HC Deb 24 October 2000 vol 355 cc136-51

4 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you as our new Speaker and I should like to add my congratulations to those of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the train derailment at Hatfield and the developments since. My noble Friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston made a statement on this matter in another place on Thursday 19 October.

Last Tuesday, a Great North Eastern Railway train from King's Cross to Leeds was derailed near Hatfield. Four passengers died and 34 were injured. I am sure that all Members of the House will wish to join me in expressing their deepest sympathy to the families and friends of those who lost their lives. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that all but one of those who were injured have now left hospital, and the whole House will join me in wishing them a speedy recovery.

As ever, our emergency services excelled themselves in the speed and efficiency with which they responded. I know that both my noble Friend Lord Macdonald and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), who is responsible for the railways, witnessed this at first hand when they visited the scene in the aftermath of the accident.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson)—the constituency where the accident occurred—is sitting beside me, and she also visited the scene. I know that she and, indeed, the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the tremendous efforts of the emergency services, the staff of the Queen Elizabeth II hospital in Welwyn Garden City and of the Lister hospital in Stevenage, not to mention the voluntary organisations who are always there to help and to give comfort. Let me make clear my admiration for the many local people who, in the wake of the accident, instinctively came to help in any way that they could. They are among the unsung heroes whom the House will wish to recognise today.

In my view, it is unwise to jump to conclusions on the causes of the crash before the Health and Safety Executive's inspectors have considered all the evidence. Last Friday, the Health and Safety Executive issued its preliminary findings on the accident. Copies of its report are available in the Vote Office. It found obvious and significant evidence of a rail failure and no evidence so far of a prior failure of rolling stock. Early indications supported the suggestion that a broken rail was the likely cause. The safety inspectors, who are working closely with British Transport police, expect to have cleared the crash site before the end of the week. They will make public any further significant findings.

Further to its preliminary report, the Health and Safety Executive is undertaking a formal investigation into the crash, overseen by a board that includes independent experts. The conclusions will be made public and the Health and Safety Executive hopes to reach those conclusions as soon as possible. I have agreed with the Health and Safety Executive that the investigation must look beyond the immediate causes of the crash, to any root causes, including structural and organisational factors that could have contributed to the accident.

The House is aware that Lord Cullen's public inquiry is considering the whole rail safety regime—the management, culture and regulation of safety on the railways. Any material considered to be of use to Lord Cullen will be available to his inquiry team. I am sure that the House will share my view that we should avoid delay either to the investigation or to Lord Cullen's inquiry.

As I said earlier, the Health and Safety Executive's preliminary investigation indicated that a broken rail was the likely cause of the accident. The large number of broken rails on the rail network has been a matter of continuing concern for some time to the Government, the Health and Safety Executive and the Rail Regulator. As recently as 30 June this year, both the Health and Safety Executive and the regulator wrote to Railtrack expressing their concern about this matter and requiring remedial action. They also commissioned an independent technical assessment about the management of broken rails, which will be published shortly.

The House will be aware that, in the wake of the Hatfield accident, speed restrictions were immediately placed on more than 80 sites. I understand that speed restrictions are currently in place on more than 150 sites. I have asked the Health and Safety Executive to look urgently at the immediate actions taken by Railtrack to deal with other sites where broken rails might be a potential danger, and to assure me that Railtrack's procedures are adequate and sufficiently robust to ensure safe operation.

Last night I met the Health and Safety Executive to review progress. Its inspectors are today meeting senior managers from all the Railtrack zones to ensure that the necessary safety measures are in place. Furthermore, I have asked the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority urgently to meet Railtrack and the train operators to consider any further action that needs to be taken following the accident. Sir Alastair Morton has already held two meetings with the industry and will hold a further meeting tomorrow. On Thursday I shall meet Sir Alastair, together with the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission and the Rail Regulator, to review progress and see precisely what can be done. I shall of course keep the House informed of progress.

The Health and Safety Executive investigation is well under way and we must now focus on the way ahead. There is universal acknowledgement that the rail industry has suffered from fragmentation, a lack of leadership and decades of under-investment. We have created the Strategic Rail Authority to give leadership and direction, and published the 10-year plan—the biggest investment in our transport system for generations.

Yesterday, the Rail Regulator announced support for £15 billion-worth of expenditure by Railtrack—focusing on signalling, track maintenance and renewal—including money specifically targeted at reducing broken rails. It is the regulator's judgment that everything is now in place to equip and incentivise Railtrack to improve performance and safety on the network, with new accountability.

Today, the Strategic Rail Authority has shown by its announcement about the South Central franchise its clear sense of purpose in improving rail standards. Lord Cullen is undertaking a thorough-going examination of the safety management, culture and regulation of the railways. I stand ready to implement whatever is required as a result of Lord Cullen's proposals.

All that promises a new era for British railways. We all want a safe and well-performing railway, but the tragic event at Hatfield reminds us that, in the future as in the past, there must be no priority higher than safety. That is my guiding principle.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

May I extend to you, Mr. Speaker, my congratulations on your election and appointment?

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and join him in extending our deepest sympathy to the injured and bereaved. I also pay tribute to the emergency services and all those who responded so calmly and effectively.

First, will the Secretary of State join me in commending the Minister for Transport, Lord Macdonald, for the calm and responsible way in which he conducted the Government's response to the tragedy? Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to express support for the industry in the same way as the Minister? The Minister gave his personal endorsement to the Railtrack chief executive, Gerald Corbett. Will the Deputy Prime Minister take this opportunity to express his support for Gerald Corbett, whom the right hon. Gentleman's Minister rightly identified as part of the solution to a better railway?

Secondly, I agree with many of the comments in the Minister's statement last week. Does the Secretary of State share the sentiment that credit must be given to the railway industry for the advances made in safety management in recent times? Thirdly, I commend the Government for resisting the temptation to go for another protracted and inevitably adversarial public inquiry, though I press the Secretary of State, as we did last week, for a special technical inquiry into the question of track management and broken rails.

The Deputy Prime Minister was determined to make the Paddington disaster a watershed for the industry. Then, he called for an end to the adversarial blame culture that has existed on the railways for years. I invite him to accept that the most recent disaster has sparked a genuinely new mood of partnership and co-operation in the industry. The crucial question is this: will the Secretary of State and his appointed regulator join the new spirit of partnership, or will the show trial summits and the blaming continue?

Privatisation has doubled Railtrack investment and billions are being invested in new trains and improving safety. None the less, we have said that changes are needed; is the Secretary of State ready to change, too? Lord Macdonald has set out the doctrine: of course, punctuality is important, but there is nothing more important than safety.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 October 2000; Vol. 617, c. 1201–02.] Why do the right hon. Gentleman and his Rail Regulator continue to insist that there is no conflict between safety and train performance, when everyone in the industry knows so well that there is?

The Secretary of State accuses the industry of failing to meet its commitments, but when, on the Channel 4 news last Friday, he said of safety, but I don't want it to be used as an excuse, what did he mean? When he is in an aeroplane sitting on the tarmac and the captain says that there will be a 10-minute delay for some safety checks, does he think that that is just an excuse and that the airline should be sacked?

Does the Secretary of State not understand that early indications suggest that it was Railtrack's failure to apply a speed restriction on the faulty track at Hatfield that led to the fatal derailment? Does he not realise that the conflict between the fines for late trains and safety contributed to the failure of judgment on the part of Railtrack and the contractor? Does he acknowledge that, by supporting the regulator's review published yesterday, he is agreeing that those fines should be doubled, which will intensify the conflict between train performance and safety? Do the right hon. Gentleman and the regulator understand that that is what Gerald Corbett means when he calls for a change in the way the railway is run?

I do not doubt the Secretary of State's sincerity. He has campaigned for better safety in transport all his life, but is it not time that the Government provided the regulation that the industry truly needs, which works sympathetically with the safety objectives of the railway and does not conflict with those objectives? I put these points to the right hon. Gentleman as positively as I can. I hope that he will feel able to respond in the same positive spirit.

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the emergency services, and I am sure that the whole House extends its sympathy to those who have suffered from the tragedy. I have no wish to make political capital out of these events, but I must confess that, having said that he believes that privatisation was wrong—

Mr. Jenkin

indicated dissent.

Mr. Prescott

Well, the hon. Gentleman conveyed the impression that he thought that the organisation of the railway system that he and others helped to create is wrong, so I should have thought a little more humility today would have been suitable. I know that I cannot expect that.

On safety, my answer is the same as that voiced by the Tory spokesman in the House of Lords: that no objective commentator believes for a moment that our railways have become more dangerous during the lifetime of this Government or, indeed, over recent years.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 October 2000; Vol. 617. c. 1198.]

Mr. Jenkin


Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman claims the achievement for privatisation. I do not want to argue the public-or-private case; I could do so, but this is not the right moment.

We should take the facts into account. The hon. Gentleman refers to the rail summits as "show trials", which I find totally offensive. All the industry came together and said that something must be done about safety, especially after the recent railway tragedies. We now have the fewest train collisions on record, train derailments are at an all-time low and the number of significant train accidents has substantially decreased. All these things have come—[HoN. MEMBERS: "From privatisation."] I prefer to thank the management in the industry for co-operating with the Government on those matters.

I do not want to get into the argument about privatisation. All I will say is that we are agreed that there is a fundamental flaw in the way in which the privatisation of the industry was presented to the House. We have tried to change that. We have established the Strategic Rail Authority, despite the Opposition voting against the Second Reading of the relevant Bill. We have introduced a 10-year transport plan setting out investment on a scale not seen in this country for decades, and we have provided the necessary resources and powers. In addition, we now have a powerful regulator. The hon. Gentleman should read the regulator's words. The regulator has said that there is no conflict between targets and safety.

Mr. Jenkin

indicated dissent.

Mr. Prescott

The regulator is the one who has examined the matter. I am just telling the hon. Gentleman what the regulator said, which contradicts what the hon. Gentleman appears to believe.

When Lord Macdonald, in the House of Lords, spoke of the continuity of the industry, he was referring to continuity of command. He was not making a particular reference to Mr. Corbett. If the argument is about whether Mr. Corbett has done his job rightly or wrongly, I shall wait for the inquiry to make a judgment.

A matter of concern to the inquiry will be why, although Railtrack knew about the rail break in April and had been supposed to deal with it in June, it had not done so by October. That seems to constitute a management failure. There was an offer of resignation, and I assume that that meant something had gone wrong because of the management.

If the hon. Gentleman is asking me whether I will or will not give an endorsement, let me tell him that I will not. I deal with Railtrack, not with personalities. I have regulators to deal with such matters. I have a Strategic Rail Authority. I have told the House how the investigation will be carried out, and I will wait for the results. I will not take the view that, because a regulator says that something is wrong, it is wrong; I will listen carefully to the arguments.

There are issues, and I do not close my mind to them. If anything in any way interferes with the delivery of safety in our railway system, I am prepared to consider any form of change. That should be the job of anyone who has the responsibility that I have today.

Inquiries are being made, and we have taken action. Paddington was a watershed. Lord Cullen was appointed not to inquire into the circumstances in which these tragedies took place, but to examine the whole culture of safety management. I have made fundamental changes in regard to safety management: I have provided resources for safety on a scale never equalled before. I have toughened up the regulator, and reduced the organisation through franchises. Those are decisions that I made three years ago; I am not making them now. They are the right decisions, which is why we shall have a safer railway system.

I hoped that we might see co-operation from those on the Opposition Front Bench. No chance. We should not expect it: we should get on with the job.

Barbara Follett (Stevenage)

May I join others in congratulating you on your appointment, Mr. Speaker, and also in welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement?

Some of my constituents were on last Tuesday's 12.10 train to Leeds, and some were injured. They, like me, will welcome the news of improvements in rail safety. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure that more communication takes place between Railtrack and its subcontractors, so that people know who is responsible for which section of the line, and when?

Mr. Prescott

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support, and share her sympathy and concern for her constituents.

Concern has been expressed about the difficulties involving rail contracts and Railtrack, which are a matter for investigation. Mr. Corbett has complained that the maintenance contracts he inherited were fixed-price, determined by the last Government and not by him. I pass no comment on that—I am merely repeating what Mr. Corbett has said—but it is part of what will be dealt with by the inquiry. Let us wait for the results of that.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I join many others in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker.

May I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement, and join him in offering our sympathy to those who were injured in the accident—and, of course, the friends and relations of those who lost their lives? May I also join him in congratulating the emergency services, and the many local people who came to assist?

Does the Deputy Prime Minister, like me, welcome a repenting sinner? Does he welcome a recent statement by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) in which the hon. Gentleman at least admitted that the Conservatives had made mistakes during the privatisation of the railways? One aspect of that privatisation led to a development that is of great concern to many people. Notwithstanding the advice that he has been given by the Rail Regulator, does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that, in many people's minds, a perverse incentive scheme is operating? Railtrack is fined if it delays trains, and it is fined if it does not delay them so that it can carry out necessary safety work.

Finally, does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that a further complication is where the money is to come from to improve safety? The Rail Regulator yesterday announced more money for Railtrack for safety measures, but that money will come from the Government. It will be given to the Strategic Rail Authority, which will give it to the train operating companies, which in turn will give it to Railtrack. Why cannot the money go directly from the Government to Railtrack? Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure us that it is new money?

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the emergency services. His concerns are shared by a number of other hon. Members.

On the question whether we should welcome a repentant sinner, I am not sure that the hon. Member for North Essex is repentant. He simply uttered a few political words of convenience. If anything makes that clear, it is his statement at the Dispatch Box today. He said nothing about being wrong. He was already trying to correct the statement that most people outside thought he had made. However, it is not my job to get into an ideological argument about the hon. Gentleman.

My job is to produce a safe, modern railway. The measures that I have put in place will help us to do that. As to whether there is a conflict between incentives, the regulator says that there is not. I am prepared to listen to the argument, but the regulator says, and he has a fair point, that all he is doing in setting targets is referring to the targets set by Railtrack itself. Railtrack set the targets and it failed to achieve them.

The regulator's main concern about the breaks in the rail is that, although there was a large number of such breaks—more than 1,000 in 1980—there has been a reduction, but now the number is starting to rise. The concern of the regulator and the Health and Safety Executive is that, despite Railtrack's promises, it has not taken appropriate action to reduce the number of breaks. That is a matter for investigation. Let us await the outcome. I am keeping an open mind about whether there is a conflict in these matters. The regulator is looking into it and an inspection is under way.

I particularly asked the Health and Safety Executive to consider, in the course of its investigation, the matter of contracts and whether it causes any problems. It is the subject of complaint by the contractors as well as Railtrack.

On the question of resources, the money is extra money. That is clear to everyone from the 10-year transport plan. Also, different forms of finance, which do not have to go through the operators, can be arranged with Railtrack and the Strategic Rail Authority. There are various ways of financing the railways and we are experimenting with one or two different ways.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

May I begin by congratulating you, Mr. Speaker?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in offering thanks also to the staff at Leeds station for the efficient way in which they responded to the tragedy by making sure that any relatives arriving at the station to meet people who were on the train were cared for and provided with information?

Given that it is very likely that a broken rail caused the accident, will my right hon. Friend ask the safety inspectorate to offer advice now on the frequency with which the track should be inspected in future?

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for his words of support. I join him in commending the Leeds staff, who had to deal with some of the terrible circumstances arising from the tragedy. Everyone in the railway industry, at all ranks, feels deeply when such a tragedy occurs, and they all do everything they can to assist.

With regard to the frequency of inspections, I have asked the Health and Safety Executive to consider the matter. I know that the regulator is also looking into it and has arranged an independent assessment jointly with the HSE. That report is due in the first week of November and will give us a chance to see how robust the management of Railtrack is in dealing with broken rails. It is a matter of dispute between Railtrack, the HSE and the regulator, and we shall hear more about it in due course.

I want the best possible system of safety. I have been concerned that, in the meantime, trains continue to run in places where there is evidence of broken rails or such a possibility in the future. I have asked the HSE to look at whether the inspection system and the management system are robust enough to work properly now.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

May I, too, add my personal congratulations to you on your election, Mr. Speaker?

Does the Secretary of State understand that, to the extent that he focuses the Government's energy on the problem of broken rails, he will carry the House with him? Will he confirm that Railtrack knew last December that there was something wrong with the stretch of track that we are considering? Given that, what action does the Secretary of State believe those responsible for Railtrack should take to ensure the restoration of public confidence, especially in safety under that organisation?

Mr. Prescott

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. However, I should prefer it if people reserved judgment until the results of the inquiry are known. Parties to the tragedy have given far too many statements about their views on why something happened or did not happen. It is best to await the inquiry report. In the meantime, there has been publicity about the correspondence between the rail inspectorate and Railtrack, and between the regulator and Railtrack. It clearly shows that the reasons for Railtrack's failure to implement what it recommended and agreed with its contractor are well known to the organisation. That is at the heart of the inquiry, and I do not wish to say more than that.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that in a show trial culture, the Conservative party would be in the dock for what happened at the time of privatisation? Does he accept that the Hatfield derailment would never have happened when the railways were publicly owned because local knowledge plays an enormous part in finding weak spots, especially on high-speed tracks? As long as there is a system in which Railtrack lacks the basic skills to maintain the track and has to buy them in, the problems will continue. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] Opposition Members say "Rubbish", but every hon. Member knows that, from one end of the country to the other, main lines in Britain look like long-abandoned gasworks, covered with weeds, rubbish and grass. That would never have happened when specific gangs of men were responsible for individual stretches of track. The fault for the shambles of Hatfield and similar disasters lies entirely with the Conservative party.

Mr. Prescott

I do not want to follow my hon. Friend down some of that road. While I understand his points, he gives me a chance to stress that I must concern myself with the facts of the case. Let us consider broken rails. I do not know whether Hatfield would have been prevented before privatisation, but when considering the number of broken rails in different periods, hon. Members must realise that in, for example, 1981–82, there was an average of approximately 1,000 broken rails. That figure was down to about 600 in 1990 and it has now climbed to nearly 1,000 again. Throughout that time there have been different forms of management, yet there has been a high rate of broken rails. I do not want to suggest that all broken rails lead to train derailments; no more than 1 per cent. or 2 per cent. do that. However, broken rails are a serious matter.

If we consider the facts and figures for fatal train accidents in the past 25 years, the number of deaths have decreased by approximately 50 per cent. since 1975.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

Congratulations, Mr. Speaker.

Many trains are now moving slowly through my constituency. It is startling to my constituents that, the day before the crash, trains were hurtling through Shenfield, whereas a couple of days afterwards, everything ground to a halt. That suggests that Railtrack knew about the specific problems there.

We must come to terms with the fact that, because more people and freight are travelling by rail, demands and strains on the track are much greater. What is considered reasonable for inspections in the context of declining stock is not reasonable in the context of growing demand, especially for heavy trucks, on our system. Does that not emphasise the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) made about the need for a clear inquiry into rail safety maintenance?

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He made a strong point. Indeed, it is one of the reasons for the terms of reference that I gave to the Cullen inquiry. I wanted the inquiry to examine not only a particular incident, but the management and safety cultures within our railway system. That is happening now.

I am sure that many people have realised that trains which were travelling at full pelt are now moving at only 20 mph. Railtrack has a responsibility to implement such policies and to maintain safe track, whether the speeds are 70 or 20 mph. I am concerned about the management procedures. Why are trains that were travelling at full pelt—presumably drivers were not told to travel at a slower speed at Hatfield—now travelling so slowly in areas where there are concerns about safety? It is about management. I think that the Rail Regulator's complaint is that the management was not adequate. I do not know—it is a matter of public comment by the regulator, and Railtrack has entered into the debate. I prefer to wait for the inquiry to give these matters full consideration and to report.

The hon. Gentleman has made a fundamental point for the Health and Safety Executive to consider when examining the Hatfield tragedy. It also involves the entire management of the railway, which Lord Cullen is addressing.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I add my congratulations, Mr. Speaker—it is lovely to see you in the Chair.

As my right hon. Friend knows, my constituents and many Members use the line in question and GNER trains. I am pleased that he has announced that the inquiry will be wide ranging and will feed into Cullen.

After the disastrous privatisation of the railways—everybody agrees that it was disastrous—and the 18 years of Tory neglect, will former Tory Ministers be giving evidence to the Cullen inquiry? Will they be brought to account for the mess that they undoubtedly made of both the railways and privatisation?

Mr. Prescott

It is not for me to answer for the Opposition. Lord Cullen is taking advice from all parties. Indeed, the Opposition have given advice, but I do not know whether that was before their change in policy. Everyone should give advice to Lord Cullen on these fundamental matters. I believe that he is about to make the sort of changes necessary to improve safety on the railways that he brought about in North sea oil operations.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I add my congratulations, Mr. Speaker. All Scots will take immense pride in your elevation to the speakership.

I think that this is the first disaster that GNER has suffered. It has had an outstanding record of carrying passengers on the east coast main line through York and the Vale of York. I understand that there have been reports that the Eurostar carriages that have been added to the operation may have contributed to the higher incidence of broken rails. Will the Cullen inquiry have an opportunity to look into that?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain why railway disasters are treated differently from aviation and maritime accidents? Would this be a good opportunity to invoke the same procedure for rail disasters as for aviation and maritime disasters?

Mr. Prescott

On the latter point, the hon. Lady makes a sound suggestion, and one that I hope Lord Cullen will consider.

The Government and the Opposition will be giving evidence on how we might implement a more comprehensive and consistent method of dealing with safety between the different transport modes. The Select Committee has made strong recommendations on this matter recently.

As for Eurostar, any train going on to the track must go through a safety procedure. As I understand it, the Eurostar carriages have not made any difference. However, the inquiry will be considering these matters, and it is proper that it should do so.

As I waited for my train on Sunday night, I read GNER's punctuality figures. The tragedy occurred on its rail network but punctuality was about 80 per cent. There does not seem to be much of a conflict there.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)

Many congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but it is of major concern that Railtrack appeared to know that there were problems along the Hatfield stretch of line but seemed unable to force its contractors to carry out remedial work. Although my right hon. Friend will want to see the outcome of the various inquiries, will he seek some immediate assurances from Railtrack that it will put in place management systems to follow up identification of a problem where work is not being carried out and where it knows that if it does not take action there will be serious safety implications?

Mr. Prescott

I agree with my hon. Friend. As to whether Railtrack knew about the safety implications and whether contractors failed to carry out the work, that is for the investigation to determine. However, as I have said, it is clear from the correspondence that has been published by both the Rail Regulator and the rail inspectorate that there was conflict of some kind and that they were constantly pressuring Railtrack to carry out improvements in those areas. Nevertheless, the issue is best left to the Health and Safety Executive.

What I have to assure myself is that between now and that inquiry, everything is done to make every part of that railway as safe as possible and to prevent the sort of tragedy that happened at Hatfield. Of course, if there is a breach of safety regulations, there are penalties. Indeed, the ultimate penalty lies with me. If there is a serious breach by Railtrack and it fails to carry out its responsibility under its licence, I can remove that licence.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Congratulations and best wishes, Mr. Speaker, from another in the league of unsuccessful candidates.

In the short term, how quickly does the Deputy Prime Minister think money will feed through in repairs and improvements to the affected sections of the east coast main line track, bearing in mind the impact of the necessary delays and many train cancellations on the business and working lives of the north-east and the Borders, which have become used to an extremely good train service?

Mr. Prescott

Extra resources are immediately available in those areas. However, now that the Rail Regulator has given his report, the Strategic Rail Authority has to produce its strategic plan showing the order of priorities. That involves discussion with Railtrack, which is now under way. I hope that we will be able to get the report shortly from the SRA. The right hon. Gentleman will then clearly see the programme of implementation.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I add my congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker.

Does my right hon. Friend recall the Transport Committee report on rail safety that expressed serious concern about the management, control and monitoring of subcontractors employed by Railtrack? We all welcome the Strategic Rail Authority withdrawing the franchise from Connex, but, given that Railtrack is a monopoly controller of our infrastructure, and given the Government's decision to put £5 billion into Railtrack, how does my right hon. Friend envisage the public interest, safety and public accountability being ensured by Railtrack and its operation?

Mr. Prescott

With regard to the amounts of money that are being made available out of our 10-year transport plan—£15 billion is being made available, with £5 billion going into the track itself—the Rail Regulator has made it clear that he would like the money to be spent in that particular way as part of the licence, and intends to have an accountability and monitoring system to ensure that it is. The Select Committee was critical about contracts. I assure my hon. Friend that that is one way in which we are thinking of toughening up the whole operation to ensure that there is accountability in that area. After all, Railtrack has an obligation to maintain a safe railway. My job is to ensure that it does, and 1 intend to toughen up very much in that area.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I add my congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker.

I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) that many thousands of constituents who use the railway are generally very satisfied with the services that they receive from GNER. Were they to be asked, they would give it a strong vote of confidence, but clearly they no longer have confidence in the state of the rail track. They want to know how it can be that Railtrack knew that the track was damaged in some way and substandard, yet the train was allowed to travel at speeds in excess of 100 mph.

The Deputy Prime Minister has made many reassuring statements to the House, which I am sure will be helpful, but can he unequivocally state that there will be no question of any train operator being penalised and fined for delays on the railway if those delays are caused by having to reduce speeds over defective rail lines?

Mr. Prescott

Certainly, the concern must be to ensure that we have a safe railway system. I am a regular user of the company to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is usually considered that 50 per cent. of the reasons for delay are the fault of Railtrack and that 50 per cent. are the fault of the operators. That varies from line to line and the regulator takes that into account when considering any fines for companies that have failed to meet their targets. We must ensure that the track is safe, that it cannot be used as an excuse for delay and that there is no threat to safety.

I must confess some surprise that, under Railtrack—it was the same with British Rail—there is no register of assets for our railway system. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) will know that from his time on the Railtrack board. It is curious that there is no register, and we have been pressing Railtrack about that for some time. We do not know how many stations there are, how long they are or the state of the track. That makes it difficult now as we talk about areas of concern. We are discussing that with Railtrack, and the Strategic Rail Authority has that as a central consideration.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Congratulations, Mr. Speaker. I should also like to congratulate the men and women who, day in and day out, operate the trains on the east coast main line on behalf of GNER. On the day in question—last Tuesday—I should have been on the 12.10 ex King's Cross to Leeds. Fortunately, I changed my plans and decided to catch the next train that stopped at Stevenage. I was actually on a train leaving Stevenage less than an hour late. That is great testimony to the men and women who operate the railway on that line.

However, I am a little worried about the existing structures. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is prepared to comment on whether he believes that the existing structures for Railtrack and the operating companies are capable, as they stand, of halting the growing list of tragic accidents on our railways.

Mr. Prescott

The House will support the comments about the railway employees and management who deal with tragedies so quickly. I travelled by train on Sunday—there was a regular one-hour service, even into King's Cross. To deal with the challenge in that way shows tremendous adjustment to change. We all want to thank those people for their efforts. However, like all of us, their greatest concern is to maintain a safe railway system. The fundamental question is whether the system that we have inherited is adequate to maintain a modern and safe railway. In my judgment, the answer is no. That is why I introduced the Strategic Rail Authority and toughened up the regulatory procedures. It is why I introduced the resources to enable investment in modern signalling for a modern railway system and to ensure that we have safe and modern rolling stock. That is what we are doing. I believe that that will make a difference—if I did not, I would not be carrying out that policy.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

May I add my warm congratulations to you on your election, Mr. Speaker?

Given the recent increasing number of serious incidents—Hatfield, Stafford last Thursday evening and a fatality in north Wales yesterday—involving the clear failure of infrastructure, is it not blatantly obvious to everyone that, with the 150 speed restrictions, Railtrack is letting us down badly? Have the Government given any recent serious consideration to renationalising Railtrack?

Mr. Prescott

The first point is whether I am satisfied that there is a robust management system in place to deal with the difficulties on the rail track. The current evidence, particularly after Hatfield, suggests that it is not as good as it should be. That is what the inquiry will determine. The hon. Gentleman talked about the terrible tragedy on the traffic crossing yesterday. We must have a greater safety culture than there is at present. I have told the House that there has been a reduction in accidents and deaths, but they are always matters of great concern and we should strive to reduce them, and we will.

The hon. Gentleman talked about renationalising Railtrack. We should consider whether renationalising Railtrack would make the railways safer. I gave the figures earlier. Whether public or private, ownership does not necessarily determine whether the rail system will be safer. The facts are there for me to see and I have to make a judgment. The reality is that the culture is not right and has become worse, so we have to make some changes. Lord Cullen is examining those issues, which I have referred to him, and we should allow him to make his judgment on them.

Mr. Tony McWaiter (Hemel Hempstead)

I add my congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker—words that hon. Members from the 1997 intake have never used before. We also had no idea that those clothes fitted a man.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that track in Hertfordshire is the most densely used fast-speed track in Europe? Does he also agree that it should be inspected more often than track in more outlying areas? Will he ensure that arrangements are made to inspect that track more regularly than it has been heretofore?

Mr. Prescott

I do not want to enter into dispute with my hon. Friend, but most railway people say that Clapham Junction is the busiest part of our railway system. However, his question about whether regular track inspections are being conducted to reduce the number of rail breaks goes to the heart of the investigation. Although I am sure that Railtrack would say that it was conducting such inspections, and although I should hope that the Health and Safety Executive will assure me that Railtrack's current procedures are adequate, that question will go to the heart of the investigation and the inquiries that I mentioned.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that last week, in the other place, Lord Bradshaw, who is a member of the Strategic Rail Authority, argued that there was an obvious tension between a system of penalty payments for delays and investment in track, and which obviously increases delays in the short term? In his statement, the right hon. Gentleman said that the regulator is now convinced that everything is in place to incentivise Railtrack to improve safety. Why does Railtrack need incentives to improve safety? Is it because it is a private company?

Mr. Prescott

Incentives were used by the state operation in awarding contracts, and Governments and others who award contracts offer incentives for jobs to be completed more quickly. Many reasons are given for offering incentives. However, I concede that the argument has been put into the public arena that there may be a conflict between some of the incentives and targets. I am sure that Lord Cullen will examine exactly that issue. I have also specifically asked the Health and Safety Executive to give us its judgment and conclusions on that aspect of contract work.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we are reaching the point at which we are pouring money into those millionaire directors' pockets, but they seem to be ignoring faulty lines and all the rest of it? Does he recall the days when we voted against this Tory hybrid monster of a privatised railway? Does he also understand that there is a growing demand among the general public for taking rail back into public ownership? Hon. Members are also getting a bit fed up of handing over money to friends of the Tory party—it has to come to an end. Will my right hon. Friend agree not to rule out the possibility of taking British Rail back into public ownership, as we demanded when we were in opposition?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend will know—I agreed with him at the time; it is a matter of record—that I thought that privatisation of the railways was wrong. In votes, in Committees and in all sorts of circumstances, we opposed the model that the then Government proposed to the House, and we were right to oppose it. I now find myself as the Secretary of State with responsibility for these matters—[Interruption.] I hope that hon. Members will always think that I take a considered view on these matters and seek to justify my view. I have done that in this case.

As my hon. Friend will know, it is Labour party policy not to renationalise the rail system. Why is that our policy? As I argued in conference, we cannot avoid putting money into the pockets of those people. If we renationalised the railway, we would probably have to give them compensation. Although I assume that my hon. Friend would not want to do that, we would have to consider doing it. As the Euro rules and human rights legislation deal with the need to pay compensation, I cannot be free from a requirement to put money into the pockets of people who I do not want to receive it. Additionally, on top of paying perhaps £6 billion in compensation, we would have to wait two or three years to pass the necessary legislation. I would sooner be putting that money into track safety and ensuring that the system works.

As I told the House, the new Strategic Rail Authority, a 10-year investment plan, a new approach to safety and a renegotiation of the franchises will give us a different model. That model will be so successful that the Tories will have to ditch the old model and support the one that we are delivering.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Further to the right hon. Gentleman's helpful reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), does he favour the establishment of a permanent and independent rail accident investigation branch of his Department? Would he be good enough to tell the House what, if any, discussions he has had with his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the scope for a full debate on the Floor of the House on the final report of the Health and Safety Executive?

Mr. Prescott

Matters of time and debate are, of course, for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I am constantly available to discuss such matters either in statements or in debates. [Interruption.] There are many matters that I am prepared to debate, and I commonly come to the House.

On the serious question about the safety structure, I genuinely have an open mind: I have not reached a conclusion about it. I certainly want to wait to find out what Cullen has to say about it. I hear what the Select Committee tells us about how we should reorganise safety, but it is a fundamental question.

I admit that, when in opposition, I complained that the railway inspectorate, which was created under a Labour Government, should never had gone back to the then Department of Transport. I held that view then and I see no reason to change it, but I shall await what Lord Cullen has to say about it, and then come forward with recommendations to the House.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

I am member of the Public Accounts Committee. Last year, we considered a report by the National Audit Office on the flotation of Railtrack. The report clearly shows that the flotation was an absolute disaster for the taxpayer, track maintenance and the infrastructure of Railtrack. Even the report states that the increasingly favourable perception of investors towards Railtrack since July 1996 has been attributed, by the various parties to whom we spoke, to a combination of factors. I shall not list all the factors, but one of the main ones was that the value of shares increased simply because people knew that Railtrack would not invest in the maintenance and structure of the lines, and Railtrack admitted that it did not know what the state of the track was.

We recently met Mr. Gerald Corbett, who suggested that one way forward could be a public-private partnership between the industry and the Government. Has my right hon. Friend considered whether that is a possibility? While not necessarily renationalising the industry, it would at least put it partly under Government control.

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend makes several important points about the way in which public assets were sold off at a disgraceful rate. That concern has been looked at by the National Audit Office and various Select Committees. That sell-off meant an awful lot of money for a few people. The irony for myself and for those who opposed Railtrack was that the greater our determination to get the then Government to drop their privatisation proposal—it was at the time of the 1992 election—the more it was said that we were forcing down the price, and that as a consequence when we were elected the price shot up and many people made an awful lot of money. In fact, our argument was that the then Government waited to sell British Telecom until after the election, so they could have done the same with Railtrack—but so be it; that is a matter of history.

With regard to whether we should hold shares in Railtrack or use a public-private partnership, as my hon. Friend may know we still hold 1 million shares in Railtrack, or about 0.2 per cent. of it. The Opposition always thought that we would use the Strategic Rail Authority to renationalise the rail industry by buying shares. There is a difficult balance between the Government owning shares in Railtrack and accepting responsibility without any control. Such matters are constantly being put to me, and my mind is not totally closed to all those issues.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

May I join the congratulations that have been extended to you, Mr. Speaker?

May I also join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying tribute to the role of the emergency services and the two hospitals in Hertfordshire—the Lister hospital and the Queen Elizabeth II hospital—and to the response of local people?

Although the terrible tragedy happened on the fast line of that stretch of track, there is also a slow line, which serves commuters and others from Hatfield and Potters Bar. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that safety checks should be every bit as stringent on that section of the track as on the fast section?

Mr. Prescott