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Column 977That is rather surprising, in view of the number of underground fires. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) said that there were 1,000, particularly on escalators. From the Fennell report we learnt that, in 1944, an escalator at Paddington was gutted by fire. It was known that escalators, particularly the type at King's Cross, were an endemic risk, and sprinklers were fitted to try to minimise it. The Fennell report tells us that sprinklers were originally switched on every day to keep things damp. It was then found that they corroded the mechanism, so the practice was changed to once every fortnight. Paragraph 15 of chapter 7 of the report states :
"As a compromise it became the practice to apply the water fog about once a fortnight. In recent years however the water fog equipment has not been operated regularly."
I was sorry that Fennell did not investigate that matter and ask why it was not operated regularly. I will not say that, if the supervisors at King's Cross knew where the valves were and that if the valves had been operated regularly, it might have been enough to dampen the fire. It was certainly an important link in the chain of the cause and events of the fire. It is a chain of events with about 14 sequences. If any one of them had been broken, the fire would not have occurred. Therefore, I am sorry that the Fennell report does not examine that matter to the degree that it might, particularly as it was recognised after the Tottenham Court road and Oxford Circus fires that passenger safety was at risk.
A report from the London Passenger Transport Research Group--"Passenger Safety and Protection from Fire on London's Tube Railways"--which was published on 15 February 1985, said :
"By definition, inadequate precautions against fire and smoke is unsafe practice. Since Oxford Circus there have been other instances where deep- level LRT tube stations have been temporarily closed because of fires, one of which was in the escalator shaft at Green Park, another busy central London station. This incident blocked the final means of exit from the Piccadilly Line platforms precisely the danger that the London fire regulations seek to avoid by insisting on two means of exit. An alternative way out was fortunately available at Green Park, through a lengthy passageway from the Victoria Line. But if the fire had broken out in the combined Piccadilly and Bakerloo escalator shaft at Piccadilly Circus
In recent years, London Transport, now London Regional Transport, have been extremely fortunate that no lives have been lost in fires on the Underground. There is little doubt that a major catastrophe was averted at Oxford Circus owing to the initiative and quick actions of the Underground's staff.
Luck has a habit of running out."
Well, two years later luck did run out. We have to acknowledge that that was due partly to lax management, for the reasons that I have outlined.
But I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that there was another factor. He may have knowledge of business and may agree that in business--certainly any business that I have known--the people who are listened to and the people who are promoted are the ones who go with the current trend. They may be concerned with installing computers, with a new type of marketing, with some new idea that has come out from some college, or with some technique that has only just been discovered. At any rate, these specialists suddenly shoot to the top. For good reasons or bad, London Regional Transport was being asked to cut costs.
I put it to the hon. Member for Spelthorne that the atmosphere at that time will have been helpful to those with bright ideas about how to reduce costs. Such people
Column 978will perhaps have been promoted, having been investigating that particular frontier of activity. Those who could produce ideas for cutting costs will have been listened to, and promoted above others, because that was the aim of the organisation at that time. Indeed, the preoccupation of the board was probably not at all with running the railway as it was ; the board was looking ahead at financial matters and all sorts of things. I suggest that that is the psychology of the situation that we all experience in one way or another, and I challenge the Minister to deny it.
Mr. Dobson : Does my hon. Friend not agree that information that came to me by way of a leaked early draft of the London Regional Transport business plan made this clear by saying that there was no scope for efficiency savings last year because the money had to be spent on safety?
The Minister will agree that this House, on advice from the railway inspectorate, must set the standards below which public safety cannot be allowed to go. We all agree with the fire regulations in regard to cinemas and shops. At one time there were no such regulations, but we insisted on them. I challenge the Minister to say that the railway inspectorate, or any equivalent, is part of the nanny state. It is not ; it is part of the way in which the public protects itself. The public protects itself with an ambulance service and a fire service, as well as sound standards of operation on the railways. I am not sure that at present we have got all three right. In any case, that is not the nanny state ; it is just public protection of life. I hope that the Minister is with me on that point.
We now have to ask ourselves whether the lessons of King's Cross have been learned. I am afraid that they have not. On 13 March I pointed out to the Minister for Public Transport the number of shortcomings still existing in London Regional Transport. Indeed, I have heard of some more. I understand- -this is subject to checking--that the covering of footbridges, to prevent people from chucking stuff over the top, has been postponed. I understand that walking of the track has been reduced, even in the last few months. Certainly there are threats of still lower manning levels in the central London stations--something that is surely quite wrong. In a detailed letter to the Minister, I referred to the one-person operation of deep tube railways in London. I believe that that is inherently dangerous. It increases risk. It puts another weak link in the chain of the protection of life, and that is something on which Members on both sides of the House can agree.
On 19 November 1987 I asked the then Secretary of State for Transport, who, I am sorry to note, has just gone, a question following his statement on the King's Cross tragedy of the previous day. I said :
"Does he agree that in striking a balance that is always present between efficiency and safety, the regulations and management decisions inherent in that balance should receive the widest possible consent and agreement between those employed on the underground and those who travel on it?",
the people who travel on it being us. To his great credit, the Secretary of State immediately said :
"I am sure that as a general statement that must be right."-- [Official Report, 19 November 1987 ; Vol. 122, c.1207.]
But we have not got that. There is not that general consent about the balance between efficiency and safety that any Government, of any party, of any Parliament in the world,
Column 979surely requires of its public services, whether publicly owned or privately owned. That is one of the problems that the Government have got themselves into.
Until recently the referees were the railway inspectorate, somewhat at arm's length from the Board of Trade or the Department of Transport. It could say to the LNER, or to the Midland Railway, or to London Transport, or to the old Metropolitan Railway, that it must do this, this and this. But now we have people determining the running of the railways on the basis of commercial objectives, as is illustrated by that infamous letter from the then Secretary of State, who was also responsible for setting the standards. I believe that in a democracy that is an unacceptable conflict of interests. It has been suggested that the railway inspectorate might be transferred to the Health and Safety Executive, or at least away from the Secretary of State for Transport. There is an argument for that. It must be possible to demonstrate independence, but I believe that that lesson has not yet been learned. If it had been, there would at least have been a halt in the extension of one-person operation on the deep-level tubes in London, and there would be a better staff relationship.
It must be pointed out that the industrial problems that may emerge yet again on the London Underground are not a matter of pay and conditions, but have to do with the very thing that the Secretary of State left out-- investment in human quality. He is right to say that the system is dependent on human beings, but I do not think that the relationship between the management and the workers of London Underground is as it should be. It has declined disastrously, even since King's Cross.
In conclusion, irrespective of our view about management, about funding or about ownership, the standards that we want to see inserted by law, by a technically competent body, in this mode of transport have not been inserted. They must be seen to be inserted and supervised, and they must have the confidence of those employees who operate the service and, above all, of those who represent the travelling public. It is quite clear that, despite what has happened since King's Cross, that confidence does not exist on either side of this House.
Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch) : At this stage in the debate there is a danger of repetition, which I shall try to avoid, especially because at least two other hon. Members wish to speak and I do not want to crowd them out.
One of the measures of a civilised city is that it has a good public transport network--I take that phrase to include a safe public transport network. Like most other hon. Members who have spoken, I have Underground stations in my constituency. In fact, I have three and the Underground is therefore a main means of travel for my constituents. They have a natural concern about safety issues, over and above the normal human feeling that we all felt on the night of that dreadful tragedy.
I join virtually every hon. Member who has spoken in congratulating those who produced the Fennell report. This must be one of the rare occasions when we have produced an unusual animal--a popular barrister. However, the praise that has been heaped on Mr. Fennell has been well deserved.
Column 980My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has rightly instructed the new chairman of LRT to give top priority to implementing the new safety measures and again that will be welcomed by all hon. Members. The sum of £266 million may trip off the tongue and has been much quoted, but it is a big sum to be given over the next three years and is ample evidence that safety is a top priority.
First, I want to put a small point to my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport. Although I have put it to him previously, this is a good opportunity to repeat it. Several hon. Members who have spoken today--and many others--represent areas that are not in Greater London. Hon. Members who represent Greater London know that rates bills have recently leapt up considerably as a result of the LRT charge, the main element of which related to the improved safety measures. I have no complaint about the improved safety measures nor, I judge, has a single one of my constituents. However, it seems a little perverse to expect the full cost to fall on the residents of the London boroughs and none of it on, say, the people of Epping Forest, Chelmsford or many parts of Hertfordshire, or those who are just visiting London. In addition, as many tourists visit London, the Underground must be regarded as a national rather than a uniquely local system. Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend again to review the spread of the percentages.
The second thing that I want to stress is the whole question of public safety information. Hon. Members will know of my long attachment to the need of promoting access to information both in local government--I refer to the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, which I introduced--and in a whole range of areas, relating especially to safety. Paragraph 21 of chapter 19 of the Fennell report is worth quoting. It states :
"I view with dismay the suggestion that information gained by a statutory authority which has a bearing on the safety of the public using a system for mass transportation should not be made publicly available. 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."
I emphasise those points because over the years when I have pressed for greater access to information, I have been told, "The public won't know", or "The public won't care", or even, "If you give them that information, they may be alarmed." However, if we want the public to be better educated and to have, for example, a better means of measuring risk, we cannot deny them the means by which they will be better educated. We cannot cosset them and say at the same time that we expect them to be answerable for their decisions because they have no way of being able to know the facts if the facts are suppressed and kept from them.
I take issue briefly with some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. On more than one occasion recently he has said--this was echoed by his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)--that there is an exact equation between becoming more efficient and cost effective on the one hand, and cutting safety on the other. There must be no such equation, and in a well-run organisation there will not be one. It is akin to saying that it is impossible to run a profitable manufacturing company if one has to take account of environmental controls. One must take account of environmental controls and doing so is an essential payment for that business, just like heat and light, or
Column 981wages. It would be extraordinary if we became hooked on the belief that it is wrong to be cost-effective and to seek to make large undertakings more efficient because along the way they would ditch safety because, particularly in a transport undertaking, safety is a sine qua non of the operation.
I have two main concerns for my constituents and both impinge on safety issues. The first has already been touched on--the existing congestion. We must increase the number of trains and carriages and lengthen the platforms. Perhaps there could be new lines, but above all we need cleaner trains and stations. We want an Underground system to be proud of. We want one that attracts people to travel on it rather than making them feel that they are going through some sort of mangle twice a day just to go about their ordinary work. My second concern relates to the safety of the individual. Because of its length it is difficult to read the report in detail, but I am appalled when I hear that surveys of travellers have shown a high fear of travelling on trains and on the Underground, especially at night and especially among women. I am not surprised by that, but I find it appalling. It is an unacceptable fear and, in passing, I should add that, financially, it is a silly position to be in. It may well be that people's perceptions do not represent the true position. People tend to exaggerate fear and the true danger that they face may be less, but it is the perception that matters because that is the factor that determines the way in which people do or do not travel. I should like the Underground to do much more in the next few years to increase protection for the traveller. I welcome unreservedly the investment in machinery and in mechanical means, such as personal radios, which have been mentioned. However, we must tackle the ghastly situation which deters women in particular from travelling on our great rail network late at night.
In conclusion--I promised to be brief--I believe that safety was not given sufficient prominence under the previous London Underground management and that that clearly contributed to the King's Cross tragedy. Most of the Fennell report recommendations have already been accepted and are already being implemented to the broad approval of hon. Members of all parties. However, as the report makes clear, it is a gross calumny to suggest that the accident was caused by a shortage of Government funds. It was caused by an excess of bad management.
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : The fact that the debate has been dominated so far by hon. Members representing London constituencies should not be allowed to obscure the importance of the accident at King's Cross as being of national rather than simply metropolitan significance. The transport system of the capital city must be safe, not only for its residents but for citizens of the whole kingdom. That is especially the case for a main line railway station that serves the whole of the north and the east of the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is possible to travel direct to King's Cross from my constituency.
In this most lucid report, Mr. Fennell, who does not seem to have been regarded with the same enthusiasm for his remarks as leader of the Bar in response to the Lord Chancellor's Green Paper, expressly said that he was not engaged in a prosecution. However, in effect, he handed
Column 982down an indictment and had I been prosecuting on that indictment I would not have expected the jury to leave the court before returning a verdict.
In my judgment, the single most important sentence of the report is in paragraph 14 of chapter 1, where Mr. Fennell states :
"it is my view that a disaster was foreseeable."
Foreseeability is a test of negligence and if the events were foreseeable, the absence of steps to prevent them was clearly negligent. When the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) said that, although a disaster was foreseeable, the scale of the disaster was not foreseeable, he seemed unconsciously perhaps to make precisely the point that ought to be made about the report and about the attitude of London Underground. If the scale of a disaster is not foreseeable, that is all the more reason for taking steps to prevent any accident occurring. The notable feature of what Mr. Fennell found was that London Underground took precautions about outbreaks of fire but did not seem to have a philosophy that compelled it to take steps to prevent fire.
The truth is that the accident could have occurred on many previous occasions and could have caused the deaths of many more people. Why is that? Because London Underground took the view that fires were inevitable and did not take steps to prevent them. As Mr. Fennell found, London Underground had a blind spot about the hazard of fire on escalators. He also found that no one person was charged with overall responsibility for safety. For example, the director of operations and the director of engineering each thought that he was responsible for safety in his own division, but principally for the safety of his own staff.
The accident could have occurred before because specialist safety staff were in junior positions and were concerned with the safety of staff and not passengers. It could have occurred before because there was no system to train staff in fire drill or evacuation procedures. Of course, in London Underground, prior to the events with which the report is concerned, fires were described by the somewhat disingenuous euphemism of "smouldering". It was accepted that describing them in that way inevitably created a false sense of security. All of those defects were exhibited on the occasion of the tragic fire with which we have been concerned, when the response of the staff was described by Mr. Fennell as unco-ordinated, haphazard and untrained.
The purpose of the debate is to consider wherein lay the responsibility for those matters. If money was not a bar to putting into effect appropriate safety procedures, it makes all the more acute the negligence that gave rise to the accident that caused the deaths. Under the London Regional Transport Act 1984 responsibility for safety was laid on LRT. It believed that it could discharge that responsibility by delegating it to London Underground--an action of which Mr. Fennell expressly disapproved.
We are also entitled to ask, what of the Department of Transport and its Ministers? In the letter of 20 July 1984, to which reference has been made several times in the debate, four tasks were laid upon LRT in relation to Underground services--to improve the services, to reduce costs, to involve the private sector and to promote better management--but no mention was made of safety anywhere within the four corners of that letter. If safety is paramount now, why was it not paramount then?
Column 983The performance of those tasks must have been monitored by officials of the Department of Transport and also by Ministers. Why did no one ask about safety? Why did no one ask whether those tasks could be accomplished without prejudicing safety? One is entitled to ask what consideration the Department of Transport, through its Ministers or its officials, gave to the safety of the oldest Underground system in the world. If they gave none, in the light of the palpable and obvious defects which Mr. Fennell recites in his report, why did they not give consideration to those issues? If the negligence is as obvious as has been rehearsed in the report, why was it not brought to the attention of Ministers? Why did Ministers not seek out information of that kind for themselves?
It would be churlish to do other than welcome all the improvements that have taken place and that are proposed. But I ask myself again, if these improvements are now so obvious, why were they not obvious before the accident? Mr. Fennell has provided the answer to that question. He said that the accident was foreseeable. The disaster was foreseeable by London Underground, by London Regional Transport, by the Department of Transport and also by Ministers. On the occasion of this solemn debate the House is entitled to ask itself whether Ministers truly discharged the duties which their office laid upon them.
I want to concentrate on the workings of the Victoria line, which runs through King's Cross and also serves my constituency. Indeed, the last two stations at the northern end of the line--Blackhorse Road and Walthamstow Central--lie in my constituency. When the line was built 20 years ago, it was supposed to be fully automatic, fast and efficient, giving an excellent service from one end to the other. I am sorry to have to say that it no longer provides that fast and efficient service. A sizeable proportion of my postbag from constituents is composed of complaints about the Victoria line. London Regional Transport is doing its best to maintain the escalators. However, the escalators at both stations in my constituency have been out of action for a considerable time. When I visited the constituency the other day, I was horrified to find that both escalators at Walthamstow Central were out of action. One was even denied the pleasure of trying to run up the downward escalator. If escalators are not working, it has implications for safety. When people have to carry heavy shopping, children and pushchairs down the stairs, there is obviously capacity for trouble. It only needs a toddler to trip on the top step and there may be disaster. I have had several meetings with officials from London Underground. I have said to them, "Why not be sensible? If an escalator is out of action, you should put up a notice to say why it is out of action and how long it will be before it is fixed." They said, "What a good idea." The next time I went to my constituency they had indeed erected a sign. It said, "This escalator will be back in action on 28 January." It was not. They put up another sign saying,
Column 984"This escalator will be back in action on 3 February." It was not. The following day the notice disappeared completely. I wish that someone would drive the lesson home to London Underground that if it is going to go through exercises in public relations, it has to get them right ; otherwise the public will be cynical, and say, "All their efforts are in vain. Why don't they get on and fix the escalator"?
Overcrowding has been mentioned several times. Overcrowding is highly dangerous. Anyone who uses the tube as much as I do for my journeys to and from Walthamstow Central has to use Victoria station. There is no option ; one has to change there to get on to the Victoria line. On one occasion both escalators were out of action and the overcrowding had to be seen to be believed. With the press of people on the platform and trains discharging more all the time, the passengers could not get out of the station. Overcrowding is mentioned in the report. The management of London Underground has not addressed that problem sufficiently.
One more thing about the Victoria line got my goat the other day. I received a press release saying that London Underground was putting one more train on the Victoria line. I read it and said to myself, "Wow, one more train on the Victoria line, great stuff." It also said, "We will no longer be stopping at King's Cross." The usual euphemism is "change" or something similar. In other words, it kicks the passengers off and makes them wait for the next northbound train. It said that that would no longer happen and I thought to myself, "What a good thing." However--the House will not believe it--on my next southbound journey, the driver came on the intercom and said, "Everybody out at Warren Street". I have lived in London for 10 years and never in my experience has a train going southbound on the Victoria line stopped and kicked out the passengers at Warren Street. Clearly, LRT has said, "We will not kick them out at King's Cross, but we will get our own back and kick them out at Warren Street instead".
The state of the Central line is a disgrace. It is the most appalling line. I always try to avoid it if I can. I would much rather use the District line. Sometimes, however, I must use the Central line. I hear the trains arrive with that characteristic iron rattle. They are covered with graffiti on the outside and on the inside. All the people on the inside seem to look revolting as well. I am not sure whether they take on the characteristics of the train in which they are travelling. On one occasion I saw a couple of yobs smoking in the carriage. I thought of saying to them, "You should not be smoking. It is dangerous." Then I had another look at them and thought to myself that I still have all my own teeth so I would not take the chance.
What we need is more staff on the trains to look after the passengers. We do not need the staff sitting in those little boxes collecting tickets, looking thoroughly bored and not caring a damn if someone puts down 20p and makes a bolt for the exit. Staff should be on the trains looking after the passengers, and that, I fear, is where London Underground management is going wrong.
I know that one more hon. Member wishes to speak. I believe that he has been in his place since the start of the debate, so I will sit down at this point and give the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) the opportunity to play his Brent harp.
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Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South) : The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) missed the opening remarks of the Secretary of State. We have heard the hon. Gentleman's explanation as to why he was not here, and, of course, one accepts them wholeheartedly. I assure him, however, that he did not miss much, because there was nothing new in what the Secretary of State said and still less anything memorable. However, there were some new buzz words, which will last in our memories, if not in fact, for some time. Those words were "safety culture". Of course, the old buzz words were also about culture, about the "enterprise culture". We are debating a report that came out of events which took place sadly and tragically when the enterprise culture had the Underground system in its grip. Of course, in the enterprise culture public ownership is bad, and, if possible, public investment is to be avoided, and public regulation is to be minimised. Those are the characteristics of the enterprise culture. Second to the enterprise culture--an afterthought coming out of this tragic incident--we have the concept of the safety culture. Our concern is that the safety culture should not be subordinated to the enterprise culture. If there is one thing that we have learnt from these tragic events, it is the deadly danger of subordinating safety to enterprise. In a Socialist definition of enterprise, safety and concern for the environment go hand in hand with efficiency and growth. I say to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) that the Opposition make no apology for talking about the importance of safety and putting that first, because without safety there is nothing.
If the new buzz words "safety culture" are to mean anything, we would say that they must be based on two critical matters, both of which were highlighted in Mr. Fennell's laudable report. The first, importantly, is the encouragement of workers and management at every level to be involved in and committed to the safety process. The second is information. Information should be made available to the workers, to middle and lower management and to staff at every level within the enterprise of London Underground, but, above all and importantly, information should be made available to the general public. Without that information, there is no way in which safety can be monitored and preserved in the interests of safety first. We want from Ministers tonight a clear indication that they accept those two basic principles. If they do not, and if they hedge around, those words "safety culture" will be no more than words in the mouth of a Minister under attack and fighting for his political career. We want more than that.
I am afraid that there are indications at this time that the lessons have not been learnt by London Underground. I want to raise one specific matter that is vital not only to the Underground system but, I believe, to the welfare of my constituents. It relates to a matter that is directly of concern to them and to me as users of Alperton station. We are reminded of what Mr. Fennell said about the travelling public's right to know about safety arrangements made by transport operators and of the importance of them knowing about the safety of places in which they habitually gather. One would have thought that that lesson would have been learnt. However, lo and behold, there is now in existence traffic circular No. 11, which was published by London Underground on 20 March. That is
Column 986London Underground under new management which we have been told has been cleansed and adheres to the lessons of Fennell.
What does that traffic circular say and how, more importantly, is it prefaced? It is prefaced with these words : "PRIVATE : not for publication". No safety document produced by London Regional Transport should ever again be prefaced by those words. Nothing about safety in the Underground should ever be outside the public domain. Unless the Ministers can assure us that there never will be again anything about safety in London's Underground that is outside the public domain, all they have said counts for nothing.
The circular gives details of the arrangements for the inspection of escalators for fire and smoke. Paragraph E12 says :
"The escalators shown below must be inspected every two hours for signs of fire or smoke. This is because they do not meet a necessary standard of cleanliness."
I see that the Minister is looking perturbed, as well he might. He should give us an undertaking that he will publish that traffic circular and lay it in the Library of the House, because we are entitled to know what it says.
Having listed those escalators that have to be inspected every two hours because they do not meet the necessary standard of cleanliness, the circular gives an even longer list of other Underground stations where the escalators or lifts are either completely out of operation or have had to be reduced because of safety and because of the failure of those stations to comply with the necessary safety standards. After the publication of the Fennell report and these tragic events, why are such circulars still published?
The circular gives another list of stations that have no escalators at all, and that list contains Alperton station on the Piccadilly line in my constituency. I used the escalator in the station just a few days ago, and on numerous occasions I have raised safety issues about its operation. But apparently Alperton station does not have an escalator. For years I and tens of thousands of my constituents have been travelling steadily up towards the platform on something that does not exist. According to traffic circular No. 11 of 20 March, which is private and not for publication, that escalator has no substance. We want answers about why such a document was produced. Either I and thousands of my constituents have been under an illusion about that escalator all these years, or Ministers are under an illusion tonight.
Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) : With a few notable exceptions, the debate has been conducted in the serious and responsible manner that the House expects for a matter of such personal tragedy and public importance as the fire at the King's Cross Underground station. In winding up for the Opposition, I join the many hon. Members who have expressed sympathy to the bereaved and injured and admiration for the emergency services. We especially commend the bravery of Police Constable Hanson and the bravery and sacrifice of Station Officer Colin Townsley whose family live in my borough of Lewisham. Despite the passage of time, I am conscious of the fact that for survivors and the bereaved alike, life can never be quite the same again. Tragically, many may still relive their torment through having to pursue wholly unnecessary court actions in order to gain the compensation to which they are entitled.
Column 987As hon. Members have said, in comparison with other modes of transport London Underground is a very safe system. I concede that that is true, especially when compared with the appalling daily loss of life on our roads. At the heart of our debate is the consciousness, perhaps the consensus, that the tragic loss of life and injury in the King's Cross fire could probably have been prevented. As Mr. Fennell said on page 17 of his report :
"it is important to note that the circumstances in which the fire could develop all arose from the condition of the escalator on that night. Thus it is my view that a disaster was foreseeable." By delaying the debate on the Fennell report, the Government put themselves in a position whereby the Secretary of State was able to come to the House today with a list of the many positive steps taken by London Regional Transport and London Underground Ltd. We do not complain about that. We are delighted that progress has been made, but it would have been quite wrong for that satisfaction to deflect us from a critical evaluation of the report's findings and from the wider issues arising from the tragedy itself.
Anyone who has read the report cannot but be appalled at the complacency of management about the occurrence of fires in the Underground system and the unpreparedness of staff at all levels in the face of an emergency such as that which occurred on 18 November 1987. Today the Secretary of State reminded us of the age and complexity of the London Underground system, 80 per cent. of which is more than 70 years old. It has 260 miles of track and 130 underground stations. Of course those facts are not new. They were well known to the Government when they decided to assume responsibility for the underground system through the creation in 1984 of London Regional Transport.
The Secretary of State's letter of 20 July to the chairman of London Regional Transport, to which a number of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) who made an outstanding contribution, referred, shows a total lack of concern for the safety problems that might arise in a system of that age and complexity and in which passenger demand was already growing. I shall re-emphasise what my colleagues said about the contents of the letter. Improvements were to be made within the resources available. Costs and the call on ratepayers' and taxpayers' money were to be reduced and services were to be privatised. It is quite clear from the Fennell report that at the highest level in London Regional Transport and London Underground Ltd. those objectives were vigorously pursued.
At that highest level was Dr. Tony Ridley, the chairman and chief executive of London Underground. In evidence to the inquiry he described how he set about changing not just the structure but the culture of London Underground when he took over in 1980. Whatever Dr. Ridley's laudable aims might have been at the outset, it seems highly improbable that his objectives were not influenced by Government attitudes from 1984 onwards.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was right to talk about a financial climate influencing decision-making relevant to safety. Ministers' attitudes to the financing of London Underground have been paraded annually in the House
Column 988during debates on London ratepayers' contributions. I remind the House that two thirds of the £286.6 million grant to LRT this year will come from London's ratepayers. In the debates on the ratepayers' levy in 1985, 1986 and 1987 the matter of safety did not once pass the lips of Ministers. They were preoccupied with efficiency, unit costs and savings. In 1986 the hon. Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) said that LRT's aim was
"to secure better services and an improved passenger environment by reducing costs in all areas. Cost-cutting is the key to LRT's success."-- [ Official Report, 28 January, 1986 ; Vol. 90, c. 902.] Even more astonishing is the letter sent to London Members just two weeks after the King's Cross fire. In that letter the Minister of State boasted again of the reducing burden on London's ratepayers brought about by cost reduction. He produced figures to show that public subsidy was to be reduced year by year. The significance of all that lies in the style and priorities of management that were created by that financial climate. Nothing in the Fennell report contradicts that hypothesis.
I shall now deal with the escalator evidence about which my hon. Friends have spoken. Mr. Styles, the lift and escalator engineer, told the inquiry that staff were much occupied between 1985 and 1986 in getting the new management system running in preparation for competitive tendering. He acknowledged that he did not succeed in monitoring escalator cleaning standards to his satisfaction and that he did not have enough staff to do so. The maintenance manager said that the organisational changes had the effect of delaying improvements in the arrangements for escalator cleaning. We cannot dismiss, as Conservative Members would have us do, the importance of those statements, because Mr. Fennell found that the condition of the escalators made the tragedy possible. Even so, to anyone who has not read appendix J of the report or heard the speeches of my hon. Friends, it might appear that only through the tragedy of the King's Cross fire have we been able to learn lessons about the escalators. As the Secretary of State knows all too well, that is not so. Mr. Fennell refers to 46 serious escalator fires on the Underground, and in 32 of them the cause was established or attributed to smokers' materials. But did LRT learn the lesson? Unhappily, it did not. Appendix J shows how devastating its complacency was and how ineffective the inspectorate was in changing London Underground's priorities. The Minister will need to be extremely determined if he is to ensure that there is, as he promises, a lasting change in attitudes in London Underground.
The House should take note of the analysis of six escalator fires which occurred between the major Oxford Circus fire of November 1984 and the King's Cross fire of November 1987. In one case after another, smokers' materials and accumulated rubbish and/or wooden panels were implicated. Time and again, similar recommendations were made about better cleaning of escalators, replacing wood, use of water fog and alerting the fire brigade.
What does the Minister think were the preoccupations of management that they failed to heed those findings? How does he explain the fact that the internal inquiry which followed a serious escalator fire at Green Park in June 1987 found the same probable causes--a discarded
Column 989cigarette end or match--and made the same recommendations as were made when fire broke out on the same escalator two years previously? Mr. Fennell said, and Conservative Members have repeated today, that he found no evidence that reduction in operating or maintenance staff contributed directly to the disaster. Furthermore, he judged, there was no evidence that the overall level of subsidy was inadequate. As we know, he chose not to take all that evidence. But he questioned the priorities of how the available resources were allocated, and it remains our contention that the cost-cutting priorities of the Government conditioned the management ethos of London Underground Ltd.
How else can anyone explain why, when serious escalator fires occurred year after year since LRT's inception, and internal inquiries recommended obvious but costly changes, the escalator manager should say that he did not press for changes because he felt that there was only "a thin chance" of them being authorised? Why, when one inquiry after another implicated smoking materials and waste in escalator fires and recommended better cleaning, does the Minister think the cleaning establishment was reduced? Was it not just to save money, regardless of the consequences? And why, within an aging system carrying unprecedented numbers of passengers, should there have been an underspend of £1.4 million in the lift and escalator department in 1987-88?
Mr. Fennell's report concludes that management complacency towards fires resulted in lack of action. We cannot contest that, but neither can the Secretary of State escape his responsibilities. Why did he not ask just how was so much money being saved?
That brings me to further consideration of the balance of responsibilities between the chairman of LRT, Sir Keith Bright, and the chairman and chief executive of London Underground, Dr. Tony Ridley. As the House will recall, both men resigned on the eve of the publication of the Fennell report. It later transpired, however, that Dr. Ridley for some months after his resignation--until he took up his new post at Eurotunnel--continued to use his executive facilities at London Underground Ltd. Furthermore, in a recent settlement, he received £30,000 and protected pension rights.
I can only deduce from those facts that Dr. Ridley's contract with London Underground Ltd., which provided for such perks, was honoured. That begs the question whether the Secretary of State considered Dr. Ridley to be in breach of his contract. It strongly suggests that he did not. Will the Minister now say whether he accepts that his Department's cost-cutting priorities affected Dr. Ridley's prime duty to run a safe railway? That question must be answered. Who was really responsible?
I come to the question of the implementation of the recommendations of the Fennell report. The Secretary of State welcomed the setting up by London Underground of the safety audit, and we join wholeheartedly with him in that welcome. But as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, Mr. Fennell called for more. He suggested that further consideration should be given to a review of the railway inspectorate. He suggested that perhaps it should become part of a passenger safety inspectorate.
What is the Minister's attitude to that? Does he favour such a proposal, or is it still his view that, despite all that has happened, his Department should continue to be responsible for the railway inspectorate? If it is, what
Column 990changes does he expect to bring about in the inspectorate to ensure that there is a change of attitude and that never again will that cosy relationship exist between the inspectorate and part of the service that it is supposed to inspect?
Nobody will be satisfied by the attitude that was expressed in the letter, so much quoted today, of the chief inspector to the chief officer of London fire brigade. As that letter has not been read in full, I will quote from it. In the letter, which was with reference to Heathrow central station and its pedestrian subways, the chief inspector wrote :
"You may or may not be correct in your legal assertions" dealing with the question of certification for the station "and certainly, not to put too fine a point on it, there are those who believe that your definition of building structure' etcetera is hardly applicable to a concrete hole in the ground."
That is the kind of attitude that we cannot accept from an inspectorate that is responsible for public safety within the Underground system.
It will be clear to the Minister from the contributions of my hon. Friends that there is still much cause for concern. In the financial year just ended--the figures have been provided by London Underground--there were 4,038 reported fires on London Underground. Of those, 135, or more than two a week, were on escalators, and 36 of those escalator fires were serious enough to have to be put out by the London fire brigade.
The travelling public rightly considers that this is a situation in which real hazards exist. Many feel a deep sense of unease, if not fear, whenever trains stop inexplicably in tunnels or smoke can be smelled at stations. Opposition Members remain deeply concerned about the many changes being brought about by London Underground against this background of perceived and real risk.
A number of my hon. Friends have referred to the Underground ticketing system and the intense level of public concern about safety in relation to the gates. Our confidence was not much boosted when we received the Minister's letter telling us about the possible failure of the emergency system about which previously he had given us much reassurance.
The Minister had been asked repeatedly if all the ticket gates would automatically be opened in the event of a power failure. He said in good faith that that was his understanding. We were reassured then, although we still had objections about the gates. However, in another letter he wrote :
"LUL tell me that a circumstance has come to light in which this might not happen."
On receiving that letter I assumed that someone who was currently reviewing the system had worked out from some first principles of physics that that might occur. It was extraordinary therefore to find that the Minister was not telling us about a theoretical possibility, but about something that really happened.