—the power itself of stop and search; the second power in Section 54(2) of the 1949 Act, and the constitutional arrangement for a private public authority police force, the British Transport Police.

Regarding the "stop and search" powers, as the solicitors representing British Rail have made clear, the police have these powers to search employees or those employed on British Transport premises but not railway passengers. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has made it clear that this is an important question. We do not give such powers lightly to any kind of body. Why are they necessary? This was the question posed by the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs). The starting point, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, is to consider the losses for the organisations covered by the British Transport Police.

The position here is very serious. The latest figures show that in the last 12 months British Railways lost £1.5 million in property stolen or obtained through fraud. The British Transport Docks Board lost £400,000 and the London Transport lost £260,000. For the first time in the history of these organisations the value of property lost exceeded the £2 million mark.

What are the biggest losses? Burglary losses amounted to £150,000; theft from the person, £180,000; theft from pockets, £200,000; theft of packages, £300,000; and theft of stores and equipment, £470,000. The cost of crime for British Rail and, indeed, for other organisations, is now at a record level. That must cause this House grave concern.

What is the position as far as the employees are concerned? Let us be absolutely clear. When we hear that firms are making losses through pilferage, the assumption is that this is done by outsiders, by shoplifters, and that is often true. But it is often ignored, and it must be recognised, that substantial losses also take place because of staff thefts or when staff co-operate with those outside the organisation. This is a fact of life. It happens in private industry and it happens in public industry. There is no distinction between the two.

This is one of the things which have happened, and it has substantially contributed to the losses I am talking about. I am informed that last year 1.700 employees of British Rail, the British Transport Docks Board and London Transport were prosecuted for criminal activities. The number of prosecutions of staff for theft and similar activities was 1,458.

Let us keep those prosecutions in proportion. In British Rail and its subsidiary companies there were 1,281 prosecutions in a labour force of 255,000; in London Transport there were 122 out of a labour force of 153,000; and in the British Transport Docks Board there were 26 prosecutions out of a labour force of 12,000. So dishonesty is not widespread through these organisations. A minority of employees commit crime, exactly on a par with similar organisations.

That being so, I should be reluctant to see the "stop and search" powers abandoned. It would not make sense when all the organisations concerned are facing record crime losses. Clearly, the powers have a deterrent effect and it is in the interests of the customer that he should be protected from losses as much as possible. So although I understand the concern, I believe that on balance the power should remain.

What is much more open to question is the additional power which goes beyond "stop and search ". The Bill hardly refers to this. Clause 18 is hardly a clear guide. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) is to be congratulated on having drawn this clause to our attention. Hon. Members on both sides have complained before about unclear legislation, but legislation like this, with grave implications for the freedom of the individual, should be clearly set out. We should not be left with no other alternative but to wade through reams of paper back to the 1949 Act to understand what is proposed.

The proposal basically is that someone who is stopped and who will not give an account to the satisfaction of the court of how he came to possess certain property should be guilty of an offence. That is a wide power which seems to place the responsibility on the person stopped to establish his innocence rather than upon the police to prove his guilt. I think that we would all be worried by that kind of power. I hope, first, that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) will say clearly whether the British Transport Police actually want that power, and, secondly, if they do, that he will place the arguments firmly before us.

That brings me to my third point, the question of control. As the hon. Member said, the British Transport Police, which is just over 2,000 strong, is one of the strongest police forces in the country. It costs £11 million a year to run. It is not a private police force but a public authority police force. The cost is borne by the British Railways Board with contributions from the London Transport Executive and the British Transport Docks Board. The police authority is the British Transport Police Committee and the responsible Department is not the Home Office but the Department of the Environment.

I have absolutely no criticism of the British Transport Police. My hon. Friend the member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) will be speaking about their rôle later. But when we consider the powers that they will have, we should also consider whether the proper authority for this police force is the Department of the Environment. It is rather strange to see the Minister of State, Home Office answering questions on police powers while the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment is left to deal with the ferry from Tilbury.

I make absolutely no criticism of the Department of the Environment or the Under-Secretary, but would it not be better for the Home Office to have ultimate authority in this regard? In other words, while preserving the Transport Police intact, would it not be better if the police authority were the Home Office, which is of course the body with most practical experience of the police service?

I put this point for a number of reasons. First, although the Transport police force runs well, it may be that new conditions require fresh consideration. The terrorist threat, for example, is evident not only for airports, as we know, but in terms of public transport. That is a point which my hon. Friend the Member for Burton made. We have debated this connection previously on the policing of airports. I would simply put it tentatively to the Minister of State, Home Office that there might be a case for changing the status of the police here, as there was for changing the status of the police in the airport situation.

Mr. Lawrence

In my hon. Friend's view, does the Department of the Environment have any more control over the operation of the Transport Police within British Rail than the power to sack the Chairman of British Rail?

Mr. Fowler

That is probably a question that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury would prefer to answer, and to answer authoritatively, but I will seek to give my hon. Friend guidance. As I understand the situation, the police authority is made up from within the British transport organisations, including certain police members. Therefore, it operates in very much the same way as a police authority would operate in regard to any other local force, the difference being that the criteria and the ultimate authority rest with the Department of the Environment and not with the Home Office.

I am suggesting—a point with which I thought my hon. Friend was in agreement—that the Home Office, rather than the Department of the Environment, should take over the authority here. The change would mean that the British Transport Police would be subject, for example, to regular inspections by the Home Office inspectorate. It would mean that regular police from other forces could be seconded for periods of service to the British Transport Police and that the policemen themselves would serve under the Home Office conditions laid down for police throughout the country.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the British Transport Police have voluntarily accepted the disciplinary code imposed upon the civil police under the Police Act?

Mr. Fowler

I am aware of that and also of the fact that in a number of cases in the past 12 months they have had inspections by the Police Inspectorate.

That brings me to my second point. It seems to me that the requirements and indeed the custom of the British Transport Police would make a transition of the kind I am putting forward not very difficult to put into effect. The requirements of the regular police and of the British Transport Police, such as height, education and age, are very similar, so I see no great difficulty there.

Thirdly, a change of this kind might mean rather more public accountability for the British Transport Police. It could be open to rather more public scrutiny than at present. I understand the Transport Police do not publish an annual report, which has been a requirement of normal police forces for many years. That kind of accountability and responsibility to the public is a very good thing.

I put forward the idea tentatively. I have no criticism of the Transport Police. Everything I have heard about them leads mc to the conclusion that it is a fine force which should be preserved. However, I wonder whether such a system, with the Home Office as the police authority rather than the Department of the Environment, might be an improvement for both the police and the public.

9.1 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I am very glad to follow the hon. Mem- ber for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and to express pleasure in the fact that, although he is rather confused about the present situation, he has come round to the view that I have held for some time about the lack of public accountability in the Transport Police.

The hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) had it almost exactly right, though he may have understated the situation slightly. The principal power exercised by the Secretary of State for the Environment in respect of the British Transport Police is that of sacking the Chairman of British Rail. It is from the general responsibilities arising from this specific power that any responsibility for the police arises. For that reason, neither he nor the Home Secretary answers Questions about the force in the House. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield seeks to give the Home Office powers which the Department of Environment does not exercise but the case for which must be considered.

It is this constitutional position of the British Transport Police that I wish to consider. I do not want to add to the arguments on the "stop and search" powers or the proof and presumption of innocence which have been advanced so well by other hon. Members, not least the Minister of State. I share those views and I hope they have been noted by the promoters of the Bill. There is a very good case for a Public Bill to cover the provision of forces such as this and their powers, for example, to stop and search.

The case for public accountability and the establishment in general legislation of the discipline and command structure of such police forces does not rest, as the Minister of State seemed to rest, purely on emergencies, such as that which arose in the case of the Airport Police. The Government rightly felt that special action should be taken to deal with the problem of airport policing, in the light of the terrorist threat. The action chosen was not simply to increase the powers of the Department in relation to the forces, but to make them part of the existing police forces—the Metropolitan Police in the case of the London airports and other local authority forces elsewhere. I supported that Act and agree with its principle.

It is not simply a question of the special need which could arise and which would require special provision in relation to such forces, nor is it necessarily the case that these forces should be part of the Metropolitan Police or put into that force's relationship with the Home Office. A case can be made for a rather lower level of public accountability without changing the fundamentally separate existence of the Transport Police.

But Government legislation would be necessary. The Home Office has shied away from the issue for too long and left the future of employers' police forces—they prefer to be known by that name rather than private police forces—to be settled in private legislation without taking any initiative.

In many cases, the situation is unclear and worrying. It is not clear why a member of the Metropolitan Police could not prosecute a member of the Transport Police for impersonating a police officer. The Home Office has rules and regulations determining who is entitled to wear a uniform which is almost identical to that of a police officer. Employers' forces are able to wear these uniforms by long-standing convention but it is not clear by what legal provision. The Home Office often exercises no prerogative over who should be allowed to wear uniforms. There is a whole area of police activity not subject to the kind of constraints which many of us would like to see.

The Government had their chance to deal with employers' police forces run by public corporations when they introduced recently the Atomic Energy Authority (Special Constables) Bill. They could have made that Bill the vehicle for procedures to deal with a whole range of police forces. It was not confined to the arming of the Atomic Energy Authority police, but covered the command and discipline of the force. I am pleased that the Minister of State is present today, because no Home Office Minister was here when we discussed the Atomic Energy Authority (Special Constables) Bill. Many issues about the relationship of an employers' police force and the civil police were raised, but no Home Office Minister was here to reply.

There is a case for separate police forces run by public corporations. That case rests on the need of those corporations to put greater resources into policing than would be possible if the work were done by the regular police. That is not the only way of doing it. It can be done by contractual arrangements with public police forces.

I can see the case for the higher degree of specialised police attention which can be given by a force whose specific purpose is to protect public installations and property, property which is put into the charge of that body when it is being transported, and members of the public who use the premises. But we must ensure that any such force, behaving just as a police force in many ways, and seen by the public as a police force, is subject to constraints, discipline and accountability comparable to those imposed on public police forces.

That is usually the wish of the members of the forces, and I know that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle), who is hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will speak on behalf of the British Transport police. Not only do members of such forces wish to be treated in the same way as members of the public police forces, but they want to be subject to the same constraints and disciplines and not to be thought of as second-class police. Not all police authorities take the view but the British Transport Police Committee does.

One aspect in which these forces should be made directly comparable to public police forces is in respect of complaints by the public. I tabled an Instruction on that subject which I was happy to withdraw on the basis of a clear undertaking from the promoters of the Bill. The possibility of complaints by the public—in which I include employees of British Rail—is just as great, particularly in relation to the "stop and search" powers, as it is in relation to the regular police forces.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a train in Liverpool Street Station waiting to go to Cambridge. The train did not go to Cambridge on that day or the next day, because an industrial dispute arose over the activity of the British Transport Police in relation to the searching of a British Rail employee in Liverpool Street Station. The dispute became a major dispute and it disrupted the services for two days. Problems arise, and it is in the interests of the employees, and members of the public, other than employees, who come into contact with these police forces that they should have similar opportunities to register complaints and to have them dealt with as they would have with complaints against the public police forces.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Does not the hon. Gentleman see a slight difficulty, if these police forces are taken into the control of the Home Office and equated with the civilian police, in dealing with that kind of problem? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will reflect upon that when he comes to his general principle, because it is one of the major difficulties.

Mr. Beith

That is why I have argued that there is scope for a separate police force with specialised responsibilities. But every police force finds itself in situations which give rise to particular difficulties, not least industrial disputes. The regular police forces have to face these problems. They are engaged in police activities in installations as diverse as the House of Commons and the Lords cricket ground. In all places they come across special difficulties. That does not preclude the Home Office from having a high degree of accountability for the activities of the Metropolitan Police, and a range of responsibilities for provincial police forces that are wider than any that the Department of the Environment has for the British Transport Police.

The British Transport Police have said quite clearly through the promoters of the Bill that their policy is to apply by analogy the complaints procedure applicable to the civil forces. They propose to adopt the procedure that is to be implemented when the Police Bill is enacted. The promoters are informed that the Police Committee has argreed, and that the Department of the Environment and the Home Office have been informed, that the force will participate in the proposed scheme under the enabling powers in Clause 6. Whether he likes it or not, the Minister of State will find himself exercising some responsibilities in this regard.

Mr. Lawrence

If he is still on the Front Bench.

Mr. Beith

Indeed. The hon. Gentleman may well find at a later stage in the Police Bill's passage that the House will seek to strengthen its powers by making them mandatory. However, in the case of the British Transport Police that course will not be necessary. The reliance that can be placed on their assurance led me to withdraw my Instruction. I was assured that they will follow the same complaints procedure as the civilian forces will adopt when the Police Bill becomes law.

There are other areas in which it is right that the British Transport Police and other public police forces should be the subject of procedures that are seen by the House to be close to, if not identical to, those to which our public police forces are subject.

It makes no sense to the public, or to members of police forces, that the categories should be different. It makes no sense to give comparable powers if the disciplines and constraints are to be different. I look to the Minister of State to take a much more welcoming approach to those who employ police forces, such as the British Transport Police, who seem of their own volition to want to embrace the attitude that I have just described. They are prepared to take a stricter and firmer line with those forces which are content to enjoy the quiet isolation which is provided by private legislation, and are content to be free of constraints which most of their members would be prepared to accept and which every regular policeman recognises are part of his job.

That is the basis on which the Government should deal with matters of this sort by public legislation. I do not feel that it is right to visit the failings of the Government on the British Railways Board. For that reason I do not wish to oppose its attempt to continue provision for the British Transport Police under private legislation, although I do not believe that it should have to adopt such a course.

9.17 p.m.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

Although it is hardly necessary for me to declare my interest, I am the parliamentary consultant to the British Transport Police Federation.

I am pleased to see sitting on the Government Front Bench the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks), and the Minister of State, Home Office, if the debate has done nothing else, it has flushed out the Minister of State from the inner caverns of the Home Office, forcing him against his own wishes, I suspect, to enter the Chamber.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Hear, hear.

Mr. McCrindle

Before I have finished the hon. Gentleman will really be saying "Hear, hear". He has had to listen to our submissions about a police force that is of extreme importance, and especially at present.

I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). I welcome the fact that he has felt moved to bring to the attention of the House a matter of considerable importance. Although I shall be taking a rather different line, I understand the arguments that he adduced. As a parliamentarian, as a citizen, and as someone who has great affection for and attachment to the British Transport Police, I well understand my hon. Friend's arguments.

I tend to part company with my hon. Friend the Member for Burton when he mentions private police forces. Certainly a private police force, as I interpret it, is very different from the British Transport Police. If private police forces were to have powers such as those we are discussing this evening, powers which we are suggesting are too extreme even for the British Transport Police, I believe that the House would have a great deal to concern itself about.

I thought that to some extent my hon. Friend the Member for Burton, as is not surprising, took a fairly legalistic attitude to this question. With respect to my hon. Friend, I hope that my comments will be on a much more practical level, since I seek to represent those who have the day-to-day task of policing our transport services.

In regard to a matter that is slightly outside Clause 18, may I ask which Department of State will have the responsibility for the British Transport Police? Will it be the Department of the Environment, for no better reason than that British Rail is the responsibility of that Department, or the Home Office, for the good reason that we are here discussing a police force?

I hope that the Minister of State did not say what I swear I heard him say from a sedentary position—namely, that the British Transport Police were second-class policemen. I think that he indicated that as an aside to his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment during the remarks of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I hope that the Minister will recognise that considerable responsibility rests upon him to eliminate any such impression that might go out from this House. Indeed, if he wishes to alter that statement, I am prepared to give way to allow him to do so. As he does not intend to do so, perhaps I can go on to say that he cannot brush aside the whole question of the responsibility of his Department for police forces of many and varied types. Although I do not wish to suggest that willy-nilly we can opt for control by the Home Office over the British Transport Police, it is undoubtedly a matter to which this House must turn its attention.

In past years in such matters as the voluntary acceptance of a disciplinary code there was a demand that legislation affecting the police should be extended to the British Transport Police. Indeed, the Transport Police recognise their great responsibility as a police force. In those circumstances we would be pursuing an entirely wrong line of approach if we were to dismiss the idea of some sort of attachment to the Home Office—given the fact that there is specialisation among the British Transport Police and the fact that at some time the Home Office might be required to take responsibility for that force. It is certainly true that the British Transport Police are anxious to be seen as thoroughly responsible people. However, they wish to ask for no special consideration—certainly for no more consideration than is extended to other policemen.

Clause 18 will provide a good deal of difficulty if the course suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton is pursued. British Transport Police feel that if their powers are taken away, they will be naked in the fight against the rising tide of crime. They also feel that if their powers are removed, it could be seen as a victory for the criminal.

The power that we are discussing was introduced at the end of the war. It is no new thing. The power has simply been re-enacted on a number of occasions since the war. It was introduced then because it was thought necessary to deal with an upsurge of crime. That upsurge of crime was assumed to flow from the conditions of a war. It was hoped that it would recede. It was hoped, in other words, that it would be a temporary measure.

The trouble with temporary measures is that it is often not wise to withdraw them. I can only say that now, least of all, is it wise, without very careful thought, for the House to withdraw the powers that have been extended to the British Transport Police over this period.

The pattern of crime on the railways reflects the standards of society in general. I am sorry to say that in 1976 there is no indication that the crime to which the country is subjected is on the wane. The reason for the opposition to these powers is partly the belief that public general legislation is more appropriate for their enactment. I do not quarrel with that. There is a strong argument for saying that a public Bill would be a more appropriate vehicle. Whether in retrospect the Police Bill, albeit dealing with another and quite specific matter, may well be seen as the public legislative vehicle for having introduced this position I shall leave for the consideration of the sponsor of the Bill. However, the fact is that although the British Transport Police would go along with that reasoning, we do not believe that to await that Bill, possibly with an interregnum with powers withdrawn, would be at all in the interests of the public or the British Transport Police.

Detection of theft from railway premises is an acutely difficult exercise. It is difficult partly because of the nature of the premises—a wide rambling area with easy access—and partly because not only is there freedom of access, but the methods of exit are numerous at the larger termini.

It has long been recognised by Parliament—and it is here suggested that the power should be re-enacted this evening—that in the light of these rather special circumstances these powers of the British Transport Police were justified. The powers of search, which are at the heart of what we are considering, have led to convictions for theft of 267 persons in 1975 out of 311 detained. If the powers had been taken away, few of those would have been detected. I am bound to ask whether this is the appropriate time to run the risk, no matter how marginal it may be, of seeming to give the criminal a bonus. The value of property stolen from British Rail premises has already been given at over £2 million a year for the last two years. To use an Americanism, that is not chicken feed.

My hon. Friend's other objection is that the onus of proof is placed on a defendant and not upon the prosecution. The fact is, however, that the Theft Act 1968 puts the onus of proof on the prosecution, and British Transport Police, having searched and arrested, nearly always prosecute under the Theft Act. Therefore, in this fairly narrow section of our discussions perhaps my hon. Friend will conclude that we are to some extent taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

British Transport Police are waging a battle against crime, and I believe that to withdraw the powers that have long been in their possession would have an effect on their morale at the very time that they are engaged in a fight against bombers, vandals, muggers and football hooligans.

Mr. Percival

Section 54(1) gives powers; Section 54(2) does not. Section 54 creates a special offence in respect of which a burden is cast upon the person accused of proving his innocence. Getting rid of subsection (2), therefore, would not deprive the police of any powers. Does my hon. Friend therefore object to subsection (2) going?

Mr. McCrindle

I was about to separate my attitudes to subsection (1) and (2). A great deal of what I was saying related to withdrawing powers under subsection (1). To that extent I think that my hon. Friends go along with me. Subsection (2) presents a much more difficult case to justify. I have no more wish than any other hon. Member to take away any of the freedoms or liberties which our subjects enjoy. However, if the powers in subsection (2) are to be withdrawn, rightly or wrongly the British Transport Police will feel, having to view the matter from a practical point of view rather than from the slightly elevated approaches of principle, that they will be denuded of powers that in the past have proved necessary.

I am not suggesting that that is the beginning and the end of the story. I am simply saying that the powers under subsection (1) are essential and that if the powers under subsection (2) are removed, the British Transport Police will feel denuded.

Mr. Lawrence

If the British Transport Police feel that it is necessary for them to have these powers, why has no application been made in any sort of legislation for the Metropolitan Police or any of the more general State police forces to seek these powers?

Mr. McCrindle

I thought that I had touched upon that point when I was referring to the specific type of crime with which the British Transport Police are confronted. The British Transport Police feel that, because of the type of crime and the type of premises upon which those crimes are committed, to take away the powers in question would largely undermine the morale of the force.

The House should think very carefully and very long before doing that, because the type of crime that is being committed on British Transport premises appears regrettably to be on the increase. While it may be the wish of the House that these powers should be withdrawn, I hope that the House will not do that before thinking long and hard about the effects on the morale of the police.

9.28 p.m.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

I came to the House to speak because I was concerned about these police powers, as I was in a previous debate with the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in connection with the powers of the Atomic Energy Authority constabulary in the Authority's installations. Basically we are concerned about the coordination of police activities and the structure of civil police authorities, and we have found that there are areas where co-ordination might be lacking.

This is a matter on which the layman is right to expect of the House of Commons at least some clarification of how the average citizen will adapt himself to the different types of police he may meet in the course of his everyday work and leisure. Care must be taken in connection with the Bill about the kind of cooperation required between different police authorities in order that the functions of the different types of police can be seen to be working consistently and in a manner which the citizen may question.

When ordinary men and women are approached by a policeman who has a reason to suspect them, certain rules, known as the Judges' Rules, apply. Under these rules, although one would hope that the persons approached would adopt an attitude which would facilitate the police inquiry, they need not put themselves in peril without the advice of a solicitor. This applies especially if they agree to go to a police station.

Not many weeks ago, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and I, together with other hon. Members, expressed some concern about the Atomic Energy Authority constabulary having freedom to work outside the curtilages of the installations of the Authority and, indeed, to go beyond 15 miles in, I believe, armed pursuit of a person under suspicion. In considering legislation of this kind, hon. Members ought to ask what is meant by some of the words. For instance, what is meant by "suspicion"? What is meant by "reasonable suspicion"? What is meant by the powers of the civil police, as we understand them to be, in relation to the new kinds of powers possessed by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority constabulary and the powers sought in the Bill?

We have one objective in common. That is to have police co-ordination and surveillance which is effective in order to control violence, in order to deal with theft, in order to keep the community confident that there is a proper system to supply the infrastructure of law and order. That is taken for granted. But here in the Bill, albeit we are asking for a renewal of powers which aleady exist, we nevertheless have to ask whether they work sufficiently well to satisfy us that they should be renewed within the terms of a Private Bill.

One of the difficulties with a Private Bill is that a Member of the House of Commons can have a surfeit of information from the promoters on the one hand and, on the other, a lack of information from the people who may well be affected by the Bill but who are not aware that it is coming before the House of Commons. This places a Member in great difficulty.

I hope that we can find common ground and general agreement as to how we should deal with breaches of the law. In view of the difficulty I have just mentioned, hon. Members ought to take great care when dealing with matters such as this.

I agree that there is a need to maintain several specialised police forces to keep the peace, to prevent breaches of the law and to deal with law breakers. I agree that they need to support the principal police forces.

I ask the House to support the Bill, because experience shows that there is just cause for Clause 18, There is a need to co-ordinate the functions of the several police forces in their different duties within the community in its pursuit of leisure and at work places, in such a way as to diminish the anxieties of hon. Members.

9.36 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

I understand that there are a few minutes to spare and I should like to bring a breath of fresh air from the docks. I have had much experience of working with the British Transport Docks Police. From the experience I have gained over many years of working in dockland I believe that it is essential that the police employed by the Docks Board see that hon. Members give them the support which they require. It would be dangerous at present to weaken their powers.

Mention has been made of £2 million worth of valuable goods being pilfered from the various sectors of publicly owned transport undertakings. I assure the House that the figures are correct and that for many years on average about £2 million worth of goods have been lost through pilferage in public sector transport undertakings, including road haulage.

One hon. Member referred to the British Transport Docks Police taking cases to court. He criticised the use of the powers which give those police the right to stop, search and arrest. It is necessary to give some credit to our magistrates. Members of the British Transport Docks Police, like the officers of any other police force, are duty-bound to put evidence before the courts if they believe they have a case for prosecution. I have seen the British Transport Docks Police bring quite a number of cases before the magistrates. When their evidence has been weak, as it has been from time to time, or when the court has found there to be a doubt, the defendant has always been given the benefit of that doubt.

These men at times work in dangerous circumstances in dockland. Before we go any further, before we do untold damage to the prestige and safety of the British Transport Docks Police, we should take the matter into Committee and discuss it with the promoters of the Bill to see what they think about the removal of any of the clauses. We should discuss the matter in Committee with the British Transport Docks Police and their legal representatives.

9.41 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham

I think that all hon. Members who have taken part in this second half of the debate on the proposed Instruction to the Committee will agree that, perhaps surprisingly, it has been a rare and useful opportunity to have a good discussion about the British Transport Police and the non-State police—if that expression should be used, although it should not—and the legislation that applies to them. Perhaps one lesson that should come out of the debate is that the House does not have enough opportunities to address itself to such subjects, which arise only as a by-product of legislation that needs to go through the House.

In opening the Second Reading debate I was presenting in the normal fashion the views of the British Railways Board in support of the Bill. As far as I am able to do so, I shall now do the same with respect to this specific matter, but I think that the House will understand that in endeavouring to respond to specific points, raised without notice in the course of the debate, I cannot be taken necessarily to represent the views of the Board on any particular point that I mention. To a great extent, therefore, I am expressing my personal views.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) was able from his special position to express the interests of the British Transport Police. We all benefit from their protection both as to person and property, and it is right that we should pay tribute to the benefit that we obtain from their services. In very difficult circumstances, they do a very good job.

It should be said right away that it is the view of the British Railways Board that the powers in Section 54(1) and 54(2) of the British Transport Commission Act 1949 are desirable and needed and should be extended when they would otherwise expire on 31st December next. The British Railways Board would not be putting this Bill in this form to the House if that were not its considered view, and the House should not, therefore, lightly dismiss the view of the public authority which is responsible for running British Transport Police.

I was glad that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) noted publicly in the House that the British Railways Board had given an assurance with regard to complaints procedure in relation to British Transport Police. I am glad that he acknowledged that this was a very forthcoming assurance and that to a certain extent now the ball lies in the Government's court to take that matter further.

I believe that we were all grateful to the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) for raising what no one can deny is a very important matter of public policy, one touching intimately the rights of the citizen as regards arrest and trial and evidence once he gets into court. I hope, however, that he will be prepared to withdraw his motion for an Instruction. I hope that he recognises that this is a matter which can best be dealt with by the House as the authority for public legislation and by the Government as the principal initiating body for legislation. They could take on board the question of private legislation and public legislation on such matters so that in the proper context of a Public Bill this problem can be considered in a Standing Committee or can be debated on the Floor of the House.

It does not seem to me appropriate that powers which have existed for a very long time, and which have been thought, rightly or wrongly—probably rightly—to be desirable, on many separate occasions in the last 20 years, should be terminated in the process of a Private Bill Committee. Such a Committee is excellent for looking at whether a ferry should continue or a level crossing should be terminated, for example, but it is not an appropriate place in which to decide whether this kind of power should be terminated. That is a function for the House of Commons as a whole, in the course of its normal work on public legislation. I repeat, British Rail is doing no more than its plain duty in bringing forward a clause in its Private Bill to extend the period of application of the powers which Parliament has in the past conferred upon it.

Mr. Leadbitter

I support my hon. Friend. I want to stress that there is no difference between us. But to enhance co-ordination and the protection of the individual, and to ensure that he knows what to do in any circumstances on being approached by any police officer—civil, Transport, United Kingdom Atomic Energy or others—would it not be preferable if a Private Bill were strengthened in this regard by Government legislation?

Mr. Cunningham

As a Member of the House I entirely agree with that proposition but it is not within the powers of British Rail to initiate public legislation. It can initiate only a Private Bill. It can propose only that the powers conferred on it should be continued. That is exactly what British Rail is doing. If the House is saying that it ought to have been arranged differently, then the House, and in particular the relevant Departments of State, should have got round to doing something about it before now.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

I understand my hon. Friend's difficulty. As the sponsor of a Bill put forward by an external body, he cannot take instructions quickly. However, he must not overstrain his case. We are talking about a section in an Act of Parliament which was a Private Bill put forward by a private body. It is now being amended by a private body in the sense that there is a continuation clause. All that the private body needs to do in Committee, if it is persuaded by the overwhelming argument in the House, is to say that it accepts the arguments put forward and is prepared for Section 54(2) to be removed. It does not need the Government to intervene at all.

Mr. Cunningham

With respect, such powers as are being objected to, particularly in Section 54, are not unique to Section 54. I agree with those who suggest that this ought to be looked at on a broader basis. Clause 18 will automatically be looked at in Committee. There is no need for an assurance from me to that effect.

Mr. Lawrence

I think that the hon. Gentleman might be assisted if I let him know the attitude of my hon. Friends. I appreciate his difficulty in not being able to give undertakings. I accept the indication given by the Minister of State about the Government's attitude. Without going into the wider aspects of the principles involved in other legislation, it seems that the proper place to consider the issues which have been raised tonight is in Committee. I am sure that the Committee will be well seized of the strength of opinion on both sides of the House on this point. Therefore, I think that the matter is best left for the Committee to decide. I shall not invite my hon. Friends to divide the House on this matter. Therefore, in due course I shall seek to ask leave to withdraw the motion for an Instruction.

Mr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The Committee, like any other Committee, is bound to consider the proceedings on Second Reading and to take due account of them. Indeed, it is bound to take account of this part of the debate when it considers Clause 18.

British Rail is doing no more than its plain duty in proposing this clause. I stress again that the approval of the Department of the Environment is required for British Rail to bring forward the Bill. But, in seeking that approval, an indication was given that this clause would be in the Bill.

Reference has been made to the British Transport Police being a private police force. I take exception to that description. It should be remembered that British Transport Police is not unique. It may be the biggest such police force in the country, but there are others. For example, at the opposite extreme, also coming under the Department of the Environment, the Royal Parks Police used to be called park keepers. They are now called constables, but they always had police functions.

The hon. Member for Burton in some parts of his speech confused the issue whether a person needs to make a statement to the police and in court. In case there is confusion—not on the hon Gentleman's part, I accept—the obligation under Section 54(2) of the 1949 Act is to provide a satisfactory explanation to the court. There is no legal obligation to provide an explanation to the police.

I suppose that this whole matter turns on the right of silence in court. To hear some of the interventions in the debate one might think that the right of silence in court had never been questioned. It has, of course, been severely questioned by the Criminal Law Revision Committee. No decisions have been taken and it is perhaps unlikely that they ever will be taken along the lines suggested by the Criminal Law Revision Committee.

It is not quite such an unheard-of notion as some hon. Members have suggested. I hinted to my hon. Friend that if he wants to do something about this kind of provision in the law, he might have a look at Section 24 of the Police Courts (Metropolis) Act of 1839 which reads as follows: Every person who shall be brought before any of the said magistrates charged with having in his possession or conveying in any manner anything which may be reasonably suspected of being stolen or unlawfully obtained, and who shall not give an account to the satisfaction of such magistrate how he came by the same, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanour. That wording is not exactly the same as the 1949 Act, but it is essentially the same. That is why I referred to the 1839 Act as being the kind of legislation upon which the drafting of the 1949 Act was based. That is why I think the Home Office has a responsibility, if it wants to delete this kind of provision from private legislation, to put its own garden in order, at least at the same time and preferably first.

I should say in fairness to British Rail that notification of this clause was provided not only in the normal way to the Department of Environment, but to the Home Office as long ago as last July. In October the Home Office had to be reminded that it had not replied, and there was a further letter on 3rd February. There were three letters from British Rail to the Home Office about this clause. It was only after those three letters that there was a reply dated last Friday 2nd April from the Home Office, the letter to which my hon. Friend the Minister of State referred.

If I have been rather sharp in my references to the Home Office in the course of this debate, that will perhaps explain why. My hon. Friend should look at what has happened, or has not happened, in the Home Office over the last few months and ensure that a great public corporation like British Rail is not treated in that way again when dealing with such an important matter.

My hon. Friend suggested that it might be possible in Committee to knock out the temporary nature of these powers—of Section 54(1) at least—and to make them permanent. I am advised that that would not be possible in a Private Bill in Committee, because it would be extending the scope of the Bill. On the basis that the Committee is bound to look at the deliberations in this debate, I hope that the House will now agree to allow the hon. Member for Burton to withdraw his Instruction.

Mr. Lawrence

In view of what the hon. Gentleman has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn