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Mr. Spellar: Mr. Speaker may be a good Catholic, but I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's confession will necessarily redeem him so readily.

On the strategic defence review, the decision was taken to have a balanced fleet, leading to a considerable increase in certain parts of the Navy--not least the introduction of much larger carriers and the introduction of the type 45. I do not believe that the faults that we are experiencing with the current hunter-killer submarines invalidate that underlying philosophy of the SDR, which provides constraints in some areas of our operation because we are expanding in others. It was a case of striking that balance. I do not believe that this issue really addresses that.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Which countries is the deterrent now deterring?

Mr. Spellar: I am sure that my hon. Friend will be fully aware from previous answers that we do not comment on the operation of the deterrent.

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24 Oct 2000 : Column 135

Business of the House

3.58 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): May I join others in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, and seek the permission of the House to make a short business statement?

At the conclusion of the Opposition day tomorrow there will be a motion on the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): May I, too, publicly welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement, with which we concur. We shall be happy to debate the Regulations at 10 pm tomorrow.

On the subject of debate, I believe that you, Mr. Speaker, are aware that, during the summer recess, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition had cause to call for the return of Parliament, owing to the national crisis caused by the fuel protests. You will know that tomorrow's Order Paper states that we intend, in Opposition time, to debate that subject, but may I, through you, ask the right hon. Lady if she would use her good offices to persuade the Deputy Prime Minister to attend the House for that debate? We understand that he is devolving that responsibility to a Minister of State and, given the importance of the subject, we feel that a member of the Cabinet should reply to the debate.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Lady will know that that is a separate matter from the business which has been announced.

Mrs. Beckett: You are entirely right, Mr. Speaker; it is a different matter. The hon. Lady will know that the Deputy Prime Minister has heard her words and she will also know that, in common with all Ministers, he has to balance the many demands on his time.

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Hatfield Derailment

4 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you as our new Speaker and I should like to add my congratulations to those of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the train derailment at Hatfield and the developments since. My noble Friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston made a statement on this matter in another place on Thursday 19 October.

Last Tuesday, a Great North Eastern Railway train from King's Cross to Leeds was derailed near Hatfield. Four passengers died and 34 were injured. I am sure that all Members of the House will wish to join me in expressing their deepest sympathy to the families and friends of those who lost their lives. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that all but one of those who were injured have now left hospital, and the whole House will join me in wishing them a speedy recovery.

As ever, our emergency services excelled themselves in the speed and efficiency with which they responded. I know that both my noble Friend Lord Macdonald and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), who is responsible for the railways, witnessed this at first hand when they visited the scene in the aftermath of the accident.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson)--the constituency where the accident occurred--is sitting beside me, and she also visited the scene. I know that she and, indeed, the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the tremendous efforts of the emergency services, the staff of the Queen Elizabeth II hospital in Welwyn Garden City and of the Lister hospital in Stevenage, not to mention the voluntary organisations who are always there to help and to give comfort. Let me make clear my admiration for the many local people who, in the wake of the accident, instinctively came to help in any way that they could. They are among the unsung heroes whom the House will wish to recognise today.

In my view, it is unwise to jump to conclusions on the causes of the crash before the Health and Safety Executive's inspectors have considered all the evidence. Last Friday, the Health and Safety Executive issued its preliminary findings on the accident. Copies of its report are available in the Vote Office. It found obvious and significant evidence of a rail failure and no evidence so far of a prior failure of rolling stock. Early indications supported the suggestion that a broken rail was the likely cause. The safety inspectors, who are working closely with British Transport police, expect to have cleared the crash site before the end of the week. They will make public any further significant findings.

Further to its preliminary report, the Health and Safety Executive is undertaking a formal investigation into the crash, overseen by a board that includes independent experts. The conclusions will be made public and the Health and Safety Executive hopes to reach those conclusions as soon as possible. I have agreed with the

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Health and Safety Executive that the investigation must look beyond the immediate causes of the crash, to any root causes, including structural and organisational factors that could have contributed to the accident.

The House is aware that Lord Cullen's public inquiry is considering the whole rail safety regime--the management, culture and regulation of safety on the railways. Any material considered to be of use to Lord Cullen will be available to his inquiry team. I am sure that the House will share my view that we should avoid delay either to the investigation or to Lord Cullen's inquiry.

As I said earlier, the Health and Safety Executive's preliminary investigation indicated that a broken rail was the likely cause of the accident. The large number of broken rails on the rail network has been a matter of continuing concern for some time to the Government, the Health and Safety Executive and the Rail Regulator. As recently as 30 June this year, both the Health and Safety Executive and the regulator wrote to Railtrack expressing their concern about this matter and requiring remedial action. They also commissioned an independent technical assessment about the management of broken rails, which will be published shortly.

The House will be aware that, in the wake of the Hatfield accident, speed restrictions were immediately placed on more than 80 sites. I understand that speed restrictions are currently in place on more than 150 sites. I have asked the Health and Safety Executive to look urgently at the immediate actions taken by Railtrack to deal with other sites where broken rails might be a potential danger, and to assure me that Railtrack's procedures are adequate and sufficiently robust to ensure safe operation.

Last night I met the Health and Safety Executive to review progress. Its inspectors are today meeting senior managers from all the Railtrack zones to ensure that the necessary safety measures are in place. Furthermore, I have asked the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority urgently to meet Railtrack and the train operators to consider any further action that needs to be taken following the accident. Sir Alastair Morton has already held two meetings with the industry and will hold a further meeting tomorrow. On Thursday I shall meet Sir Alastair, together with the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission and the Rail Regulator, to review progress and see precisely what can be done. I shall of course keep the House informed of progress.

The Health and Safety Executive investigation is well under way and we must now focus on the way ahead. There is universal acknowledgement that the rail industry has suffered from fragmentation, a lack of leadership and decades of under-investment. We have created the Strategic Rail Authority to give leadership and direction, and published the 10-year plan--the biggest investment in our transport system for generations.

Yesterday, the Rail Regulator announced support for £15 billion-worth of expenditure by Railtrack--focusing on signalling, track maintenance and renewal--including money specifically targeted at reducing broken rails. It is the regulator's judgment that everything is now in place to equip and incentivise Railtrack to improve performance and safety on the network, with new accountability.

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Today, the Strategic Rail Authority has shown by its announcement about the South Central franchise its clear sense of purpose in improving rail standards. Lord Cullen is undertaking a thorough-going examination of the safety management, culture and regulation of the railways. I stand ready to implement whatever is required as a result of Lord Cullen's proposals.

All that promises a new era for British railways. We all want a safe and well-performing railway, but the tragic event at Hatfield reminds us that, in the future as in the past, there must be no priority higher than safety. That is my guiding principle.

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