HC Deb 28 February 1917 vol 90 cc2103-9

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. BALDWIN (Lord of the Treasury)

I beg to move "That the Bill be now read a second time."

This a short one-Clause Bill, which is brought forward for the consideration of the House at the request of the Railway Executive Committee of the Board of Trade under circumstances which I can explain in a few words. The House is probably aware that the Passenger Duty which railway companies have to pay is one of 5 per cent, on all railway fares exceeding 1d. per mile, and it has been in force with some slight modification since the earliest days of our railway system. Under the Order of the Board of Trade issued in November last, there has been an increase of 50 per cent, in fares, and the result is that practically all railway fares throughout the Kingdom will be brought within the scope of this Railway Passenger Duty. The clerical labour involved, both to the railway companies and the Board of Customs and Excise, who have to check the figures, is not inconsiderable; but however inconsiderable that work may have been when the duty was confined to fares exceeding one penny per mile, it is obvious that it will be very heavy under the changed circumstances, and at a time when it is desirable to reduce all unnecessary labour in the country as far as possible, it has been thought well to ask the permission of the House to remit this duty on the controlled companies for the term only of the period of control.

The only question which has probably jumped to the mind of every Member of the House is whether this is going to be of financial benefit to the railway companies. The answer is that so long as the period of control lasts, financially it makes no difference either to the railway companies or to the Government for the very simple reason that the duty is part of the working expenses of the company, and when it is removed the amount that has to be paid by the Government to the railway companies is that much less. It makes no difference financially whether a separate payment is made to the Government through the Board of Customs and Excise, or whether the same amount is accounted to the Government as ordinary receipts through the Board of Trade. Under these circumstances, as this proposal makes no financial difference to the railways or to the Government, as it has received the approval of the Board of Trade and of the Board of Excise and Customs, and as it will save clerical labour to some extent both to the railway companies and to the Board of Customs and Excise, I hope the House will give it a Second Reading, and if it feels that the proposal is a reasonable one, I trust it will not think I am asking too much in inviting it to allow the Bill to proceed through its further stages to-day. We know this is the last day of February; the duty is collectable on the tenth day of the second month after it falls due, and consequently the duty which arose during the month of January is due to be collected on the 10th of March. If the principle of this Bill be agreed to, it is desirable to get it into operation at once, and on that ground I hope there will be no delay in its progress.


The hon. Member in charge of the Rill has explained its purport with great clearness, and I am quite sure the House will be desirous to assist him in getting the measure passed through all its stages to-night. At the same time he has made it quite plain to the House that, while the railway companies under the financial arrangements by which the Hoard of Trade has control over the railways during the War are not going to be helped financially, the Bill will save them a very great deal of clerical labour, and in that sense it will be a real advantage to them in the conduct of their work. I venture to suggest that the Board of Trade, in bringing forward a Bill of this kind, ought to see that the advantages are not all on one side. There have been continual complaints in recent times against the railway companies for not giving more facilities to the travelling public. When they are seeking to escape certain legal liabilities the Board of Trade conies along and says it is for the good of the country. But while we may be willing to relieve the companies of these legal obligations where it can be done, we think that the claims of the travelling public, who are suffering many inconveniences by reason of inadequate train services and by the difficulties which are raised in regard to the inter-availability of season tickets, should not be lost sight of.

I suggest that when the Board of Trade comes down and asks this House to give facilities which will be of advantage to the railway companies, it should at the same time be prepared to concede something which would be good for the travelling public. For some weeks I have been approaching the Board of Trade in regard to the matter of the inter-availability of season tickets. A man may live in a town in which there are two railways running to London. If he buys a season ticket he is only allowed to travel by one line, but if he takes an ordinary first-, second-, or third-class ticket for the double journey he may travel by either line. Take the case of a man at Plymouth who takes an ordinary second return ticket to London. He may travel up by the South-Western and return by the Great Western but if he takes out a season ticket, then he is tied to one line. When appeals are made in regard to this matter we get replies from the Board of Trade stating that it is making inquiries and is considering the point. But the reply of the railway companies is that if a man has a season ticket and it is made inter-available it is difficult to adjust the amount to which each company is liable, as there are no means of telling by which line he has travelled, and, consequently, one company may not get the full amount which it should receive. It seems to me that in these times, when we are anxious to give every facility to business men, they should not be forced when coining to London on business to waste time in the Metropolis awaiting a return train on a particular line when there are earlier trains on the alternative route. I submit that the Board of Trade under these circumstances should insist on the inter-availability of railway tickets in such cases as these.

When I put a question on the subject the other day to the Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Trade he replied that it was impossible to do this with regard to short mileage. I realise that when there are two lines running to London for a short distance it is possible that all the traffic may converge on one particular line at certain times of the day and cause considerable inconvenience thereby. But that difficulty does not apply to long-distance trains, and, bearing in mind that the people who use these long-distance railway services are nearly all men of business who come to London to do important work and desire to return at the earliest possible moment, it does seem absurd that they should be compelled to waste their time in London awaiting a train on a particular line when there are earlier trains available on the alternative line. These things ought to be viewed with the modern eye. To-day the sympathies of the modern railway director may be more with the shareholding public than with the travelling public, but as the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill has now been relieved of his duties as a railway director and has come forward with this Bill, I think it would be very nice if he would show an unprejudiced mind in regard to this matter, and give an undertaking that this small point, which is of very considerable interest to the travelling public, especially to-day when so many more men are taking out season tickets, shall receive consideration. The fact that the number of season tickets has increased enormously recently certainly strengthens my argument, as it shows that a far larger number of men will be confined to travelling by a single line and will lose the advantages which attach to the ordinary ticket-holder of having an alternative route. Having made that protest, I must say that while I am very glad to save the railway companies labour, I would ask the Board of Trade, while promoting this Bill, to do something to save inconvenience to the ordinary travelling public.


I desire to congratulate my hon. Friend on the explanation which he has given of the provisions of this Bill. As he has pointed out, while the Passenger Duty brings in very little revenue it entails a great deal of clerical work, and, personally, I wish the Government could have seen their way to carry their proposal a step further and abolish the duty altogether. Perhaps this Bill is a preparation for what may come hereafter. Both hon. Gentlemen who have spoken have referred to the Railway Passenger Duty as part of the working expenses of railway companies. But I know when I had the good fortune, as some people may call it, to be a season-ticket holder on the South-Eastern Railway, I found by experience that the Railway Passenger Duty on my season ticket was charged separately, and I believe the same practice applies to ordinary tickets. In fact, that was recognised by the Legislature in the Cheap Trains Act of 1883, when the Passenger Duty on cheap fares, that is, fares under the Parliamentary rate of one penny per mile was abolished so far as cheap trains are concerned and reduced in the case of urban traffic. One appreciates the point that the Board of Trade increase of 50 per cent, in the railway fares will bring many fares which hitherto have been exempt within the operations of the Railway Passenger Duty.

Owing to the exemptions, owing to the gradual abolition of second-class fares, and also owing to various events connected with the War, this duty has been steadily-decreasing in recent years. In 1911–12 it produced about £315,000. In 1915, the last year for which figures are available, the amount realised was just above a quarter of a million sterling, and last year probably it was rather under a quarter of a million. As my hon. Friend has said, the cost of collection and the clerical work entailed are very great, and I think the Government may well consider whether this should not be a step towards the complete abolition of this old-fashioned duty, which brings us very little and costs a considerable amount to collect. So far as the Bill itself is concerned, it has my hearty support, and I hope it may be allowed to pass through all its stages now.


My hon. Friends appear to be under a slight misapprehension. They think this Bill is going to benefit the railway companies arid relieve them of a burden. They appear to forget that the railways are now under the control of the Government and that this alteration will not benefit the companies one iota in any way. The railways are under an Executive in London, which gives instructions and orders to the railway officials, and it makes no difference to the latter what work they are doing. The Railway Executive Committee are not opposed to the Bill. I understand they agree to it.



7.0 P.M.


It will make no difference whatever financially either to the Government or to the railway companies. The sole object of the Bill, I take it, is to relieve the railway companies of making up certain returns which they are called upon to do under the existing Act of Parliament, and the Bill is solely directed to securing that relief. I am afraid that with regard to fares what my hon. Friend said was out of order. There, again, the railway companies have no power whatever. All the power is vested in the Executive Committee in London which represents the Government. This is clearly an administrative Bill and, as such, ought to be passed.


We are very much indebted to the last speaker for having made clear to us all the fact that it is the Executive Committee that has power to do what it likes in a matter of railways. I would take this opportunity of drawing attention to the very disagreeable experiences of suburban travellers who have to produce their season tickets every day and all day long. If it is in the power of this House to facilitate the companies in their working, the Government ought to reciprocate by giving the travelling public facilities, I appeal to the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill to bear this question in mind and to press upon the Railway Executive Committee the folly of compelling men to show their season tickets every time they enter or leave a railway station. If they were shown once a week it would be quite sufficient to prevent fraud, but to have to show season tickets on every journey is a nuisance to the community.


I understand from the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill that this extra duty is to be charged in respect of railways in the United Kingdom.


The controlled railways.


I gather that it is to be charged on the controlled railways in Ireland. That means that the passenger fares on the Irish controlled railways will be increased 50 per cent, if it has not already been done. I want to know from the hon. Member when it was that the passenger fares were increased on the Irish railways.


I do not think that that question arises on this Bill, which is one that simply suspends the obligation to keep separate accounts.


Yes, but I object to the increased duty in respect of Irish railways, because that necessarily means an increase in the passenger fares.


I point out to the hon. Member that there is no passenger duty in Ireland, therefore this does not apply to Ireland.


Then I withdraw my objection.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Resolved, "That this House will immediately resolve itself into Committee on the Bill."—[Mr. James Hope.]

Bill accordingly considered in Committee.

[Mr. WHITLEY in the Chair.]