Many thanks for that introduction and for inviting me to address your national conference. I’m sorry I couldn’t be with you for your awards ceremony but I want to take this opportunity to congratulate all of the winners. Your bravery awards are always a timely reminder of the debt of gratitude this country owes to the British Transport Police (BTP). Day in, and day out, the BTP’s police officers work tirelessly to protect the travelling public, to make our railways, tubes and trams safe and secure ways to travel, putting your own safety on the line to do this. So, as a Rail Minister and a rail passenger, I would like to put my tribute on public record and to thank you for all you do.
Every few years it seems that a proposal crops up to subsume you into one or other of the Home Office forces. And I welcome the fact that every time that debate resurfaces, the case is successfully made for retaining a specialist railway police force. With the robust leadership provided by Andy Trotter, I’m certain you’ll continue to fend off these take-over attempts. I would like to acknowledge the great work Andy is doing as your chief constable. In taking over from Sir Ian Johnston, he had a tough act to follow and I believe the BTP has been very lucky in the exceptional calibre of both its current and its previous chief constables. And I’d also like to praise the work of the British Transport Police Federation and its chairman, Alex Robertson.
You face a host of operational demands, some of which your chairman outlined in his excellent speech kicking off the conference today. At one end of the spectrum vandalism, drunkenness, mobile phone theft and a host of other crimes this country has already witnessed in the murderous 7/7 attacks. At the other, we’ve seen the Mumbai killings illustrate another set of risks that could materialise on our rail network. All of this is a reminder, if it were needed, of the pivotal security and anti-terrorism role of the BTP. The Olympics will bring a new set of exacting challenges and your key role in delivering a successful games, is one I fully recognise.
But the work this Federation does, the priorities you campaign on, the issues which matter most to your members, all of these things must be set against the backdrop of the crisis in the public finances and the scale of the deficit the coalition inherited from our Labour predecessors. This government’s most urgent priority is to tackle that deficit. From our first days in office, through our emergency budget to the spending review, we’ve been taking the difficult decisions needed to control spending and put the public finances back on the path to recovery. And let’s be clear, painful though some of the spending reductions will be, the consequences of not dealing with the deficit are far worse. We’d be facing spiralling interest rates and the risk of an Irish style budget crisis and bail out. Left untackled the debt we inherited, the largest in British peacetime history, would be costing the country £70 billion a year in interest payments alone by the end of this Parliament. That’s more than we’re spending on policing our streets and defending our country. And there are some things that public finance problems have in common, with a credit card bill, the simple truth is the longer you it leave it the worse it gets. The restoration of fiscal discipline is vital if we are to put this country back on its feet again and deliver the economic stability we need for jobs and growth. But we also recognise the crucial importance of modernising our transport infrastructure to make it an engine of economic growth and a gateway to a better quality of life.
And that’s why the Chancellor has placed a priority on transport projects, committing more than £30 billion of capital investment over the next 4 years, including, pretty much the biggest programme of rail upgrades in modern history.
McNulty and efficiency
But the fact is that the cost of running the railways has escalated dramatically over recent years. If we’re going to continue to deliver improved services and additional capacity that passengers want, the cost of running the railways has to come down. For the sake of both taxpayers and fare payers, it’s imperative that we achieve that goal. So drawing on the work being done by the McNulty Review, we’ll be challenging the rail industry to cut its costs. And I’m afraid it would be difficult to justify exempting the BTP from those efforts. I very much welcome the efforts you are already making to drive down costs and improve efficiency and I accept that the Olympics is a special case which requires separate consideration but I’m certain that the BTPA and the rail industry will rightly want to press for savings over the years to come. And given the amount of public money supporting the train operators, Network Rail and the London Underground, the cost of the BTP does have a direct bearing on the public finances, even though your funding structure is different from your Home Office counterparts. I’m confident that the innovation and dedication your force has always demonstrated will enable you to meet this new challenge successfully and to find ways to deliver top class policing outcomes within a the tighter funding environment which I’m afraid the crisis in the public finances makes inevitable.
Pay and pensions
In his speech, your chairman touched on the Winsor Review. Of course I fully understand your anxiety about what the outcome might be. This will be the most comprehensive independent review of police pay and conditions in more than 30 years. Working alongside police officers and their representatives, Tom Winsor’s key objective is to ensure that chief constables can deliver the frontline services people want, while securing value for money. And as Tom has made clear, his over-riding principle while conducting this review is fairness - “fairness to police officers and fairness to the taxpayer”. Your chairman also referred to the Hutton Review and the indirect impact it might potentially have on the BTP pension fund, separate though that is, from the public sector schemes which Lord Hutton is considering. Pensions reform is a massive challenge. Successive governments have put this issue in the ‘too difficult’ box. Well, the state of the public finances means that is no longer a viable option. But we have already made it clear that this is not a race to the bottom. We have decisively rejected this option. Lord Hutton’s remit is to come up with reforms that put public sector pensions on a more sustainable financial footing but do so in a way which is fair both to the workforce and to taxpayers. We want to see public service pensions as a gold standard, once again providing a benchmark for the private sector to aspire towards. Staying with pensions for a moment, in his speech, Alex expressed concern about the costs of the Pension Protection Fund. I understand why this matters to your members. So, officials from my department have been talking to the PPF on this issue to see if we can find a way to address some of your concerns.
And there are a number of other ways in which the Department for Transport is engaged on matters raised with us by the BTP. For example, we’re giving very active consideration to the BTP’s request for an armed unit. I welcome the progress being made on this issue. I know also that you have long argued that the football authorities and football clubs should take more responsibility for the costs they impose on police forces in general and the BTP in particular. Well, there are no simple solutions on that issue but I have taken it up with my colleagues at the Home Office and DCMS to explore whether change might be feasible.
Rising to the challenge
Beyond question these are testing times. But if anyone has what it takes to meet the challenge then it’s the BTP. By way of proof Alex pointed to some very impressive improvements in crime and detection stats from the BTP’s annual performance figures. In fact, over the past 6 years, crime on Britain’s railways is down a remarkable 25%, while the detection rate has improved by 18 points over the same period. It now stands at its highest level ever. These results speak far more eloquently than I ever could about the courage, commitment and dedication of all those who work for the British Transport Police. For example, your safer stations, safer journeys programme has helped reduce crime through high-visibility patrolling of stations and trains. You have also provided invaluable support to officials in my department on initiatives like the secure stations scheme which can have a real impact on quality of life for millions of commuters.
And I fully recognise the value of the work the BTP is doing to combat cable theft. Metal thieves targeting the railway are causing misery to thousands of passengers and freight users, because of the major disruption they cause. Network Rail anticipates that by the end of 2011, around 500,000 minutes of delay will have been caused by cable theft. I welcome the joint work being done by the BTP, the Home Office and Network Rail to tackle this crime, not least by trying to make it much more difficult for thieves to get cash for stolen metal. But perhaps the aspect of your working practices that I admire the most is the approach you take to getting the railway up and running again as quickly as possible after an incident on the line.
The leadership and officers of the BTP demonstrate a real awareness of the damaging economic consequences of prolonged railway shutdowns, not to mention the inconvenience and frustration for passengers. I think there are lessons here for the way we deal with incidents on the road and motorway network. I’ve repeatedly expressed enthusiasm for spreading best practice from rail to road in this context.
So in conclusion, for some 2 centuries, the men and women who tackle crime on our railways have been at the forefront of policing. I’m certain that the British Transport Police will continue to play a pivotal role in the success of this country’s railways. And that’s because your members and the unique police force in which they serve, are the people who day after day risk their own personal safety in keeping railways safe for others. In so doing, they are, as your chairman said in his speech, part of the bedrock of democracy. So I thank you once again for what you do to protect the travelling public and I thank you for listening to what I’ve had to say today.
(This speech represented existing departmental policy but the words may not have been the same as those used by the minister.)