Sir George speaks on Rail Safety
28 Jan 2003
This is the text of Sir George's speech on the Rail Safety Bill:

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) who, through his work on the Select Committee on Transport, can bring expertise to bear on this subject. I also appreciated the speech made by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn), who worked in the transport sector before he became a Member of the House and can thus bring to life what is sometimes a rather dry subject.
I very much welcome the Bill, which has as its theme the promotion of safety for the travelling public, and I wave it a metaphorical handkerchief as it passes through the House.
I note the view of the Council for the Protection of Rural England and some hon. Members that the Bill contains nothing on road safety. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that that does not mean that the Government accord road safety policy less priority but, rather, that it is travelling at least as quickly in a separate but parallel lane.
Travelling by rail is already much safer than travelling by road. We need to remember that point as we deal with the safety provisions in part 1. If we drive up safety on the railway and place all the costs on the tickets of the travelling public, we price people off a safer system and on to the roads, which are already less safe and which will then become more congested.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) suggested that we should make the trains slower. The difficulty with that is they would become less competitive compared to road travel. That is the wrong way to promote a coherent transport policy.
It is important for the Government to send the travelling public a clear signal that their policy is to ensure that the costs of travelling by bus or rail will not rise faster than the costs of travelling by car. That is a key component of a coherent transport strategy, which the Government risk abandoning.
With reference to part 1, safety must be paramount on the railways. Safety was improving under British Rail and has continued to improve since, but one death on the railways remains one death too many. It is not the case, as has been asserted sometimes—and, indeed, this afternoon—that a disaggregated or fragmented transport system is inherently more dangerous than an integrated one.
The most disaggregated transport industry is civil aviation. The airlines do not run the airports or air traffic control. They do not own or maintain the planes: they lease them. Just about everything from baggage handling to meals is contracted out. There are many different airlines and owners of airports.
The industry is highly fragmented, but flying is the safest means of travel. Air travel is extremely popular. Furthermore, in response to the arguments of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, I remind the House that the industry is entirely profit-driven. I reject the argument that there is conflict between fragmentation and safety and private ownership and safety. The record disproves that.
Mr. Don Foster: I have listened with interest to the comments of the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect. Is he not fundamentally wrong on this issue? Surely he accepts that there is a difference between monopoly and competition. In the airline industry, there is competition and that automatically drives up safety standards; no one wants to fly in an unsafe plane. In the rail industry, Railtrack was a monopoly so there was a conflict between passenger safety and shareholder profit.
Sir George Young: I entirely reject that argument. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South deployed the argument that a fragmented industry was less safe than an integrated one. However, the safety record for civil aviation is even better than it is for the railways, yet the industry is the most fragmented that one could possibly find. It is subcontracted and specialised, yet it works. A comparison of civil aviation with rail substantiates the argument that there is nothing wrong with a privately owned disaggregated industry running a transport system.
Mr. Stevenson: If the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to take my word for it, I am sure that he will look at the documented evidence, from the former chief executive of Railtrack who said that fragmentation had been bad for the industry, and from the train operating companies and so on. It is not my argument; it is documented throughout the industry.
Sir George Young: Sadly, the statistics do not support the hon. Gentleman's argument. Safety has improved since privatisation. The railway is now safer than it was before privatisation, but we have to make it even safer. The hon. Gentleman's own Government have kept roughly the same structure that they inherited from the Conservatives. There is Railtrack, or Network Rail; there is a series of train operating companies with franchises; there are people who own the rolling stock; and there is a regulator. I did not intend to be so partisan, but I was driven to it by interventions.
I am attracted by the policy of replicating the well-tested air accidents investigation branch and marine accident investigation branch models. When I was at the Department of Transport, I was impressed by the AAIB at Farnborough, which puts together after an accident a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing and pieces damaged. It is painstaking and methodical professional work against a background of tragedy, and I commend the AAIB for what it does.
The AAIB does not face the potential conflicts of interest that confront Her Majesty's railway inspectorate. As the AAIB does not validate any particular design of aircraft or system of air traffic control, it is completely impartial in investigating what goes wrong. So I see the attractions of that model.
It is possible to develop the opposite case, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) did, for what one might call an integrated approach, with constant contact between those investigating accidents and those monitoring safety on a daily basis. Under the proposals, the rail accident investigation branch will not receive all the reports that HMRI used to receive on signals passed at danger, severe congestion and so on. It will not have day-to-day contact with the operation of the railways, but against the background of the problems at Ladbroke Grove, one can see the conflict of interest under the current regime. At the moment, the Health and Safety Executive must both discover the cause of the accident and decide whether to prosecute under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 for any breaches of safety regulations. It is a public prosecution body; it can bring cases to court. Supposing, for the sake of argument, it has at a previous stage validated a particular layout of signals: one can see the potential conflict of interest.
The proposed regime allows the RAIB to concentrate on discovering the cause of an accident without worrying about conflict of interest or about prosecuting, but that means that another body has to go round the course to see whether there has been an infringement of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act. I have just three questions about this part of the Bill. What happens during the transitional period during which the new RAIB is set up and responsible only for inquiries but during which presumably many of the personnel come from HMRI and may have given advice under the previous regime? How are we to prevent the conflict of interest which is at the heart of the Bill in the short term?
The explanatory notes tell us that the running costs of RAIB will be £1.85 million. Is that a net increase, or are the costs offset by reductions in the costs of HMRI, which will presumably no longer do the accident work? How does the new regime interface with the criminal justice system? The RAIB will be involved after an accident. HMRI will presumably decide whether to prosecute. If there has been a fatality, the British Transport police will be involved. The railway operators will be wanting to get the system up and running again. Some rather complicated choreography will have to be worked out if we are not to have duplication, lack of co-operation and delays in getting the railways up and running again.
Turning to part 2, I have no difficulty with replacing the regulator with a board, which I gather will have four members. In considering who to appoint, the imperative for the Government must be to attract private capital back into the railways and restore confidence in railway investment following the demise of Railtrack. So I hope that the board will comprise people who understand how to attract private capital and retain investor confidence. The board must not be an agent of the Government, but as the responsibilities overlap to some extent with those of the Strategic Rail Authority, they need to be on roughly the same wavelength.
The regulatory task will be different with the publicly owned Network Rail, rather than with Railtrack. There will be less emphasis on preventing excess profits and more on maintaining an income stream for private capital. The wisdom of Solomon will be required in fixing the track access charges, which are at the heart of the system; they are the main costs of the train operating companies on one hand and Network Rail's main income on the other.
It is a good idea to try to depersonalise the Office of the Rail Regulator. There had been signs of an ego trip. Sadly, there have been some personal vendettas in the past and a lack of empathy with Railtrack when it existed. I hope that there will be slightly less of that with a board because the relationships between the industry's various components are crucial.
There is a risk of losing the progress made in the past 10 years in gaining access to private capital. If we go back to the previous position whereby investment in the railways was constrained by what the Government could afford, we would have lost a lot of the advantage of the past 10 years. Since 1997, and until quite recently, one of the problems that the railways did not have was that of raising capital. Railtrack was able to spend every penny that it could raise. Then we had the débâcle, and now the industry cannot borrow what it needs from the private sector.
I hope that the new board will build some bridges to re-establish investor confidence in the railways, so that, on top of what the Government are putting in, it can have a substantial injection of private capital. [Interruption.] The Minister for Transport is exhibiting some agitation. If he wishes to relieve it by intervening, I should be happy to give way.
The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I am finding some difficulty with the model that the right hon. Gentleman seems to propose. He seems to suggest that in a situation where money kept being pushed at an inefficient company that was certainly not able to provide the service cost-effectively, a board of the regulator would have taken a more approving view of that company's coming around with the begging bowl—to use the regulator's words—to be relieved of the consequences of its inefficiency. That might work in the very short term in a bubble economy; it is no model for effective investment or a sustainable private enterprise.
Sir George Young: It is not the case that the problem was solely an inefficient company; there was an inefficient Minister and the relationships broke down. That was at the heart of the Railtrack débâcle .
Mr. Spellar: As the basis of the right hon. Gentleman's argument is that there was a conflict between the regulator and Railtrack—indeed, the begging-bowl speech took place within a few days of the last general election—in no way can any argument be made that the regulator had been influenced by a Minister. The regulator's views had been determined by his judgment of the company's management. How could a board rationally have taken a different view of that company's efficiency?
Sir George Young: The Government pulled the rug from under Railtrack because they wanted it to fail. [Interruption.] I hope that, at some point, there will be a full inquiry into Railtrack's demise, including into the Treasury's role, which was absolutely crucial in the weeks before the rug was finally pulled from under Railtrack. We saw the scene of the Secretary of State for Transport leaning over the patient, trying to encourage him back to health at the same time as he put his foot on the oxygen pipe, ensuring that the patient would expire.
I want to make progress and move on to part 3, on the role of the British Transport police. After rail privatisation, the British Transport police were parked with the Secretary of State for Transport. As a matter of interest, it would be helpful if the Minister could say in his winding-up speech whether the Home Secretary's published figures on crime and on the number of police include or exclude the British Transport police. Some 75,000 crimes a year are reported by the British Transport police, and there are 2,100 police officers. Such figures are regularly published by the Home Office, but do they include the British Transport police?
Will the Minister say whether British Transport police officers are armed, or whether they have to look to some of the other forces for that degree of specialisation? Will it be policy to have a separate brand for the British Transport police? At the moment, if one sees a policeman on a railway station, one does not know if he is in the ordinary police or the British Transport police. It may be policy to have both looking the same, or it may be that there is a desire to develop a different identity and culture for the BTP. Will the Minister shed light on that?
When the Minister winds up, will he explain the relationship between the Secretary of State for Transport and the Home Secretary on responsibility for the BTP. Clearly, most of the expertise in that area rests with the Home Office, whereas it is a small part of the Department for Transport. The consultation paper states that the Secretary of State for Transport would

"have regard for the Home Secretary's primary role in policing matters."
It continues:

"The Secretary of State would undertake his duties alongside the Home Secretary."
What exactly is the relationship? Is the Department for Transport simply a conduit for Home Office initiatives on law and order, or is there a separate and independent element of advice in the Department for Transport that it adds to advice from the Home Office?
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I endorse almost everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said, which is unusual but, for me, very good. Is it not the case that one of the things that the Minister must do tonight is reassure those in the British Transport police who work on the London underground that they will not be absorbed into the Metropolitan police, which would be unhelpful for them and for the travelling public, and which I understand is under consideration at present? I am certainly against it.
Sir George Young: Although the hon. Gentleman posed the question to me, I am smart enough to see that he aimed it at someone else. I am sure that the Minister will address that issue. As I understand it, the purpose of the Bill is to establish the BTP as a separate authority and not to integrate part of it into the Metropolitan police. The words of assurance that he seeks, however, had better come from someone else.
To conclude, this is a worthy if unexciting Bill, and, as far as I am concerned, it can have a green light.
Previous news: Sir George attacks Prime Minister on Manifesto Betrayal Index Next news: Sir George presses Ministers on rail improvements
Next news: Sir George presses Ministers on rail improvements

Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015