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3.43 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Kim Howells): May I echo the words of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins)? This has been an excellent and challenging debate. Like him, I was particularly impressed by the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), and by those of his hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). In fact, we have not heard a speech that has been less than interesting. I shall not join in the cracks about the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell)—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has nicked my line. I was about to say that when it is remaindered, I may have a look at his book.

The Government share the concerns expressed by hon. Members about the temporary loss of power in south London and Kent on 28 August, and the subsequent impact on and disruption to travellers. When I heard about it, I immediately thought of the confident statements made in the aftermath of the blackout in north-east America by our own energy regulator and many others, who said that it could never happen here because our system was too robust.

As my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services explained, some 410,000 customers in south London and parts of Kent lost electricity. Power was restored through the transmission system within 30 minutes, and within another 11 minutes the local distribution system was re-energised and normal power was restored in all areas. As at least one Member has said, however, there is no room for complacency. Our aim must be to ensure that there are no interruptions to such a vital system. We should also bear in mind the potential danger of conveying people through what may be long and deep tunnels in London.

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The power failure did, of course, have far-reaching consequences. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove mentioned the heavy rail network. We must draw lessons from the extent to which that network was affected, and I shall ensure that the investigations take it into account—along with the fact, not mentioned so far, that hundreds of traffic lights went out in London. We should bear it in mind that only 6 per cent. of journeys in this country are made by rail. A huge number of vehicles were held up in traffic jams. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), we have many lessons to learn. Security involves a range of aspects of our lives, not just the economic aspect. Being able to negotiate the streets is certainly one of the most important.

The power cut caused disruption to surface rail services, the underground, street lights and traffic systems, as well as electricity users in homes and workplaces. Although London's critical infrastructure has back-up arrangements, there was significant and worrying disruption to the transport service in general. All the agencies involved are reviewing their back-up plans in the light of difficulties caused to passengers after the power cut. Following the publication of National Grid's report on 10 September, my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services announced that the Department of Trade and Industry and Ofgem would conduct their own inquiries, and we hope that the results will be published by mid-November. The DTI's engineering inspectorate will conduct its own detailed investigation of all the technical and operational issues involved in the security of our electricity supply.

As my hon. Friend explained at the beginning, the cause of the power cut has now been traced to two faults that affected the same section of the network at almost the same time; but we will not hear this Minister blame some individual for putting a fuse with the wrong ampage into a box. As Members on both sides of the House have said, there are lessons to be learned and serious investigations to be conducted, involving the whole range of electricity generation and supply. The hon. Member for Reigate and others have reminded us of the seriousness of these issues, and they will be taken fully into account.

Mr. McLoughlin: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not. I have very little time left.

Risks to complex systems such as the energy supply cannot be eliminated, but we are determined to use this experience in a way that will enable us—along with other agencies, the regulator and the companies involved—to minimise and, where necessary, manage those risks. The Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Transport are also determined to ensure that the necessary lessons are learned, because the Government share the House's feeling that what happened on 28 August must not happen again. Our transport providers need secure, reliable supplies and an effective and appropriate means of handling disruption, if and when it should occur.

In answer to a point raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, London Underground draws its power from the national grid under a private

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finance initiative deal—it was finalised in 1998 but began long before then— with Seeboard Powerlink, which manages, maintains, develops and finances the London underground power supply system. The PFI deal stems from a decision first taken by London Underground in 1985: that the Lots road power station, which was by then 100 years old and reaching the end of its life, should be closed in favour of supply from the national grid. I understand from London Underground that that decision was reviewed several times before finally being confirmed through the award of the PFI contract in 1998. During that period, consideration was given to several options, including refurbishing the Lots road station.

There seems to be consensus among experts that resilience is better secured by having access to the wider supply possibilities of the grid, rather than through over-reliance on an individual power plant such as that at Lots road. Well, we may yet have that debate, as a consequence of the investigations that will take place.

I want now to deal with some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who has looked at these issues particularly closely. I never thought that I would live to hear her say that she associates herself completely—completely—with the comments of Conservative Front Benchers. It was a wonderful moment, but I should warn the House that she can be more than a little mischievous from time to time. I suspect that she was seeking to tease out of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) some firmer statements on Tory policy on electricity generation supply and demand. She is one of the House's most accomplished performers, and I want strongly to commend to some of the younger Members—on both sides of the House—the hon. Gentleman's decision not to take her on. I certainly would not do so.

Mr. McLoughlin: Stop grovelling!

Dr. Howells: I am trying to answer the questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich concentrated, quite properly, on crucial issues such as passenger safety and the provision of constant electricity supplies to the underground.

The PFI power contract was put out to tender in 1996 and was signed in 1998 with Seeboard Powerlink, which is owned primarily by Seeboard. The contract has been subject to safety and risk analysis. The PFI covers four main features: the provision of back-up supplies from a gas turbine generator at Greenwich; the provision of emergency battery lighting at stations; the purchase and supply of power from the national grid; and the operation, maintenance and renewal of London underground's high-voltage network.

The PFI contract is drawn so as to incentivise Seeboard Powerlink's maintaining a high level of resilience and security of power supply. The PFI will provide a new control system, known as SPIDER—I do not know why—for London underground's power network. I am told that it will enable faster high-voltage system reconfiguration in the event of loss of supply from the grid.

I want to reassure the House and the hon. Member for Croydon, South in particular that as part of its review of the handling of the power failure, London Underground

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will examine how its power PFI worked, and identify improvements that can be made to communication between it and Seeboard Powerlink, and between the latter and EDF Energy, which is the local distribution supplier. Indeed, that issue was also of concern to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). London Underground will particularly investigate its operational and customer service response to the power supply problems of 28 August—especially internal communications and the CCTV network, which the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) rightly noted was important. The evacuation protocol, which seems to have worked well on this occasion, will also be assessed.

As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale reminded us, people got out safely and no one was hurt. We need to learn from what went well as well as from the difficulties. The reopening of stations and the restoration of services is also important. The electricity may be brought back on supply, but we have to ensure that no one is on the lines and that no part of the system will be damaged as a consequence of turning the juice back on. Communications with the world beyond the underground system will also be examined. We must ensure that everyone knows exactly what is happening to prevent crushes from crowds of people trying to enter stations on the underground when they should stay well out of them. Those are serious issues.

London Underground's key problem, as several hon. Members have pointed out, is decades of under-investment. I want to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich that the public-private partnership is delivering unprecedented levels of long-term stable funding to enable the tube to be brought up to modern standards. The Government are providing £1 billion a year for the next seven years. In all, the PPP will save more than £1 billion a year spent on maintenance and upgrades over the next 15 years. That will give the tube a chance to recover and to become a much better system. The underground, of course, remains publicly owned and is publicly accountable to the Mayor of London, and the private sector consortiums that are contracted to deliver the improvements face heavy penalties if they fail to do so.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services openly and candidly dealt with the hugely important issues that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale focused on about the future of electricity generation and supply in this country.

Before I reach the requisite part of the winding-up speech, I want to add my praises—my hon. Friend would have done so if he had had time—for the hard work of London Underground staff—drivers, the station staff, the controllers and so forth—in handling such a difficult event. They did it very well indeed, particularly evacuating passengers from stations so quickly, and later getting the trains into the right positions to resume services as efficiently as possible.

We should not forget the bus drivers and conductors who had to deal with the influx of passengers, nor the managers of the bus companies who instructed their

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drivers and conductors to accept tickets in order to help the thousands of people denied access to the tube to reach their destinations. It was a major exercise and it was done very well. The people working on the railways, who worked hard to ensure that services ran once the power was restored, should also be thanked. We often knock the transportation services in this country, but they are staffed by extremely professional and excellent men and women. In this instance, under exceptionally difficult circumstances, they did a tremendous job of ensuring that services continued.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I will take great interest in the lessons that emerge from the various reviews and will ensure that they are acted on. In the unlikely event of a repetition, we trust that London Underground will respond even better and restore services more effectively.

In the few moments remaining, may I turn to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby? It is extremely important that the appropriate skills exist to ensure that the tasks can be carried out. Those skills are held by the existing highly knowledgeable and good work force, but my hon. Friend is right that we must incentivise young people to work in the sector. If we do not, many of the predictions of doom that we have heard in today's debate will certainly come to pass. That is a primary responsibility of Government and I assure my hon. Friend that I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to ensure that measures are taken to try to provide incentives for people to enter such employment.

We have had an excellent debate today and I assure the House that we will learn the lessons of the outage that occurred on 28 August.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 124, Noes 332.

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