Clause 8 - Regulations

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

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Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 4:45 pm, 4th February 2003

I beg to move amendment No.2, in

clause 8, page 5, line 12, at end insert—

'(g) make provision for the occasions on which the Secretary of State may decide any incident to be investigated through a public inquiry.'.

The amendment may not detain the Committee long. We have already discussed the different bodies—the new RAIB, the British Transport police, insurance loss adjusters and the new rail standards and structures organisation—that may investigate a rail accident or incident. We have rightly debated the protocols between them and the primacy issue of who will take charge and have the highest authority in the investigations.

Clause 9 introduces another set of bodies potentially interested in an investigation, because the chief inspector of rail accidents may direct others involved in managing or controlling parts of the railway to carry out an industry investigation. When we reach that clause, I shall argue that it is right and proper for train operating companies—

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree

Order. The hon. Gentleman would be wise to wait for us to reach that clause before debating it.

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

I am grateful, Mr. Hurst, for that slight slap on the wrist, but I am arguing that another investigation is going to be set up and we need to examine how different investigations interrelate. Briefly, industry bodies may themselves be conducting an investigation but another form of investigation—a public inquiry—may also take place. I tabled this probing amendment to elicit from the Minister how, in the light of the new rail accident investigation branch, he views the establishment of public inquiries in future.

The amendment is simple and I intentionally selected an incident rather than an accident to highlight the potential need for a public inquiry even for an incident—a point raised by the Royal National Institute of the Blind in its excellent briefing. Does the Minister envisage the chief inspector recommending a public inquiry to the Secretary of State? Will the current arrangements need to be changed to establish a public inquiry into the railways? At the moment, any such public inquiry would be set up as a result of section 14 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. It would be conducted under section 14(2)(b) according to procedures laid down by regulations that were published in 1975. The problem with those is that they give the power to the Health and Safety Commission, with the consent of the Secretary of State, to arrange for there to be such a public inquiry.

The amendment is worded to ensure that there is nothing that would prevent the Secretary of State from arranging a public inquiry into an accident or an incident—an incident is referred to in the amendment—following the setting up of the rail accident investigation branch.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I hesitate to comment on that. It is an interesting concept. I imagine that the Minister will respond by saying that the whole purpose of the Cullen recommendations was to set up an independent investigation and that that could be hampered by a public inquiry. Would he see a public inquiry as serving any purpose or could it be counter-productive?

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

I hope to demonstrate that the amendment is unnecessary. The hon. Member for Bath indicated that it was a probing amendment.

As we have said throughout the discussion, the rail accident investigation branch will carry out open and transparent investigations into accidents and will publish its reports into those accidents as quickly as possible. We want it to be able to get on with its investigations.

If the Secretary of State decided that a public inquiry into a particular accident was warranted, which might be on the advice of the chief inspector, he could, as the hon. Member for Bath mentioned, set one up. The Secretary of State does not have to rely on the other powers that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. He can call a public inquiry into any matter, under prerogative powers, or he can appoint a tribunal to inquire into a matter of urgent public importance and endow it with powers under the Tribunals of Enquiry (Evidence) Act 1921.

That gives an indication of circumstances in which an inquiry could be held, but we hope that, in general, public inquiries will be unnecessary, because much of their role will be undertaken more expeditiously by the rail accident investigation branch. That is why its establishment was recommended by Cullen and why we have included it in the Bill.

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

I am grateful to the Minister. He made it clear, as I hoped that he would, that nothing would, as a result of the establishment of the rail accident investigation branch, fetter the Secretary of State's power to call a public inquiry, perhaps on the advice of the chief inspector. That, above all, is what I hoped to hear from the Minister, and I am glad that it will be on the record.

I have a number of further questions about the future role of the Health and Safety Commission in relation to rail accidents, if we have a clause stand part debate. The Minister will be aware that the Health and Safety Commission would still have the power under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 to set up a public inquiry. However, we need not dwell on that matter, as it is not within the spirit of the amendments. I have received the clear answer that I wanted, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Joan Ryan.]

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Five o'clock till Thursday 6 February at five minutes to Nine o'clock.