HC Deb 20 February 1991 vol 186 cc275-83 3.30 pm
Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the transport problems in London today and yesterday.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

London Underground was subject to significant disruption yesterday. The major disruption to services was on the Central line. Trains had been held up while suspect packages at Bond Street and Liverpool Street stations were being examined by the police.

At one stage, it became necessary for the London fire brigade to be called as a result of a smoke incident on one of these trains. It was considered necessary for the electric current to be disconnected and the passengers to be evacuated. This took some considerable time and I pay tribute to the passengers, the railway staff, and all others concerned in the evacuation. London Underground has initiated an inquiry into all the circumstances concerning that incident.

With regard to British Rail, since the bombs at Paddington and Victoria on Monday, British Rail has been subject to a large number of incidents involving bomb threats and suspect packages. Since Monday morning, the British Transport police have dealt with about 85 hoax bomb threats, of which around 45 have been in London. In addition, the British Transport police have dealt with 55 suspect packages, of which 35 have been in London.

As a result, British Rail, acting on the advice of the police, has closed a number of stations in London and elsewhere. British Rail has well established contingency plans for clearing stations, which British Rail staff activate on advice from the police, who then undertake searches and deal with any suspect packages.

The worst disruption yesterday was at Reading, where the station was closed for about three hours following bomb threats and the discovery of a suspect package. In London, Charing Cross and Fenchurch Street were each closed for an hour and a half in total, and Liverpool Street was closed for half an hour in the evening peak. Today, part of Victoria was closed for an hour and a quarter; Euston was closed for an hour and a half; and Paddington was closed for two hours.

I am sure that the House will want to join me in delivering two important messages. The first is to ordinary members of the travelling public. Their continuing vigilance is absolutely vital. No matter how much disruption may result from a false alarm—for example, a suspect package that turns out to be wholly innocent—it is better to endure that disruption than to take the risk of a successful terrorist attack. The second is a message to the hoaxers. Those who make such hoax calls are acting in a criminal fashion, they are risking innocent people's lives and they will be liable to receive very severe punishment if they are identified and prosecuted.

Mr. Prescott

The House will thank the Secretary of State for his statement. We wish to identify ourselves with his congratulations on the superb activities of our emergency services once again. We want to add our admiration for the fortitude of the passengers faced with those difficulties over the past two or three days.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the difficulties of the past few days are not due entirely to the dastardly act of the IRA or the criminal acts of hoaxers which have plagued our security system and which need to be condemned strongly by everyone? Is it not time that he recognised that the failure of the transport system in the past two days can be traced back to inadequate equipment, the failure of new and old equipment and the lack of staff, whose numbers have been cut by thousands, and failure to maintain security and deal with emergencies? Despite that, those cuts are to continue, at the Government's request.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there are inadequate financial resources for London Underground and British Rail, as pointed out by inquiry report after inquiry report, by Select Committee reports on the London underground system and by the chairman of British Rail this weekend, who made clear the inadequacy of financial resources for our transport system?

Will the Secretary of State review the financial framework for British Rail and the underground system, end his obsession with privatisation and end the miserable experiment of attempting to run the capital's transport system without subsidies, which is not achieved anywhere in the world? Londoners are entitled to a good transport system. The fact that they do not have one is directly due to the policy of this Government.

Mr. Rifkind

I suppose it was predictable, but I must confess that I am rather saddened that the hon. Gentle man should seek to use the events of the past couple of days, which were primarily caused by terrorist incidents, bomb hoaxers and other matters affecting security, to make his ritual comments on investment in British Rail. He was quoted in the press a couple of days ago as saying that the number of British Transport police had been reduced. I informed him yesterday that, yet again, he had got his facts wrong. In 1982, British Rail employed 1,456 transport police; in 1991, it employs 1,638. In 1982, London Underground employed 284 transport police; in 1991, it employs 389. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make remarks about security, I shall be happy to listen to him very carefully, but he should not try to use the distress of the past 48 hours to make rather sad and pathetic representations on other matters.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that what he has just said will be echoed by genuine Londoners, who will have been sickened by the cheap political claptrap of the Opposition? Will he take it from me that the London commuter will not be scared off his job by the thugs of the IRA or by the hypocrisy of the Labour party?

Mr. Rifkind

It is the characteristic of the British public that real or possible terrorist threats simply stiffen their resolve to meet those challenges in a forthright and solemn fashion.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I join the Secretary of State in condemning the terrorist and the hoaxer, who have added enormously to the disruption of the past couple of days.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The hon. Gentleman is backing every horse in the race.

Mr. Hughes

If the hon. Gentleman would listen for a change, it might be respectful and be appreciated by the public.

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that, if the chaos and confusion of the past couple of days, which is suffered by the London commuter day in day out, is to be alleviated, the Government must show commitment and co-ordination? Unless the Government give a commitment to funding and there is co-ordination of information so that people know when to travel, and so that buses, trains and the tube work together, there will always be confusion in the capital, and the country will suffer as a result.

Mr. Rifkind

Of course I respect what the hon. Gentleman says about the need for proper investment in the London underground. The problems yesterday were on the Central line. The hon. Gentleman might like to know that the refurbishment of the Central line is the single most important priority of London Underground and that it is undertaking a £700 million programme of refurbishment.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

My right hon. and learned Friend knows that no one is keener than me to have more investment in the railways. Does he accept that tens of thousands of ordinary families feel that the inability of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) to control his natural antipathy towards the police is sickening? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many people feel that the hon. Gentleman's constant criticism of British Transport police and the Metropolitan police gives comfort only to the IRA and to the morons who make hoax telephone calls? Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that Conservative and most decent Labour Members reject everything that the hon. Gentleman says on this issue?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the British Transport police do a superb job in difficult circumstances. They deserve the full support of the House.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

"Significant disruption" is one of those classic British understatements to describe the experience that many thousands of people had to endure yesterday in the tunnels between Bethnal Green and Liverpool Street. They were faced with darkness and heat for up to six hours. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman pay particular attention to an additional feature on the Central line? Yesterday, and again this morning, smoke came from, I believe, the engine of a stationary train—I am not sure of the cause. Clearly smoke was a great additional hazard. I cannot believe that that smoke was caused by anything other than the state of the railway.

Mr. Rifkind

The right hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. Clearly the cause of the smoke needs to be investigated. London Underground is investigating. Such incidents are not peculair to London Underground or to the United Kingdom. When they occur, they must be investigated and proper corrective action taken.

Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest)

On behalf of the thousands of my constituents who use the Central line every day, many of whom were trapped for several hours yesterday, I should like to thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his statement which, apart from anything else, shows how appalling it is that, in this day and age, dozens of hoaxes are occurring and parcels are left around to disrupt the lives of those who want to go about their lawful business and get to work. We at least very much welcome the investment of more than £600 million, which will produce rolling stock, trains and signal equipment that should be able to reduce the occasional emergencies caused by suspected fires.

I should like to put one point that is clearly important. In the wake of the King's Cross fire, it is understandable that railway authorities should act with caution on every occasion. Yesterday's events were by no means unique—they are a common occurrence on the line. Hardly a day goes by without massive disruption caused by suspected fires. Will my right hon. and learned Friend talk urgently to the management of London Underground to ensure that the procedures are followed to detect and identify callers and to follow up suspected hoaxes so as to reduce disruption to a minimum?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend makes some fair observations. Part of yesterday's difficulty was that, because of the presence of suspicious objects, trains were stopped and, when the electricity was disconnected, a significant number of trains were on the line. The number of people who had to be evacuated from the trains was significantly greater than is normal in such incidents. However, I take the points that my hon. Friend rightly made.

Miss Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

I too wish to express my gratitude to commuters for their fortitude. The people of Northern Ireland have become used to such disruptions over the years. Given the extra safety precautions and the extra cost that that will impose on British Rail and London Underground, have the Government any plans to increase the money available, or will money have to come from the hard-pressed commuters through their fares?

Mr. Rifkind

In the first instance, obviously we shall hope to hear from British Rail and London Underground what conclusions they draw about any improved security measures arising out of recent events. Of course we shall look sympathetically at any reasonable proposals involving new security-related expenditure.

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

As terrorists invariably want to cause the maximum disruption at the least risk to themselves, does my right hon. and learned Friend realise that the closing down of London's railway system on Monday represented the biggest victory for terrorism in the past 10 years? As it is inevitable that there will be further hoax calls—and, possibly, further bombs—will my right hon. and learned Friend consider calling on Army units to provide guards at London's mainline terminals until the bombers are caught? From time to time, the Army provides extra guards at Heathrow. Surely our rail commuters deserve as much protection as air passengers.

Mr. Rifkind

On the appropriate level of security that might be required, I should wish, of course, to take the advice of the chief constable of the British Transport police. I shall obviously draw my hon. Friend's remarks to his attention. In matters of this kind, clearly the views of the police on their ability to cope with what is required will carry considerable weight.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Does the Secretary of State appreciate the full horror for my constituents who were incarcerated underground in heat and smoke on crowded trains for hours yesterday? Will he take it from me—someone who was brought up in a London Transport railway family—that London Transport was once the envy of the world? It is now dirty, squalid, unsafe, unreliable, and more fitting to a third-world country, because of lack of investment. The people who run London Transport are crazed ideological fanatics who want to eliminate all public subsidy. Does the Secretary of State appreciate that, if London Transport were run by elected Londoners who were accountable to the people of London, the situation would be transformed? When will he give the control of London Transport back to the people of London?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, entitled to his view on that matter, but I do not believe that the quality of service provided by London Underground would be enhanced by his proposal. I suspect that even an elected authority of the kind that the hon. Gentleman suggests would still look to central Government for the funds that might be required.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

My right hon. and learned Friend should know that the disruption caused by the closing of stations because of awful terrorist bombs and also hoax scares is understood by my constituents. What they find more difficult to understand is that, despite the investment of £1 million a day by Network SouthEast at the moment, British Rail still cannot do the simple things right. It still cannot communicate with travellers when they are stranded. It still cannot make adequate arrangements at other stations so that passengers who have to get out short of mainline stations are properly looked after.

Does not that confirm that, when mainline stations are shut down, there is inadequate co-ordination between various levels of transport in London so that my constituents and those of other hon. Members can be looked after in places such as Clapham Junction, and make a smooth and easy transfer between mainline railways, buses and underground trains? We must look urgently at that matter because, sadly, those crazy and awful events may continue.

Mr. Rifkind

When I last met the chairman of British Rail, I discussed with him the need to ensure full and proper information for passengers who might be stranded or otherwise experience difficulties as a result of disruption. He assured me that British Rail will be giving considerable attention to the need to improve the present unsatisfactory levels of information that are provided to its passengers when problems occur.

Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

I believe that it is established that the incident yesterday between Bethnal Green and Liverpool Street was nothing to do with IRA activity or with hoaxers. I believe that the Central line still has guards on its trains, although, sadly, other lines have not. I hope that they will remain. There are such things as pagers and other modern equipment. It should not have been difficult for people to be informed about what had happened so that they were not so panic-stricken. I cannot understand why they were left in the dark for six hours, so that asthmatics became ill and old people fainted. The explanation that we have been given today is not sufficient. I ask the Secretary of State please to hold a thorough investigation, to report back to the House about why that unbelievable incident took place, and to ensure that it does not happen again.

Mr. Rifkind

I assure the hon. Lady that there will be a full investigation of the incident. Although there was no actual terrorist threat yesterday, the causes of the problem originated with the finding of two suspicious objects, which had been left on the train, but which clearly could have contained explosive devices. I am sure that the hon. Lady would be the first to agree that it is right to be careful on such occasions because, until such objects are examined properly and competently, it would be irresponsible to expose the travelling public to them.

The hon. Lady is right to express concern at the number of hours that people spent in the underground. That flowed from the decision to evacuate the train once the electricity current had been disconnected. As many passengers had to be taken more than a mile to the nearest station, considerable problems inevitably arose, as well as fatigue for the older passengers who were affected.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take note of the many constituents who have complained to me about being incarcerated in such great discomfort that, as my right hon. and learned Friend has stated, some of them became ill? Furthermore, there was no communication about what was going on, why they were being kept where they were or how long the situation was likely to continue. Will my right hon. and learned Friend press London Underground to do something about its communications with its passengers in that sort of situation and in others?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes. I attach the same importance as my hon. Friend clearly does to the provision of quick, accurate and reliable information to passengers of either the Underground or British Rail whenever disruption occurs. That should be done, and there is no fundamental reason why it cannot be done at present. There is, therefore, an urgent need for both British Rail and London Underground to address that matter.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

While I welcome the condemnation of those acts, and associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), will the Secretary of State tell us why it was not possible simply to shunt the trains forward or backwards to the nearest station, instead of leaving people incarcerated for up to six hours? Does he accept that, although the management of London Transport and the transport police have a lot of experience at catching pickpockets or pursuing fare evaders, they do not have day-to-day experience of coping with terrorism and deciding what is or is not a bogus warning? Might it not be worthwhile to bring people over from Belfast, such as officers who have that day-to-day experience, who can give much better advice about how such problems can be managed?

Mr. Rifkind

On the hon. Gentleman's earlier question, once the decision had been taken to disconnect the electricity on safety grounds, for obvious reasons it became impossible to contemplate shunting the trains to any particular point. On the hon. Gentleman's latter questions, it is for the police in London to consider whether they could benefit from external advice of the kind that the hon. Gentleman has suggested.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The House knows that I have to protect subsequent business, but in view of the importance of this matter to hon. Members, I shall take three more questions from each side, but I am afraid that then we must move on.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

May I first associate my constituency and myself with my right hon. and learned Friend's remarks about the evils of the IRA and the irresponsibility of the hoaxers? How does the level of capital expenditure by London Transport today compare with the level that prevailed in 1985–86, when it was controlled by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone)? Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that many hon. Members believe that London's transport problems would be eased if London's buses were deregulated, as has happened elsewhere in the country?

Mr. Rifkind

Expenditure on London Underground in the next three years will be approximately 100 per cent. higher than in the past three years. That compares very favourably indeed with the legacy of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone).

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the unacceptable hazards experienced by Central line passengers yesterday would have been increased if London Transport had initiated driver-only operation on that line, with the support of Her Majesty's Government? Will he assure us that the investigation which he mentioned in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon) will be an inspection by the railway inspectorate, and that the report will be published?

Mr. Rifkind

At this stage, London Underground is carrying out its own internal inquiry. I have yet to determine whether any further inquiry will be necessary. In response to the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman's question, it is clearly for London Underground as the operator to determine whether it is acceptable and safe to have driver-only trains, or whether some other mode is more appropriate.

Mr. David Evans (Welwyn Hatfield)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State aware that thousands of my constituents were inconvenienced during the past two or three weeks, but that they have also been inconvenienced during the past two or three years? Every time there is a snowfall, it is the wrong snow. Then we have terrorist attacks. Then we have hoaxes. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that my constituents are simply not prepared to put up with it any longer? Is not it time that the managements of British Rail and London Underground were sacked? The employees of London Underground are hard-working but the management should be sacked, just as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) should be sacked from his job.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not comment on the last suggestion which he helpfully made. In response to the earlier part of his question, I sympathise very much with the frustration of his constituents. The chairmen of both British Rail and London Underground took office in the relatively recent past. They must be given the opportunity to carry out very necessary reforms to ensure that we achieve the level and quality of management on both British Rail and London Underground which my hon. Friend's constituents are entitled to expect.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

The ultimate management, of course, are the Government. They are the ones who should be sacked. Many of my constituents who were caught for long hours in conditions of intolerable stress probably thought that they were in Baghdad. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that he will examine the issue of trains being stopped between stations? Associated with that, will he pick up the shameful cuts in cleaning staff and station staff'? If we had had more of those, the stations would have been cleared and checked earlier, and the trains could have been driven through to them.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman's observations are somewhat confused. The problems yesterday were caused by the discovery of suspicious objects on the trains. Inevitably, that had to be dealt with in a proper and responsible fashion. That is the background which the hon. Gentleman should appreciate.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Bearing in mind the fact that these despicable hoaxers are in fact, if not in intention, the terrorists' best friends, will my right hon. and learned Friend examine the penalties available to the courts to deal with hoaxers when they are found out?

Mr. Rifkind

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, that is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but clearly hoaxers should realise that their behaviour could sometimes lead to the most serious consequences and in certain circumstances to loss of life. In that event, they would face serious penalties if they were convicted by the courts.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The Secretary of State would not be so complacent about the chaos on London Transport if he were a regular user of it. Many tens of thousands of Londoners know just how miserable the Central line is on a daily basis. British Rail and London Transport cannot be blamed for the criminal activities of the IRA or, indeed, the sick perverts who make hoax telephone calls. But the trouble on the Central line yesterday and today was caused largely by the clapped-out rolling stock which is used on the Central line. The smoke came from overheated brakes. The reason why they were overheating was that the trains were overcrowded and could not carry the passengers through.

The Secretary of State referred to a £700 million uprating of the Central line. We have been hearing about that for three years. How much of that £700 million has already been spent on the Central line? To echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon) said, how come British Transport police and the underground staff—never mind the passengers—do not know what is going on? How come, when a satellite can spot a wart on the end of someone's nose, we cannot communicate properly through telephones and pagers so that London Transport staff can explain to passengers what is happening?

Mr. Rifkind

I have some sympathy with the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's observations. British Rail and London Underground must make a radical reassessment of their information systems, because it is not unreasonable to assume, as the hon. Gentleman does, that, in this modern age, that kind of information should be able to be communicated easily and reliably to passengers who are suffering disruption and problems.

There is indeed a £700 million programme under way now, coaches are already being refurbished and line is being modernised. The hon. Gentleman should welcome that instead of carping about it.

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