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Coach Crash (France)

Volume 173: debated on Tuesday 5 June 1990

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3.32 pm

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the coach crash on the A6 near Auxerre in France.

Order. Will hon. Members who are not remaining to hear the private notice question please leave quietly?

Last Sunday, 3 June, at 8 am local time, a coach belonging to Montego European Travel went off the road near Auxerre in France, approximately 80 miles south of Paris, and rolled on to its side. Of the passengers and crew, 11 were killed, 18 seriously injured and 47 slightly injured. On behalf of the Government and, I am sure, the whole House, I should like to take this opportunity to express our sympathy to the families and friends of those injured or killed in this dreadful accident. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

I am sure that I also speak for the whole House in paying tribute to the emergency services in France, whose prompt response may well have prevented further deaths. The British consul-general and his assistant went immediately to the scene of the accident and spent the day at the hospitals and with relatives, assisting them and providing information to the families involved.

The French started an investigation immediately, and the Government offered their help. Two of my senior vehicle investigation experts flew to France that evening to assist the French authorities, and I expect a full report on the vehicle from them next week. An examining magistrate has been appointed by the French prefecture to investigate all the circumstances of the accident.

My vehicle inspectors have already told me that the right-hand front tyre had failed. It was not a remould, was a correct size for the vehicle and was in good condition, and there was no sign of under-inflation. However, the tread had separated from the tyre, and the reason for that is being investigated further. The vehicle was fitted with a tachograph, which has been taken into the possession of the French police and is being checked.

I am sure that the House will appreciate that I must not say anything that would prejudge the outcome of the investigation. It is my intention to ensure that all the circumstances are fully investigated and the facts made available. I expect to receive a full report about the vehicle next week, and we have agreed with the French authorities that we will exchange reports.

The Government attach the highest importance to coach safety and to driver training. Before it goes on the road, each coach is approved and certificated. It is required to undergo an annual roadworthiness inspection. During the past three years, we have increased the number of special checks on coach safety to ensure that high standards are maintained. The coach involved in the accident had been checked in accordance with all the British requirements, and had been found to be satisfactory.

Britain has been playing a leading role in Europe in developing high standards of coach safety. In particular, we have been pressing for the provision of seat belts in coaches, and, in the light of this tragic accident, we shall be renewing our pressure for the removal of obstacles to their standard fitment in all our coaches. I shall be having urgent discussions with the Bus and Coach Council, and others concerned, about any lessons that can be learnt from the accident to ensure that we maintain and secure the safest possible coach travel. I shall also seek to accelerate the fitting of speed limiters.

I would like to end as I began—by expressing my sympathy to the families and friends of those tragically involved in this terrible accident.

Let me, on behalf of all Opposition Members, associate myself with the expressions of sympathy tendered to the bereaved and to relatives of those injured in the tragedy, which has caused enormous shock and grief, especially in the west midlands.

May I press the Secretary of State about the implementation of compulsory seat belts and speed limiters? Can he give the House a date when that is likely to happen? He has rightly insisted on the unilateral implementation of seat-belt legislation for motor cars; why not do the same for coaches?

What plans has the right hon. Gentleman for stricter scrutiny of tachographs, especially on long-distance coaches? Will he call coach operators together to discuss speed and stability, and structural integrity—especially that of double-deck, high capacity vehicles such as the one involved in the accident? Has he any plans to introduce a ban on recut as well as remould tyres for coach operators, especially those operating over long distances?

Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the story, featured in the Daily Mail this morning, that the company had been operating illegally for some months? Is he aware that Opposition Members believe that this appalling tragedy is a direct result of coach deregulation, which has led—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—oh, yes—which has led to a proliferation of back-street operators who have neither the time, the money nor the resources to maintain their coaches adequately?

I should like to thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the French authorities, and to join him in once more expressing my sympathy to relatives.

Seat belts are within the competence of the Community, and we have been leading the way to have them fitted in all our coaches. We have the support only of the Danes, and the slightly half-hearted support of the Germans; the remainder of the Community is opposed. As recently as last Thursday we pressed the Commission to come forward with a directive. We could take unilateral action, but it would be illegal and we could not enforce it. It would be a pointless gesture of the sort on which we do not intend to waste time.

As the House knows, since 1988 all new coaches have to be fitted with speed limiters. Any coaches built between 1984 and 1988 had to have them fitted by 1 April this year. Any built between 1974 and 1983 must have them fitted by next April. I intend to ask the Bus and Coach Council to bring forward that process. All coaches will be fitted with speed limiters by next April.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about tachographs. As he will recall, his party has consistently opposed them, under pressure from the Transport and General Workers Union. It coined the phrase "spies in the cab." Speed limiters are now fitted to long-distance coaches and we monitor them. More tests have been carried out during the past year than ever before. Indeed, we have been increasing the number of inspections, which contradicts the claim of his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott).

The hon. Gentleman's question about recuts and remoulds was hypothetical. He was pursuing a point, made quite erroneously, that the tyre was a retread. It was not a retread; it was in good condition. It has been inspected by the inspectorate, and it was not failed—

It was not a recut or a retread. The tyre was in good condition.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the claim about the company operating illegally was made by a rival organisation, and it is being investigated. It is beyond doubt that the coach was properly licensed and was being properly operated last Thursday.

In referring to coach deregulation, the hon. Gentleman's prejudice once again overruled his knowledge. The plain fact is that these coaches have not been regulated for more than 10 years. Indeed, I believe that it is almost 16 years. It is absolute and utter nonsense to claim that the tragedy was a result of the recent deregulation of bus services. It struck an unfortunate note on this occasion.

It is with great sadness that I inform my right hon. Friend that four of those killed on the weekend were from my constituency—Mr. and Mrs. Evans, who were celebrating their retirement, and Mr. and Mrs. Orme. I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind words, which I shall take back to my constituents. I am sure that they will appreciate the fact that he is urgently investigating the accident.

The families of those four people and of the others killed do not want cheap party politics and I am sad that the opportunity to do that has been taken today. They want hope—hope that lessons will be learnt and that future lives will be saved. I hope that the Government and others responsible for reviewing the position—whether coach operators, drivers or the EC—will complete their investigations as soon as possible. The Government must introduce legislation, if need be in the cold light of day when the speculation and the emotion had died down, on compulsory seat belts and, possibly, even on speed restrictions for coaches, as is the case in some EC countries.

I ask my right hon. Friend to come to the House as soon as possible with his report of the investigation, because I am sure that the families in Wolverhampton want that reassurance.

May I express my sympathy to my hon. Friend and those of her constituents who suffered bereavement and injury in this terrible accident? We are determined that any lessons that can be learnt will be learnt. The investigation will be thorough. As my hon. Friend pointed out, this has absolutely nothing to do with deregulation. In spite of this terrible accident, we have one of the best records in Europe—half as many deaths as in France—and that is because we set and implement high safety standards, and we shall continue to do so.

On behalf of my party, I express sympathy to all those who suffered and to their families who are still suffering. Will the Secretary of State comment on the current proposal that coach operators should have a licence for life? I hope that that proposal will be rejected and that the licence will continue to have to be renewed every five years.

Will he also comment on the inspection of the vehicles? There were suspicions about the tyres in this case, but vie have now heard that they were all right. Are all tyres inspected and are coaches which travel abroad allowed to have retreads? Will he also comment on the speed limits which apply in Britain, because I understand that coach drivers here are not allowed to use the fast lane or the overtaking lane?

Finally, will he comment on the fact that there is no training certificate for couriers. In this case they were helpful, but they could have been more helpful. The standards of couriers need to be raised, and a certificate for them approved by the Government.

There is a slightly misleading and worrying headline in the Evening Standard today which suggests that the driver had had the job for only 10 days. That may well have been the case, but he has had a licence to drive such vehicles for more than two years. It is a five-year licence, so it has three more years to run. The vehicle was fully inspected in July 1989 and is due for inspection again in July this year.

We are the only country in Europe to insist on a tilt test for double deckers. They have to be capable of leaning, fully laden on top, at an angle of 28 deg without toppling over before they are allowed on the road and this bus had passed that test.

We have considered speed limits. Our coaches are allowed to travel at 70 mph and to use the outside lane on motorways. Yesterday, two of our newspapers had coaches trailed and found that a number were exceeding the speed limit, which is illegal. By next April, limiters will be fixed to all coaches built after 1973. It will not then be possible to drive them faster than 70 mph. That law will be rigidly enforced and anybody who breaks it will be punished. I note what the hon. Gentleman says about couriers. He makes an interesting and worthwhile point, which I shall take up with the Bus and Coach Council.

Was there not a tragic inevitability about the standard of driving that was described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) when she held office in the Department of Transport as "intimidatory"? Is it not a fact that some of these tower blocks on wheels have evolved from rules which were made for single-decker coaches, which now bear no relationship to the rules needed for the double-decker buses plying in our towns and cities?

Is my right hon. Friend aware how many times I have asked him to impose speed limits on these coaches?

My hon. Friend is a director of National Express, and he will have his chance to speak later.

Is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State aware how often I have asked him and his Department to consider banning coaches from the outside lane of motorways? Is he aware that the Bus and Coach Council has consistently resisted those proposals and his attempts to introduce tachographs, which many of us have sought for many years? Will my right hon. Friend contemplate the fact that what he has just said means that the older the coach the more it can escape from these rigid regulations? Should we not now impose discipline on those people and let them argue why it should not be imposed?

My hon. Friend's commitment to trains and his hostility to coaches is extremely well known, and he has just given another illustration of it. The coach concerned had been certified as fit to be on the road and capable of being driven at the speed recorded. The driver held a properly obtained licence.

I was not talking about the speed at the time: I was saying that the bus was certified and the driver properly qualified.

I should like to give my hon. Friend some figures that I hope he will find encouraging. They relate to the number of casualties per billion passenger kilometres. Between 1975 and 1979, there were 1·2 deaths; between 1980 and 1984, 0·7; and between 1985 and 1988, 0·5 deaths per billion passenger kilometres. All injuries in the same period also showed a fall. There is no evidence to support my hon. Friend's totally baseless assertion that our roads are becoming more dangerous and that accidents are on the increase. The trend is encouragingly downwards.

I add my deepest sympathies to the relatives of those killed and injured in that dreadful accident. I make special mention of the six people from my own constituency who were killed and the 15 who were injured. May I have the Minister's assurance that the resources of his own Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Health will, where necessary, be made available to the relatives who need help and advice in the aftermath of the tragedy? Will he give an assurance also that, whereas the French inquiry is a separate matter, there will be an independent Department of Transport inquiry into speed limits, safety belts and tyre safety standards—and that the results will be published in full and be acted upon?

First thing yesterday morning, the hon. Gentleman was in touch with my Department, and I hope that we were able to help in every way that we could. We appreciate that the hon. Gentleman's constituency is probably affected worse than that of any other right hon. or hon. Member. The three Departments that the hon. Gentleman mentioned will do everything that they can to help the survivors and the families of those who died.

The French have launched a police inquiry. Under French law, an examining magistrate has been appointed who will consider all the facts. In parallel, we have sent investigators to consider the technical aspects of the accident. As bodies will almost certainly be returned to this country, inquests will also be held here. We shall seek to make available for those inquests any information that we have, and will also make it available to the House. If there is a need for further action, we shall not hesitate to take it.

The whole bus and coach industry agrees with my right hon. Friend's remarks, and extends its sympathies to the surviving victims of a tragic disaster. Will my right hon. Friend urge upon the French authorities the need to investigate the implications of the alleged ditch running alongside a high-speed road, which appears to have been the primary cause of the vehicle going over on its side? Is my right hon. Friend aware that such double-deck vehicles are extremely stable and that only one has been involved in an accident in the United Kingdom in the 10 years that they have been in operation—when one fell on its side, tragically killing one person and injuring two dozen others?

There are several hundred such vehicles in this country, and they each travel approximately 100,000 miles a year. They are designed for reasonably quick, safe and attractive travel between cities and nations. If there are lessons to be learnt from the accident—lessons not just in coach design but in road design as well—they will be well taken on board.

I note what my hon. Friend says. Although I shall bring his remarks to the attention of the French authorities, I do not think that they will be persuaded to fill in any of the ditches at the roadside as a result of the accident. I confirm what he said when he gave statistics about coaches. This is a terrible accident and no one seeks to minimise it in any way, but it does no service to anyone to give the impression that such buses have proved unsafe in the past. They have a good safety record. We shall ensure that they maintain their present high standards and we will rigorously enforce the regulations.

May I join the Secretary of State and my hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) and for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) in their expression of sympathy for the bereaved and injured, 13 of whom came from Stoke-on-Trent, south Cheshire and north Staffordshire? Is the Secretary of State satisfied with standards in Britain, as he said that the bus met all of them? Does that not put a question mark over British standards of safety and maintenance and the speed regulations?

Bearing in mind the question mark over the operation of the company involved—which, like the travel agent, was not a member of the Association of British Travel Agents—will the Secretary of State this afternoon at least commit himself to a departmental public inquiry, which, I understand from his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin, he has not yet done? Surely the least that he can do this afternoon is give an assurance to the bereaved and injured that there will be a Government inquiry?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the regulations, but although we are talking about a small company, all the evidence shows that it conformed to the law, that all its vehicles were tested and had passed the test, and all its drivers were qualified to drive such a bus. As he knows, a police investigation is going on in France and that inhibits us. For example, the police have seized the tachograph.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the accident happened in France and therefore the French are in charge of the investigation. We have sent our inspectorate over to carry out a parallel investigation. The two reports will be made available to the House, and it may well come to the conclusion that the accident has been fully investigated and is fully understood. If there are lessons to be learnt, we shall learn them. I shall keep an open mind about the need for further inquiries, but the matter is being thoroughly investigated at the moment.

So that we may learn more about the factors that cause tyre blow-out, will my hon. Friend ask the transport and road research laboratory to co-ordinate Europewide research on this important matter?

The TRRL is already carrying out investigations into the difficult subject of tyre blow-outs, which happen from time to time and have terrible consequences. The research that my hon. Friend wants is already being carried out.

May I add my sympathy to that which has already been extended to the bereaved and injured? Will the Secretary of State tell us to what extent he will have a full safety overhaul? It is not enough for him to say that existing safety levels have been maintained. He needs to overhaul road safety completely. Will he also give an assurance that, when the public inquiry takes place, he will consider the schedules that road operators have to keep to catch ferries from France back to this country? Will he tell the House the last occasion on which the coach was checked?

I again express my sympathy to the hon. Lady, and to her constituents for their loss in this dreadful accident. Of course we shall see what we can learn from the incident. However, I must point out that we have high safety standards and that we enforce them rigorously. If more should be done, it will be done and that is what the investigation is about. We shall have to see whether anything emerges from that investigation that requires further action.

We shall also look again—and I have already discussed this with my colleagues—at the question of speed limits for coaches and whether the 70 mph limit is satisfactory. Until this terrible accident, there had been a continuing improvement, partly because of higher standards and partly because they were rigorously enforced. There is no question of seeking to do anything other than learning as many lessons as we can and taking the action necessary as a result of those lessons.

Order. This is a private notice question. I have allowed it to run rather longer than usual because of its importance. I shall take two more questions each from both sides and then, I hope, I shall have called all hon. Members whose constituents have been affected by this tragic accident.

The whole question of fitting seat belts on coaches has been revived by this tragic accident. Recognising the limitations placed on my right hon. Friend by the EC, does he agree that there is nothing to prevent the Bus and Coach Council recommending to its members that they should voluntarily fit seat belts in coaches? In the process, he might also suggest to the council that, if we are to see competition on coach services, many of us would prefer to see it based on competition between vehicles that have seat belts and those that have not, rather than on speed, which sometimes appears to be the only criterion.

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful suggestion and I will take up the matter with the Bus and Coach Council. Manufacturers are willing to fit seat belts if operators ask for them. Seat belts are offered to the operators, and I will suggest to the Bus and Coach Council that it encourages its members to fit them. I repeat that we cannot enforce that, because it is a Community matter and we have not been able to persuade our Community partners that seat belts are necessary. However, there is nothing to prevent members of the Bus and Coach Council from volunteering, and seat belts are available.

Is the Secretary of State aware, without commenting on this firm or anticipating any inquiry—which would be wrong—that it is common knowledge that many cowboy firms now operate? It is his responsibility to investigate that and to do what he can to outlaw them.

Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that a new motorway madness is emerging in Britain, as I have witnessed recently? Drivers are now driving on the inside lane and then cutting into the outside lane at 100 mph, which never happened before, and there is no police regulation. I have driven about 600 miles to conferences this weekend and I did not see one police car. Can something be done about that, please?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the enforcement of the law is a matter for the police and I will bring the matter to the attention of the Association of Chief Police Officers. On cowboy firms, one reason why we have increased the number of spot checks is to try to catch out those who are not playing by the rules and who are not obeying the law. The number of spot checks has been increased substantially precisely for that purpose. By next April, virtually all our coaches will have limiters which will be set by law at 70 mph and which should therefore control the speed of our coaches.

The right hon. Gentleman's point about motorway driving is fair. As he knows, although we have one of the best records in Europe, 105 people are killed every week on our roads and part of the reason for that is bad driving. Many lives could be saved by the simple use of common sense by drivers and by pedestrians. It has been revealed that 44 per cent. of all pedestrians involved in accidents did not look either way when they stepped on to the road. Simple precautions could save many lives.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at a time of sadness and bereavement, the House has not distinguished itself, because most questions this afternoon have almost implied a reason for the terrible crash and disaster? Should we not do what Mr. Asquith said years ago—wait and see? The reason might be a production fault in the tyre or a bit of metal lying on the motorway. Hon. Members are panicking this afternoon and suggesting all sorts of reasons for the accident. Why do we not be sensible for a change and wait and see?

I have much sympathy with my hon. Friend's point of view. It is absolutely right for Members of Parliament to express their concern for their constituents on occasions such as this, and most hon. Members involved have been able to do so. We should not jump to conclusions about this matter. We certainly should not find people guilty before they have had a trial.

The family and friends of my constituents who are in intensive care with their children want to be quite certain that everything is being done to make sure not only that they are assisted back to this country but that such an accident will never happen again. Will the Secretary of State ensure that an immediate programme of research into the efficiency of seat belts—the lap type and shoulder type—is undertaken? Will he ensure also that the examining magistrate's report will be translated and made available to the House of Commons as soon as it is available, as the powers that are available to French magistrates are far wider than those in this country, and the report may contain information that is vital to road safety?

I express my sympathy to the hon. Lady. We in the Department have been convinced that seat belts would reduce the number of deaths and injuries, and that is why we have been pressing for them. We shall continue to make every effort to persuade our Community colleagues.

On the examining magistrate, I had better be a little careful. The examining magistrate may come to the conclusion that she wishes to institute proceedings. I do not say that to prejudge the issue. Therefore, I do not know at what stage she would be prepared to allow me to have a copy of her findings. As I have said, I want the House to have the full facts, and, as soon as I am in a position to make them available, I shall.

I hope that I have called all the hon. Members whose constituents have been directly involved in this tragic accident. If I have not, will they indicate and I shall call them? In that case, we must now move on to the second private notice question.