Previous Section Index Home Page

On the hon. Gentleman’s final substantive point about a public inquiry, I do not believe that today is the day on which to make such a judgment. We have had an interim report after only 48 hours, and the right and
26 Feb 2007 : Column 642
appropriate response of the Government is to allow the investigators to take forward their work. We will draw the appropriate conclusions when that work has been concluded.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): As has just been mentioned, this is a difficult site, and it is obviously important that the repairs are carried out properly and that the investigators are able to carry out all the investigations that they need to carry out. Can my right hon. Friend give us any idea of when services might return to normal on that line? Will he also tell us what arrangements are being made in the meantime for alternative services and diversions of trains?

Mr. Alexander: I should perhaps express an interest at this point. I travelled on the west coast main line on Friday afternoon. I was actually due to take the overnight sleeper north from Euston to Glasgow on Friday evening. It is a service that I use most weeks, and it has seen significant improvements in recent years. The best indications that we have had from Network Rail and those working at the site are that it will take between 10 days and two weeks for normal services to be established once again. Services are operating, however, with a bus service running from Lancaster to Carlisle and, given the existence of the Carlisle-Settle railway, it will be possible for services to run directly from Euston to Glasgow notwithstanding the ongoing work that will be necessary at the site of the crash.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Secretary of State put this tragedy into context by informing the House how many people were killed in rail crashes last year and how many in road crashes? Assuming that the daily carnage on our roads has been repeated in the three days since this rail tragedy, will he confirm that something like 30 people will have been killed in road crashes in that time? How many road deaths does it take to get him to come to the Dispatch Box to talk about road crashes?

Mr. Alexander: It is appropriate to take a responsible and measured approach to the challenge of safety on our roads and on our railways. To the extent that the hon. Gentleman points out that a great deal more work has still to be done on road safety, of course I agree with him. On an average weekend, about 21 people are killed in road accidents. I do think, however, that it is appropriate to have made a statement to the House at the earliest opportunity, given the public concern that inevitably and understandably has arisen as a result of Friday evening’s significant derailment.

Of course, I and my colleague Ministers are available to the House on a monthly basis to answer questions on transport policy, including road safety policies. I also suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he take the opportunity to look at the road safety review that my Department is due to publish, which shows its ongoing commitment to continue to drive down the number of those who are killed and seriously injured on our roads.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): As a regular user of the west coast main line, I, too, pay tribute to the driver of the train involved in Friday’s
26 Feb 2007 : Column 643
accident, Iain Black. It is reassuring to know that drivers of his calibre are in charge of the many thousands of passengers who use our railways each day. The investigation of the accident will be vital. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that if any recommendation requires further overseeing of maintenance or work carried out on the tracks, we shall ensure that it, and every other recommendation, is met in full?

Mr. Alexander: I associate myself with the tributes paid by my hon. Friend. I want to make a couple of points. First, as I have already intimated to the House, if recommendations result from the ongoing work of the investigators ahead of the publication of the final report, of course we will have no hesitation in ensuring that they are implemented. It will be for the rail accident investigation branch to make any recommendations when it concludes its report. Of course, we will give those serious consideration and seek to implement recommendations that will improve the safety of the travelling public.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): My friend told us that Network Rail checked 900 sets of points. How often are those points routinely checked? Is that a matter of visual examination or do points suffer from metal fatigue? When were the points at Grayrigg last inspected?

Mr. Alexander: On the general regime, that is a matter of which the chief executive of Network Rail has been speaking in the last 48 hours. It has a regime that involves weekly and monthly inspection, as well as, as I recall, 13-weekly inspection. There is also now a train, which moves across the UK network, that can continually videotape the track to provide a visual record of its condition. However, given that we are only at the interim report stage and that these matters are subject to ongoing inquiries by the investigators, it would not be appropriate for me to give undertakings on behalf of Network Rail. Ultimately, it is for Network Rail to account to the rail accident investigation branch as to the particular circumstances that gave rise to these events.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): I share the sentiments of condolence expressed by my right hon. Friend. Early indications show that the rolling stock on the Pendolino train displayed a robustness never seen before on the rail network. Does he agree that that is a testament to the dedication and skill of the engineers and technicians of the west midlands, many of whom designed and produced the safety features on the Pendolino train? Given that Alstom has chosen to close the plant in the midlands, does he not think it vital that we do everything we can to retain the skills of those people in the service of the UK rail industry?

Mr. Alexander: I certainly associate myself with the tributes that have been paid to the engineers and to the workers who helped to manufacture those trains. Sir Richard Branson described the Pendolino when he visited the site of the incident as “built like a tank”. All the indications that we will all have seen on our television
26 Feb 2007 : Column 644
screens suggest that the carriages were able to withstand Friday evening’s high-impact crash with far better consequences for those on board than would have been the case with more traditional rolling stock, where the structural integrity of the carriages might well have been compromised.

My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge that Alstom manufactured those carriages in Birmingham in the west midlands. I pay tribute to the work that those people have done. As is the case not simply in Birmingham, but in Derby and elsewhere, the Government are keen to ensure that those skills continue to be available to the British rail industry, because, as we have seen in recent days, they produce a prime product.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the question of how rail is maintained leads one to support what Sir Richard Branson said in the aftermath of the incident, which is that some vertical reintegration must be reintroduced so that the train operating company has a say on the level of maintenance on that particular railway? Does my right hon. Friend also accept that there is a need to monitor the reuse of those coaches to ensure that they are fit for purpose?

Mr. Alexander: I am not convinced by my hon. Friend’s argument. First, as part of a measured response to the terrible accidents and events that occurred on Friday evening, it is right to recognise that there has been significant investment in the network in recent years and a consequential improvement in safety.

At this stage, I do not want to prejudge the ongoing investigation of the rail accident investigation branch, but I cannot say that it is obvious that rail safety on the west coast main line would be improved by breaking up the ownership of that railway into any number of different train operating companies that would have responsibility for the maintenance and safety of individual pieces of the track.

Real progress has been made in recent years, and it would be appropriate at this stage to leave it to the rail accident investigation branch to find out why we encountered those terrible circumstances on Friday evening.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I associate myself with the tributes to Iain Black, a member of ASLEF. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating that organisation on its mature and measured responses since the accident, led by its general secretary and also its Scottish secretary, Kevin Lindsay, who is a constituent of mine? In the light of that mature approach to industrial relations, and to encourage partnership working in the railway industry, will my right hon. Friend consider allocating seats on the RAIB to the trade unions?

Mr. Alexander: It is fair to acknowledge that trade unions play an important role in the rail industry, and I am happy to confirm that at the Dispatch Box today.

On the ongoing work of the rail accident investigation branch, I should say that its remit stretches widely. If any organisation—be it ASLEF or any other trade union—or any individual has information relevant to the circumstances of the Grayrigg crash, I strongly encourage them to bring that information to the RAIB’s attention; I am sure that it would lend a willing ear to it.

26 Feb 2007 : Column 645

Opposition Day

[7th Alloted Day]

Royal Navy

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I remind the House that Back-Benchers’ speeches are limited to eight minutes. That, of course, does not apply to Front Benchers, although they might bear in mind the time available when making their comments.

5.2 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I beg to move,

This is the first time during my 15 years in the House that I have managed the treble: questions, a statement and the debate in the one day. It is a pity that I did not secure the Adjournment debate and get a full house.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who has consistently championed the Royal Navy and done a great deal of research on that front as part of the shadow Defence team.

In a recent debate, I put on record my party’s support for the strategic defence review undertaken in 1998. It was a good review, which came to sensible conclusions about the sort of threats that the United Kingdom was likely to face. The review was reasonable in its expectation that the United Kingdom should be able to carry out one medium-sized and one small operation simultaneously, plus an occasional additional small operation. However, the defence planning assumptions that flowed from that have been exceeded in each of the past four years. In July 1998, the SDR promised the replacement of

At the same time, it was decided to reduce the number of attack submarines

and the destroyer and frigate fleet from 35 to 32. It was also decided that

26 Feb 2007 : Column 646

The then First Sea Lord reluctantly accepted those reductions, given the promise of new carriers.

The case for the carriers was simple: the ability to deploy offensive air power was central to future force projection operations. However, we could not be certain that we would always have access to suitable air bases. The two proposed new carriers would constitute a seaborne base from which a combined force of Royal Navy and RAF aircraft would be able to operate.

At the time, the reduction in the destroyer and frigate total to 32 was based on the numbers needed for “two concurrent medium-scale deployments”, and the loss of two submarines from the 12-strong attack force was excused on the basis that all 10 attack submarines would be equipped to fire Tomahawk land attack missiles. At the same time, the Government undertook to remedy long-standing undermanning in the Royal Navy. They claimed that personnel released by the changes set out would be redeployed across the service to meet shortfalls. Once manpower problems had been solved, they said, the net effect of the review on the Navy’s regular manpower requirement would be a reduction of some 1,400. Of course, the actual reduction since 1997, when the Government came to power, has been 10,000.

In December 2003, another defence White Paper entitled, “Delivering Security in a Changing World”, again stressed the role of the Royal Navy in projecting force from the “sea onto the land”. However, a hint of what was to come was clear:

A supporting essay to the White Paper stated:

Despite the White Paper’s admission that operations had been more numerous and varied than the SDR had expected, on 21 July 2004 a supplement to the White Paper was published that proposed cutting the size of the fleet. Once again, the praises were sung of the yet-to-be-ordered future carriers and joint combat aircraft, as well as the new assault ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, and the forthcoming Bay-class landing ships. The logic of the Government’s treatment of the Royal Navy up to this point runs as follows: all the armed forces were scaled down at the end of the cold war, but adjustments were needed to reflect the strategic shift from a defensive role in Europe to the mounting of far-flung operations from a sea base. That required large strike carriers as a centrepiece, and a loss of five frigates and submarines was apparently a price worth paying in 1998.

Instead of being cut from 35 to 32, however, the frigate and destroyer force has been cut from 35 to 25. Instead of being reduced from 12 to 10, the submarine force has been cut from 12 to a maximum of eight. The carriers—one of which was supposed to be in service
26 Feb 2007 : Column 647
by 2012—have not yet been firmly ordered, and the Government are now giving no target in-service dates, despite their previous willingness to do so. The projected 12 Type 45 destroyers, which have a key role in the air defence of the sea base, have been reduced to a programme of eight, but only six have been ordered, and ships seven and eight may never be built.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): It is interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments about reductions to 25. Would he care to comment on the report for the Economic Research Council—which I understand is chaired by Lord Biffen, who was a Minister in Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative Government—which calls for the Royal Navy’s fleet of frigates and destroyers to be slashed from 25 to 14 and for investment in unmanned aerial drones? Will that be the future Conservative policy?

Dr. Fox: I am not responsible for the policies of all sorts of groups outside the House, as the hon. Lady well knows. Perhaps she might want to think of a more pertinent point next time.

On the subject of ship reductions, such massive reductions might have been expected if events since the publication of the SDR had shown the world to be a safer and more secure place—but it is not. The escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan, leading to the increased deployment that we have heard about recently, the continuing threat of Islamist terror, the Iranian nuclear programme, the North Korean bomb and Russia’s rearmament are all testament to that. The number and variety of operational deployments have consistently exceeded the assumptions of SDR, but what has the Government’s response been? It has been to weaken the Royal Navy drastically by reducing the total of its major warships, while disingenuously arguing that their replacements need be fewer in number because each will be more powerful than its predecessor.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I hope to offer a more sensible intervention than the last one. Does my hon. Friend agree that the importance of the Type 45 is that it has a radar system that makes up for the inadequacies caused by the removal of the Sea Harriers? Unless we have the full selection of 12 Type 45s, we will not be able to provide the umbrella of protection that we need for our fleet when it is at sea.

Dr. Fox: My hon. Friend is correct about the capability. The worry about decreasing from 12 to 10 to eight to perhaps six Type 45s is that the level of cover would be far too low, given the potential operational requirements.

Next Section Index Home Page