Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in the past few years there has been an enormous increase in investment in public transport services? Is he suggesting that that has not occurred? Surely he is not attributing those tragic accidents solely to a lack of investment.

Mr. Buckley : The hon. Gentleman seems to be getting the message early in the debate. That is precisely the inference to be drawn from my speech.

One wonders whether safety is being compromised in the interests of profitability. I do not wish to press the point about tragedies, but evidence is mounting that the main motivation is the return on capital investment rather than safety. The risk of accident must be the highest consideration when developing new transport systems. I wonder whether that consideration of risk is part of the Government's strategy for preparing British Rail for privatisation. There is pressure on staff from management, who are determined to introduce cost-cutting exercises at the expense of safety.

For environmental reasons, it is proposed that two thirds of the link between the Channel tunnel and London will run underground. I am a supporter of environmental interests, but I wonder what will happen to this high-speed system which will be travelling underground for most of its journey. What would happen in the event of a major disaster in such a system, and has that been taken into account in the design and development of the system? What would happen if there was a catastrophe, such as the Clapham accident, on a major underground system of such length and high speed usage? What would be the

Column 120

major safety requirements built into such a system so that people could be reached with medical assistance if a disaster occurred? Has the enthusiasm of Conservative Members to seek a green cloak blinded them to the possible dangers of the system?

Mr Alan Meale (Mansfield) : Does not my hon. Friend's experience of mining accidents in which there was difficulty getting people out of long tunnels bear out his argument?

Mr. Buckley : My hon. Friend has got the point. The tragedies caused by such a calamity--

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Buckley : I shall make this point first. The hon. Gentleman may catch your eye later, Mr. Speaker.

The tragedy at Clapham and the difficulties of medical treatment would have been multiplied a thousand times if the railway there had been underground, as is proposed for the Channel tunnel link. I support environmental schemes, but I am also aware of the tragedy of King's Cross and the difficulties caused by a fire being underground. If a high- speed train caught fire in a tunnel, what would be the safety implications for dealing with such a tragedy?

Mr. Roger King : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Buckley : No. This is a short debate and other hon. Members wish to contribute.

Pressure on our transport system will inevitably increase as the mobility of our people increases and there is an increase in traffic flow on our roads. Are the transport systems in our major cities, not least in London, able to cope with the increasing pressures that will be brought to bear on them? Will the lack of capital investment in our traffic systems lead to an upsurge in accidents?

It is anticipated that there will be an increase in traffic movements as a consequence of joining the European single market system. Is our transport system capable of coping safely with the increasing demand? High-speed trains and communications will be an inevitable consequence of the increase in traffic flow. Are our systems capable of dealing adequately with such a demand? In the light of recent disasters, the possibility of such incidents in future must be considered. There could be an escalation of such incidents due to increasing pressure on the traffic systems, whether it be air traffic, rail traffic or motor traffic. The infrastructure has been neglected for so long that one wonders whether it can cope with the pressure that increasing demand and increasing flow will place on the systems. In the construction of new transport systems, will there be adequate investment in safety to prevent disasters such as those that we have recently experienced? The travelling public are becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of our transport systems.

The Department of Transport inevitably sets up inquiries following disasters, but if such inquiries do not result in the only proper solution being adopted, with major capital investment in safety schemes, nothing is gained from those unfortunate experiences. We do not seek to make party political issues out of tragedies, but the travelling public and the House should question whether the Department of Transport is dealing adequately with the problems. Other hon. Members wish to speak on this important subject, so I shall not dwell on it much longer. In view of

Column 121

our recent experiences, it is right and proper that the House should debate it. I hope that the Minister will note the comments that are made, as the safety of the travelling public must be a major priority. There is no real benefit in an improved and more efficient system if tragedies such as those that we have experienced recently in the air, on the land and at sea continue to take place. I know that the importance of this short debate will not be lost on the travelling public.

10.36 pm

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury) : First, let me congratulate the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Buckley) on his success in the ballot, and on choosing such an important subject. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not follow his argument. I do not agree with him about financial investment in transport safety, so I shall not pursue that aspect of this very large subject.

Transport safety may involve making ships, aeroplanes, cars and lorries safer for those who travel in them. On the other hand, it may apply to pedestrians and others, to whom transport safety means safe roads and vehicles that do not travel too fast. Perhaps I may start with the second definition.

The safety of cars, lorries and motor bikes is best guaranteed by the availability of good roads. We are all aware that the motorway system has produced a network of three-lane highways enabling cars and heavy lorries to travel swiftly and safely across the country from north to south and from east to west. That network is being added to continuously. Its equipment is being updated according to the latest technology available. It is being supplemented by much-improved trunk roads. Bypasses take transport out of cities and town centres, which is why we in Newbury look forward eagerly to the Department of Transport decision about the future of the bypass round that town.

Better roads ease the frustration and stress which are factors in the safety with which long-distance drivers carry out their duties. Their vehicles have improved enormously. Anti-jack-knifing equipment is becoming more standard, and the tachometer has done much to regulate drivers' hours. But in my opinion one of the most badly needed improvements is really effective spray-reducing equipment. Those of us who drive on motorways know that when passing a lorry in very wet weather one experiences a moment of almost blind driving--a moment of hazard. I long for that problem to be solved, but I presume that it is much more intractable to solve than to state. I know that numerous Ministers of Transport have referred to it in the past but so far we do not seem to have produced an effective remedy. Speed remains a serious factor, particularly for heavy lorries, which still travel too fast for rapid braking in an emergency. A recent editorial in Commercial Motor stated :

"Speed kills just like tiredness, complacency and bad habits when you are thundering down the M6 in bad weather with 38 tonnes of steel around you and enough kinetic energy to flatten a small block of flats."

Like my observations, that comment and an article in the current edition of Care on the Road make me wonder why we are hesitant about introducing legislation to install speed limiters in trucks. By the same token, why do motoring correspondents dwell on the top speed and acceleration of new cars as though they were some of the more important features of vehicles?

Column 122

In west Berkshire, as no doubt in other rural areas, riding has become a popular pastime, and meeting a group of young people and children on their ponies in narrow country lanes is an everyday hazard. So far, we have been spared a car plunging into such a group, but the speed at which some motorists drive down those lanes fills me with foreboding. I always consider that there are not enough rider warning signs.

Then there are the villages which lack the requisite frontage of houses to enable them to be considered for a speed limit. I refer to villages such as Woolhampton, Chapel Row and Wickham in my constituency. I know the argument about distance from one end of a village to the other having to be a certain length if vehicles are to have time to slow down to a 30 mph speed limit for more than a minute or two, but what about installing sleeping policemen, clearly sign-posted on village entry and exit roads? Motorists do not speed over them, and no police are required to enforce them. If humps are considered to be too much of an obstacle, what thought is being given to slow-down strips across roads, giving an effect like a cattle grid or a level crossing--something that will cause a motorist voluntarily to slow down because of the discomfort which he must suffer if he drives his car too fast over them?

I hope that the Minister will say something tonight which will enable me to send a positive reply to one of my constituents, Miss Maisie Debell of Wickham, who recently wrote to me stating : "Large, high-sided lorries, besides cars and goods vehicles, race along this road"--

that is, the B4000--

"from about 5 am until evening on weekdays. For those of us who live in houses on this road the noise is very intrusive. Crossing the road can also be a real hazard, especially for the elderly." I have touched on road transport and some of the problems that it imposes in terms of the safety of heavy lorries on motorways driving at speed or in very wet conditions and the safety of those who use our roads as pedestrians or riders. As I said, the debate is about transport safety--a wide issue--so I hope that I may be forgiven if I switch from road vehicles to civil airlines, and refer particularly to today's report on the 1985 fire disaster in a British Airways 737 in Manchester which cost the lives of 55 people.

I saw the burnt-out fuselage of that aircraft at the air accident investigation centre at Farnborough some years ago, and it was a horrific sight. Undoubtedly, and as a result of the report, we will hear much about smoke hoods to give passengers a chance to breathe when a cabin is ablaze, as we will hear about water sprinklers to quench a cabin fire for long enough to let passengers escape. In considering the proposals, the first thing that we must remember is that, when fire breaks out in the cabin of an aircraft, the instinctive reaction of any passenger is to get out as quickly as possible.

For that reason, I doubt the value of smoke hoods. I do not believe that passengers will look for smoke hoods, either in the backs of seats or anywhere else around them. They will want to get out of the aircraft, for, quite simply, panic seizes passengers when there are fires on aircraft. People clamber over seats ; they will do anything to get away from the inferno that is so quickly produced inside the airliner's cabin. To be effective, smoke hoods would

Column 123

need a measure of self-control that I believe would only be present if the fire were slow burning and therefore some warning of it could be given.

On the other hand, water sprinklers would be automatic. The water sprinklers that have been described to me in detail would weigh the equivalent of about two passengers. That is the number of passengers that an airliner the size of a 737 would have to forgo if it were to have that sprinkler system fitted. The system would require three additional water tanks and three pumps. The system could use the existing water system that currently provides the drinking water in an aircraft. That sprinkling system would cost about £250,000 for each aircraft. Its effect would be to dampen seats and upholstery to a point where flammability would be greatly reduced--at least long enough to evacuate the aircraft. We should not forget that the Civil Aviation Authority claims that the normal time needed to evacuate an airliner is 90 seconds. That is the interval in which passengers should be able to get out of an airliner's cabin.

In the Manchester disaster, time was of the essence. With hindsight, I do not think that any of us can doubt that the pilot made a serious error of judgment when he tried to take the aircraft off the runway into one of the side areas. He should not have placed his aircraft before his passengers. He should have got those people out as quickly as he could.

We know now that the emergency exits in that aircraft were impeded by rows of seats. I am glad that British Airways has now taken those rows of seats out and that the exits are therefore easy to reach. We also know that the galleys at the flight-deck end of the cabin created the situation where only one passenger at a time could go through the gap. As one of the exit doors was temporarily blocked, the result was that people were queuing up to get out of that aeroplane, which was, of course, on fire at the tail end. The interior furnishings in that aircraft gave off the most dreadfully noxious fumes that undoubtedly contributed to the high death rate. CAA regulations have now made it obligatory for airlines to change those furnishings to ones that are much less likely either to catch fire or to give off such fumes.

As the report shows, and as is the case with all disasters, lessons have been learnt. As well as implementing the safety regulations, we need now to see whether we cannot vary the conditions laid down in the Civil Aviation (Investigation of Accident) Regulations 1983, section 11 that provides for the inquiry procedures to be followed after an accident. I believe I am right in saying that the report on Manchester was in fact completed at least a year ago, but that the procedure requires that anyone implicated in an accident report and whose reputation might be adversely affected by it should be shown a pre-publication copy and given the chance to request changes. That appears to be denying the speedy publication of documents that materially affect transport safety and the well-being of the travelling public. I suggest that that regulation is reconsidered with a view to amendment.

Column 124

10.48 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Buckley) on his success in the ballot and on the subject chosen for debate.

While I recognise the national tragedies and disasters that have been referred to, there is a threat to the health and safety of our people which has never been highlighted, but that threat is apparent in my constituency.

Some hon. Members may recall that on 19 June 1984 I drew the House's attention to the problems of Knottingley, a town in my constituency, arising out of the transportation of coal from the Selby coalfield to the Drax power station. I informed the House that, in the mid-1970s, 120 merry- go-round trains a day used the level crossing at Knottingley to take coal to the Drax and Eggborough power stations.

Such trains continue to pass within 5 or 10 m of people's front and back doors. It has been estimated that the barriers at the level crossing are closed 21 per cent. of the time, and that therefore the 2,500 vehicles using that road are held up for a corresponding period. Given that heavy lorries will wait at the crossing in cold weather with their engines running, one can appreciate the environmental danger that that poses--we all know about carbon dioxide and greenhouse effect--and the effect that such engine fumes can have on health.

Before I first drew attention to the problem, two major developments had already affected it. In March 1976 planning permission was granted to develop the Selby coalfield and in July 1977 the decision was taken to develop the Drax B coal-fired power station. At that time it was expected that the number of MGR trains moving through Knottingley would increase by 33 per cent. One can appreciate that such an increase would add to the difficulties at the level crossing and the problems faced by the residents near that crossing. Those were the self-same people who already had to put up with the problems associated with the Selby development.

Now 180 MGR trains a day pass within 5 to 10 m of people's homes. I have sat in people's homes when those trains have shunted by ; their houses have shaken and their televisions have not worked. One can smell the fumes in the bedrooms.

The problems faced by the people of Knottingley are the more regrettable because there is an alternative. The Selby coalfield has an expected life of 60 years, but the total cost of transporting the coal could be halved because another route could be used that is half the distance of the present one and hardly passes through residential areas. It is hardly efficient that British Coal or the CEGB should pay increased costs over the next 60 years just because someone will not agree to capital investment for the shorter line.

Many meetings have been held over the years to try to safeguard my constituents' health and safety, but with little result. We talk about safety on British Rail and other forms of transport ; it is crazy to transport coal twice the necessary distance, with all the consequential fuel consumption and damage to the environment. Recently, the situation has become much worse. I have received a letter from the deputy director of administration in the north Yorkshire area of British Coal, following my lobbying of the corporation to put the matter right. He suggested that the cost would fall on the CEGB, not on

Column 125

British Coal. Whoever pays--and the financial aspect must surely be considered--the health and safety of my constituents are at stake. The length of the line could be halved by introducing what is known locally as the Barlow link. That could be done without much capital expenditure. The money is a small price to pay for the health and safety of my constituents. Recently, £800 million has been found by British Rail or the Government to protect the environment for the people of Kent--and, some would say, of Dulwich--during and after construction of the Channel tunnel. That colossal sum was found almost overnight.

The health of my constituents has been deteriorating over the years. Some of them are becoming elderly, and we already have chest disease problems in our mining community. This problem will make those diseases worse. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider what he can do to alleviate our problem. Financial efficiency alone would suggest that colossal savings could be made over the next 60 years. Electricity generation and transport costs between Selby and Drax B power station would be lower. I hope that the Minister will help us.

Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. It might be helpful to the three hon. Members who are rising if I say that the Front Bench spokesmen will seek to rise at 11.23 pm. That leaves nearly half an hour for the hon. Members who want to speak.

10.58 pm

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield) : I tried to intervene during the speech of the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Buckley) who initiated the debate. I congratulate him on doing so, but I was a little confused about some of the points he was trying to make. Principally, I am persuaded, certainly by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), that the underground rail link to the Channel tunnel, which will consist of very high-speed trains, is a safe concept, but I am a little concerned that the proposed Channel link extension, if it is underground, according to what the hon. Gentleman said, may not be safe. The problems and the possible hazards which the under-Channel link might face were very well debated in Committee and on the Floor of this House, and I should have thought that we had probably overcome some of the fears that we might have had initially that such a system of underground transportation was open to certain dangers which could not be foreseen. I hope that, when the Channel link is constructed, as I am sure it will be, and if it is underground, it will be to the same high standards that we are currently ensuring and insisting upon in the Channel link which is now being built.

I congratulate British Rail on its safety record. It may seem strange to say so after three recent accidents, but it is probably one of the most densely used systems in the world, if not the most. Certainly, Network SouthEast trains travel along tracks with no more than a minute or so between each unit. It is a heavily trafficked system ; it is also a high- speed system on some of our main arterial routes north of London. High speeds are reached, and at peak periods the separation between trains can be no more than three or possibly four minutes. That speaks volumes

Column 126

for the advanced technology which British Rail has employed on these routes in terms of signalling and of the construction and use of the trains themselves.

After all, we have had a great deal of experience in building safe railways, having invented them, so it is not surprising that we have built up a highly efficient and highly safe rail system. It is an extra-special tragedy that the Clapham disaster occurred indirectly as a result of investment. It would not have happened had the old system been left in situ.

One of the great problems for the railways is that, when a new system is being modernised and installed at the weekend or during the night, it must be ready for use the following morning or the following Monday morning, because the public demand their trains and demand that that service is provided. That puts ever more responsibility upon the engineers working on the line and upon British Rail to see that the investment takes place safely. We must await the outcome of the inquiry to see what suggestions can be made in this respect.

Motorways are an area where we have to redouble our efforts on transport safety. Tragically, history tells us that we only learn by our mistakes. However much we might try to foresee them, mistakes occur and it is only when they occur that we can try to introduce systems which prevent them from happening again.

Last week, on the M6, four people were killed in a tragic pile-up involving heavy goods lorries and cars and a large number were injured--more, unfortunately, than were killed in the train accident in Glasgow. Yet such an accident on our motorways does not warrant a public inquiry and, as far as I know, there seems to be very little public effort to gain knowledge from these very bad accidents. The railways have a history of public inquiries after accidents. We should invite similar inquiries into bad motorway or road accidents to see what lessons we can learn.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) that lorries should be fitted with speed limiters. The lighting systems on our heavy goods vehicles are very poor. Our continental cousins seem to light their vehicles like Christmas trees, and they can be seen from a considerable distance. Perhaps they overdo it but our system of lighting is very poor, even when it is all working, which it often is not. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure that our heavy goods vehicles, when travelling in darkness, are well and truly lit up.

We should also look at a system for limiting traffic flows on our motorways. An experimental system of traffic lights has been installed on a motorway slip road in the west midlands in an attempt to reduce the amount of commuter traffic piling onto an overloaded motorway system. I look forward to the Department of Transport introducing such a system on a wider scale. Motorways are for national transportation and not really for commuter traffic. If we can discourage some of the commuter traffic safety will be increased.

Safety is of paramount importance to the airline industry. We know that that industry has a very good record for ensuring safe travel for its passengers. However, there has been an increase in scheduled and charter services. Given the likely growth, there will be difficulty in obtaining new aircraft to meet that growth. There is a five or six-year waiting list for some new aircraft and that delay places greater importance on the maintenance of existing aircraft. Over the past few months, we have questioned the

Column 127

practicalities of flying elderly jets, some up to 20 years old. We have questioned whether those elderly jets are strong enough and meet our present high standards of safety.

I do not doubt that our elderly jets are maintained properly. However, the user--the passenger--is entitled to know the type of aircraft that he is flying on and its age. Is it not possible for aircraft to have hull certificates which can be renewed every five years or every year as the aircraft gets older? Is it not possible for the passenger to see as he gets on the aircraft a kind of MOT certificate which shows that the aircraft has received a close inspection, bearing in mind the aircraft's age? That would do much to calm passengers' fears about aircraft. After all, we often do not know the age of the aircraft that we are about to fly in. The passenger is entitled to that information.

In the not too distant future, I hope that there will be a certificate showing a breakdown of an aircraft's maintenance and inspection history. That certificate should be obvious to the user. In the remainder of this debate, I am sure that we will hear many other suggestions about transport safety and I will listen avidly to them. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has taken on board some of the points that I have made.

11.7 pm

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Buckley) for raising this topic tonight. I respond immediately to the invitation from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King), who referred to investment in the railways. It is true that there has been some investment in figure terms, but there has not been much human investment.

People do not realise that a railway will not run at all, let alone safely, without the good will of the operatives, teamwork, discipline, long experience and understanding of the details of the job and confidence in management. All those factors together provide morale and satisfaction. It is common knowledge that all those factors have sadly been in decline over the past few years no matter what investment has been made.

I want to raise several matters relating to London Underground, and I am glad that the Minister for Public Transport is present. He represents the northern end of the Piccadilly line and I represent part of the eastern section of the District line. We are therefore representatives of the millions of people who travel in London who rely on the London Underground.

By chance I sent a letter today to the Secretary of State for Transport raising these matters. After the Clapham rail disaster, I asked the Secretary of State whether he would consider London Underground's signal organisation. I received a letter dated 25 January from the Minister for Public Transport. I understand that there has been a change in organisation in the customer-contractor system in the signal department of London Underground. I take objection to that change.

The Minister's reply states :

"You will have seen from my Answer to your recent question (copy attached) that this is not a matter in which we are involved. I understand nevertheless that the control of signalling equipment procedures remains as strict as ever under the new arrangements and that safety standards are in no way compromised."

Column 128

I disagree with the Minister and hope that he will reconsider that reply.

My understanding is that the customer-contractor relationship that now applies throughout London Transport, including the signal section, was specifically required by the Secretary of State for Transport. I ask the Minister, as I asked his right hon. Friend, to reconsider his letter and to invite the railway inspectorate to review the new customer-contractor system in respect of London Underground, to take evidence, to report, and to publish the results.

The second matter I want to raise is of even greater importance. It concerns the extension on London Underground of one-person operation, or OPO, to deep tubes other than the Victoria line, which was from the beginning engineered and built on a different electrical system, whereby the driver takes on the guard's responsibilities. Elsewhere, the driver takes on the guard's responsibilities while still driving. That is an important distinction.

When, in the summer of 1987, London Transport wanted to introduce OPO on the tunnel section of the Piccadilly line--part of which runs through the Minister's constituency--I expressed my objections to London Transport's chairman at that time, Sir Keith Bright. I did so particularly in respect of the safety procedure known as leapfrogging. Because of the limitations on time, I shall not describe it in detail, but it involves a complex operation that is used when a train, often fully loaded and crowded, stops in the middle of a tunnel because the driver is unable to operate it for some reason. It involves a complicated system for dealing with the trains that are following behind, for a train being left in charge of a nominated passenger, and so on. I believe that that practice is inherently dangerous and wrong.

Accordingly, in August 1987 I wrote to Sir Keith Bright suggesting that that practice was dangerous. When I first heard of the King's Cross disaster, I feared that it had something to do with that obnoxious system. It was not--but it was due to something even worse. In any event, on 20 May 1988, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport for details of the statutory rules relating to those operations. The then Minister of State for Public Transport, the hon. Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell), replied : "Section 2 of the London Regional Transport Act 1984 makes London Regional Transport statutorily responsible for the safe running of its railways. There are no statutory rules relating specifically to one-person-operation. However, the criteria adopted for one-person- operation were drawn up by London Underground Limited in consultation with the Railway Inspectorate."--[ Official Report, 20 May 1988 ; Vol. 133, c. 614-615. ]

I emphasise the words

"in consultation with the Railway Inspectorate"--

not with its permission. I find that very worrying. Anybody who knows anything about railway operations, particularly in tunnels, will not--I tell the hon. Member for Northfield--be satisfied. After the Clapham rail disaster, I wrote to London Underground Ltd.'s current managing director, Mr. Denis Tunnicliffe, asking whether he is satisfied with the OPO system and with leap frogging in particular. He replied :

"We are satisfied that one-person operation of deep-level tube lines does not give rise to safety hazards and leap-frogging' is an effective and safe procedure with the facilities provided." I disagree. Mr. Tunnicliffe adds, fairly :

Column 129

"if a manifestly better method of dealing with operator failure was to be indentified, we would certainly adopt it."

I believe that there is--having a guard on the train.

On 22 November 1988, a letter appeared in The Guardian from a tube train driver who would not give his name because he was summarily told by a London Transport official that if he--the driver--was unhappy with the system, that official would be pleased to accept his resignation. The driver wrote :

"On August 11, 1983, a fire between Wood Green and Bounds Green on the Piccadilly Line trapped 750 passengers for 30 minutes. No lives were lost. If this had happened after One Person Operation had been introduced, I fear it would have been a different matter. Any passengers behind the fire would have been left to their own devices. My main worry is not if a disaster happens on an OPO train but when it happens, as happen it surely will."

Well, it might ; I do not say that it definitely will. However, I say to the Minister--who, happily, is the Member of Parliament of many who travel on the Piccadilly line--that we must not risk it. I also ask the Minister to request the railways inspectorate to examine the OPO system on non- Victoria line deep-level tubes, to take evidence from the men on the job and others who have been concerned, and to report. I do not think that the system should continue without being given a clean slate by the inspectorate, and I should be very surprised if the inspectorate could give it.

We cannot put the travelling public of London at risk by putting one man on a deep-level tube train. I do not think that that is right, and I hope that the House agrees with me.

11.15 pm

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Buckley) on initiating the debate. On the day of publication of the report on the Manchester international airport disaster, it has been left to my hon. Friend to provide any opportunity for hon. Members to debate the report. Is it not a disgrace that on the day of publication--three and a half years after the tragedy--the Minister has failed to provide an opportunity for adequate discussion?

As honorary parliamentary adviser to Greater Manchester fire authority and a former member of the authority, I recognised--as did others involved in the process of recommendations to the coroner, the CAA and the accident investigation branch--the harrowing and humbling experience brought about by the disaster, in which 54 people perished and the injuries of another led to death. The public attitude at first was one of admiration for the emergency services, thankfulness for the survival of those who lived and concern for grieving relatives. During the ensuing months and years, however, the feeling changed to anger about the delay in consideration of what had caused the accident, who was responsible and what should be done to ensure that it would never happen again.

If such an appalling tragedy happened now, the loss of life would be as great as it was on 22 August 1985. Despite the reports from the coroner and Greater Manchester fire chief, Tony Parry, the major recommendations have not yet been implemented. Ministers have had the report on their desks for at least 12 months, but it has not been published--not just because of the necessity for those who are named to have an opportunity to consider the report, to which the hon. Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) referred.

Column 130

I know, from my experience on the fire authority, about the intransigent response of the industry and the CAA to some of the proposals in the authority's and the coroner's reports. In private discussions, those bodies attempted to ensure that many of the proposals in the report published today would not be implemented. It is an outrage and a scandal that the initial criterion should be finance rather than the lessons to be learned from the report and the action that should now be taken.

There were two main factors in the Manchester airport deaths : the rapid and severe involvement of the passenger cabin compartment in the fire, and restricted means of escape from the aircraft. Since the fire, two minimal measures have been introduced. The first was the removal of one seat next to the over-wing exit, after persistent pressure from Mr. Parry and others. The CAA and the industry did not make such a concession willingly. Only following report after report and letter after letter did it respond to the requirement. The second measure was the provision of emergency lighting at floor level. On 27 January 1987, Mr. Parry reported to the authority that in his view recommendations for overall fire safety should include fire exits and routes to them, smoke hoods and water-spray systems. The report continued :

"With regard to means of escape, there are two ways of tackling this. Firstly, provide additional exists and unobstructed routes to them, so that people can leave the aircraft before they are subject to hazardous conditions. Alternatively, provide a system of protection for the passengers which will extend their survivability. Smoke hoods have received much publicity as far as the latter option goes, but they are a theoretical solution to a very real problem and do not take account of the many factors of human behaviour involved in incidents like Manchester. Death from toxic fumes generally comes before death from burns or heat, but in fire like Manchester, one is not very far behind the other and if escape routes for people wearing smoke hoods are not significantly improved, you will just be replacing one way of dying by another."

That is what Tony Parry said on 27 January. It was a follow-up to various reports to appropriate authorities.

In lay person's language, the fire chief was saying that smoke hoods would not have saved a single life in the Manchester airport disaster for three main reasons--the internal construction of the passenger cabins, the displacement of the exits and the access of flames to the fuselage.

According to Mr. Parry's report of 27 January :

"Water spray systems have been demonstrated to extend the time that people can safely stay on the aircraft and, if it is impractical to improve exits from the aircraft, this is the best solution. It is independent of passenger activity and is unaffected by human behaviour."--

a point made graphically by the hon. Member for Newbury-- "It contains fire development on the aircraft and prevents smoke and flames from a fire outside the aircraft entering the fuselage." The evidence in that report was available and submitted to the coroner's investigations. The coroner gave it total support, and in the past three and a half years there has been a sustained campaign by Mr. Parry as a professional fire officer, and fire services throughout the United Kingdom responsible for fire safety at airports, to put pressure on the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that those recommendations are implemented in the forseeable future. Even the report published today, which supports the theories put forward by Mr. Parry, states that investigations have to continue.

Column 131

The technology has been developed and can be implemented, but the problem lies in the will of the passenger carriers in the civil aviation industry to implement it. They want to spend less money on overall safety at the expense of passengers. The report could have been implemented more than 12 months ago in national and international passenger fleets.

It is important that the issue is not brushed under the carpet and the report put on the shelf. We owe it to the families of the 55 people who perished and the millions of people who use the aircraft industry each year.

I hope that the Minister apologises to the House for the sneaky way in which the report was published today, and for neglecting to provide appropriate time for a debate in the House. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshaw (Mr Morris) will raise the matter in an Adjournment debate on Thursday but that alone is inadequate because of the nature and the ferocity of the disaster at Manchester airport on 22 August 1985. We require the Minister to provide appropriate time to debate the report and to ensure that it is implemented as quickly as possible.

11.23 pm

Next Section

  Home Page