HC Deb 22 June 1951 vol 489 cc961-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Royal.]

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Deeds (Ashford)

I want to raise the subject of British Railways and public relations. In speaking of "public relations" I do not necessarily mean "public" with a capital P and "relations" with a capital R. That would be "Public Relations" in the modern and rather glamorous sense. I mean quite simply the relations of British Railways with the public. I have given prior notice to the right hon. Gentleman of points which I wish to raise, but before I come to them perhaps I might make three general propositions.

I am not seeking on this occasion to sidekick at the nationalised railways. As one who represents a railway community I am less interested at the moment in the fact that the railways are nationalised than in the fact that they do not happen to work as well as I would wish. Also, as one mixed up with a railway community, I have a good deal of sympathy with the various physical difficulties of the railways today, such as shortage of staff, the problem of coal and shortage of raw materials. In view of those difficulties it is all the more important that the public relations side of the railways should be as good as possible, and that the public should be induced to take a more sympathetic attitude than they do now.

The third point is that unless we accept the present state of the railways as final, which I devoutly hope is not the case, we should be prepared to give a little more information to let the public, the Press and Members of this House know what is going on, and we should not be frightened, as I think the Railway Executive tend to be frightened, of allowing the breezes of constructive criticism to play, in moderation, about the set-up of the railway as we now have it. In the end, it will benefit the railways rather than otherwise if they encourage from the public, from Members of Parliament and from the Press a little more constructive criticism and a more imaginative outlook.

The Minister will do well to look at the public relations advertising and publicity set-up of the different Executives. There is a different public relations set-up for each of the Executives under the Commission. There seems to be an extraordinary difficulty in achieving integration in this sphere, which we understood was the object of the Act. If we are to have an integrated system of transport, it would be as well if public relations and advertising were ordered accordingly.

I am constantly approached on the subject of the closing of branch lines. I sometimes regard this as an integral part of the task of cutting the dead wood and I very often say to people who complain, "Accept it, but insist that an alternative bus system is provided in its place." That appears to be a constructive line to take. What often happens is that the closing of the branch line is given a lot of adverse publicity but no publicity at all is given to any alternative road service that may be provided. The consequence is that the public are led to believe that they are losing something and getting nothing in its place.

Recent advertising by the Railway Executive has not been calculated to inspire much confidence or public sympathy. Although the Railways have a monopoly, they ought to make their facilities known so that the public can be encouraged to make the maximum use of the services provided. In this the Railways still have much to learn from London Transport who provide a most excellent example of constructive advertising. A recent instance was the advertising which incorporated two preposterous figures called "Biff and Buff," who advertised the Summer-time tables until the day on which the Summer-time tables were cancelled.

I thought that when Biffs bluff had been called both Biff and Buff would have retired from the game. Not a bit! They re-appeared only last week, Buff opening by saying, "Oh dear, our new Summer train service shortened," Biff: "Freight must come first, Buff." That sort of advertising is hinderingly bad psychology. The publics are tired of Biff and Buff and never want to see them again. That is a particularly bad case of bad publicity psychology.

I should like to know from the Minister what progress is being made by the transport users' consultative committees. The committee for the South-East area was announced last week. It is odd that such a long interval should elapse between the announcement that the committees would be established and the establishment of this committee, which has to serve five counties, only this week. May we know what complaints are being received by committees already established, what action they are taking and how, generally speaking, they are representing the consumers? What sort of work are they doing?

One is entitled at the moment to say that the representation of the consumer on the railways is dreadfully bad. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to encourage a more conciliatory attitude in the approach of the railways to local needs. At Ashford any change in local needs involving a change in a train service is regarded much as a five-year plan, and if anything is done by the end of the five years they reckon they have done well. I know the difficulties and I know that trains cannot be stopped, started and laid on at a local whim, but I believe that a more conciliatory and friendly attitude between local authorities, local chambers of trade and the railways would enormously increase good-will It is a most disappointing experience to try to get any alteration in the train service, even if one represents a large body of opinion.

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman recognizes the great fund of loyalty that the railway staffs place at the disposal of the Executive. There are an astonishing number of people who are still exceedingly proud of the railways of this country, the engine drivers, and so on. All too often, however, they tend to side with the public in a genuine sense of bewilderment, frustration, and lack of understanding of higher policy. In the Western Region only last week we have had a petition being organised by the staff on an aspect which I do not pretend to understand. It would appear that Western Region are not even getting public relations straight with their own staff, let alone with the general public. Clearly the staff has not been properly informed.

Let me illustrate one or two other points upon which it would be as well if a little more imagination could be exercised. First there is the matter of meanness. The Railway Executive should try to avoid petty meanness. Far too many cases reach my knowledge of widows and dependants being caught up in the machinery of the executive. Secondly— and I have given the right hon. Gentleman notice of this— I should be most grateful, and so would many others, for an interpretation of the rights and wrongs of the public in the use of first-class carriages. I never travel in one without a sense of deep embarrassment, particularly if the train is crowded.

It is altogether wrong that first-class carriages should be left empty when the train is overcrowded and women and children are standing in the corridors, and that on others the authority should apparently be that the carriages might be filled. A general interpretation would clear up a source of irritation amongst the travelling public, particularly in the summer. I have no sympathy with the scrimshank who travels habitually first-class with a third-class ticket against whom the railways have a strong case, but I have a great deal with the woman travelling with children who does not know what to do and occasionally gets caught with an extra fare to pay.

Thirdly, another point has occurred to me which I have put to the Executive and which has not been dealt with, Every main station in this country is equipped with loud speaker apparatus which is used to inform the public of the times of trains coming in and going out. I would like directions issued that the apparatus should be used to keep the public more perfectly in the picture in the event of delays and breakdowns or any other mishap.

While one has every sympathy with the accident which makes the train an hour late in a station, there is no reason why the loudspeaker apparatus should not be used to keep the public in the picture. Somebody without a written word should be able to say, "We are sorry, the train has blown a tube" or "The tunnel is blocked and you will be here for another 20 minutes." Being late is maddening, but being late and not knowing why is perfectly infuriating.

Fourthly, there is the appearance of locomotives. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the one characteristic of all Englishmen is to love engines. It starts very young and goes on until late in life. To me a clean engine stands for a tremendous amount. It symbolists ride in service and the general esprit de corps of British Railways. I know that with the shortage of staff it is difficult to get the necessary number of cleaners on to the job and to keep the "Battle of Britain" and other engines looking as they should.

I have made the following suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman. In connection with the problem of the re-employment of old-age pensioners, many of whom are exercised about the new arrangements and would like to keep on working or to get back to work, why should it not be possible for the unions and the executive to reach an agreement whereby older people might be used in small teams on the job of keeping engines looking as they should, a source of pride to British railways? Surely something along those lines might be thought out.

After the bitter battle of nationalisation, it is quite understandable that the railways should be shy of exposing themselves to partisan criticism, but it is not in their interests nor in the interests of the public that they should become too inaccessible. I feel that at present there is a danger of their building about them a ringed fence, behind which a good deal can go on which no one can check or criticise.

I take this opportunity of expressing my gratitude for Lord Holcomb's in variably courteous, if not always punctual, replies to letters. If they are not punctual it is only because his department is dealing in a grossly over-centralised manner with far too many letters that I appreciate. I may run into some risk in saying that this particular channel of redress for grievances may be far less healthy than Parliamentary Questions and the publicity which they afford. In the long run, it will not be the Members of this House, but British Railways, who will suffer from the lack of Parliamentary Questions and the consequent publicity which is thrown upon activities, and lack of activities, in certain places.

We must face the fact that the public are generally—I do not think the right hon. Gentleman can deny this—antagonistic to the railways. I take no particular pleasure in saying that I state it as a fact; and it is not for political reasons only that, as the right hon. Gentleman would say, political hostilities have been stirred up in the system of the nationalised railways. The public have suffered acutely in many small ways in recent months and years. There is a great task to be done in building up, quite independently of physical difficulties, good will and understanding with the public, and in that respect only British Railways themselves can take the initiative.

4.17 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I find myself in a very large measure of agreement with the approach of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deeds) to the subject he has raised, but I certainly do not agree with his comments that the public are antagonistic to British Railways. I agree that there is a good deal of irritation and, I think, misunderstanding and irritation, but I feel that it is the earlier remarks of the hon. Member which are nearer to the truth.

In my view, the public has not in any way appreciated the special circumstances under which our railway administration has labored since 1939. The hon. Member himself indicated that he had a full and sympathetic understanding of our physical difficulties and problems; naturally he would, representing as he does an important railway center like Ashford. But I do not think that all these factors are appreciated, generally by the public at large.

I have emphasised in many of our debates on railway affairs the fact that during the war the circumstances of our national life took a very severe toll indeed of all the physical assets of the railways—it is the four main line companies of which I am speaking. In these matters, we ought in fairness to separate the factors over which the managements have no control so that we may be fair to the staffs who are carrying out this very important service.

We all appreciate, of course, that the circumstances after the war have not permitted the railways—neither the management nor the control—to have at their disposal the capital resources or the material or labour, or even the licenses, to enable them to proceed with the complete modernisation of the system. That working out in the railway administration from time to time does cause a sense of frustration both on the part of the staff and of the general public; but, in my view this House, as part of the machinery of Government, cannot separate itself from those responsibilities, although we fully understand them. I was very much obliged to the hon. Member for the appreciation he showed in that respect.

As to his comments on the "Biff and Buff" form of publicity, as a Minister I do not consider that I should accept any responsibility for any particular advertising stunt of any advertising manager or personnel from time to time. I think that any professional advertising man, whether in a railway office or any other office, must have his advertising plan or method judged ultimately by the public and it will either add to his prestige or not, as the case may be.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

There is no doubt on this.

Mr. Barnes

I will be impartial in allowing hon. Members to express comments, but I say equally frankly that I do not think I should accept any responsibility in this direction.

Major Tufton Beamish (Lewes)

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he is aware that one has only to travel around the country to realise that the public as a whole resent their money being spent on this paralytic propaganda? Will he take note of that?

Mr. Barnes

That may be the case and the reactions of this House must be taken into consideration in judging whether that form of advertising is successful or otherwise.

But the Transport Consultative Committee is a very different thing and I carry a measure of responsibility here. In discussion that we had on the subject, I made the motives and factors which influenced me in this direction fairly clear. I did not consider that it was desirable to create the consultative machinery side by side with and immediately when I was setting up the British Transport Commission and the Executives. The major task of the British Transport Commission and the Executives were to take over existing properties and the British Transport Commission had to frame its schemes of delegation and get the Executives into operation. I did not feel that at that stage the consultative machinery could function effectively until at least the machinery of executive management was created.

Immediately that process was over, the next step was to form the National Consultative Committee and then the Scottish and Welsh Committees. Then I addressed myself to the area committees throughout the country and the question of whether they should be formed on the basis of the six railway regions or the road transport areas was a matter for consideration, and later I decided that they should be formed on the basis of the licensing authority areas. I have made it plain that these are not fixed and arbitrary areas but that they are subject to modification in the light of experience. The whole of those 24 regional consultative committees are now in being and I take the opportunity to publicise the fact that I sincerely hope they will be used effectively in future.

I wish to emphasise the basis on which the consultative users' committees are built up. Although they are appointed by the Minister, nevertheless the Minister invites bodies like the Federation of British Industries, the chambers of trade and commerce, the National Farmers' Union, the Trades Union Congress and local authorities to submit panels of nominations. He then chooses from those panels, and taking into consideration the geography, the towns, the weight of industry and the population, endeavors to secure that a cross-section of the whole area is represented on the consultative committee.

I receive criticism that this town is not represented or that this industry in a particular city is not represented. I wish to emphasise that the success of these consultative committees depends on whether all the local authorities use the local authority representative as the channel for their representations, all the chambers of trade use the chamber of trade representative as their channel of representation and all the trade unions in the area—and there will be some hundreds of trade union branches—use the trade union representative if they wish to ventilate any grievance. If we can proceed on those lines, I think these consultative committees will probably be the best means of ventilating some of the difficulties to which the hon. Member has referred.

I was under the impression that this machinery, which is in operation, was working fairly well. If there are any occasions when branch lines or stations are being closed without full consultation, I am sure that if that is conveyed to me or to Lord Holcomb the matter will be fully investigated. I was under the general impression that this was proceeding steadily and naturally without undue public irritation. I would emphasise that one has experience that the public, having neglected and left a particular branch railway system, at once begin to emphasise, immediately the Executive propose to close it, how vitally important that particular section of the railway line is to their community needs. Here again, this consultative machinery can be used by anyone locally for the purpose of having the matter fully investigated. The constitutional position of the consultative committees is that they can obtain all the necessary information from the British Transport Commission or their Executives.

I join with the hon. Member in his appreciation of the loyalty of the staff. We have experienced the value of that devotion to the railway industry in particular in recent months during which we have been trying to clear up the backlog of freight traffic. A great number of the operating grades have voluntarily given up their Sundays to work extra freight trains in an endeavor to overtake that backlog. It is only right that the hon. Gentleman, who represents a railway area, and I should express full appreciation of those efforts, especially as we are living more and more in a period in which a great part of our industrial population thinks that Saturdays and Sundays are not legitimate working days. On occasions such as this, the House should bear in mind that the transport industry demands a 24-hour day and a seven-day week, and someone has to do the work.

I do not think that I can go into the legal problems of the rights of a first-class passenger. If a carriage sets off from one station empty, one does not know whether first-class passengers will enter at the next stop. The question whether a first-class carriage is kept empty or whether passengers in the corridor are put in it must be left in the main to the uniformed personnel of the train, that is, the guard or the ticket collector. I do not profess to give a legal opinion but I have always understood the position to be that unless one has booked and reserved a seat one has no legal right to a seat.

I am not aware that the Railway Executive is not using the services of retired staff whenever it is possible to do so. One finds that the shortage and surplus of staff is very uneven in the industry. The Railway Executive has over 50,000 railway houses which they inherited from the old railway companies and most of them are governed by rent control. It is not possible to move the staff about without causing a good deal of irritation and difficulty. But so far as I know the Executive will take full advantage of the services of any retired members of the staff.

Regarding the reference to Lord Holcomb, I am glad to accept that acknowledgement of the attention which he gives to Members of Parliament. When this change took place, it was my wish that Lord Holcomb should attend personally to the letters from Members of Parliament. As every hon. Member knows, he was my permanent secretary and he prepared Ministerial replies for Members so adequately that I thought that if he were chairman of the Commission hon. Members would not lose by it.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

So there is no need for a Minister?

Mr. Barnes

The hon. Member had better reserve his opinion until some time when he may have ambitions him self in that direction, and then perhaps he will form a different opinion. There is no doubt that many of these matters are intricate and involve a lot of investigation. I therefore welcome this opportunity of giving a little publicity to the railways, which I hope has been good publicity and not bad.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes to Five o'Clock.