HC Deb 08 February 1991 vol 185 cc517-35

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who are present to take part in the debate. If any hon. Member is present because he or she was not able to get home, I commiserate, but I hope that he or she will enjoy participating in the debate.

Every good text should be headed by an adage or a quote. My first is from Cicero: Salus populi suprema est lex"— the safety of the people shall be the highest law. The second quote is a couplet by Charles Churchill: In full fair tide let information flow. That evil is half-cured whose cause we know. Those two quotations sum up the purpose and meaning of the Bill, so perhaps we may bear them in mind as we proceed.

Two years ago last December, there was a disaster in my constituency. I vividly recall that morning at Clapham junction, Battersea rise when we saw the carnage of a rail crash. We saw the courage of everybody involved—those who were on the trains and those who came to support and, where possible, to rescue them. We were all moved on that occasion, as we have been on other occasions. Any hon. Member who witnesses such scenes immediately feels helpless. As a constituency Member, there is precious little that one can do beyond sympathising and encouraging. After such an event, one examines whether there is any way in which one can help in future. Also, one becomes more determined to find out whether there is anything that one can do to prevent such a thing happening again. That is our constituency and democratic duty.

When we read the Hidden report, we saw that there was something that we could do and that such an event did not need to happen. That report and others have often pointed out that information has been received in the past by authorities with responsibility for venues or transportation operations when there has been a disaster, and that something could have been done if that information had been acted on. Throughout disasters one hears the cry of people whose family who went to a certain football match or travelled on a certain train—"If only we had known that the risk was there, we would not have gone that morning. We would not have let our family travel or go to that event." That cry is repeated in disaster after disaster.

Some of my constituents' relatives were killed in the King's Cross fire. I was more than happy to sponsor the Bill presented by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin). That Bill was too low in the ballot and it was deemed to be too complicated and in need of too much scrutiny to allow it to be passed on the nod. Although 368 Members of Parliament supported an early-day motion urging that that Bill should be given a fair passage, that was not possible. I do not complain about that. On this occasion, through the luck of the ballot, I am able to introduce a Bill which has an opportunity for such scrutiny. I hope that there will be no opposition to the Bill's proceeding to the next stage, for detailed scrutiny in Committee.

The Bill is designed to save lives, protect limbs and health and encourage the faster rectification of perceived risk. It is in the tradition of the public's right to know. I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Employment to the debate and advise him that all such measures have been passed during periods of Conservative government. The maiden speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) was on a private Member's Bill, the Public Bodies (Admissions to Meetings) Bill, which became the 1960 Act. That measure was extended in the Local Government Act 1972, which allowed access to local authority committees. In 1984 the Government enacted the Data Protection Act.

However, alongside those Government measures, there has been a series of private Members' Bills, none of which could have been enacted without the support and acquiescence of the Government. Those Bills range from the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 and the Health Service Joint Committees Consultative (Access to Information) Act 1986 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), through the Access to Personal Files Act 1987 and the Access to Medical Reports Act 1988 in the name of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). Those private Members' Bills also include the Environment and Safety Information Act 1988 in the name of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) and the Community Health Councils (Access to Information) Act 1988 in the name of the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds). Each of those measures succeeded under this Government because they were simple, straightforward and deliberately limited in scope. They coped with proven difficulties and provided a simple solution. My Bill is in that tradition. It is designed to be limited and to provide a simple solution to proven problems and difficulties.

Alas, no measure of mine or of any other hon. Member can prevent disasters. Sadly, disasters will always happen because of human frailty and error, sometimes because of mechanical failure and sometimes, alas, because of malicious acts by individuals. We cannot prevent disasters, but we can make them less likely to happen. We can do that if we make perceived risks public.

I want to thank people who helped me produce the Bill. In particular, I thank the community rights project and its officer Rachel Pitkeathley who helped me to draft this Bill. The community rights project helped me with my earlier attempt and I believe that we have refined the principle considerably into a measure that is acceptable to just about everyone to whom I have spoken.

The community rights project was formed in 1983 to assist Parliament and local government to provide the public with sensible access to local and public authorities. My Bill is a further step in its campaign and I salute the project and its efforts.

I want particularly to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), his colleagues and officials at the Department of Employment and the officials in the Health and Safety Executive. They went to extraordinary lengths with great patience and perseverence to ensure that I understood their concerns about the Bill and together we have drafted and redrafted the Bill to meet those concerns.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept that I have met the problems that he raised about the Bill. He also helped me to identify problems that other Departments might have with the Bill. That has enabled me to talk to other Ministers and Departments. In each and every case where I have spoken to Ministers and their officials, I have been able to satisfy them. I have been able to do that because the perceived problems were based on misconceptions about the Bill. There may have been perfectly valid reasons for those misconceptions because in some cases officials examined my earlier Bill and assumed that I was trying to do the same thing in the same way, or they were not aware of amendments that I had incorporated in this Bill or of amendments that I intend to bring forward in Standing Committee.

All the Departments have been helpful and I am not aware of any Minister who has found difficulty with the Bill once the details and sequences were explained. Problems such as the cost to local government have been eliminated through the removal of part of the sequence that would have involved local government in operating the Act. Local government's only role now is to provide information to the public on request. I have been told that local government does not believe that that will have any staffing or additional cost implications. If local government is a safety authority, it has a role but that is separate and involves seeking and identifying risks.

There were also problems about costs to industry. The only cost to industry under the Bill would be the cost of correcting things that industry should have put right anyway to protect the public.

Mr. John Ward (Poole)

A number of my constituents suffered bereavement in the Clapham rail disaster which also left some of my constituents seriously injured. The relatives and friends of those people have asked me to be present today to support the Bill. However, there is a difference between the Bradford fire, where things were known in advance, and the Clapham disaster. Can my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) assure me that in the Clapham case my constituents would have been able to receive a warning, under this Bill, of the potential dangers which were all too real in the event?

Mr. Bowis

My hon. Friend represents families of people who suffered bereavement and injury on that dreadful occasion. I have received messages of support from many hon. Members who have experience of people who have been involved in disasters elsewhere in the country.

The simple answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Ward) is that there are some disasters for which one can identify how my Bill would have been triggered immediately and directly. For other disasters, there is the potential for it to have been triggered indirectly. The Clapham junction disaster was one of those disasters where it would have been triggered indirectly. It would have been possible for British Rail employees or anyone else who knew of the warnings that had been received to draw them to the attention of the railway inspectorate or any other safety authority which might be involved. The safety authority would have investigated the representations and the procedures in my Bill would then have operated. It would have been an indirect procedure, not a direct one.

I am also grateful to the British Safety Council and its assistance in drafting the Bill and its constant support. I thank also the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and others, including the National Consumer Council for England, Wales and Scotland, and the Consumers Association. The Association of British Insurers has been helpful, as has the civil protection co-ordination group. I am particularly grateful to Sir David Napley who came forward with some ideas which I have mostly been able to incorporate. I am also grateful to the Public Bill Office for its patience in helping to draft and redraft my Bill to get it right.

I am also grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I welcome the presence of the hon. Members for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) and for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). My Bill is an all-party measure and it has received tremendous support from colleagues on both sides of the House. Not one hon. Member has said, "This is a measure I wish to oppose." Perhaps above all one should remember and pay tribute to the group that comes together under the newly formed organisation, Disaster Action, which has given such inspiration and support to the Bill. It is a compassionate support. The group is made up of families of victims and the survivors of various incidents and disasters. I pay tribute to them because their first instinct must be one of great sorrow. If one has lost someone in such a disaster, that sorrow can develop into simple anger that the disaster happened and could happen again. Those people have formed groups to help each other by talking about the incident and helping families through the trauma. Above all, they have been determined that from the lessons of the disaster which affected them they will formulate proposals to help others.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

I, too, had many constituents who were killed in the Clapham rail disaster. Several of the relatives have written to me to say how grateful they were to my hon. Friend for introducing the Bill.

Mr. Bowis

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and he and I are grateful for their support and guidance.

I have had many letters on this matter. I draw the attention of the House to two that sum up the views. The first is from someone who was involved, as the House will hear, in a disaster. It says: On 12 December 1988, I was hauled out of the crashed train outside Clapham Junction with a fractured spine. Fortunately I survived but 35 fellow passengers were killed. At the subsequent inquiry it became apparent that similar faulty wiring, which had caused the crash, had been identified as a hazard on five previous occasions. It was only because of this inquiry that these previous 'wrong side' failures became known. I feel sure that, if this information had been made readily available to the public, the press and particularly to British Rail passengers, the pressure for remedial action would have proved irresistable … I believe that this straight-forward measure will allow the public rightful access to such information and increase pressure for preventative action to be taken on safety hazards, which in the specific circumstances of the Clapham train disaster, might have saved the lives of 35 people. That is from one of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Poole. It explains how in that instance the Bill would have helped.

The second letter is from Mr. Ronnie Farley, former leader of Bradford city council, who wrote to me: On 18th July 1984, when I was Leader of this Council, we received a letter … concerning the Bradford F.C. ground, which included a report with the words, 'the timber construction is a fire hazard and in particular there is a build-up of combustible materials in the voids beneath the seats … This information never reached the public or the elected Members, as there was no legal requirement for it to do so. No-one deliberately suppressed it—an error of judgment was, however, clearly made. Had the Public Safety Information Bill been law, the letter would have been made public and the matter would have been discussed in public at the next meeting of the relative Council Committee…the public gallery would have been packed; the story would have been front page news in our local papers. In these circumstances I can not conceive it possible that no remedial action would have been taken, in which case the fire would not have happened and people would be alive today … I personally knew people who went to the ground in ignorance of the dangers and died in the fire.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

Is my hon. Friend aware that councillor Farley was instrumental in helping the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 through this place. The Act requires that when—to take the example that my hon. Friend gave—information comes before a committee it is made available. But if there is no reason or need for the matter to come before a committee, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that the matter remains in confidence. That is why my hon. Friend rightly seeks to change the law today.

Mr. Bowis

My hon. Friend is right. Happily, Mr. Farley has confirmed that Bradford council now follows as closely as possible the procedures proposed in my Bill. But Bradford was a case where there was a specific warning to which the Bill would apply. Lives could have been saved. Sometimes we can identify a specific warning. Even though the warning was not deemed sufficiently substantial to close the ground, it was much stronger than an improvement order. However, in cases that my hon. Friends have identified, one must consider the future in hypothetical terms. No one could expect me to say whether my Bill would apply in a certain circumstance. For that reason, although 1 can look back and give examples of where my Bill would have applied, it would be wrong and absurd to seek to identify specifically whether my Bill would apply on any possible future occasion. That is why the Bill gives great discretion to the health or safety authority. That must be the right way of achieving what we seek.

We know that in the case of the King's Cross fire, warnings were given. There were 46 escalator fires between 1945 and 1988 and reports were received from the fire brigade, the police and the fire prevention committee. Following the Oxford Circus fire in November 1984, the fire safety task force was set up but no report had been published by the time of the King's Cross fire in 1987.

The report of Desmond Fennel said: I view with dismay, the suggestion that information gained by a statutory authority, which has a bearing on the safety of the public using a system for mass transportation, should not be made publicly available. The travelling public have a right to know about the safety arrangements made by transport operators and the safety of places in which they habitually gather. That could not be clearer, but there will always be cases where individuals could take action—perhaps, to take the Zeebrugge case—the captain of a ferry. If he previously spotted that there was a gap in the safety procedures because there were no lights on the bridge to identify whether the bow doors were closed, he could make sure that a procedure was implemented. The Zeebrugge disaster took place on 6 March 1987. Two years later, on 26 March 1989, The Sunday Times reported that 12 ferries were operating passenger and freight services from British ports but failing to comply with the safety standards adopted after the Zeebrugge disaster. The Government safety check on six ferries showed that they could not be brought up to standard. Six ferries failed the test, but could be modified. Those were only the important ones. The officials said that they had not said that the boats must be made to comply by a certain date. They had left it to the owners to bring them up to standard as soon as they could. That may have been sufficient legally, but it was not sufficient for the passengers of those ferries. Passengers should have been warned that the measures identified in the report on the Zeebrugge disaster had not been implemented on the ferries and so they travelled at their own risk.

Having said that, I make it clear that my Bill specifically requires the operators and occupiers to remain responsible to the public. The Bill does not remove any form of public liability. The Clapham tragedy, to which I have inevitably referred many times, led to the Hidden report which showed that there had been five previous similar incidents of faulty wiring, as the letter that I quoted shows. Hidden said that the result of those previous reports was simply a flurry of paperwork … which provided important information, but on a very limited circulation … those lessons should have been learned and had that happened, there would have been no accident at Clapham Junction on 12 December 1988". In other words, if the public and the press had known, Parliament would have known. Pressure would have been put on and there would have been questions in the House to the Secretary of State for Transport so matters would have been put right before that occasion.

The Bill does not deal simply with major disasters; it covers the smaller incidents and tragedies as well. We have evidence of problems with fire escapes in residential homes, with lifts in nursing homes and with security at zoos. The problems do not have to result in death; they can be a health hazard as well as a safety hazard.

I want to draw the attention of the House to a report that has recently been highlighted. It was given to British Rail in 1957 and pointed out that the habit of flushing train loos on to the track was a health hazard which could lead to dangers to passengers, to people living alongside the track and to railway workers. That has been amply underlined recently in a television programme in which some of the railway workers were interviewed about the risks that they took. The risks were identified as typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis and tetanus. I suspect that one might now have to add AIDS. Yet that report was kept secret for 34 years after it had been received. Nothing has been done and 80 per cent. of trains that have lavatories still travel without the sealed containers that could be emptied at depots. That is a health hazard which the public would probably think was unacceptable. If they had known about it at the time of the report, we should have had 30 years of campaigning by this place, as well as outside, to put matters right.

The Bill has a simple sequence and it has been made simpler thanks to discussions with my hon. Friend the Minister and with others to take out some of the chain of command. A ministerial colleague said to me that the Bill was in danger of being like "the king told the queen and the queen told the dairymaid". I accept that—although by the time he told me, we had removed some of the sequence.

The sequence now is simply that the safety authority —the statutory authority—identifies a risk that it deems to be substantial. It gives a warning to the occupier or to the operator and at the same time issues a notice to that occupier or operator which has to be put on public view at the point of access to the premises. At the same time, it provides the local authority with a copy of the full warning and the local authority, through its environmental safety office, makes that available to the public on request. The notice remains there and it is up to the public, the press, Parliament and local councillors to take it further and to put the pressure on. The next step is that when the risk is deemed to have been removed, the authority permits the notice to be taken down. Nothing exempts the occupier from public liability.

I have already mentioned some drafting amendments.

Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)

I notice that clause I applies to "any means of transport". Does my hon. Friend intend that that should apply to aircraft? Presumably they are movable structures within the meaning of the Bill. If my hon. Friend does intend that, will he tell us a little about how he thinks that it would help air safety?

Mr. Bowis

The Bill could apply to any form of transport to which the public are admitted. It would not cover the private vehicle or the private aeroplane. It would not override any existing safety legislation. I am about to deal with a change to the Bill that may help my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground). He may be thinking of a case in which the Bill which would not work and in such a case it would not apply. If safety legislation already covers the operation of an aircraft or of an airport, the Bill would not undermine that. The only thing that the Bill can do is to provide the safety authority with a measure short of closing down the airport or taking the aeroplane off the runway. The decision will have to be made as to whether a case is severe enough for existing legislation to apply or whether the Bill should apply. That is not my judgment, or the judgment of legislation—it will be the judgment of the safety authority concerned.

I wish to deal now with the changes made to the Bill, which may help my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston. We originally thought that we should list all the safety authorities, and the Acts under which they operated, to which the measure would apply. In all humility, I thought that I was asking too much of myself. We decided to include exemptions and we exempted matters of terrorism and of national security. That applies considerably to airports and to flights.

However, we had discussions with officials at the Department of Employment and they offered—I checked with them yesterday and they are still offering—to come forward before the Committee stage with a list of all the safety authorities that they think would operate under the Bill and of all the Acts under which they would be operating. The advantage of that is that it would also provide for another gap in the Bill—the appeal procedure, which I acknowledge should be included. However, I was loth to include a great new paraphernalia of appeals procedures, and the relevant Acts already have their own appeals procedures. I decided that the measure should follow that route without adding to the legal complexity of the process. I hope that that will answer the point raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

My hon. Friend referred to the small extent to which the Secretary of State may exempt matters. Would it be preferable for the Secretary of State to be able to order that certain types of premises would not be subject to the Bill? My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground) asked whether aeroplanes would be subject to the Bill. I suspect that there might be some difficulty with aeroplanes which are registered in other countries and fly to this country only occasionally.

Mr. Bowis

We propose to remove clause 1(4). We propose to take out the whole business of exemptions by including the positive requirement to include the areas that the Bill would cover.

The other changes are comparatively minor. Through a typographical error, we missed out the London boroughs when we referred to England and Wales in clause 2(2). That should also apply to the London borough councils. We did not seek to exempt them. Even more staggeringly—I take all the blame for this—I missed out two important local authorities: the sub-treasurer of the Inner Temple and the under-treasurer of the Middle Temple. I hope that the House will forgive me.

We intend to delete clause 2(3) because it would be unnecessary. It is clear from what I have already said that under clause 2(5) the public safety officer would not have to serve the written warning; the local authority, as the safety authority, would issue that notice. That change is to be made in response to helpful suggestions from the Department of Employment and its officials, and I happily concur with that. It meets the arguments about "the king asked the queen and the queen asked the dairymaid".

My final concession is a sad one. I had thought that I could go to the ramparts to defend the imperial system, but I am told that it is not permitted and that I must go metric. Thus, in clause 2(6), the term 2 ft by 1 1/2 ft is no longer allowed and the Bill must use metric terms, such as a fraction of something, times something. I regret that, but such is progress.

The Bill's merits are that it is flexible and allows a degree of discretion on the definition of "substantial." We shall have the opportunity to discuss that word in Committee, but discretion rightly exists for the safety authority. It will provide the safety authorities with an additional weapon in their battle to protect the public. I hope that the Bill is sensible in what it excludes and includes.

The Bill is certainly not costly—any costs incurred will be negligible. Local authorities will acknowledge that, in terms of their role of providing information to the public, as they do constantly, the Bill will not require them to make extra provision. The cost to the occupiers will simply be the cost of putting risks right. The safety authorities have already said that they are willing to meet any necessary costs, but nobody has approached me to say that there will be significant additional costs in policing by the safety authorities.

To say that the Bill will have no cost implications would be absurd. There will be some costs in sending out notices and, to a greater extent, in checking existing risks. However, I invite any hon. Member or right hon. Member who says that the cost will be too high to remember the Clapham junction crash and the damage to individuals' lives that it caused. There was a cost in lives and all the costs of a disaster. There was a cost to the rolling stock, the track and the disruption of the railways. There was a cost to the emergency services—the police, and fire brigade and the ambulance service—and to the local authority services, which attended without hesitation, from early in the morning until several days later, putting right the area affected. There were costs to the medical services—the nurses, the doctors, the helicopter flights and the blood transfusion service.

Furthermore, there were costs to the bereaved families and the expense of insurance compensation. Thank God that British Rail immediately admitted liability and agreed to pay up. There was the additional expense of counselling the bereaved and those people traumatised by sights that most of us would wish never to see. All those costs are enormous, although I doubt whether they have ever been quantified. Any expenses that the Bill might involve therefore pale into insignificance beside the cost in individual lives and the financial price of a disaster. I hope that I have put any worries about cost into context.

I believe that the measure will be effective, whether modestly or dramatically. The Bradford disaster shows that it will work and the Clapham junction disaster shows that it could work. There are many other occasions when we think that it might work. The Bill will succeed even if it is never used, because the pressure of having the provisions on the statute book will encourage more people to remove risks to members of the public. I refer to the maiden speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley when promoting her Public Bodies (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Bill. She quoted from the Franks committee report, which stated: Publicity is the greatest and most effective check against any arbitrary action, and said: That is one of the fundamental rights of the subject. She later said: the paramount function of this distinguished House is to safeguard civil liberties rather than to think that administrative convenience should take first place in law."—[Official Report, 5 February 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1351–57.] If the House will not listen to my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley, perhaps it will listen to the Health and Safety Commission, the authority set up by the Government to monitor the situation in relation to work, information and risks. Its 1985 policy statement on access to health and safety information by members of the public states: The public should be in a position to understand the nature and extent of important hazards, and where their own immediate safety or health could be at risk, should be in possession of information enabling them to understand their position. That is what the Bill is about.

I shall quote Dr. Johnson, as one perhaps always should, who in his common-sense way said: About things on which the public thinks long, it commonly attains to think right. The public have thought long about this subject, and have had many reminders over the years as to why they should think long and hard about what is necessary. I believe that the public have come to the conclusion that they should have their right to know extended. The public are right, and I hope and believe that the House will concur.

10.17 am
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Of course the public are right and, of course, the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) is right, as are the purposes of the Bill. As I understand it, he wishes to provide a sort of safety ombudsman with statutory authority who, having looked at an application, can draw it to the attention of councillors, Members of Parliament or the respective statutory authorities, including the Health and Safety Executive, the railway inspectorate, the mines inspectorate and the Department of Transport.

However, I have less faith than the hon. Member for Battersea in Finchley Central methods, because they do not always work—much as I support the Bill's purposes and the establishment of a national safety ombudsman. In my experience, when a Member of Parliament, let alone a councillor, raises such matters, the reaction of officials, including Her Majesty's Government, is not the desired one.

The Zeebrugge, Piper Alpha, King's Cross, Marchioness and Bradford incidents all have a set of features in common: the neglect or omission of factors that, in retrospect, appear more or less common sense. Those elements include extra equipment or even seemingly small acts such as brushing up the rubbish, routines, keeping visible standards, making checks, agreeing and carrying out drills and having bow doors closed.

Sometimes people chafe against the drills and difficult regulations introduced in the services. However, we all know that they allow for checking that otherwise might not take place.

The hon. Member for Battersea said that there was waste and cost—of course there is. Where cost to property is involved, the insurance markets can weigh the risk of hazards and require threshold standards to be built into the system. But, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, we are primarily concerned with loss of life and damage and injury to families, which I agree cannot be quantified.

I shall give examples of my activities during the past few years involving risks and hazards in London, above the ground and underground. The best example is that of Newham way, the A13, in London. It is one of the busiest dual carriageways in the country and includes a reserve bus lane that has to cross at right angles to enter the traffic stream. I wrote to the Department of Transport 10 or 15 years ago asking for a bus-activated light signal, because the danger of a lorry full of girders of 20 tonnes or more smashing at right angles into the side of a bus was horrific, and could happen. I am sorry that the then Minister, one of my hon. Friends—it was that long ago—wrote back to say that my proposal was not cost effective. I wrote back and said that, if an accident took place at the spot I would send the Minister's letter to the coroner. He is no longer a Member of this House; indeed, he is dead now, so I can mention his name—Ken Marks. He had a high reputation in the House and he was possessed of sufficient knowledge, humanity and common sense to change his mind. The bus crossing that is there now, for which all busmen and passengers bless Ken Marks, is an example of what I am driving at. However, I fear that the change of heart was due primarily to anxiety about the decision coming to light in a spectacular way in a coroner's court or at a subsequent inquiry.

There are particular hazards in London due to the onward march of techniques—in many respects, they make life easier, but they increase hazards at the same time. Clapham junction is a good example. The hon. Member for Battersea praised the ambulance services. I submitted a petition from the ambulance personnel of London a few Fridays ago, to the effect that the underlying causes of the unhappy dispute of a few months ago have not been dealt with and that the standards of ambulance response time in London are still declining. I received a written answer the other day claiming that the Orcon standard response time has increased by one minute, due to the increased density of traffic. That answer from the Department of Health was unworthy of any Government. If the density of traffic increases, thereby preventing ambulances from getting through, the number of ambulances should increase correspondingly, although not necessarily pro rata.

The hon. Member for Battersea talked about Clapham, and much of what he said was true. But we all know that the difficulties with the signal wires arose because the man concerned had been working overtime for a long time because of a great shortage of staff. I have been told, although I do not allege, that changed arrangements for British Telecom wages, willed upon the company by the Government and by this House, has an effect on the availability of skilled staff in British Rail.

In any event, I wonder whether, even if someone had written to the safety officer pointing out that people were working overtime and that not enough men were dealing with the signals, any action would have been taken. We can imagine the sort of answer that a Minister would have given: "British Rail is doing all it can to recruit more staff." We know the sort of jargon in which Whitehall couches these answers— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) may think that I am being a little hard, but he has not heard the end of my speech yet.

In the south-east of England, we have one of the most complex commuter rail transport networks in the world, unique for social and historical reasons. The frequency of junctions, the shortness of signal sections, the speed and the braking of trains and the reactions required of drivers are all unique. Until fairly recently, we had been proud of that record, but for reasons that we all know, it is getting a little tarnished now.

Some time ago, I pointed out to the former Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), that drivers on Southern region were retiring before retiring age, and I asked him why. That is the sort of issue that the safety officer appointed under this Bill would investigate, but it should be investigated now as well. The buffer stop crash and the problem with observation of signals at Cannon Street and Purley were connected with driver morale—and it is particularly strange that, at least until a year ago, these drivers were retiring early.

Now, to make matters worse, British Rail proposes to take guards off the trains on Southern region and on inner networks. That is a retrograde step because it must, by definition, increase the hazards to passengers on this unique network. The new safety equipment will cost a great deal, but we must also remember the importance at Clapham, for instance, of the fact that a guard went back and stopped a third train from crashing into the first two. Guards are there to protect passengers, and station staff are disappearing, so guards' presence on trains is all important.

British Rail is doing this with the connivance of the Government—some would say, as a result of certain requests and regulations that are still in the air. I do not want to make this debate too partisan, but these facts are common knowledge and they may have knock-on-effects —just as the knock-on effects of the market for telecommunications engineers were important in my previous example. I hope that, as a result of my speech today, British Rail will think again about its programme of taking guards off trains on Southern region; and I hope that every constituent of Conservative Members who uses these trains will write to British Rail to say that they agree with me.

So far I have discussed a plan that has not been implemented yet, but what has happened with London Underground is even worse. Two or three years ago I read with consternation that London Underground planned to take guards off deep level tubes. There is a case—although I do not agree with it—for taking guards off the Circle, Metropolitan and District surface lines. Even that would increase hazards, but taking them off deep level tubes would be a very different matter. In any case, I wrote to the then chairman of London Underground Ltd. and protested, and I made my views public in my local paper too. In short, I acted exactly as the hon. Member for Battersea suggested that we should, and no doubt as his safety officer would.

The response from London Underground was negative. I asked whether it had worked out the cost of putting on guards for an underground section only. Again the answer was no. I asked about the ridiculous idea of evacuating trains by the method known as leapfrogging—a mind-boggling process. I was told that the inspectorate was happy with that. I do not think that that is true, but the Department said it was.

A letter appeared in The Guardian—[Laughter.] I am sorry that the Minister finds that a subject for mirth—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Eric Forth)

The Guardian is a subject for mirth.

Mr. Spearing

In this case, The Guardian was guarding the lives of the people of London, as its name suggests. A driver on the Piccadilly line protested at this practice and said that there would be a disaster sooner or later, and that if there was not, it would be no thanks to those who had taken this decision—

Mr. Butterfill

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of the drivers' own practices are even more dangerous? Does he recall the practice known as a "home run" whereby a driver who has completed the outward journey and should then travel back as a passenger agrees to take over the rota of a driver who should be doing a U-run, so that the incoming driver can go home? is that not frightfully dangerous, putting as it does enormous strain on drivers who have already completed a rota and is it not far more dangerous than what the hon. Gentleman describes?

Secondly, does the hon. Gentleman agree that a much greater contribution to safety is being made by the huge investment going into new signals equipment, which has been neglected by successive Administrations over many years but which is now being effected by the Government?

Mr. Spearing

I have not often experienced such an intervention. I am trying to make a speech that could save 300 to 400 lives by removing some of the existing hazards. The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood my point. Of course such irregularities, such breaking of the rules for a degree of satisfaction that we can all understand, is wrong. How often has the hon. Gentleman gone to the Whips and asked to be allowed to leave quickly? That is human nature.

Despite my requests and the clear increase in hazards facing people on the deep underground lines, London Underground Ltd. and other people have agreed that matters should be regularised. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) has not distinguished between a deliberate breaking of the rules and regulations that I outlined and the deliberate lowering of standards and the increase of hazards to save a marginal amount. London Underground, with the apparent connivance of the rule safety inspectors—with whom I disagree—is doing that.

I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport at that time, the right hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson), some of whose constituents no doubt travel on the Piccadilly line. I had a reply from a junior Minister, saying that he saw no reason to intervene. I hoped that it would not be necessary to forward that letter to a disaster inquiry.

Mr. Arbuthnot

The hon. Gentleman spoke about drivers leapfrogging from one train to the next. That must be put in context because it would happen very rarely. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of its ever happening?

Mr. Spearing

I think that the hon. Gentleman is in the legal profession. Mathematical chance is surely irrelevant. The question is whether it is right practice. Of course the chances of disasters are millions or thousands to one, and can be calculated. All the disasters about which I spoke, including the one at Zeebrugge, occurred because of a combination of circumstances which one hopes and believes could never happen. When they do happen, what is the result? The point is not merely about leapfrogging but about such things as fire or a power failure. There is a procedure for conducting passengers away from a train when the driver dies. As I read the rule book, a driver leaving the train from the back puts a passenger in charge of the train behind. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that?

Mr. Arbuthnot

In the context of that sort of event, I do, because it is a sensible procedure. I did not mean that the chances of a disaster were 1 million to one, but that those were the odds that applied to leapfrogging. The disaster would happen only after that.

Mr. Spearing

So far we have not had a disaster on the Piccadilly line, and I hope that we do not. I mentioned the leapfrogging procedure as one of the hazards inherent in this regulation, but I also mentioned others.

About an hour and a half ago, there was an announcement at South Kensington station to say that the fire brigade had been called and that there was an emergency on the Piccadilly line. I do not know what sort of emergency it was. It could have been some horrible potential incident between South Kensington and Knightsbridge, but it is more likely that it has been avoided purely by chance.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was a Minister, he had second thoughts. I hope that the present Ministers in the Department of Transport will have second thoughts about operator-only trains on the deep lines of the underground and about increasing risks to passengers by removing guards from Southern region. Some people have said—this is not an accusation—that, in the search for reduced costs, the Government and the railway operators are indirectly increasing the hazards for passengers by bribing the staff. If that is untrue, the Government must say so.

10.35 pm
Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

I entirely agree with much of the speech by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). However, it is necessary to do our best to save money on the operation of the underground, so that the savings can be put into improved safety procedures and operating practices. The hon. Gentleman and I may disagree on some points of detail, but there are many matters on which we agree.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) on doing so well in the ballot, although I am not sure whether that is a matter for congratulate or commiseration. I also congratulate him on choosing an extremely important subject. I apologise to him and to the House as I shall not be able to be here at the close of the debate due to a constituency engagement.

I am one of the Bill's sponsors, although I became conscious of that only at a late stage when my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea wrote to me telling me so. I do not remember agreeing to be a sponsor. I immediately wrote to my hon. Friend saying that I did not remember, but he assured me that I had agreed and, of course, I accepted that. In view of my obvious forgetfulness I can only take comfort from the words of somebody called Elbert Hubbard who said: A retentive memory may be a good thing, but the ability to forget is the true token of greatness". On that basis, I am very great indeed.

The Bill is introduced against a background of a decade of disasters—from King's Cross to Purley, from Bradford to Hillsborough. The experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea in the Clapham rail crash will always be in his memory, just as it will always be in the memory of the victims of that crash. I suspect that some people listening to this debate were involved in one way or another in that crash.

After each such tragedy the natural reaction is to ask why on earth it happened and whether it could possibly have been prevented. Some accidents are acts of God which cannot be prevented and nothing that we can do will stop them, although we are getting better all the time at preventing disasters such as floods and at minimising the effects of events that were once cataclysmic. However, there is a limit to what humans can do and we should be careful not to be so arrogant as to think that we can abolish all risk or danger, because we cannot. In many cases, neither would we want to, and the Bill makes no attempt or pretence at that.

Having thought about whether a disaster could have been prevented, the next question is whether it should have been prevented. While it is easy to be wise after the event, it is rather harder to be wise beforehand. We are all human and subject to human error, and all mechanisms are subject to mechanical failure. One of the characteristics of being human is that we are able to learn from our mistakes. The comment that we learn history but that we learn nothing from history was clever but untrue. Therefore, we should try to ensure that, when there are lessons to be learnt and actions to be taken, we should learn those lessons and take that action. We shall sometimes fail, because as humans we frequently fail, but we should try to succeed.

We already have a great deal of legislation aimed at ensuring that we learn those lessons. The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, for example, imposes quite heavy burdens on employers and on the self-employed, requiring them to ensure that the public are not exposed to safety risks. Yet, despite that legislation, disasters happen. Some disasters appear to be, if not exactly carbon copies of earlier disasters, sufficiently similar as to be ones which with a little foresight could have been avoided. Those are the disasters that not only could have been but should have been prevented.

The Bill seeks to make disasters of that type less likely in two ways. First, substantial threats of danger to the public will, in theory, be made known to the public so that they will have the informed knowledge with which they can decide whether to go to places where there are risks. Secondly, the very fact that, in theory, the public will have been informed of those threats and danger will encourage or pressure the owners of premises to act more quickly than they might otherwise have done to reduce the dangers.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea is correct in his belief that those two aims will be achieved if the Bill becomes law. I have questions about both those aims, questions on which I shall touch briefly so as to have my reservations allayed by my hon. Friend in due course. As regards the first intended effect of the Bill—improving the information available to people—there seems to me to be a risk that the Bill as drafted will mean that the statutory authorities that have to be involved in the procedure might well decide to take great care not to determine that there is a substantial threat of danger to the health or safety of the public, as any such determination would bring the authority extra work that it might not be able to afford to carry out.

Mr. Bowis

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised that point, but it is a reflection on the integrity of the safety authorities. I do not believe that they would act in that disreputable way. Moreover, if they did and it was shown after a disaster that they had not taken action under the provisions of what I hope will become an Act, they would be open to severe criticism. I believe that they will be as nervous of that as of any extra work which might flow from these provisions.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I am not sure that I would describe that as a disreputable way to act. Statutory authorities would have to make decisions based on the balance of priorities, and the finance avaiable to them would have to be one of those considerations.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I do not have a direct answer, but this may help to illuminate the subject. If there were a transport casualty reduction executive, it might say that, as the 8 per cent. of car crashes caused by mechanical faults get all the publicity at coroners' inquests, it should spend its time trying to work on that minority cause rather than dealing with the majority—95 per cent.—cause of accidents, which is human error. If one got defensive health and safety executive type work, one would be deliberately getting the experts to kill more people rather than save more people. That is one of the problems of working on the publicity approach. I have some things to say later on, but that may help my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) and for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) by leaving them sitting on the same shelf.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I was trying not to end up on the shelf. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clearing that up, at least to some extent. I know that my hon. Friend the Member of Battersea has the support of 200 or more local authorities and, with that support, my fears about the reaction to the Bill may be over-cynical. Nevertheless, I raise the point as a possible reaction to the Bill.

If my hon. Friend is right to say that warnings would be served in any event, there is then the possibility—in many cases it would be a probability—that if the notices were put up at the entrances of football grounds, nobody would read them. Some people get tired of seeing notices at the entrances to public places. Nobody ever reads the byelaws of parks or those put up at the entrance to amusement parks. It is possible to have a surfeit of safety sermons. It might even he counter-productive to have too much preaching about safety. However, the very fact of notices gives rise to the second operation of the Bill—putting pressure on the owners.

The provisions in the Bill for a register that would be open to the public are a little heavy handed because, as I understand it, there are registers of enforcement action already available under the Environment and Safety Information Act 1988. I have been told, and I am not surprised, that few people read them. They are hardly the most riveting of reading.

Mr. Bowis

I am sorry to keep interrupting my hon. Friend, but he has courteously explained that he will not be here for my winding-up speech and I should like to answer his points now. The safety notices may not be read by everybody, but they would be noticed by local journalists, so the case would be raised in the right places. The problem with existing regulations requiring registers to be held by local authorities is that nobody knows that they are there. The Bill, if enacted, would trigger the following sequence: the public would be warned, the press would notice, they would investigate at the environmental safety office and the matter would become public.

Mr. Arbuthnot

The Bill operates in two ways. First, notices are put up so that people will read them; secondly, pressure is put on owners because the newspapers will ensure publicity. I am suggesting that the first way will not be so effective as the second. For example, if there is a notice at the entrance to a football match, one of the last things that a man who has paid a day's wages for his ticket and has queued for hours to get to his place will do is to read the notice and decide to turn round and go home because he has seen that there is combustible rubbish under the north stairs. Most British people take the view that accidents happen not to them but to somebody else. Experience tells them that accidents always happen to someone else—until a disaster actually involves them. Nevertheless, if notices had to be displayed at the entrance to football grounds, for example, at least the public would have the knowledge upon which they could make their own informed choice. The decision to take a risk would be theirs, having had the opportunity to avoid it. At present, that choice is not available. There is something to be said, all other things being equal, for providing it.

At present, any Health and Safety Executive warning relating to a public venue is confidential. There may be a good reason for that, but I cannot imagine what it is. It is only after a major fire, or some other disaster, that the public become aware of the risks that they have been running. It is hardly surprising that they then take the view that there must be a better way of avoiding such tragedies. The Bradford City stadium disaster in May 1985 provides a classic example, because in that case warnings had been given by the Health and Safety Executive before the disaster, in which 50 people died. The dangers were known, but they remained confidential.

Some supporters of the Bill make the argument that the public have the right to know, but that phrase somehow makes me uneasy and I think, instead, of a presumption in favour of a well-informed choice. Whether or not the Bill is the right vehicle for creating that presumption and choice is for right hon. and hon. Members individually to decide. But that choice ought to exist.

The second purpose of the Bill, and that upon which my hon. Friend mainly relies, is to shame owners into reacting quickly to notices served on them. Although the average football supporter may not read notices, the local journalist certainly would, and such a notice could be a constant source of embarrassing headlines. There would be no question of warnings being tucked under the carpet and of nothing happening. There is nothing like the fear of bad publicity to spur owners into action.

The Bill is one of many ways of trying to increase safety levels, but one can go too far. Safety should be the first consideration in respect of passenger trains and football grounds—but it should not be the only consideration. Safety should be a hugely important factor, but far from all-consuming. We lead immensely complicated lives, and many aspects of them must be taken into account.

In the past, many activities have been undertaken without any thought being given to safety. The King's Cross underground fire is but one example of the possible consequences. It was obvious to all that underground safety needed to be dramatically improved, and since that tragic fire occurred safety has risen to a very high place on London Underground's safety agenda—so high that it is beginning seriously to disrupt the service.

My constituents in Wanstead and Woodford—stuck at the end of the Central line—are among those who suffer as a result of that serious disruption. Two days ago, I made a tour of the Central line with London Underground officials and discussed safety requirements, particularly those imposed by the fire brigade. I learned that the fire services must be called and a station evacuated at every report of the smell of smoke. That may sound sensible, but it takes away from station managers discretion, where that could be valuable. Time and again, station managers find that smoke reports have no foundation, but, until the fire brigade has arrived and completed its investigation, the station has to be closed and train services are disrupted. It is time that the fire brigade and London Underground got together to work out a sensible balance of safety as I am not sure that such a balance currently exists.

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in his remarks, particularly as the smell that some people think is smoke is only the consequence of a train's brakes being applied.

Mr. Arbuthnot

My hon. Friend, whose constituency is also served by the Central line, knows that only too well. The huge investment to be made in the Central line will, I hope, reduce the frequency of such reports, and my constituents will certainly welcome that.

It is interesting to contrast the attitudes of British Rail and London Underground in respect of reports on safety precautions. Reports relating to British Rail stations are kept secret, whereas London Underground makes such information available to the public. Perhaps the best aspect of my hon. Friend's Bill is that it would create greater openness in bodies such as British Rail, and help to establish a better atmosphere of open information.

British Rail instituted a safety management system following the Clapham disaster, with the aim of achieving total safety, supported by systematic auditing. British Rail felt that maximum safety could be attained only by sustained effort at all levels of its organisation and through effective monitoring. The railway inspectorate's latest annual safety report on British Rail commented: No one should underestimate the practical difficulty of achieving total safety in a large and scattered organisation, where so much depends on individuals. I do not believe that total safety can be achieved. Yesterday's incident in Whitehall showed us how fragile is our safety and that there is little that we can do to achieve total safety. That is not an argument for not trying to achieve it, but an argument for setting realistic goals.

The Bill has good points and less good points, points with which I agree and several with which I do not. I have strong reservations about whether the Bill will achieve its aims, modest though they are. I am not even sure that if its provisions had been in place at the time of the disasters that have been mentioned it would necessarily have prevented them. The Bill places some burdens on industry, and some on the statutory authorities to which it refers. However, at least my hon. Friend is having a stab at the problem and for that he should be congratulated.

10.58 am
Mr. Simon Hughes : (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I anticipate that my speech will not be far gone before this debate is interrupted for the private notice question, so I will deal with the preliminaries now, and make my substantive points afterwards.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The hon. Gentleman means that he will ramble on later.

Mr. Hughes

No, I shall not ramble on.

I am grateful for the invitation to serve as one of the Bill's supporters. Unlike the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot), I remember being asked, and assented willingly. I do not make any deductions in terms of memory, other than that.

I am indebted to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) for taking the opportunity of gaining a place in the ballot to debate a subject which we are all at times made aware—if we are not aware already—is one of massive significance to large numbers of people.

I also pay tribute to the community rights project which has done the work. That organisation is a constituent of mine, as it has always been since 1983, and has been assiduous throughout various staff changes to ensure that the House is confronted with the opportunities and given the support to bring forward legislation like this Bill.

My final tribute is to the British Safety Council, which, as the hon. Member for Battersea said, is always there trying to encourage good practice and the opportunities for the House to do its bit. I am delighted that at last we are getting an opportunity to—

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sit tings ).