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15 Nov 2002 : Column 336—continued

Mr. Damian Green: The right hon. Lady has talked a lot about school sport. Will she give a commitment to stop selling off school playing fields?

Tessa Jowell: The hon. Gentleman is a spokesperson of the party that sold off about 5,000 school playing fields. We are investing in new playing fields. The only playing fields that will be sold off are those that have no use or are being replaced as a result of the new investment. I hope that we shall hear no more from the Conservative party on this issue. We have their crocodile tears only now for the sale of school playing fields during the 18 years when Conservative Governments were in power.

Sport is important for individuals, and a good sports policy is a health policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North, who I know gave notice that he had to leave the Chamber before the end of the debate, described the impact of obesity. Sport is also a good education policy and a good anti-crime policy. During the summer, in areas of particularly high street crime where summer splash schemes operated, street crime fell by 22 per cent. In areas that did not have these summer camps with a heavy sports focus, street crime fell by only 5 per cent.

In a changing world, our institutions and regulations must also change to reflect the new ways in which we work and the new services that we consume. They must protect our interests as citizens and as consumers in a way that responds to the world as it is and as it is becoming, and not be frozen in the past. It is in this spirit of modernisation, reform and focus on individuals that we bring forward the Communications Bill and the Alcohol and Entertainment Licensing Bill.

The Communications Bill was considered in draft by a Joint Committee of both Houses during the previous Session. It will be the focus for our determination to create the most dynamic and competitive communications industry in the world. Change is perhaps nowhere faster and greater in scale than in the world of communications. It took thirty years to go from one to four television stations, from three to four radio stations, but now we have over 200 TV channels and over 100 national and local radio stations. The Alcohol and Entertainment Licensing Bill will encourage a more civilised culture in pubs, bars and restaurants and increase choice for consumers. It will be based on clear objectives—preventing crime; reducing disorder and public nuisance; ensuring public safety;

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and protecting children from harm. Existing laws have neither encouraged the emergence of a civilised café society nor prevented the growth of drink-related antisocial behaviour. It is time to fulfil our commitment to change the rules.

Both measures confirm our commitment to deregulate wherever possible. Being in favour of deregulation does not mean being in favour of a free-for-all. I shall outline briefly the principles of the regulatory regimes that we are creating in the two Bills. They aim to secure the protection of citizens and consumers, make room for businesses to invest, innovate and compete, and be responsive to the changing demands of consumers. Regulations must be justified, and will be removed if they are not. They must be proportionate, targeted, clear and predictable, providing a sound basis for investment decisions. They must not be burdensome to carry out and are to be as light-touch as possible, but that does not mean light for those who breach the rules, for whom regulatory action should be swift, effective, and as painful as necessary to ensure that public and commercial interests are protected.

The licensing Bill, as the House will be aware, was published this morning. I greatly welcome the broad consensus on the need for reform, which is tackled in a Bill that recognises that our licensing laws are outdated. Problems arising from alcohol consumption include noise, disorder, nuisance and drink-related crime, so the Bill clamps down on the antisocial behaviour perpetrated by the minority. It is a major plank of the Government's drive in the Queen's Speech to tackle antisocial behaviour. It gets rid of six existing licensing regimes, a simplification has been widely welcomed by the industry. Other measures include new police powers to close licensed premises without notice for up to 24 hours where disorder is occurring. Most widely trailed, there will be potential for 24-hour opening seven days a week to help minimise, not increase, the public disorder which results from artificially early closing.

The desire to deregulate also extends to the Communications Bill, which will give powers to a single regulator, Ofcom. It will reform the rules on media ownership but will not let broadcasting standards or quality slip. It will give Ofcom concurrent powers with the Office of Fair Trading to enforce general competition law in the communications sector for the benefit of business and consumers alike. Importantly, it implements European Commission directives on electronic networks and services.

Sport is facing change, and in the few minutes that I have left I should like to reaffirm unequivocally the Government's commitment to maintain funding for its elite sports men and women as they prepare for the 2004 Olympics. Whatever slur the Opposition try to inflict, however they distort the position to create anxiety among our athletes, what they assert is simply not the case.

The Queen's Speech introduces two Bills of a deregulatory nature that are the responsibility of my Department. They build on wide consultation with the industry and represent consensus. Most important of all, they are about the people's pleasure—they are about enriching and improving quality of life for people up and down the country, and I commend them to the House.

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Debate adjourned.—[Dan Norris.]

Debate to be resumed on Monday 18 November.

Potters Bar Rail Accident

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dan Norris.]

2.29 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): It is six months since the Potters Bar derailment, in which, tragically, seven people lost their lives and many others were injured. One of those who lost their lives was a constituent of mine, the much respected Agnes Quinlevan, a former district nurse who gave a lifetime of service to others and was still serving the community on that fateful day. I know that my constituents would want me to pay tribute to her today.

The other victims of that tragic incident came from all over the rest of the country and, indeed, from all over the world. I know, for example, that representatives from Taiwan are present here today. I am conscious of the fact that, tragically, that incident in my constituency affected families in other parts of the world. We have responsibilities to them arising from an event that took place on the railways of this country.

I shall explore two main issues today: first, issues relating to safety, and secondly, how the families of those who lost their lives can be helped. On safety, the House is aware that that stretch of line is extremely busy and is used every day by many thousands of travellers, including many of my constituents who commute from Potters Bar railway station. They are aware, as I am, that it is barely two years since the equally tragic incident at Hatfield, just a few miles to the north on the same line, in which four people lost their lives. Against that background, and against the background of what has emerged since the Potters Bar derailment, we are looking for a high level of reassurance about safety on the line.

In July, the Health and Safety Executive published a progress report on Potters Bar. The report confirmed that the derailment resulted from faults in the points, which caused them to fail catastrophically. The fault lay in nuts missing from adjustable stretcher bars. As a result, the rear coach was derailed. Worryingly, tests of a sample of nuts on the adjustable stretcher bars of other points in the Potters Bar area revealed that 20 per cent. were not fully tight, according to the Health and Safety Executive. The report also disclosed that a sample inspection of points across the rail network as a whole found differing standards in condition and maintenance arrangements, including record keeping.

The Minister is no doubt aware of written parliamentary questions that I have asked, and I refer him in particular to the answer that I received on 7 November. I was told that Railtrack was taking measures to improve safety, including the provision of guidance on good practice for safely setting up and maintaining adjustable stretcher bars. Can the Minister say whether that guidance has yet been issued? I ask him to satisfy himself that the guidance is comprehensive. Most important of all, will he take an active interest in seeing that the good practice is implemented in the Potters Bar area and throughout the rail network?

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I also seek an assurance from the Minister today that the deficiencies found in 20 per cent. of the points in the Potters Bar area have been put right. Will the Minister give an assurance that the in-depth design review of railway points that Network Rail promised to complete by next month will be taken forward in a timely way when it is completed?

As for the question of the causes of the derailment, the possibility of sabotage has been aired and received some prominence in the media. I believe that Jarvis Construction has chosen to give some prominence to the idea of sabotage. It is my understanding that at no stage has any evidence emerged to support sabotage as a cause of the derailment. Indeed, in its July report, the Health and Safety Executive noted that

Jarvis and any others raising the question of sabotage may wish to put it into that perspective. As the HSE said, that is speculation. There is no supporting evidence.

My second question is how the victims' families and the injured can be helped, and there are two particular matters that I wish to raise. First, I believe that applications have been made by some families for the coroner to hold what are known as mini-inquests of the kind that took place after the Ladbroke Grove tragedy. They would set out the basic circumstances of what took place in respect of each of the victims. I hope that the feelings of the families will be taken into account on the holding of mini-inquests. It is understandable that they should wish to know the facts about the circumstances of this tragic derailment.

More generally, there is the question of how we face up to our responsibilities. After each of the tragic incidents at Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield there was an early admission of liability by the authority concerned. So far, six months on, there has been no such admission of liability in the case of the Potters Bar derailment. Survivors and relatives of the deceased will want a thorough investigation, to find out how such a terrible event came to pass. They will also want to see an acceptance of responsibility, as happened in each of the other tragic incidents to which I have referred. It would be good to ensure that the victims are not put through the treadmill of litigation, and that they see that someone is facing up to their responsibilities in respect of this incident.

Against that background, many of the bereaved families and injured have called for a public inquiry. I agree that there is a strong case for a public inquiry that would resolve some important issues both for the families and for the travelling public. In the light of what has emerged since the derailment and the way in which matters are proceeding, the case for that public inquiry becomes stronger all the time.

Will the Minister give active consideration to the case for a public inquiry into the Potters Bar derailment? More widely, I urge all those concerned to consider the issue of responsibility. There is the question of how we deal with the families, and how we learn the lessons from the derailment. We cannot begin to learn the lessons until someone accepts responsibility.

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At the outset, I said that people from a wide variety of backgrounds caught the 12.45 for Cambridge and King's Lynn on 10 May—people going about their business, visitors to this country and students. They were all members of the travelling public who put their trust in the safety of the railways. Mr. Ogunwusi was a solicitor on his way to visit a client, and his widow, Sola Ogunwusi, is here today.

Jennifer Cox, a young Australian backpacker, was another passenger. She was thrown out of a window and on to the platform as the rear carriage became detached and careered along the platform before becoming wedged under the station canopy. She sustained serious injuries but fortunately survived. When I met her recently she told me that she had been travelling on the railways in various less-developed parts of the world and from time to time had had qualms about her safety. However, her travels had been uneventful until she arrived in Britain. When she arrived here her qualms disappeared, because she thought our railways were safe. That should give us all pause for thought.

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