Skip to main content

London Buses (Crime)

Volume 458: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2007

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

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to address the House on an issue of considerable concern to my constituents: crime and criminality on the London bus service. I am especially delighted to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), to the Front Bench. I could not have chosen a better Minister to respond to the debate than someone who has, for many years, shown a deep knowledge of, and commitment to, public transport in this country.

I would like to draw for the House a picture of the collision between two worlds. On the one hand, we have one of the truly great success stories in modern public transport: the success of Transport for London and public buses in London. It is widely known that between 1999 and 2005, there was a 5 per cent. switch from private car usage to public transport in London. That is the only shift of its kind in any major city anywhere in the world. We have 2,300 more London buses than there were in 2000 and they are 16 per cent. fuller than they were then. We have a bus service that is noted for its reliability, and waiting times have been halved. We have a wheelchair-accessible transport system. The system works to reduce the emissions of fine particles—hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide—by using the new particulate filters, which reduce emissions by 90 per cent.

While we have that success, we have another world—a darker, more dystopian world. That world is partly of perception and partly of reality. It is the world in which many of my constituents live and the world that many London Members will recognise. In my constituency, we have schoolchildren who are terrified to go on a bus. Teenage boys and girls come home and talk about being jacked, shanked, taxed, or peeled—words that are utterly foreign to me, but which refer to the habit of theft and robbery on the buses. Boys hide their mobile telephones under their belt at the back of their trousers, and their money in their socks.

What is the reality? On the one hand, there is the undoubted glittering success of bus transport in London, and on the other there is the reality of the way in which bus transport is perceived by many constituents, particularly the young, but admittedly also the old, who feel threatened on the bus. Many young people feel that to sit on the bench seats at the back of a Volvo bus is to emulate a goat tethered in a pasture, surrounded by feral wolves, and that to enter the back of an articulated bus is to enter a piranha pool where threat is all around them. What is reality, and what is perception? That is an appropriate question, bearing in mind that all afternoon the House has been debating the dichotomy between empirical and anecdotal evidence.

I am extremely grateful to Transport for London, and particularly to David Brown, the former managing director of surface transport, and Jeroen Weimar, his colleague, for spending a great deal of time discussing with me the statistics regarding crime on London buses. In March 2006, there were more than 4,000 reported crimes, which is 13 per cent. less than in January 2007, the nearest equivalent month. That represents one crime per 50,000 passenger journeys in the first quarter of 2006-07. The minute that I began to drill down into the statistics, I came across one of the most staggering that I have ever encountered: every year, there are 1.9 billion passenger journeys on London buses. That figure is not only greater than the population of India, which is 1.2 billion, but almost equivalent to the combined populations of China and India.

The perception is that crime is often committed by the young. In 2006, some 75 per cent. of suspects were under 25, and a third were under 16. I contend that there is a geographical element to the problem of crime on London buses, and there are three main areas of concern. They include what I loosely call the south-east quadrant, made up of Croydon, Bromley, Bexley and Greenwich, where crime actually increased last year, and the London borough of Camden, where bus crime increased slightly. One of our distinguished parliamentary colleagues wishes me to draw the House’s attention to the fact that he had his camera stolen on the N29 bus. The police and Arriva, the contractor, were incapable of retrieving the closed circuit television footage, because he could not give them the registration number of the bus on which he was robbed.

Bus crime figures are down in Kingston upon Thames, Wandsworth, the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, Haringey and Barnet, but last year crime was higher in the west London boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham and Ealing, and one has to ask why that is. I utterly reject the case, which has been made by some who should know better, that there should be a withdrawal of, or time limit on, free travel for under-16s. I do not see free transport for young people as a problem; rather, I see it as a glorious opportunity, a key to unlocking the secrets of our city. When my constituents from Northolt say that they have never been to London, it makes me think how important it is for people to have access to transport that takes them across their capital city, their home. That view was supported by 80 per cent. of Londoners in a recent survey.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for initiating a debate on this subject. Does he agree that it is particularly important that the minority who abuse the free travel concession are seen to be dealt with rigorously, so that the scheme does not fall into disrepute? Against that background, is it not a matter of concern that of the 2,390-odd passes confiscated from under-18s for bad behaviour, only 108 were permanently withdrawn? The fact that 88 per cent. of people who misbehaved were allowed to reapply and get back on buses raises concerns about how seriously Transport for London takes the policing of the policy.

I would make two points in response to the hon. Gentleman, who has a wealth of knowledge on the subject, and enjoyed a distinguished career as a member of the Greater London authority. First, the judicial process can take such a long time that in many cases the pass will expire. Secondly, about 60 per cent. of people caught on the buses do not have valid passes, which cannot therefore be confiscated. That—and unconsciously I keep echoing the debate that delighted and fascinated the House this afternoon—is a matter of statistical interpretation.

Is it the case that youth crime did not exist until bus usage increased, or has bus usage facilitated an increase in crime? What is the reality? I am delighted to pay tribute to Professor Trevor Bennett and Dr. Fiona Brookman of the Centre for Criminology at the university of Glamorgan, who have made the important point that crimes are committed not only from instrumental motives, as they are frequently part of a territorial or gang-status endeavour. I particularly wanted to bring to the attention of the House the fact that in many cases the problems on buses in west London are connected to gangs. Those gangs existed before, and they would probably exist if there were no buses. In many cases, however, we have created an adventure playground for “gang-bangers” or a street corner on wheels. Before, people would mark their territory in the manner of feral rodents micturating, but now they engrave their gang signs in “Dutch graffiti” or etching on the windows. In some parts of London, gang members smash windows to remove the tags of rival gangs, if the bus is in their own area. In my part of the world, gangs are known to everyone by their initials—NN or ATS. One gang, named not after the Jimi Hendrix song but the west London borough, is called Purple Hayes.

I accept that we must address the issue of gangs through their most obvious manifestation—tags—and I pay credit to the bus tag initiative, that is run by TOCU. I believe that that stands for the transport operators control unit.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that it stands for transport operational command unit.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman: I believe that TOCU stands for transport operational command unit. In my part of the world, a scheme funded by Transport for London and operated by TOCU on the E1, 120, 282, and E3 routes has resulted in considerable improvement. I pay credit to the schools that receive data from CCTV footage so that they can identify whether any of their pupils are involved in such activity. Paul Patrick, the inspirational head teacher of Cardinal Wiseman high school, begins each day by looking at CCTV images provided by the bus tag initiative to see whether any of his pupils have committed those crimes.

I pay tribute, too, to the safer transport team. There have been 1,200 extra police officers and police community support officers since January 2003, and I am delighted that some of them will come to Ealing in June 2007. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister and to TFL for bringing those much needed officers to our part of the world. The proposal to introduce Oyster photo cards for 11 to 15-year-olds by September 2007 is long overdue.

We need a communication campaign, and we are promised one in spring 2007. Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, wrote to the Mayor of London on 12 June last year in connection with the new initiatives for engaging with schools, and I understand that a schools liaison manager has been appointed.

The transport operational command unit mentioned earlier has been responsible for 27,217 arrests since its inception in June 2002. In view of that evidence of hard work, the very least that a Member of Parliament, albeit a lowly Back Bencher, could do is to remember what the acronym TOCU stands for. In addition, there are mystery travellers on the buses. The Evening Standard, in its usual malicious way, would say it is a mystery why anybody travels on buses. I refer to people who travel incognito to observe, and who have assisted.

I do not want to become over-parochial, but I am a Member of Parliament for my own area and we have a specific local problem affecting routes such as the E1, E2, E3, E6, E11, 92, 95 and 105, which all run through a very narrow area—a crossroads formed by the Greenford road, Greenford broadway and Ruislip road east. There are three high schools, one right on Greenford broadway, one to the north and one to the south. There are about six primary schools. When these schools turn out in the afternoon and all the buses come down to Greenford, the situation is so serious that I had to meet my head teachers yesterday morning. I was very distressed to hear that yesterday afternoon two young girls from Cardinal Wiseman high school were attacked on one of those bus routes.

The teachers are extremely concerned about what they see as a threat to their pupils. They do not want pupils to come to school worried, nervous or, in extremis, bleeding or robbed. They do not want feral gangs clustering around the school gates when the afternoon bell rings, and people getting on the bus in the manner of a felon mounting the scaffold. One should travel on the bus as part of a joyous experience, not anticipating the worst.

I am looking for a recognition from my hon. Friend the Minister that whereas Transport for London has been an immense success, of which we may all be proud—I happily give way to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).

It was not my intention to intervene, but such was my enthusiasm for the hon. Gentleman’s arguments and comments that I seem to have nodded with excess vigour. I fully support everything that he says.

I am sure that I am not the first person to have been led astray by the merry smile of the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry if that is a bit cheeky.

I am looking to my hon. Friend the Minister to recognise that there is another side to the great success story of Transport for London. Although she represents the Department for Transport, not the Home Office, I am looking to her to realise that as transport usage increases and as passenger numbers increase—possibly even beyond the immense, amazing figure of 1.9 billion—there must be a recognition of the potential dangers.

I hope that some of the statistics that I have given the House this evening will show that the problem may not be as bad in statistical terms as many would believe it to be, but I hope that the House will also accept from me that there are many good and decent people who are anxious, at the very least, and fearful, at the worst, about travelling on buses because of the actions of gangs.

I have not mentioned the assaults on staff, a subject which has been raised in the past. Happily, the numbers are now low, partly because TFL was intelligent enough to move to a virtually cashless system, contrasting with my day, when a heavy leather satchel laden with specie swung from my shoulder, making me a walking target. Assaults on drivers, including verbal assaults, are down to about two or three a day.

We have a success, we have a problem, and we have a solution. The solution has to be people on the buses protecting the passengers and supporting the staff. Whether they are called conductors, PCSOs, mystery travellers or police officers, I care not—what I care for is the safety and security of London passengers. TFL has shown that it cares for that, and the Minister is on record as showing that she cares for it, but that message has not yet reached the majority of my constituents.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to bring this matter to the attention of the House.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) on securing this debate on a very important matter for people who work on buses and travel by bus. In his usual inimitable style, he has brought to the House’s attention a matter of serious concern to his constituents and those of many other right hon. and hon. Members.

I should first say that responsibility for tackling criminal and antisocial behaviour on the London bus network is the responsibility of Transport for London, supported by the Metropolitan police. However, the Government take a very close interest in their work and seek to ensure that they have the support and funding to be able to perform that role effectively. I, too, am concerned that fear of crime should not dissuade people from travelling on public transport, whether in London or anywhere else in the country. I should like to put on record that criminal and antisocial behaviour against bus staff or passengers is never acceptable. We are committed to reducing crime and the fear of crime wherever it occurs in the transport system. My hon. Friend rightly talks about reality and perception. For that reason, before I discuss what is being done to combat bus crime in London, let me first be clear about the scale of the problem.

As we heard, vast numbers of people are using London’s bus network—a staggering 5 million a day. My hon. Friend rightly identified and paid tribute to the increasing quality of the bus service in London. London’s bus network is a low crime environment. It is worth reiterating that for every 50,000 passenger journeys, only one allegation of crime was made in the first quarter of 2006-07, and that the figure was one allegation in 47,000 journeys in the same quarter in 2005-06. We are clearly talking about a small number of allegations per day covering all criminal activity, much of which relates to vandalism and petty robberies rather than to more serious crimes.

Moreover, offences on London’s buses need to be seen in the context of crime levels as a whole. Crime in London is falling. The Met reported a fall of 6.8 per cent. in overall crime between January 2005 and January 2006. Over the same period, criminal assaults in London fell by more than 7 per cent. Of those incidents, only a very small proportion related to buses. That is not to play down the seriousness of crime on the buses, but we need to avoid being drawn in by attention-grabbing headlines that do not reflect the facts.

I understand and take on board what the Minister says. However, does she accept that, as the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) said, there is genuine concern in my part of south-east London that the figures there are higher than the London average and that many incidents go unreported? For example, people sometimes do not bother to report instances of antisocial behaviour disturbance. I am particularly worried about the evidence that I have heard from bus drivers on route 161 concerning repeated threats to which they eventually become so inured that they do not feel they are worth reporting. There may be much more of a problem than we think.

I have already placed on record, but am happy to reiterate, that such crime is unacceptable, whether it is towards bus staff or bus passengers. Any figures will show differences across London. As my hon. Friend said in his contribution, however, there is a difference between perception and reality.

Does the Minister recognise that some allegations made about members of the public using the bus service—for example, by the police—may turn out to be unsubstantiated? Without expecting her to know the details of the case of Mr. Hendry from my county—

Order. There is little time left for the Minister to reply to a debate about London buses. The hon. Gentleman was not here at the start of the debate, and he should allow the Minister to complete her remarks.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As a former bus conductor, my hon. Friend will know only too well that crime will always be a challenge for public transport operators. Public transport brings together large numbers of people, often in constrained spaces. That presents a particular temptation to thieves. Moreover, the transport network is an ever-evolving and hugely complex system—and just as transport develops, so do patterns of transport crime. That makes policing the network extremely challenging.

While such crime may be challenging, it is being combated. The Metropolitan police transport operational command unit, to which my hon. Friend has referred, has been key to that endeavour. Funded by Transport for London and jointly staffed, it brings together transport and policing professionals to target crime on specific bus routes and corridors where crime has been identified as a particular problem. I hope that that will reassure hon. Members and their constituents. The command unit deploys over 1,200 uniformed staff across the transport network as a whole. Their deployment is intelligence-led and focuses resource where it can be most effective.

As well as targeting serious crime directly, Transport for London is also working hard to tackle fare evasion, as research shows that fare evaders are often involved in other forms of crime. Transport for London has significantly increased the number of revenue protection inspectors on the bus network: by the end of March, there will be more than 300. They present a visible, uniformed presence to reassure passengers and assist drivers and the police when criminal behaviour is observed.

Government funding has also enabled Transport for London to ensure that all of London’s buses—more than 8,000—are fitted with CCTV. That not only provides much-needed evidence but deters would-be criminals and reassures passengers. Importantly, it is allowing more and more successful prosecutions when staff or passengers are assaulted, giving greater confidence to both staff and passengers.

Transport for London is ensuring that drivers are encouraged to report any crime or antisocial behaviour, however minor. I very much support that. That allows Transport for London and the Metropolitan police to identify priority areas. The introduction of code red calls to report emergencies gives drivers direct contact with the central control room, and has made it easier for drivers to report incidents when they happen. Again, I hope that that will reassure hon. Members.

Transport for London is not resting on its laurels. It has just finished consultation on its draft crime and disorder reduction strategy. That new initiative sets out its vision for tackling crime and antisocial behaviour and improving the public’s perception of safety and security, about which my hon. Friend is particularly concerned.

On youth crime, there has been some recent, and unfortunate, media coverage alleging increasing levels of yobbish behaviour on buses in London as a result of the Mayor’s decision to extend free travel to under-18s in full-time education. It is important to get some perspective on the matter. Very few young people getting free travel in London cause difficulties on buses, and we must not forget that many young people are themselves victims of crime. While there have been anecdotal reports of higher rates of antisocial behaviour, the reality is that there has not been a notable increase in youth crime on London buses. Where youths are persistently causing trouble, the Home Office gave Transport for London, in September 2006, powers to employ antisocial behaviour orders against persistent offenders. That sets out the reality of free travel for the under-18s. I hope that it will be continued in London. I am aware from my hon. Friend and others that it is under threat from Conservative Members of the Greater London authority who think that it should be terminated or changed. That would be a sad day.

The Government are determined to reduce crime and the fear of crime on our vital public transport services. People in London and across the UK have the absolute right to bus travel that is safe and unintimidating. The Government will continue to work closely with Transport for London and operators to ensure that that happens.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o’clock.