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31 Mar 2003 : Column 759continued
Miss McIntosh: On behalf of the official Opposition, I welcome the Bill. I agree with the Minister for Transport: there was excellent scrutiny in Committee. Indeed, the measure received about 50 hours of scrutiny. I join him in his eloquent thanks to our presiding Chairmen. For the most part, our 18 sittings were good-humoured and good-natured.
The powers of the new rail accident investigation branch will be wide ranging. We welcome the fact that the branch will be modelled on the air accidents and marine accident investigation branches, both of which were set up under a Conservative Government. Regrettably, several matters are still unresolved, as we pointed out during Report, especially the relationship between the RAIB and the Health and Safety Executive.
I pay tribute to the work of the British Transport police. The provisions for the BTP will put the force on a wholly statutory footing for the first time, which is welcome. There are questions about its jurisdiction, which, in the view of the force, should continue to extend to property in the vicinity of railway lines and stations. There is still concern about employment and pension provisions. Following the Wheeler report on airport security, there is potential for further liaison and co-operation between the BTP and the officers who police our airports.
The Bill includes provisions on offences for drink and drug abuse by air and sea personnel. We support the main thrust of the provisions but, in relation to aviation personnel, it would be simpler and clearer if there were a single limit for all safety-critical personnel, whatever their specific function. As regards maritime personnel, the provisions relating to non-professional recreational mariners could be further clarified and a clearer definition of what constitutes standby duty would be welcome. It would be better still if the clauses on marine and aviation offences had been consistent. For example, under clause 80 the police are given power to breathalyse when there is an accident involving a ship. The procedure is similar to that followed after a road accident. In clause 93, however, the same provision does not extend to an accident involving an aircraft.
We especially regret the fact that lack of time prevented consideration of our new clauses 14, 15 and 17 and that we were unable to press them to a vote. There is great merit in asking the Civil Aviation Authority to introduce a peer intervention programme on drink and drug abuse at work. Will the Government consider that proposal in the imminent future?
In Committee, we were told that the Bill would have monetary consequences but that they would not be huge. The Government have resisted our requests that they consider wider aspects of road safety as part of the Bill. However, we are pleased that the Government have caved in to our request for a legal responsibility on highways authorities to clear the roads of snow and ice.
Indeed, so many of our amendments caught the attention of both Ministers in Committee that we feel that much of the Bill is part of a Conservative agenda. In that regard, we welcome the Bill and wish it Godspeed in the other place.
Mr. Don Foster: Now that the passage of Bill is nearly over, the Minister has suddenly become fulsome in his praise of members of the Committee on both sides of the House. He rightly described us as having been tireless, but whether all hon. Members are happy to be called a tooth comb is for them to decide.
The Minister is right that the Bill is important and underwent intense scrutiny during the 18 Committee sittings. Of course, its passage has also been enjoyable at times. We have found out more about the pleasures and dangers of jet-skis and discussed at some length what constitutes the vicinity of a railway line. We have contemplated the implications for a constable in carrying out his duties of his hat blowing off and learned more than we might want to know from the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) about the use of swabs in taking samples for various forms of testing. Indeed, we have also heard a very lengthy list of interests, which she has declared on numerous occasions. We have even discovered a trolley bus in Scotland.
However, we have also debated many important issues. I am delighted that we have now established the rail accident investigation branch and turned the function of a single individualthe rail regulatorinto that of a board such as those in all other regulatory organisations. We have also given the British Transport police a statutory basis. Sensibly, we have introduced appropriate alcohol limits in respect of aviation and maritime activities.
Of course, I am disappointed that a number of issues have not been dealt with. Perhaps the most notable is the attempt to reduce the current drink-driving limit. Equally, I am disappointed that there has been no opportunity to discuss road safety as much as many members of the Committee would have wished. We hope very much that the Government will introduce legislation in that area before too long. There should also have been an opportunity to streamline some existing structures, particularly in respect of the Office of the Rail Regulator. Such measures were promised by the previous Secretary of State following the turning of Railtrack into a not-for-profit public interest company. That has still not happened.
We have also wisely accepted the need for a change in the way in which the Health and Safety Executive is funded for its work in the railway industry and a move away from the per-hour system. Unfortunately,
Like the hon. Member for Vale of York, I am disappointed that there have not been more opportunities to discuss aviation security. We will all look with interest to the answers that I hope to receive shortly to parliamentary questions about Sir John Wheeler's excellent report on aviation security and want an assurance that the Government will implement his many sensible recommendations as soon as possible. Questions remain about whether it is right for the Government to appoint the chief constable of the British Transport police authority, but those are all matters that will no doubt be for another time and place.
Mr. Hopkins: May I say how pleased I am, as the only Back Bencher left to speak, to follow such eminent Front-Bench speakers? They have all made significant contributions to the Bill, as I have tried to do. We are all pleased to support a Bill that has cross-party support. I believe that it is a substantial step in the right direction but I would like more progress on other aspects of rail safety.
We have not received the results of the investigations into Hatfield and Potters Bar. That is a failing but it possibly arises due to the privatisation legislation introduced by the Conservative Government because that took away the legal responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive and Her Majesty's rail inspectorate to investigate rail accidents, although they retained rights. Perhaps that was done to make life somewhat easier for the private companies that were to follow. The Bill will plug the gap by providing again for a serious investigation process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) wants to make legislation stronger and more coherent and she pointed out that other bodies must be examined. I mentioned the new rail safety and standards board earlier today and the problem that has clearly arisen due to the shift to a more arm's length relationship with the industry. We thought that the chief executive of the existing body would have been automatically asked to transfer to the new organisation and I hope that the Minister and the Under-Secretary will examine that because newspapers speculate that the situation is unhappy and we want to know whether something in the murky depths must be studied.
The HSE rail inspectorate has not covered itself with glory in recent times and although the British Transport police have done a good job, the inspectorate has not investigated as enthusiastically as it might have done. I understand that several of the staff who undertake investigations are not experts on railway matters. Running a railway is very technical and to appreciate
Track circuits are currently a subject of controversy and are likely to attract press coverage. A system using track circuits allows the detection of whether a train is on a particular stretch of track. The axle and wheels of a train make contact across rails and signallers can use that to discover where a train is. However, that is being replaced by a system of axle counters, which counts axles as they enter and leave a section of rail. That is fine but it does not address the problem of broken rails because while the track circuits system detects broken rails, axle counters do not. It is argued that axle counters are used in Germany, but they are used only on concrete slab track, which holds the track firmly and rigidly. That makes it less prone to breakages and even if it does break, it is held safely so that trains will not derail. Many railway engineers argue that the use of axle counters on ballast track is dangerous. I would like to move toward using slab track rather than ballast track because it is safer and its price is coming down. We could look forward to a safer railway if we moved in that direction. Slab track is generally used in Japan.
We have had a great deal of discussion on the British Transport police, and almost everyone has spoken highly of them. Indeed, I have a very high opinion of them myself. In every sphere, however, there are not enough of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich talked about the problem of controlling football crowds moving from train to train at Crewe station. She said that just four police officers had been on duty to deal with a massive crowd of good-humoured but somewhat inebriated football fans. That was clearly not enough. There are also problems involved in patrolling ports, relating to illegal immigration, drug trafficking and so on. If there were more transport police, those matters could be dealt with more adequately.
All the safety bodies must work together much more effectively. One of my concerns in recent years is that some of them have had too close a relationship with the industry. They have to be independent, and I am pleased to see that the rail accident investigation branch will indeed be independent of the industry. The people who work in these bodies must have a sense that they are working in the public interest, rather than looking over their shoulder at the commercial interests of the railway industry. Since privatisation, commercial and financial pressure has inevitably been brought to bear on railway operations. One does not want to see a wholly inefficient public system, but, where public safety is concerned, it is vital to ensure that safety comes first and commercial interests come second.
One of the points made earlier was that the rail accident investigation branch will look at what happens after an accident. The key to the problem, however, is to ensure that the accidents do not happen in the first place. If they happen, something has gone wrong, and we need to have much more rigorous inspection of railway systems before they occur. Although railway travel is much safer than road transportwe have heard a great many statistics on that from the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster)it is still a fact that one accident involving a train can cause an horrendous number of deaths and injuries. We want to avoid accidents altogether.
We are moving in the right direction, and I welcome the Bill very much indeed. I look forward to seeing how it will work in practice. One of the new body's first jobs will be to investigate the accidents at Hatfield and Potters BarI had some experience of those, having lived in the area for most of my lifeand I hope that it will do a very thorough job so that the truth can come out. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have recently exerted pressure to introduce the concept of corporate manslaughter, so that people in commercial organisations who are responsible for deaths can be taken to task and prosecuted. If people have not behaved well in relation to their responsibilities on the railways, and such behaviour has caused problems or accidents, those people should be prosecuted and, when necessary, have an appropriate fine or prison sentence imposed on them.
These are serious matters, where life and death are concerned. We might scrape our knee if we have an accident on a bicycle, but anyone who travels on an aircraft has a strong sense that an accident in those circumstances could result in hundreds of people dying. Trains are much more like aircraft in that sense. They travel at very high speeds and carry a lot of people. They are inherently safe, but we nevertheless need to be