HL Deb 18 October 2000 vol 617 cc1030-3

3.6 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, for the second time in a week, much against my natural inclination, I have dragged myself to the Dispatch Box. I do so again on the matter of this Government's contempt for Parliament and, in particular, this House. I see that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General is present. I understand why the noble Baroness the Leader of the House is not present; she is in Scotland. I make no comment on that.

Early yesterday afternoon a rail crash occurred at Hatfield which resulted in deaths and injuries. Some of the injuries were very serious. It is 12 months since the tragic rail accident at Paddington, into which an inquiry is continuing. The precedents of this House and of the other place suggest that when such a tragedy occurs a Statement is made at the earliest possible opportunity. When the Clapham crash occurred in 1988 a Statement was made to Parliament the very same day.

This morning the Government approached the Opposition to say that the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, was disinclined to make a Statement to Parliament on the basis that there was not much to add to what was already known and that there would be more and better information tomorrow when he intends to make a Statement. We accepted that. However, within minutes of our accepting that, we heard that Gerald Corbett, the chief executive of Railtrack, had tendered his resignation, possibly at the urging of the Minister. It has been drawn to my attention that a few minutes ago on BBC Radio the Minister encouraged the chief executive to retain his position. He said: I certainly would not want to see anything that put at risk the authority and executive lines of command inside Railtrack and I am sure that will be the corporate imperative for the board of Railtrack meeting tonight". Railtrack has suggested that a faulty rail was to blame. For that reason the Government should have made a Statement this afternoon to report to Parliament; to tell us what their plans are; to share with us their strategy and their insights and, most of all, to reassure the travelling public that they are in control of the situation.

This morning the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, was interviewed on Radio 4. He is quite prepared, and bothers, to get out of bed to speak to the BBC but he cannot be bothered to be accountable to this House. It would not be so bad if the noble Lord did not have personal ministerial responsibility for this matter. He is the Minister for Transport in this House. Why can he not be bothered to come here?

When we had a somewhat similar debate on Monday, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, said that it would have been inconceivable for a Statement not to have been given if the House of Commons had been sitting. I agreed with him then; I agree with him again today. This is a slap in the face for this House.

I very much hope that this matter is not seen by Members of the Government Front Benches as party political.

Noble Lords


Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it is a matter for us all. In fact that comment demonstrates the contempt with which the Labour Party treats Parliament. This is a matter for this House. Back Bench and Front Bench should unite to force the Government to come here to explain themselves. They have had 24 hours to prepare. Waiting until tomorrow is not good enough. It is a disgrace.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has been generous in expressing agreement with my remarks on Monday. I hope that he will not be too upset if I say that he is quite over the top today. It seems to me that no contempt for Parliament is involved here. The reasons he gives for his remarks do not stand scrutiny. There is a tradition of making a Statement on the first possible day. Instead of having this minor wrangle, I wish that we were expressing our deepest sympathy with the families and friends of those who have lost their lives, and our best wishes to those who have been injured and who must make a recovery. That would have been a good course to have followed today. If the Minister had made a Statement, he could have said very little except that an investigation was under way.

To suggest that the offer of resignation by the chairman of a company in the private sector itself constituted a justification for a change of course does not stand up to scrutiny in any way.

I believe that we should have a Statement tomorrow. The Government should take the matter carefully and calmly. I am disturbed by the suggestion that the Deputy Prime Minister is returning from an official visit to China because of this crash. He cannot undo the event; it has occurred. He cannot conduct the investigation; that is for experts. He should not be making instant policy decisions. So I see no need for that. We want calm consideration of the matter in the hope that the public will in due course be reassured about safety and that the railways will have the future which we all wish them to have.

The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, I am replying because my noble friend the Leader of the House is at Donald Dewar's funeral. Perhaps it is worth remembering why we are here on this occasion. Four people were killed yesterday and a large number of people injured. I have a good deal of personal regard, as he knows, for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. He normally has a sure and felicitous touch. However, I do not think that what he said today coincided with what we know of him from the past. It is not right or appropriate to say about my noble friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston that he could not be bothered to get out of bed to come to the House. He has always been honourable and open in this House and taken his duties with enormous seriousness, as we all know.

Perhaps I may put the context. It always strikes me as being a particular cruelty of fate that people who are going to work or about their own engagements on a train come to their death. It would have been possible to make a Statement, as the noble Lord said, which contained virtually nothing; I wonder where contempt for the House would there have lain. This is a matter of serious, grave and national importance. My noble friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston intends to make a Statement to the House tomorrow. By that time he hopes that he will have had a first preliminary report from the inspectorate. That is showing a decent regard for Parliament—indeed, for the only House which is presently sitting. I repeat: in my mind it is better to show a decent regard for those who have lost life or have been injured, to commend those who have discharged their public duty nobly and honourably and to wait until tomorrow so that my noble friend Lord Macdonald will be able to help the House in a way that he has a duty to do.

I do not propose to say anything further because I do not think that it is decent or appropriate to do so.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, as one who has been offered and refused the resignation of a chief executive of a large nationalised industry, in very similar circumstances, perhaps I may say how much I agree with the remarks which have been made.

None of us has any idea at this stage what caused the incident and no one can do anything to assist. The sole effect of discussion of an incident of this type at this stage is increased distress and a blurring of the issues at stake. It is a problem which understandably occurs with the press and which is only exacerbated by early knee-jerk Statements.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I have had the privilege of sitting on the Government Front Bench in circumstances very similar to those which now pertain as regards the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston.

I recall a similar incident, an air accident—an area for which I then had responsibility—involving a helicopter crash in the North Sea. The House of Commons was not sitting. The late Lord Soames was on the telephone to me at eleven o'clock in the morning saying, "You must make a Statement this afternoon". I prepared the Statement and made it.

I believe that the views of the Opposition and Back-Bench Members of the House should have been taken into account. Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, thought he was or was not able to say, I, too, think that he should have been at the Dispatch Box to make a Statement.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, as one who had responsibility in this area in opposition, perhaps I may say that I agree 100 per cent with the statement made by my noble and learned friend Lord Williams of Mostyn. I think it much better that we pause and consider what has happened at the earliest opportunity—tomorrow. I am sad that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has taken the view that he has. I hope that the noble Lord will agree that this is not a party matter. It is a matter where all of us are entitled to exercise our point of view but, frankly, it is no use doing so one day after the tragedy has occurred. Does the noble Lord agree?

Noble Lords

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