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Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the outcome of the preparatory commission in Sudan yesterday is extremely encouraging, because it said that there would be a consensus on trying to establish a national peace? Will the Government make representations to encourage this weekend's Arab summit to make the theme of reconciliation and peace in areas of conflict such as Sudan and the Middle East a central part of its considerations?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, it is always helpful when we see positive outcomes. We must always be cautious on such issues. The noble Baroness knows that some disturbing reports have come out of Sudan from the special rapporteur about the continuation of aerial bombings and the continued abduction of women and children. I agree with her that we should look at the positive side when we can, but we have to take a balanced view of what is happening in Sudan. The important point is that both sides are willing to talk through the IGAD process and that Mr Mboya is a highly respected figure in the region who is trusted by both sides. I hope that we will take any opportunities, including those afforded by the Arab conference this weekend and those afforded in London next week, to do what we can to take forward the peace process in the most positive way.

Aviation Fuel Tax

3.31 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The Government support on environmental grounds the removal of the international ban on the taxation of aviation fuel. We shall continue to pursue the issue in the forum of the International Civil Aviation Organisation. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury has made it clear that the Government have no plans to take advantage of the European Commission's proposal to allow member states to opt to tax aviation fuel used on domestic flights and on flights within the EU.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that full answer. I declare an interest as president of the Aviation Environment Federation. Does my noble friend agree that aviation pollution is a serious environmental problem that causes 3.5 per cent of all global warming? Aviation fuel

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is currently untaxed throughout Europe. Does he agree that it is odd for the Treasury to turn down the opportunity of a good tax? Will he encourage his European colleagues to take the issue forward as quickly as possible so that the polluter can be made to pay in the air as well as on the ground?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I certainly agree that aviation fuel is a significant contributor to global warming and I have no reason to doubt my noble friend's figures. However, an independent study commissioned by the European Union confirms that taxing aviation fuel only in the EU would have very little environmental effect and would discriminate against British and European carriers.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, would the Minister care to speculate on the cause of the charming and noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, having momentarily taken leave of his senses? Taxing air fuel at the same rate as car fuel would be wildly unpopular and would put up the cost of air travel preposterously.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not think that my noble friend Lord Berkeley has taken leave of his senses. He has asked a responsible question that relates to the environmental issues and to equity between countries. As a point of fact, we are bound by the 1944 Chicago Convention and subsequent protocols that forbid us from taxing aviation fuel. That is the basis on which we have to work until we have persuaded countries internationally to tax aviation fuel.

Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I declare an interest as the owner of a small aeroplane that uses aviation gasoline, which is taxed at the same rate as motor car gasoline. Is the Minister satisfied that that is an appropriate arrangement, or does he hope to offer me some relief?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, any change to relative taxation of avgas, which the noble Lord uses, and the kerosene that jet engines use would be towards higher taxation for jet engine fuel rather than lower taxation for petrol engine aircraft.

Lord Monson: My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the EU alone were to tax aviation fuel, the Swiss in general and Swissair in particular would be in seventh heaven?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I imagine that the same would be true of Liechtenstein, Monaco and San Marino. I hope that I have made it clear that there are significant disadvantages in Britain or the European Union going it alone.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, what mechanism might be used to achieve the international agreement on taxing fuel that we require?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I hoped that I had dealt with that in my first answer. We are making

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representations through our membership of the International Civil Aviation Organisation towards that end.

Lord Saatchi: My Lords, when he assesses the impact of a possible new fuel tax, does the Minister agree that it would be helpful for us to know the base level of taxation to which any new tax might be added? I thank him for his recent letter in which he attempted to shed light on his reference to

    "the undoubted fact that the tax burden is falling".--[Official Report, 28/7/00; col. 758.]

However, there is a slight difficulty with his letter, because it makes no reference to the tax burden. When might he let us have a proper answer to the question?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I was about the congratulate the House on asking supplementary questions that related to the original Question, which was about aviation fuel tax. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, has let the House down.

The Hatfield Derailment

3.37 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall make a Statement about the tragic railway accident that occurred at 12.23 p.m. on Tuesday 17th October, when the 12.10 p.m. GNER train from King's Cross to Leeds was derailed near Hatfield. Four passengers died and 34 were injured. Noble Lords will want to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the families and friends of those who lost their lives. We hope too for the fullest possible recovery of those passengers who were injured.

I thank the emergency services for the speed and efficiency with which they responded to the incident. I pay tribute to their dedication and professionalism. I attended the scene of the accident a few hours after it occurred and witnessed at first hand an impressive presence, with the agencies concerned co-operating closely according to well prepared contingency planning.

Inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive's railway inspectorate were sent to the scene of the accident as soon as reports of the incident were received. Fourteen Health and Safety Executive inspectors are currently on site. The Health and Safety Executive will issue a preliminary report tomorrow.

Exercising powers under Section 14(2)(a) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission has directed the Health and Safety Executive to conduct an immediate formal investigation into the circumstances of the train derailment. The investigation will look at the underlying issues as well as seeking to establish the cause of the incident. A report will be published as soon as possible. The Health and Safety Executive intends to announce further details of the scope and arrangements of the investigation tomorrow.

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The Ladbroke Grove public inquiry is still sitting. Indeed, it is about to consider the whole question of rail safety management, culture and regulation. We do not want to risk delay to the consideration of those important matters. The findings of the HSE's inquiry will be made available to Lord Cullen so that he can consider within his current inquiry what wider implications this latest crash may have for the railway safety regime. Finding out the immediate causes of the derailment, as well as any underlying causes, must be a high priority. The Deputy Prime Minister is following up this incident personally by seeking further reports from the relevant rail authorities.

There has been much speculation about possible causes of the accident. Railtrack has acknowledged that the condition of the track was not good and has stated its preliminary view that a broken rail caused the accident. However, I am sure your Lordships will agree that at this stage, and until we receive the interim HSE report, it would not be right to make assumptions about the causes, which could turn out to be complex. Neither do I consider that it would be helpful at this early stage to speculate on the wider implications that this derailment may have for the rail industry.

However, following a meeting which the Deputy Prime Minister and I had with the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission this morning, I can now make clear a number of points. I can confirm the inspectors' preliminary view that it does not appear likely that the derailment was caused either by a failure of signalling or by a failure of the driver to respond to a stop signal.

Whatever the investigation eventually concludes, the condition of the rails appears to be a significant factor. In the past few years both the rail regulator and the Health and Safety Executive have gone to considerable lengths to make Railtrack improve track quality and increase the resources available for this important maintenance work.

As a precautionary measure, Railtrack has imposed speed restrictions on some other stretches of line with similar characteristics. The Health and Safety Executive's railway inspectorate needs to be certain that the steps taken by Railtrack are adequate to ensure the safety of rail users. At the inspectorate's request, Railtrack has commissioned an independent external assessment of that response. The assessment will be reviewed by the HSE's own staff.

The fact that we have now had a third rail crash with multiple fatalities in little more than three years is a matter of considerable concern to us all. In September 1997, seven passengers were killed at Southall. In October last year, 31 were killed at Ladbroke Grove. Noble Lords will be aware of the very high priority that has been given to safety and of the number of initiatives taken by the Government, regulator and industry in recent years, in particular since the Ladbroke Grove tragedy.

We are entering a new railway era. The Transport Bill now before your Lordships' House will establish the Strategic Rail Authority, giving much needed

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direction and accountability. Next Monday, the rail regulator will set the level of Railtrack's charges for maintaining and renewing the existing railway for five years starting next April. Our 10-year transport plan provides massive resources to expand and improve the railway. Tuesday's tragic accident is a sombre reminder that in all that we do, whether as government, regulator or industry, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that safety remains the highest priority.

3.43 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, I thank the Minister for making his Statement. On behalf of these Benches, I join him in expressing grief and sympathy for those who died or who were injured in the Hatfield accident. Our thoughts are with them and with their families. I also join him in his tribute to the accident and emergency services, the NHS and, indeed, everyone involved with the railway who contributed to the calm and effective response to the disaster and the care of those involved.

First, I start with a plea for honesty, which I am sure the Minister will share. This tragedy, following only a year after Paddington, shows that safety management is still an urgent concern. However, no objective commentator believes for a moment that our railways have become more dangerous during the lifetime of this Government or, indeed, over recent years.

Perhaps I may urge the Minister to give credit to the rail industry for the progress which it continues to make and to make it known to the wider public. Signals passed at danger were down by 30 per cent in the first six months of this year. That follows 1999, which saw the lowest ever number of SPADs across the network. Broken rails were reduced by 32 per cent in the first seven months of this year. The number of collisions and derailments has reduced steadily, with the lowest ever number being recorded last year, despite an extra 1,000 trains running every day.

Although safety problems exist, will the Minister discourage those who fight old battles about the structure of the privatised railway? If it were wrong, we would be the first to join Ministers in calls to change it. We acknowledge that some changes are proposed in the Transport Bill, as the Minister mentioned, but those do not alter the fundamental separation of track from train operations, the use of sub-contractors, or the ownership and operation of trains and infrastructure by profit-making companies.

The Secretary of State has talked repeatedly about ending the blame culture on the railway, and we agree with him. Therefore, will the Minister join me in commending the industry in pulling together in this crisis? Perhaps I may commend the Minister's decision to voice his support yesterday for the chief executive of Railtrack, instead of some of the rather inappropriate briefings that followed Paddington. We, too, support the decision of the Railtrack board to keep him on.

Does the Minister agree that, unless politicians give active and vocal support to those in the industry who try to bring about improvement, we make

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improvements harder to achieve? At a time such as this, the railway industry depends on the talent and ability of the people who work in it. Will the Minister also acknowledge that Railtrack and the rest of the industry need that support precisely because they are confronted by such a huge agenda of modernisation? Will the Minister acknowledge that the industry now needs the Government and regulators to provide a positive and stable framework which will allow it to get on with the job of investing in and running a modern railway, free of inappropriate political interference?

Does the Minister agree that Railtrack cannot be expected to achieve everything at once? The installation of TPWS, increased rail renewal and network enhancement, along with the determination of drivers to drive more carefully, will all have a detrimental effect on train performance and reliability. Therefore, I fully endorse the Minister's final comment. However, given that we all want safety to be the first priority and that the rail renaissance is still immature, can he make it clear, particularly to the rail regulator, that safety does come first?

Is the Minister concerned about the length of public inquiries? Southall was badly delayed and Paddington is still in progress more than a year after the event. Yesterday Sir Alastair Morton described public inquiries as part of the blame culture, saying that they would delay action for three years. Now that the immediate cause of the accident is pretty well established and that Railtrack has accepted responsibility, perhaps I may commend the Minister for confirming reports in this morning's papers that he has resisted the temptation of another public inquiry. However, perhaps I may suggest that there is a case for a special technical inquiry into the question of track maintenance and for highly technical questions to be asked relating to metal rail fatigue, or will the HSE inquiry cover those matters? Does the Minister believe that the HSE has sufficient expertise?

Does this incident not strengthen the case for a permanent and independent rail accident investigation branch of the DETR, such as the existing equivalents already well established for air and marine accidents, as we on this side of the House have recommended to the Cullen inquiry? Such a body would build up a permanent expertise, act more quickly and acquire public confidence that would lessen the need for adversarial public inquiries which can undermine trust and confidence in the industry.

Finally, the Minister has the grim task of responding to events such as Paddington and Hatfield. Therefore, I assure him of our continued support for his efforts to improve the safety of the railway.

3.49 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, we welcome the Minister's Statement. As did the preceding speaker, we join him in expressing our very real sympathy to those who have been bereaved or injured as a result of the accident. Like others, we welcome the high professionalism of all those who gave assistance to the injured, the distressed and the dying.

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The Minister has told us that he moved very quickly to establish two inquiries. We welcome that decision to move quickly to establish the cause of the accident rather than delaying that process pending legal proceedings, as has occasionally happened in the past. I hope that we can be sure that the conflict between differing inquiries and different groups of people, which was criticised so severely by Professor John Uff in his report on the Southall inquiry, is a thing of the past.

The noble Lord confirmed that Railtrack has admitted that the condition of the track in the vicinity of the accident was "not good" and that the accident could have been caused by poor track and a break in the rail. Will the Minister confirm that the condition of the track was known to Railtrack nine months ago and that further work was to have been done shortly to deal with those cracked rails? Will he explain to the House why no speed limits had been imposed on that section of track before the accident, as has happened on similar sections of track in other places since the accident?

We know that many other sites are affected by the same sorts of problems. Will the Minister tell us what proportion of the network is affected by severe or dangerous difficulties with the track? Will he confirm that incidents of broken rails appear to have grown in the past five years?

The Minister reminded us of the large increase in funds which will be going into Railtrack's capital programme. Unfortunately, Railtrack's published figures do not distinguish repairs from new investment within its overall capital programme. Is the Minister satisfied that maintenance of the track is being given its proper priority within Railtrack's overall investment programme?

The general background to this accident--and in this regard, I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara--is the break-down of the rail system into numerous companies which do not always share a common objective. Indeed, if the Railtrack board had accepted the chief executive's offer to resign, we might have been in an even more dire situation--Railtrack without leadership as well as a rail system without coherence. We welcome the board's decision to retain Gerald Corbett as chief executive.

Is the Minister confident that the structure and kind of regulation to which the industry is subject create the best circumstances for ensuring that necessary and urgent investment takes place?

We recognise that travel by rail is safer than travel by car. Nevertheless, that is no reason for complacency. The effect upon the travelling public of three very serious accidents over a three-year period, to which the Minister referred, is extremely damaging. On the other hand, if we are to make the real investment necessary to overcome those difficulties, we have a problem ensuring also that quality of supply, quality of rail services, is maintained at the same time. Has the Minister any comment to make about that?

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Finally, I welcome the Minister's statement that the HSE's findings will be made available immediately to the Cullen inquiry. That seems an extremely sensible use of everybody's time and expertise.

3.53 p.m.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, for an extremely understanding and constructive contribution. I acknowledge readily that credit must be given to the railway industry for the advances made in safety management in recent times. Indeed, the number of signals passed at danger has been reduced significantly. I am pleased that Railtrack felt able to announce earlier this month that the number of broken rails in the half year in question, compared with the previous period, had declined by 32 per cent. There are other areas of improvement in performance which the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, mentioned.

However, we all accept that while reductions of 32 per cent in broken rails and of 25 per cent in signals passed at danger are extremely welcome, the fact that those incidents are still numbered in hundreds remains a cause for great concern. I agree with the noble Lord that we should look forward. Where there has been fragmentation, we must bring about coherence in the industry. Where there has been neglect over decades, we must bring increased investment.

On the question of Railtrack, I repeat what I said yesterday. The railway industry and the British travelling public need a stable and strong Railtrack. Therefore, I am pleased to see that continuity will be maintained in its upper management structures.

I accept too the enormous complexity of the network which employs about 90,000 people with rolling stock travelling over 24,000 miles of track.

With even the most ambitious programmes of investment and the most diligent of employees--and I am sure that we are well served by them--there are the inevitabilities of accidents. That is the probability inside such a complex system. But we must ensure that we have in place the safety management procedures and investment on such a scale that the risk involved is reduced to the minimum achievable, and that remains a challenge.

In the periodic review which the office of the rail regulator has been conducting, I am sure that safety will be a priority, as it is with every other agency inside the railway network.

As to the question of a public inquiry, we are at a stage at which Lord Cullen has finished the first part of his inquiries into the tragedy at Paddington. He has been sitting with Professor Uff looking at advanced train protection system and the TPWS. He will go on to undertake the third stage of his inquiries into the general safety culture of the railway.

The investigation under way by the Health and Safety Executive will be delivered in weeks rather than months. Therefore, the results of that will be readily available to Lord Cullen.

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I was asked about the need for a permanent investigation branch for the railways. That is something which will be dealt with by Lord Cullen. We shall await his judgment. If there is a requirement for a change in legislation, we stand ready to bring forward the necessary legislation in the times ahead.

I turn now to the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood. Indeed, we shall look forward to the causes of the accident becoming clearer through the interim report of the railway inspectorate. I am extremely pleased that it has been able to promise such a quick response as, indeed, it did in relation to Paddington. It had information which was of value to the travelling public and to the industry before the end of the week following the tragedy. The formal investigation by the HSE will be conducted again with all expedition and with the necessary resources required.

As to whether the condition of the track over the past nine months required some kind of response which was not forthcoming, again, I must leave it to the technical experts on the spot to give us their advice. I hope to report back to the House as quickly as possible.

A similar response must be made to the question of whether a speed limit was appropriate on that stretch of track. It is with regret that I cannot be more detailed in my response to that.

As regards what proportion of the network might be afflicted by similar problems, I believe that today Railtrack will be publishing those areas of track which may have similar characteristics to the track outside Hatfield.

Much of the trouble with the railways in recent years appears to be due to a hiatus in investment in the middle of the last decade. However, it is worth remembering that even in the days of British Rail, the number of broken rails could be at a high level--600 or 700 or more. A couple of years ago we felt that we were making significant progress, but in the past two years the number of identified broken rails has risen. As was said earlier, the reduction of 32 per cent in the past six months is particularly welcome. I know this matter has been given priority. Railtrack recently announced a £100 million investment programme dedicated to broken rails and I believe that in the future that amount will increase.

As to the structure and regulation of investment in the industry, I believe that what we have put in place with the new Transport Bill and with the strengthened powers of the rail regulator, amplified by the strategic vision of the SRA, will give us a purposefulness that has been lacking in the industry for some time.

On quality of service, of course, punctuality is important, but there is nothing more important than safety. We shall try to ensure that the investment that is made over the years ahead puts the priority of safety at the forefront of concerns.

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4.2 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, perhaps I may associate noble Lords on these Benches with the words of comfort to the bereaved and to those who have been injured. Bearing in mind that metal fatigue in rails will be caused in part by the frequency and the weight of use to which they are subjected, is the Minister satisfied that the attempts to increase the number of services and the speeds at which the trains travel are acceptable for our rail services?

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