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31 Mar 2003 : Column 676—continued

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I shall not press the amendment to a Division because I want the Bill to be enacted as soon as possible. However, I would welcome the Secretary of State using the regulations to examine the process through which the report is prepared so that it achieves all our objectives: to benchmark, to be open and transparent and to reassure the travelling public.

Mr. Don Foster: Like the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and the Under-Secretary, I am delighted that we are making further progress on this important Bill. I, too, welcome the fact that many members of the Standing Committee are in the Chamber but I am delighted to see several new faces, not least the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the Chairman of the Transport Committee. I am sure that we will all benefit from her expertise during our proceedings.

I am also delighted that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is in the Chamber. On Friday, I participated in a debate on a private Member's Bill on high hedges, during which I looked back at our previous debate on high hedges in March 2001. I noted that there were several exchanges between the hon. Gentleman and me in which he said that he enjoyed jousting with me and I said that he was extremely assiduous in his work. He has demonstrated that again today through his intervention on the Under-Secretary. He asked about two issues: the way in which the statutory instruments will come before us and, importantly, whether a draft of the regulations would be seen before the Bill has passed through both Houses. The hon. Gentleman did not receive an answer from the Under-Secretary and if he had, we would not have to raise several of our concerns.

There are worries about aspects of the process, which are fleshed out in amendment (b), which was tabled by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and amendment (a). I wish to tease out more information about the nature of the report, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) will catch your eye later, Mr. Speaker, to speak to new clause 12.

We are delighted that the rail accident investigation branch will be set up. We have supported all aspects of the Government's proposals on it although, on occasions, we have challenged them to go further and to clarify aspects of its work. We are genuinely delighted with Government new clause 6. As the hon. Member for Vale of York said, both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members moved amendments in Committee that would have had a similar effect to the new clause. However, the Under-Secretary has failed to take

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account of several worries expressed by the hon. Lady and me during the debates on those amendments. The Conservative amendments related to the need for the annual report to be made to each House of Parliament, which implied that there would be an opportunity for both Houses to debate it. It does not appear that that will necessarily occur, because the Minister's own new clause merely states that we shall have regulations making provision about

"the publication and other treatment of reports"

at a later date. Had the hon. Member for Buckingham received a clear answer to his question, we might have known that we could look at this matter a little later in the proceedings and be assured of it happening. I note that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Vale of York at that time also talked about the need for the presentation of audited annual accounts to each House of Parliament. So far, it does not appear that we are going to see that either.

Our amendment (a) raises a further point. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington talked about the vital importance of the report that will be produced as a result of new clause 6. He said that it could be an important annual benchmarking of rail safety progress. The problem is, however, that we still do not have a clear assurance from the Government that, in addition to the rail accident investigation branch telling us what it has done, we shall also receive information about the progress being made in response to recommendations that it has made following accident investigations. The Minister hinted earlier that that provision might now be included, but I hope that we can have an assurance that there will be a mechanism to provide the annual benchmarking of rail safety progress that the hon. Gentleman has rightly said that we need. That is why we have tabled amendment (a), although, as I have said, we very much welcome the Government's new clause 6.

In regard to the other Government amendments and new clauses, new clause 13 strengthens the definition of the role of the rail accident investigation branch. The Minister was good enough to point out that some of those amendments resulted from suggestions made in Committee by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, and new clause 13 is just such a measure. We were very keen to have that strengthening of the role, and we therefore welcome the new clause. We are discussing the establishment of an important new body—the rail accident investigation branch—and we hope that the Minister will take on board some of the concerns that we continue to raise about it, particularly about its reporting function. No one should be in any doubt, however, of our full support for its introduction.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Travel by rail is very safe. That would appear to be such an obvious thing to say that it should not be necessary to repeat it, but, because of the drama and excitement engendered by any rail industry accident, it is sometimes possible to believe that rail travel is as dangerous as any other form of transport. It is important, therefore, to remember that we kill 3,000 people on our roads every year, but sometimes only four or five on the trains. That is not to underestimate the agony and tremendous tragedy of any rail accident, but it is important to keep these things in perspective when

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we are discussing these issues. I therefore welcome the Bill enormously because I believe that it will set out a way for us clearly to begin to put at rest the minds of the general public.

My hon. Friend the Minister was kind and courteous enough—as he always is—to answer my questions earlier, but I would have hoped that the Government might have been a little more courageous. The Bill presented an opportunity to consider the recommendations that we make, right across the transport industries, and to identify the series of excellent groups of people whose professional job is to investigate accidents. They exist in marine and aviation affairs, and there are clear differences between how some of them work, but they have shown that their very independence, openness and tremendous love of detail produce reports that have consistently provided a set of rules and plans by which the individual industries can progress.

That is why the Transport Committee suggested that this might be the moment to bring together all those different investigation branches. That is not in any way to underestimate the role that they play, but simply to say, "As that expertise exists, let us bring them into one independent free-standing agency." We should have given them the muscle to investigate and, indeed, to impose conditions while they are investigating the accident scene, as that would have been useful in working out what we must learn from individual incidents. I am sorry that that chance has not been taken. It seems slightly ungracious to say so, as my hon. Friend the Minister has introduced an amendment of which I approve, although I am sorry it does not go further, but he is long enough in the tooth in parliamentary terms to realise that that is frequently the norm.

We should have a totally independent investigation branch, and it is not enough to go one step. We should make it clear that what is necessary in this country is access to information. The general public have enormous faith in the railway system and many aspects of safety regulations are built on the assumption that the railway industry has always been astonishingly careful, almost since its inception, to maintain rules and regulations that protect its passengers and, indeed, its staff. That is why some of us are concerned about the safety changes inherent in the suggestion that we can do away with the job of the guard.

If I may digress for a moment, I travelled on a train on Saturday where a young man was threatening to commit suicide in a rather dramatic manner—by slitting his throat. It was the guard whose unenviable task it was to try to restrain him and at least find some way of getting to the point where British Transport police could deal with the situation. The guard was left in control. I know that Virgin trains are frequently over an hour late, but it seemed a rather excessive reaction to want to commit suicide. Nevertheless, that is a clear example of the fact that the guard has a specific role to play, and it was played with considerable expertise.

We should have taken the chance to sort out a series of problems through the Bill. One is undoubtedly the control of the channel tunnel. My hon. Friend the Minister is aware that the joint action between the British and French Governments frequently throws up clear differences between the two legal systems and the

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two systems of control. The channel tunnel authorities, on both sides, choose not to make public the facts of how they operate, or what happens on that track. Indeed, they limit many items of information to the minimum required by the company laws of both countries, which shows that we still face real difficulties.

The habit in this country of producing annual reports and including in them a minimum number of items that make what is happening clear to any member of the general public who wants to acquire the information—not just to people with expertise in an industry—is one that should be treasured and expanded on every occasion. I regret deeply the fact that that is not the case in relation to much channel tunnel legislation. I had hoped that we would deal with that question in considerable detail, but I return to the point that we in this country value safety regulation.

Those who moan about bureaucracy, form filling and the constant imposition of rules and regulations forget that in the safe passage of the people of the United Kingdom the transport industry has a role to play that is not only vital, but responsible. We have still not reached the end of the passage of the Bill—it has another House to go through and it has to come back here—so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister looks carefully at what he is suggesting. He should say that the Bill is just an elementary and first step, and that we should be going a lot further.

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