HC Deb 16 December 1997 vol 303 cc122-4
32. Mr. Alasdair Morgan

What recent discussions he has had with the railway inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive. [19427]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and I met the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission and Health and Safety Executive officials, including the chief inspector of railways, on 16 October. We made it clear that the Government look to the Health and Safety Commission and Executive, as the railway safety regulators, to ensure that safety standards are maintained and, indeed, improved.

Mr. Morgan

Does the Minister agree that railways in Britain have some of the highest safety standards in the world? Is she aware of the remark made by the chief inspector of railways that if the railway companies were allowed to do what they wanted, safety standards would go down? Will she take steps to ensure that they are not allowed to do what they want?

Ms Jackson

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. This issue was highlighted in the Health and Safety Executive's most recent report, which fired a warning shot across the bows of railway companies, saying that they must not put commercial considerations ahead of safety. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport made it clear in his response to the Health and Safety Executive's report that the Government share and endorse that view.

Mrs. Dunwoody

We welcome that assurance. Will the Minister examine closely an excellent ten-minute Bill introduced in the House not long ago which proposed a national authority for transport safety, with the right of individuals to make known any breaches of safety at any level in any transport authority and to have them investigated?

Ms Jackson

I was privileged to be in the House when that ten-minute Bill was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) with her usual perspicacity, wit, information and intelligence. The Government's approach to safety has less to do with structures than with vital regulation, regardless of mode, which we believe will ensure safety. Existing safety structures allow individuals to raise their concerns if they perceive a lapse or deterioration in safety.

Sir Norman Fowler

Perhaps I may intervene in this love-in for 30 seconds. Will the Minister confirm that railways remain one of the safest ways of travel in this country and that there is no evidence privatisation has led to a reduction in safety standards? If we want more people to travel by rail—as I assume everyone does—we should emphasis that achievement and not snipe at it.

Ms Jackson

I trust that the right hon. Gentleman's opening remark was not touched with a tinge of the green-eyed monster. If he wishes to be part of a love-in, I am sure that arrangements can be made.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that the safety standard of railways as a means of surface transport is very high, but it would be wrong for this or any other Government to ignore what the Health and Safety Executive said in its most recent report. I repeat that it fired a shot across the bows of the privatised companies and highlighted the fact that they must not sacrifice safety standards for what may seem to them to be a short-term financial advantage. The Government strongly endorse and support that approach.

Mr. Snape

Does my hon. Friend accept that I possess none of the virtues attributed to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)? Does she also accept that the railways inspectorate has for many years commanded the respect of all those involved in the railway industry? Will she ensure that in future legal involvement in railway accidents follows rather than precedes the inspectorate's report? The less legal involvement early on in a railway inquiry, the more likely we are to find the truth behind those accidents.

Ms Jackson

My hon. Friend somewhat disappoints me. I had intended to say that I was second to none in my admiration for the contributions—based on expertise and experience—that he inevitably and invariably makes to debates on this subject. I hear what he says, but I am sure he would agree that although there are very few serious accidents on our railways, on occasion the police, for example, are involved in the resulting examination. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend makes a valid point and, as always, we shall give due consideration to what he has said.