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31 Mar 2003 : Column 679—continued

4.15 pm

I look forward to the time when a clear infrastructure, an independent agency and a set of tough regulations are on the statute book, drawing together all accident investigation branches, marine, aviation and railway—and perhaps we should also seriously consider what is happening on our roads—into an effective unit. That will force the public to think carefully about how they behave on transport systems, regulate the behaviour of individual companies in all those sectors, and enable us as a Parliament to feel that we have carried out our duties correctly.

Mr. Weir : I welcome the proposal for an annual report. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), our rail system is safe; the problem is that confidence has been undermined by a number of high-profile accidents recently. The Cullen inquiry and the Bill that followed it constitute one way of trying to introduce a system that will help to restore that confidence, and I think that, once established, the annual report will begin to do that.

I also support amendment No. 2, although the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) may wish to dissociate herself from my support when she has heard what I have to say. The wording of the amendment is significantly different from that of clause 6: while clause 6 refers specifically to accidents and incidents, the amendment refers to "any railway situation". That is an important difference. One problem with the Bill, which is to an extent inevitable, is that it deals with investigations of accidents that have already occurred. We should be thinking about how to prevent them from occurring.

In January there was an accident on the London underground Central line, which led to the closure of the line for some time. The RMT claimed that safety was

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being sacrificed to profit, and said that a driver on the Piccadilly line who had expressed concern about a banging noise had been told that if he refused to drive a train that was later found to be safe he would have to face the consequences. Today, as last week, railway guards are on strike, not over pay and conditions but over a safety issue. I feel that the investigation branch could look into specific railway safety issues. That may be beyond its power now, but I hope that in future a Government of whatever colour will consider it as a way of increasing both safety and confidence.

Mrs. Dunwoody: My Select Committee will be examining what happened on the Central line tomorrow afternoon.

Mr. Weir: I am delighted to hear it, but my point is that the branch should look not just at accidents that have already happened but at situations that may give rise to accidents, and at railway safety in general. If it can

a rail passenger council, a rail union or anyone concerned about railway safety would at least have an opportunity to bring to the branch's attention incidents or situations that might give rise to safety concerns.

David Cairns : The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Does he agree that creating a special accident and investigation branch, which will focus tightly on investigating accidents and seeing what lessons can be drawn from them, could allow the Health and Safety Executive to fulfil the role that he mentions of looking into health and safety matters across the railways? It might also have time to do that more effectively. We should perhaps allow matters to move forward and see whether the Health and Safety Executive could fulfil the role that we both want carried out.

Mr. Weir: The hon. Member makes a good point, with which I would not disagree. My point was that confidence has been undermined by a series of high-profile accidents. People who travel regularly on the railways, the unions and others are concerned about a range of factors that give rise to safety concerns. Health and safety has a role within that, but I would argue—it may be outwith the scope of the clause, but it should be considered—that the remit of a specific rail accident investigation branch should be expanded so that the problems that could cause spectacular accidents could be investigated before they get to that dangerous stage. An independent group that could seriously investigate those matters might help us in cases where strikes over safety are taking place. I am not sure that that is what the hon. Member for Vale of York had in mind.

Miss McIntosh: The hon. Gentleman's latest intervention touches on an important point, which we explored at length in Committee. Regrettably, the amendment that we tabled was not selected. Does he agree that the position of the Health and Safety Executive would have been much clearer if the Government had taken the opportunity to set out, either

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in a code of practice or a memorandum of understanding, the precise relationship between the HSE and the new rail accident investigation branch?

Mr. Weir: I was not present at the debate, so I cannot comment on the detail, but that is a fair point. My argument is that we must have some independent body—whether it be the HSE or the RAIB—to investigate complaints and concerns about safety on the railways before accidents occur.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I am pleased to support the Bill in broad terms and I was pleased to serve in Committee. However, in common with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I would like to see stronger legislation and hope that this Bill is a significant step towards what can ultimately be achieved.

My concerns were raised by news in The Guardian today that the new rail safety and standards board will be established in a more independent role, having previously been based within the industry. The article says that the chief executive of the internal organisation, Mr. Rod Muttram, who assumed that he would be given the new job under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment)—TUPE—rules, has not been given the new chief executive post. I have made discreet investigations and inquiries today and I understand that he is a man of high calibre and a qualified electrical engineer, who has spent considerable time in the industry and has done a good job. At short notice, he was told that he need not apply for the new job, even though most other staff were transferred to the new organisation. There is a hint, I am afraid, that he was too good at his job, too independent and too strong in investigating safety and standards problems. When he was based inside the industry, it was perhaps easier for it to accept him, but it seems that he might be too much for a role in a body with an arm's length relationship with the industry.

I refer hon. Members to today's article in The Guardian for greater detail, but there is a hint of concern inside the industry about the strength of independent safety organisations. I hope that commercial interests will not taint the new branch set up by the Bill. I am sure that they will not, and I do not want to cast aspersions on those who may be involved in it, but I hope that the Government will make absolutely certain that it has the necessary independence and strength to do its job properly.

I very much welcome new clause 6. I am interested in its reference to the "content of reports". My hon. Friend the Minister said that the body will produce a report giving an overview of accident investigations. I hope that that will not be a bland hand-off of a true investigation, but have some meat and cutting edge. Full investigations into the Hatfield and Potters Bar accidents have not yet been published. Although there have been interim reports, we still, some time on, have not been told the truth as to what really happened in those accidents. There may be important lessons to learn from those accidents that could cost the industry a good deal of money.

Mr. Bercow: Unfortunately, I must plead ignorance of the contents of today's edition of The Guardian, but

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does the hon. Gentleman agree that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friends is so eminently reasonable that it is difficult to see why anyone should object to it? Does it not call for a form of pre-accident scrutiny, and is there not an analogy between that and pre-legislative scrutiny?

Mr. Hopkins: I intend to come to that in the course of my speech. I accept that there is a point to the amendment, but several bodies in the industry have responsibility for safety, and this matter specifically concerns the investigation of accidents rather than considering safety beforehand. If, however, it appears that we have no effective pre-accident safety scrutiny, we will need to legislate to strengthen the bodies that deal with that.

I have some modest technical knowledge of railways, and this morning, at my local station—Luton, from where I travel every day—I saw from platform 1 that the outer track rail is very heavily worn. When rails are worn like that on a bend, derailments are possible. Other factors include broken rails, which are a major cause of accidents—we know that that was the case in one of the two examples that I just mentioned. Broken rails sometimes occur because track rail flexes, which happens because the ballast has not been re-tamped. Without getting too technical, the ballast underneath the track has to be tamped to ensure that it is stable, and when it has not been tamped properly the rails flex. I could draw hon. Members' attention to certain areas where I can see that track is flexing. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) suggested that the unions should have a role. Indeed, drivers in particular can see track problems from their cabs, and it is absolutely right that they should be consulted and have a role in reporting on such safety and accident matters.

Even I, as an amateur with some knowledge, can observe some trackside problems just by standing on a platform. We should have a mechanism whereby members of the public, those of us who are informed about such matters and, particularly, those who work in the industry can report problem areas beforehand so as to avoid any repetition of accidents of the kind that have occurred.

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