Thursday, January 15, 2009

Conditions of carriage

Have you ever read the National Rail Conditions of Carriage? Or those of Transport for London, covering the tube and buses? Nor had I, even though we agree to be bound by them every time we buy a ticket and use the service. In fact, as they stand, the conditions are fairly innocuous, user-friendly and mainly concerned with where and when any particular ticket entitles you to travel. There are rules about not putting your luggage on the seats (oh would that they were enforced), or taking flash photographs on the tube. So far all very sensible and reasonable.

All that might change however if the British Transport Police get their way. Nominally as part of the fight against knife crime (a classic moral panic if ever there was one), they are asking the rail companies and TfL to write into their conditions of carriage that by purchasing a ticket you are giving your consent to be searched. Apparently it is not enough that they are already legally entitled to stop and search anyone whom they suspect of committing a crime - and carrying an offensive weapon was still a crime last time I looked. They basically want carte blanche to carry out what are effectively random searches on the travelling public. That's very different from anything already in the Conditions of Carriage, and it also overturns policing codes that forbid voluntary searches (a refreshingly sensible provision given that when confronted with two policemen and a dog nothing is really voluntary). It is in effect a change in the law, being proposed not just via the back door, but through the scullery window of the conditions of a commercial contract.

Please, someone, tell me I'm not the only one who has a horror of being searched. Call it a phobia if you like, you can even call it a neurosis; I don't care. I physically recoil both from that invasion of my personal space and the powerlessness which it represents. It is the things I hear about the indignities imposed at airports in the name of 'security' that is the biggest factor preventing me from flying. Even when it's reasonable and justified, I would still rather avoid situations in which it might occur. After all, I am a blameless, law abiding citizen going about my daily business, not giving even the slightest cause for suspicion. The sort of person with nothing to hide and therefore theoretically, nothing to fear. But I do fear this. I fear the ever growing power of the state, not just in some abstract way, but because of what it can do to me, personally, physically. It can assault my privacy, and my dignity, and even if I am exceptionally sensitive that still does not diminish my right - and yours - to be left alone.

The current request is couched in terms of the operation against knife crime, but if the conditions are changed, there won't even need to be a reason. Police are drawing parallels with the consent given when attending a football match. But there are a number of differences. A football match is essentially held on private property, and the owners of that property have the right to demand whatever conditions they like; take it or leave it. The public transport system is, notwithstanding privatisation, still effectively that - public - and should provide a service to everyone. More importantly, no one has to go to a football match, just as very few people have to fly. If I decide that foregoing that pleasure is a price I am prepared to pay to avoid the sort of environment where searches take place (and in the case of airports, where men with guns hang out), then I can do that without too great a cost. But I can't decide not to travel by train, because the cost - giving up my job - is too high.

I wonder whether I can verbally decline to give my consent when I buy a ticket? Not to a machine or a website, that's for sure. All I can cling to is that consent does not have to imply co-operation.

However, the police request has received a 'lukewarm' response from the Transport Select Committee, so perhaps it won't happen. Perhaps it was just a headline-grabbing or kite-flying exercise. A bit like the proposals a while back to introduce 'airport style security' at mainline stations as a counter-terrorism measure. Presumably the powers that be eventually realised that someone who wanted to blow up Kings Cross (say, as it's a route I'm familiar with) wouldn't actually have to board a train at Kings Cross, or even pass the station entrance. They could get on a train at Dewsbury, for example, or any other unmanned station on that line; change at Wakefield Westgate, which doesn't even necessitate changing platforms, and arrive at Kings Cross already on the train. So I live in hope that this latest wheeze is just another example of such short sighted, ineffective, superficial and excessive responses to threats whether real or perceived.


Martin said...

Well said Sarah. Thankyou for airing arguments like this and others.

Halfie said...

That should please Andrew from Holland (your post, that is).

Anonymous said...