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Mr. Prescott: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support, and share her sympathy and concern for her constituents.

Concern has been expressed about the difficulties involving rail contracts and Railtrack, which are a matter for investigation. Mr. Corbett has complained that the maintenance contracts he inherited were fixed-price, determined by the last Government and not by him. I pass no comment on that--I am merely repeating what Mr. Corbett has said--but it is part of what will be dealt with by the inquiry. Let us wait for the results of that.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I join many others in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker.

May I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement, and join him in offering our sympathy to those who were injured in the accident--and, of course, the friends and relations of those who lost their lives? May I also join him in congratulating the emergency services, and the many local people who came to assist?

Does the Deputy Prime Minister, like me, welcome a repenting sinner? Does he welcome a recent statement by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) in which the hon. Gentleman at least admitted that the Conservatives had made mistakes during the privatisation of the railways? One aspect of that privatisation led to a development that is of great concern to many people. Notwithstanding the advice that he has been given by the Rail Regulator, does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that, in many people's minds, a perverse incentive scheme is operating? Railtrack is fined if it delays trains, and it is fined if it does not delay them so that it can carry out necessary safety work.

Finally, does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that a further complication is where the money is to come from to improve safety? The Rail Regulator yesterday announced more money for Railtrack for safety measures, but that money will come from the Government. It will be given to the Strategic Rail Authority, which will give it to the train operating companies, which in turn will give it to Railtrack. Why cannot the money go directly from the Government to Railtrack? Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure us that it is new money?

Mr. Prescott: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the emergency services. His concerns are shared by a number of other hon. Members.

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On the question whether we should welcome a repentant sinner, I am not sure that the hon. Member for North Essex is repentant. He simply uttered a few political words of convenience. If anything makes that clear, it is his statement at the Dispatch Box today. He said nothing about being wrong. He was already trying to correct the statement that most people outside thought he had made. However, it is not my job to get into an ideological argument about the hon. Gentleman.

My job is to produce a safe, modern railway. The measures that I have put in place will help us to do that. As to whether there is a conflict between incentives, the regulator says that there is not. I am prepared to listen to the argument, but the regulator says, and he has a fair point, that all he is doing in setting targets is referring to the targets set by Railtrack itself. Railtrack set the targets and it failed to achieve them.

The regulator's main concern about the breaks in the rail is that, although there was a large number of such breaks--more than 1,000 in 1980--there has been a reduction, but now the number is starting to rise. The concern of the regulator and the Health and Safety Executive is that, despite Railtrack's promises, it has not taken appropriate action to reduce the number of breaks. That is a matter for investigation. Let us await the outcome. I am keeping an open mind about whether there is a conflict in these matters. The regulator is looking into it and an inspection is under way.

I particularly asked the Health and Safety Executive to consider, in the course of its investigation, the matter of contracts and whether it causes any problems. It is the subject of complaint by the contractors as well as Railtrack.

On the question of resources, the money is extra money. That is clear to everyone from the 10-year transport plan. Also, different forms of finance, which do not have to go through the operators, can be arranged with Railtrack and the Strategic Rail Authority. There are various ways of financing the railways and we are experimenting with one or two different ways.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): May I begin by congratulating you, Mr. Speaker?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in offering thanks also to the staff at Leeds station for the efficient way in which they responded to the tragedy by making sure that any relatives arriving at the station to meet people who were on the train were cared for and provided with information?

Given that it is very likely that a broken rail caused the accident, will my right hon. Friend ask the safety inspectorate to offer advice now on the frequency with which the track should be inspected in future?

Mr. Prescott: I thank my hon. Friend for his words of support. I join him in commending the Leeds staff, who had to deal with some of the terrible circumstances arising from the tragedy. Everyone in the railway industry, at all ranks, feels deeply when such a tragedy occurs, and they all do everything they can to assist.

With regard to the frequency of inspections, I have asked the Health and Safety Executive to consider the matter. I know that the regulator is also looking into it and has arranged an independent assessment jointly with the HSE. That report is due in the first week of November

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and will give us a chance to see how robust the management of Railtrack is in dealing with broken rails. It is a matter of dispute between Railtrack, the HSE and the regulator, and we shall hear more about it in due course.

I want the best possible system of safety. I have been concerned that, in the meantime, trains continue to run in places where there is evidence of broken rails or such a possibility in the future. I have asked the HSE to look at whether the inspection system and the management system are robust enough to work properly now.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): May I, too, add my personal congratulations to you on your election, Mr. Speaker?

Does the Secretary of State understand that, to the extent that he focuses the Government's energy on the problem of broken rails, he will carry the House with him? Will he confirm that Railtrack knew last December that there was something wrong with the stretch of track that we are considering? Given that, what action does the Secretary of State believe those responsible for Railtrack should take to ensure the restoration of public confidence, especially in safety under that organisation?

Mr. Prescott: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. However, I should prefer it if people reserved judgment until the results of the inquiry are known. Parties to the tragedy have given far too many statements about their views on why something happened or did not happen. It is best to await the inquiry report. In the meantime, there has been publicity about the correspondence between the rail inspectorate and Railtrack, and between the regulator and Railtrack. It clearly shows that the reasons for Railtrack's failure to implement what it recommended and agreed with its contractor are well known to the organisation. That is at the heart of the inquiry, and I do not wish to say more than that.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East): Does my right hon. Friend accept that in a show trial culture, the Conservative party would be in the dock for what happened at the time of privatisation? Does he accept that the Hatfield derailment would never have happened when the railways were publicly owned because local knowledge plays an enormous part in finding weak spots, especially on high-speed tracks? As long as there is a system in which Railtrack lacks the basic skills to maintain the track and has to buy them in, the problems will continue. [Hon. Members: "Rubbish."] Opposition Members say "Rubbish", but every hon. Member knows that, from one end of the country to the other, main lines in Britain look like long-abandoned gasworks, covered with weeds, rubbish and grass. That would never have happened when specific gangs of men were responsible for individual stretches of track. The fault for the shambles of Hatfield and similar disasters lies entirely with the Conservative party.

Mr. Prescott: I do not want to follow my hon. Friend down some of that road. While I understand his points, he gives me a chance to stress that I must concern myself with the facts of the case. Let us consider broken rails. I do not know whether Hatfield would have been prevented before privatisation, but when considering the

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number of broken rails in different periods, hon. Members must realise that in, for example, 1981-82, there was an average of approximately 1,000 broken rails. That figure was down to about 600 in 1990 and it has now climbed to nearly 1,000 again. Throughout that time there have been different forms of management, yet there has been a high rate of broken rails. I do not want to suggest that all broken rails lead to train derailments; no more than 1 per cent. or 2 per cent. do that. However, broken rails are a serious matter.

If we consider the facts and figures for fatal train accidents in the past 25 years, the number of deaths have decreased by approximately 50 per cent. since 1975.

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