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28 Jan 2003 : Column 820—continued

Mr. Spellar: That is a strange position for a Conservative: wanting to over-prescribe when there is

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no requirement, for safety reasons, for undertaking such measures. I should have thought that the most sensible approach would be to have different levels according to the level of criticality and the nature of the job, so that we are not over-prescribing or imposing over-onerous provisions on people at work.

Miss McIntosh: Those Members who are fortunate enough to serve on the Standing Committee will have plentiful opportunity to explore the matter in detail. I firmly believe that the rules are drafted in a misleading and confusing way, which will not lead to an easy application.

Lawrie Quinn rose—

Miss McIntosh: The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) made an intelligent and positive contribution. The House benefits from his knowledge and experience of the industry, and he has made a strong bid to serve on the Committee. Regrettably, owing to the time available, I will not be able to accept an intervention from him at this stage. He raised a serious point relating to how we define accidents and incidents.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) also raised a genuine concern that minor incidents should not be blown up into major ones. The Opposition are concerned about the very sweeping nature of powers of investigation under clause 7, such as the right to enter land, including a dwelling house adjoining or abutting railway property. We shall call for the rail accident investigation branch to make an annual report to the House, which will be debated annually by the Transport Committee, to enable the House to monitor its work and the execution of its powers by its investigators.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire and his contribution to transport policy over the years. He eloquently pointed out the potential conflict of responsibilities between the personnel of the rail accident investigation branch, Her Majesty's railway inspectorate, the Health and Safety Executive, the police and the train operating companies. Will the Minister inform the House what will be the exact relationship between those bodies in the context of this Bill?

We shall also consider closely provisions in clause 1, to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South again referred—regrettably, he has not returned to the Chamber—relating to the convention on international carriage by rail, separating the functions of train operating from the management of track. I remind the hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members that a former leader of the Labour party who is now a European Commissioner in Brussels first proposed such a separation. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire said, there is a similar separation operating in aviation policy, where it works well and profitably.

I also note that there is a huge scope in schedule 6 for an open-sesame approach to statutory instruments. The Conservative party regrets the influx of statutory

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instruments and regulations that are not exposed to full scrutiny either on the Floor of the House or in Committee. We note the provisions in clause 105 for the transfer of powers relating to railways in London and the history behind those.

We are delighted to give the Bill a fair wind on Second Reading. We support its main thrust, much of which is based on sound Conservative policies and on Acts of Parliament adopted under a Conservative Government, although we shall seek to explore certain aspects of it, including any omissions, in detail.

6.45 pm

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I am grateful to hon. Members for contributing to a useful debate. Unlike Question Time, however, no inducements were offered to Ministers to accept various amendments. There was also the contribution by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), but I shall come to that later. You will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I have been responsible for responding to other debates, and I find it slightly unusual to make a winding-up speech both in this atmosphere and at this hour.

Before I respond briefly to the points made, I want to remind hon. Members of the Bill's significant aspects, many of which will be discussed in Committee. The Bill includes a wide and diverse set of measures ranging from the creation of a new and independent body to investigate accidents on the railways to giving British Transport police an accountability structure that we all recognise is appropriate for a modern police force. I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) and others for their contributions on the British Transport police and the excellent role they play. They are increasingly successful in the fight against crime on the transport system. The Bill also introduces alcohol limits for shipping and aviation.

The creation of a body to investigate rail accidents was a main recommendation of Lord Cullen's report into the Ladbroke Grove accident. He recommended that it should be modelled on the existing investigation branches for air and marine accidents. He also recommended that its sole task should be to determine the cause of accidents. The Bill creates just such a body. Unlike existing rail accident investigators, the RAIB will be independent of the rail industry and those responsible for regulating the railways. It will carry out its investigations free of any conflicts of interest, either real or perceived. That is an important point in light of comments made in the debate. The reports will be published promptly, which deals with one of the significant criticisms of the current regime, and victims of accidents will be kept informed of the progress of investigations, a problem that has been mentioned in the past year in particular.

The Bill will also create a police authority for the British Transport police and a police force for Britain's railways. That will be modelled closely on existing authorities for local constabularies.

Andrew Mackinlay: Existing legislation provides for the British Transport police to police ports. The option is not being exercised now, but it has been in the past. Some small ports, including Tilbury, Felixstowe, Tees

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and Hartlepool, and all those in Scotland are not policed by dedicated police forces. Will the Minister keep that option open so that the Government can put the police back into many of our sea ports, perhaps for security reasons?

Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend alludes to the fact that many of the major ports have dedicated police forces. Discussions take place with county constabularies on the policing of a number of minor ports. As I have said to him privately, I take his point on board. We will consider it further and get back to him. I realise that he represents the port of Tilbury and is in touch with such issues.

The British Transport police will gain a wholly statutory jurisdiction, which they currently lack. The other railway measures include the restructuring of the Office of the Rail Regulator. We propose that it now be headed by a board rather than a single regulator. I point out that that is in line with the recommendations of the Better Regulation Task Force, and I hardly think that it can be argued that it in any way undermines the position of the regulator, precisely because it is being applied throughout the regulatory regime. As far as I am aware, that has general approval from hon. Members on both sides of the House. It was unfortunate that the measure was taken out of that context in one or two contributions today.

The Bill allows the UK to ratify the new text of an international rail treaty. It provides for the introduction of a levy to fund the Health and Safety Executive's rail-related activities and to replace the overly bureaucratic system of charging by the hour. The Bill will also amend certain sections of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 regarding the London underground. It will ensure that the Act operates as intended, and I certainly assure the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that it does not provide a position in which its implementation can be postponed indefinitely. The Bill deals with circumstances that probably could not have been envisaged when the GLA Act was passed. There is a hiatus because there is still a legal appeal by Transport for London, which could undermine the purposes of the Act. The Bill is intended to remedy that.

The Bill seeks to improve safety at sea and in the air. We propose the introduction of alcohol limits for mariners and certain aviation personnel whose role is critical in safety. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) did not clarify why she believes that where certain groups require stricter limits, those should apply to everyone else even though such limits are not required by the nature of their job.

Lawrie Quinn: My right hon. Friend is probably aware that I was trying to intervene on the hon. Lady on that very point. Will he confirm that at the moment the railway industry designates safety-related posts, and the existing legislation for that industry works very well? Indeed, if the hon. Lady seeks a model to demonstrate that it works well, she should look no further than the railway industry.

Mr. Spellar: Once again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I hope that the hon. Lady took those points on board. She may reflect on her position before the Bill goes into Committee.

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As hon. Members will know, the introduction of legislation to control alcohol misuse by mariners was one of the recommendations made by Lord Justice Clark's inquiry into the Marchioness disaster. A new offence will apply to all on-duty professional mariners who exceed the set limit and to any off-duty mariners who would play a role in evacuating passengers in an emergency. The limit will also affect some, but not all, recreational mariners.

In reply to the hon. Lady, the reason for dealing with some of those matters by regulation is to allow us to have much fuller discussion and consultation with those who will be affected. Frankly, if we do not get the provisions right, it will also allow us to amend them more easily than we could through primary legislation. There is a useful debate to be had about the appropriate limits. We have to balance the general convenience of the public with the need to maintain safety. I am sure that the hon. Lady will come to appreciate our position during the Committee proceedings.

On the aviation side, the limits will apply to aircrew, air traffic controllers and licensed aircraft engineers. The police will be responsible for enforcing the limits, and they will be able to test mariners and safety-critical aviation personnel for alcohol where they have reasonable suspicion that an offence may have been committed.

I turn now to the points made during the debate. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and a number of other hon. Members raised the question of road safety, which is very important. However, it would have been helpful if they had prefaced their remarks by pointing out that our roads, along with those in Sweden, are the safest in Europe. Under Governments of both parties—I say this with a former Transport Minister on the Opposition Benches—there has been a steady decline in road deaths. Indeed, in respect of the carnage on the French roads and the measures that need to be taken in France, only a couple of months ago the President of France held up the British record as an example.

Steady progress has been made in a number of areas, and we are looking at where the next moves can be made to improve road safety. For example, we have the best record in Europe for car deaths, but our record on child pedestrian accidents—although it is improving, and although we have gone from the bottom to the middle of the European league—still has further to go. There is a very heavy geographic concentration of such accidents, particularly in the north-west. That is precisely why, in the autumn of last year, I announced some £17 million to £18 million to fund not just a study, but the undertaking of various projects in those boroughs, in order to ascertain the reason for, and the remedies for, the much higher incidence of child pedestrian accidents in those areas.

In the same way, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has launched a consultation on the use of mobile phones. Again, we will introduce secondary legislation to deal with what is widely perceived as a problem and as a threat to safety on the roads. That is the way to deal with that problem.

On the ownership and driving of vehicles, hon. Members will have encountered advertisements for the V5 registration form for cars, which will prevent people

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from obtaining licences so easily, particularly for stolen vehicles. Frankly, if a car auction is allowing someone to drive off a site without insurance, by definition, we should be looking at such behaviour. However, in general car, auction companies are becoming increasingly co-operative in dealing with illegal vehicles such as untaxed and uninsured vehicles. Either the Under-Secretary or I will write to the hon. Member for Bath with some of the relevant details. I hope, too, that hon. Members on both sides of the House will get the message out in their constituencies, and get their local authorities, police forces and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to work together to deal with the problem of rogue vehicles and rogue drivers, and steadily to eliminate many of them from the roads. The hon. Member for Bath also mentioned the Office of the Rail Regulator's consultation on safety. In fact, it is almost finished, and we hope that it will come to a conclusion in the not too distant future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson)—he is chairing a Committee elsewhere in this building, so he is unable to be here for the wind-ups—raised the question of accidents and incidents, which we shall need to discuss in Committee. However, I counsel a degree of caution in terms of the danger of over-emphasising this issue. We could arrive at the position that was reached in the nuclear industry, whereby a previous Secretary of State with responsibility for energy said that he wanted every incident, however small, to be reported to him. That led to an utterly nonsensical situation. We therefore need to look at levels of significance and prioritisation, and to keep a sensible difference in definition.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South also asked about the reason for the delay in the implementation in respect of the mark 1 trains. I am not sure whether he was present for Transport questions, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made the reason for this problem very clear. Between them, the train operator and Railtrack totally failed to undertake the necessary work, or to realise that work was necessary to provide the electricity supply that would enable new trains to be brought on stream.

The Government are committed to delivering a transport system that is modern, reliable and safe, and central to quality of life. This Bill will be an important part of that change. It will improve safety and improve public confidence in the safety of the transport industry, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

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