Railways and Transport Safety Bill

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I welcome you, Mr. Hurst. It is a pleasure to sit again under your careful and watchful eye. I have been uncharacteristically quiet so far in this Committee, and as you can hear from my voice, that is probably for the best.

I thought that it would be appropriate for me to reply to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bath. As he said, he took the crease just before we finished our morning sitting, and he kindly referred me to a question that I answered last June. He need not have done that. Although I have answered 3,000 or 4,000 questions since then, I am fully familiar with all my answers. Nevertheless, I welcome the opportunity to explain that one. I hope to show the hon. Gentleman that his amendment is unworkable, impractical and out of step with the current practice of the air and marine accident investigation branches and Health and Safety Executive investigations.

The query about my answer may be explained by different meanings of the word ''contracting'' in two

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contexts. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Lord Cullen's inquiry into Ladbroke Grove in his question, and the inquiry referred directly to the use of contractors. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) implied, it was not just a matter of contractors, but the management of those contractors. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) also mentioned that.

In my answer of 10 June, I was referring to contractors involved in general maintenance work on the railways. The only context in which those contractors would have been used in investigation would have been as witnesses to whether the work was carried out properly. I do not think that there was any intention to rule out the use of those contractors in an inquiry or the ability of the rail accident investigation branch to call in assistance other than from people working directly for the branch. The hon. Member for Bath will appreciate that it would be almost impossible for the branch to carry out its work without calling in other forms of advice and assistance.

Both the highly respected air and marine accident investigations branches use outside contractors to assist them during their investigations. The marine accident investigation branch, with which I am very familiar and from which I see a lot of reports, uses salvage experts to lift wreckage from the sea bed, and uses metallurgists to inspect or test different parts of a vessel. The aviation accident investigation branch may also use outside experts: for example, it may call on the expertise of those in the aircraft manufacture laboratories. Both those bodies use such experts extensively because of the level and type of work that they do.

It would be impossible for the rail accident investigation branch to avoid using contractors. For example, it might need to move and test train wreckage, and if it could not use contractors, it might be unable to find out what went wrong. In those circumstances, its ability to carry out effective investigations would be very limited.

In relation to the question raised by the hon. Member for Bath this morning about the establishment of the rail accident investigation branch, it would be impractical for it to retain the level of expertise needed on a permanent basis in anticipation of there being an accident.

The hon. Member for Vale of York asked me to give some examples. I gave examples from the aviation and maritime areas, but I will give examples specific to rail. The rail accident investigation branch would sometimes need laboratory facilities, or heavy lifting equipment to move train wreckage, and a range of other facilities. I am sure that the hon. Lady has enough experience in the area to imagine what other facilities might be required.

Although I understand the comments that have been made by the hon. Member for Bath and by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North, and notwithstanding what the hon. Member for Vale of York said, there must be proper supervision of any contractor. There must be a proper chain of command.

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The Minister for Transport set that out clearly this morning in his reply to an earlier debate.

I hope that I have addressed the concerns raised by my hon. Friend and by Opposition Members, and that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Mr. Foster: I congratulate the Minister on getting through that, and on his reasonably helpful reply.

I am grateful for the comments made by the hon. Member for Luton, North, who reminded us of the ongoing debate about the use of contractors and sub-contractors, particularly in rail maintenance work. I chose not to refer to that debate, as I did not wish to appear critical of individual companies to which I might refer in my subsequent remarks. The hon. Gentleman was right to do so, however, and many of us are delighted that Network Rail has decided to bring back in house the work in the Reading area. That will give us a comparator benchmark against which we can examine costs in other parts of the network, although many of us believe that we do not need to wait for the comparator information and that Network Rail should get on with that work quickly.

I was also grateful for the comments made by the hon. Member for Vale of York. She reminded us, quite rightly—I hoped that I had referred to that in my own remarks—that it would be almost impossible to envisage the rail accident investigation branch doing all the necessary work itself. I understand that it would be necessary to use such external contractors, and gave specific examples about the use of forensic laboratories or heavy gear lifting.

My concern throughout has been with the conflict of interest that might arise if certain contractors were used. The Minister has not completely reassured me. I referred earlier to the recent contract that the Health and Safety Executive had entered into with five major companies. The HSE's press release states:

    ''Famous five scoop top HSE awards.''

The HSE contract means that any of the companies to which I referred could be involved in the provision of a range of services. The deputy director general said of the awarding of that contract:

    ''These companies will be providing invaluable technical support and contributing to the robust service the HSE provides in helping make working environments safer.''

That includes rail environments.

Not until the RAIB is a long way into its investigation will we necessarily have any indication of the cause. Safety standards may have been incorrectly applied. The standards themselves might be incorrect or the advice that has come from one of those many different contractors may have contributed to the accident or the incident. It will be difficult for the RAIB to decide which contractors it can use. Contractors will have been involved in setting or advising on safety standards or a whole range of issues, and not just, as the hon. Member for Luton, North said, on maintenance of the track. Notwithstanding the Minister's response, there is still a legitimate concern about conflicts of interest between the bodies that might be brought in to assist the RAIB in its work and the nature of the investigation being

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carried out. The Minister has an inquisitive frown on his face.

Mr. Jamieson: Thoughtful.

Mr. Foster: That might indicate that he is minded to go back and look at this issue in a little more detail. On the basis of the Minister's thoughtful frown, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Miss McIntosh: I refer the Committee to the Secretary of State's comments on Second Reading. He said:

    ''the Bill . . . gives a fair amount of latitude to the chief inspector as to what he investigates. In some cases it would be mandatory; in others there would be a discretion . . . there is sufficient latitude under clause 6 to allow the chief inspector to take a decision as to whether or not he ought to investigate. The circumstances that might lead to his investigation would depend on the information that he had before him, and existing health and safety legislation would be of help. Again, if hon. Members feel that the situation could be improved, of course the Government are open to their suggestions.''—[Official Report, 28 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 771–2.]

This is the challenge to the Committee this afternoon. We can come forward with a number of suggestions. I should like to take the Committee through both the definitions in the Railways Act 1993 and the definitions that form the background to the clause. The clause states:

    ''The Rail Accident Investigation Branch—

    (a) shall investigate any serious railway accident''.

There is no scope for discretion. However, subsections (b) and (c) provide discretion because the RAIB

    ''(b) may investigate a non-serious railway accident or a railway incident, and

    (c) shall investigate a non-serious railway accident or a railway incident if required to do so by or in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State.''

I remind the Minister that the Opposition would prefer all the powers and procedures to be set out in the Bill so that the Committee and those who implement the Bill may be clear what we are talking about. I understand that definitions were deliberately not included in the Bill but will be in regulations.

The consultation paper that preceded the Bill proposed that the jurisdiction of the rail accident investigation branch should take as its starting point the definition of a ''railway'' in section 81(2) of the Railways Act 1993. That definition describes ''a railway'' as a network, rolling stock or track, and

    ''a tramway, or . . . a transport system which uses another mode of guided transport but which is not a trolley vehicle system''.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary would want to make it clear that this country does not have trolley vehicle systems. I may be wrong—perhaps Bristol or Manchester is an exception—but I presume that such systems are excluded for the simple reason that we do not have them at present, in the same way that tramways were excluded in relation to Scotland. Perhaps further clarification is required.

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3 pm

Clause 6(2) provides for the chief inspector of the rail accident investigation branch to exercise discretion when considering whether to investigate a serious accident on a tramway. I understand that that is because the investigation of an accident affecting a road-running part of a tramway would fall to the police. Again, that raises the question of the relationship between the police and the rail accident investigation branch. Perhaps it would be useful for the Under-Secretary to clarify that.

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