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Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): To revert to the line of thought of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on contractors, is it not true that, in the time of unity of the rail industry, inquiry was really a matter of getting the truth? Now, with the fragmentation of the industry and with so many contractors involved, is my right hon. Friend at all worried that we live in a culture of blame that could obscure the truth because people might want to blame others because of legal obligations?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point, but so far in the wake of the derailment at Potters Bar we have not seen the sort of finger-pointing and blame that we saw after Hatfield and Ladbroke Grove. There is a clear difference. There is a recognition within the industry

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that it does the industry a disservice if people do not take responsibility for their part of the railway industry's operations. That has been a noticeable factor in events since the derailment at Potters Bar.

We need to discover the precise details of what happened, and the investigations are making good progress. I hope that the interim report, for which I asked the Health and Safety Commission on Friday, will be available in the next couple of days, because that would reassure the travelling public about what took place, even if it might not be able to tell us why it took place.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): We must all await the findings of the Health and Safety Executive's inquiry, but once again there is debate about standards of maintenance and the use of unqualified subcontractors in the fragmented privatised British Rail. Does the Secretary of State understand that that can only deepen the concern with which Londoners view the coming of the public-private partnership to London Underground—a measure that the Government appear to be committed to forcing through in the teeth of all informed opinion, including that of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions?

Mr. Byers: We have always said that if the modernisation of the tube is to go ahead, it will have to satisfy the safety case. The Health and Safety Executive must be sure that a proper safety regime is in place. We have established a clear condition on the proposal: if the HSE is not convinced that the safety case is made, the modernisation of the underground will not go ahead. If that condition is not met, we will not proceed. Safety will not be compromised in respect of the modernisation of the tube.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): As the Secretary of State knows, the train that derailed was on its way to my constituency. Many of my constituents are regular users of that train, as am I. In fact, I came quite close to catching that train, and would have done so had I been present for the early part of Friday's business. As it happened, I took an earlier train, but some of my constituents were on the train that derailed. One was in the fourth carriage manning the refreshment trolley, and he was fortunate to escape with his life. King's Lynn has been in a state of shock, as this is the first time in 100 years that it has been directly involved in a rail tragedy of this nature.

The Secretary of State has expressed his hope that the causes of the accident will become known in the near future, but we can conclude that it was the result of either maintenance failure or malicious interference. If the former, I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that we should carefully examine the whole nature of contracting and subcontracting, especially in the light of the fact that Railtrack's spot checks have revealed that one in 20 of the engineers who work on tracks do not have full safety certification. In that light alone, to restore public confidence in the rail network, as we all want, will require a full public inquiry.

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Mr. Byers: I can understand the concerns of the hon. Gentleman's constituents in King's Lynn and North-West Norfolk. The scale of the accident is such that it must cause concern to those who travel on that line.

It is too early to jump to precise conclusions. Although we now know what happened, we simply do not know how it happened; that is a matter for the investigations. It is premature to announce a public inquiry. It is better to let the interim investigation take place. The formal investigation by the Health and Safety Executive is to commence tomorrow. When we have the HSE's conclusions, we will be able to take a decision on whether a public inquiry is the appropriate way to proceed.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): On behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, I wish to be associated with the sympathies and condolences extended to those who have suffered in the tragedy, and with the thanks to all those who gave assistance on the day and afterwards.

The Secretary of State mentioned that Railtrack has undertaken 800 checks on points since the accident. Will he confirm that it is the self-same contractors who have carried out those safety checks? Is he totally happy with that obtuse way of monitoring the state of our track and maintaining it? Precisely why has it taken so long to implement the recommendations of the key Cullen inquiry? If it transpires that maintenance and monitoring played some part in the accident, who will take responsibility?

Mr. Byers: Shortly before I came into the House, Railtrack informed me of the 800 checks on points that had been carried out. I do not know the details of who will have done that. All I know is that the Health and Safety Executive is auditing the way in which the checks were carried out. The railway inspectorate has undertaken its own checks on the points in the Potters Bar area to ensure that there was not a problem with the way in which that section of line was being maintained. It has found no similar defects. The HSE is double checking the work that has been carried out by Railtrack.

As for responsibility, we must first find out what happened. There is the danger that we might run ahead of ourselves. We are all anxious to ascertain exactly what happened and who was responsible, and that is understandable. Let us reach conclusions after a proper investigation. We can then have the debate about what action should be taken.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the vital implementation of the recommendations of the Cullen report in respect of contractors. I may have mentioned earlier my concern that not enough progress was being made. That is why, on 1 May, I wrote to Bill Callaghan, the chair of the Health and Safety Commission, to tell him that I wanted to know by the end of this month what action was being taken to implement the recommendations speedily. I wrote that it was a vital area that must be addressed urgently.

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House of Lords Reform

4.21 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Government's proposals for taking forward reform of the House of Lords.

The Government began the process of Lords reform with the removal of the great majority of hereditary peers in 1999. We are committed to further reform of the House of Lords, to remove the remaining hereditary peers and to provide Parliament with a modern, effective second Chamber.

We have listened carefully to the wide range of views expressed in the recent debates on Lords reform in both Houses of Parliament, and to the responses to the White Paper. We have taken account of the report of the Public Administration Select Committee. We have also considered statements from all parties that this issue should be considered further by a Joint Committee of both Houses. I hope, therefore, that the way forward that I am announcing today will be welcomed and supported on both sides of the House.

On this vital constitutional issue, which concerns not only the composition of the House of Lords but also the role of Parliament as a whole and the relations between the two Houses, we have decided that it would be right to invite the two Houses to establish a Joint Committee, in the hope that we can forge the broadest possible parliamentary consensus on the way forward. We hope that the Houses will be able to proceed with the establishment of the Joint Committee as soon as possible.

We have noted the recent joint statement of the two main Opposition parties that such a Joint Committee would help reconcile differences and seek a principled consensus on the way forward. We look forward to their co-operation in setting up the Joint Committee as soon as possible and making a success of its work.

Reform of the second Chamber has implications for the future of Parliament as a whole, and in particular for the relations between the two Chambers. It is right that Parliament itself should record its views on the composition of the second Chamber. For this we believe that a Joint Committee alone is insufficient. We therefore intend to ask the Joint Committee, as the first phase of its work, to report on options for the composition and powers of the House of Lords once reform has been completed. This will define options for composition, to include a fully nominated or a fully elected House, and intermediate options. Both Houses will then be asked to record their views on these options in free votes.

In the second phase of its work, on which the Committee will report, it will define in greater detail the proposed composition, role and powers of the reformed second Chamber, taking account of the opinions expressed by the two Houses. It should also recommend the transitional strategy for transforming the existing House of Lords into its fully reformed state, which will be particularly important if the recommendation were for a significantly smaller House. The Government's intention would then be to introduce legislation in the light of the report of the Joint Committee and the opinions of both Houses expressed in those free votes. As both the

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royal commission, chaired by the noble Lord Wakeham, and the Government's White Paper made clear, any proposals on the powers and composition of the House of Lords must flow from a clear understanding of its role and functions.

The issues to be considered by the Joint Committee therefore will include, first, the role and authority intended for the second Chamber within the context of Parliament as a whole. There is, we believe, a consensus that its main role should continue to be that of a revising, scrutinising and deliberative assembly, with the power to delay, but not to seek to veto, legislation.

The second issue to be considered is the impact of that role and authority on the existing supremacy of the House of Commons and relations with the Executive. There is, we believe, broad agreement that the Commons should retain its role as the pre-eminent Chamber and that the test for any Government should continue to be whether it can command a majority in the House of Commons. The third issue to be considered is the composition and powers of the second Chamber best suited to give effect to the role and authority intended for that House. That consideration should include the implications of a House composed of more than one "class" of Member and also the experience and expertise which the House of Lords in its present form brings to its function as a revising Chamber.

It will also be necessary to consider the most appropriate and effective legal and constitutional means to give effect to any new parliamentary settlement, including any mechanisms required for resolving conflicts between the two Houses. To inform the Joint Committee's deliberations, the Government are today publishing the full results of the consultation on their White Paper. We received over 1,000 responses, and the full analysis is now available in the Vote Office and on the Lord Chancellor's Department website.

The Government have a major record of constitutional reform. Since 1997, we have created a Scottish Parliament and Assemblies for Wales and Northern Ireland. We passed the first House of Lords Act 1999, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We have given the Bank of England independence in the setting of interest rates. Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister set out our plans to allow the creation of regional assemblies in those regions of England that vote for them. We have enhanced the role of the Select Committees, including the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that he will be the first Prime Minister ever to appear before the Liaison Committee. We are modernising the working practices of both Chambers. Taken together, that is the most substantial programme of constitutional reform for over a century and will stand as one of the Government's historic achievements.

Today's announcement is another step towards ensuring that reform of the House of Lords ranks alongside those achievements. We must not allow a repeat of history in which reform has been delayed because those who wanted it could not agree and therefore left the field to those who opposed it. Our objective is to secure a second Chamber that is broadly representative of Britain today; a Chamber that will complement the Commons by reinforcing Parliament's ability to conduct scrutiny and hold the Executive to account, thereby increasing the respect of the public for Parliament. The way forward that

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I have outlined puts responsibility in the hands of Parliament itself in free votes. I urge Members on both sides of the House to respond not as party politicians but as parliamentarians committed to a strong Parliament within a modern democracy.

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