HC Deb 13 October 1943 vol 392 cc1012-22
Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

I wish to raise a question which concerns the Ministry of War Transport, namely, its action in withdrawing workers' unlimited travel passes, especially in Yorkshire. The 21st June of this year was a memorable day because on that day the workers in Yorkshire could put down that their travelling expenses had been increased by Ministerial edict by amounts varying between 9 per cent. and 120 per cent.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Mr. Turton

As I was saying, I think I should like to make clear my position and that of my constituents. We are aware of the very urgent need of economy in the use of fuel of all kinds and of rubber. Neither my constituents nor I would have had any complaint or raised any objection to any scheme devised for the effective curtailment of unnecessary travel in such very difficult times, but I challenge the Parliamentary Secretary to show that the withdrawal of these unlimited travel tickets has taken off one bus, or curtailed one service. So long as the workers live away from the factories they must have buses in which to travel, and however much you put up the fares, they will have to travel. The only result that has been achieved by the stopping of unlimited travel has been extra profits granted to already profitable bus companies.

I would divide this subject into two parts—first, what I call long-distance travel, in which, by the nature of things the worker can be expected to make only two journeys in one day, and secondly, short-distance travel under which, in the past, the worker has gone home to lunch. I must confess that my researches have taken me outside my own area of Yorkshire to large areas of the West Riding. I have found that on 21st June, when unlimited travel ceased, and the workers were given only the advantage of a six-day travel ticket, the expense of travel on the long-distance part was increased very substantially. I will not at this hour risk wearying the House with many examples. Let me give one which I think is a fair sample of what has been happening. The Easingwold-York service, a distance of 13 miles, used to cost the worker £14 a year. That same travel, only one journey each way a day, was raised on 21st June to £18 4s., a rise of 30 per cent. When I represented to the Parliamentary Secretary that the increase was unwarranted, I admit that he helped me by reducing it to £17; but is there any reason why a worker from Easingwold engaged in a factory at York, should have his travelling expenses increased by 22 per cent.? It is clear that by increasing the charge not one bus service on that route has been curtailed, but the fortunate company whose vehicles ply between York and Easingwold have been given a profit of an extra £3 per year for every worker who uses that service.

Let me now get to the more difficult question of the workers who live round the periphery of a city and who used to go home for lunch, and therefore did four journeys a day. This is especially applicable around Leeds and also around York, where it affects my constituency. Previous Governments of all parties have encouraged, and I think rightly encouraged, workers to live away from the centres of the cities, and housing estates have been developed around York that are, in most cases, four or five miles away from the centre. The habit of the worker was, in his one-hour break, to take this bus journey, which occupied 20 minutes each way, and to spend the other 20 minutes of his break in having a quick lunch. I have found numerous cases of men who have done that and done it with ease because the bus timetables allowed for that and still, after 21st June, allowed for it. The cost of travelling before 21st June was £7 16s. a year. Now, as a result of the withdrawal of this contract ticket, this has been raised to £16 9s. 4d., a rise of 110 per cent., and in the case of those who go in for firewatching and have, in addition, to do other journeys into York, that increase is even greater. I repeat to the House that these increases, in this fifth year of the war, are quite unwarranted, and I ask the Minister to take action to remedy that position.

I realise that the line which the Parliamentary Secretary will take will be that it is a wicked sin in war-time to go home for lunch. I and other Members have encouraged our constituents to cultivate gardens, to grow their own produce and to cut down, as far as possible, their expenditure on food. Yet when they try to do it, when they try to go home and live on their vegetables and have lunch with their families, they are faced with this huge penalty and told that they should go to some restaurant, British Restaurant or otherwise, in the city. Those hon. Members who are acquainted with York, will know that there are large numbers of workers, as in other towns, who are working in the city, and it is not only difficult but also very expensive to get lunch in the town. It is all right for those workers who are earning large amounts of money but the point I am putting to-day applies to those workers, whose wages have not been greatly increased during the war—men on the railways, who are working in York, and who have not had any large increase like some other people working further off on aerodromes and in Government employment. Those are the men whose cases are hard. It is very hard on them that there should be this increase of 110 per cent.

The position is accentuated in this way. I have quoted figures showing the rise which took place on 21st June. This is the culmination of a long series of increases in travelling costs. Let me give the figure of what travel used to cost on that route. I have given the figure of £7 16s. On 2nd September, 1939, it was £5 10s. This constant increase of travel rates, which has been encouraged and I personally believe—the Parliamentary Secretary will correct me if I am wrong—stimulated and directed by the Ministry of War Transport, has resulted in workers having to pay 200 per cent. more for travel to and from their work than on 2nd September, 1939, and this at a time when the House is engaged in trying to keep down living costs and stop inflation. It seems a reactionary proceeding on the part of what I believe to be, in the main, an enlightened Ministry.

I do not want to be merely critical but to make constructive suggestions. I recognise that the Ministry wants to stop people going into the town for pleasure and unnecessary shopping. If that is the object, surely the right method is to take off bus services at those times of the day when people of that type travel. Workers go to town early in the morning, come home for lunch and then want to go home again in the evening. The mid-morning services and the mid-afternoon services to the town and again the late evening services, should be cut down. If you do not give people facilities for going into the town for pleasure they will not do so. The remedy is, surely, to curtail bus services. I hope the Minister will revise his attitude and try to take burdens off the backs of the workers who are already burdened too much.

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

I have had a large number of letters about this matter from members of my own trade union who are affected. As every one knows, York is a very big railway centre, and many of my colleagues in the Railway Clerks' Association live in and around York and have to travel to York to carry on their daily avocations. It was known that the hon. Member intended to raise this question, and I have been asked to back him up in his protest about the way in which the Ministry of War Transport were handling this matter. The information which comes to me shows most definitely that the object of the Ministry in raising fares, or causing them to be raised, has not been attained. I am told that no services have been taken off as a result of the withdrawal of unlimited journey contract tickets. Then why raise the cost of tickets if the object is to stop travel and thereby, presumably, save petrol and tyres? I do not want to extend my remarks too far, because I want to give the Minister and others ample opportunity to make their contribution to this examination of the position, but the burden is certainly very great and I would like to give one instance. I have chosen deliberately two places which the hon. Member has mentioned, York and Haxby. My correspondent says that the annual travel between these places used to be covered by taking out 12 monthly tickets at 13s. 6d. each, a total cost of £8 2s. Now it is necessary to take 52 weekly tickets at 3s. each, plus five daily ordinary tickets at 8d. each for 52 weeks in the year, a total cost of £16 9s. 4d., as against the previous cost of £8 2s. for the same journeys.

The argument is used that those people ought to stay in York for their midday meal and use what the Ministry claims are adequate facilities for that meal. My correspondents assure me that such adequate facilities do not exist, and that the Ministry is wrong in claiming that these journeys can be obviated. The claim is definitely put forward in all the correspondence I have had that, as the hon. Gentleman has said, the only result is to penalise those who are compelled to make these journeys, and the only advantage that is conferred is that of increased income for the bus company. It is contended that in these circumstances the Ministry is entirely wrong in sanctioning and maintaining these high charges, when the object which they seek to attain is not being achieved.

Mr. Ritson (Durham)

We have heard a good deal about seething trouble over the mines. There is also plenty of trouble seething because the bus companies are receiving these additional profits through the action of the Ministry of Transport. I travel between Newcastle and Sunder land and between Sunderland and Durham, and I pay 25 per cent. more than I ever paid before. I am not saying that I cannot afford it, but there are people who cannot afford it, and who should not be made to pay. I have always stood for a man having the right, when it is possible for him to do so, to have his meal in his own house. That benefits not only his body but his soul, and the soul of his wife, for everyone with a family knows that when a woman has to provide food to be taken out it means more expense and trouble than to provide it to be eaten at home.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) made a good point when he said that we are encouraging people to grow their own food on allotments, and now we are not allowing them to go home to eat it. I cannot understand why the Northern region has been singled out in this way. I went to Appleby recently, and asked for a return ticket, and got it, but when I go elsewhere I have to pay the full fare both ways. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary is not going to allow his officials to bamboozle him in the way they seem to do. My hon. Friend is very eloquent and knows many languages, but I wish he would learn to speak a language which would make his officials obey him. I think my hon. Friend, in his eloquence, forgets to tell his servants what we want them to do. I have never known more discontent about transport than there is in the North of England at present. Town councils, urban councils, and parish councils are all urging us to appeal to the Minister. Why we in the Northern Region should be selected for this sort of punishment, I do not know. It is supposed to save tyres and petrol and other things; but, believe me, not a single bus fewer is being run, and the people who pay for it are those who can least afford it.

Mr. Ivor Thomas (Keighley)


The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport (Mr. Noel-Baker)

I think it will be perhaps for the convenience of the House if I speak now as a good many points have been raised, and if I can finish in time, I will try and make way for my hon. Friend. I wish that my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Ritson) would particularise a little more about what it was that I had promised which had not been done.

Mr. Ritson

There is not time.

Mr. Noel-Baker

If my hon. Friend will give me the information, we will talk about it behind Mr. Speaker's Chair after this Debate and I will try to put it right. I am grateful to my hon. Friend who raised this matter. He has treated me very kindly over the whole thing, and I have tried to help him as much as I can. There has been a good deal of discussion about this matter recently in West Yorkshire, but less now than 3 months ago. I am glad of the opportunity to explain why we have abolished unlimited travel. I would say how much I regret and indeed how much I detest the limitation of travel facilities which it is my duty to impose and defend; no one can dislike them as much as I do; or with such good reason, and particularly with regard to omnibuses, I would ask hon. Members to believe me when I say that my task is neither light nor agreeable When I receive deputations I am sustained by the thought that our saving of road transport mileage has been an indispensable part in our war effort in past months. In some cases we have made economies by sweeping away whole services, as, for instance, the Green Line buses of London. We are hearing about the North now, largely because they came in later than other people. There are not many regions which have had to suffer such a sweeping and drastic change as that made by the elimination of the Green Line buses.

In other places, we have tried other methods to economise in transport; we have sought to do it by cutting out very cheap travel tickets or unlimited travel tickets such as my hon. Friend has mentioned. We had done it in the hope that we should prevent non-essential travel. I recognise that it is not a wholly satisfactory way of achieving the end. It lays you open to the charge that the rich can always afford to pay and the poor are hit. It also lays you open to the charge that bus companies profiteer. It has nothing whatever to do with the bus companies. There is not one change of fares in a profit-making enterprise which has been made except by the instructions of my Ministry and I take full responsibility for it all. Unless I am misinformed, I do not believe that one penny of this will go into the pockets of the bus companies because I believe they are already paying Excess Profits Tax and it goes to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. My hon. Friend said that perhaps, instead of cutting out cheap tickets, we should take off buses at times when workers are not travelling and during the off-peak hours. I ask him to look at the London parks during the middle of the day, or examine our rural services throughout the country. We have cut off-peak hour bus services to the very bone. If there was more that we could do, we would do it. On the contrary, we are considering now whether we shall not have to make a move in the opposite direction.

This method is also unsatisfactory because it is very difficult to assess the result. When my hon. Friend says that not a single bus has come off, I beg to assure him that he is wrong. It is difficult to assess because there are many other factors involved. Broadly speaking, we believe that if in the West of Yorkshire we had not applied the withdrawal of unlimited travel tickets there would have been difficulty in coping with the holiday travel this summer. There has certainly been a notable reduction in evening travel. And generally all over the country, where this method has been adopted, we have been able to save duplicate buses which is not very often noticed by the public.

Very often, too, this method has prevented overloading which, as regards maintaining adequate bus services throughout this next winter, is quite as important from our point of view as cutting out duplicate buses. I believe it has brought us a real result, without causing any very great hardship, and that to reverse it now would have a disastrous psychological effect on the public, who would think it did not matter how much they travelled and thus create a much greater pressure on the buses than exists to-day. Heaven knows, it is great enough.

Mr. Mathers

Surely my hon. Friend's remarks cannot apply to the regular, constant travellers who are buyers of the unlimited travel tickets?

Mr. Noel-Baker

Often the regular travellers are buyers of workmen's tickets. We try to make arrangements, and did so in Yorkshire, for people who make a journey in each direction to their work. We try to see that they shall not pay more. But if they do pay more, it is a trifling amount.

Now I come to the question of travelling home to lunch. I do not say at all that it is wicked for a man to go home to lunch, but we have to save bus mileage and we think this is one way in which it can readily and usefully be done. The Ministry of Food fully shares our point of view. But if my hon. Friend will show me cases in which it can be proved that there is real difficulty in getting lunch, then I will try to get adjustments made. I have done so in some places and I am prepared to do it again. With regard to the increased cost of travel, my hon. Friend mentioned a journey from Easingwold to York. In the time at my disposal I can only say this: That the present fare is 0.49 of a penny per mile. No one can say that the workers are having a bad deal when they can go a journey of 29 miles at that price.

Mr. Turton

Does the hon. Gentleman disagree with the figures I have given, showing there has been a sudden increase of 22 per cent.?

Mr. Noel-Baker

If my hon. Friend will look at the basic rate as it was before, he will see that the present rate is less than a ½d. per mile. Under unlimited competition bus fares in many parts of the country are extremely low—some would say fantastically low. Under a ½d. per mile is cheap travel and I do not think it causes any great hardship. Take the question of the increased cost of travel to Haxby. There have been three changes since 1939—one in 1942, one in 1943 and then this 12-journey ticket business. The effect of the change in October, 1942, ways to increase the fares of quarterly ticket holders by 3½d. per week and of half-yearly ticket holders by 5¼d. a week. The number of people who held three-monthly tickets was 14 and half-yearly tickets, five. It is not a very great hardship. The last thing we did was to make a substitution of the 12-journey tickets for the three-monthly tickets which did not increase the cost to travellers who made one return journey a day. With regard to lunch. Haxby is 4½ miles from York. The return journey is 42 minutes. The interval between buses is 18 minutes. Either you must have lunch in 18 minutes, in which case I think it would be better to have it in York, or else you have to allow more than one and a half hours without time to get to the bus at each end. I do not think that is a very good proposition. Now about fire-watchers. Under the Fire Prevention (Business Premises) No. 2 Order, 1941, the amount of travelling expenses reasonably incurred by any person as a consequence of the arrangements shall be reimbursed. If anybody is having to pay more for having to go from Haxby to York for firewatching it is because he does not know the Fire Order. He can get the money repaid. If some of my hon. Friends think they are being unjustly treated because they are suffering what others are not suffering, I would remind them that unlimited travel has been withdrawn throughout the whole of Scotland from many undertakings in all the regions and from all the undertakings in three regions. I say, therefore, that the North has not suffered worse than others.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.