HC Deb 13 December 1991 vol 200 cc1299-306

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

2.31 pm
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

On 30 November 1990, a constituent of mine, Mr. Frank Brand, was informed that, in accordance with a decision given the previous day at a summary hearing, he had been summarily dismissed from service as a steward on British Rail.

The charge was that on Thursday 1st November 1990 whilst working on duty circuit 092, 1703 Paddington to Cheltenham service you issued an ICOBS buffet receipt to 2 passengers in lieu of a travel ticket. This receipt was to the value of £5.00 which you failed to account for in your daily business. He was told to return all company property—uniform, travel passes, keys and so on—but he was given the right of appeal. The passengers in question apparently boarded the train at Stonehouse, got off at Gloucester, reboarded after an interval at Gloucester and got off at Stonehouse.

Before coming to the detail of the hearing and the appeal, I make two general points. The first concerns the extreme improbability of the alleged action. Mr. Brand was a steward with a high reputation. According to his advocate at the appeal, he scrupulously handed back miniature drink bottles, as he did his revenue and copy receipts.

The catering manager at Paddington complimented Mr. Brand on his professionalism, having received on 14 November a letter of praise from a passenger. The manager wrote: I would like to thank you for your efforts and I am sure that your future announcements will continue to project the same professionalism and create additional sales on our buffet services. It is hard to imagine that anyone in Mr. Brand's position, as a British rail employee knowing of the likelihood of inspectors going through the train—as they do frequently on InterCity services—and with ticket collectors at the barriers, would crudely write out a return fare from Stonehouse to Gloucester on a buffet slip. It is also strange that the allegation of malpractice against Mr. Brand came from a woman, without any address being given, who is the mother of one of the two passengers and that her evidence should have been uncorroborated.

My second general point is that we have no other account of this incident. Everything seems to revolve round a photocopy of the receipt. How were the two passengers on the train without tickets in the first place? Who were they? We have no names, addresses, ages or occupations. They are variously described as youths, lads, students and children.

At the appeal hearing, the chairman admitted that he had no idea of their ages. Did Mr. Brand lean over the counter of the buffet and say, "You look like two customers who might not have tickets. I have a good method of getting round this"? Or did they come to him and say, "We are travellers without tickets: can you help us"? The transcripts in the case are haphazard and confusing, but, as I understand the story, the passengers were apprehended on the return journey to Stonehouse and discovered with this bogus document. However, the allegation was made by the woman some five days later.

If we look at this case carefully, it seems more and more incredible. Would not an official of BR have issued two tickets, the normal practice, and have written "return" on both? In any case, the £5 that British Rail says that Mr. Brand received and appropriated for his own use bears no relation to the fare, which is 85p for a child single or £1.70 for an adult single. We are still not clear whether these were two children or two adults. All that we know that the mother of one of them reported the story five days after the events and, prima facie, I must say that it looks to me as though she may have fabricated this highly implausible story to exculpate the travellers from an attempt to travel without paying the fare.

Two points should be mentioned before I deal with the hearings themselves. At the summary hearing, there was a great deal of discussion about handwriting, although it was admitted that on a moving train and with different pens, letters and words could vary even when written by the same hand. At the summary hearing, the chairman, Mr. McIllroy, said—this is on page 3—that the colour of the original ink was black. During the adjournment, Mr. Brand's representative rang Gloucester station, where someone said that the original ink was blue.

One might have thought that, by this time, the sole piece of evidence should have been regarded as important, but apparently it has since been lost. It was also said that, from the receipt book, receipts Nos. 04 to 09 were missing. Were some of these stolen, perhaps by the two passengers in question? We do not know. At the appeal, we heard that only Nos. 04, 05 and 06 were missing. No. 8 was used by Mr. Brand and we have heard nothing again of No. 7. I do not say that this is vital evidence, but it was evidence that the matter was carelessly investigated, and no one seems to have been sure of the facts.

At all times, Mr. Brand has been desperately eager and willing for a full police investigation. He certainly was in the repeated interviews that he has had with me. The handwriting has been examined from a photocopy only, which could, after all, have been copied from a forgery, yet British Rail places great stress on the handwriting issue. Mr. Barry Woledge, personnel director of InterCity, British Railways Board wrote to me on 16 July 1991. He said: A forensic report has confirmed that the receipt was completed in Mr. Brand's own handwriting. Let us see what the forensic report says. It is much more cautious. Mr. M. S. A. Handy, document examiner, has examined receipt No. 409604—the first time that we have been given the number. He says: There are many similarities between these writings and in my opinion BRAND completed the receipt. The evidence is such that I cannot exclude the possibility that another person was responsible, however, I consider it unlikely. It should be noted that examination of the questioned writing has been limited because it is photocopied. Mr. Woledge continues to me: This clearly confirms the allegations from the two members of the travelling public". The House will note how two lads, children or youths on the Stonehouse to Gloucester train without a ticket have now become members of the travelling public". Mr. Woledge says that they were required to pay £5 for travel and for which they received a buffet receipt in lieu of a ticket". Prima facie, a BR official seems to have been exerting some measure of compulsion here. Mr. Woledge continues: We believe that there is sufficient evidence from the buffet receipt and the unsolicited complaint that we received to confirm that an offence has been committed. To call the complaint unsolicited is stretching language. The original letter was from the mother of one of the two members of the travelling public found in possession of a buffet ticket. Those two might well have alighted at Stonehouse at the end of their journey and disappeared into the night. A complaint can be described as unsolicited only if a person under no suspicion and unknown and unrelated to any party concerned raises a matter related to his or her treatment.

Mr. Brand's advocate raised the question of the relevant receipt. He asked: We have not seen the original, we have not had it analysed have we? The answer was: Not a court of law here. Presumably referring to something that he had to write out at the hearing, Frank Brand said that the "s" in Stonehouse had a tail on it but on the receipt the "s" had no tail. The chairman replied: We have to agree handwriting can differ". Mr. Brand pointed out that on the second handwriting sample there was no tail on the "s". The advocate said that there was no comparison. The chairman replied: At the moment we will have to agree to leave that open". Yet in his verdict he referred to colour of ink and style of handwriting.

Mr. Woledge's letter to me said that Mr. McMillan, the catering manager, had carried out his investigation in a structured manner, yet according to Mr. Brand he had not seen the receipt until the summary hearing.

There was then a discussion about whether another person might have stolen the receipt book and written out a receipt in a passable forgery while Mr. Brand was clearing up the first-class area. We then learn that on the receipt a figure of £2.50 had been crossed out, but that appeared to be passed over in the hearing. It may seem a minor point, but I suggest that it is more consonant with an amateur offender, such as a boy trying to travel without paying his fare, than with someone out to obtain money by unfair means and versed in that art, as Mr. Brand was alleged to have been.

There are gaps in the transcript. For example, when Mr. Brand asked: Why was it made out for £2.50 initially and not £5? the chairman apparently replied: The name of the gentleman in charge of the case is Detective Constable Moles". That is a non-sequitur. The chairman went on to say: You can confirm for your own satisfaction the colour of the ink". How could one do that from a photocopy?

The chairman said that there had been previous examples of Mr. Brand's paperwork going missing. That is a serious matter. If the allegation were true, some evidence should be produced at a proper inquiry. But, on the contrary, the chairman at the appeal said that there had been no previous irregularities on Mr. Band's part. Nothing further was added at the time.

When asked if the complainant—who, as I said earlier, was the mother of at least one of the two passengers—had been interviewed, the chairman simply said that a letter had been written asking for a description of the person who issued the receipt.

Incidentally, it took the woman five days to make the complaint. Most parents would have been round at the police station within hours if their children had been involved by a steward in an alleged railway fraud.

What did the chairman mean by saying of the passengers: It is very lucky they did not have anything other than the fare on them, what do you think? How did he know? Were the boys asked to turn out their pockets? Was he suggesting that they might have been parted from large sums of money for that comparatively short journey?

The chairman asked: What motive would there be for a mother to react in this way? I should have thought that there was every reason, if a child were found carrying a buffet receipt instead of a rail ticket. Let us assume for a moment that that child has snatched two or three tickets from the book while steward's back was turned or while he was clearing up the first-class spaces. There would be every reason for saying that the steward issued the receipt. I do not state that that is what happened. I say only that it is necessary to look carefully at statements made by mothers on behalf of children who have been found breaking the law. Once again, the age of the "children" is germane to the case, but remains unknown.

Mr. Impey, the senior steward, who presumably knows Mr. Brand and his handwriting better than most people, was then called to give evidence. When asked whether he thought that the writing on the receipt was Mr. Brand's, he replied, "I would say not" The chairman said immediately: I think I should say that I consider Mr. Impey's testament irrelevant. Why irrelevant? It may have been biased, perjured or the result of acute myopia, but it was not irrelevant. Mr. Impey would not agree conclusively that the writing was Mr. Brand's

Some of the comments in the hearing seem meaningless. When the advocate pointed out that the ink on the original was blue, the chairman is quoted as saying, "One factor of receipt". What does that mean? When the advocate asked, were British transport police involved?", the reply was, "Their business not ours". When the advocate asked: What about the means of identifying Mr. Brand. Would they be able to identify Mr. Brand? Have they been asked?", the reply from the chairman was: "I consider that irrelevant." Then the advocate understandably insisted: Who did issue that receipt? It would have to be a proper identity parade otherwise there would be lying", to which the chairman again replied: Irrelevant … they could know Frank from travelling before. The press has recently told of several cases in which passengers travelling innocently without correct tickets have been subjected to severe harassment by the inspectors of British Rail—for example, Ian Botham's son. I recall Ian Botham's letter to The Times on the subject. At the very least, the boys should have given their names and addresses to the authorities when the allegation was first made.

First, however, came the chairman's comment: I find the whole thing strange. I refer to you as a good member of staff, your buffet display is top notch. You got more revenue than others. There is no discrepancy here before on file, so I find it strange. But on the other side to manufacture the story is strange, also. Unless of course a son of yours has tried to travel free and been caught out. After referring again to Mr. Brand's reputation for honesty, Mr. Stevenson added: Your hearing officer was taking his job away due to a third hand account. My son could do this type of writing (i.e. Mr. Brand's)—it is possible. You should reinstate and leave the evidence to the police … In the modern education system people have a bagful of different pens … Mrs. Taylor"— we have the name of the woman now— has had ample opportunity to come back to you but she hasn't responded. This was November 1990. If she was convinced she would have responded". Nevertheless, the decision was confirmed.

There is one final point. I have been surprised and very shocked to discover the difficulty that exists in arranging a proper investigation or securing a change in attitude towards an employee in a nationalised industry—British Rail. The reply of the chairman of BR to me on 4 April was curt—two lines of acknowledgement and three of reply. Mr. Watkinson, director of employee relations, simply repeated that the examination had been thorough, the forensic report definite and the hearings correct. He added that Mr. Brand had been employed for less than two years and would not have been eligible to apply to an industrial tribunal. How convenient for British Rail. That fact is certainly no justification for the thoroughly sloppy investigation that it conducted.

A colleague, Mr. Barry Woledge, replied again on 16 April that further investigations had been carried out and that there was no reason to waver from the view that Mr. Rand intended to defraud the railway. No help or involvement could be afforded by the Department of Transport or of Employment, despite my representations to Ministers at both Departments. Mr. Woledge of BR gave no hard factual evidence arising from his series of investigations and I feel that, at the very least, and in view of the many vaguenesses and inadequacies that I have pointed out, we are entitled to such evidence.

I am not making a categorical statement on innocence or guilt, but I do not feel that a fair hearing has been afforded. The matter has been passsed on, with general support being given up the line by different members of the same organisation.

Mr. Brand's last words at the appeal were: Looking you in the eye, I did not write that receipt. I would not have taken such trouble over the case if I did not feel that a man's livelihood had been removed by British Rail without any effective means of redress against allegations which beg more questions than they answer and which British Rail made no effort to substantiate satisfactorily to Mr. Brand, his representatives, his union or even his Member of Parliament.

The gross insouciance of British Rail reflects no credit on any of the management representatives concerned—right the way up to the chairman himself. British Rail should either prove its case—which to my mind it has not—or reinstate Mr. Brand at once as compensation not just for loss of earnings but for the damage done to his character, reputation and family.

2.50 pm
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Christopher Chope)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) for the close interest he has taken in the case of his constituent, Mr. Frank Brand. I congratulate him on securing this debate today.

My hon. Friend has been typically diligent in his pursuit of this matter with British Rail, with both the chairman and the director of employee relations. He has also had correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), the Minister for Shipping and Public Transport at the Department.

My hon. Friend has set out his concerns very clearly for the House, and set out in detail how this case was handled by British Rail. As he has explained, Mr. Brand was dismissed by BR from his post as a senior steward with InterCity On Board Services—InterCity's train catering division—in November 1990. This followed a complaint alleging that he had issued a buffet receipt to two young passengers in lieu of a travel ticket and failed to account for the £5 received.

The allegations stemmed from a letter received by BR's area manager at Gloucester in November 1990, in which a woman alleged that her son and a friend, while travelling from Stonehouse to Gloucester, were stopped by the steward and asked if they were trying to avoid paying their fare. They are said to have explained that they were looking for the conductor to buy their tickets as Stonehouse station did not sell tickets at that time of night. The steward is said to have issued the boys with a receipt, made out for £5 and indicating that it was for the journey from Stonehouse to Gloucester.

On the return journey, the boys were apparently challenged by the ticket collector on the train, who explained that the receipt was not a valid ticket, and that they would have to pay the full fare. The mother asked that the area manager investigate who had issued the bogus ticket. With her letter, she attached the receipt said to have been issued to her son.

Investigations by BR showed that the only steward on the train in question was Mr. Brand. He was seen by the Gloucester area catering manager. He was subsequently charged, under BR's disciplinary arrangements, to answer the allegations.

A summary hearing was held, chaired by BR's InterCity catering manager at Paddington. My hon. Friend has commented in detail on the transcript of that hearing, including the statements by the witness, Mr. Farrell; the differences of opinion about the handwriting on the receipt; whether someone might have stolen the receipt book and forged the receipt; unsupported allegations about previous examples of Mr. Brand's paperwork being missing; and the apparent lack of follow-up to the mother's original letter.

As my hon. Friend has said, the hearing focused particularly on the buffet receipt and whether or not it was written by Mr. Brand. The type of pen and colour of ink used was believed to match that used by Mr. Brand. I undertand that the British Transport Police yesterday found the receipt and now confirm that the ink is black—the receipt had a reference number written on it, 092, the one issued to Mr. Brand for this journey and known only by InterCity staff. This, with the similarities in handwriting, led the BR manager to conclude that he felt convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that Mr. Brand had committed the offence. He dismissed Mr. Brand with immediate effect, reminding him of his right to appeal in writing within seven days.

The appeal was fixed for 19 December, but was postponed until 16 January this year to allow Mr. Brand to give notice to his union to arrange a legal representative. The appeal was chaired by the business group manager for Bristol and the original verdict was upheld.

My hon. Friend has set out a number of concerns, including the lack of firm evidence, the way in which the matter was investigated, and the conduct of BR's disciplinary hearing. He has also drawn the attention of the House to the difficulties he has faced in arranging a proper investigation or a change in BR's management's attitude towards an employee. He has made his points in a measured and careful way. He accepts that he cannot make a categorical statement about innocence or guilt, but he feels that his constituent has not been given a fair hearing.

I know that my hon. Friend will recognise that this case is very much a management matter for BR, and the decision to dismiss Mr. Brand was entirely BR's. But my hon. Friend's points are important ones about fairness in handling disciplinary matters, and I shall of course ensure that they are drawn to the attention of BR. I am sure that BR should take careful note of them. With the rediscovery within the past 24 hours of the original receipt and, I am informed, the two statements from the youths involved, I am sure that my hon. Friend would wish to take the matter further. My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport has said that should he wish to have a meeting with him and a representative of BR, he would be happy to offer that opportunity. I hope that that demonstrates that the persistence of my hon. Friend has, if nothing else, at least found the receipt that hitherto had been missing.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Three o'clock.