|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 925considerable period at sea--or who is familiar with the legislation of the House--will know of the continual fire training that must be carried out on ships, and the important part that that plays when the time comes to deal with an emergency, especially with a fire. The staff of London Underground were unco-ordinated and haphazard in their reactions to the fire. There were poor communications and, indeed, the very operations room was unstaffed, and had been unstaffed since 1984, due to the cuts in staff implemented by the London Regional Transport Board. There was an ambiguous interpretation of fire legislation and certification that was to apply to all the Underground system.
There has been some controversy about the role of the GLC, but from Mr. Fennell's report it becomes increasingly clear that the issue of fire certification was a matter of dispute between the Secretary of State's Department and his inspectorate and, indeed, the fire brigade and the GLC. The GLC wanted to treat all the Underground system as being subject, in law, to fire regulations. The people who opposed it on that issue were the Government, the inspectorate and London Underground. I shall return to that point a little later, because it raises the issue of the inspectorate--for which the Secretary of State is responsible--which must have received the greatest indictment of its operations of any inspectorate in this country at any time. There is ample evidence in the report about the roles of the various bodies concerned. The railway inspectorate was undermanned, insufficiently resourced, confused as to its responsibilities, had no proper liaison with the London fire brigade and was too informal with the management of London Underground. I am bound to say that those have been common criticisms of the inspectorate in the Department of Transport going back many, many years, even before the Secretary of State had taken over the responsibilities of that Department. In Mr. Fennell's report there is ample evidence to support all the conclusions. The 157 recommendations will undoubtedly, if implemented, effect radical improvements to safety, which all of us in the House want to see.
As the Secretary of State has said, the report will not only affect London Underground. To the good and to the credit of Mr. Fennell's report, I am aware of many publicly and privately owned industries that have made a special examination of the report and are considering what they can learn from it in dealing with similar incidents. Other Departments, especially the Home Office, which is heavily involved in fire certification, other underground railways--for instance, Glasgow and Tyneside--and those concerned with the Channel tunnel will learn a lot from the Fennell report. Increasingly, concerns are being raised about the safety of the Channel tunnel, especially by the fire brigade and others. I would like to meet the Secretary of State to discuss the Channel tunnel, because of the decisions soon to be taken.
Special sections in the report challenge the whole ethos of management about safety. The report also changes the approach of management, employees and Government to safety. It raises an important issue that I am constantly raising--the public's right to know. The people who travel on our transport system have a right to know what is being done in the name of safety. They have a right to know about the stability of a ferry, about safety on the Underground and the age of an aircraft. People do not
Column 926believe that everything has to be done in secret and the events of the last few years convinces them that the right decisions are not being taken.
I am glad to see that Mr. Fennell supports the principle that the public have a right to know. That is spelled out in his report because paragraph 21 of chapter 19 says :
"The travelling public have a right to know about the safety arrangements made by transport operators and the safety of places in which they habitually gather."
That principle needs to be spelled out more and more in our debates about transport.
The question, "Who is responsible and what circumstances led to the fire?" is still being asked. It is clear that the role of management was thoroughly examined by Mr. Fennell. It is also clear that under legislation management's responsibility is spelled out. As has often been said in the House, it has the responsibility for managing the London Underground economically, efficiently and safely. Those are management's obligations. However, greater attention has been paid to economy and efficiency than to safety and that is shown by correspondence between earlier Secretaries of State and London Regional Transport.
I note that the Secretary of State now says in his terms of reference to Mr. Newton, whom we wish well in his job of improving safety, that safety is now the top priority. That is written out specifically and disposes of the argument that a statutory obligation is sufficient. The Secretary of State has made it clear that safety in the operation of the system is fundamental. That poses the question how we are to achieve that and how it will come about. It is clear that management failed to observe the many warnings about fires, believing that it could live with them rather than take preventive action. In the appendices to the report it is said that of 49 fires on escalators, 35 were due to smoking materials. If anybody reads the case history at the back of the report he will see that it predicts almost exactly what happened in this case. It was a different form of fire, the trench effect that we now know about, but the cause of the fire is made clear in all the reports that made recommendations, all of which were constantly ignored. Apparently they were ignored not only by London Regional Transport but by the inspectorate. I shall come to that matter later. Management failed to observe the warnings, to employ sufficient staff or to ensure that they had proper training.
It is right that the people responsible should pay the penalty, although I am not sure whether they were sacked or resigned. I was often sacked from shipping companies but I never got a year's or six month's pay. If I had, I would not have understood that to be a sacking. Thousands of workers would love to get the sack if it meant getting half a year's pay. People carried out the obligations placed on them by the Secretary of State and that is why they have not been sacked. If they had failed to carry out that obligation they would have been sacked. That is one of the issues that we must address. Until that fateful night, on the criteria established by the Government, Dr. Bright and Mr. Ridley were major successes in the eyes of the Government. They were ahead of schedule in the plan to cut costs and reduce taxpayers' subsidies. They had achieved the objectives of section 16 of the Act of 1984 when London Regional Transport was taken over from the GLC. One of the primary aims was the reaching of financial targets. The terms of reference given
Column 927to London Regional Transport on 20 July 1984 placed much emphasis on efficiency and cutting costs. That was made clear by the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewksbury (Mr. Ridley).
The then Secretary of State told Mr. Bright--I should call him Dr. Bright, although he is now Sir Keith Bright ; the man even got knighted. He must have been reasonably successful to have got knighted by the Government. He must have carried out his obligations, and these are the tasks he was given :
"You have told me that you can achieve a reduction in unit costs of 2.5 per cent. per year in real terms. Over the next few years I look to you, if possible, to do better than that, and I shall want to review the target with you."
He was set to cut the passenger revenue support level by half in two years. In the event, the revenue support level of £190 million inherited from the GLC was reduced to £90 million in one year. He was ahead of time, and no doubt that influenced the knighthood. In those circumstances, while extra income came from passenger revenue--we can debate that later--the greater proportion had to be found in other ways. Taking the contribution of revenue and capital together, the amount of saving to the taxpayer and the ratepayer, or the Government, was about £200 million.
There is much talk about the way in which the Government have cut revenue support. This country has the only transport system in Europe that runs without revenue support. On average, the rate of support is 50 to 80 per cent. in most other European systems and, by common accord, they have safer and better quality services than we have. Clearly, it remains an issue of judgment between the two sides of the House as to how much revenue support should be given. We must bear in mind that we are attempting to run our transport system on far less than any other transport system in Europe.
As we require an extra £100 million to £200 million, what constraints are being put on the system? What cuts must be made and what is the quality of those cuts? Are they affecting the level of safety, administration and training? We are aware of the conclusion that Mr. Fennell reached about the overall level of subsidy available to LRT--the Secretary of State has quoted it often enough. In his view, there was no shortage of subsidy. To be fair to the right hon. Gentleman, I should quote Mr. Fennell's words, which appear in chapter 19, paragraph 3 :
"In my judgement there is no evidence that the overall level of subsidy available to London Regional Transport was inadequate to finance necessary safety-related spending and maintain safety standards."
I note that those words appear in chapter 19 rather than in the analysis. Chapter 19 is headed, "Matters for further consideration". That issue should certainly receive further consideration because of the refusal to receive any evidence on the point. I have never witnessed such a startling conclusion, considering that it was not backed by evidence.
Indeed, on reading the report one comes across many examples of staff cuts and cuts in resources, all of which affected the level of safety. To be fair, it says that it is an issue for further consideration. The Secretary of State has ducked behind that conclusion, as if there had been a powerful examination of the case. There has not been such an examination, and his conclusion does not even appear
Column 928in the section of the report that would have dealt with such an examination. It is simply there "for further consideration".
Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford) : If what the hon. Gentleman says is right, why did counsel for the National Union of Railwaymen accept that the fire was not as a result of inadequate investment in the Underground?
Mr. Prescott : I am not prepared to accept the hon. Gentleman's assertion that that was accepted by the union. I am talking about the Fennell report and its conclusions. The evidence is examined and conclusions are reached. I am challenging the Secretary of State's conclusion when he ducked behind the argument that it was not due to a shortage of resources. He also said that he considered it to be ultra vires. As I have said in the past, we do not consider that to be an acceptable proposition. We disagree with it. It is a subject for debate.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend's response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot). It is not just a matter of capital but of the pressure on necessitous revenue in relation to safety matters.
Although Mr. Fennell heard from one of the parties that there was a case relating to the prevailing economic climate and Government directives, that was dismissed at the stage when it was put. Later, a witness said that, as a result of the economic climate, various schemes were not put forward. Does my hon. Friend feel that at that stage Mr. Fennell might have reconsidered his decision about taking more evidence after hearing that witness?
Mr. Prescott : I am glad that my hon. Friend raised that point as that was the next point that I was coming to. It flows from chapter 19. If the Secretary of State had read further through chapter 19, but ignored what the managers were saying, he should at least have challenged the judgment of Mr. Fennell. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said, the reduction in revenue support is very important.
If the Secretary of State had read on in chapter 19, he would have read about Mr. Sykes who had to make a judgment about escalator investment. Mr. Sykes was asked why the wooden cladding was not replaced, because many of the inquiry reports had pointed out that wooden cladding on an escalator made a fire much more difficult to handle once the rubbish underneath the escalator had been ignited. Report after report recommended that the cladding should be replaced, and escalators cleared. The obvious question then is why the cladding was not replaced. Mr. Sykes believed that
"There was a feeling among London Underground managers that the financial climate would rule out proposals to increase spending in certain areas."
That was the judgment of Mr. Sykes. [Hon. Members :-- "Mr. Styles."] I am sorry. I meant to say Mr. Styles.
Mr. Styles, the lift and escalator manager, said that the relocation of the water fog controls or the replacement of wooden escalators "stood a thin chance" of being implemented. Mr. Styles had to make requests to the board to replace the wooden panels. He had the backing of the inquiry reports. All the evidence was that the
Column 929number of fires was increasing, but he felt that he could not make his application even though it was clear what was necessary.
Mr. Prescott : I cannot understand the hon. Gentleman's question. I am not sure whether it was offensive. Mr. Styles is still employed by London Regional Transport. He had read the reports and he felt that in the interests of passenger safety something should be done about the wooden cladding. Who can deny that something should have been done about that cladding after the accident? The fact that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) made such a silly comment shows that he does not understand the problems of safety on the Underground and he throws doubt on a man who was desperately trying to remove materials on our escalators which contributed to the fire and which played such a tragic role in the terrible loss of life at King's Cross. The hon. Member for Twickenham should re- think what he has said.
The wooden cladding was not replaced because of the financial climate and the budget for escalator cleaning was reduced. The Secretary of State would be aware of that if he has examined the figures. One third of the cleaning staff were sacked despite all the reports about dirty material in the escalators which caused fires. It was known that cigarettes and matches caused fires, so smoking was banned. However, the logic presumably was that as there were to be no matches, the dirty material did not matter. That assumption was fatally wrong.
The risers stopped discarded matches from reaching the dirt on the escalators. However, as people were denied the right to smoke on trains, they simply began smoking on the escalators. That is why there were more and more fires on the escalators. The inquiries highlighted the water fogging equipment. Why was that equipment not used to dampen the dirty material? When management was asked why the water fogging equipment was not used, the answer was that it caused corrosion and there were cost considerations.
I accept that those material factors should be taken into account. However, the management reduced staff by more than 3,000 because that is the traditional way to cut costs. It is important that we consider what kind of workers were lost. The man in the control room lost his job, and he was not there to handle the fire. From 1984, cleaners, inspectors and trainers lost their jobs. Those people are supposed to play a part in improving the safety ethos about which the Secretary of State is now convinced.
There was a crucial absence of adequately trained staff on the six tube line platforms at King's Cross. In 1984 the Oxford Circus fire report reached the same conclusions as those in the Fennell report. However, did that stop LRT reducing the number of staff at stations? No, it did not because there was a desire to reduce costs as there was not sufficient money.
The station inspector post was withdrawn from the operations room and that was left unmanned. Mr. Fennell criticised that. Those cuts are a consequence of cutting revenue support from £190 million in 1984-85 to £45 million in 1987-88.
I presume that LRT will face a demand that there must be a 7 per cent. return on investment. I believe that that
Column 930requirement applies even to the escalators. I wonder whether the Secretary of State, with his £260 million, can tell us whether all the escalators have been subjected to the Treasury rule of 7 per cent. rate of return--which I believe will be 8 per cent. after last week. I do not know how we can have a 7 per cent. return on capital investment on an escalator. That is a stupidity which affects the whole level of safety on London Underground. To add to that stupidity, the Treasury increased the 7 per cent. demand to 8 per cent. last week.
On 18 November, "Tubeline", an LRT publication, reported Mr. Jeff Allen, the LRT finance director, as saying
"The Directors consider it important that the company show its owners and paymasters it can keep proper control of spending." He then went on to boast of cuts in recruitment of a further £1.3 million, £800,000 on maintenance--which meant that more cleaners' jobs would be lost--cuts of £40,000 in training and even £400,000 on electricity, which presumably means that the trains went slower. When was that report about cost savings published? It was published on 18 November, the day of the King's Cross fire. Mr. Fennell now claims that all the areas where LRT was saving money were contributory factors, which meant that people's efforts to deal with the tragedy were inadequate. That is the connection between costs and safety. That is what affects the ethos of safety. Money is what matters.
Have things really changed? That is the important question now. The Government have £260 million. Basically the Government are simply giving back the money which they have robbed from LRT in the form of public revenue support. I assume that the Secretary of State now believes that that money should have been spent before. That money will not be spent on new areas. Why was the money not spent on these areas before? LRT believed it could get away with it. The Government are providing money now to pay for something which could have been done a long time ago. However, the Treasury wanted to make it clear that it wanted to save money and get rid of revenue support. The Treasury is moving towards removing capital support because it wants to privatise LRT. As the Secretary of State so proudly proclaimed at his press conference, privatisation is the way forward for the railway system.
The subsidising policy is questionable. I join the Secretary of State in wishing Mr. Newton well. The managers are trying to change the whole ethos of safety and to introduce a safety audit. I wish Mr. Newton well in that. The progress report contains positive responses to the recommendations and I welcome that.
However, subsequent discussions that I have had with LRT have raised some concerns. It rejects recommendation 36 which recommended the replacement of wooden risers. I notice that the Secretary of State did not mention that point when he referred to escalators. The wooden risers contributed to the trench effect. The proposal was rejected because it would cost a lot more money to replace the wooden risers.
Why are cigarette kiosks still allowed to sell cigarettes and matches on platforms? The answer is that LRT will not find the money to buy them out. They continue to sell matches and cigarettes on the Underground despite this terrible tragedy.
Column 931What about the regular fire practices? Mr. Fennell made it clear that there should be a fire practice on the Underground every six months. I do not believe that there has been one so far. A request from the fire authority to conduct such a practice was met with the response from LRT that it did not want to hold one during busy times because it would inconvenience passengers.
That attitude is not acceptable, particularly after the report. Of course passengers should be involved in such exercises. They give them a sense of security. Instead, London Regional Transport is feeding the old-fashioned view that passengers should not be told in case they panic. That view must be pushed out of London Regional Transport. That is particularly important given the incidence of fires. Last year there were over 4,000--11 a day. There were 135--more than two a week--on escalators. Many of those fires required the fire brigade, and that is since the incident.
The railway inspectorate's role is crucial. The Secretary of State is directly responsible for that department. Mr. Fennell makes it clear that checking and monitoring is vital to enforce the law. In chapter 18 he says that the railway inspectorate was mistaken in its interpretation of the law and its responsibilities. There were insufficient resources, staff shortages and a lack of vigour. There was a cut from three quarters of one person in 1984 to one quarter of one person in 1987, and no proper liaison with the fire brigade. The railway inspectorate had to admit that, after 1984, it stopped receiving the fire brigade's reports. It did not even want to hear about fires on the Underground. Its relationship with the London Underground "lacked creative tension." That is another way of saying that it was too damn cosy.
The report refers to the registered application of fire certifications for the Underground. The inspectorate led the fight against certification for the Underground--now accepted--and lined up with London Underground against the GLC and the fire brigade's recommendation. That is made clear in chapter 18 which says : "I believe their general relationship with London Underground lacked the creative tension necessary to instil discipline and produce prompt results within the organisation. A more vigorous use of enforcement powers would probably have alerted London Underground senior management to the unsatisfactory state of affairs in stations sooner, and produced general improvements in housekeeping standards. The degree of liaison and co-operation with the London Fire Brigade was insufficient and the decision to stop receiving copies of fire inspection reports was wrong."
That is a long quotation but it is crucial to put it on the record. It is the most massive indictment that I have ever heard of a safety body which the Government claim is independent under their own legislation but is under the influence and shares the priorities of the Department of Transport, obsessed with saving money.
Who is the railway inspectorate responsible to? I have looked at the agency agreement--
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : I well recall the incident in relation to the GLC to which the hon. Gentleman is referring. I do not disagree with the thrust of what he is saying in terms of the necessity for fire safety certificates but, before we build the GLC's attitude on such matters into something that it was not, will he confirm that the discussion and the correspondence with the GLC related only to the Heathrow Underground station?
Mr. Prescott : That is a fair point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) will refer later. The inspectorate was referring to the Heathrow station, which it called a hole in the ground, not a building. The report goes into all the arguments because Mr. Fennell asked for a report on that matter, but at the end of the day it was not applied to the rest of the Underground system which we are now considering. My hon. Friend will deal with that later.
I have looked at the agency agreement between the inspectorate and the Health and Safety Executive. It is clear that the Health and Safety Executive paid the Secretary of State for his inspectors. If I were the Health and Safety Executive I would be asking for my money back because the Department did not carry out its responsibilities as identified by Mr. Fennell. The Secretary of State is directly responsible for the railway inspectorate. He often shuffles responsibilities on to other people in all sorts of areas, but he is directly responsible for the railway inspectorate's actions. Mr. Fennell says that this terrible tragedy was foreseeable and that important warnings were ignored. Safety suffered because of the management's obsession with reducing taxpayers' costs to the detriment of all other considerations. The railway inspectorate lacked the staff, resources, motivation and independence to enforce the law and bring London Underground to account. The management has paid the price by resignation.
The Government are the only body who have not been brought to account for their role. Yet the Secretary of State is responsible to Parliament for the railway inspectorate and for London Regional Transport and London Underground. The Secretary of State set the financial climate in which the wooden escalators were not replaced and in which the cleaning of escalators was cut, along with the staff who should have raised the alarm.
The Government created London Regional Transport, set its priorities and its funding and drove senior management in its policy to eliminate subsidy. Indeed, they supported everything that London Regional Transport did until 7.30 pm on 18 November 1987. The Government's responsibility in this matter is of paramount importance. They failed to fulfil their obligation to ensure that safety had the highest priority in London Regional Transport. That is why the Opposition's amendment will be supported tonight.
Mr. David Evennett (Erith and Crayford) : I am appalled by the speech that has just been made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). We are trying to debate a report on a major tragedy. There are real issues to be raised and we need a constructive debate. The Opposition have shown today that, apart from the old traditional Socialist view that with more money and more staff all will be all right, they are bankrupt of ideas for going forward.
We should return to basics and say, first, that we are fortunate in our capital city to have such a comprehensive and extensive underground railway network. That service is too often taken for granted. Little attention is paid to it until there is a failure, a disruption, or, as in this case, a major tragedy.
My constituency in south-east London does not have the direct benefit of an underground network, but many of
Column 933my constituents use the Underground in and around the city for many and varied purposes, either for getting to work, to visit their relatives or for entertainment. They have told me of the deterioration over the past 10 to 15 years in some aspects of the service. That did not happen in the past five years ; it has been going on for 10 or 15 years. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, over the years there has been an inadequate investment in London Underground to meet the needs of a developing service. The Fennell report has highlighted a number of areas that we need to debate in looking to the future in order to expand and improve the service on behalf of all. It has highlighted many of the complaints which the travelling public has raised as well as identifying a number of serious problems about the way in which the Underground network has been operated.
Conservative Members accept that real causes for concern have been expressed by the travelling public. We understand that and we want to do something to improve the service in our capital city. We should begin by congratulating the Government on their speedy and commendable response to the King's Cross fire and to the report's recommendations. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on his comprehensive speech this afternoon. It is imperative that we learn from this tragedy the lessons contained in the report to ensure that as far as possible such a tragedy does not happen again.
We must be constructive about the tragedy and the report. I deplore the sort of manufactured hysteria that we hear from Opposition Members such as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). Opposition Members have attempted to make party-political capital out of the tragedy-- [Hon. Members :-- "Come on."] That is, as I say, deplorable and will be deplored by everyone in the country. This is a serious issue that must be debated seriously, and not by means of sedentary interventions
Mr. Tony Banks : The hon. Gentleman does his case less than justice by suggesting that we are making party-political capital out of the tragedy. He should realise that some of us have been arguing for more investment in safety measures on London Regional Transport for many years, and began to take an interest in the subject before this tragedy occurred.
This afternoon the Government have shown that they are determined to adopt a positive and effective approach. The changes that have been implemented or are being implemented are welcome, as is the vast sum of £266 million which will be spent on safety over the next three years. That is to be commended.
However, the travelling public are still worried about several matters--the frequent breakdown of trains, overcrowding and vandalism and the crime which has become commonplace on the Underground. These issues have not been raised by people who have jumped on the bandwagon : they are the realistic and long-term concerns that passengers have been expressing long before the King's Cross fire and the subsequent Fennell report--
Column 934crime on the London Underground pointed out that the self-same matters that Opposition Members have raised to do with
safety--staffing and investment--are the key to crime, too? By dismissing what some of my hon. Friends have been saying about investment for years he shows that he neither cares about nor understands the issues.
Mr. Evennett : I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not wait for me to develop my argument. The increase in crime has taken place during the past decade, not only in the past couple of years, as she seemed to suggest. Unfortunately for the Underground, for part of the past 10 years it was run badly by the GLC.
Individual complaints may be of minor importance, but the combined views of the many naturally cause concern. Too frequently in the recent past the safety and the reliability of the service have been called into question. The major issues are crime, safety and investment. Robbery, assault and the other offences against the person which have regrettably increased in the past 10 or 15 years on the Underground have made many of my constituents and the travelling public afraid to travel on the tube late at night-- [Interruption.] I wish the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) would listen--she might learn something.
Crime denies people freedom of movement and access to many of the capital's attractions, because they cannot travel in safety on the trains. I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement that he has increased the police establishment on the Underground to 350 officers. I also welcome the fact that the British Transport police is recruiting and training officers to fill the new posts. When they are in position their presence will make a noticeable difference. To date, this action has not produced significant results but I hope that there will be an improvement in time. We need to catch the people who are committing these offences while they are committing them and I am sure that more police in the service will be able to do just that--
Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest) : While welcoming the extra commitment to police resources for the Underground, does my hon. Friend agree that the levels of violent crime on the Underground are statistically no different from those for crime above ground? Although both are too high, and although extra investment to try to combat violent crime is welcome, it is important not to get the problem out of perspective.
Mr. Evennett : That is a good point. We must not overstate the case. I was merely trying to discuss the fears of constituents in the Greater London area. We must carefully note such people's concerns and fears, of which one is crime, which we all agree is far too high throughout the capital.
Mr. Cohen : Of course we welcome the increased number of police, but 350 police to man the whole Underground system 24 hours a day are not many. The money spent on putting in automatic exit barriers could have been spent on police--on 550 of them for 10 years. Which would the hon. Gentleman prefer--police or barriers?
Mr. Evennett : We must not confuse the two. We welcome the increased number of police for the service ; the barriers must be debated separately. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome for the increased police
Column 935establishment--such a welcome was noticeable by its absence from the speech by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East.
As for the barriers, we must recognise the real problem of fare evasion on the Underground. It has been said that £25 million has been lost through evasion--a fantastic sum. Something must be done to minimise such losses. Constituents have told me of barriers which have been out of operation or have swallowed tickets. They can present difficulties for the elderly or for young mothers with children and shopping or pushchairs. These are genuine concerns which we share. But we must not overstate the case.
I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for answering my question about the average number of gates that fail. He said that on average gates fail once for every 79,000 passengers, which represents about 16 gate failures a day. That puts the number in perspective. Although we share the concerns of those who are frightened about the safety implications of these barriers, we must bear in mind the money that is lost by people evading fares, and the true number of times when the gates fail. That is not to say that there is no problem ; we await with interest the report of the independent inquiry which my right hon. Friend mentioned. I was surprised that more public relations work for these gates was not done in advance. Fear of change and of what might happen is always the key-- particularly after the tragedy of 16 months ago which highlighted some of the potential problems on the Underground. LRT has failed to communicate the importance of the installation of the gates. I am delighted, however, that my right hon. Friend has insisted on an independent inquiry into the operation of the barriers, and we await its report with interest. The fears may well be misplaced, and we should not judge the report until we see it. In the past 10 to 15 years there have been many cycles of investment in the Underground network. As the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) mentioned earlier in a slightly different context, a few years ago the GLC operated a policy of using money to subsidise fares rather than for capital investment. That was a ludicrous policy--keeping fares down rather than considering the operation of the service. It was imperative to restore the right of management to manage without undue political interference, and that has been done since the removal of the GLC. [Interruption.] I am afraid that Opposition Members do not like to hear the truth. They prefer their own illusions. The fact remains that a management must have the right to manage, and London Underground has a duty to use that right to ensure that the system is managed in the best interests of the travelling public.
Mr. Spearing : Is the hon. Gentleman saying that when the GLC decides to subsidise fares that is political, but that when his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State decides to cut the subsidy, thus increasing fares, that is not Government interference and is non-political? He is saying, surely, that such action is political when taken by Labour, but non -political when taken by his hon. Friends.
Column 936the Underground system was to keep fares down rather than to invest in a better transport service for the people of London and all who wanted to use it.
No one could have foreseen or prevented a tragedy like that at King's Cross. It should never have happened
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) rose --
The Fennell report is comprehensive and highlights aspects that could and should have been improved ; nevertheless, the scale of the tragedy could not have been predicted. Action has been taken, and I am sure that all Londoners and users of the Underground service will be pleased with that action. Too often we are quick to criticise. In this instance, praise is due not only to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and to Fennell, but to new men at London Underground for their actions to date.
A debate such as this gives us the opportunity to highlight a few developments, particularly the vast investment in the London Underground of the past few years and the projected investment for the next three or four years. That investment will be used to upgrade, renew and generally improve aspects of the service. Together with implementation of the Fennell report recommendations, it should ensure a far better Underground system for the future, which will provide a more efficient and safer service in the interests of the entire travelling public.
Efficiency and safety must go together. Mere numbers of staff working at a station will not guarantee an efficient service, or a safer service. The Opposition suggest that more money and more staff will produce a better service, but surely its efficiency and safety depend on how money is spent and how staff are utilised to the best effect.
There is still much to be done to improve the service to the extent that Conservative Members would like, but at least we have started to tackle the problems and improve the service. The Government must be congratulated, and the motion should be supported. The general public will be delighted at the prospect of better investment in an important London service, rather than money being wasted on subsidising fares.
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) : I am grateful to you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I have retreated to the Back Benches. Let me begin by declaring an interest--and I do so proudly. I am sponsored by the National Union of Railwaymen, which has many members in my constituency.
My constituency is dominated by railways and railway stations, including three mainline termini and no fewer than 14 Underground stations. Underground stations in my constituency include the deepest--Holborn--and the busiest--King's Cross and St. Pancras. There have been major fires in recent years at both Goodge street and Holborn stations, but nothing to compare with the horrors of what happened at King's Cross on the night of 18 November 1987. Although the Fennell report is written in clear, unemotional, official English, many of its pages are upsetting. To read the transcript of some of the evidence given to the inquiry is be filled with horror at what happened, pity for those who suffered and--in my case at any rate--awe and admiration for the many people,
Column 937including passengers, railway staff, transport police and members of the emergency services, whose personal courage and common sense did so much to limit the extent of the catastrophe.
The inquiry, although absolutely necessary, was in itself an additional cruelty for many who had to give evidence. It forced them to relive the horrors of that night, and also subjected their every action throughout the crisis, minute by minute, to the harshest, most clinical public scrutiny-- something to which few of us would like to be subjected even for an afternoon at the House of Commons, where nothing more than our reputation is at stake.
I found it a humbling experience to read how my ordinary fellow citizens reacted when faced with a fearful combination of fire, fumes, smoke, darkness, noise and panic--all of it below ground. In that heat and horror many ordinary people performed extraordinary deeds, saying afterwards that they were only doing their jobs. No words of praise or admiration from me, at least, can do justice to--for example--the fire fighter Station Officer Colin Townsley.
When Colin Townsley arrives on the scene he goes down to the booking hall, reconnoitres down the escalators and instructs other members of his watch to go back to the surface to order more pumps and bring breathing apparatus for themselves and for him. He himself stays down there, in that dangerous, horrible place, to urge passengers to get out. The flashover fire occurs. The booking hall is engulfed in flames--flames so hot that they melt aluminium. Colin Townsley gropes around in the dark, and picks up a woman who is badly injured and burned. He makes for an exit where light and air would represent life to both of them, but the fumes poison him before he reaches safety. The report says, in its prosaic way :
"his was a heroic act".
St. John's Gospel says :
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
Colin Townsley laid down his life for a stranger.
Constable Hanson of the Transport police, although himself very badly burned and injured, risked his life to save more people--more strangers. We should remember that to the members of the emergency services the risk of injury and death is an ever-present part of their workaday world. When a catastrophe occurs, the rest of us run away, but the people in the emergency services run towards it. The Fennell report rightly makes it clear that the fire and the shortcomings in the response to it were not the fault of the people working at King's Cross that night, nor were they the fault of those working in the emergency services that night. But the fire should not have occurred and, having occurred, it should have been dealt with more promptly and more effectively. The responsibility for any failure lies with the managements of London Regional Transport and the emergency services, with those who laid down the priorities to be followed by those managements and with those in Government whose job was and remains to secure the safe operation of all our railways. At the pinnacle of that pyramid of responsibility is the Secretary of State for Transport.
Almost all of us who enter national politics seek important offices of state which carry personal power and personal trappings of office. They also carry personal responsibility, particularly where Ministers have played a direct part in events. The law made London Regional