Previous SectionIndexHome Page

31 Mar 2003 : Column 686—continued

Miss McIntosh: Can the Under-Secretary confirm that the report will be published and will be debated in the House?

Mr. Jamieson: I can confirm that the report will be placed before the House. I am not in charge of debates but, if the Opposition wanted to use one of their days to debate the report, I am sure that the Government would be pleased to respond.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) tabled the important amendment (b) on the consultation involved in preparing the annual report. I should now make a distinction between the annual report and reports that will be produced as and when necessary on particular incidents or accidents. I do not think that it will be normal to consult others when preparing the annual report, and we do not see a particularly good reason to do that. The other two branches—the marine accident investigation branch and the air accidents investigation branch—do not consult on their reports.

However, on my hon. Friend's concerns, I assure him that the important matter of particular investigations into particular incidents or accidents will be available to be commented upon by all bodies that wish to do so, including the trade unions that may have a particular interest in such issues. It will be a matter for the branch to keep all interested parties informed about the progress of individual accident investigations, and the latest draft of the European rail safety directive would require the branch to let interested parties see relevant parts of investigation reports before publication. I hope that that brings some consolation to my hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) spoke to new clause 12. It would require that the rail accident investigation branch not use

He asked whether assurances were contained in the Bill. It is vital that the chief inspector of rail accidents retains the credibility of the industry and the travelling public. The branch would rapidly lose that credibility if it were required to use a contractor or sub-contractor whose work or actions it knew to be linked to an accident under investigation. However, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is inevitable that there will be occasions when the branch will not have the necessary specialist expertise, such as on signalling technology, to conduct an in-house investigation thoroughly.


We therefore have to rely on common sense and on the chief inspector's ability to manage the situation, as we have done with the marine and air accident investigation branches. As I said, the operation of those two branches provides good examples. At the moment, I do not see why we should treat the rail accident

31 Mar 2003 : Column 687

investigation branch differently. It will take all necessary measures to ensure that any potential conflicts of interest are managed appropriately. There will be a clear chain of command and control of all contractors or sub-contractors used by the rail accident investigation branch, which will go back to the chief inspector of rail accidents.

I hope to show that we have taken into account what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) and his colleagues seek to achieve in amendment No. 2. We agree that there is a need to define what accidents the rail accident investigation branch will be under a duty to investigate. The branch must also be given the discretion to investigate other incidents relevant to the operation of the railway, to see whether there are safety lessons that need to be learned. Clause 2(4) will allow the regulations defining an incident to make provision on events such as near misses and other precursors to accidents—a point on which my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North showed concern.

The regulations will make it clear that incidents that could be subject to investigation by the rail accident investigation branch could include one that, under different circumstances, may have resulted in an accident, and a series of unplanned or uncontrolled events that, under different circumstances, may have resulted in an accident. That would include what the rail industry refers to as near misses or precursors.

We must also ensure, however, that our domestic legislation complies with the forthcoming European legislation. The European Council and the European Parliament are currently debating a proposed railway safety directive, which will provide a framework for a consistent approach to independent accident investigation in all member states. We should all welcome that, but if we include definitions in the Bill, we risk having to amend it almost as soon as it receives Royal Assent, should it do so. Nevertheless, I can assure hon. Members that we intend to give the rail accident investigation branch the maximum flexibility to investigate any incident, which will include near misses or other precursors.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I hope that my hon. Friend is not really enunciating the theory that it is only if the Europeans have thought deeply about these matters that we can change our railway legislation. Would not it be a better idea to set out a nice, precise definition that the European Parliament, in its wisdom, might catch up with?

Mr. Jamieson: Indeed. That is why we have our own Bill. This is not European legislation that we are discussing tonight. We have to ensure that any definition that we set out matches any definition that may be used in the European context in the near future. It would be unwise to include definitions in the Bill and then to find that, in a few months, we had to alter them.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Does the Minister have a timetable for the introduction of the European

31 Mar 2003 : Column 688

definition, so that we can have a definite idea, rather than "maybe", "possibly", "in a month or two" or "in a year or so"?

Mr. Jamieson: I said that we might have to make the change as soon as the Bill is anticipated to receive Royal Assent because that is the expected time scale for the emergence of the new definitions.

The hon. Member for Bath asked whether the annual report will be placed in the House. We have covered that point; it will be placed in the House. He asked about the annual accounts report. That will be available because the accounts will form part of my Department's accounts, which are laid before the House.

Mr. Bercow: While the hon. Gentleman awaits enlightenment in respect of the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), may I, as someone who did not serve on the Standing Committee, politely put it to him that his response to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) was not altogether compelling? Given that new clause 6 is permissive in terms, rather than prescriptive, what is the cogent explanation for the refusal to include the terms of the hon. Gentleman's amendment in the Government's new clause? The Minister should not just stick to the brief; he should answer the question.

Mr. Jamieson: That is kind advice from the hon. Gentleman, but if my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington has any difficulty with my response, he is more than capable of saying so.

To return to serious matters, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich made a powerful contribution, as always. She emphasised the need for safety on our railways, contrasting that position with that which pertains to our roads. It is an unfortunate fact that when an incident occurs on the railways, it receives a huge amount of public attention; that is inevitable and, I think, right, but it is sometimes disproportionate. Our railway system is actually very safe and operates extremely well. That said, my hon. Friend and I agree that although the railway system is safe, we can always do more to make it safer, and I totally endorse what she and her Committee have done to further that work.

My hon. Friend restated the point about having one agency—one effective unit, as I think she described it. I assure her that the Government do not rule that out as a longer-term ambition, but the priority now is to get the RAIB set up. We shall encourage the three branches to work closely together, as the two existing branches do now.

My hon. Friend mentioned the channel tunnel, which is an important matter. As she knows, the United Kingdom and France regulate the tunnel, and French agreement is needed if the type of information that she talked about is to be released. The Government will encourage greater release of information, but we have to work within the constraints of international law.

The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North asked whether the RAIB would examine general safety issues within the industry. That is not the RAIB's job. The rail safety and

31 Mar 2003 : Column 689

standards board will have the lead in making the railways safe and the Health and Safety Executive remains the rail safety regulator. The RAIB will examine specific incidents, including near misses and precursors that might have led to an accident, but it will not consider rail safety in general.

Mr. Weir: Will the Minister respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)? In many ways, the perception of railway safety is a more difficult issue than the accidents that occur. Is there not an argument for the RAIB examining general safety as well as accidents, as a way to increase confidence in the railways?

Next Section

IndexHome Page