HC Deb 31 March 2003 vol 402 cc669-89

'(1) The Secretary of State shall make regulations requiring the Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents to produce once in each calendar year a report in connection with the activities of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch.

(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may, in particular, make provision about—

  1. (a) timing of reports;
  2. (b) content of reports;
  3. (c) publication and other treatment of reports.'.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

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

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: (b), at end insert— '(d) those bodies and individuals with whom the Railways Accident Investigation Branch must consult in the preparation of a report.'. (a), at end insert— '(3) Regulations under subsection (1) shall, in particular, make provision about the rail industry's progress in implementing the recommendations which the Rail Accident Investigation Branch makes.'. New clause 12—Rail Accident Investigation Branch: Subcontracting— '.—The Rail Accident Investigation Branch shall not use in an investigation contractors or subcontractors whose actions prior to that investigation could reasonably be expected to be referred to in the conclusions of that investigation.'. Government amendments Nos. 11 to 15.

Amendment No.2, in page 3, line 5 [Clause 6], at end insert— '(1A) The Rail Accident Investigation Branch may investigate any railway situation which it judges to have the potential for fatality or injury.'.

Mr. Jamieson

I am delighted that the House can return to considering the Bill. I see that some old friends from its consideration in Committee are in their places. I am sure that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) will speak with her usual commendable economy of words, as I am sure will the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and others.

The new clauses and amendments refer to part 1, which would establish the rail accident investigation branch. New clause 6 would place a duty on the chief inspector of rail accidents to publish an annual report on the activities of the RAIB. The clause is being brought forward in response to concerns that were raised in Committee. A number of the amendments that stand in the name of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are responses to matters that were properly raised in Committee.

The regulations will give details of what will be in the annual report and when it will be published. We intend that the RAIB's annual report will let everyone see what the branch has been doing in the previous year. Not only will it provide an overview of investigations made in the preceding year and give details of safety recommendations that have been made, but, crucially, regulations will also specify that the report should show industry progress towards implementation of recommendations made by the branch, so that it can be seen that lessons are being learned. I hope that that addresses some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Bath, as expressed in amendment (a).

The rail industry will be responsible for the implementation of safety regulations in line with recommendations made by Lord Cullen. The rail safety and standards board will maintain a single record of recommendations made by the RAIB, as well as industry investigation recommendations, so that the state of industry progress towards implementation of each and every recommendation can be checked. The publication of annual reports by the branch will draw on that and place a discipline on everyone involved to ensure that recommendations are implemented.

Government amendments Nos. 11 and 12 have been tabled to ensure that the RAIB's responsibilities in relation to the channel tunnel are clear and work well. Our intention has always been that the investigation of accidents and incidents in the channel tunnel would not automatically be for the RAIB. Such matters would be for the channel tunnel intergovernmental commission and the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority to decide.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so soon, but the matter that he has just raised is a very fraught one. He will be aware that the channel tunnel organisation does not always provide full and detailed information about its own workings, so it is extremely worrying that the matter may, rather unhelpfully, come under its aegis. Can he assure us that, as a result of the amendments, it will be made clear on the record that the available statistics will be printed clearly so that the general public and the House of Commons can have access to them?

Mr. Jamieson

I am not sure whether the amendments will do so, but the new clause ensures that should the tunnel authorities call on the expertise of the rail accident investigation branch, it can be used. The authorities' information would, of course, be made public.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that new clause 6(2) is strikingly broad in scope and lacking in specificity, can the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether we will at least have the benefit of advance sight of the draft regulations before the Bill's final passage? Irrespective of the answer to that question, can he advise the House whether the regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure of the House or its negative counterpart?

Mr. Jamieson

The regulations will be dealt with in the normal way, and their publication will be dealt with in the normal way in the House.

Mr. Bercow

That answer was spectacularly uninformative. For the hon. Gentleman to say that the regulations will be dealt with in the normal way tells us everything and nothing that we need to know. The question is specific—given that there is normality about the use of both the negative and positive procedures, which are the Government opting for?

Mr. Jamieson

There is never normality about what the hon. Gentleman raises in the House, but there is always predictability. In this case, the statutory instruments will be subject to negative resolution, but many other statutory instruments relating to the Bill will be subject to positive resolution. That was thrashed out very thoroughly by the hon. Member for Vale of York in Committee.

Government amendments Nos. 13, 14 and 15 strengthen the wording describing the aims of the rail accident investigation branch. As Lord Cullen recommended, the fundamental aim of the rail accident investigation branch must be to improve the safety of railways and prevent railway accidents and incidents. The rail accident investigation branch will establish the root causes of railway accidents and incidents, and share safety lessons with the industry as quickly as possible so that safety can be improved and future accidents prevented. However, there may be circumstances in which the rail accident investigation branch could, for example, help a marine or air accident investigation by providing specialist assistance. For that reason, we do not want the aims of the rail accident investigation branch in clause 4 to be so narrow that it could only work on a rail accident investigation.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Has the Minister given any thought to the question of whether the rail accident investigation branch will, in certain circumstances, be able to carry out surveys or studies of potential dangers? For example, he will be aware that at present the union ASLEF is pressing for a reduction in hours. Is that something that would come under the remit of the rail accident investigation branch? Would it carry out a survey and report back?

Mr. Jamieson

I am not sure that that particular issue would come under the branch's remit, but certainly under the Bill there is an ability to look both at incidents that may lead to increased risks and risks that might lead to incidents. We want the branch to have freedom to investigate such things—they may not be actual events or incidents, but things that might lead to a serious event. I am sure that the branch's chief inspector will look at each issue, just as the marine accident investigation branch and the air accidents investigation branch look at each issue to see whether there is a risk that could cause danger.

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Mrs. Dunwoody

I apologise for intervening again, but the wording that my hon. Friend used implies that the rail accident investigation branch will intervene in the other accident branches. Would it not be sensible to follow one of my Committee's recommendations—that the Government should set up a truly independent safety authority capable of covering all forms of transport, using the expertise of the existing bodies but bringing them together in such a way that they would be independent of their individual industries and capable of delivering much better, much stronger and much more imperative results?

Mr. Jamieson

My hon. Friend's argument has much merit. 'The air accidents investigation branch and the marine accident investigation branch have specific expertise and have proved to be singularly capable in their work. The counter-argument to my hon. Friend's suggestion is that because those branches of our Department operate as they do, with the expertise that they have, it is considered at present that they are better as separate branches operating with own their levels of expertise. However, we may return to the matter in the future. I should add that the Bill allows for a sharing of expertise between branches, should that be required. It is not expected that the branches would regularly investigate each other's cases, but they may have certain expertise that they can share with one another.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I understand that the air accidents investigation branch occasionally helps in other countries where there has been an air crash and it uses its expertise there. Does my hon. Friend envisage that the rail accident investigation branch could fulfil a similar role? If so, I recognise that the House will not want to examine great reports on accidents that happened throughout the rest of the world, but if lessons can be drawn from incidents that happened elsewhere, will they be able to form part of the content of the report?

Mr. Jamieson

My hon. Friend makes a sensible point. I do not think that it would happen frequently, but there may be cases in which the rail accident investigation branch would be asked to investigate, help investigate or provide expertise in respect of some incident that had happened outside the country. Should that happen, I would anticipate that if there were any lessons to be learned that were appropriate to our circumstances, we could benefit from such information. My hon. Friend's suggestion was not made in Committee and is a powerful point.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary in his place and I am grateful to him for his kind words. I refer the House to my interests as declared on a number of occasions, most recently in Committee. I congratulate the Under-Secretary on tabling a number of new clauses and amendments. His sometimes harsh words in Committee were compensated for by his generous invitation to visit his constituency and have a journey on a chain ferry. I am sure that before Royal Assent is granted, we will have time to compare our diaries and find a suitable occasion.

On Government new clause 6, we welcome the provision for the chief inspector to report once in each calendar year on the branch's activities. What changed the Government's mind, after the Under-Secretary so forcefully rejected our version of the new clause in Committee? We requested that the rail accident investigation branch make an annual report of its proceedings to each House of Parliament, and that it publish and present its audited annual reports. We asked that the report be not merely presented and published but also debated by each House of Parliament.

David Cairns

The hon. Lady is being uncharacteristically ungracious. It is my clear recollection that she withdrew her amendment after receiving assurances from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that the Government would table amendments on Report to address the points in the amendment that she and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) proposed in Committee. Is that not the case?

Miss McIntosh

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the response of the Minister of State, Department for Transport on 4 February, in column 22 of the Standing Committee report. The Minister did not go quite as far as the hon. Gentleman suggests; in fact, the right hon. Gentleman was quite harsh in his rejection of our amendment. However, we are an open, enlightened party so we welcome the Government's change of heart. We question what prompted that change and request that the report be published and debated, not least by the Select Committee, and that each House should have the opportunity to discuss it.

I hesitate to comment on the Liberal Democrat amendments as Liberal Democrat Members did not offer much support for our amendments in Committee.

Mr. Foster (Bath)


Miss McIntosh

We wait expectantly to hear the background.

Mr. Foster

As the hon. Lady is so keen on studying the Hansard reports of the Committee debates, may I strenuously urge her to look at the numerous occasions on which she rightly referred to the growing alliance between our parties? That indicates that we were being supportive, as she rightly was of many of our amendments.

Miss McIntosh

As the Under-Secretary invited me to be brief, I should hate to break his strictures so early on. However, speaking at considerable length in Committee has obviously paid rewards.

I am delighted that, to some extent, Government amendment No. 11 answers our request about the actual designation of work on reporting accidents and that accidents in the channel tunnel will be investigated separately. It is important to record our gratitude to the Government; they appear to have listened to our concerns and to have found a way forward.

I support with greater enthusiasm our amendment No. 2, which states:

The Rail Accident Investigation Branch may investigate any railway situation which it judges to have the potential for fatality or injury. The Under-Secretary will recall the extensive background that we rehearsed in Committee. I repeat the welcome for the Cullen report and its recommendations given by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) on Second Reading. The recommendations are timely. We are immensely proud of the air and marine accident investigation branches and hope that they will serve as models. However, during the extensive consultation, for which the Government have been commended, several bodies pointed out that the Government need to specify the circumstances in which the branch will conduct an investigation. At the very least, the branch should investigate a fatality or a serious injury.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

Will the hon. Lady clarify something for me? Her amendment states that the branch should investigate "any railway situation", whereas the Bill refers to accidents and incidents. Will she explain what she means by "situation"? If a rail passenger committee or other representative body expressed concern about a particular safety issue, would she envisage them having the power to ask the branch to investigate that incident, or situation?

Miss McIntosh

I most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which is obviously very significant. In Committee, we tried hard to establish circumstances relating to the terms "accident" and "incident". It must be said that we did so with some support from the Liberal Democrats—[Interruption.] The issue arose very early in the proceedings, so we were delighted to recognise their support at that stage.

I would be happy with the terminology in relation to "accidents" and "incidents". However, it is important to record that, presumably, as the Under-Secretary has said that the Government want the railway accident investigation branch to lend assistance to the other boards in certain circumstances, we must be specific about the responsibilities of its inspectors and investigators. We believe that the potential for or occurrence of fatality or injury are the most specific circumstances in which inspectors and investigators would act.

Having made those introductory remarks, it gives me great pleasure to commend amendment No. 2 to the House.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

I wish to speak to the amendment that appears in my name—amendment (b) to the new clause. I should like to preface my remarks by saying that I was not a member of the Committee, although I am certainly a member of the coalition of the willing who want to see the Bill through the House as speedily as possible.

My interest rests on these factors: Brian Cooper, my constituent, was one of the drivers killed in the Paddington disaster; the Southall disaster was literally one mile from my constituency and its victims included some of my constituents; and on the night of the King's Cross fire, in my previous life as a local government officer, I was involved in dealing with some of the arrangements for those who were injured and killed. I therefore have a particular interest in rail safety, although I was not a member of the Committee.

I welcome the new clause which is critical to the operation of the Bill and could set the annual benchmarking of progress regarding railway safety in this country. Amendment (b) seeks to make the point that when the regulations are introduced, we need to maximise the openness and transparency with which the critical annual report is prepared. The Bill is an attempt not only to deal with the practical matters of rail safety, but to restore the confidence of the British public in the rail industry and in a Government who are acting on their behalf to ensure their safety. That is why emphasis should be given to ensuring maximum transparency and openness in preparing the annual report.

For that reason, amendment (b) suggests that the Secretary of State should be more directional in the preparation of the report. I look forward to seeing the regulations, although I would prefer it if the negative resolution procedure were not followed, as a positive discussion should take place in which the House can come to a decision on the detail of the regulations. In some instances, the negative resolution procedure does not afford the opportunity for such discussion.

The amendment would provide the Secretary of State with directional powers to allow more openness in the preparation of the reports. It would do so by allowing him to designate those bodies and individuals with whom the Railways Accident Investigation Branch would consult in the preparation of a report. It also covers some of the issues that have been raised in Liberal Democrat amendment (a) to the new clause, which deals with progress and implementation of recommendations arising from previous investigations. One of the groups that we would like to welcome in preparing the report and making observations is the individuals who served on or gave evidence to the inquiries that have accumulated in recent years.

The amendment would also cover some of the aspects raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport, because it would allow bodies to comment on the information that would become available as a result of the publication of a report. In other words, they could say what statistics should be included in the report while it was being prepared.

The amendment would also provide the opportunity for consultation with all the other individuals and organisations concerned about rail safety in recent years. In particular, I refer to employers and trade unions. Trade unions would be enabled to have an input in sections of the report that deal with such issues as ASLEF's concerns about hours of service and the reduction of the safety role of guards, which has been taken up by the RMT. Trade unions would have an input in the report at an earlier stage and thus it could address those issues. People would also be able to suggest what chapters of the report should cover. Such people would include victims' representative bodies, victims' legal representatives and representatives of academic and safety bodies. We would be allowed to consult bodies that work internationally on safety so that the annual report could bring to bear evidence from not only the railway industry in this country, but throughout the world. That is why the simple amendment could strengthen the Secretary of State's powers to ensure that the annual reporting process was more effective, open and transparent and therefore more reassuring for the travelling public and those who work in the industry.

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I shall not press the amendment to a Division because I want the Bill to be enacted as soon as possible. However, I would welcome the Secretary of State using the regulations to examine the process through which the report is prepared so that it achieves all our objectives: to benchmark, to be open and transparent and to reassure the travelling public.

Mr. Don Foster

Like the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and the Under-Secretary, I am delighted that we are making further progress on this important Bill. I, too, welcome the fact that many members of the Standing Committee are in the Chamber but I am delighted to see several new faces, not least the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the Chairman of the Transport Committee. I am sure that we will all benefit from her expertise during our proceedings.

I am also delighted that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is in the Chamber. On Friday, I participated in a debate on a private Member's Bill on high hedges, during which I looked back at our previous debate on high hedges in March 2001. I noted that there were several exchanges between the hon. Gentleman and me in which he said that he enjoyed jousting with me and I said that he was extremely assiduous in his work. He has demonstrated that again today through his intervention on the Under-Secretary. He asked about two issues: the way in which the statutory instruments will come before us and, importantly, whether a draft of the regulations would be seen before the Bill has passed through both Houses. The hon. Gentleman did not receive an answer from the Under-Secretary and if he had, we would not have to raise several of our concerns.

There are worries about aspects of the process, which are fleshed out in amendment (b), which was tabled by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and amendment (a). I wish to tease out more information about the nature of the report, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) will catch your eye later, Mr. Speaker, to speak to new clause 12.

We are delighted that the rail accident investigation branch will be set up. We have supported all aspects of the Government's proposals on it although, on occasions, we have challenged them to go further and to clarify aspects of its work. We are genuinely delighted with Government new clause 6. As the hon. Member for Vale of York said, both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members moved amendments in Committee that would have had a similar effect to the new clause. However, the Under-Secretary has failed to take account of several worries expressed by the hon. Lady and me during the debates on those amendments. The Conservative amendments related to the need for the annual report to be made to each House of Parliament, which implied that there would be an opportunity for both Houses to debate it. It does not appear that that will necessarily occur, because the Minister's own new clause merely states that we shall have regulations making provision about the publication and other treatment of reports at a later date. Had the hon. Member for Buckingham received a clear answer to his question, we might have known that we could look at this matter a little later in the proceedings and be assured of it happening. I note that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Vale of York at that time also talked about the need for the presentation of audited annual accounts to each House of Parliament. So far, it does not appear that we are going to see that either.

Our amendment (a) raises a further point. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington talked about the vital importance of the report that will be produced as a result of new clause 6. He said that it could be an important annual benchmarking of rail safety progress. The problem is, however, that we still do not have a clear assurance from the Government that, in addition to the rail accident investigation branch telling us what it has done, we shall also receive information about the progress being made in response to recommendations that it has made following accident investigations. The Minister hinted earlier that that provision might now be included, but I hope that we can have an assurance that there will be a mechanism to provide the annual benchmarking of rail safety progress that the hon. Gentleman has rightly said that we need. That is why we have tabled amendment (a), although, as I have said, we very much welcome the Government's new clause 6.

In regard to the other Government amendments and new clauses, new clause 13 strengthens the definition of the role of the rail accident investigation branch. The Minister was good enough to point out that some of those amendments resulted from suggestions made in Committee by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, and new clause 13 is just such a measure. We were very keen to have that strengthening of the role, and we therefore welcome the new clause. We are discussing the establishment of an important new body—the rail accident investigation branch—and we hope that the Minister will take on board some of the concerns that we continue to raise about it, particularly about its reporting function. No one should be in any doubt, however, of our full support for its introduction.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Travel by rail is very safe. That would appear to be such an obvious thing to say that it should not be necessary to repeat it, but, because of the drama and excitement engendered by any rail industry accident, it is sometimes possible to believe that rail travel is as dangerous as any other form of transport. It is important, therefore, to remember that we kill 3,000 people on our roads every year, but sometimes only four or five on the trains. That is not to underestimate the agony and tremendous tragedy of any rail accident, but it is important to keep these things in perspective when we are discussing these issues. I therefore welcome the Bill enormously because I believe that it will set out a way for us clearly to begin to put at rest the minds of the general public.

My hon. Friend the Minister was kind and courteous enough—as he always is—to answer my questions earlier, but I would have hoped that the Government might have been a little more courageous. The Bill presented an opportunity to consider the recommendations that we make, right across the transport industries, and to identify the series of excellent groups of people whose professional job is to investigate accidents. They exist in marine and aviation affairs, and there are clear differences between how some of them work, but they have shown that their very independence, openness and tremendous love of detail produce reports that have consistently provided a set of rules and plans by which the individual industries can progress.

That is why the Transport Committee suggested that this might be the moment to bring together all those different investigation branches. That is not in any way to underestimate the role that they play, but simply to say, "As that expertise exists, let us bring them into one independent free-standing agency." We should have given them the muscle to investigate and, indeed, to impose conditions while they are investigating the accident scene, as that would have been useful in working out what we must learn from individual incidents. I am sorry that that chance has not been taken. It seems slightly ungracious to say so, as my hon. Friend the Minister has introduced an amendment of which I approve, although I am sorry it does not go further, but he is long enough in the tooth in parliamentary terms to realise that that is frequently the norm.

We should have a totally independent investigation branch, and it is not enough to go one step. We should make it clear that what is necessary in this country is access to information. The general public have enormous faith in the railway system and many aspects of safety regulations are built on the assumption that the railway industry has always been astonishingly careful, almost since its inception, to maintain rules and regulations that protect its passengers and, indeed, its staff. That is why some of us are concerned about the safety changes inherent in the suggestion that we can do away with the job of the guard.

If I may digress for a moment, I travelled on a train on Saturday where a young man was threatening to commit suicide in a rather dramatic manner—by slitting his throat. It was the guard whose unenviable task it was to try to restrain him and at least find some way of getting to the point where British Transport police could deal with the situation. The guard was left in control. I know that Virgin trains are frequently over an hour late, but it seemed a rather excessive reaction to want to commit suicide. Nevertheless, that is a clear example of the fact that the guard has a specific role to play, and it was played with considerable expertise.

We should have taken the chance to sort out a series of problems through the Bill. One is undoubtedly the control of the channel tunnel. My hon. Friend the Minister is aware that the joint action between the British and French Governments frequently throws up clear differences between the two legal systems and the two systems of control. The channel tunnel authorities, on both sides, choose not to make public the facts of how they operate, or what happens on that track. Indeed, they limit many items of information to the minimum required by the company laws of both countries, which shows that we still face real difficulties.

The habit in this country of producing annual reports and including in them a minimum number of items that make what is happening clear to any member of the general public who wants to acquire the information—not just to people with expertise in an industry—is one that should be treasured and expanded on every occasion. I regret deeply the fact that that is not the case in relation to much channel tunnel legislation. I had hoped that we would deal with that question in considerable detail, but I return to the point that we in this country value safety regulation.

Those who moan about bureaucracy, form filling and the constant imposition of rules and regulations forget that in the safe passage of the people of the United Kingdom the transport industry has a role to play that is not only vital, but responsible. We have still not reached the end of the passage of the Bill—it has another House to go through and it has to come back here—so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister looks carefully at what he is suggesting. He should say that the Bill is just an elementary and first step, and that we should be going a lot further.

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I look forward to the time when a clear infrastructure, an independent agency and a set of tough regulations are on the statute book, drawing together all accident investigation branches, marine, aviation and railway—and perhaps we should also seriously consider what is happening on our roads—into an effective unit. That will force the public to think carefully about how they behave on transport systems, regulate the behaviour of individual companies in all those sectors, and enable us as a Parliament to feel that we have carried out our duties correctly.

Mr. Weir

I welcome the proposal for an annual report. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), our rail system is safe; the problem is that confidence has been undermined by a number of high-profile accidents recently. The Cullen inquiry and the Bill that followed it constitute one way of trying to introduce a system that will help to restore that confidence, and I think that, once established, the annual report will begin to do that.

I also support amendment No. 2, although the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) may wish to dissociate herself from my support when she has heard what I have to say. The wording of the amendment is significantly different from that of clause 6: while clause 6 refers specifically to accidents and incidents, the amendment refers to "any railway situation". That is an important difference. One problem with the Bill, which is to an extent inevitable, is that it deals with investigations of accidents that have already occurred. We should be thinking about how to prevent them from occurring.

In January there was an accident on the London underground Central line, which led to the closure of the line for some time. The RMT claimed that safety was being sacrificed to profit, and said that a driver on the Piccadilly line who had expressed concern about a banging noise had been told that if he refused to drive a train that was later found to be safe he would have to face the consequences. Today, as last week, railway guards are on strike, not over pay and conditions but over a safety issue. I feel that the investigation branch could look into specific railway safety issues. That may be beyond its power now, but I hope that in future a Government of whatever colour will consider it as a way of increasing both safety and confidence.

Mrs. Dunwoody

My Select Committee will be examining what happened on the Central line tomorrow afternoon.

Mr. Weir

I am delighted to hear it, but my point is that the branch should look not just at accidents that have already happened but at situations that may give rise to accidents, and at railway safety in general. If it can investigate any railway situation which it judges to have the potential for fatality or injury", a rail passenger council, a rail union or anyone concerned about railway safety would at least have an opportunity to bring to the branch's attention incidents or situations that might give rise to safety concerns.

David Cairns

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Does he agree that creating a special accident and investigation branch, which will focus tightly on investigating accidents and seeing what lessons can be drawn from them, could allow the Health and Safety Executive to fulfil the role that he mentions of looking into health and safety matters across the railways? It might also have time to do that more effectively. We should perhaps allow matters to move forward and see whether the Health and Safety Executive could fulfil the role that we both want carried out.

Mr. Weir

The hon. Member makes a good point, with which I would not disagree. My point was that confidence has been undermined by a series of high-profile accidents. People who travel regularly on the railways, the unions and others are concerned about a range of factors that give rise to safety concerns. Health and safety has a role within that, but I would argue it may be outwith the scope of the clause, but it should be considered—that the remit of a specific rail accident investigation branch should be expanded so that the problems that could cause spectacular accidents could be investigated before they get to that dangerous stage. An independent group that could seriously investigate those matters might help us in cases where strikes over safety are taking place. I am not sure that that is what the hon. Member for Vale of York had in mind.

Miss McIntosh

The hon. Gentleman's latest intervention touches on an important point, which we explored at length in Committee. Regrettably, the amendment that we tabled was not selected. Does he agree that the position of the Health and Safety Executive would have been much clearer if the Government had taken the opportunity to set out, either in a code of practice or a memorandum of understanding, the precise relationship between the HSE and the new rail accident investigation branch?

Mr. Weir

I was not present at the debate, so I cannot comment on the detail, but that is a fair point. My argument is that we must have some independent body—whether it be the HSE or the RAIB—to investigate complaints and concerns about safety on the railways before accidents occur.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

I am pleased to support the Bill in broad terms and I was pleased to serve in Committee. However, in common with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I would like to see stronger legislation and hope that this Bill is a significant step towards what can ultimately be achieved.

My concerns were raised by news in The Guardian today that the new rail safety and standards board will be established in a more independent role, having previously been based within the industry. The article says that the chief executive of the internal organisation, Mr. Rod Muttram, who assumed that he would be given the new job under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment)—TUPE—rules, has not been given the new chief executive post. I have made discreet investigations and inquiries today and I understand that he is a man of high calibre and a qualified electrical engineer, who has spent considerable time in the industry and has done a good job. At short notice, he was told that he need not apply for the new job, even though most other staff were transferred to the new organisation. There is a hint, I am afraid, that he was too good at his job, too independent and too strong in investigating safety and standards problems. When he was based inside the industry, it was perhaps easier for it to accept him, but it seems that he might be too much for a role in a body with an arm's length relationship with the industry.

I refer hon. Members to today's article in The Guardian for greater detail, but there is a hint of concern inside the industry about the strength of independent safety organisations. I hope that commercial interests will not taint the new branch set up by the Bill. I am sure that they will not, and I do not want to cast aspersions on those who may be involved in it, but I hope that the Government will make absolutely certain that it has the necessary independence and strength to do its job properly.

I very much welcome new clause 6. I am interested in its reference to the "content of reports". My hon. Friend the Minister said that the body will produce a report giving an overview of accident investigations. I hope that that will not be a bland hand-off of a true investigation, but have some meat and cutting edge. Full investigations into the Hatfield and Potters Bar accidents have not yet been published. Although there have been interim reports, we still, some time on, have not been told the truth as to what really happened in those accidents. There may be important lessons to learn from those accidents that could cost the industry a good deal of money.

Mr. Bercow

Unfortunately, I must plead ignorance of the contents of today's edition of The Guardian, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friends is so eminently reasonable that it is difficult to see why anyone should object to it? Does it not call for a form of pre-accident scrutiny, and is there not an analogy between that and pre-legislative scrutiny`?

Mr. Hopkins

I intend to come to that in the course of my speech. I accept that there is a point to the amendment, but several bodies in the industry have responsibility for safety, and this matter specifically concerns the investigation of accidents rather than considering safety beforehand. If, however, it appears that we have no effective pre-accident safety scrutiny, we will need to legislate to strengthen the bodies that deal with that.

I have some modest technical knowledge of railways, and this morning, at my local station—Luton, from where I travel every day—I saw from platform I that the outer track rail is very heavily worn. When rails are worn like that on a bend, derailments are possible. Other factors include broken rails, which are a major cause of accidents—we know that that was the case in one of the two examples that I just mentioned. Broken rails sometimes occur because track rail flexes, which happens because the ballast has not been re-tamped. Without getting too technical, the ballast underneath the track has to be tamped to ensure that it is stable, and when it has not been tamped properly the rails flex. I could draw hon. Members' attention to certain areas where I can see that track is flexing. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) suggested that the unions should have a role. Indeed, drivers in particular can see track problems from their cabs, and it is absolutely right that they should be consulted and have a role in reporting on such safety and accident matters.

Even I, as an amateur with some knowledge, can observe some trackside problems just by standing on a platform. We should have a mechanism whereby members of the public, those of us who are informed about such matters and, particularly, those who work in the industry can report problem areas beforehand so as to avoid any repetition of accidents of the kind that have occurred.

Mr. Clapham

My hon. Friend alluded to the relationship between overlapping bodies—for example, the rail accident investigation branch, the Health and Safety Executive, the Health and Safety Commission, Her Majesty's rail inspectorate and the new rail safety and standards board. Does he agree that the role that the rail accident investigation branch will play, as an independent body, may act as a catalyst in pulling together the other bodies to facilitate greater co-operation in relation to the way in which their work overlaps?

4.30 pm
Mr. Hopkins

If the investigation branch discovers that those other organisations are perhaps not doing their job, I hope that it will be able to report to Government so that something can be done. From my own inquiries and discussions with many who work in the railway industry, I know that some of those organisations are not doing the job as well as they should be. I do not want to go into detail on that, but I will report to my hon. Friend the Minister in due course.

I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) mentioned the transport police. The transport police do an excellent job. Hon. Members who saw the recent documentaries on the rail transport police will know that they are a first-class body that does a good job and should be listened to and supported. When the transport police find things that are not right, the Government ought to take them seriously and, if necessary, introduce further legislation to strengthen the existing arrangements.

I have a number of other points to raise but I may be able to raise them later.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I want to speak in favour of new clause 12, which is in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). The new clause relates to contacting or sub-contracting matters that were discussed in the Standing Committee. Hon. Members who were present will remember that we tabled a straightforward amendment, which was slightly shorter than the one that we are considering today. It said simply: The Rail Accident Investigation branch may not use contractors or subcontractors to assist in their investigations. It is worth recalling why we tabled that amendment. We did so because Lord Cullen, for instance, thought that it was paramount that the RAIB should be independent; and because of the answer to a parliamentary question that my hon. Friend the Member for Bath asked about the role of contractors. That answer was: The role of contractors or sub-contractors within RAIB would be as witnesses, when appropriate, during investigations."—[Official Report, 10 June 2002; Vol. 386, c. 781W.] It is only fair to point out that the Under-Secretary then went on to explain exactly what he meant. He said that the Government's view was that it would be appropriate to call as witnesses the maintenance companies in relation to a particular investigation. However, by that he did not mean that contractors could not be used as consultants if needed in a particular investigation.

In Committee, the Under-Secretary gave us an example in relation to the marine accident investigation branch. He said that he received lots of reports about marine accidents after which salvage experts were used to lift wreckage from the sea bed. Clearly, it is entirely appropriate for salvage experts to be used in that capacity. However, did not give the example of a ship manufacturer working as a consultant in an inquiry into a vessel that had been split in half in bad weather but that had been manufactured by the same ship manufacturer. It is exactly that sort of conflict of interest that we want to avoid. That is the purpose of new clause 12.

We heard the concerns of the Health and Safety Commission about various safety contractors who were involved in railway works and safety cases.

Mr. Hopkins

I endorse the hon. Gentleman's concern about the plague of contracting that has overtaken the industry since privatisation. Does he accept that a problem has been that many people with skills are now working with the sub-contractors, making it difficult to do anything without using sub-contractors in some fields? Would it not be a good idea to redevelop expertise in the core part of the industry and in the new bodies, so that those skilled people are genuinely public servants and are not compromised by commercial interests?

Tom Brake

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Clearly, there is a role for contractors and sub-contractors—that will always be so—but I agree with the point that he makes. Indeed, Network Rail has recently announced that it is bringing back in-house some contracting work, to enable it to develop not only expertise, but a point of comparison with contractors working in the private sector so that it can find out whether the costs quoted are appropriate.

As I have said, we have concerns about contractors who have a dual role in investigations and in carrying out work. Although the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) did not believe that sub-contractors would never be asked to work on investigations, he argued that they should not lead them and only assist in them.

Under new clause 12, we seek to incorporate some of the views that hon. Members expressed in Committee, so it reads: contractors or sub-contractors whose actions prior to that investigation could reasonably be expected to be referred to in the conclusions of that investigation should not be used during that investigation, and I hope that hon. Members, including the Under-Secretary, would concur that that is very sensible. I hope that, if the Under-Secretary already thinks that that is covered by the certain clauses or regulations, he will confirm that fact and, therefore, it is an issue about which we should not be concerned. However, if that is not covered, it would be appropriate for him to take on board our compromise suggestion.

I should like to give the Under-Secretary some time to consider our proposal—perhaps he will do so in the next few days—so we do not intend to press new clause 12 to a vote. We will listen carefully to his response, and I hope that he will recognise the need to do away with the possibility of any conflict of interest.

Mr. Jamieson

May I thank the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) for the broad welcome that she gave the Bill? I shall not join the discussion between the Liberal Democrat and the Conservative parties about which was the most supportive, but I dare say that a reading of Hansard would indicate that to anyone who had an interest.

If the hon. Lady wants to visit my constituency—to go on the chain ferry or otherwise—nothing that she has said so far now or in Committee has negated that invitation, and she is always very welcome. I saw the chain ferry in my constituency on Friday, and I can assure her that it is working well.

[Interruption]. I did not hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said.

Mr. Bercow

What about the workers?

Mr. Jamieson

Yes, well, what about the workers indeed? My hon. Friend could come and see the people who are working very hard on the ferry and providing many services in that area.

Mr. Don Foster

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving way given that, from a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) says, "What about the workers?"—[Interruption]—as did the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). The crucial thing is that I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell his hon. Friends that, in light of amendments proposed by the Liberal Democrats, the Government now intend to ensure that the workers are properly represented on the various bodies that we have discussed today.

Mr. Jamieson

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich has shown more interest in the workers over the years than the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) or the Liberal Democrats ever have.

Mr. Bercow

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jamieson

I have sparked the hon. Gentleman into action. Of course I will give way, so long as he wants to make a serious point.

Mr. Bercow

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's instinct—indeed his thirst—for badinage, but may I simply advise him that, if he traduces my record on such matters in future, I will do my best, within order, to highlight that proportion of my 5,000 written questions that relate to the interests of the working people of this country.

Mr. Jamieson

The hon. Gentleman always looks as if he has bags under his eyes. He must have been sitting with the bedclothes over his head and using a flash lamp to read past copies of Hansard. He has done that too often and, these days, he reads his own contributions. I strongly recommend against that. He should get a life, go out at night and do something else. That might be of great benefit to him and give him a broader perspective on life.

The hon. Member for Vale of York suggested that we had changed our minds. However, when we concluded our debate in Committee on this part of the Bill, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Transport said that we would return to the issue. He said that we would take note of the debate in Committee, and that is why we have returned to the issue tonight.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) raised important questions about the content of the annual report. I emphasise that it will show the progress of recommendations and take an overview of the investigations that have taken place. It will provide detail of the safety recommendations and, most important, it will show the industry's progress towards the implementation of those recommendations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend will accept that strong reassurance.

Miss McIntosh

Can the Under-Secretary confirm that the report will be published and will be debated in the House?

Mr. Jamieson

I can confirm that the report will be placed before the House. I am not in charge of debates but, if the Opposition wanted to use one of their days to debate the report, I am sure that the Government would be pleased to respond.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) tabled the important amendment (b) on the consultation involved in preparing the annual report. I should now make a distinction between the annual report and reports that will be produced as and when necessary on particular incidents or accidents. I do not think that it will be normal to consult others when preparing the annual report, and we do not see a particularly good reason to do that. The other two branches—the marine accident investigation branch and the air accidents investigation branch—do not consult on their reports.

However, on my hon. Friend's concerns, I assure him that the important matter of particular investigations into particular incidents or accidents will be available to be commented upon by all bodies that wish to do so, including the trade unions that may have a particular interest in such issues. It will be a matter for the branch to keep all interested parties informed about the progress of individual accident investigations, and the latest draft of the European rail safety directive would require the branch to let interested parties see relevant parts of investigation reports before publication. I hope that that brings some consolation to my hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) spoke to new clause 12. It would require that the rail accident investigation branch not use contractors or sub-contractors whose actions prior to that investigation could reasonably be expected to be referred to in the conclusions of that investigation". He asked whether assurances were contained in the Bill. It is vital that the chief inspector of rail accidents retains the credibility of the industry and the travelling public. The branch would rapidly lose that credibility if it were required to use a contractor or sub-contractor whose work or actions it knew to be linked to an accident under investigation. However, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is inevitable that there will be occasions when the branch will not have the necessary specialist expertise, such as on signalling technology, to conduct an in-house investigation thoroughly.


We therefore have to rely on common sense and on the chief inspector's ability to manage the situation, as we have done with the marine and air accident investigation branches. As I said, the operation of those two branches provides good examples. At the moment, I do not see why we should treat the rail accident investigation branch differently. It will take all necessary measures to ensure that any potential conflicts of interest are managed appropriately. There will be a clear chain of command and control of all contractors or sub-contractors used by the rail accident investigation branch, which will go back to the chief inspector of rail accidents.

I hope to show that we have taken into account what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) and his colleagues seek to achieve in amendment No. 2. We agree that there is a need to define what accidents the rail accident investigation branch will be under a duty to investigate. The branch must also be given the discretion to investigate other incidents relevant to the operation of the railway, to see whether there are safety lessons that need to be learned. Clause 2(4) will allow the regulations defining an incident to make provision on events such as near misses and other precursors to accidents—a point on which my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North showed concern.

The regulations will make it clear that incidents that could be subject to investigation by the rail accident investigation branch could include one that, under different circumstances, may have resulted in an accident, and a series of unplanned or uncontrolled events that, under different circumstances, may have resulted in an accident. That would include what the rail industry refers to as near misses or precursors.

We must also ensure, however, that our domestic legislation complies with the forthcoming European legislation. The European Council and the European Parliament are currently debating a proposed railway safety directive, which will provide a framework for a consistent approach to independent accident investigation in all member states. We should all welcome that, but if we include definitions in the Bill, we risk having to amend it almost as soon as it receives Royal Assent, should it do so. Nevertheless, I can assure hon. Members that we intend to give the rail accident investigation branch the maximum flexibility to investigate any incident, which will include near misses or other precursors.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I hope that my hon. Friend is not really enunciating the theory that it is only if the Europeans have thought deeply about these matters that we can change our railway legislation. Would not it be a better idea to set out a nice, precise definition that the European Parliament, in its wisdom, might catch up with?

Mr. Jamieson

Indeed. That is why we have our own Bill. This is not European legislation that we are discussing tonight. We have to ensure that any definition that we set out matches any definition that may be used in the European context in the near future. It would be unwise to include definitions in the Bill and then to find that, in a few months, we had to alter them.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Does the Minister have a timetable for the introduction of the European definition, so that we can have a definite idea, rather than "maybe", "possibly", "in a month or two" or "in a year or so"?

Mr. Jamieson

I said that we might have to make the change as soon as the Bill is anticipated to receive Royal Assent because that is the expected time scale for the emergence of the new definitions.

The hon. Member for Bath asked whether the annual report will be placed in the House. We have covered that point; it will be placed in the House. He asked about the annual accounts report. That will be available because the accounts will form part of my Department's accounts, which are laid before the House.

Mr. Bercow

While the hon. Gentleman awaits enlightenment in respect of the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), may I, as someone who did not serve on the Standing Committee, politely put it to him that his response to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) was not altogether compelling? Given that new clause 6 is permissive in terms, rather than prescriptive, what is the cogent explanation for the refusal to include the terms of the hon. Gentleman's amendment in the Government's new clause? The Minister should not just stick to the brief; he should answer the question.

Mr. Jamieson

That is kind advice from the hon. Gentleman, but if my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington has any difficulty with my response, he is more than capable of saying so.

To return to serious matters, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich made a powerful contribution, as always. She emphasised the need for safety on our railways, contrasting that position with that which pertains to our roads. It is an unfortunate fact that when an incident occurs on the railways, it receives a huge amount of public attention; that is inevitable and, I think, right, but it is sometimes disproportionate. Our railway system is actually very safe and operates extremely well. That said, my hon. Friend and I agree that although the railway system is safe, we can always do more to make it safer, and I totally endorse what she and her Committee have done to further that work.

My hon. Friend restated the point about having one agency—one effective unit, as I think she described it. I assure her that the Government do not rule that out as a longer-term ambition, but the priority now is to get the RAIB set up. We shall encourage the three branches to work closely together, as the two existing branches do now.

My hon. Friend mentioned the channel tunnel, which is an important matter. As she knows, the United Kingdom and France regulate the tunnel, and French agreement is needed if the type of information that she talked about is to be released. The Government will encourage greater release of information, but we have to work within the constraints of international law.

The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North asked whether the RAIB would examine general safety issues within the industry. That is not the RAIB's job. The rail safety and standards board will have the lead in making the railways safe and the Health and Safety Executive remains the rail safety regulator. The RAIB will examine specific incidents, including near misses and precursors that might have led to an accident, but it will not consider rail safety in general.

Mr. Weir

Will the Minister respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)? In many ways, the perception of railway safety is a more difficult issue than the accidents that occur. Is there not an argument for the RAIB examining general safety as well as accidents, as a way to increase confidence in the railways?

Mr. Jamieson

I do not think that it is the RAIB's job to do that. Its proper role is to investigate specific accidents or incidents that could have led to accidents, and the lessons learned will, I hope, lead to greater public confidence. However, it is for the rail safety and standards board to have general oversight of implementation and thereby to increase the travelling public's confidence in the rail system.

Mr. Don Foster

The Minister is being most helpful and encouraging about the likely contents of the report, which is all the more reason why we should be given an absolute assurance that we will get draft copies of the regulations before the Bill completes its passage. As for the point he has just made, other bodies, such as the British Transport police, will examine incidents that could have led to an accident—for example, incidents of vandalism—and comment on them. Does he expect the RAIB's annual report to include reference to matters such as the BTP's comments on vandalism?

Mr. Jamieson

That would be a matter for the chief inspector to put in his or her report. That is, those matters that were relevant to the task in hand. I do not think that issues relating to the British Transport police would routinely be included in the report. If lessons were to be learned from specific issues, perhaps inclusion would be the most appropriate course. In the end, that is a matter for the good sense of the chief inspector.

I commend the Government's new clause and Government amendments Nos. 11 to 15. I hope that the other amendments will be withdrawn.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time.

John McDonnell


Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Does the hon. Gentleman seek leave to move his amendment?

John McDonnell

Perhaps I might state my reasons for withdrawing the amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

No. The amendment is not moved, so the hon. Gentleman cannot set out his reasons for doing so.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause added to the Bill.

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