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House of Lords

Wednesday, 1st December 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Identification of Disaster Victims

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether inquiries have been completed into the reason why the original estimate of casualties in the train crash at Ladbroke Grove proved to be exaggerated; and what actions are being taken to prevent such a situation arising in a future civil disaster.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, I think it is widely understood that, owing to the horrific destruction in some of the coaches, it was not possible to be confident that the number of deaths could be assessed solely from the remains which were found. Since there was no record of the number of people travelling on the train, police estimates had to take into account the reports they received of people who were missing and might have been travelling on it. Of course, it took a little time before the police could be sure that people who had been reported missing had turned up safely. They always made clear, however, that the estimates they produced were of the maximum possible number of casualties. Whether the media, in turn, always made that clear, I cannot say. There are no specific inquiries under way on the matter. Far from apportioning blame to anyone, I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate those police officers, and indeed all those in the other emergency services, who were involved in coping with this appalling tragedy.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I should like to associate myself with the sentiments he has expressed concerning the emergency services. It concerns me, however--and I shall happily be corrected--that the details of those who telephoned in, using the number advertised on television, were recorded on a card index system. I seek an assurance from the Government that, in any future emergency--whether on the railway or, God forbid, an air crash, terrorist incident or whatever--the Metropolitan Police will have access to the most up-to-date computer system possible in order to record accurately the name of the caller and the possible victims, and to be able to cross-reference the names quickly: for example, with the numberplates on vehicles in car parks and addresses on electoral registers. In that way, the hysteria that built up in the press could be avoided. Will the Minister give an assurance that the best efforts will be made to prevent any exaggeration of casualties by making use of the most up-to-date call system management available?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord seeks an assurance rather than an Answer. All I can do is offer the reassurance that the Metropolitan Police do have such a facility at present. I have been there and looked at the system. It seems to work perfectly well and adequately. The police were in a difficult position. They had to provide the best possible estimates. The figures that were given initially rapidly came down. After a few days we learnt more precisely the number of fatalities. I am sure that the whole House will join me in congratulating the police and all the emergency services on the way in which they dealt with the families affected and the careful and caring approach that they adopted. The services can take great credit from the way in which they worked during that very trying time.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I strongly sympathise with the police in the dilemma they faced in publishing the figures. However, I hope that some thought will be given to this matter. I live in Reading, where the whole population were in mourning, believing that 50 people had been killed in the rail accident. There was a message from the Queen, and a memorial service was held for those who were believed to have died. Yet the only person killed who had lived in Reading was one of the train drivers. So the whole town was in mourning when 50 people had not in fact been killed. Members of the community are a little put out that they should have been placed in that position. I hope that the Government and the police will be able to do something about this. I, too, repeat and emphasise my admiration for the police and the community services.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my noble friend makes a valid point. The police were careful to try to check and clear every name they could from being involved in the crash. Sadly, there was much public speculation which was beyond acceptable standards and well over the top. We live in a media goldfish bowl and can expect that that will happen when tragic events take place.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I, too, sympathise with the police in those extremely difficult circumstances and pay tribute to them. At the same time, I was slightly surprised that the Minister seemed to say that no consideration was being given to the matter. It appeared to me that at least internally, if not in Lord Cullen's inquiry, some consideration should be given to whether methods of handling relatives in such a situation could be improved. There is always something to learn from every major incident and I hope and expect that the police will seek to do that.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, again, the noble Lord makes a valid contribution to a continuing discussion and debate. From my knowledge, I am sure the police will review all their practices and procedures to find out whether they can improve the quality of their performance.

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However, one area where they have made great strides in recent years is in the way in which they make contact with the families affected and deal with the distress, unhappiness and uncertainty that the families face. They should be congratulated on that work, a tremendous effort has been put in by them. On behalf of the Metropolitan Police, I extend an invitation to the noble Lord to visit the control centre which dealt with the difficult circumstances that they encountered on that tragic day.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, looking at the wider issues of preventing such disasters in future and dealing with the present one, and providing future deterrents, will my noble friend please tell the House whether prosecutions are likely to take place? Will they include individual directors and managers in accordance with the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for the question. The Deputy Prime Minister announced that a public inquiry would be undertaken by Lord Cullen. The question of prosecutions and so on must be a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. They properly deal with those difficult and complex issues and I am sure they will deal with them with great professionalism.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, will the noble Lord kindly deal with the second part of the Question:

    "What actions are being taken to prevent such a situation?"

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I thought I had answered that point. There is to be a public inquiry. We know that Sir David Davies, the President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, is to report back by the end of the year with his initial assessment of the effectiveness, practicability and cost of train protection systems. The inquiries undertaken have been very thorough. One point that has impressed me particularly throughout is the way in which the Health and Safety Executive, in particular, has brought forward as much information as it could in an open and transparent way. It has put it firmly in the public domain so that we can all make judgments on how best to proceed in policy terms.

Lone Parents: New Deal Interviews

2.45 p.m.

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any plans to call young single mothers with children under four years old for interview under the New Deal, and, if so, whether pressure or inducements will be used to persuade them to go out to work.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, letters inviting lone parents to contact a personal adviser are currently sent to those whose youngest child is over five. The Government have announced that invitation letters will also be sent to lone parents with three and four year-olds. The New Deal for Lone Parents is a voluntary programme. Lone parents are not pressured into looking for work, but many realise that measures introduced by the Government mean that work pays and offers the best route out of poverty for them and their children. Parents with younger children are knocking on our door to come into the New Deal. That is why we are responding as we are.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that helpful Answer. Does she agree that many mothers will be relieved to hear that they will not be forced or encouraged to go out to work? Does she further agree that the interviews might form an appropriate point of contact at which young mothers could be given information about support services for parents and parenting which are available in their locality? Will she consider instructing her department and jobcentres to keep in close contact with the Government's new National Parenting Institute and with the Parenting Forum so that such information can be disseminated in that way?

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