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House of Commons

Tuesday 19 November 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Potters Bar Rail Crash

1. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): When he next expects to meet representatives of the Health and Safety Executive to discuss progress on the report on the Potters Bar rail crash. [81309]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): Regular meetings are held with the Health and Safety Commission and members of the Health and Safety Executive to discuss railway safety matters, which include progress on the investigation of the Potters Bar derailment. The next meeting has been arranged for next week.

Mr. Bellingham : As the Secretary of State will know, the WAGN train on 10 May was en route to my constituency. Many of my constituents were on the train, although thankfully only one was seriously injured.

We saw the HSE's preliminary report in July. Since then, unnamed officials have speculated that some of the stretcher bars did not have self-locking nuts. Other officials have speculated that Jarvis may well be charged with corporate manslaughter. There is considerable confusion. The crash happened six months ago; why have we not seen the final report? Surely it is for the Secretary of State to announce that a full public inquiry will take place.

Mr. Darling: I have made it clear that once I have the HSE's final report I will decide whether that is appropriate. The HSE is expected to produce its third interim report in the spring, and I am informed that it is likely to deal with most of the outstanding matters.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, as is right, I cannot control or influence the criminal investigation. Unfortunately, a large amount of information must be gathered and processed before the prosecuting authorities can make their decision. I share the hon. Gentleman's frustration at the length of time it is taking to complete not just the Potters Bar investigation but the Hatfield and Paddington inquiries. He can rest assured

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that I will do all I can to bring the process to a conclusion, certainly in relation to matters for which I am responsible.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I am told that the Potters Bar points were due to be relaid over the weekend of 9 and 10 November, but that following an intervention by the Health and Safety Executive the job was cancelled, although it had been paid for. Is it not the case that Jarvis cannot now be trusted to work on our railways, and is it not time to return all such work to public ownership and accountability to the House?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is not entirely right about the Potters Bar points. It is true that their replacement was planned for the weekend of 9 and 10 November, but Network Rail itself decided, sensibly in my view, not to proceed because of the HSE's outstanding concerns, and for other reasons. The work will be done.

As for maintenance generally, my hon. Friend will know that in September the then Railtrack announced that a large amount of its work would be brought back and, if not in house, would certainly be done by people employed directly by contractors. The key issue, as I have always said, is that one organisation—which is now Network Rail—must be responsible for when work is done and what is done, and, above all, for ensuring that it is carried out successfully. That process is now under way, and should be complete by 2004.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): How can the public be assured that the lessons of the Potters Bar crash will be learned, when 68 important safety recommendations made after previous rail crashes have either not been implemented on time or apparently sunk without trace? When will the Secretary of State tell the House which of the recommendations he intends to abandon or revise, and what he is doing to speed up the implementation of the rest?

Mr. Darling: The vast bulk of the recommendations made by both Lord Cullen and Professor Uff following the Paddington and Southall accidents have been, or are on the way to being, implemented.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Some issues, such as whether the European train protection warning systems should be fitted, are under discussion. When evidence was given to Lord Cullen, he was led to believe that there was an advanced European system that could be incorporated on our railways, but unfortunately it turns out that the system he had in mind does not work on any railway anywhere in Europe. It makes sense to evaluate systems to establish whether they would work, and whether they could be adapted for our railway system.

The hon. Gentleman—indeed, the whole House—is understandably concerned about the fact that it is taking longer than expected to implement the recommendations. I am anxious to ensure that as many as possible are implemented wherever that is practicable, but if events have overtaken some recommendations it is sensible for us to consider whether further adaptations are necessary. The chief objective of the entire industry is to make certain that we have a safe railway system.

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Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Is my right hon. Friend aware that on the Cambridge-London line, which includes the Potters Bar points where the tragic accident took place, the service has declined sharply over the past two weeks? When members of the public ask, for instance, why there is an emergency timetable at weekends, they are told that it is because of emergency work on the Potters Bar points. Will my right hon. Friend investigate, and establish why such bad service is being given to commuters in my constituency?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend will have heard what I said earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) about the points, but she is right: work is proceeding not just in that stretch of line but on all stretches, particularly at weekends, to bring the line up to scratch. The problem that we face is that we have had decades after decades of lack of investment in railway lines. The investment is now available. We are having to do a lot of work fairly quickly. Inevitably, that leads to some disruption. It is not the only reason for delays on that stretch of line. There have been problems recently, as those who travel on the east coast main line to Cambridge will know, but it is inevitable that as major renewal work is carried out there will be some disruption. However, I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that what is important is that the work is done and, critically, that it is done properly.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): Given that rail safety, as the Secretary of State has said, is hugely dependent on the role of Network Rail, can he tell the House whether he stands by the statement in his party conference speech that

Mr. Darling: It is a public interest company, as we have always made clear. The company is owned by its members.

Mr. Collins: The Secretary of State will know that the Office for National Statistics, saying it is acting on advice from his Department, has classified Network Rail as Xa private sector institution". He will further know that the city analyst Standard and Poor said yesterday that confusion over the Government's relationship with Network Rail could cost the taxpayer #2.5 billion a year, money that could otherwise be invested in improving rail safety and passenger delivery.

Mr. Speaker: Order. That does not have a lot to do with Potters Bar.

Air Services

2. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): What plans he has to publish the Aviation White Paper. [81310]

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3. Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): What discussions he has had with the Scottish Executive regarding the future development of airports in Scotland. [81311]

9. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): If he will make a statement on the options for the development of air services in the Midlands. [81331]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): We will publish our air transport White Paper next year. It will set out a clear policy framework for aviation and airports in the UK for the next 30 years.

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. Does he accept that in Scotland the proposal for a central Scotland airport has probably been resurrected every 10 years for the past 50 years? Does he agree that it is an unhelpful proposal and that what we need is to ensure that our airports are properly developed and supported? What can he do to ensure that we get more international flights, cheaper fares and less penal surcharges on holiday flights out of airports such as Aberdeen?

Mr. Darling: The key issue in Scotland, especially central Scotland, is how we can do more to attract international flights. The consultation paper asked whether Edinburgh, Glasgow or both airports should be promoted to achieve that end. There is a proposal from a group of mainly business men in central Scotland, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, has resurrected the idea of building a new airport, probably near Falkirk; I think that it is actually 25 years ago since the proposal was previously discussed.

The whole point of the consultation is to look at the various options. The Government have put forward some. No doubt during the consultation others will come forward and we will want to look at them. At this stage, however, it would not be right for me to discourage people from looking at options that are different from the ones that the Government have come up with. They all need to be looked at, bearing in mind that we intend to publish our proposals next year, as I made clear when I made my statement in July.

Mr. Tynan: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the considerable concern in Scotland that expansion of airports would apply only to either Glasgow or Edinburgh? Will he commit himself to ensuring that in any future discussion the case for both airports to be upgraded will be made? If not, why not?

Mr. Darling: I am aware of the debate, understandably. The whole point of the consultation was to ask people to what extent they thought demand would rise and how we should meet that demand. The Government have not at this stage reached a conclusion as to which or indeed whether airports should be extended. In relation to both Edinburgh and Glasgow, the consultation document makes it clear that it is unlikely that either of those airports would need another runway for at least 15 to 20 years, although they would probably both need changes to their terminal buildings.

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However, the whole point of a consultation is to seek views and to enable the Government to come to a conclusion, which we will do next year.

Richard Burden: My right hon. Friend will know of the widespread opposition in the west midlands to the proposal for a new airport around Rugby, but he will also be aware that there is broad understanding of the important role already played by Birmingham international airport, which is bringing over #190 million into the regional economy. The issue is how Birmingham can realise its potential while protecting the environment. I wonder whether he has considered Birmingham's new proposal for a shorter, wide-spaced runway, and how that could fit into the consultation procedure.

Mr. Darling: I am aware of the position regarding the proposal to build a new airport in the midlands. Indeed, at our party conference I wandered through a large crowd of demonstrators and then realised exactly who they were, so I am in no doubt as to what they thought.

As I said just a moment ago, the consultation period finishes at the end of this month. We will then have the Birmingham proposals before us, which we will need to look at. As I have made clear on several occasions, next year we will publish a White Paper on our final views as to what development is necessary, and where it ought to take place.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The consultation process is flawed, as the Secretary of State must agree. In Scotland, we do not know whether it is he or the Scottish Executive who are going to take the decision. In England, the process has been seriously flawed. Documents were not available, and nor were any Ministers. Will the Secretary of State agree at least to a two-month extension of the consultation process in England, to allow all views to be heard? Will he deny the front-page story in Sunday Business, which claims that the decision to build a second runway at Stansted has already been taken?

Mr. Darling: As I have said, no decisions have been taken, but I should say that I do not accept the hon. Lady's central point. Many people have said that they want the uncertainty brought to an end as quickly as possible. In my statement in July, I said that in my view it would be in the interests of everyone concerned if the Government could reach their conclusions and publish their White Paper in the first part of next year, and that remains my view. It would not be in anyone's interest to stretch out the process in the way that the hon. Lady suggests—indeed, far from it. The distinct impression that I get from most of the people concerned is that they would like a decision to be made as quickly as possible, so that we can get on and develop those airports where that is necessary, and remove uncertainty from areas where we have decided not to develop.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): Given the rising opposition to inland airports in the south-east, particularly at Stansted, can the Secretary of State

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confirm that he is still prepared to consider other options in the south-east—for example, an offshore airport in the Thames estuary?

Mr. Darling: I have made it clear that I am willing to consider any reasonable proposition, but the hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that as the Government are not in the business of building airports—they will be built by the private sector—it would be necessary for someone to come forward with a proposal to build one in the Thames estuary. As I have pointed out, if people have better alternatives and other proposals, this is precisely the time that they should be presenting them.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Can I tell the Secretary of State that the consultation process is flawed, and that the consultation period should be extended? When he goes back to his Department, I want him to ask to see the file on the consultation for Thurrock, which is spitting distance from the proposed airport at Cliffe. There has been no consultation by his Department, no money has been spent, and there have been no public meetings in Thurrock, yet had the Almighty not put the Thames in the way, we would be cheek by jowl with Cliffe.

Mr. Darling: The consultation is open to everyone in this country, no matter where they live. It is not a matter of spending money, as my hon. Friend claims. It is perfectly possible for him, his constituents and everyone else to make representations. [Interruption.] I have made it abundantly clear that it is open to everyone to make representations, and that is precisely what I would like them to do.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): I am very surprised that the Secretary of State made no reference to the extra #6 million of spending announced yesterday by the Scottish Executive. Will he ensure that this money is used to secure these new international routes, and not squandered on the quite outrageous subsidies and landing charges that are imposed by the British Airports Authority? Will he go further and look at the whole issue of landing charges in Scotland and BAA's virtual monopoly and stranglehold on Scottish airports, and ensure that this tax is no longer applied to them?

Mr. Darling: In relation to the money announced yesterday by the Scottish Executive, I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be the last person to urge me to intervene in a decision that has been properly devolved to Scotland. I know that the nationalists can be confused at times, but this is the sort of confusion that we do not normally come across.

On the British Airports Authority, if the hon. Gentleman wants to make representations, he can do so. The central question that faces Scotland is what we can do to attract more international flights to a greater range of destinations. In my experience, that is overwhelmingly the wish of the people of Scotland and I commend him to concentrate his mind on that rather than urging me to overrule the Scottish Executive, which, in any event, I cannot do.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Residents in Croydon are concerned at the stacking of aircraft above

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Biggin hill and the subsequent low-level flying over Croydon into London. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that airspace capacity and its management will be included in the consultation that ends next week and whether National Air Traffic Services will be consulted and its views on managing airspace be made public?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend may be reassured to know that as part of the exercise, the national air traffic control system has to decide how capacity can be accommodated and what are the best routes for aircraft. There is one point that he might want to bear in mind, which is that part of the reason for the number of aircraft that are circling around London in stacks is the limitations in airport capacity. If we can deal with that, we can begin to deal with some of the problems caused by circling aircraft, whether over Croydon or anywhere else.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Will the right hon. Gentleman accept from me that the wide spaced second Birmingham runway option is mayhem to the residents in the east of my constituency; and the airport's own proposals are at best mayhem minus one? Will he realise that those people right now face blight without compensation?

Mr. Darling: On the latter point, it is precisely for that reason that I have rejected calls from the hon. Gentleman's Front Bench colleagues to prolong the period of consultation. I am well aware of the fact that there are mixed views in Birmingham, just as there are in other parts of the country. It is far better that we hear those views, evaluate them and come to a decision as quickly as is reasonably possible, having taken into account all the representations that have been made. That suggests to me that we should make our decisions sooner and certainly not put off the situation for several months.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): When the aviation White Paper is published will my right hon. Friend ensure that it addresses not only the issues involving the national airports covered by BAA, but considers the needs of the smaller regional and local airports such as mine in Dundee to ensure that they are able to get more direct flights to London and European destinations?

Mr. Darling: The White Paper will cover airports in general, and the consultation papers cover all airports in the United Kingdom. It is necessary for us to get a view about how to make better use of the small regional airports. I am aware of the importance of Dundee airport to that city. There is no reason why airports such as Dundee, or local councils or anyone else, should not make representations as we formulate our national airport strategy, which will cover the next 20 or 30 years.

David Burnside (South Antrim): Will the Secretary of State widen the rather narrow national terms of reference of the aviation White Paper? How can the United Kingdom work out an airport and aviation policy for the future when almost every airline and every airport in every European state receive either federal or state subsidies, whereas the United Kingdom has a free enterprise airline system and the majority of our airports

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do not receive public sector funds? How do we widen the context to show the Government's failure to stop the unfair subsidies being given to our European competitors?

Mr. Darling: I am not sure what view the hon. Gentleman is taking, although I believe that he knows something about the airline industry because I seem to remember that his previous occupation had something to do with one of Britain's large airlines. We do not believe that the Government should be in the business of propping up or maintaining airlines or air industries that would not be able to exist otherwise. I know that within Europe there are varying degrees of subsidies, but our vision of the future is that airlines ought to be able to operate on a commercial basis, and that is the central objective of our policy.

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