Railways and Transport Safety Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Spellar: I am grateful to the hon. Members for Vale of York and for Bath for explaining what the amendments seek to address. I hope to show that we have taken into account what they seek to achieve and that there would be some difficulties in including such things in the Bill at the moment.

Column Number: 11

Amendment No. 21 would extend the remit of the RAIB beyond the railways, which the Government believe would be unnecessary. Lord Cullen recommended that the fundamental aim and objective of the RAIB should be to improve the safety of the railways and prevent railway accidents and incidents. The RAIB will establish the root causes of railway accidents and incidents and, equally importantly, will share safety lessons with the industry as quickly as possible so that safety can be improved and future accidents prevented. Of course, it is possible that an accident elsewhere might affect the operation of the railway. We see that reasonably regularly. Smoke from an office, factory or warehouse fire might blow on to a railway track and impair a train driver's visibility and might even, as we have seen, stop the train. An accident on property adjacent to the railway might involve objects falling on to the track. The hon. Member for Bath mentioned the possibility of a power line; a real example tragically occurred when a Land Rover was involved in the Selby disaster.

However, if such occurrences result in a railway accident, the RAIB will already have the power to investigate. It does not make sense for the RAIB to investigate the office or factory fire, although the Health and Safety Executive might undertake such investigations in order to improve safety in offices and shops and on industrial premises.

Mr. Foster: Let us take the example of a railway employee, working to repair the roof of a railway station, who falls and sustains injuries. If that did not have a direct impact on the running of the railway, presumably the matter would be investigated—rightly—by the Health and Safety Executive, which could bring to bear its expertise from other similar incidents. That is why definitions are important. They rule out, as well as ruling in, incidents and accidents that can be covered by the RAIB.

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman has helped us with his example of people falling from roofs. When I was a trade union official we conducted a campaign on the dangers of asbestos and someone wrote in to say that the union was absolutely right to undertake the campaign and that he could testify to the dangers of asbestos because when he walked across an asbestos roof he fell through and broke his leg. He suggested that people should therefore be aware that asbestos was extremely dangerous.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. The Health and Safety Executive has the expertise to deal with such issues, which are properly within its remit. The RAIB will consider matters that have an impact on the operation of the railways. I realise that there will be grey areas in which jurisdiction will need to be considered. That is inevitable in the running of such a complex system. I hope that I have explained why we believe that amendment No. 21 is unnecessary.

9.30 am

We agree that there is a need to define what accidents the RAIB will be under a duty to investigate.

Column Number: 12

The hon. Members for Vale of York and for Bath referred to draft regulations. However, hon. Members will know that we have to ensure that domestic legislation complies with 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.

The directive will include definitions of what constitutes a serious accident and an incident. The precise definitions in the draft directive remain under discussion, but the current draft definitions are significantly different from those proposed in amendments Nos. 1 and 22. If they were accepted, we would find ourselves needing to amend primary legislation all too soon. I can assure hon. Members that we plan to set out detailed definitions in the regulations that will be published shortly after Royal Assent, but they will need to be compatible with definitions agreed at European level.

Miss McIntosh: In my prior life, I was a Member of the European Parliament. We used to take part in that sort of negotiation; I sat on a committee that did so. In that respect the European Parliament is the co-decision maker with the Council of Ministers. Can the Minister convince the Committee that the Government is being a little more proactive than he has suggested? I would like the Government to take our definition to Europe. It could be a definition of the official Opposition or the Government. Europe works best when it is offered a practical and pragmatic approach, often by Britain. I hope that the Minister will take my criticism in good heart. It is wrong that we should lie back and think of whatever Europe comes up with. We should tell it what we believe the definition should be.

Mr. Spellar: I thought that the hon. Lady was going to suggest that we lie back and think of Europe.

I was going to outline the current draft definition of ''serious accident'' in the railway safety directive. That specifies events that would be subject to mandatory investigation by an independent investigation body, as proposed in the Bill, in all member states. It reads as follows:

    ''Serious accident means:

    a) accidents caused by collision or derailment of trains, resulting in at least one killed person or five or more seriously injured persons . . . or extensive damage to rolling stock, the infrastructure or the environment and with an obvious impact on railway safety regulation or the management of safety''.

''Extensive damage'' means damage that can immediately be assessed by the investigating body to cost at least €2 million.

Given that definition, the suggested amendments are unlikely to comply fully with the forthcoming European legislation, particularly in relation to incidents resulting in environmental damage or damage to track and signalling. Such incidents would need to be covered by the definition of serious accident, which we would need to incorporate in domestic legislation. On that understanding, I hope that the hon. Member for Vale of York will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Column Number: 13

Miss McIntosh: This has been a fascinating discussion, and I realise that the hon. Member for Bath and I have made one omission. We have not considered the worst-case scenario to which the Minister alluded—environmental damage. For example, there may be a chemical spill. I would like to put the Committee's mind at rest. Hawkhills, the civil service emergency planning college, is located in the Vale of York, and help is at hand. I am sure that even as we speak, the college is considering such a scenario.

Mr. Foster: Bearing in mind what the hon. Lady has rightly said about our joint failure to refer to environmental damage, does she feel that the definitions introduced by the Government on the back of European legislation would cover some form of terrorist incident on a freight train carrying munitions or radioactive materials? Such an incident might not lead to a collision or a derailment, but would nevertheless be serious.

Miss McIntosh: I hope that the British Transport police, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) rightly commended highly—we all have cause to be grateful to them—are on the case as we speak. I imagine that they are. I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Bath, and it is most generous of the Minister to share with the Committee the thinking behind the European definition. On the face of what he read out a moment ago, it seems to include additional aspects to those specified in amendments Nos. 22 and 1. On the other hand, that definition does not cover some of the points that we have raised. I humbly submit that we could return to the matter later.

There are many definitions that one could examine. The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety has come up with a further definition in which an accident is specified as an occurrence connected to the operation of the train or rail infrastructure, and which is not dissimilar to the definition in amendment No. 22. The Minister must take it on board that all members on the Committee want to continue to improve this country's rail safety record. I mentioned the visually impaired. The European definition that is emerging does not in my view go far enough to satisfy the most vulnerable. I shall not press the amendment to a vote, but I ask the Minister to consider three scenarios and take them on board in his negotiations with his European counterparts.

The first is when accidents occur because the gap between the platform and the train is so large that passengers, especially the less able and the visually impaired, are not sure where the platform edge is. They may trip and be injured. The most vulnerable are often the main beneficiaries of rail transport. Many do not have their own means of transport so depend heavily on public transport. The second scenario is where accidents occur because the gap between train carriages is large enough to cause confusion and disaster. RNIB members have been in such situations. The third scenario is where people are worried about getting off the train on the wrong side and ending up on the track rather than the platform. That would probably not happen often now, because most modern

Column Number: 14

carriages have doors that open electronically, on one side only.

Against that background, I hope that the Minister will take on board our serious points. I do not know whether he wants to comment on amendment No. 21 and on whether the Government would consider a definition that included not only property but property adjacent to railway property, for the reasons that emerged in the Potters Bar incident. There, not only the tunnel was damaged but, I imagine, some adjacent property. Perhaps the Minister will take that on board.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 4 February 2003