Railway Accident (Clapham Junction)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 12th December 1988.

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Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 3:30 pm, 12th December 1988

On behalf of the Opposition, I begin by offering our deepest sympathies to the relatives and friends of all those who were killed or injured in today's terrible tragedy. The work of the emergency services in responding so swiftly and with such skill and courage in the most difficult circumstances will no doubt have saved lives. Once again this House and the whole nation will admire their sheer professionalism and dedication.

I should like to add a personal note of thanks to the Secretary of State and the Minister of State for the way in which they have kept me informed, despite the many calls on their time, since news of the terrible disaster unfolded.

This terrible tragedy—the worst rail disaster for many years—comes only a matter of weeks after the publication of the Fennell report into the King's Cross fire in which 31 people lost their lives and follows the Manchester air disaster and the P and O ferry tragedy, all of which have naturally heightened public concern about passenger safety.

May I assure the Secretary of State that we welcome the fact that, just as I called for in relation to the Piper Alpha tragedy, there will be a twin-track approach to investigating this terrible tragedy, thus ensuring that under the agency agreement with the Health and Safety Executive there is an immediate inquiry into the specific technical reasons for the accident and that any immediate lessons can be acted on straight away, as well as the fact that there will be a fuller, independent public inquiry?

However, I am concerned about the nature and terms of reference of the public inquiry. Is the Secretary of State aware that the latest report of his chief railway inspector reveals that deaths and major injuries on British Rail have increased by 62 per cent. over five years, collisions by 18 per cent., and derailments by 6 per cent.? In those circumstances, will the Secretary of State consider a public inquiry that is independent of the Department of Transport?

Will he ensure that the terms of reference of such an inquiry are wider than those for the Fennell report and that the inquiry will be able to investigate all aspects of passenger safety on British Rail? Could the inquiry investigate the effects that financial considerations have had on passenger safety on British Rail and the fears for safety that have arisen from increased congestion? Will the inquiry consider, too, whether it is time to transfer the responsibility for health and safety on our railways from the Department of Transport to the independent Health and Safety Executive?

This is the second tragic accident involving major loss of life that has hit London's passenger transport system in little more than a year. There is a growing crisis of confidence in safety, among both the hundreds and thousands who commute each day into London and passengers throughout the country. Will the Secretary of State ensure that he acts swiftly to resolve the crisis of confidence and also to reverse his earlier judgment not to provide immediate Government time to debate the King's Cross report?

I assure the Secretary of State that he will have our full co-operation in helping to maintain the traditional reputation of British Rail as one of the safest railway operators in the world.