HC Deb 20 November 1951 vol 494 cc349-58

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

The matter I want to bring before the House is probably non-controversial, and I am hoping that the Minister will be able to support what I intend to say. It concerns the thefts that have taken place on goods transported by the railways and the allegations arising from those thefts as to the honesty of railwaymen.

Railwaymen as a body feel a sense of resentment at some of the remarks that have been made recently in this connection. I will quote one that was reported in the Press. This is what a magistrate said: The amount of thieving from the railways is a standing disgrace to the men who work on them. They sit up and scream and want bigger wages. Perhaps if they did not steal so much of other people's property there mght be more money to pay better wages. The fact that that statement was made on a privileged occasion makes it all the more regrettable, because it will be noticed that, in the first place, it assumes that those thefts were committed by railwaymen. There is no proof that many of them were.

Other people than railwaymen steal goods on the railways and, therefore, it is rather unfair to attribute all thefts to railwaymen. As a matter of fact, when I sit as a magistrate myself there are at least 100 cases of thefts from dwellings to every one committed on the railways. Thefts on the railways are given great publicity.

One might say that thefts from the railways are equivalent to thefts from the Post Office. They are all goods transported by a public service, and there is a special responsibility on railwaymen to keep an eye on the property for which they are responsible. I want to claim that most railwaymen do their duty very creditably.

Most railwaymen deplore these thefts and their trade unions have also deprecated them. I think the House as a whole would admit that there is a very fine esprit de corps among railwaymen, and they are rather proud of the way they discharge their public responsibilities. They are angered at the general attacks of this kind on their honesty. I think it was very ill-advised of the magistrate to utter the words that I have quoted, and to condemn a whole body of good, honest workers in that way.

According to the latest official returns, last December there were over 605,000 railwaymen. Out of that very large number there are only a small number to whom that criticism could be applied, despite the fact that railwaymen have been amongst the worst paid workers in the country, and that there is a certain amount of temptation because of that.

I should like to call attention to the actual figures of those thefts, because quite serious allegations have been made in public. I find from the official returns of the British Transport Commission that the total value of goods for which claims have been paid in respect of goods lost, stolen or pilfered on the railways has fallen over those last three years, though because of the incidence of higher prices and of Purchase Tax, if the amount stolen had remained the same, the value would have increased.

Instead of that we find that whereas in 1948 the value of these claims was £2,778,000, it had fallen in 1949 to £1,728,000, which represents, I believe, a drop of 38 per cent. In the following year, 1950, it fell again to £1,406,000, which I calculate to be about another 19 per cent. decrease. That is a very considerable decrease over the three years. As certain remarks have been made about an increase since nationalisation, may I call attention to the fact that in the year 1947, before nationalisation, the equivalent figure was £2,671,000. There has been a very considerable drop to the figure for last year.

It would be interesting if I could give the House figures showing the percentage which that figure represents of the total value of goods carried on the railways. Unfortunately, that is not possible, for obvious reasons. The nearest figure that I can find is that representing receipts for the carriage of merchandise and parcels. The figure for 1950 under that heading is £110 million. That is the annual amount of receipts for carrying the goods. If we look at the amount of claims paid, for goods lost, stolen or pilfered, we see that it represents only about 1 per cent. of those total receipts.

I would draw attention to the fact that under the heading "lost, stolen or pilfered" there may be quite a large quantity of goods not stolen or pilfered. The word "lost" in the statistics would cover goods of which the labels had been lost, torn off or damaged. Many of those goods are sent to the Unclaimed Goods Depot and very often they cannot be identified. Think of such articles as iron pipes landing at the Unclaimed Goods Depot without a label. It would be quite possible to identify them, but they are lumped into the total. All the facts go to show that the general impression given to the public by cases widely reported in the Press may be greatly exaggerated, to the detriment of the railway staff.

I would draw attention to the special temptations on railways, because of the nature of the carriage of goods. In a large goods shed there may be hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of goods, valuable or scarce goods, lying about, day and night. Among the railway staff handling those goods may be temporary staff brought in because of the present shortages, due to some extent to low wages.

This is even more so at transfer points where close scrutiny cannot always be given. I happened to work in one of those transfer points at one time, and I know how easy it was, when goods were being transferred from one wagon to another, and were left overnight and loaded somewhere else a day or two later, for the goods to go astray in one way or another.

When we bear in mind the huge volume of merchandise and parcels carried by the railways and the very large number of people of all kinds employed by them, I suggest that the Minister might be able to give some encouragement to the main body of good, hard-working, honest railwaymen, by saying something to offset the unfortunate impression that has got abroad.

I want to make it clear that I would not for a moment condone any thefts that have taken place or even plead mitigation for them; I am only pleading that the public should accept these stories with a due sense of proportion and not in a way which is regarded as a slander upon their character by large bodies of railwaymen.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. J. A. Sparks (Acton)

My hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) is to be congratulated upon raising this subject. I am here not to justify any thefts which might have been committed by railwaymen at any time but to see that railwaymen get fair play, because they are undoubtedly being charged, by persons who do not know the facts, with a whole range of thefts which is not committed by them.

It is very difficult to arrive at the precise amount paid by the railways for pilferage as distinct from loss. The figures which have been given to the House over the years have all been based upon the payments for goods lost or stolen. When I was on the railways before I came to the House, much of my work at one time was connected with the preparation of claims, and the fact was that the amount of claims submitted for goods lost as distinct from goods pilfered was very substantial.

If any hon. Member would care to go to the periodic salvage sales which the railways organise, usually every half year—one used to be held every half year in my constituency at Park Royal—he will see a mass of stuff which has accumulated in six months and it is lost traffic—traffic without labels and impossible to identify—not due at all to pilfering. But claims are made for this lost traffic and those claims have to be paid by the railways.

The figure given to us from time to time representing claims paid for goods lost or stolen does not have offset against it the amount the railways receive for salvaging goods and disposing of goods at periodical public auction sales. It is important that we should do justice to the railwaymen, and it should be known that a very high percentage of the claims paid by the railways are for losses which are not pilferages.

I confirm the figures my hon. Friend has given in this respect. The amount paid out by the railways in 1950 shows a reduction of 31.53 per cent. on what was paid out in 1945, despite the fact that commodity prices rose very considerably during those years; and that, in its turn, is reflected in the increased claims made by people who lose goods in transit. Therefore, the railway administration is actually getting on top of the job and reducing from year to year the loss in respect of claims for goods lost or pilfered.

The public themselves are to blame for a good deal of the loss on the railways. Any railwayman who has to handle traffic from day to day will say that the state of the packing of parcels and goods is very inferior today compared with before the war. There is not the paper or the packing materials available, and consequently goods are being packed in flimsy materials which will not stand even the most gentle handling.

As a result, parcels split open and their contents get strewn about from place to place. They are picked up by people who do not know to whom they belong, and then they go to the lost property office and to the salvage depot and accumulate with all the rest of the things.

Then there is the question of cordage. This may seem a very simple and elementary matter, but the price of cordage is now very high when compared with before the war. Therefore, the utmost economy is exercised in the use of cordage by people who use the railway systems for sending their goods and commodities. In addition, there is a shortage of timber generally for boxes and packing of all descriptions. Goods that before the war would have been sent in strong wooden boxes are now wrapped in flimsy paper and have to run the gauntlet of reaching their destination safely.

Another very important factor which leads to the loss of goods is the inadequate addressing of many of the parcels. Many contain, perhaps, only one label, and if that label gets torn off as it passes from point to point with hundreds and thousands of other parcels, nobody knows to whom the parcel belongs. If senders would only include inside each parcel the name and address of the individual to whom it was going, there would be a substantial reduction in the goods and parcels which are lost in transit on our railway systems.

It is important to appreciate that the public must help to reduce these losses on the railways by doing their best to ensure that their goods and commodities are as far as possible properly packed in substantial packing materials and properly and efficiently addressed. I am quite satisfied that if this were done, the amount of losses on the railways would be considerably reduced.

I hope that the Minister will have something to tell us upon this matter, because the railwaymen look to him and to the House for fair play. The hon. Gentleman is in a position to help the railway industry to put this matter right and in its right perspective, and by doing this be will be helping the railways, the railwaymen, and the public, to take advantage of the transport facilities of British Railways.

10.18 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. John Maclay)

The House will feel, as I do, that the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd), has done something very useful and constructive in raising this debate this evening. I think he will find as I develop my remarks that I am in very substantial agreement with what he had to say and also with what the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks), had to say. I especially emphasise what the hon. Member for Acton said about care by the general public in making up their packages and seeing that items are properly addressed.

I should like to make it clear that I yield to no one in my belief that railwaymen are as fine a cross-section of British life as any trade, industry or occupation can show. The traditions of railway service have always been strong and honourable—service to the travelling public, loyalty to and pride in their particular branch in the industry, and, at times of difficulty and danger, unhesitating devotion to whatever the traditions of their service call upon them to do.

But like many other cross-sections of the community, they undoubtedly include individuals who are liable to the age-old human failings, and I agree that the faults of a relatively very small number must not be allowed to reflect on a very fine body of men. One of the most regrettable features of the years since the war is that the standards of general honesty in this and in other countries seem to have fallen. Plenty of explanations are available, but in such matters explanations are not excuses, and no one can fail to deplore the various waves of petty and serious crime which have disfigured the post-war years. It would really have been too much to expect that the railway service should have been exempt from this, and the figures for claims paid, which have been quoted already by the Members who have spoken in this debate, while interesting in showing a decline, are nevertheless serious.

I wish to give a few more figures than the hon. Member gave when opening the debate, but before doing so I wish to make some other points clear. This is one of the few industries in which more or less comprehensive statistics are available, and that is an important fact when considering this matter. Secondly, the nature of the industry is such that thefts and pilferage can go on of goods which are under the care of the railways, but the inspiration may well come from people who have nothing to do with the railways.

Another point which it is necessary to emphasise and which has already been made is that the figures include goods lost, stolen, or pilfered, and I am informed that it is quite impossible, for obvious reasons, to disentangle those figures. An hon. Member gave figures starting from 1948, but we have to look at what happens even earlier. In 1946 the figure was £2,441,000. In 1947 it was £2,671,000, and in 1948 £2,778,000.

Then there came a very good fall, and in 1949 the figure was £1,728,000. In 1950 it was £1,406,000. But in 1938, the year before the war started, the figure was only £180,462. The post-war increase is very serious, even though one can draw encouragement from the decline in the latter years.

Unfortunately, also, the figures for the first nine months of this year show a rise against the figures for the same months of last year, and a rise which cannot be accounted for by an increase in values—there has been another increase in theft in those months of this year. I said that apart from the increase this year the decrease in the years since the war was encouraging. The fact remains that the totals I have given are a very serious matter, whether one looks at them from the moral or financial point of view.

Undoubtedly, no one deplores the figures more than the great body of railwaymen. There is considerable evidence available, also, that organised gangs, operating from outside, are responsible for a substantial part of the trouble and it is of some significance that textiles and tobacco are the two commodities most often stolen.

The House and the public should be assured that the railway authorities are very much aware of the gravity of the problem. With the full co-operation of the unions, a constant campaign is being waged against pilferage and theft. Poster technique is being used extensively and articles are regularly published in staff magazines. The subject, I am informed, is also constantly discussed at meetings of local departmental committees, which are more or less the railways' equivalent to works councils. This is all in addition to the work of the railway police, who are co-operating very closely with the civil police.

I repeat with emphasis my recognition of the integrity of railwaymen as a whole, but it would be entirely wrong to pretend that the figures are not serious and if they are not substantially reduced they will remain serious, whether one looks at them merely from the point of view of the finances of the Railway Executive, or from the moral point of view. It will require the most strenuous efforts on the part of everyone concerned to put a check on the figures.

The reputation of railwaymen has always been a matter of great pride to them and to the nation. They could help in overcoming this. They have been doing it in years past, they can still help and I know that they will.

Major Sydney Markham (Buckingham)

Before the Minister sits down may I put this question to him? Is he satisfied with the rate of recruitment to the railway police, and the rates of pay for the job?

Mr. Maclay

That is another question, and I would ask the hon. and gallant Member to allow me to look into it before attempting to deal with it in debate.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I wish to emphasise the remarks made about the most important aspect of this particular complaint by the railwaymen's union, which is the way in which this slander—I use no other word—was spread about railwaymen in general, arising from the case of a man who was sentenced to 28 days imprisonment for stealing a parcel containing some combs.

That has created great resentment among railwaymen, particularly in view of the fact that there has been this campaign going on, which was referred to by the Minister, in which the men have participated, and which has been responsible for achieving this very striking reduction. We should require a substantial reduction before we were satisfied, and I am still far from satisfied. But it is worth repeating that from 1947 to 1950 the reduction was from £2.6 million to £1.4 million, which is about half the figure. Taking into account the rise in prices it is probably somewhere about a quarter or one-third of the figure, and that is a considerable improvement.

In view of the fact that the men have done so much towards this I think the Minister will appreciate the bitterness with which they received the statement made by the magistrate in question, who happens to be Mr. Blake Odgers, a North London magistrate. I hope that the remarks of the Minister will go a long way to correct the considerable misrepre- sentation created by what I consider to be an irresponsible statement made by a man whose position ought to make him more responsible.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

From my own years of experience in the legal department of a railway company I would confirm the remarks made that these thefts are by no means always committed by railway servants; and when they are, by no means always by the permanent staff. At Christmas-time and at other rush periods, additional staff is taken on, and it is difficult for the railway authorities to prevent the agents of thieves being planted on them. I can remember occasions when people were slipped through who were deliberately put there by receivers as agents to act for railway thieves on a large scale.

Another point is the question of the railway police. There has been a reorganisation of the railway police since nationalisation. I do not profess to know all the details, but I am wondering whether that reorganisation has been effective, and whether it has been on the right lines.

As I understand it, they have been reorganised so that their regions coincide with those of the Metropolitan Police and the county areas. They pay no attention to the boundaries of the railway company as such and the divisions of responsibility of the railway police do not always coincide with the route taken by a particular railway. That is what I understand to be the position.

Whereas formerly a railway policeman was attached to a particular railway and dealt with it from the terminus to the starting point, now he does not. They are divided by different geographical arrangements which have no relation geographically to the railway. I am wondering whether this detracts from the efficiency of the railway police, who formerly did their job very well.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.