HL Deb 04 November 1999 vol 606 cc986-8

3.23 p.m.

The Earl of Clancarty asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of the recent prosecutions against Sister Virtus Okwaraoha and Philip Bussy, they will encourage London Regional Transport to review their procedures for bringing prosecutions for fare evasion against London bus passengers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, those are operational matters for London Regional Transport. I understand that London Transport Buses reviews its procedures regularly and has recently introduced a more rigorous monitoring of reported ticket irregularities and cases which may result in legal action.

I understand also that the London Regional Passengers Committee is in discussion with London Transport on those matters, and I should be happy to consider any proposals which may emerge from that dialogue.

The Earl of Clancarty

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Bearing in mind London Transport Buses' statement with regard to Sister Virtus: We do not question the Sister's honesty", does the Minister not accept that it is wholly wrong and unjust to prosecute and criminalise someone who, it is clearly acknowledged by the accuser, had no intention of committing a crime? Will the Minister confirm that future prosecutions will be limited to cases where there is real suspicion of fraud, rather than unnecessarily dragging through the courts people whose only crime is that they have been tripped up by the system?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, a number of aspects of that particular case are wanting. However, in general, the policy of London Transport with regard to both buses and Tubes is to prosecute only where it believes that there was intent. That is certainly the procedure which it will adopt in future.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, as I took through a Private Bill on this issue some years ago, I am particularly keen to ask a question.

Is it not a fact that the losses due to fare evasion have grown constantly? Is it not also a fact that the proportion that people have to pay in relation to when the penalty was first introduced is now so much less in relation to a ticket that there is a much greater incentive for people to try to evade the correct payment?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I recognise the noble Baroness's experience in the genesis of this scheme. It is true that the proportions have closed somewhat. The payment of a £10 penalty is nevertheless substantially greater than that for a £1.10 or £1.40 ticket. It is also the case that the amount of revenue estimated by London Transport to be lost has grown over that period, which indicates that it has a serious problem, which is being addressed not only through the improvement of this system, but also, in the case of the Tube, by introducing automatic gating on all its stations.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I must declare an interest. I am a fare-paying passenger when I am able to do so. Is the Minister aware that numerous passengers, of whom I am one, have found it increasingly difficult to persuade conductors to accept our money, and that that difficulty is particularly acute among conductors who have been told that their services are shortly to be dispensed with? Will the Minister guarantee that such negligence of the conductor will not be taken for malice in the passenger?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is already part of the new procedure in relation to appeals that, if the noble Earl is unfortunate enough to be pursued with a penalty fare in those circumstances, having offered to or being unable to pay one's fare is a sufficient defence. I am unable to comment on the particular circumstances and on the particular bus on which the noble Earl found himself.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, will the Minister say whether he considers the intentional act of fare evasion to be the same as fraud?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, a number of noble and learned Lords have told me that it is. It is certainly intent to defraud, and in my mind that amounts to fraud in a real sense. Therefore, I believe that these systems for protecting revenue are absolutely valid.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the official within London Regional Transport who decided to bring this case displayed a serious lack of judgment? Can the Minister say whether that official is still employed by London Regional Transport, or has he been sent to the equivalent of Outer Siberia—whatever that is in LRT?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, those are inevitably not matters for Ministers. Clearly London Transport recognised that there were problems in this case, but it would not be sensible for me to comment further.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is the Minister aware that London Regional Transport in fact employs its own private police force? Surely the manner in which that private police force conducts itself is to some degree a matter of concern to the Government.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in that context I am not entirely clear what the noble Lord means by "a private police force". There is enforcement of fares, which is obviously separate from the British Transport Police who operate on the Underground. We are trying to ensure that passengers on London Transport pay the correct fare. The system of penalty fares therefore enables us, in most cases, to ensure that the revenue is protected without recourse to the courts and therefore criminality. However, where intent is involved, it may be appropriate to use the more traditional procedures, and sometimes misjudgments may be made in those cases. In general, however, I should defend that system.