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Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, ultimately, the Health and Safety Commission looks at matters to do with safety. Indeed, we have just had a report from Professor Smith and his group which looked at the causes of gauge corner cracking. On the basis of what they know to date--and investigations continue--they have decided that metallurgical reasons were probably not at the root of the problems found on the railway following Hatfield.
Lord Marsh: My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the most frightening aspect of the present situation is that four months after the accident Railtrack is not able to establish who was responsible for a situation where trains were running at 117 miles per hour when, in fact, they should have been confined to 20 miles per hour? Does he not agree that there is a strong case for looking at the management structure of
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, as your Lordships will know, questions of what went wrong at Hatfield are under active consideration by the Health and Safety Executive and, indeed, by the British Transport Police. However, I assure your Lordships that the lessons are being learnt by the industry and by Railtrack in particular. I believe that the approach to the management of maintenance contracts will change. We believe that that is a question of management but the Government will strive to do whatever they can, through their Rail Recovery Action Group, to help co-operation and co-ordination inside the industry.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, following on the previous question, is it not the case that prima facie there is very serious reason to suppose that the technological and engineering management of Railtrack is well below the standards which existed during the British Rail period, even in its last and almost least admirable phase?
Who can interfere and who can play a part in ensuring that that lack can be made right? For example, is it a matter for the rail regulator? Does the Competition Commission have a role? How can the Government stimulate any or either of those bodies to do their duty, if indeed it is their duty? And if it is not their duty, whose duty is it?
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, the rail regulator does have a duty in that regard. He has a legal duty to enable Railtrack to finance its activities. But he also has a duty to ensure that Railtrack maintains standards across the network. We believe that we have introduced a regulatory regime which is more rigorous than that which existed in the past. Lord Cullen's inquiry is in progress at the moment and we believe that we shall eventually end up with an extremely thorough evaluation of the problems of safety on the network. And in this House and another place we have pledged to implement the recommendations of Lord Cullen.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, will the Minister say whether those defective rails met the necessary specifications and, if so, is it not suggested, as a result of Hatfield, that those specifications in themselves were inadequate?
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, the inquiry into the events at Hatfield goes on. It is being conducted by the Health and Safety Executive, which issued an interim report earlier this week in which your Lordships will have seen the remarkable and, I believe, unprecedented condition of the broken rail at Hatfield. Why the rail came to be in that state is, as I said earlier, a matter for the HSE's further inquiry and
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, the Rail Recovery Action Group has been remarkably effective in encouraging co-operation among the various parties on the railways. Included in that group is not only Railtrack but also the train operating companies, including the freight companies, the Health and Safety Executive, the Strategic Rail Authority and the representatives of the passengers. As well as encouraging co-operation and co-ordination across the industry in this time of crisis, we believe that it will also help to increase self-confidence, which was clearly badly shaken by the events of Hatfield, following as they did the events at Paddington. I believe that the group has been effective. It has met twice a week and I anticipate, with the progress that has been made, that we shall be able to reduce that to once a week and close the group before Easter.
Viscount Tenby: My Lords, does the Minister look forward, like me, to the day when the number of rail engineers in the higher echelons of Railtrack outnumber the accountants or, to put it another way, when the wheel-tappers have taken over from the number-crunchers?
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, the wheel-tappers and number-crunchers' club! I am delighted to report that in recent weeks in Railtrack there have been significant moves to promote engineers inside the hierarchy and to board level. The new chief executive, Mr Steve Marshall, has made it clear that he feels that that is an area of the company's activities that must be strengthened, and action has already been taken.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government, through the Medical Research Council, are funding several major research projects into macular degeneration. Those include a £1.5 million grant to look at genetic susceptibility to age-related macular degeneration, which is due to commence soon. We are also collaborating with the
Lord Roll of Ipsden: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. Before pressing him further I must declare an interest as I am afflicted by this condition, although happily for many years it has been stabilised. With regard to the alleviation of sufferers today, an increasing number of devices are available that in terms of the normal costs of the National Health Service are relatively modest in price, yet many sufferers cannot afford them. I believe that recently there was an announcement that additional funding is to be made available for community equipment services. Will the Minister ensure that an adequate proportion of that amount will be available to assist those who cannot afford to buy such devices?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the aids that may be used by low-vision sufferers. This afternoon I cannot give him the complete assurance that he seeks, but I am aware of the issue and I intend to meet the RNIB soon to discuss it.
Baroness David: My Lords, can the Minister give the House assurance about the research that is taking place? I am a fellow sufferer and I was told by my ophthamologist that current research is not much use. Is there a variety of research taking place in different places?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is worth informing the House that it is estimated that 1 million people suffer from this condition to varying degrees of severity, but at the moment little is known about the causes of the disease and effectively treatment is only available for about 10 per cent of those who suffer from wet AMD. Clearly, we need a research effort to discover both the causes and the treatment effects. I am happy to place in the Library a copy of the research projects that we know are being undertaken. A large number are taking place, including research projects that are directly funded from the Department of Health and through the Medical Research Council.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Roll, referred to treating the symptoms. Am I correct in believing that at the moment there is no actual treatment, except for the rare type of condition to which he referred? Is the research that is taking place to try to discover a treatment?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Yes, my Lords, and it is seeking to discover the causes as well. The only treatment that is thought to be effective is laser treatment. That is thought useful for about 10 per cent of people who have wet degeneration and who reported their symptoms early. It is clear that this is a
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, two years ago the Government made the over 60s eligible for free eye tests. It is important that they should take place so that AMD can be detected and alleviated at an early stage and, if possible, treated. Can the Minister tell the House what resources are devoted to publicising that such eye tests are available? How many people over 60 have had such an eye test?
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