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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Further to the right hon. Gentleman's helpful reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), does he favour the establishment of a permanent and independent rail accident investigation branch of his Department? Would he be good enough to tell the House what, if any, discussions he has had with his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the scope for a full debate on the Floor of the House on the final report of the Health and Safety Executive?

Mr. Prescott: Matters of time and debate are, of course, for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I am constantly available to discuss such matters either in statements or in debates. [Interruption.] There are many matters that I am prepared to debate, and I commonly come to the House.

On the serious question about the safety structure, I genuinely have an open mind: I have not reached a conclusion about it. I certainly want to wait to find out what Cullen has to say about it. I hear what the Select Committee tells us about how we should reorganise safety, but it is a fundamental question.

I admit that, when in opposition, I complained that the railway inspectorate, which was created under a Labour Government, should never had gone back to the then Department of Transport. I held that view then and I see no reason to change it, but I shall await what Lord Cullen has to say about it, and then come forward with recommendations to the House.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am member of the Public Accounts Committee. Last year, we considered a report by the National Audit Office on the flotation of Railtrack. The report clearly shows that the flotation was an absolute disaster for the taxpayer, track maintenance and the infrastructure of Railtrack. Even the report states that the increasingly favourable perception of investors towards Railtrack since July 1996 has been

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attributed, by the various parties to whom we spoke, to a combination of factors. I shall not list all the factors, but one of the main ones was that the value of shares increased simply because people knew that Railtrack would not invest in the maintenance and structure of the lines, and Railtrack admitted that it did not know what the state of the track was.

We recently met Mr. Gerald Corbett, who suggested that one way forward could be a public-private partnership between the industry and the Government. Has my right hon. Friend considered whether that is a possibility? While not necessarily renationalising the industry, it would at least put it partly under Government control.

Mr. Prescott: My hon. Friend makes several important points about the way in which public assets were sold off at a disgraceful rate. That concern has been looked at by the National Audit Office and various Select Committees. That sell-off meant an awful lot of money for a few people. The irony for myself and for those who opposed Railtrack was that the greater our determination to get the then Government to drop their privatisation proposal--it was at the time of the 1992 election--the more it was said that we were forcing down the price, and that as a consequence when we were elected the price shot up and many people made an awful lot of money. In fact, our argument was that the then Government waited to sell British Telecom until after the election, so they could have done the same with Railtrack--but so be it; that is a matter of history.

With regard to whether we should hold shares in Railtrack or use a public-private partnership, as my hon. Friend may know we still hold 1 million shares in Railtrack, or about 0.2 per cent. of it. The Opposition always thought that we would use the Strategic Rail Authority to renationalise the rail industry by buying shares. There is a difficult balance between the Government owning shares in Railtrack and accepting responsibility without any control. Such matters are constantly being put to me, and my mind is not totally closed to all those issues.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): May I join the congratulations that have been extended to you, Mr. Speaker?

May I also join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying tribute to the role of the emergency services and the two hospitals in Hertfordshire--the Lister hospital and the Queen Elizabeth II hospital--and to the response of local people?

Although the terrible tragedy happened on the fast line of that stretch of track, there is also a slow line, which serves commuters and others from Hatfield and Potters Bar. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that safety checks should be every bit as stringent on that section of the track as on the fast section?

Mr. Prescott: Absolutely.


The following Member took and subscribed the Oath:

Rev. Robert Thomas William McCrea, for South Antrim.

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Points of Order

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise a question regarding a breach of the courtesies of the House. It reached my attention only a little while ago, so I was not able to give you advance notice of the matter in writing.

At 12 o'clock today, the Select Committee on Defence presented a substantial report on Kosovo. As you know, Mr. Speaker, the rule of the House is that the Government are required to respond in writing to the Defence Committee within 60 days. However, by 2.30 this afternoon, the Government had held a press conference to reply to the report. Is that a breach of courtesy, or is it merely the greatest possible accolade for a damning report?

Mr. Speaker: There has been no discourtesy in the way in which the matter has been conducted.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that during the summer my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition called on the Prime Minister to recall Parliament, so that hon. Members could discuss the grave crisis that the nation faced as a result of the fuel protests. The Government admitted that the protests almost brought the country to its knees, and they are now taking emergency measures to combat any future crisis.

Tomorrow, the House will have its first opportunity to debate the crisis. A few moments ago, the Deputy Prime Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) that he was always ready to come to the House to discuss important issues. However, he has decided that he will not reply to tomorrow's debate, and that a junior Minister will do so instead.

In view of what was said yesterday by all the candidates for the speakership, and of the Government's acknowledgement--

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): This is a speech, not a point of order.

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is only one Chairman in this establishment. If the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is making a point about which Minister is to deal with a debate, I can tell him that that has absolutely nothing to do with the Chair.

Mr. Maclean: I appreciate that point, Mr. Speaker, but in your normal discussions with the representatives of the usual channels will you, as a new and respected Speaker, point out that the fact that neither the Prime Minister nor the Deputy Prime Minister will be present to answer a debate on the gravest crisis facing the country is a slight injustice--not to say a grave insult--to the House? However able the junior Minister involved may be, does not putting him or her forward to respond to the debate mean that justice is not being done to this important matter?

Mr. Speaker: I will be present for the debate, and it is possible that the right hon. Gentleman may be too. That is all that he has to worry about, so that will be all right.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Member for

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Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) made a fine speech yesterday about re-establishing the primacy of the House, in which particular reference was made to the fuel crisis. We welcome you to your post, Mr. Speaker, but surely, if you are to take steps to re-establish the primacy of this place, you must allow Back-Bench Members to have the ear of the Deputy Prime Minister when we raise our constituents' very real concerns arising from the fuel crisis?

Mr. Speaker: These are not matters for the Chair.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I urge you to look at the innumerable pronouncements made by your predecessor, in which she made clear her concern about the House's loss of authority in our national life? You, Mr. Speaker, were among the many candidates in yesterday's election who shared her concern. Your predecessor frequently deprecated the behaviour of Ministers in the treatment of the House.

May I therefore invite you, Mr. Speaker, to set out to the House, and for the benefit of the Government Front Bench, what your feelings are on this matter? How do you believe Ministers should treat this House in terms of making statements here rather than on the Radio 4 "Today" programme, and in appearing here to be answerable to us on important occasions, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) has pointed out?

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