HC Deb 10 November 1988 vol 140 cc498-512

4.9 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a further statement about the disastrous fire at King's Cross underground station on 18 November 1987. I am publishing today as a Command Paper the report by Mr. Desmond Fennell QC on his investigation under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 into the causes and circumstances of this terrible disaster. The House will join me in renewing on this occasion our expressions of condolence to the bereaved and sympathy and best wishes to the injured.

The House will also join in paying tribute to the many people in the emergency services, the staff of London Underground, the public, and the doctors and nurses who showed courage and dedication and gave help in this disaster. I repeat in particular Mr. Fennell's words that a large number of members of the London fire brigade behaved with conspicuous courage and devotion to duty. He particularly mentions station officer Townsley, who died a hero's death, and also the great courage shown by police constable Hanson of the British Transport police, which must have enabled many people to escape with their lives.

Mr. Fennell has concluded that the fire was started by a discarded match falling into accumulated grease and debris on the track of the escalator, and that it accelerated up the trench of the escalator until it burst into the booking hall causing the deaths of 31 people.

Mr. Fennell has made 157 recommendations. He regards 33 of these as most important and a further 59 as important. Action is of course already under way on many of them. Many of the recommendations require specific action by London Underground Ltd. to prevent a recurrence. They do, of course, include the most urgent removal of wooden panelling from escalators. I have asked London Regional Transport to have all these recommendations dealt with promptly. Considerable amounts will have to be spent. The plans announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 1 November already provide in full for all the proposals already put to me for spending on underground safety totalling £266 million over the next three years.

The investigation has shown major shortcomings requiring a new approach to safety management and fire prevention in the underground and specific safety audits by London Regional Transport. I am calling on both bodies to put urgently into effect new arrangements recommended by Mr. Fennell.

An enhanced approach is also required from the Railway Inspectorate and I have discussed Mr. Fennell's recommendations with the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission. I have every reason to expect that the present recruiting campaign will bring the inspectorate fully up to complement by the end of January. It will need to be further strengthened for the tasks that Mr. Fennell identifies, including the use of the powers of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to enforce measures needed for the safety of passengers on the Underground and, I must add, on other railways. The chief inspecting officer of railways is now organising a special investigation of London Underground with support from the Health and Safety Executive. It will examine the safety management systems and monitor the implementation of planned safety measures, and will be completed in March.

The lessons of this report go wider than London Underground and London Regional Transport. I have today written to the chairman of the British Railways Board inviting the board to consider the lessons of Mr. Fennell's report for the management and audit of safety. Letters are also being sent to the chairman of the passenger transport authorities in Tyne and Wear and in Strathclyde.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will shortly bring forward regulations under section 12 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 to require specific measures at Underground stations. This is the speediest means to introduce enforceable standards without uncertainty. The railway operators and fire authorities will be consulted on them. My right hon. Friend is commissioning special studies of the best methods to control the spread of smoke. These present difficult technical problems.

There are also lessons for the emergency services. Copies of the report are being sent to the London fire brigade and London ambulance service. I shall be considering its implications for the British Transport police, and my right hon. Friends concerned will be considering its implications for the emergency services for which they have responsibilities.

I have to deal with two particular matters. As regards the costs of representation at the investigation, after taking into account the special circumstances of this case, I am accepting in full Mr. Fennell's recommendations.

Secondly, on the position of individuals, following the fire, Sir Keith Bright offered to resign as chairman and chief executive of London Regional Transport. I asked him to stay during a difficult period, and he did. He has asked me again to accept his resignation, and I have now done so. Dr. Tony Ridley is a member of the board of London Regional Transport, and the chairman and chief executive of London Underground Ltd. He also has given me his resignation, which I have accepted. I shall make fresh appointments in due course, and meanwhile Sir Neil Shields, who is a member of the board of London Regional Transport, has at my request agreed to take on the chairmanship.

I conclude by expressing to Mr. Fennell and his assessors my warm thanks for a very full and thorough investigation. We must all ensure that the lessons of this tragedy are fully learnt and fully applied. The Government will play their full part to ensure that they are followed up as quickly and as vigorously as possible.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

On behalf of the Opposition, may I express our condolences to the bereaved and join in the tributes to the bravery shown by the people in our emergency services during this terrible tragedy. I congratulate Mr. Fennell on his report and recommendations. The inquiry was limited by the terms of reference laid down by the Secretary of State and that prevented a fuller examination of the real causes of this tragedy. Those causes included the climate created in London Underground Ltd. by the obsession with reducing costs through the continuous reduction of manpower and resources affecting safety, and the need for the responsibility for Underground safety to be transferred to the independent Health and Safety Commission.

Clearly one would like to have had the report for the three weeks that it has been available to the Secretary of State. I hope that he will confirm that there will be an early opportunity to debate the report and its implications for the future. The report makes clear that the responsibility for the monumental failure to provide the adequate safety standards that the travelling public have a right to expect lies directly with the highest level of management which enthusiastically implemented such a disastrous policy. There will be few regrets among Opposition Members at the departure of that management.

Can the Secretary of State inform the House in more detail of his reasons for refusing Sir Keith's offer to resign immediately after the tragedy? Was that refusal based on the fact that Sir Keith and Dr. Ridley successfully achieved the policy objectives of increasing revenue and of reducing costs, staffing and subsidies spelt out in a letter of 20 July 1984 by the present Secretary of State for the Environment to the chairman, Sir Keith Bright? In that letter there is no mention of the importance of obtaining the high levels of safety that are necessary in a public transport undertaking. That letter is a disgrace and was a contributing factor to this terrible tragedy. Sir Keith Bright's success in agreeing to reach these objectives presumably influenced the Government to recommend him for his knighthood.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, as the inquiry report shows, there exists among London Underground management a feeling that the financial climate ruled out proposals to increase spending in certain areas? These clearly involve the vital areas of safety, equipment, maintenance and staffing which were subordinated to the overall objective of increasing revenue and reducing subsidy as required by the Government. Would it not have been better to use those subsidies for the investment in safety that the Secretary of State now proposes in his statement? Does he agree that that would have been better than saving money for the Treasury? If those subsidies had been used earlier, the tragedy might have been prevented.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, since this terrible tragedy, there have been four fires per week to which the London fire brigade has been called, and a serious fire every two weeks within the London underground system? What reassurance can he offer to the House that proper precautions are being taken to avoid such disasters? Is he aware of the growing safety fears of Underground passengers, as detailed in the Evening Standard poll last Friday?

Will the Secretary of State now accept that the institutional changes in the safety responsibilities that he has just mentioned will not be accepted as sufficient by Opposition Members? His promise to bring his Department's safety inspectors up to the proper level is an indictment of his Department's attitude to the enforcement of safety in this matter. Will he now seriously consider the possibility of transferring the responsibility for underground safety matters from his Department's Railway Inspectorate to the independent Health and Safety Commission?

Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, as Secretary of State for Transport, he and his predecessors bear a great deal of responsibility for this disaster? His predecessor—the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), now Secretary of State for the Environment—assured me in the House that, in transferring responsibility for London Transport from elected London representatives to himself, the Secretary of State for Transport would be directly responsible and accountable for safety matters. Will he now accept that responsibility by following the example set by London Underground's most senior managers and tender his own resignation?

Mr. Channon

I endorse what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said in the first part of his remarks, but I disagree fundamentally with everything else that he has said to the House. In particular, he has misrepresented the position of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment when he was Secretary of State for Transport. He has misrepresented my right hon. Friend's letter, in which he set out the objectives of London Regional Transport. My right hon. Friend referred at the beginning of the letter to the Act setting out the framework of duties for the board and chairman of LRT. Safety is laid down as a paramount objective under section 2(2) of that Act.

Mr. Prescott

There is no safety in that.

Mr. Channon

The Act sets out the framework of duties. It is typical of the hon. Gentleman that he should misrepresent my right hon. Friend's attitude. If I am to be told that the Underground was better run when it was under the control of the Greater London council, I shall ask the House to bear in mind the level of investment at that time which led to great neglect of the Underground and which has taken a long time to remedy.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of other questions. He implied that the fire was the fault of the Government as they had reduced costs. The inspector stated: In my judgement there is no evidence that the overall level of subsidy available to London Regional Transport was inadequate to finance necessary safety-related spending and maintain safety standards. The House will have the chance to study that paragraph. [Interruption.] On the contrary, I have quoted the sentence and the paragraph. The inspector went on to say: I accept the evidence of the most senior management in London Regional Transport and London Underground that if funds were needed, funds were available. [Interruption.] If I do, my case will become stronger, not weaker. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has taken that tone in this sad and difficult situation.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)


Mr. Channon

The action that I have taken and the fact that Mr. Fennell's safety recommendations are now being carried out lead me to the view that the most energetic steps are being taken to remedy the deficiencies suggested in the report.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the chairman of London Regional Transport was right to offer his resignation immediately after the tragic disaster, but that, equally, my right hon. Friend was right not to accept it when action was needed and the person concerned was familiar with the overall situation and no inquiry had taken place which gave any indication of the cause of the tragedy?

Mr. Channon

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. That was why I asked Sir Keith Bright to stay on. During the inquiry, it was essential to have Sir Keith at the helm. That was the right course at that time.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

First, I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in supplying me with a copy of the report earlier this afternoon.

I wish to pursue the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Act setting up London Regional Transport urges it to bear in mind economy, efficiency and safety? What were the senior management of London Transport to make of an 838-word letter from the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), which talked only of economy and efficiency and said not a word about safety? Surely they were to conclude that economy and efficiency were more important than safety.

Does the Secretary of State accept responsibility for the shortcomings of his Department's Railway Inspectorate, which knowingly deployed only one health and safety officer to police the whole of the London Underground and British Rail southern region together? Were he or his Ministers aware that his railway inspectors were insisting on higher safety standards in Hong Kong and Singapore than they were demanding of London Underground?

Finally, it was accepted at the inquiry that Ministers were responsible for safety policy. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell us to which Ministers the chief inspector was referring on day 79 of the inquiry when he stated that Ministers had criticised the Railway Inspectorate for making too many safety demands on London Underground? Will he tell us, from the evidence in the review of the Railway Inspectorate, published in April 1987, who decided that the inspectorate should not check on the maintenance of operating equipment? If any of the Ministers concerned are still in post, surely they should follow the example set by Dr. Bright and Dr. Ridley—and, I hope, the other Ridley—and resign.

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend the Minister of State gave the hon. Gentleman a full written answer on his last point only the other day. No such instruction as he describes was given.

As regards the letter written by my right hon. Friend, the House can see from written answers exactly what my right hon. Friend said. The London Regional Transport Act 1984 states that London Regional Transport should have due regard to efficiency, economy and safety of operation. That is not qualified by anything later in the Act.

When my right hon. Friend wrote his letter of objectives to the chairman, at the beginning of the letter he said: The Act sets the framework of duties for you". It is crystal clear that he meant that the organisation should pay attention to efficiency, economy and safety of operation.

Mr. Fennell made some remarks about and criticisms of the Railway Inspectorate. He said that there was not enough "creative tension" between the inspectorate and the Underground. I accept that fully. We must learn the lessons for the future. Four actions have been taken. First, the Railway Inspectorate is setting up a special team with help from the Health and Safety Executive and the London fire brigade to examine the Underground safety management systems and monitor the implementation of the necessary action. Secondly, I have asked the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission for his views on the report. Thirdly, I expect to fill all gaps in the complement of the Railway Inspectorate by the end of January. Fourthly, I have asked the chief inspecting officer to review urgently whether the present complement is sufficient or needs to be increased in the light of Mr. Fennell's report.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Will my right hon.Friend confirm that the tragedy is unique in 60 years of the operation of the London Underground? Will he also confirm that Mr. Fennell's report establishes that the cause was nothing to do with a lack of investment or personnel? Is it the case that LRT has failed to use all the money that it was allocated? How much higher is the investment compared with that of the former Greater London council management?

Mr. Channon

I am glad to say that the accident is unique in the history of the London Underground. Most people would consider that on the whole the London Underground had a very good safety record in many years of operation. The inspector has made specific points on the question whether the cuts—as they are described by the Opposition—in investment or staff led to the disaster. I have already quoted him on the financing of London Regional Transport. He also makes a specific reference to the numbers of staff when he states: I found no evidence that the reduction in the number of operating or maintenance staff contributed directly to the disaster at King's Cross. I hope that that canard can be laid to rest.

As to the question of financing in the past few years, ever since the Government took over from the GLC the annual capital expenditure in real terms has been higher than it was in any of the last five years of the GLC. Today, in real terms, investment in the London Underground is running at double what it was in 1982.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Is the Secretary of State aware that, on 26 October 1987, Sir Keith Bright met a number of London Members of Parliament and expressed deep concern at the directions he was then working under, expressed in a letter reported in Hansard for 20 July 1984 at column 373? Is the Secretary of State aware that that letter requires a reduction in costs of about £95 million a year while maintaining fares at a stable level? Is it not a fact that the budget of the lifts and escalators department of London Underground was cut from about £11 million to £6 million in three years? Whilst the Act to which he referred, the London Regional Transport Act 1984, required, in section 2(2)(b), London Regional Transport to have due regard to safety, does he agree that the cut in the escalators budget to which I have referred shows an undue regard to economy?

Mr. Channon

On that specific point, I can only refer the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) to the conclusions of the inspector, who stated: In my judgment there is no evidence that the overall level of subsidy available to London Regional Transport was inadequate to finance necessary safety-related spending and maintain safety standards. That must be conclusive. The matter has been assessed by the inspector. He made those remarks and I should have thought that that would be enough to satisfy any reasonable hon. Member.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

No one would deny that I do my best to seek investment in the railways and public transport, but is my right hon. Friend aware that the remarks that he has quoted from Mr. Fennell's report seem totally to give the lie to the wild allegations made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who was giggling when my right hon. Friend began his statement? The hon. Gentleman's attempts to make party political capital out of people's personal tragedies are absolutely nauseating. Can my right hon. Friend—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Please ask a question. Many hon. Members wish to take part in the debate.

Mr. Adley

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that Sir Keith Bright was appointed to his job by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), who appears not to be here this afternoon? If that is the case, would it not be a good thing if the hon. Gentleman turned up—

Mr Speaker

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman has an interest in these matters, but a great number of hon. Members wish to take part and I think that two questions are enough.

Mr. Adley

Finally, can my right hon. Friend—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I said that two questions are enough.

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend asks about the capital spending. I can refer him to another remark that the inspector makes which is extremely important when the House and the public judge this matter. I very much regret that this discussion has turned into a debate of this nature. As the inspector says: There has been a tendency in London Underground in the past for capital expenditure to be less than the budgeted figure. Far from being restrained, London Underground did not spend money that the Government had authorised it to spend. That proves conclusively that, whatever dirt Opposition Members wish to dish out, their attempt to pretend that the Government are starving London Underground of investment is simply untrue and will not wash.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I point out to the House yet again that after these exchanges we have a very important debate on the immigration rules which is bound to end at 7 o'clock. I ask for brief questions and for hon. Members not to repeat what has already been said.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I regret that the Secretary of State did not do me the courtesy of letting me have an advance copy of the report.

Is it not the case that the most dangerous thing about the Fennell report is that it gives no precise explanation as to why the fire fireballed? We are offered a simple explanation or a hypothesis. Will he therefore guarantee that there will be further research into the cause of the fire to try to find a preventive cure? Does he accept that it is dangerous complacency to regard the disaster as a unique occasion and a freak fire? That is the way to slip into the slot of failing to take safety into proper account. Will he therefore guarantee that, whatever money is needed by London Underground over and above what is already estimated, that money will be found from the public purse and not through increased passenger fares?

Now that Sir Keith Bright and Dr. Ridley have done the honourable thing, will the Secretary of State tell us why he has not followed the doctrine of ministerial responsibility and offered his resignation; or has that doctrine simply been cast aside in the same cavalier fashion as the Government cast aside their other responsibilities to the travelling public?

Mr. Channon

When the hon. Gentleman has a chance to read the Fennell report in full, I think that he will find that my resignation is not called for. I agree with him about the great importance of finding a precise explanation for the appalling fire. There are some detailed and scientific explanations for what was a unique fire. However, as the hon. Gentleman was quite right to point out, that does not remove the necessity for every step to be taken to ensure that a fire of such a serious nature does not occur again.

As for my not being able to send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the report, under the rules of the House I cannot send every hon. Member a copy of the report. I only wish that I had been in a position to send the hon. Gentleman a copy rather than some other hon. Members.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that Conservative Members dismiss absolutely charges that he should tender his resignation? As those of us who were on the Select Committee on Transport are well aware, as early as the spring of this year his permanent secretary assured the Committee that money would be available to put into effect the recommendations of the report. Many of us feel that the Secretary of State has followed his duty absolutely correctly and should not be made the subject of political criticism by the Opposition.

Mr. Channon

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous support.

Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

Set against the Secretary of State's arrogant attitude in presenting the report today, the staff shortages and the understanding of members of staff that conditions on the London Underground were dangerous to such an extent that staff were disciplined for handing out leaflets only days before the disaster, do not his messages of sympathy ring hollow? They will not bring back station officer Townsley or anyone else. He got away with the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. Why does he not resign over this disaster?

Mr. Channon

I have already made my position clear. On staff, the inspector said: I found no evidence that the reduction in the number of operating or maintenance staff contributed directly to the disaster at King's Cross. The hon. Gentleman is right about one issue. It is essential in the future to have better trained staff so that they can be more efficient and carry out their duties more effectively. One of the main recommendations of the report points to a lack of effective training in the past.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the paint used at King's Cross station was not responsible for the so-called flash-over effect? If so, can he explain to the House the reason for the rapid spread of the fire?

Mr. Channon

The inspector came to the conclusion that the paint was not responsible for the flash-over effect. Rather than summarise what the report says on that technical matter, I urge my hon. Friend to read the report in full. There is a chapter about the cause of the flash-over. It explains why the fire, which was caused by a match falling into grease and which spread up the escalators, had what, as far as we know, was a unique effect in the history of fires.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I associate myself and my colleagues with the condolences, tributes and thanks expressed by the Secretary of State. Can he confirm that the evidence of the Fennell inquiry is that the tragic deaths followed four years of negligence on safety at the highest levels of LRT management? Is he honestly saying that he and his colleagues bear no responsibility for what happened when LRT is Government instituted and Government run? Given that Mr. Fennell makes it clear in his report that safety was not given such a high priority as productivity and efficiency, what guarantee is there for the travelling public that the next four years will see safety any more highly regarded than it has been in the past?

Mr. Channon

The London Regional Transport Act 1984 and the report make it clear that the responsibility for safety on the railways, not only the Underground, has been and remains the responsibility of the operators. That is the only practical way in which it can be carried out. The hon. Gentleman will know that that is the position on British Rail.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

That is what worries us.

Mr. Channon

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should say that. The safety record of British Rail has been extremely good.

The purpose of the report is to ensure that action will be taken on safety in the future. That is the purpose of the 157 recommendations, the majority of which have already been agreed, and the 104 action points in the London Underground programme. The report recommends a change in attitude towards safety, and I accept that.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Can my right hon. Friend assure us that the 157 recommendations will be implemented and that finance will be available to ensure that they are? Will he call for regular reports from LRT on the progress of the implementation? Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the past year LRT has continued to erect barriers which allow people to go in only one direction and that there is some concern about their safety? Can he comment on that?

Mr. Channon

Mr. Fennell asks for a further review of the new Underground ticketing system to be carried out in conjunction with the London fire brigade and the Railway Inspectorate. I strongly support that and it will be carried out. There has already been one review of that type, and the preliminary view of the fire brigade and the inspectorate is that it is safe. The second review is being carried out.

I can assure my hon. Friend that finance will not be a barrier to any of the recommendations being implemented. The majority of them are already in train, and I shall wish to discuss with LRT all the recommendations in detail.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the real tragedy of King's Cross is that for years hon. Members, especially London Members, have brought to the attention of successive Secretaries of State the ongoing problems of London Transport which were repeatedly brushed aside as being irrelevant? Does the right hon. Gentleman ever travel on London Underground? Does he ever travel on the Northern line and see the conditions under which thousands of people have to travel? Has he seen the deplorable stations, and is he aware that many escalators do not work? Where is the safety provision for those people? When will we hear from the Secretary of State that the people who run London Underground are committed to providing proper services coupled with safety and that the balance sheet is no longer the sole criterion for the way in which London Transport operates?

Mr. Channon

As a Member of Parliament for a constituency containing many thousands of commuters, I am experienced in travelling on British Rail and London Underground.

The hon. Gentleman asked about investment in London Underground. As I have said, about £230 million is being spent this year, which, in real terms, is double that spent six years ago. The programme continues to increase. I have announced recently an enormous project to modernise the Central line, which will cost more than £700 million. I have announced a programme for the elimination of the island platform and improvement at the Angel station. I have announced extra rolling stock and improvements at Liverpool Street. There are further announcements to come.

There is massive investment in London Underground and we shall press ahead as fast as we can, consistent with safety, to improve standards. The House, in its more sensible mood, will understand that it is one of the oldest systems in the world and that it is difficult to tackle the problems with the speed that most people would like. However, it will be done with vigour and energy.

Mr. Matthew Carrington (Fulham)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the many users of the London Underground will welcome the thoroughness and detail of Mr. Fennell's report and will be reassured by the conclusions he reached and the recommendations made? Will he comment on the need for joint safety training between the staff of London Underground, the London fire service and the London ambulance service, which seemed to be one of the major problems involved in the tragedy turning into a disaster?

Mr. Channon

I agree with my hon. Friend that the report is extremely thorough and makes a number of important recommendations, many of which have already received attention. When hon. Members have time to read the report they will agree that Mr. Fennell should be congratulated on his full report. My hon. Friend is right to point to the importance of joint safety training for the emergency services. That is a point made by Mr. Fennell. I strongly support that and will ensure that it is carried out.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Is the Secretary of State aware that, in his meetings with London Members of Parliament, Sir Keith Bright showed himself to be increasingly unhappy at the financial stringency being imposed upon him by the Government, particularly the elimination of Government grant? If the Secretary of State disputes that, perhaps he will give us the figures for Government grant over recent years. London Underground has been starved of resources and that has led to the virtual elimination of uniformed staff under ground. If he thinks that that is a good thing, perhaps he will speak to the Transport police. There is no doubt that financial considerations were put before safety. Sir Keith Bright only followed orders. The guilty men are those who gave the orders and they can be seen on the Government Front Bench. It is the Secretary of State and his predecessors who should resign, not Sir Keith Bright.

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. Hon. Members, when they get a chance, should read the report. Chapter 19 deals with the—

Mr. Leighton

What about Government grant?

Mr. Channon

I am dealing with that. Chapter 19 deals with the steady reduction in subsidy and points out that, while the subsidy was being reduced, investment expenditure increased by 48 per cent. in real terms. It goes on to say: In my judgment there is no evidence that the overall level of subsidy … was inadequate to finance necessary safety-related spending". Opposition Members, who are seeking to turn this terrible tragedy into a party political issue, are misguided.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's prompt and effective response to this important report, but will he pay particular attention to the detailed points made about safety on the Underground, one of which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims)—ticket barriers? Will he consider whether further action can be taken to limit all smoking on the Underground? I know that that is the technical position, but it is important that it should be enforced.

Mr. Channon

I agree with my hon. Friend's first point, which was raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims). I am strongly in favour of making the smoking ban more effective, but it is difficult to see how it can be done. Mr. Fennell makes two recommendations that may be helpful. First, he says that a byelaw should be passed to make it an offence to drop litter on the Underground. If such a measure were introduced, I am sure that the House would give it general approval. Secondly, he recommends that shops on the Underground should not be able to sell material that could later become flammable. That is a matter that LRT will wish to consider, and I have much sympathy with it.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Is the Secretary of State aware that, at a meeting of London Labour Members of Parliament on 26 October 1987, Sir Keith Bright said that he believed that the Government would 'push us down until something starts to happen', that is until LRT told the Government that there would be material deterioration of the transport service."? Is it any wonder that Labour Members hold the Government's policies as much responsible for that fire as the match that caused it? If there were any honour left among Ministers, the Secretary of State would resign instead of acting like Pontius Pilate and blaming everyone except himself.

Mr. Channon

I am not blaming everyone else; I am merely reporting the conclusions made in Mr. Fennell's report, which I ask the House to read in full. I am content to be judged by those who read Mr. Fennell's report, who will take full account of the investigation that has taken place. I do not know how the hon. Gentleman can make such remarks about the Underground when over the same period investment has increased by over 50 per cent. in real terms to improve safety and congestion from the pitiful levels of a few years ago.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, and West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a number of hon. Members served on the London Transport committee of the Greater London council? If any of those hon. Members, including myself, looked honestly at the figures for capital expenditure, they would have to conclude that the amounts allocated since the Government took control of London Transport have been generous to a point that would be surprising. Anyone who served on the committee during that time should be congratulated. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the major lessons to be learnt is that contact and liaison between the London fire brigade and LRT must at all times be wide and deep? When a fire is reported, the fire brigade must always be called.

Mr. Channon

As the question of finance has been continually raised by hon. Members, the House might like to know that the cash investment figures for 1988–89 are budgeted to be £230 million. When the GLC was abolished, the figure was about £117 million. In real terms, it has increased by over 50 per cent., which gives the lie to those who criticise the Government's investment programme.

My hon. Friend is entirely right about the fire brigade. Until recently, it had not been the practice under any regime for the Underground to call the fire brigade unless there had been an interruption to train services of about 30 minutes. A fire had to be serious before the fire brigade was called. That has been changed completely and the fire brigade is called as a matter of routine, which is to be welcomed.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

Will the Minister apply himself to the issue of the Health and Safety Executive? Is he concerned that it has little influence on safety on the Underground? Agency arrangements have been made whereby London Transport precepts money from the Health and Safety Executive, which has no influence although it provides the money. Is it not time that the arrangements were divorced so that London Transport does not inspect itself? An outside body with influence should make the inspections to replace the present cosy arrangement.

Mr. Channon

I have already had one meeting with the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission. I hope to discuss the report with him in detail, and I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Will my right hon. Friend dismiss with contempt the crude attempts of the Opposition to make partisan capital out of this enormous human tragedy? During exchanges, I distinctly heard the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), who is an Opposition spokesman on transport, accuse the Minister of dishonesty when quoting from the report. To provide further reassurance, after this exhaustive report, to the millions of people who use London Transport, including myself—the Labour party does not have a monopoly of hon. Members who use London Transport over and under ground—will my right hon. Friend ensure that steps are taken as quickly as possible, within the normal definitions of fire safety and fire brigade certification, to inform the London travelling public that all escalators will be fireproof, within the reasonable definition of that word?

Mr. Channon

Panels will be replaced, as Mr. Fennell has recommended, by July next year, which London Transport says is possible. I am determined that they should be changed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his wholly justified remarks about finance.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

May I, on behalf of those of my constituents who were bereaved by the fire last November, add my appreciation for the detailed work that Mr. Fennell has done, albeit with severe limitations as to remit? I add my tribute to the emergency services which helped at the fire, many of which were based in my constituency.

The Secretary of State has made much of his decision to bring the Railway Inspectorate for the Underground up to complement in January. What is the currently accepted complement? Why was it not fully in place prior to November 1987? Why were emergency steps not taken in the aftermath of last November to ensure that it was immediately raised to complement?

Mr. Channon

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks in the first half of his question, with which I agree.

The complement of the Railway Inspectorate is 24. I intend to have that fully in place by the end of January, and, as I have already told the House, I am considering whether the Railway Inspectorate needs strengthening in the light of Mr. Fennell's report. It has proved necessary, quite rightly, to have a special recruitment drive and to reconsider salaries. Budget has never been a constraint in the recruitment of railway inspectors, but there have been serious recruitment problems for a number of years.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Contrary to what the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) said, will my right hon. Friend remind the House that, apart from this one terrible disaster, Underground services must have improved because in the past six years the number of passengers carried has increased by 70 per cent.? That must surely reflect some credit on those concerned.

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The number of passengers carried on the Underground has increased considerably. Until this terrible disaster, its safety record was extremely good. I am sure that the House looks forward to the improvements that I have announced, which I hope will reassure the travelling public that every effort is being made to improve safety.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)

The Minister said that if funds were needed they would be made available. I find it difficult to understand why 31 people had to die to provide recommendations for the future. Will the Department of Transport ensure that safety considerations and public transport are completely divorced from any financial constraints that the Government may choose to place on them?

Mr. Channon

Some £266 million has been given to the budget, which was announced earlier this month. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I regard safety as a paramount consideration. The only remark made by the hon. Gentleman with which I disagree is that this disaster had to occur for these measures to be taken. As I have tried to show, the investment programme of London Underground Ltd. has been increased enormously over the past few years.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

The question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) included statistics showing that the number of passengers using London Underground had increased greatly in the past few years. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will agree that it is vital for the interests of London and Londoners that that increase should continue in the future because public transport is vital to all of us in London. Will my right hon. Friend therefore add to the confidence that many people already have in London Underground and London Buses by instituting a full safety audit?

Mr. Channon

Yes; I intend to have a special safety audit of London Underground which will report to me in March. I also intend to have a continuing audit, whereby I receive quarterly reports on safety matters on London Underground from now on. I think that that should reassure people about the improving safety record of London Underground.

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)

The Minister has stated that London Transport did not spend enough money or as much as was available. Which Minister was responsible for monitoring London Transport spending? Does the Secretary of State accept that, when London Transport was run by the GLC, the GLC transport committee monitored both revenue and capital spending very closely? Is not the Minister who ought to have been monitoring London Transport spending in some way responsible for the tragedy?

Mr. Channon

When the GLC was responsible for investment it was not difficult to monitor as it was exceedingly small. In the early 1980s it was about half what it now is in real terms.

Mr. Tony Banks

It was cash limited by the Tory Government.

Mr. Channon

In recent years London Underground has shown a much better record of spending its capital budget than some years ago. As the report points out, over the years there was a tendency for capital expenditure to be less than the budgeted figure. I am glad to say that that has been rectified.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

As one who has used King's Cross Underground station for many years and who went through it on the day in question, I put it to the Secretary of State that the cuts were obvious, even to the travelling public. For instance, ticket collectors were constantly missing and the exit from King's Cross was regularly closed so that everyone had to enter and leave the same way, which was highly dangerous. Is it not a fact that the number of cleaners at the station had been cut from more than a dozen to just two and that that played a role in the fire? Is it not utterly futile for the Secretary of State to talk about how much money was there when we could see the cuts taking place all around us, the effects of which were and still are dangerous?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman's comments are not borne out by the report, which deals specifically with staffing levels. I have already quoted to the House the fact that the inspector found no evidence that the reduction in the number of operating or maintenance staff contributed directly to the disaster at King's Cross.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the exits. Further instructions will have to be given to ensure that exits are open at the appropriate times.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

In chapter 19 of the report, paragraph 3(i) states: There was also evidence that when the budget for escalator cleaning was reduced, the effects were not fully considered at an appropriate level. Does that not come back to ministerial surveillance of the activities of the Underground? As this is not an isolated instance in terms of recent disasters, which have included Piper Alpha, Zeebrugge, Bradford—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let us keep to the matter before us as time is getting on.

Mr. Barnes

My question in connection with transport disasters such as Zeebrugge and the King's Cross fire concerns the possibility of national disaster legislation. In view of our experiences, would it not be appropriate to introduce such legislation based on the United States, Canadian, French and Australian legislation?

Mr. Channon

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is considering the latter point, and I will bring the hon. Gentleman's remarks to his attention. On the first point, I fear that this shows one matter for criticism by the inspector of the management of LRT.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Will the Secretary of State reflect on the fact that it demeans his office to try to brazen out a disaster of this kind and, like Pontius Pilate, to blame anyone but himself and his colleagues in the Government by giving misleading quotations, not quoting the report fairly, and seeking to introduce the superfluous question of investment when 31 people died due to accumulated grease and debris which had nothing to do with capital investment? Does the Secretary of State accept that it was a matter of revenue expenditure and that those people died because of cuts in manning? I put this to him bluntly: has he asked, or will he ask, his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to consider his position? If not, is there no hole into which he will not crawl and no argument that he will not use to cling to office?

Mr. Channon

When the hon. Gentleman reflects on his remarks he will find that they demean himself and his conscience. He should read the report in full before making such a ridiculous series of remarks. They were intended to be offensive and wounding, and they were indeed offensive. I assure the hon. Gentleman that if he reads the report in full he will see that I have given a fair account of it to the House.