HC Deb 19 November 1987 vol 122 cc1201-7 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the fire last night at King's Cross station.

At about 7.40 pm last night a fire broke out at King's Cross underground station on an escalator connecting the underground ticket hall area to the Piccadilly line platforms. Thirty people have lost their lives as a result of the fire; 20 were seriously injured. There has been extensive damage to the station ticket hall.

The injured have been taken to St. Bartholomew's hospital, University College hospital, Queen Mary's hospital, Roehampton, and the Wittington hospital.

I am sure the whole House would wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the families of those who have died and to those who have been injured. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

I should like to pay tribute to all those involved in the rescue operations, especially the fire service, one of whose members lost his life in the fire, the Metropolitan and the British Transport police, one of whose officers is seriously injured ; and to the ambulance service, the hospitals involved and the staff of the London underground. They all worked with the utmost bravery in appalling conditions to deal with the casualties and with the large numbers of people who were trapped underground by the smoke and flames. Without their dedication, the numbers of casualties would undoubtedly have been even greater.

I have decided that a formal investigation should be held into the disaster, conducted under the provisions of the Railway Acts. The evidence will be heard in public. I hope to be able to announce very shortly, after discussion with my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, the name of a senior QC to head the inquiry. The inquiry will be assisted by a member of the Department's railway inspectorate and by an expert in fires and fire prevention. The detailed arrangements for the inquiry will be announced as soon as possible. It will be for the inquiry to establish the causes of the disaster and to make recommendations to ensure that all possible lessons are learned. Its report will be published.

London Regional Transport, in collaboration with the police and fire services, is already examining the causes of the accident and its findings will be made available to me and to the formal investigation.

I understand from London Regional Transport that the Metropolitan and Circle lines through King's Cross are operating normally. Services on the Victoria, Piccadilly and Northern lines were suspended this morning, but LRT hopes that they will be resumed later today, although initially trains will not stop at King's Cross station. It is too early to say when normal services will be resumed.

Every year the London underground carries over 750 million passengers. I deeply regret that its generally fine record of safety has been marred by this accident. I am sure the thoughts of all hon. Members of this House are with those who have been bereaved, the injured and their families. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".]

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

May I, on behalf of the Opposition, express our condolences to the relatives of those who were killed and to those who have been severely injured and wish the survivors a speedy recovery? I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the emergency services. Everyone concerned clearly did a splendid job and we are grateful to them for that.

It is quite clear that a lot of questions will have to be answered and it may not be appropriate to put them now. However, I welcome the inquiry announced by the Secretary of State and especially the fact that it will be open, that the evidence will he heard in public and that the findings will be published. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the inquiry will be extremely far-reaching and will deal not simply with the precise cause of the fire at King's Cross and its effects, but cover all the facets of the operations of London Transport which affect future safety and the public? Have the lessons learned from the Oxford Circus fire inquiry been put into practice? Have any of those recommendations not been implemented?

When was King's Cross station last inspected by the London fire brigade? I understand that there should be an annual inspection. Even at this stage, can the Secretary of State say that the fire did not actually start on the escalator, but in a machine room or in some room underneath the escalator? As the inquiry will take a considerable time to reach its findings, will the Secretary of State immediately institute a fire safety audit on areas within the underground where passengers would be particularly vulnerable and put at risk should a fire occur? If such areas are identified, will he ensure that there are frequent and rigorous fire watchers to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy?

Will the Secretary of State also ensure that there is an immediate and urgent examination into the adequacy of the present sprinkler systems,? Will he ask other areas with underground systems such as Merseyside and Glasgow — although the circumstances of those systems are different from the London system—to consider their fire safety precautions very carefully?

As I understand perfectly well that the Secretary of State cannot make a detailed statement today because the circumstances are still unclear, once he receives the result of the LRT, fire service and police inquiry, will he make an early statement so that we can consider whether any other immediate lessons might be learned?

Mr. Channon

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions and I share the sentiment contained in the first portion of his remarks.

The hon. Gentleman correctly said that there are a lot of questions to be answered and that is why an inquiry is urgently needed. I have a whole list of the recommendations from the Oxford Circus inquiry that have been implemented. Of course that inquiry will be wholly relevant to the King's Cross inquiry when it is set up. As the House is aware and as the hon. Gentleman said, all underground stations are required to be inspected annually. In fact, King's Cross was inspected in April of this year.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's question about the machine room, it would be most unwise of me or the House to speculate on the cause of the accident at this stage in advance of an inquiry. I will, of course, discuss with the chairman of London Regional Transport—and have done so already—whether any immediate action needs to be taken, and naturally everything is being carefully considered.

The inquiry is required to investigate the cause of the accident and all the circumstances surrounding it and report on those and any other relevant matters, including recommendations designed to prevent a recurrence of this accident elsewhere. It is for the inquiry to decide how to conduct itself, but I would have thought that any reasonable matter could be considered.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

May I join the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) in paying tribute to those people who risked their lives, and in one case lost his life, in an effort to save the lives of others and get people to hospital from the holocaust at King's Cross? I hope that others, besides paying tribute to such services today, will ensure that they are not reduced in numbers tomorrow and over the next year. I hope that we do not go ahead with the proposed 800 reduction in the staff of the London fire brigade. I hope that the cuts of over 200 beds at the hospital visited by the Prime Minister today will be restored and that the health authority visited by the Prime Minister and her hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) will have sufficient funds to pay enough nurses and other staff to provide a proper service in the area.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that this is the third major fire at a tube station in my constituency in three years since the Oxford Circus fire; that few, if any, physical changes have been made to King's Cross underground station since then ; that there have been cuts in the staff deployed in maintaining the escalators, and that further cuts are proposed; that the staff at a station with eight platforms and a veritable rabbit warren of tunnels have been cut from 16 to 10; that the cleaning staff have been cut from 14 to two; that the training provided for station staff to deal with fires lasts for 30 minutes, and is not specific to their stations; and that no members of staff were taught how to help in an evacuation of the station?

Will the Secretary of State also confirm that the Chaiman of London Regional Transport recently said— referring to other difficulties—that too much risk had been accepted in the interests of economy? Will he confirm that the Government will not require any further such economies? Will he also make representations to the management of British Rail to persuade it not to take the threatened disciplinary action against staff at King's Cross who were yesterday threatened with such action for distributing leaflets which said that part of the system between there and Moorgate was a fire danger?

Will the right hon. Gentleman not only provide the funds to make the underground system safe, but change the management, so that it is composed of people who take it seriously?

Mr. Channon

I understand the hon. Gentleman's natural and rightful concern, as a constituency Member who is obviously very seriously affected by the disaster —as, indeed, is the whole House. I cannot agree with all that he has said, and the House would not expect me to. Nevertheless, I shall try to deal with the points that he has made.

I am assured by both the fire and the health authorities that they are more than satisfied with the adequacy of the resources available to them. Certainly, the emergency services seemed to operate with astonishing efficiency last night. As for the cuts in underground staff, it is the prime and the statutory duty of London Regional Transport to operate the underground safely. Safety is paramount in staffing considerations. An annual review of training and procedures has been taking place for some time with the London fire brigade, and efforts are continually made to improve procedures.

There has been a considerable increase in investment on LRT, a good deal of which will be devoted to safety measures. I assure the House that we shall go on with our large programme of investment in LRT, much of which is spent on the underground. That investment has risen considerably since 1984, and has included money spent on the renewal of lifts and escalators, and specific expenditure allocated for health and safety purposes.

With respect to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), many of his remarks are more properly a subject for discussion by the inquiry, rather than ones for snap judgments by any of us.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

Let me join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in conveying deep regret to all those who have suffered. As one who has used the London Underground for some 40 years, I believe that, in view of the standards that the staff have always shown with regard to safety and protecting the interests of passengers, it does no good to their morale to make the sort of remarks that we have heard from one person this afternoon.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the remarks on a BBC news programme at five past seven this morning, implying that the fire had been caused by rubbish under an escalator, were not what we expect from an impartial public service broadcasting organisation?

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that the London underground carries hundreds of millions of passengers a year and has an extremely good safety record. He is right also to point to the extreme devotion to duty of those who work on the London underground, in particular those who were on duty last night and today at King's Cross station, the many people who came back to work, and, indeed, others who helped in the appalling disaster.

As to the point about the BBC and speculation as to the causes of the accident, it is impossible at this stage to make any judgment, and it is irresponsible to make any attempt to do so. The inquiry will get to the bottom of it. The whole House and the country will know the results of it.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

As we on this Bench recently had cause to be grateful for the sympathy that was expressed by right hon. and hon. Members, on behalf of the Ulster community I express our sincere condolences to the bereaved and our concern for the injured.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Channon

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has behaved in a typically generous manner.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents in south Cambridgeshire who travel daily from Royston have to use King's Cross station and will continue to have to use it? Therefore, will he reassure them that, notwithstanding the dreadful tragedy, travel by rail, either overground or underground, is still one of the safest means of travel and, indeed, involves far fewer casualties than occur on the roads?

Mr. Channon

Yes, I understand my hon. Friend's concern and, obviously, his interest for his constituents and, indeed, the constituents of many hon. Members who travel on the line. I certainly confirm what he said. Travel on British rail and on the London underground is by far the safest form of travel.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

May I join the right hon. Gentleman and other colleagues on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends in expressing condolences to those who have lost relatives and to those who are now in hospital? I pay tribute to those who worked selflessly and, in one case, tragically, to save the lives of others. I hope that the Secretary of State will confirm that, of all fires, underground fires require particular preventive measures. They are the most difficult to deal with. The television pictures illustrated how horrific the fire was. When the inquiry takes place, will he make sure that evidence from the emergency services and from passengers throughout London is acceptable so that the lessons that can be learnt from the specific tragedy can immediately be applied to prevent tragedies throughout the network and throughout the capital? I hope that no evidence will be excluded on the ground of its irrelevance if it will save lives.

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks, which will generally be welcomed in the House.

The conduct of the inquiry must be a matter for the chairman. I cannot lay down how he will conduct the inquiry. As I said, the inquiry is required to investigate the cause of the accident and all the circumstances surrounding it. They are extremely wide terms of reference. I am sure that the inquiry will want to get to the bottom of the incident to see what lessons may exist to prevent any recurrence ever again.

Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

Will the Minister be assured that the people of the Province whom I and my colleagues represent extend their sincere and heartfelt sympathy to those who have been bereaved in the appalling tragedy? We earnestly pray that those who have been hurt will soon enjoy a speedy recovery. Will the Minister accept that we welcome a full-scale inquiry into the matter? Perhaps snap judgments about what happened may not be of best assistance to those who have suffered.

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I endorse the last part of his remarks.

Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

As a fireman for 26 years before coming to this place, I understand the conditions that were encountered and the tragedy that last night's events have inflicted on families. I add my condolences to those families, particularly to the family of Colin Townsley, a 45-year-old station officer from Soho, and to the other firemen who were injured. They typified the dedication and self-sacrifice of our emergency services. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that the safety aspect of all rail premises, particularly on the underground, will be looked into as a result of this tragedy? Will procedures for evacuation and escape in an accident be looked into? Will he ensure that maps of the warrens of King's Cross and other tube stations are made available to the emergency services and not locked away in the ticket office, as they were yesterday?

To support my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), will the Secretary of State, with the Treasury and the Home Office, ensure that the 800 jobs due to go in London and other metropolitan areas are saved by the Government, because yesterday's tragedy and the loss of life of members of the public and of the emergency services will pale into insignificance if these cuts go ahead?

Mr. Channon

I thank the hon. Gentleman, particularly for his opening remarks. Anyone who saw the fire service at work could not fail to have been deeply impressed and full of admiration for what it did. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to the work that it did and to the sorrow that we all feel at the death of one of the fire officers.

There is a conflict of evidence on the point about maps. I heard directly contradictory information about whether maps were available, so I asked immediately for the chairman of London Regional Transport to investigate this matter urgently to ensure that maps are available, if they were not last night. I do not prejudge whether they were or not ; it will be a matter for the inquiry to consider. We must take urgent action in advance of that. As to the fire services in London, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has considerably increased current expenditure, and he is keeping a close eye on the matter.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the concern that he and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have shown about this matter. Will he reconsider the ratio of investment in LRT between new investment, such as the docklands light railway, and investment in core infrastructure maintenance? Does he accept that the public transport is essential in a city such as London and that part of King's Cross is part of the oldest tube railway in the world? If we are to maintain and improve public transport, which is essential, we must build new lines and ensure that old lines are modernised and invested in to keep them up to scratch.

Mr. Channon

I agree with my hon. Friend and I shall consider the pattern of investment in the London underground. As I told the House, much of the investment is aimed at renewing and modernising infrastructure. Grant settlement for next year allows for high levels of investment, including renewal of lifts and escalators, specific expenditure for health and safety purposes — safety considerations underlie a major part of the total investment programme—and renewal of track structures and signalling. My hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point, which I shall examine.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement, particularly the form of the inquiry that he has now announced. Will he accept that when such large numbers of people are packed so tightly in such a confined space, as happens on the London underground, any sudden emergency puts life at risk? Will he therefore specifically ensure that the inquiry considers LRT's emergency procedures, the frequency with which those procedures are not only reviewed but practically tested and, most important, the adequacy of the training given to the staff in the operation of those procedures?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman raises two important points. I have read to the House on a number of occasions what the inquiry must investigate and it would be unlikely, even astonishing, if it were not to investigate the cause of the accident or the circumstances surrounding it. I should have thought that the emergency procedures and matters that the hon. Gentleman raised were wholly relevant to that point.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

As one who had to use the emergency telephone number and stay up all night, fortunately without justification, I should like to pay tribute to the ladies who dealt with that emergency service; they behaved splendidly, as did all the emergency services. In his earlier remarks, my right hon. Friend said that there were lessons to be learned. Would one of those lessons that he may consider learning be the feasibility of establishing some form of automatic sprinkler protection in places of public congregation?

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the first part of his remarks. The emergency services reacted to the appalling disaster with impressive and astonishing speed and efficiency. That was admirable and encouraging. Of course, the question of sprinklers and other such matters will be dealt with in the inquiry, and we shall consider them extremely carefully.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Is the Secretary of State aware that for some months concern has been expressed by London Members about the safety of the London underground? Written Question No. 15 today is evidence of that. Does he agree that in striking the balance that is always present between efficiency and safety, the regulations and management decisions inherent in that balance should receive the widest possible consent and agreement between representatives of those employed on the underground and representatives of those who travel on it?

Mr. Channon

I am sure that as a general statement that must be right. I ought to tell the House that the safety record of the London underground has been generally excellent considering the age, density of traffic and all the circumstances surrounding it. It compares well with underground systems abroad of a comparable age. I shall examine the hon. Gentleman's point.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have no knowledge of which right hon. and hon. Members have constituents who have been killed or injured in the fire. The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) has summed up the feeling of the House. We all have sympathy with the injured and with the families of those who have been killed as a result of the tragic fire.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.