HC Deb 18 May 2004 vol 421 cc808-9
3. Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab)

What plans he has to revise the role of the independent rail safety regulator after completion of the rail review. [173495]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

The rail review is continuing to look at the regulation of safety. As I said in my statement to the House on 19 January, the Government will publish their proposals in the summer.

Mr. Clapham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that since the Health and Safety Commission took over the safety remit in 1990, there has been a steady improvement in safety? Does he agree that those who criticise the Health and Safety Executive for gold-plating safety on the railways are sending out the wrong signals to the public because they give the impression that safety is not the priority?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that safety must be in with the bricks. It is absolutely fundamental to the running of the railway, as it is to other parts of the transport sector. Undoubtedly, however, there are too many organisations involved in rail safety and we need to look at that in the review. When the HSE wrote to me at the time of my announcement, it made the point that there was a plethora of industry standards, some of which were over-cautious or applied in an over-cautious way. The culture of safety is of concern to the railway industry, but we must make sure that we have a far more streamlined system of responsibility. That works in other parts of the transport industry and it can work in the railways.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con)

If we cut away all the waffle, is not the Secretary of State attacking the regime put in place by his own Government and his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers)? Is it not true that the Government got it wrong and still do not know what to do? As privatisation took place 10 years ago and his Government have been in power for seven of those years, does not the blame for current problems on our rail network clearly rest with him? Will he come clean and admit to the House that, on railways, Labour has let the country down?

Mr. Darling

I notice that the hon. Gentleman could not keep his face straight. I say to him in the nicest possible way that in the months following the loss of his last seat, he must have reflected on the reasons for that loss; rail privatisation might have been one. He says that the Government do not know what we want to do. I have just been reading an article in The House magazine by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)—who, sadly, is not with us today—in which she states Conservative policy; it is to wait and see what the review comes up with.

For a number of years, we tried to make the system that we inherited work. I tried to do that, but I came to the view that if I asked myself whether the system would last for the next 20 or 30 years, the answer was no. It is clear from the review and all the representations that people are looking for a more streamlined, straightforward structure. The way in which privatisation was carried out was a disaster; this country has paid a heavy cost, both financially and in terms of organisation. That is something we are sorting out.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that whatever plans he has for reviewing rail safety, he will try to make sure that they are in place by May next year when we plan to open the Vale of Glamorgan railway line for a passenger service for the first time since Beeching shut it in the 1960s? May I invite my right hon. Friend to join me on the inaugural journey across the Porthkerry viaduct, through beautiful Rhoose, Aberthaw, Llanilltyd Fawr, Llandow and on and on?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Secretary of State has received the invitation.