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Mr. Hanley : In the circumstances that the hon. Lady has just described about the gates not being opened, will she admit that one in three of the gates at most might not be able to be opened? Does she accept that there is a full implementation programme to ensure that those gates are fully repaired over the next three months and that there are numerous safety devices to ensure that all gates can be opened by alternative means should the need arise?
Ms. Ruddock : The public will not be reassured by the hon. Gentleman's comments. The prospect of three out of every 10 gates not opening in an emergency is horrifying. Although the hon. Gentleman referred to alternative provisions, he must be reminded that the only alternative is for a human being to be present to observe the situation and to deal with it. Much of our criticism has been aimed at staff cuts and the lack of transport staff eyes and ears to identify a difficult situation.
Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East) : To reinforce my hon. Friend's point, is she aware that this morning at the Barbican station--a station at which the gates have been in operation for only three weeks--three of the gates were inoperable? The staff were busily trying to direct passengers who were arriving from trains through one gate and passengers arriving to catch trains through another. That caused absolute chaos. Those gates are simply very dangerous in an emergency.
I am sure that the Minister is as aware as I am that the fire brigade believes that section 12 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 is but a stop-gap measure. The fire brigade is looking forward to full certification. Will there be full certification? Will it cover all the stations in the London Underground system? If that means that there will be greater costs for any changes which must be made, will the Government guarantee that the money will be available? The Minister must acknowledge that urgent action is required because of the way in which the fire brigade could predict these tragic events. Is the Minister satisfied about co-operation and progress with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, given that a special working party set up in 1985 to consider fires underground did not meet until a few weeks before the 1987 tragedy? Can he assure us that no fire fighter will now be sent to an underground fire with plastic over-trousers or the PVC gloves which melted so horribly at King's Cross? What progress is being made with the provision of new breathing sets, given that the heat and stress at King's Cross caused fire fighters to exhaust their air supplies in 17 minutes instead of the planned 36 to 40 minutes? Will he now instruct London Underground to hold exercises involving the public, the fire brigade and London Underground itself so that we can be certain that if another emergency occurs the public is fully aware of how best to behave? It is a measure of both the previous extraordinary state of neglect and complacency about safety within the Underground system and the thoroughness of Mr. Fennell's report that so many recommendations for action should have been placed before the Secretary of State. There will be relief in many quarters that much is being done. However, there will also be horror and anger that repeated warnings, inquiries and recommendations of the kind which have now been accepted were so blatantly ignored for so many years.
The London Underground system is a vital and intrinsic part of the life of this capital city. It is crucial to our economic life and for the social and recreational lives of millions of our citizens. Despite the additional Government and ratepayers' money being applied to implement the recommendations, the Government are still intent upon imposing their reckless ideology on LRT.
Column 992My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) showed how passenger revenues have not made up for the loss of subsidy. The cost is there to be seen by all. Staff cuts are taking guards off trains and people off stations. Those changes will continue to have safety implications, especially given the alarming number of reported fires still occurring in the system. The public have the right to know, and the Secretary of State must ensure from now on that there is no limit on the freedom of information in matters of public safety.
The lessons of the Fennell inquiry are far-reaching for London Underground, but they have wider implications too. We have 38 km of rail tunnel currently being dug under the Channel and British Rail plans to tunnel 19 km under London to secure a new rail link to the coast. Tens of millions more people are to entrust their lives to such systems, and, if British Rail has its way, millions more will be delivered to King's Cross.
The public demand and have the right to expect that safety is the priority of those who provide our public transportation systems now and in the future, and that financial considerations do not stand in their way. I commend the Opposition's amendment to the House. 9.35 pm
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo) : I begin by picking up a point made by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) whose constituency interest was most closely touched by what happened on that night. He referred to reading the Fennell report and finding it a moving document. I concur with him fully in that. He talked about the heroism of the people whose acts that night are depicted in the report and he referred to the number of people who said that they were merely doing their job. The only matter on which I would go one stage further than the hon. Gentleman is in mentioning also those members of the public who were not doing their job that night but who simply came to the aid of the victims--their fellow citizens. I think of one in particular whom I had the honour to meet, Mr. Palmer, who played a heroic role that night. I felt privileged and humbled to meet those people who conducted themselves so bravely that night.
There have been many interventions during the debate from hon. Members from the south-east, and London in particular, who felt on that evening the chill that was so well expressed by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) when she said that there but for the grace of God could have gone any of us. We have heard many interventions, best put by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), welcoming Mr. Fennell's report as being so comprehensive. It is in no way sparing in its analysis of the events of that night. Nor is it sparing of criticism where Mr. Fennell believes that to be deserved.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), speaking for the Opposition, to some extent began to struggle with what the Fennell report did not say. In much of what he said, and in the Opposition's amendment to the Government's motion, he was concerned with what he says Mr. Fennell found to be ultra vires. My understanding of the report is that Mr. Fennell did not want his investigation to be side-tracked into a full- blown inquiry into London Underground finance.
Column 993That he ruled to be ultra vires. But he was interested in everything that he thought was relevant to the fire. He said : "I went on to make it clear that I would allow proper questions directed to the underlying philosophy of the management towards safety and how decisions were made, together with the basis upon which they were made, insofar as they related to what happened in the disaster."
I take this to include the financial basis ; and indeed that is implicit in the fact that Mr. Fennell considered evidence on finance from LRT and LUL, indeed reproduced much of it in the report, and felt able to conclude that there was no evidence that subsidy was too low, and that there had been a tendency for London Underground to underspend its budget. On that basis, Mr. Fennell heard evidence on financing which is presented in his report in chapter 19 on page 149. That evidence showed that from 1984-85 to 1987-88 the Underground had more subsidy available to it than it spent, and that over the same period investment expenditure increased by about half in real terms. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East was also at pains to talk about the culture within London Underground that militated, as he thought, against requests for further investment. I refer him to page 149 of the report, where Mr. Fennell says :
"I accept the evidence of the most senior management in London Regional Transport and London Underground that if funds were needed, funds were available."
The hon. Gentleman was also concerned about cuts in staff. Again, I refer to what Mr. Fennell said, as opposed to what he did not say, on page 152 :
"I found no evidence that the reduction in the number of operating or maintenance staff contributed directly to the disaster at King's Cross In my view the issue is not purely the number of staff in stations but rather the need to establish a proper level of safety at each station which can then be met by the provision of either automated aids or the proper disposition of staff."
That is an important point.
The hon. Gentleman and several others have referred to the important issue of fire certification. Mr. Fennell found that there was ambiguity about this and that it should be cleared up. The Government will clear it up by applying regulations under section 12 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 to Underground railway stations. It is quite clear from the clarification that we have made that an Underground railway station would be required to be certified unless section 12 regulations applied to it. The section 12 regulations will specify the facilities, precautions and practices that are necessary at Underground railway stations.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) asked me whether we envisage certification in the longer term. That is a possibility. Important research should be conducted to determine whether it is appropriate. It will hinge particularly on the control of smoke in Underground stations, which is a complex matter and different from the control of smoke in buildings above ground, for instance. Depending on the outcome of that research we may decide to continue section 12 regulations, or conclude that certification is required in the longer term. In either case, matters to do with the control of fire in Underground railway stations which may have been ambiguous until now will be put beyond any shadow of doubt. A number of points were made about the criticisms which have been made of the railway inspectorate. I know that every hon. Member has read the Fennell report, in
Column 994which the criticisms of the railway inspectorate are plain to see. It stands accused of too cosy a relationship with London Underground. There were too few inspectors. It is pointed out that they misunderstood the breadth of their responsibilities under the health and safety at work legislation, which was held by Mr. Fennell to extend to passenger safety. All those points have been accepted and my right hon. Friend has described the means by which the railway inspectorate is being brought up to strength.
Let us be clear that none of these things removes the central point that the responsibility for the safety of an operation must lie with the operator. No matter how active or commendable the railway inspectorate may be, that will always remain the case.
A number of hon. Members wanted to know how the Government will respond to the recommendation about the future of the railway inspectorate that Fennell put forward for consideration. I accept that there is a need for a fresh look at the arrangements for the railway inspectorate. The Government are undertaking a review to determine whether further changes are necessary in the interests of effectiveness across all the functions performed by the inspectorate, and we shall announce our conclusions in due course.
Mr. Prescott : I have read the latest review, established, I think, in 1987. The Minister makes it clear in recommendations to the House that he is not prepared to consider the separation of the inspectorate from the Department, although I believe that there is a conflict of interests. Is that ruled out in the review that the Minister has just mentioned?
There has been considerable debate about the words that appeared in the London Regional Transport Act 1984, which required the management to be responsible and to
"have regard to economy, efficiency and safety".
Those words have a long pedigree. The Transport Act 1947 imposed a duty on the British Transport Commission in similar terms, although the wording was not precisely the same, and the Transport Act 1962 and the London Transport Act 1969 contain the same words in the same order.
I do not believe that at any time the order of those three words was considered to imply that safety should come last. I think that the way in which the words were put together derived from the understanding that an efficiently organised railway would be run economically, efficiently and safely. It is difficult to imagine a railway being run safely without also being well managed. The dichotomy proposed by Opposition Members between efficiency and safety strikes me as false : it has been recognised by legislators and parliamentary draftsmen for many years that safety, economy and efficiency go hand in hand.
Mr. Spearing : Surely economy and safety do not necessarily go together. Costs could be cut in various ways, which I shall not explain to the Minister, and many measures that were more economical could well be less safe. Safety might be prejudiced by a combination of events hitherto unforeseen. That, surely, is the essence of today's debate.
Column 995saying that a management that does not have systems to enable it to control its finances is not a management that I would greatly trust to control its safety. Management systems are required for both functions, and legislation has put them together over the years.
Mr. Dobson : I think that we all accept that a management that was generally efficient would be likely to be efficient in discharging its safety functions, but is not one of the problems that, under pressure from Ministers, LRT experienced a conflict between efficiency and safety? That is why the draft of the business plan for LRT last year, after the King's Cross fire--which came into my possession--contained words to the effect that LRT would not be able to make as many efficient savings because it was having to spend money on safety.
Mr. Portillo : Hon. Members must read the Fennell report and reach their own conclusions, but I believe that many of the advances made in efficiency did not compromise safety. Increased revenue, achieved through the elimination of inefficiency practices, enabled the railway--at a time when it was running many more passenger miles than ever before--to make substantial advances which did not prejudice safety.
Hon. Members have often referred to the letter from my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Transport to Dr. Bright in 1984. It refers to the 1984 Act, which contains those three ingredients. My right hon. Friend was also at considerable pains to refer to
"a programme of investment to modernise the public transport systems",
"a steady programme to improve facilities for passengers, including interchanges"
and to better management--which, as I have said, is intimately related to safety.
Since the Fennell report has been published, London Underground has responded to it and has been reporting to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, on some occasions through me, on its progress in implementing the Fennell recommendations. The document produced by London Underground in response to the 157 recommendations is remarkable and on the whole has been extremely well received. It is a painstaking review of procedures, structures, organisation and training to which the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) referred.
London Underground has accepted the vast majority of the recommendations and is close to schedule on the major projects, although it admits to some slippage on some of its response to the 157 recommendations. The management of London Underground has a tremendous task before it in terms of the capital re-equipment of stations--for example, to strip down the escalators and remove the wooden parts. The public in London sees that happening. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) painted a graphic picture of the discomfort and disruption that that is causing to passengers. He is right to say that that in itself has safety implications. That is why there is a certain speed at which London Underground can proceed with that vital work. The public in London recognises that the work is being carried out to improve safety. The £266 million that the Government have allocated for the implementation of the Fennell recommendations
Column 996has been provided by the Government in accordance with a promise that my right hon. Friend gave that finance would be no barrier to implementation. It was made perfectly clear to the House during the debate on the London Regional Transport. (Levy) Order 1989 that the moneys that were necessary were being raised from the ratepayers of London and the taxpayers of the country. I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) that it is being provided from both sources. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) was right to say that there was no inconsistency at all between providing the £266 million and the Fennell finding that subsidy had not been the problem underlying the King's Cross fire.
There was a tragic blind spot in London Underground in the matter of fire safety. That ignorance was universal, not simply within London Underground. As the Fennell report says, the disaster was foreseeable but the extent of it was unimaginable and the trench effect which we now know about was unknown. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) was right to say that it was remarkable that the management had that blind spot, given the dangers of fire underground. But he will appreciate that we all know with 20-20 hindsight very much more than was known at the time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) was right to say that the lessons of Fennell apply generally to employers throughout the country in various enterprises, and if they were put under the microscope in the way that London Underground has been scrutinised we should not be pleased at what we found.
I understand hon. Members' concern about the Underground ticketing system because its introduction coincides with our new awareness of the risk of fire in Underground stations. We must rely on expert advice and hon. Members are unwise to pick and choose between the expert advice that they like and that which does not fit in with their views. The London fire brigade and the railway inspectorate have repeatedly taken the view that the Underground ticketing system could be installed. Consultants are now considering the operation of that system. My right hon. Friend and I asked London Underground to take that fourth opinion on whether the Underground ticketing system was safe, and London Underground happily accepted our recommendation.
In his amendment to the early-day motion on the Order Paper my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) made a series of very good points referring to the fact that the Underground ticketing system replaces fenced areas and small exits in small numbers in railway stations. Certainly in larger stations the Underground ticketing system offers a considerably larger number of places through which people can pass in an emergency than the fabric which preceded the system.
Mr. Dobson : Will the Minister confirm the statement that the Underground ticketing system was safe or the advice received from the fire brigade, London Regional Transport and the railway inspectorate was received before it was discovered that the system was not failsafe and in certain circumstances failed to danger point? That invalidates any confirmation that has been received from any of the authorities that the Minister has quoted.
Column 997has been back to consider the matter since it was pointed out to me that there was a single phase power failure. The inspectorate noted that not all the gates remain shut but that the majority of them fly open if there is a single phase failure-- [Interruption.] Hon. Members wish only to knock the inspectorate. The members of the inspectorate are the expert advisers to the Secretary of State. I have no doubt about its expertise in this matter.
In some stations the Underground--
Mr. Dobson rose--
In some stations the Underground ticketing system will release ticket collectors who can give advice and assistance to passengers and look out for problems. After all, a ticket collector has little opportunity to look up from his job of taking tickets to see whether he can give assistance. I am amazed that the Opposition do not want staff to be released from ticket collecting to more interesting and worthwhile jobs where they can give more direct help to passengers. That is what they are enabled to do by the Underground ticketing system.
Mr. Fennell said :
"In my view, the issue is not purely the number of staff in stations but rather the need to establish a proper level of safety at each station which can then be met by the provision of either automated aids or the proper disposition of staff."
LRT staff numbers are now increasing. If the House doubts that, it is reported in the journal of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association for everybody to see. With the Underground ticketing system and aids such as close circuit television, their effectiveness is increasing. Many of the overseas metro systems which are held up for our admiration by hon. Members use Underground ticketing-system style gates. For example, they are in use in Hong Kong, Singapore, Washington and on the Paris RER.
Mr. Boateng : I asked the Minister specifically whether he would authorise and instruct LRT to publish traffic circulars that related to the issue of safety. Will he do that or will he continue to allow his Department to preside over a situation in which London Transport inspectors are riding up escalators once every two hours because of defective cleaning when, at the same time, cleaners are being laid off? It does not make sense.
Mr. Portillo : I was afraid that when the hon. Gentleman made his speech he was ignorant of LRT's response to the Fennell report. If he looks at the response to recommendation No. 38 he will see set out the position on escalator cleaning which covers the hon. Gentleman's point.
Mr. Cohen : Did not the Minister admit in an answer to the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) that on any day 18 barrier gates do not open? If the barriers were in every station, 30 gates a day would not open. That is the position while the barriers are new. What will happen when they are old? A much higher number will not open. What confidence can we place on assurances that they will always open in an emergency?
Mr. Portillo : That has been investigated by the London fire brigade and the railway inspectorate. We will shortly have the consultants' report on that. I hope that the report will reassure the hon. Gentleman, but if it does not, action will have to be taken.
Column 998The fire on 18 November 1987 was a terrible event and 31 lives were lost. Many others were injured and many hon. Members have referred to the scars that remain for all those who were in any way affected by that event. It was a night of heroic actions and I again pay tribute to Mr. Fennell for the report which enables us to make improvements to safety in the future. He has made a series of recommendations--157 of them--and they have nearly all been accepted. Many of them are now well on the way to being implemented.
The response of London Regional Transport has been remarkable. It was accused of having an unco-ordinated, haphazard and untrained response and it is reacting to that by a series of most important management changes. I am impressed by the determination of the new management to see through the changes necessary. Every person must understand the importance of safety and his or her role within London Underground in fulfilling that. The staff at London Underground are better trained now and more certain of their responsibilities. The priority of safety has been reasserted. Management is giving a clearer lead
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland) rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to. Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 194, Noes 265.
Division No. 157] [10 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Beith, A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Duffy, A. E. P.
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Golding, Mrs Llin