Clause 5 - Assistance to others

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 4th February 2003.

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Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 11:00 am, 4th February 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 14, in

clause 5, page 2, line 29, after 'arrange', insert

'with written consent from the Secretary of State'.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 8, in

clause 5, page 2, line 32, at end add—

'(2) The Secretary of State will provide the Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents with directions and guidance relating to the occasions on which assistance may be given as described in subsection (1) above.'.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

The clause is relatively uncontentious. We wait with interest to see what issues the hon. Member for Vale of York wants to debate other than those covered by the amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington. The clause says:

''The Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents may arrange for the Rail Accident Investigation Branch to assist any person; in particular assistance—

(a) may be provided with or without charge;

(b) may be provided inside or outside the United Kingdom.''

The title of the clause is interesting because it states that the body may provide assistance to others. There was much debate on Second Reading about the merits of the rail accident investigation branch examining incidents on the railway even if there had been no fatalities or serious injuries. The argument in favour was that the new body would gain a great deal of intelligence in so doing, and that that would be of assistance to it in doing its work. It logically follows that if the rail accident investigation branch were to work with, for example, the air accident investigation branch or the marine accident investigation branch, it would also learn techniques that would be of benefit to it in achieving its general aims as stated in clause 4. The Committee should see the benefit of the rail accident investigation branch involving itself more widely to gain intelligence, to learn new techniques and to practise those techniques in situations that might not occur on the railways in the foreseeable future.

However, clause 5 provides for the possibility that the rail accident investigation branch's services may be provided ''with or without charge.'' The implication is that the work would be carried out primarily for the benefit of another organisation. That might conflict with the general aims stated in clause 4. Given the possibility of the rail accident investigation branch involving itself with the activities of other bodies primarily for those other bodies' benefit and for charge, clarity as to the circumstances in which that might happen is important.

I have already alluded to my concern, shared by other hon. Members, about the relatively small size of this new organisation. I am delighted to hear from the Minister that it will be slightly larger than some people were led to believe. Nevertheless, there is concern about the limited size and budget of the rail accident investigation branch, and about the constraints under which it will therefore operate. It would be worrying if those constraints forced it to undertake paid consultancy work elsewhere. That could lead to all sorts of problems.

The Minister may say that that is a fatuous thought, and that that situation could not possibly arise. However, a similar situation arose when the Office for Standards in Education was set up. The Minister will be aware of that because many Government Members share my concern about the matter. The Office for Standards in Education was set up primarily to conduct inspections of schools across the country. As a consequence, many local authority advisers whose work until then had been to give advice to local schools found themselves undertaking inspections on behalf of the Office for Standards in

Education as a way of bringing money into their local authorities. I hope that the Committee are impressed that I have not used a single acronym so far in this debate.

There is a concern that, in the same way as local authority advisers are distracted from doing their work in helping local schools because they are earning money working for the Office for Standards in Education, the rail accident investigation branch, especially if its finances are constrained, might begin to do paid work for other bodies.

The purpose of amendments Nos. 14 and 8 is to ensure that some limit is imposed on the rail accident investigation branch. I am no great fan of regulation or of giving additional powers to the Secretary of State. I am sure that the Committee is well aware of that and therefore finds it slightly odd that my two amendments give additional powers to the Secretary of State and add to the regulations that will emerge from the Bill. Lest the Minister should jump up to raise that point, I have raised it for him. On this occasion, there is merit in doing things in such ways.

I am concerned to ensure that there is much greater clarity about the scope of the outside work that may be carried out by the new body. However, I am also concerned because the heading of the clause does not indicate that such work is not primarily of direct benefit to the new body or in meeting the general aims stated in clause 4. The Minister may want to assure me that there will be some constraint on such work and that the RAIB will be a professional body—I am sure that it will—and would not dream of doing things that lead away from its general aims. I have already given one example—no doubt there are others—of how such things can happen if we are not careful.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, Westbury

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the nature of the work that the RAIB is conducting, and whether it is paid, would be reasonable things to include in the annual report, about which the Minister was so positive earlier?

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I absolutely agree, but I suspect that that would give us the opportunity to be critical after the event and would not necessarily mean that procedures were in place to ensure that the important work that the RAIB is to carry out is not deflected in directions that might not help to achieve its general aims.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Whip

I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that it is important that the RAIB has the priorities for its work load set out very clearly. It should not be allowed to move away from its core business to take up paid work.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and, of course, all that would have been helped had there been greater clarity about the body's aims and objectives in the debate on the previous clause. This is an opportunity for the Minister to ensure that there is greater clarity about such aspects of the work of the RAIB. Notwithstanding the fact that he, like me, does not like giving additional powers to the Secretary of State or making additional regulations, I hope that on

this occasion he will move in the direction of the proposals.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

Although I have listened to the hon. Member for Bath and read his amendments with great interest, I am not convinced that they add much value. Amendment No. 8 states that the Secretary of State will have the opportunity to

''provide the Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents with directions and guidance relating to the occasions on which assistance may be given''.

In recent history, a previous Secretary of State gave very specific directions that were contrary to how a rail regulator wished to behave. It is not opportune to give the Secretary of State powers of direction in any circumstances, and I would be loath to acquiesce in that. I am not persuaded that written consent from the Secretary of State is required.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons) 11:15 am, 4th February 2003

Those who prophesied that my alliance with the Liberal Democrats would be fragile were correct; I am afraid that it is now at an end. The amendment is completely unnecessary. I feel rather sorry for the Secretary of State, who has quite a lot on his plate. The transport system is not exactly excelling itself. To burden the poor chap with writing notes to give permission for such things seems a little over the top. Perhaps it shows that the Liberal Democrats are a little more cynical than I would have thought about the way in which they regard public servants. I hope that the Government will take a similar view and, if the Liberal Democrats insist on pressing their amendment, perhaps I could urge Labour Members to join my colleagues and me in rejecting it.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The hon. Member for Bath thought that I might be surprised that the Liberal Democrats were trying to sit on both sides of the fence. I was slightly concerned at the over-centralisation suggested, but was waiting to hear that local decisions must be made by local people. In the end, we did not hear that cliché.

I want to put the situation in context. The RAIB is to follow the well-established precedent of the aviation and maritime accident boards. The rail accident investigation branch will be independent of Government direction. We expect that the chief inspector will have significant management experience and knowledge that can be drawn upon to determine when it would be appropriate to offer assistance to third parties, but his prime regard will be rail safety in the United Kingdom. He will be best placed to determine on case by case whether his organisation has resources available to assist with another investigation or matter. The Secretary of State is not consulted on the day-to-day operation of the aviation and maritime accident boards, and we see no reason why the RAIB should be treated differently.

At the moment, the aviation accident investigation branch is assisting the Turkish authorities in their investigation of a crash in Turkey in which some 75 people died. We have the experience to assist wider transport communities, and we can also learn from other countries. I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

It will be. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I think that I am getting into the swing of things and knowing when it is a good time to catch your eye, Mr. Hood.

I want to draw the Minister's attention to an omission to which I alluded earlier. The annual reports of most organisations that fall within the remit of the Department for Transport include two or three pages that refer to the Government and the Department entering into public service agreements whereby specific targets must be met, particularly when there is an opportunity of the branch providing assistance to other bodies. In principle, I have no objection—I am sure that my hon. Friends do not object—to the laudable aim of the chief inspector arranging for the branch to offer assistance in the United Kingdom, the European Union or elsewhere, with or without charge.

The omission that concerns us greatly is not that laudable aim, which we support wholeheartedly, but the omission of a public service agreement. Is that a typographical error? Has the matter not crossed the Chancellor of the Exchequer's desk? The poor man has enough problems to be going on with, but it would lighten the Government's burden and the deficit they face if a public service agreement were envisaged. I am sure that the Minister will seek the opportunity to confirm that that is not a typographical error but an omission and that he will put our minds at rest about why the Government have not been minded to enter into a public service agreement. Under clause 31, we will consider the establishment of a public service agreement in connection with the police. That is a rather elaborate, lengthy clause dealing with the police services agreements that will come in in the fullness of time—I have resisted using an acronym and shall do so for the lifetime of this and any other Committee on which I serve under your astute chairmanship, Mr. Hood.

I have some difficulty in understanding why the Government have gone to such lengths to draft a very full clause 31 on police services agreements. Neither we nor the Liberal Democrats have a problem with a charge being made, but if the Government have gone down the path of public service agreements later in the Bill—in clause 31—I find the omission here breathtaking. Why do the Government wish to proceed with the provision of assistance to others without the discipline of a public service agreement? I am sure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his canniness—coming from my side of border—would have liked the strictures and the discipline of a PSA here.

So far as we are concerned, the jury is still out on public service agreements, although we have the expert on PSAs among us, on this side of the House. If the Government are going to try to seduce us into supporting clause 31 on police service agreements later, they could equally seductively have had a public service agreement for the important matter here: allowing the rail accident and investigation branch to provide assistance against a charge.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I have much sympathy with the hon. Lady's remarks. The use of a public service agreement would be another way of ensuring that we could be confident that additional work carried out by the RAIB was ultimately to the benefit of its overall objectives as set out in clause 4. Given that she spoke so passionately about using that route, I must place on record slight disappointment that she and her colleagues totally condemned the alternative method. It seems to me that she has merely come up with a different means of achieving what I was seeking through my earlier two amendments. Nevertheless, we are as one on the underlying aim. The hon. Member for Uxbridge is wrong; the alliance is still alive and kicking, and long may it last.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.