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Railway Inspectorate: Personnel

Volume 633: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2002

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3 p.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the number of staff employed by the Railway Inspectorate this year will increase to over 200 compared with 31 employed in 1987.

My Lords, the Railway Inspectorate was under-resourced to monitor and enforce safety standards on the privatised railway, as confirmed by Lord Cullen's report.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. However, comparing the 1987 report with that for this year, one notices that this year's report is three times as large, lavishly illustrated and demonstrates, in my view, a concentration on presentation rather than substance. This week, large advertisements for inspectors have appeared in The Times newspaper and in the trade press for inspectors. I draw the noble Lord's attention to the fact that inspectors are drawn from the small pool of railway engineers. Moreover, the more people there are inspecting the work, the fewer competent people there are to do the work. That applies across many sectors.

My Lords, I am not certain that I heard a question there. However, I think that the House would have substantially more sympathy for the argument that there are too many rail inspectors if there had not been such a disastrous sequence of appalling railway accidents over the past 10 years.I remind the House, as though it needed reminding, of Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield.

When the railways were privatised, there was a move from assigning responsibility for safety to one operator— British Rail —to assigning it to a plethora of bodies, train operating companies and Railtrack. The move substantially increased not only the number of bodies which had to be supervised for rail purposes, but the interfaces between those bodies which themselves had to be adequately policed. Lord Cullen's report was quite clear that the Health and Safety Executive, through the Railway Inspectorate, had to have more resources if it was to restore public confidence—-which has been so severely shattered—in the safety of our railway network.

My Lords, was the Minister aware that there were not enough inspectors in 1997, 1998. 1999, 2000 and 2001?

My Lords, I can well believe it; recruiting high-quality public servants is often a problem. I am therefore sure that the noble Baroness will be delighted to celebrate the fact that this Government have succeeded in recruiting a substantial number of railway inspectors. Some 113 railway inspectors are now in post. In comparison, I believe that. in 1996, there were some 49.

My Lords, what are the other 87 people doing? Does my noble friend agree that, alongside railway safety, many of them are writing standards? It does seem a bit odd that there are several hundred people writing standards. What purpose does that serve?

My Lords, I shall not enter into a detailed disquisition on how safety standards are informed in this country, as I suspect that many noble Lords know much more about the subject than I do. Essentially, however, the system does not attempt to inspect every single failure, but tries to put in place safety regimes. The bodies responsible for safety—in this case, the train operating companies and Railtrack Plc—must demonstrate that they have regimes to appraise risk and to establish safety and training regimes that adequately minimise the possibility of those risks becoming accidents. The Health and Safety Executive essentially monitors compliance with those safety regimes. Consequently, it is quite appropriate that people are writing the types of standards to which my noble friend has referred.

My Lords, could the Minister please answer the question asked by my noble friend Lady Blatch?

My Lords, the question was whether the Minister is aware that there was a need for more inspectors in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001.

My Lords, no, I was not aware of that, and I do not see the thrust of the question. I have not inquired in detail into why there was a failure to fill inspectorate vacancies under the previous government. However, I have certainly been aware of the efforts made by this Government to fill vacancies in the Railway Inspectorate. That task has been remarkably successfully completed, and I am sure that the House celebrates that achievement.