HC Deb 22 March 1951 vol 485 cc2592-9
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

As a result of the recent increases in railway wages and other substantial increases in their costs the British Transport Commission estimate that at current levels of charges there will be a deficit on their net revenue for 1951 of £25 million. This sum is, of course, in addition to their accumulated deficit on revenue account which amounted at the end of 1950 to £40 million.

Under the Transport Act the Commission are required to secure that their revenue is not less than sufficient for meeting charges properly chargeable to revenue taking one year with another. For this purpose they are required to submit draft charges schemes to the Transport Tribunal for confirmation. Pending the coming into force of such schemes, Section 82 of the Act empowers me, in order to meet just such a situation as has arisen, to make regulations authorising an increase of charges if I think it expedient to do so, with a view to securing a sufficient revenue to the Commission. Before doing so, the Act requires me to consult, and consider the advice of, the permanent members of the Transport Tribunal.

In the light of their financial situation the Commission have asked me to exercise my powers under this section with a view to an immediate increase of 10 per cent. in railway freight charges, parcel rates, and dock and canal charges. The total yield of this increase in a full year is estimated at £20 million. As required by the Act I have consulted the permanent members of the Tribunal and expect shortly to receive their advice.

This procedure is intended as an immediate relief to the Commission and to prevent an undue enlargement of their deficit during the period required for their charges schemes. The date of operation of the passenger schemes which will be submitted shortly will be determined by the Tribunal. The freight scheme will follow.

Mr. Peter Thorneycroft

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate the gravity of the statement which he has made, and which envisages a further increase of 10 per cent. on top of the 16⅔ per cent. which was granted to the Commission only a comparatively short time ago? He will, I am sure, appreciate that we shall need time to consider this matter and may possibly ask for an opportunity for a debate.

May I, meanwhile, ask him this question? He said that he had referred this matter to the Transport Tribunal, sitting as a consultative committee. Are we to assume—I am sure he must have information upon this point—that the Transport Tribunal intend to follow precedent and have a full public inquiry, in which the views of members of the public and of the traders involved can be fully canvassed, before the Tribunal tender their advice? Otherwise, the advice would seem to be very transient and ephemeral?

Mr. Barnes

Until the Tribunal express their views to me on this matter I am unable to state definitely what their attitude would be. In my submission to the Tribunal I emphasised the urgency of dealing with this proposal and the request of the Transport Commission for a 10 per cent. increase. I urged the importance of the time factor in this matter, which is essential, as the Commission are now in a position to submit their charges schemes to the Tribunal, both for passenger and freight charges.

This matter will receive the exhaustive consideration which the Tribunal machinery, under the Transport Act, always visualised. It appeared to me that it was desirable that the losses of the Transport Commission, which recent increases in prices and wages make inevitable, should not proceed at an unduly rapid rate. I further indicated that they should take into consideration the fact that about his time last year, when the 15 per cent. increase was imposed on freight charges, they went through the whole of this procedure and that traders and other bodies concerned submitted their views in full. There has been no substantial change in the circumstances. The freight charges schemes will follow on, and they might take that into consideration. What advice the Transport Tribunal will tender to me on that I am not at the moment able to state, but I expect their advice fairly quickly.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

In his statement the right hon. Gentleman referred in particular to railway freight charges, parcel rates and dock and canal charges. The very serious statement which he has made will require very careful consideration. Could he elucidate a little the position with regard to passenger fares? Is it intended to make a corresponding immediate increase of 10 per cent. in passenger fares?

Mr. Barnes

No. Sir. I have indicated in the statement that the Transport Commission are now in a position to proceed with the whole of their charges schemes as they were visualised. As I am informed, the first ones will deal with passenger fares, and they will be followed by the freight schemes. Therefore, I am not in any way dealing with passenger fares in this statement. As a matter of fact, in this statement I am not giving a decision on the request for a 10 per cent. increase in railway freights. I am awaiting the advice of the Transport Tribunal on that. All I am giving, with regard to the charges schemes, is the information that they are about to be submitted to the Tribunal and that, from then on, that machinery will function.

Mr. Poole

May I ask the Minister two questions? Will he tell the House how much of the deficit of £25 million arises from the increased wages paid to railway men, or do those increases not come into the figure at all? Also, does he not now think that the time has come when he ought properly to tackle the question of the number of C licence vehicles, which has increased by 500,000 since nationalisation and is really responsible for this deficit?

Mr. Barnes

The problem of C licence vehicles has no bearing on these figures. With regard to the first part of my hon. Friend's question, approximately £19 million out of the £25 million deficit estimated for this year represents wage increases, most of it reflecting the recent wage increases to railway men, but not that entirely. Increases to London Transport and others come into the figure.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

To what extent has a general subsidy to cover the Commission's deficit been considered? Has it been rejected, and if so, upon what grounds?

Mr. Barnes

From time to time, of course, all matters of that character have been considered by the Government. Hon. Members will be aware that in various debates that we have had on this subject I have referred not only to the question of subsidies but also to the view, expressed at different times by the Federation of British Industries, that a strategic subsidy should be considered. These matters have been very fully considered, and I am able to state once more this morning, as I have done previously, that we do not look to a subsidy to solve this problem and see no reason why, when the full charges schemes come into operation, transport as a whole should not meet its expenses.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The Minister has made a statement. We cannot discuss all these related matters.

Sir Waldron Smithers

I would like to put an important question, Sir. In view of the fact that the Minister's authority is required before this proposal can go through, will he, before granting that authority, lay down conditions about improved efficiency, dismissal of redundant staff and refusal to increase wages?

Mr. Barnes

Some of the matters to which the hon. Member has referred do not fall within my own power to determine. As to general pressure for increased efficiency and economy, that is taking place, and from time to time satisfactory progress is made. In any business organisation there will always be a difference of opinion as to the rate of progress. Nevertheless, a substantial improvement is indicated, though it is not of a character to meet our present situation, in which wage increases and the price increases on the huge purchases which the railways make affect the railway budget over a relatively short period. Most of the figures which I have given today have arisen within the first quarter of 1951, and progress in efficiency cannot effect substantial changes of that character.

Mr. Pannell

On a point of order. May we ask at what stage this debate will be suspended, Sir, so that we may get on with our other business?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Almost immediately, I hope.

Mr. P. Thorneycroft

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman another question, which will be my final one? I understood him to say that he had made strong representations to the Transport Tribunal that, as they went through all this a little time ago on the 16⅔ per cent. increase, it would not be necessary to go through it all again on this occasion. I ask him very carefully to consider the propriety of pressing the Transport Tribunal in that way not to hear evidence. Does he not agree that many of the questions which have been asked here, and many other cognate subjects, ought properly to be discussed before the Transport Tribunal? That is why the Tribunal are put in their consultative position. I ask him to withdraw the pressure which he has put upon them and to allow them, in accordance with the precedents which have been set up, to hear the evidence publicly, at a public inquiry, where all interests may state their views.

Mr. Barnes

The hon. Member always puts upon my words a construction which is really not intended. I have not in any way indicated—I would not dream of it —that I was endeavouring to put pressure, in the language which he used, on the Tribunal. What I said was that in my submission to them, and in asking for their advice, I dealt with the need for urgency. I did not presume to give them advice. The Tribunal's function is to give me advice and it is not for me to give them advice. I want to make it perfectly plain that, in regard to matters of this magnitude and importance, and the machinery which the Tribunal represents in our public affairs, we do not get anywhere by exaggerating the situation. I want the House to accept it from me that I have asked the Tribunal to advise me and that I have not in any way put pressure upon them. I should not dream of doing that, and, if I did so, I should not expect them to accept it.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

We really ought to get on now.

Lieut-Commander Gurney Braithwaite

On a point of order. May I, with the very greatest respect, Sir, submit to you that during this comparatively modern procedure by which Ministers make statements after Questions by leave of the House—for which the right hon. Gentleman forgot to ask, but I do not complain of that—it has been the custom always that Members should have the opportunity of interrogation? Is this not particularly so when the House is just about to rise for 10 days? We shall have to visit our constituencies and try to explain to our constituents the contents of this addled nationalised Easter egg.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I think the House will agree that hon. Members have had ample opportunity for interrogation on this occasion. We are already 25 minutes behind our programme. Private Members' rights in regard to Adjournment debates have already been intruded upon. I hope that hon. Members who are raising subjects on the Adjournment today will each be willing, in the circumstances, to give up a little of their time.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

May I, with great respect, Sir, put this point to you? The House is about to rise for Easter. With the permission of the House the right hon. Gentleman has made a statement of great importance to our constituents. Might I seek your guidance as to whether it would at least be permissible now to ask the right hon. Gentleman for an assurance that he will take none of the actions which he foreshadowed under Section 82 of the Transport Act until the House has had an opportunity, as it cannot have one now, to seek assurances from him?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Quite clearly, that is not a point of order.

  1. ADJOURNMENT (EASTER) 13 words