Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): May I extend to you, Mr. Speaker, my congratulations on your election and appointment?

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and join him in extending our deepest sympathy to the injured and bereaved. I also pay tribute to the emergency services and all those who responded so calmly and effectively.

First, will the Secretary of State join me in commending the Minister for Transport, Lord Macdonald, for the calm and responsible way in which he conducted the Government's response to the tragedy? Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to express support for the industry in the same way as the Minister? The Minister gave his personal endorsement to the Railtrack chief executive, Gerald Corbett. Will the Deputy Prime Minister take this opportunity to express his support for Gerald Corbett, whom the right hon. Gentleman's Minister rightly identified as part of the solution to a better railway?

Secondly, I agree with many of the comments in the Minister's statement last week. Does the Secretary of State share the sentiment


Thirdly, I commend the Government for resisting the temptation to go for another protracted and inevitably adversarial public inquiry, though I press the Secretary of State, as we did last week, for a special technical inquiry into the question of track management and broken rails.

The Deputy Prime Minister was determined to make the Paddington disaster a watershed for the industry. Then, he called for an end to the adversarial blame culture that has existed on the railways for years. I invite him to accept that the most recent disaster has sparked a genuinely new mood of partnership and co-operation in the industry. The crucial question is this: will the Secretary of State and his appointed regulator join the new spirit of partnership, or will the show trial summits and the blaming continue?

Privatisation has doubled Railtrack investment and billions are being invested in new trains and improving safety. None the less, we have said that changes are needed; is the Secretary of State ready to change, too? Lord Macdonald has set out the doctrine:


Why do the right hon. Gentleman and his Rail Regulator continue to insist that there is no conflict between safety and train performance, when everyone in the industry knows so well that there is?

24 Oct 2000 : Column 139

The Secretary of State accuses the industry of failing to meet its commitments, but when, on the Channel 4 news last Friday, he said of safety,


what did he mean? When he is in an aeroplane sitting on the tarmac and the captain says that there will be a 10-minute delay for some safety checks, does he think that that is just an excuse and that the airline should be sacked?

Does the Secretary of State not understand that early indications suggest that it was Railtrack's failure to apply a speed restriction on the faulty track at Hatfield that led to the fatal derailment? Does he not realise that the conflict between the fines for late trains and safety contributed to the failure of judgment on the part of Railtrack and the contractor? Does he acknowledge that, by supporting the regulator's review published yesterday, he is agreeing that those fines should be doubled, which will intensify the conflict between train performance and safety? Do the right hon. Gentleman and the regulator understand that that is what Gerald Corbett means when he calls for a change in the way the railway is run?

I do not doubt the Secretary of State's sincerity. He has campaigned for better safety in transport all his life, but is it not time that the Government provided the regulation that the industry truly needs, which works sympathetically with the safety objectives of the railway and does not conflict with those objectives? I put these points to the right hon. Gentleman as positively as I can. I hope that he will feel able to respond in the same positive spirit.

Mr. Prescott: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the emergency services, and I am sure that the whole House extends its sympathy to those who have suffered from the tragedy. I have no wish to make political capital out of these events, but I must confess that, having said that he believes that privatisation was wrong--

Mr. Jenkin indicated dissent.

Mr. Prescott: Well, the hon. Gentleman conveyed the impression that he thought that the organisation of the railway system that he and others helped to create is wrong, so I should have thought a little more humility today would have been suitable. I know that I cannot expect that.

On safety, my answer is the same as that voiced by the Tory spokesman in the House of Lords: that


Mr. Jenkin: Privatisation.

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman claims the achievement for privatisation. I do not want to argue the public-or-private case; I could do so, but this is not the right moment.

We should take the facts into account. The hon. Gentleman refers to the rail summits as "show trials", which I find totally offensive. All the industry came together and said that something must be done about

24 Oct 2000 : Column 140

safety, especially after the recent railway tragedies. We now have the fewest train collisions on record, train derailments are at an all-time low and the number of significant train accidents has substantially decreased. All these things have come--[Hon. Members: "From privatisation."] I prefer to thank the management in the industry for co-operating with the Government on those matters.

I do not want to get into the argument about privatisation. All I will say is that we are agreed that there is a fundamental flaw in the way in which the privatisation of the industry was presented to the House. We have tried to change that. We have established the Strategic Rail Authority, despite the Opposition voting against the Second Reading of the relevant Bill. We have introduced a 10-year transport plan setting out investment on a scale not seen in this country for decades, and we have provided the necessary resources and powers. In addition, we now have a powerful regulator. The hon. Gentleman should read the regulator's words. The regulator has said that there is no conflict between targets and safety.

Mr. Jenkin indicated dissent.

Mr. Prescott: The regulator is the one who has examined the matter. I am just telling the hon. Gentleman what the regulator said, which contradicts what the hon. Gentleman appears to believe.

When Lord Macdonald, in the House of Lords, spoke of the continuity of the industry, he was referring to continuity of command. He was not making a particular reference to Mr. Corbett. If the argument is about whether Mr. Corbett has done his job rightly or wrongly, I shall wait for the inquiry to make a judgment.

A matter of concern to the inquiry will be why, although Railtrack knew about the rail break in April and had been supposed to deal with it in June, it had not done so by October. That seems to constitute a management failure. There was an offer of resignation, and I assume that that meant something had gone wrong because of the management.

If the hon. Gentleman is asking me whether I will or will not give an endorsement, let me tell him that I will not. I deal with Railtrack, not with personalities. I have regulators to deal with such matters. I have a Strategic Rail Authority. I have told the House how the investigation will be carried out, and I will wait for the results. I will not take the view that, because a regulator says that something is wrong, it is wrong; I will listen carefully to the arguments.

There are issues, and I do not close my mind to them. If anything in any way interferes with the delivery of safety in our railway system, I am prepared to consider any form of change. That should be the job of anyone who has the responsibility that I have today.

Inquiries are being made, and we have taken action. Paddington was a watershed. Lord Cullen was appointed not to inquire into the circumstances in which these tragedies took place, but to examine the whole culture of safety management. I have made fundamental changes in regard to safety management: I have provided resources for safety on a scale never equalled before. I have toughened up the regulator, and reduced the organisation through franchises. Those are decisions that I made three

24 Oct 2000 : Column 141

years ago; I am not making them now. They are the right decisions, which is why we shall have a safer railway system.

I hoped that we might see co-operation from those on the Opposition Front Bench. No chance. We should not expect it: we should get on with the job.

Barbara Follett (Stevenage): May I join others in congratulating you on your appointment, Mr. Speaker, and also in welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement?

Some of my constituents were on last Tuesday's 12.10 train to Leeds, and some were injured. They, like me, will welcome the news of improvements in rail safety. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure that more communication takes place between Railtrack and its subcontractors, so that people know who is responsible for which section of the line, and when?


Next Section

IndexHome Page