HC Deb 14 December 1984 vol 69 cc1382-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

The British Transport police was established in its original form some 150 years ago. It is a body of about 2,000 men and women to the federation of which I act as parliamentary adviser. The British Transport police has provided a quiet and efficient service and it has seldom been necessary for it to ask for assistance to enable it to carry out its duties. I am raising this issue today because there is now an argument for the Government to give it assistance.

The British Transport police have three areas of responsibility—the London underground, docks owned by Associated British Ports, and British Rail premises and trains. The transport police have recently gained some prominence. In April 1984 they were involved in controlling the section of the football supporting fraternity which became rowdy during travel on cross-channel ferries. The House will recall that the transport police's conduct merited considerable praise from the House and the press. Week in, week out, the British Transport police have a duty to control unruly football fans on trains and at stations. I therefore do not need to emphasise their solid reputation for effective policing to standards equivalent to those found in the civil police.

In 1980, there was a joint conference on violence in public transport which was attended by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Transport of the day. A major role in the maintenance of good order on public transport was allocated to the British Transport police. As a result of the conference, an additional £1 million was made available to create special mobile units. As those units have unfolded into the London underground there is little doubt that underground staff and the public have felt considerable benefits. The system has worked well and there is a feeling of greater security. However, that is quite different from saying that to travel on the last train has become an agreeable experience and it is certainly not to say that to be a driver or a guard on a London underground train is not to be left open to considerable risk.

There is now worry about a possible reduction in the number of officers in the force. We are comforted by the implication that the reduction will be achieved by natural wastage. There has been no recruiting since May. But why should there be a reduction in the force? It seems to stem from the reduced Government grant to the British Railways Board. British Rail has been asked to review all its expenditure. It has concluded that a reduction in policing must be part of any package which it presents to achieve that reduction in expenditure.

I do not believe that British Rail wishes to see the strength of the British Transport police reduced. I doubt whether the Government intended that that should be part of the economies which British Rail introduced. Therefore, will the Minister consider telling the British Railways Board that the level of the police establishment should not be included in any review of expenditure which it undertakes? The British Transport police need more officers, not fewer, if they are to be effective in maintaining good order on London transport and British Rail. More mobile squads are required to combat tube violence, and more British Transport police officers are needed on trains and at mainline stations.

If the British Transport police establishment cannot be maintained and increased as I have suggested, we can expect public disorder. If the Minister thinks that I am exaggerating, I assure him that because of the impossibility of providing police cover, especially at weekends, some stations have had to be closed recently. In those circumstances, damage may result to British Rail property and people may be injured. The establishment is understaffed now and a further reduction would have a serious effect.

My second reason for initiating the debate is that Associated British Ports proposes to terminate the use of British Transport policemen at its ports. It is a private limited company and is therefore entitled to take that action if it wishes. It has said that the reasons are entirely based on cost. Instead, it will engage a private firm. There is no doubt that if it does that there will be a reduction in the standard of protection of the property of customers of Associated British Ports.

Many people will say that that matter is between Associated British Ports and its customers. However, there are matters of public policy involved. The Government cannot entirely escape from some responsibility in this area. If the ports are not properly policed, the opportunity for drug smuggling will be increased. In case the House thinks again that I am exaggerating, I shall illustrate my point. Recently at the port of Dover people carrying 5.5 kilos of cannabis were arrested. If British Transport police cover at ports is withdrawn, criminals will move to Southampton or other ABP ports. There will be no effective cover to discourage them.

I am worried about the importation not only of drugs but of rabies. A lack of policing will make it easier to bring in animals. Terrorists will have a greater freedom to come and go. Illegal immigrants will have a greater chance of entering the country through unpoliced ports. It is clear that such a move would cause considerable problems. The specialised expertise of the British Transport police should be kept intact to counteract those dangers.

About 200 police officers are involved in the policing of British ports. Although some of them will be retained in the form of emergency mobile squads, there is no doubt that if the Government stand by while the force is disbanded it will be an abnegation of their responsibility.

If the only solution to the problem of keeping the force intact to continue in the service of the people is that British Transport policemen be absorbed into local county constabularies, I do not believe that British Transport police would stand in the way of such a move. The alternative is to provide open house to criminals at ports. I do not believe that anyone would wish that to happen.

I know that chief constables will be inclined to say, "If we are to take British Transport police officers into our county constabularies, we will do it only provided we are given some assurance about the additional cost which will fall upon our county constabularies." They may say that they will be prepared to do so only if their overall establishment is suitably increased.

All those matters must be faced, but we cannot drift up to 30 June 1985, which is the date upon which effective police cover will be withdrawn from the ports, and then discover that we have left our ports wide open to all the difficulties and dangers to which I have drawn attention.

I have raised these matters today because, first, I am calling upon my hon. Friend the Minister to set up a review of his Department's insistence that there should be a cut in the forces employed at British Rail premises and on London underground. I hope that I have said sufficient to persuade my hon. Friend that, far from contemplating a reduction in the establishment on London underground and British Rail, we should be looking to increase it if the public is to be protected. Secondly, I seek Government help to keep the British Transport police who are at present available at ports around the country to ensure that law enforcement is advanced. If that can be done only by absorbing the officers into county forces, so be it.

I have the support of a number of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. As they cannot be here, I have been asked by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who are sponsored members of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, to say that I have their support in bringing these matters before the House. I hope that they will receive my hon. Friend's sympathetic consideration.

2.42 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for. Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) started his Adjournment debate by mentioning all the good work done by the British Transport police. I join him in that comment and emphasise my admiration for the quiet, effective and unobtrusive way in which officers of the British Transport police carry out their duties.

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to recent developments in the policing of the ports. In the light of events it is entirely understandable that British Transport police officers should have expressed concern over the future of their force. However, I must make it clear from the outset that the establishment and deployment of the British Transport police is a matter not for the Government, but for the British Railways Board, and for the other organisations making use of their services. Nevertheless, I have made inquiries to establish the background to the decision taken by Associated British Ports, to which my hon. Friend referred, to dispense with the services of the British Transport police by 30 June 1985.

The British Transport police at present operate in 13 of the 19 ports now owned by Associated British Ports. The British Railways Board, as employer of the police, makes their services available to Associated British Ports on a repayment basis.

The origins of the policing arrangement are that the British Transport police provided a policing service to the old British Transport Commission. The commission was abolished in 1962 in favour of four separate transport boards — the British Railways Board, the London Transport Board, the British Transport Docks Board and the British Waterways Board; the British Railways Board as the main user of police services took over responsibility as employer of the force, co-ordinating its interests with those of London Transport and the British Transport Docks Board through the British Transport Police Force Scheme 1963, the British Waterways Board having opted out of the scheme.

The 1963 scheme provided for all transport police to be appointed and employed by the British Railways Board, and established the title of chief constable for the chief officer of the British Transport police. It also made provision for a British Transport police committee with a chairman and other representatives drawn from the British Railways Board, but also with one member drawn from each of the other transport boards requiring the services of the force. The committee's terms of reference include the supervision of the administration of the force, and the provision of advice to the boards in respect of any matter relating to the British Transport Police.

The British Transport Docks Board was reconstituted at the end of 1982, as Associated British Ports, owned by a parent company, Associated British Ports Holdings, which is now wholly owned by private interests. Associated British Ports inherited the range of statutory powers needed to operate in the British Transport Docks Board's ports, which, among other things, allowed existing policing arrangements to continue. Nothing in the statutes required Associated British Ports to use the services of the British Transport police, though it has done so until now, making repayment to the British Railways Board of the costs involved. However, Associated British Ports has recently reviewed its arrangements. Its resulting decision to dispense with the services of the British Transport police is, I must stress, a commercial matter entirely for Associated British Ports.

The implications of that decision, and in particular its impact on police deployment and total establishment, will need to be examined carefully by the British Railways Board and the British Transport police committee. I understand that the chief constable of the British Transport police has made a detailed assessment of the situation which will assist them in that examination. I should emphasise that these are considerations which are proper either to the police committee, or to the British Railways Board as the employer of the police, and the Government have no power to influence the outcome.

A number of stories have been circulating which suggest that the withdrawal of the British Transport police from some ports will result in an increase in organised crime, including drug trafficking. These assertions stray some way from reality, and in any case ignore the fact that even now not all the ports owned by Associated British Ports are policed by this force. The investigation of criminal offences committed on the property of Associated British Ports can, as with any other private organisation, be undertaken by the local county police. It should be remembered that these are precisely the arrangements which exist in the dozens of ports not served by the British Transport police or having their own individual ports police force.

Mr. McCrindle

I understand that my hon. Friend is replying to the debate as the Under-Secretary of State for Transport. Can he, at the very least, give an undertaking that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will have a word with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, whose interest in the more general aspects of maintaining law and order are such as perhaps to make him more interested than my hon. Friend has implied he is in what might happen if these ports become de-policed?

Mr. Mitchell

That is a reasonable request, and I shall take steps to see that, in one form or other, the implications of the changes that are under way, and any other changes that might develop, are drawn to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary so that he can take account of them and of their effect on the general policing requirements in the county forces in the vicinity of such changes. However, when my hon. Friend refers to Associated British Ports ending the financial arrangement for its internal policing to be carried out by the British Transport police as an open house for criminals, that perhaps is going a little further than my hon. Friend will on reflection feel appropriate.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that neither the Clyde nor the Forth has such policing arrangements. I know that north of the border they are very law abiding, but I should have thought that even in those two ports there might be similar problems to those drawn attention to by my hon. Friend. Nearer home to him, in Ipswich, there is no such system. Nor is there in the huge port of Sullom Voe, which handles so much of our oil shipments. Nor is there on the Tyne, and nor is there in Sunderland. We are not exactly going into wholly uncharted waters with the proposal of Associated British Ports that it should bring itself into line with the other ports to which I have referred.

The police authorities and chief constables of civil forces whose areas contain ports from which the British Transport police are to be withdrawn will no doubt be considering with Associated British Ports the extent of the policing commitment required, and laying plans for meeting this. As far as customs requirements are concerned, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise will, I am sure, also be seeking discussions with Associated British Ports to satisfy itself on a port-by-port basis that adequate alternative security arrangements are being provided. Quarantine regulations are the responsibility of the local authorities, and they will no doubt be considering the implications of ABP's decisions and what alternative arrangements might be needed.

The suggestion that one solution to the difficulties on surplus police manpower created by ABP's decision would be to second BTP officers currently serving in the docks to the various county police forces is a helpful one. In principle there is nothing to prevent this happening, though in practice it is not clear that it would necessarily provide a universal solution to whatever additional policing requirements may fall on individual county police forces. But it certainly merits consideration by the parties involved: the British Railways Board, the British Transport police committee, the police authorities, which have the responsibility for setting their establishments—subject to the Home Secretary's approval—and the chief constables, who would need to agree on numbers, ranks and individuals to be absorbed.

Looking beyond the immediate context of Associated British Ports' decision, questions have been raised about the long-term future of the British Transport police. My hon. Friend drew attention to that. I have concentrated specifically on Associated British Ports and the more immediate impact of its decision, but I understand the underlying anxiety that my hon. Friend expressed, and it is right that I should seek to respond to it.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to place on record my own appreciation and admiration of the professionalism and competence of the British Transport police, but I have to say that any assurances about the future, or indeed and decision for change, must emanate from the users of the service. It is emphatically not the responsibility of the Government to lead either the British Railways Board or the British Transport police committee towards conclusions in this area. Perhaps all that I can usefully add—and I hope this is helpful—is that I am not aware of any major changes planned for the British Transport police, though this is not to say that the future establishment will not need to be revised in the light of future trends and commercial requirements. I can further tell the House that the British Railways Board and the chief constable of the British Transport police are fully seized of the impact on the morale of the force which has been caused by the uncertainties following Associated British Ports' decision and that they are therefore doing all in their power to conclude their assessment, which I mentioned earlier, as quickly as possible.

I understand that quite recently an Opposition spokesman suggested that the Government had decided that it was best to privatise our police forces in the docks. I assure the House that this has nothing to do with the Government. Decisions taken in this area are within the competence of those taking them. The Government are not a party thereto. Therefore, I hope my hon. Friend will feel that he has performed, as I believe he has, a valuable task in drawing attention to the perfectly understandable human reactions to change within the British Transport police force and the anxieties raised by the ABP decision. However, in the light of what I have been able to say, I hope my hon. Friend will feel that it would be right and proper for the House now to adjourn.

Mr. McCrindle

I agree that it would be right and proper for the House to adjourn, but before we do so can my hon. Friend give me one other small undertaking, which I suspect will be easy? Will he have a word with London Regional Transport about the staffing levels on underground trains, which, as he must know from correspondence addressed to his Department, continue to raise concern among both staff and the travelling public? If he were to undertake to have a word with LRT about the continuing effectiveness of the establishment, I believe that I shall have done well in raising this Adjournment debate.

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend will know that LRT is one of the responsibilities of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Transport. I shall draw her attention to the point that my hon. Friend has just made. That would be the right channel of communication. It would be the most effective way for this matter to be drawn to the attention of those concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Three o'clock.