HL Deb 03 December 2003 vol 655 cc310-2

3.7 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for removing responsibility for railway safety from the Health and Safety Executive.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the Government have no plans to change the structure of the safety regime for the railways. However, as with other aspects of rail safety, we welcome wider debate on the best way to ensure that our railways remain safe.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware of recent comments by Mr Alan Osbourne, the outgoing director of rail safety at the HSE, who said: The HSE is dysfunctional across its policy and operational activities"? Does the Minister not agree that the whole structure of rail regulation, involving the Health and Safety Executive, the Strategic Rail Authority and the Office of the Rail Regulator, has created an overlapping and confused institutional structure that is in urgent need of rationalisation?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Viscount, for the obvious reason that in the most recent serious inquiry into a rail crash, Lord Cullen made it quite clear that he thought that responsibility for inspection of the railways for safety should remain with the Health and Safety Executive. That is why Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Rail Safety is incorporated in that body.

The noble Viscount has identified anxieties about certain internal relationships within HSE, which it needs to address. But the principle of the body being responsible for rail safety has been endorsed by Lord Cullen, is in place and—let me reassure the House—despite the tragedies that occur when we have rail crashes and accidents, rail remains by far the safest form of mass transportation.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, since the Minister has raised the issue, does he not agree that the Cullen report also made it very clear that a major factor in the accident that it reported on was the direct result of the changed culture and diversification of control of the industry? This Government claim to feel strongly about their manifesto commitments. Is it not about time they honoured the one about returning the railway to public ownership? After all, the taxpayer is still paying for it.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord will be all too well aware of recent changes in the railway system to increase capacity for control in that respect. I emphasise that the rail system has not shown a linear deterioration of safety—far from it. Safety records of the rail system continue to improve through timed sequences. Changes in rail ownership and control have resulted in no marked increase in the number of rail incidents, signals passed at danger or serious problems on the rail.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, will the Minister turn his attention to road transport and compare it with the railway? For railways, there is a large health and safety inspectorate and many other bodies, whereas on the roads we have nobody. Although 40,000 people have been killed or seriously injured on the roads, there were only 217 prosecutions for causing death by dangerous driving.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am in great danger of straying from a Question on railways to deal with roads, and that would not be in the interests of the House.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, in the light of what the Minister has just said, does he not agree that it takes logic beyond reason when enhancing railway safety obliges more people to travel by road, where they are at greater risk?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, having been prompted twice, it is difficult to evade a question on roads as I have just done. Rail systems are infinitely safer than roads; therefore, any transfer from rail to road would increase accident rates. That is why we are concerned to improve railways, increase the number of rail passengers, and, so far as possible, transfer from road to rail. Noble Lords will recognise that there is a range of policies in that area, in which certain aspects of road policy may play their part.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, will my noble friend extend his last remark to the transfer of the carriage of Royal Mail freight on to the roads?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, as my noble friend will appreciate, that has been an issue of lively controversy over the past few months. He has taken joy in the fact that Royal Mail is looking at the issue again. It is for it to make the final judgment, but I am sure that it will bear in mind remarks from such an impeccable source.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, in view of the Minister's remark that rail is the safest way of travelling, with which we all agree—at least, all the statistics show it to be so—what is the public's perception of the safety and reliability of railways? This morning's seven o'clock news reported faults in Virgin trains meaning that the whole schedule would be disrupted. Then, at 11.30 a.m., in Westminster Tube station, it was announced that there were delays on five Underground lines because of problems. That is the perception, I am afraid. What are we doing about it?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, rail safety makes big news, and road safety does not. I am sure that all noble Lords have been on a motorway when an accident has happened, resulting in delays for hours. There is scarcely a line in the newspapers about such incidents, yet the same kind of difficulty on railways would occasion quite a splash. The noble Baroness is right that we must improve rail safety and the reliability of trains. Every such incident is to the disadvantage of rail. However, it will be recognised that many millions of our fellow citizens rely on the railway system, particularly commuters, who rely on it every day. They can distinguish between isolated incidents and the general safety and security in which they travel.

Lord Peston

My Lords, further to the noble Baroness's comment, will the noble Lord consider the possibility of reminding the public that nothing is perfectly safe and being alive is pretty dangerous in whatever form one cares to pursue life? Is it not the case that, if you stay at home, you will probably scald yourself with a kettle or something? The public need to know precisely that life is dangerous.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I reassure my noble friend of one fact: life is a good deal safer on the Back Benches than it is on the Front Bench.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, are not InterCity trains, which reach speeds of 125 mph and sometimes faster, a potentially dangerous environment for passengers, who, quite rightly, may move about on them freely? Should not InterCity operators be required to provide adequate and clearly indicated first aid facilities on such trains and to have staff with first aid training?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, basic first aid is provided on such trains, and there are occasions when it is necessary. The noble Lord will recognise that, of all our transport systems, rail is many times safer than road, and InterCity trains are much safer than other trains because of their design for operating at higher speed. However, the noble Lord has a point. I shall check the extent to which first aid facilities are available on such trains.