HC Deb 02 July 1935 vol 303 cc1819-30

Order for Third Reading read.

9.58 p.m.

The MINISTER of TRANSPORT (Mr. Hore-Belisha)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

This Bill has been fully discussed on previous stages, and I understand that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee) wishes to make a few observations upon it. Its financial basis has been outlined to the House by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and by the Financial Secretary, as has the scheme of work which is referred to in the Schedule to the Bill. The scheme involves an expenditure of about £35,000,000 on a programme to be executed within the next five years. On the usual basis of calculation that the spending of £1,000,000 provides work for 4,000 men, this scheme will give employment on an average to 28,000 men a year for each of the next five years. A great diversity of industries will benefit, and orders will be distributed to the advantage of many localities. Labour in mechanical and electrical engineering, in building, and in all the trades which supply them will benefit. This will bring employment to skilled men, and also many unskilled men will benefit in clearing, digging, banking and track-laying. The plant, machinery and materials required will, so far as possible, be of United Kingdom origin, and preference is to be given to the special areas. Permanently in- creased demands for electricity will result, and we have the assurance of the board that nothing will be done in connection with the reorganisation of their electrical requirements except after consultation with the Minister of Transport.

It is, however, as a lasting convenience to passengers that this scheme must be regarded. It has been devised for bringing relief to the most congested areas. Those who look at the census figures will see with what rapidity the districts within five miles of Charing Cross are being emptied in favour of the districts further out. Much of the overcrowding which has been experienced will be relieved as a result of this scheme. I think that it has met with the general approval of the House, the only criticism being that there are other areas which might have desired the benefits of the Bill. I am sure that those areas will not begrudge the additional advantages which will come to the selected areas, and, as far as the Board and the companies are concerned, within the limits of economy and practicability, they will as circumstances allow undertake further schemes. In the meantime, not only may Members from the constituencies concerned rejoice, but Members from constituencies in all parts of the country may genuinely welcome this scheme, which is to distribute employment on so large a scale throughout the country. The moral is that it is worth while that the Government should have good credit, because it is only by the restoration of credit that it has been possible for the Government to give this guarantee, which is to redound to the advantage of all parts of the country.

10.2 p.m.


I am quite sure, Mr. Speaker, that you would call me to order if I tried to follow the Minister of Transport down the slippery slope of Government propaganda, and I do not intend to do so. I noticed an earlier phrase of his which it would be very tempting for me to follow up. He referred to the work of unskilled bankers, but that, again, I do not wish to follow. We are entirely in favour of this work being done, and I think that the Minister of Transport is lucky in not having had this proposal weighed up by a committee presided over by Sir George May, because I am sure that, weighing it with the scales with which he weighed other schemes, he would have said that this was one of those wild cat, unprofitable schemes that ought to be turned down. We must recognise that these reforms on the London railway system are long overdue. The reasons for their being so long delayed are two: first, the failure to bring unity into the London traffic arrangements, and, second, the failure of the profit motive. The attempt to leave the provision of transport facilities in the Greater London area to the profit motive has resulted in neglect of all kinds of areas, particularly East London, to which I want to refer directly.

The right hon. Gentleman pointed out that you need credit in order to deal with a scheme like this. The fact is that these last three or four years you have had masses of money lying unused at the banks, and it is only by fulfilling the needs of the community by State action that you can take advantage of the national credit. This guarantee is the provision by the State of travelling facilities for Greater London. What an enormous waste has occurred because this was not done before London grew so big. The trouble is that we have not hitherto had any real planning of Greater London in reference to housing, to industry, and to travelling facilities, and this comes, as most things come, too late for London. London is always growing, and we provide what is necessary for its education, so to speak, about two or three years too late. If only transport had been regarded as a social service and not as a subject for profit-making, all this kind of work might have been done long ago.

Frankly, on the finance of this scheme, I do not think it likely that the undertakers will be in a position to pay off all this money in 15 years' time. It has been pointed out in several parts of the House that if there was a profit in this thing there would not have been any need for the Government to guarantee the money. But I am not going to quarrel with the Government over that. Let us have the transport facilities, and we can deal with the other matter when it comes up. Perhaps by that time we shall have nationalised all transport facilities, and if not, then we shall perhaps have the Government explaining that they have guaranteed something which after all they have had to pay out, because there have been no profits. I am sure that if they endeavour to re- coup themselves for it by raising fares, there will be a revolt in East and North-East London.

Perhaps the most important feature of the work that is to be done under this Bill is the abolition of certain terminal points in London. As I judge it, we are to get more through travelling. London transport has suffered in the past, perhaps inevitably, from the idea that what was required was to bring people from outer London and dump them down in two particular centres, the City and Westminster—to bring them out from the dormitories and dump them into the work places. London has altered enormously of recent years, however. You have had a tremendous development of manufacturing centres in various parts of London. The City and Westminster business centres have extended widely, and they are not so important as they used to be as compared with the rest of London, and we have not got, especially from the East, the through travelling facilities to the newer developing parts of London that we want. The real difficulties of transport in London are two—first of all, the peak load and, secondly, the congestion at the various termini. The London termini are congested to-day by people who have to get out there in order to change and go somewhere else. Therefore, the House will see the importance of the changes that are to be made at certain stations.

This brings me to a point that I want to emphasise, and that is the condition of the old East London area. We have heard a good deal, and rightly, about the terrible conditions of travel from Ilford, Walthamstow, and other places, but I think the old East London suffers perhaps as much as any other area. In the Tower Hamlets we have two dead-end stations, Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street, and we have two main arteries, that both meet at Aldgate Pump. You have a population coming in from the East just at those points, and those terminal points, Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street, mean that the people have to come tumbling out there if they want to go on to the West. They are terrible old railways. The only through one is the District Railway. I do not know whether hon. Members have tried to get out of a District railway train at Stepney Green or Mile End. It is a pretty fair fight to get in and a pretty fair fight to get out. If I want to get to my constituency in the evening, I have the chance of fighting to get on a train or fighting to get on a tram. I have the possibility of finding a train from Liverpool Street or Fenchurch Street, an appalling train, and more often than not I find it simplest to walk down Commercial Road.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has described the conditions in Bow, and I want to point out the conditions in Stepney. You have that terrible old railway that runs along from Fenchurch Street. It blocks out our light and air, its trains are appalling, and it does not lead anywhere in particular at either end; and you have the Liverpool Street line, on which I do not need to expatiate. The Great Eastern Railway has been talked of a good deal by Members in this House, but it always gives up the ghost in foggy weather. That is the other end of my constituency, and then a huge mass of population depends on the trams and buses. What we want is a tube right down Commercial Road, leading right through to the West, and we need more communication North and South as well. In my constituency, if we want to take children anywhere for a bit of fresh air, we have to take them through a tunnel under the river to the South side.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of emptying out to areas five miles out, but he must not forget that we have still an enormous population left within the five miles range, and those people are more neglected than they are in the outer areas, first, because those areas were built up before effective travelling facilities came along, and secondly because, if you live in an inner area and are lucky enough to have a station, when you get on to the platform you find the train is always filled as tight as it can be with the people who have come in from the outer areas. We shall never get over that until we stop having a series of dead ends, until we get through travel and electrical travel, and until in East London we put our railways underground. Under this Bill we are undoubtedly going to get some advantage along the Mile End direction and in other parts of East London, but the big area between the Mile End Road and the Thames is absolutely neglected.

In conclusion, we ought to realise that rail traffic and road traffic are, in essence, only extensions of roads, that the provision of this rail programme is of the same nature as the provision of the road programme, and that we cannot expect to make a direct profit out of providing transport facilities. To do him justice, I do not think the Minister of Transport expects that these schemes will be commercially profitable. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has "pinched" his money, and the Minister of Transport has in return managed to get a guarantee out of the Chancellor, although he knows pretty well that they will not be able to pay up. But he ought not to expect individual transport undertakings in London to show a profit. We must consider London transport as a whole, and regard the provisions of these transport facilities in this Bill as a social service and not as a means of making profit. The real relief will come in facilitating housing, health and amenities For these reasons we welcome this tardy, perhaps almost deathbed, conversion of the Government to a policy of public works, and only regret that it should not be on a more considerable scale.

10.16 p.m.


The Minister of Transport made a reference to distressed areas in his speech. I wonder whether his Department have considered the number of men now living in the distressed areas who may be absorbed by these works, especially craftsmen.

10.17 p.m.


I think I can speak as sympathetically as the right hon. Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee), because I also sit for one of the constituencies which are affected by the bad travelling facilities to which he referred. Nevertheless, I was glad to see that he rejoices with me that a beginning is at last being made to put these facilities on a better basis. The right hon. Gentleman made some reference to the finance of the scheme, but I would point out to him that being able now, owing to the policy of the Government, to get cheap money, we are able to save some million a year, because 5 per cent., which was the rate of interest when the right hon. Gentleman's Government was in office, has now become 2½ per cent., and a little calculation will show that that will save some million a year. The Aldgate East improvements which are in the Schedule of this Bill will allow passengers from the Upminster district to short-circuit the City and go direct to the West End, and I think that will effect an improvement in the conditions of which the right hon. Gentleman has complained when he said people who really want to go in the direction of the West End of London are brought into the City and have to change.

The right hon. Gentleman also spoke about trams. We estimate that the scheme to substitute trolley vehicles for trams will affect some 265,000,000 passengers, and I know as he does, sitting for a London constituency, that that will be a great improvement for the people who use the streets of London. We believe these schemes will be profitable, whatever he may say. We believe that in five years time the schemes will begin to pay for themselves. This is not a charitable undertaking but a proper business proposition and can only be carried out by a proper business Government. [HON. MEMBERS "Hear, hear!"] I am glad that hon. Members opposite agree with me and see how important it is that these matters should be on a business basis. Like other hon. Members, I know how disappointing it is that these schemes cannot embrace the whole of London. The companies had to consider which, in their opinion, were the most important. In some of the places which are now to be served, enormous housing schemes have been carried out of recent years, and this scheme will enable people who are very badly served at present to have the travelling facilities which they require.

I find that Ilford has increased in the last 10 years by 50 per cent., Romford by 85 per cent., and Dagenham by the astounding figure of 879 per cent. Some of us would like to have seen the scheme extended to other places, but, in view of figures like those, we realise that those places have a claim which must be recognised in all quarters of the House. In concluding the Third Reading of this Bill, everyone will, I am sure, wish the scheme well, and will hope, as do some of us who sit for constituen- cies which are not immediately benefited, that it is only the forerunner of even better things.

10.21 p.m.


I would not have ventured to detain the House if the hon. and gallant Gentleman, whom I am sure we all congratulate upon his new appointment, had not chosen the occasion of the Bill, the substance of which was more or less agreed by all sides of the House, to make a speech which was nothing less than party propaganda. It was party propaganda based upon obvious fallacies and mis-statements of obvious facts, and it is impossible to allow a platform propaganda speech of that kind to pass without attempting to correct one or two of the mis-statements. The hon. and gallant Gentleman claimed a good deal of credit for the fact that the Government, having at last established the national credit on the basis of cheap money, have chosen this psychological moment to do this long overdue work. He forgot to inform us that two, if not three, years ago, money rates were as low as they are now; that this scheme, which has been urgently clamoured for by the neglected passengers of London, might have been started three years ago at no extra cost, in fact, at a great saving of public money, because those who would have been employed upon it would have been earning wages instead of drawing the dole; that three years delay has cost the country a very great deal of money and that the responsibility for delaying the scheme for three years, after the lowest point at which money has ever been, is the responsibility of the present Government.

That was followed by another fallacy that this will be a highly profitable enterprise, a denial of the fact that the Government have now entered upon a policy of public works—the repudiation of which policy was the main plank in their election platform—and an assertion that the scheme is now being undertaken because at this precise moment, different from every other moment, it becomes a paying proposition. Why, then, the Government guarantee? Why is it necessary to guarantee an advance of capital for an enterprise which is clearly going to return an interest on the capital involved? Surely it is obvious that it is only because the profits of this enterparise are questionable and because the investing public have not the faith in ability of the enterprise to earn its own interest, that the Government are called upon to guarantee the rate of interest which is offered. This is a State subsidy to private enterprise—a subsidy in the form of a guarantee of interest which is so questionable that the investing public will not trust it. It is nonsense, if I may say so without offence, for the hon. and gallant Gentleman to claim that this is going to be a self-supporting enterprise. If it were so obviously a self-supporting enterprise, there would have been no need to come to this House at all. He then claims credit for a great deal of Government enterprise. But this is not Government enterprise; this is company enterprise.

If this had been Government enterprise, if the Minister of Transport were really able to claim credit for it, we should have seen an extension of the planning of London's transport; we should have seen him carrying on the good work which his predecessor commenced. He would have brought into the area of the London Passenger Transport Board the whole of London's passenger transport. He would have made that a public service. But that has not been done. To the agreement which forms the Schedule to the Bill, the London Passenger Transport Board is only one of the parties. The rest of them are private-enterprise companies operating for profit, and, when they cease to earn a profit, they come to the Government for a guarantee of their capital. This is not public enterprise; this is private enterprise subsidised by Government credit. If there is a profit, the shareholders will take the profit; if there is a loss, the public will bear the loss. It is exactly the sort of public enterprise in which this Government believe—a subsidy to private profit-making enterprise on the basis of "Heads I win, tails you lose." I feel certain that, when the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues begin to realise what the public really think about this scheme, they will appreciate that, instead of being full of gratitude, the London public are asking why it was not done before—why it is that, with hundreds of thousands of people in the London area out of work, and with money so cheap that it ceases to be usable at all, the Government should have waited years before they set on foot an enterprise of this character. I sincerely hope that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will realise that a little more initiative and pace and public spirit is necessary before he can get away with a statement of that character.

10.29 p.m.


I cannot allow the remarks of the hon. Member for East Fulham (Mr. Wilmot) to pass without comment. If he had studied the finance proposed in the Bill, which was fully explained by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the Financial Resolution, he would have seen that the Government are not playing a game of "Heads we win, tails you lose." The Government are launching, in this proposal, an entirely new proposition. The Leader of the Opposition referred to it as Socialism—




Oh, yes, he did. If he looks at his own speech in the OFFICIAL REPORT, he will find that he said he supported it because it was Socialism. I can see nothing Socialistic in it at all. The Government, having created cheap credit in this country, are using that cheap credit to support private enterprise, without the least chance of losing a "bob" themselves. Surely we in this House must approve of a Government that within three years has placed the country in such a position that money can be raised so cheaply as to enable it to be advanced to this private enterprise. The hon. Member asks: "Why cannot the private enterprise raise the money itself?" It cannot raise it because, if it went into the market to borrow the money, it has debentures and all sorts of first charges, and it cannot make this a first charge. But the Government are guaranteeing the funds and, therefore, they can borrow the money cheaply and pay it back, and they will easily pay it back out of their profits.


Will the hon. Gentleman explain whether it is now a first charge or not?


Certainly the Government will get a first charge. It is all stated in the Fnancial Resolution. Private enterprise has to hand over debentures and so on if anything goes wrong, but neither the Government nor private enterprise anticipates that within 15 years the transport companies will have the least difficulty in paying the money back. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee) made a most extraordinary speech. He said, "Here are the Government interfering with transport, and they will lose whatever they are putting in." I suppose he would advise them not to do it; yet in the next sentence he said, "We believe in the nationalisation of all the railways." Then he is prepared to tell the people of the country that in his view all the railways ought to be nationalised, that is, to become a charge on the State, although he thinks that even in this small venture the Government are going to lose their £35,000,000. That is a nice thing to tell the country and I hope the country, and especially the people in Stepney, will note it with great care.

On the last occasion the hon. Member for East Fulham (Mr. Wilmot) said he had read a speech by the passenger superintendent of the London and North Eastern Railway. He said he was not reading the whole speech but he was extracting what suited his argument. His argument was that the passenger superintendent said that even electrification would not solve the problem of carrying passengers from Liverpool Street to Ilford. Of course that is true. I have preached it on every platform in my constituency. The London and North Eastern Railway with steam transport has more wheels passing over the lines at Liverpool Street Station than pass over the lines anywhere else in the world. If the hon. Member appreciates that fact, he realises the necessity not only of electrification there but of the tubes, and of course that is the solution. The passenger superintendent is quite right. With electrification the trains from Liverpool Street will be able to carry only 40 extra passengers per train, which is no use to the extraordinary demands on the service, but with 40 extra passengers per train and a tube taking the passengers on an entirely different route underground, the solution is obvious and the benefit to those who live in the area will be very considerable. The House must feel that the right hon. Gentleman has tried to draw red herring across the path of the Government. The hon. Member for East Fulham, who very ably puts his points, is really supporting the Bill, but he likes to hear his own voice, and in that great desire he will try to put points with which I am sure the majority of the House do not agree.

10.35 p.m.


As to what I said in the Second Reading Debate, that is in the OFFICIAL REPORT, and what I have said I have said. On that occasion I made the point which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Fulham (Mr. Wilmot), and which was made by an hon. Gentleman on one of the back benches the other night on the Second Reading. I spoke on the Money Resolution. The hon. Member for the Rushcliffe Division of Nottingham (Mr. Assheton) said, in the shortest speech which I have ever heard in this House, that if this were a commercial and paying concern the money would have been raised without any guarantee from the Government. I tried to say that, but he said it much better than I could. That is the fact, and it is my case and that of my hon. Friends, and neither the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ilford (Sir G. Hamilton), nor either of the Ministers who has spoken to-night can get over the fact that private enterprise has entirely failed to give London the transport services it needs, and is being obliged to come, to be bolstered up by the credit of the nation to enable it to raise this money. It is no use hon. Members making propaganda speeches about cheap money and saying what a great Government it is to have brought about cheap money, because the financial experts—and I am quite sure the one who walked up the Floor to-day—all agree that money is so cheap because nobody knows where to invest it safely.