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Standing Committee D
Tuesday 4 February 2003
[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]
Amendment moved [this day]: No. 5, in
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am delighted to chair—[Interruption.]—to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hurst. I can see it is going to be one of those days. Before we broke this morning, I was occupying the crease for a couple of minutes to avoid getting into detail on the amendment. On my way out of the Room, I was pleased when the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) suggested that I was in good training for a likely appearance one day on ''Just a Minute''. But as those listening will be aware, I would have been rapidly called to order there for using the phrase, ''Order, order'' within the first two seconds.
I gave a clear hint to Committee members that there would be great merit in their using the lunch break to read the Under-Secretary of State's written answer to one of my parliamentary questions from last summer. Although we heard this morning that the Under-Secretary was suffering from a cold and a sore throat, I am delighted to have goaded him so much by referring to his silence that he is going to respond on the Government's behalf to the amendment this afternoon. We will give him a great deal of silence while he speaks and hope that he succeeds.
Before I say anything specific about the amendment, I want to place it firmly on the record that any reference I make to a particular company is in no way intended to be a criticism of that company or its work. Lord Cullen, in recommending the establishment of the rail accident investigation branch, said that he believed it should be an independent body. He meant by that that it should be primarily independent of the body or bodies responsible for setting railway safety standards, but it was also implied, although stated less explicitly, independent from railway companies.
Many railway companies, especially the train operating companies and Network Rail, make extensive use of contractors and sub-contractors. It would therefore be reasonable to assume that in calling for the rail accident investigation branch to be independent, Lord Cullen intended it to be independent of the contractors and sub-contractors that work on the railway. That view is clearly shared by the Under-Secretary. In our exchange through the parliamentary question of 10 June 2002—for the
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convenience of members who may not have had time during lunch to read it—I asked him:
''when the proposed railway safety body will be established; what its remit is; what the role of (a) contractors and (b) sub-contractors will be within this body; and if he will make a statement.
''We expect to consult this summer on proposals for the establishment of an independent rail accident investigation branch (RAIB) before publishing the necessary primary legislation. The remit of the RAIB will be subject to consultation but will reflect the recommendations made by Lord Cullen in his part 2 report on the Ladbroke Grove Rail Inquiry. The role of contractors or sub-contractors within RAIB would be as witnesses, when appropriate, during investigations.''—[Official Report, 10 June 2002; Vol. 386, c. 781W.]
Clearly, the Under-Secretary does not envisage the use of such contractors directly in the RAIB's work.
I would be the first to acknowledge the difficulty of defining exactly who is the contractor and sub-contractor in particular circumstances. On Second Reading and this morning, I referred to the need for the RAIB to use forensic laboratory facilities, perhaps to examine a piece of rail, as in the Potter's Bar inquiry, or a whole carriage. The Minister responded that that would be possible and that RAIB would be expected to pay for the use of such facilities. The laboratory facility could therefore be defined as a contractor or sub-contractor.
We could go further. RAIB might need to bring in heavy lifting equipment to move a carriage or train off the track; or it might need transportation facilities to take a train or track to the forensic laboratory. Providers of such services could again be thought of as contractors or sub-contractors, so I accept the problem of definition. Under clause 8(1):
''The Secretary of State may make regulations about the conduct of investigations by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch'',
and under paragraph (e) he may
''permit or require the Chief Inspector to request assistance from another person'',
which could again cause confusion as to whether that person is a contractor or sub-contractor. We need to distinguish more clearly between bodies that can be viewed as contractors or sub-contractors and bodies assisting with the inquiry that have no direct bearing on any aspect of the problems leading to the investigation.
In referring to a couple of firms as examples, I make no criticism of their work. WS Atkins plc is part of the Metronet consortium, one of the London Underground infrastructure companies. It would be strange if it provided assistance to the RAIB in connection with an incident on the tube. It would be difficult to use the firm in any circumstances involving the railways because it has provided so much advice, support and contract work in the railway sector.
It is interesting to see the range of activities with which WS Atkins has been associated—work for the Health and Safety Executive, for example. It has carried out a range of research contracts on supporting investigations into accidents and on safety cases since 1997. It examined Railtrack's responses to improvement notices, took part in investigations into
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danger signals passed and looked into crash worthiness developments in mark 1 rolling stocks.
That is only one company. On 23 January last year, the Health and Safety Executive referred to a report by Her Majesty's rail inspectorate that had been compiled jointly with WS Atkins in response to the improvement notice served after the Ladbroke Grove train crash of October 1999. I have been surprised about the extent to which this and other companies have been involved in railway work. I note that the Health and Safety Executive recently signed agreements with five major businesses for the supply of technical support for its work. In a press release, the HSE stated that it had
''awarded technical support 'framework agreements' to five international organisations . . . The agreements cover the provision of technical support and analyst services across the industry sectors in which HSE are involved including: rail''.
The organisations were AEA Technology, Amey Vectra, BOMEL of Maidenhead, NEL of East Kilbride and WS Atkins of Warrington.
Some bodies will quite properly provide support for the work of the rail accident investigation branch. On the other hand, I know from the Under-Secretary's reply, with which I agree, that it would be inappropriate for certain other bodies to be involved in the branch's work. The amendment gives the Under-Secretary the opportunity to tell the Committee how he proposes to live up the answer that he gave to a parliamentary question on how the roles of the two sorts of support organisation—the contractors and sub-contractors, and others—can be clearly defined and separated.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hurst?
I intend to support my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, although the Liberal Democrat spokesman was right to table the amendment. However, the world has moved on since the Under-Secretary gave his answer. Contractors are no longer as highly regarded as they were. That is certainly true of the rail industry in the light of recent accidents and since the establishment of Network Rail, which recently decided to take some of its maintenance contracts in-house and extend them. The costs of contracting are now seen to be much higher than direct employment. I hope that that will influence any decision about using contractors in railway safety. As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) pointed out, there is scope for using outside assistance in providing services during an investigation, such as hiring a minibus and providing sandwiches for the investigators. Even photographers might be on contracts and might be seen as contractors.
The wording of the amendment suggests too wide a scope. It might be stronger and more precise if it read, ''to undertake investigations'', rather than to ''assist'' in them. I will vote against it, but it is appropriate to raise the issue. I hope that the Under-Secretary and the Minister will consider direct employment for those who undertake the investigations.
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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): May I welcome you to the Committee and say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hurst? I am sure that we will all get to know each other much better during the course of the Committee.
I shall be brief, as I would like a debate on clause 6 stand part. I thank the hon. Member for Bath for his amendment. I draw the attention of the Committee to comments made by the Secretary of State on Second Reading.
''No one branch could include the expertise necessary to consider every aspect of a train incident, for example. I am certain that, from time to time, the new branch will need to go to outside bodies to get the expertise that it needs, and that is what people would expect.''—[Official Report, 28 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 767.]
The Secretary of State's comments and amendment No. 5 raise a question to which the Under-Secretary might respond. If the new branch is to be encouraged to get outside assistance, will the Under-Secretary clarify which bodies it might be expected to turn to and under what circumstances?
I have a problem with amendment No. 5. I can see where the hon. Member for Bath is coming from, as it harks back to previous times and perhaps to a body in which I declared an interest this morning. For your information, Mr. Hurst, I still have half my shares in Railtrack, having failed to sell them at their peak. I am still due a second instalment on them, although it is not a substantial amount of money, as we discussed this morning. Will the Under-Secretary confirm what the Minister for Transport said this morning? In circumstances in which the Secretary of State believes that there is a case for outside assistance, will there be a strong and direct chain of command and control back to the chief inspector? The Bill is silent about that.
Regrettably, the alliance is not dead in the water just yet, but on this issue we will wait for the Minister's comments.