Clause 4 - General aims

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 4th February 2003.

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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 10:45 am, 4th February 2003

I beg to move amendment No.7, in

clause 4, page 2, line 25, leave out 'the desirability' and insert 'its objectives'.

The amendment is intended to firm up the Government's objectives for the rail accident investigation branch. The clause says that the RAIB

''shall have regard to the desirability of—

(a) improving the safety of railways, and

(b) preventing railway accidents''

That sounds extremely vague, which I am sure is not the Government's intention. No doubt the Minister will explain why it is not vague. Our amendment would ensure that the functions and the objectives of the RAIB were much clearer. That is why we would like to see the above provisions defined as objectives.

That would receive the support of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, which has drawn a comparison between the sole objective given to the air accident investigation branch, and the much looser terminology associated with the RAIB. I hope that the Minister will explain why he feels that the vagueness of wording is appropriate. Following on from our discussion on the need to report back on progress and implementation of recommendations, I hope that the Minister might comment on whether the general aims could be expanded to include some of the reporting points mentioned, even if he accepts the objectives but leaves the wording as it stands.

In conclusion, the purpose of our amendment is to firm up the responsibilities and role of the RAIB. I hope that the Minister will be able to support it.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

I find myself in the strange position of thinking that the Liberal Democrat amendment has a great deal of merit. For them to put a bit of backbone into something is rather remarkable.

''Desirability'' does not mean much. To put it in personal terms, I recognise the desirability of losing weight, but my wife might say that it is not one of my objectives. With that example in mind, keeping desirability in the clause makes it meaningless. We all agree that the objective of the RAIB should be to improve the safety of railways, but it not just a matter of desirability. It must be a firm objective. For that reason, I support the Liberal Democrats on this occasion.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington for explaining what his amendment seeks to address, and I am interested in the new alliance that is forming on the other side of the Room.

At first glance, I had some sympathy with the amendment, but there is a difficulty. As we will see under clause 5, the RAIB will need or wish to be able to offer assistance and operate wherever there is a call for it to do so, much as the AAIB does now; for example, that would be the case on the border with the Republic of Ireland or in the Channel tunnel. Such assistance may not be a matter connected with the safety of railways as defined in the Bill, which extends only to the United Kingdom. Equally, such assistance may not be connected with railways but may be, for example, to assist marine inspectors with their investigation techniques. The proposed amendment could prevent the RAIB from providing such assistance.

However, I offer to reflect further on the matter to see whether there is a way to incorporate the valid points that have been made.

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

Given that the Minister has indicated that he is somewhat sympathetic and is willing to review the matter, perhaps he would consider a slight change to the wording of the amendment, from ''its objectives'' to ''its main objectives''. That would somewhat widen the scope, if the Minister thinks that that is required.

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

I will certainly reflect on that suggestion and bring it to the Committee if it can be incorporated.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

As we are offering suggestions, I wonder whether it would be possible simply to delete ''the desirability of'' so that the RAIB shall have regard to

''(a) improving the safety of railways, and

(b) preventing railway accidents and railway incidents.''

That is just a thought. I am not an expert but I want to be helpful.

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

On the basis that the Minister has openly said that he is willing to reconsider the wording of the clause, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move amendment No. 30, in

clause 4, page 2, line 27, at end add—

'(2) The Rail Accident Investigation Branch shall be consulted on the establishment of any statutory body established for the purposes of setting standards for the safety of railways.'.

Amendment No. 30 explores the specific relationship between the RAIB and the proposed railway safety and standards board. The board may be in place before the RAIB, but the thrust and the philosophy behind amendment No. 30 is to explore the Government's thinking on their relationship. The amendment states that the branch

''shall be consulted on the establishment of any statutory body established for the purposes of setting standards for the safety of the railways.''

Presumably, the Minister will confirm that the railway safety and standards board will be similar to the RAIB, as an agency falling under the auspices of the Department. It would be helpful to know the interrelationship between the two. The rail accident investigation branch, whose two main purposes are to improve the safety of railways and prevent railway accidents and incidents, will have a view about not only the desirability of any safety standards, but the practicality of the standards and the chances of their being physically implemented. The inspectors appointed under clause 4 will have that job. We await the Government's response.

We face a great omission in the Bill because, other than two minor references, there is no mention of road safety. As has been said, there will be three separate investigation branches—one each for rail, air and maritime activities—and we believe that it is important

for the consideration of accidents, deaths and injuries in all modes of transport to be transparent. We hope not to lose sight of that, bearing in mind the large omission of roads from the Bill.

The amendment is probing, and I hope that the Government will satisfy our curiosity. We want to explore the precise relationship between the rail safety and standards board and the rail accident investigation branch, and clarification would be most helpful.

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 understand the hon. Lady's comments and the purpose of the amendment. However, I cannot foresee circumstances in which the RAIB would not be consulted about the establishment of such a body, so I am not convinced of the need for it to appear in the Bill.

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

There might be a problem with timing, as the Committee will know that the Office of the Rail Regulator is currently consulting on licence modification, which will ensure that standards set by the RSSB are maintained. The rail regulator hopes that the RSSB will be established in April, which I anticipate will be before the Bill has completed its passage through Parliament.

While we aim for transparency among different bodies, we must be clear about their roles, which is probably the purpose behind the amendment from the hon. Member for Vale of York. As Lord Cullen recommended, the aim of the RAIB will be to determine the root causes of accidents so that safety lessons can be learned, improving safety through the industry and preventing future railway accidents and incidents. However, it will not be the safety authority. Responsibility for that will remain with the Health and Safety Executive, which, like the RAIB, will work closely with the industry's safety body, the RSSB. It will not be part of the Department but a body that sets safety standards for the industry and ensures that they are followed. It is important that there is a transparent interrelationship and clear communication between the bodies, but it is equally important that they maintain their separate and particular roles.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I have just a short question. The Minister made it clear that the RSSB will be a body for the industry. Am I right in understanding that the RSSB will report to the ORR, not his Department? If so, what scrutiny will there be of the RSSB in this place?

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 11:00 am, 4th February 2003

May I take this opportunity to invite Members to assume that the poor souls who will read this debate in the future will have to cope with the acronyms without any explanation? The Minister may want to want to join the ranks of those poor souls.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I was trying to be brief, Mr. Hood. The Minister has confirmed that the railway safety and standards board will set the standards of safety for industry. If I have understood the Minister correctly, it will report to the Office of the Rail Regulator. It will therefore be independent of his Department. What opportunity will we have to scrutinise the work of the RSSB?

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

I did indeed, and I am fascinated by the prospect of the record of the Committee's proceedings being a bestseller that is widely read by future generations in the classics section of libraries. That reminds me of my previous incarnation in the Ministry of Defence when our good friend, George Robertson, said at his first meeting with the Chief of Defence Staff that one of his objectives was to try to do away with the use of acronyms in the Department. The then Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Charles Guthrie, leant forward and said, ''I think that you'll find solving Bosnia will be easier, Secretary of State.'' We will try, as always, to follow the injunctions from the Chair.

It is important to stress that the statutory safety body for the railway industry is, and remains, the Health and Safety Executive. The railway safety and standards board, as we must now call it, will be an industry body that drives up safety standards in the industry. The Health and Safety Executive is the statutory body that is answerable to Parliament. These are important distinctions as they relate to the roles of the various bodies, to which the hon. Member for Bath alluded.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful for your patience in allowing me to give the acronym its full title, Mr. Hood.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but I must voice some disappointment. The railway safety and standards board will have the important task of driving up standards for the industry, as the hon. Member for Bath said and as the Minister confirmed. Rather than just reporting to the Office of the Rail Regulator, it would be more appropriate for that body to have the opportunity to have its work inspected and scrutinised by hon. Members. I do not want to press the amendment to the vote, but I would like the opportunity to return to these points at a later date.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

On a point of order, Mr. Hood. I would like to request a debate on clause 5 stand part after we discuss amendments Nos. 14 and 8.

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

The hon. Lady may request anything that she likes when we come to that part. However, we are about to vote on clause 4 stand part.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.