HC Deb 10 December 1957 vol 579 cc1221-30

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

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Julian Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I desire to raise tonight the question of the transport consultative committees, which were established originally under the 1947 Transport Act. Before getting on to the main argument, I should like to make it clear that I have no desire to "have a go" at British Railways or at the area consultative committees or the Central Consultative Committee. This matter arises out of certain correspondence which the Parliamentary Secretary knows I had with the Minister earlier in the year and correspondence which I had with the West Midlands Area Consultative Committee.

I am convinced that these area consultative committees and the governing body, the Central Consultative Committee, are vitally essential both from the point of view of the British Transport Commission and the point of views of users, whether trade or passenger users. I assume that the rôle of these committees remains as it was originally established under Section 6 of the Transport Act, that is to say, to make recommendations to the Minister or to consider matters referred to them by the Transport Commission or the Minister.

I am beginning to wonder whether, in the light of experience, the rôle of these consultative committees should not be changed from one of acting as an advisory body to the Minister and the Commission to one of acting as watch-dog on behalf of the users. I understand that such a change in rôle would be quite in order, should the Minister see fit to accept it, as a matter to be dealt with by Order.

It seems to me that, broadly speaking, the activities of the consultative committees are concentrated on the industrial and commercial aspects of transport and, to a much lesser degree, are devoted to the interests of the passengers. One of the things which I find rather remarkable, though I suppose it stems from the original Act, is that, whereas the reports of the Central Consultative Committee are published and placed before Parliament, and, in the same way, the reports of the Scottish and Welsh Transport Users' Consultative Committees are published and placed before Parliament, the reports of the area consultative committees are not so published. In fact, they are embodied in the general report submitted to the Minister by the Central Transport Consultative Committee.

Why should this be so? I can understand that, on grounds of—if I may use the expression without offence—regional sentiment, there should be separate committees for Scotland and Wales, but, economically speaking, there seems to be no justification for separate reports not being published by the area committees, by, for instance, the area committee responsible for the West Midlands. The economic potential of the West Midlands is certainly as large as that of Scotland, and it is a great deal larger than that of most other areas of the country.

I fully accept that it would be wrong to suggest that the area consultative committees should usurp the function of the British Transport Commission in dealing with day-to-day administration, but I wonder exactly what scrutiny is given by the consultative committees to the evidence from frustrated users and to the incidence of categorical complaints. I fully realise also that these area committees are made up of part-time people appointed by the Minister because of their experience, and they have a very small staff. But, at the same time, if their job is not a useful job at present—and I shall hope to provide some evidence about that—and if their rôle could be improved and made more important, the cost of additional staff, in my judgment, would be quite trivial.

There seems to be a widespread view that these area committees are somewhat ineffectual and very remote. In support of that view, I should like to quote from paragraph 49 of the Report of the Central Transport Consultative Committee for 1956, which, in part, reads: We still feel that the travelling public do not yet sufficiently appreciate that by virtue of Section 6 of the Transport Act, 1947, the Consultative Committees were set up to receive representations from transport users and to make recommendations on any matter, including charges, affecting the services and facilities provided by the British Transport Commission… If there is this misgiving on the part of the Central Committee, what must be the feelings of the ordinary travelling public?

I emphasise again that it would be wrong continually to criticise British Railways for the quality of their service or for the efforts they are making towards providing better service. It is fashionable to cite in support of criticism of British Railways what is done on the Continent, notably in France. Whereas I have great admiration for the French State railway system and other nationalised systems, nevertheless the figures which were published a few years ago about the new rolling stock put on the railroads of this country by the British Transport Commission show that we have made an effort which is second to none in Europe.

I was rather sorry that, following the last debate we had in this House on transport, when I made a speech part of which was devoted to the functioning of this area committee, no commentary was made by the West Midlands Committee and no letter was received by myself, as I had expected, from the Central Consultative Committee. I think that, perhaps, in view of the paucity of opportunity we have for debating the interests of the users of our railways, it would be a good thing if the Minister would draw to the attention of the area committees and the Central Committee the need to keep in somewhat closer touch with Members of Parliament.

Passengers' complaints largely fall, as I see it, under two main headings, the unpunctuality of trains and the amenities for the public. I do not propose to go into the question of amenities now. I have done so previously. I would not go into the question of punctuality were it not for the fact that the Central Committee has made continual reference to this in its Reports for 1955 and 1956. In both those Reports the timekeeping of the main line trains was referred to, and it was also the subject of a special section in the Commissioners Report for 1956. However, in none of these publications was there any sort of analysis of the main line punctuality performance.

I spoke during the last debate on transport of a publication, issued by the French State railways, which, I think, has certain advantages over any of the publications issued either by the British Transport Commission or by British Railways or by the consultative committees. I again draw the attention of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to Table 10 of the report of the French State railways for 1956, which gives statistics for several years of the regularity of the trains and the incidence of breakdowns. I think the public is entitled to see some such analysis for our main lines and also for local service timekeeping. I feel that there is a serious lack of what I can only describe as a public relations sense on the part of these consultative committees. I ask the Minister to consider what inconvenience is caused to the travelling public by the late-running trains.

Sympathy is not exactly enhanced by reading in the 1956 Report of the Central Committee that timetables at different periods of the year cannot be adhered to for various seasonal reasons. I wonder whether something can be done to make the timetables more flexible and to see that the public is better informed. Again, for the Committee to report that there is a lack of punctuality due to signalling difficulties, in turn due to a shortage of signalmen, seems to me interesting in fact; but nothing appears in the Report as to what is to be done about it. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary may say that is a matter for the Commission, but though it is referred to in the Report for 1955, there is no reference in the Report for 1956 of positive action having been taken.

I very much doubt whether inter-Regional competitions in punctuality mean very much. Where the regions contact, it may be so; but surely the real yardstick of punctuality is the measure of adherence to effective timetables.

On the question of public relations, I accept in advance that I can be accused of talking about something which chiefly affects British Railways; but I emphasise that area committees have a responsibility here. Why cannot the travelling public be given a service of information over the loudspeaker systems installed in a large number of stations? Without wishing to cause embarrassment, could not the attention of these area consultative committees be drawn to the practice at London Airport of informing the travelling public by a minute-to-minute commentary of the arrival and departure of planes and, where delays are imminent, of warning the public of the consequential implications so far as communications and the catching of planes at the other end are concerned?

I want to give an example of this sort of thing which happened to me recently at Stafford. I found that a late-running train may he known to the telegraph staff but that it is not notified to the men on duty on the platform. On the occasions I have had to make inquiries the staff have always been extremely courteous, but I have had a little difficulty in finding out what has happened to a train which, on one occasion, was 35 minutes late. Could not the possibility of having a more up to date commentary on the running of trains be examined?

Secondly, now that the Conservative Government have adopted a policy of absorbing to a large extent the economy into Europe—I do not wish to be controversial, because I am in substantial support of this—should not area committees and the Central Consultative Committee interest themselves in seeing that there shall be, when the legislation is passed, such an efficient service for goods and passengers as will place them in competition with our continental competitors? I see that the Government have published details of a new trunk road to the Channel ports. That must imply that transport of freight and passengers from our industrial areas must be brought up to the very highest possible efficiency.

Thirdly, I think it would be a pity if the question of integration of road and rail transport should remain a political matter. As a matter of fact, the integration of road and rail could not be political, because the licensing system of road transport is a perfect weapon, even for the most dogmatic Conservative. There is a great deal to be done still about the integration of these two services.

Fourthly, I suggest that area committees and the Central Committee should consider instituting some form of statistical control of complaints received by British Railways. It seems to me that by instituting some form of analytical control it should be possible for area committees and the Central Committee to pinpoint inefficiencies in the service provided by British Railways, and thereby to look after the interests of the travelling public.

Lastly, I emphasise to the Minister that the work of these area committees is very little known indeed. Could not British Railways provide advertising space on platforms so that the travelling public and the freight-using public can know what are the local activities of their committees and who are the people on them? I tried to find out who was on the West Midlands Consultative Committee and failed. The committee seems to be shrouded in secrecy. Why is that so? Why cannot the public be told the composition of these consultative committees and what work of a local nature they are doing? I have written to the Minister and told him of an important industrialist in my constituency who did not know of the existence of the area committee.

So far as the travelling public are concerned, it may well be that organisational representations to the area committees are not necessary, because the railway travelling public are not, largely speaking, organised. Members of the public feel frustrated when they arrive at the end of a long journey and the train is late, for perfectly justifiable reasons, and they have nobody they can ask or to whom they can make complaint and thus find out whether their complaints are justified or not. I ask that something should be done so that the composition and functions of these area committees may be locally understood.

11.11 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I welcome the chance to say a few words about the transport users' consultative committees. Although the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) had some criticism to make of them, it can only be helpful for them and the functions which they perform to be referred to in the House. The hon. Member referred to the set-up under the 1947 Act, and he spoke in general terms of what the committees did.

As to their composition and function, these committees are essentially representative of all consumer interests, passenger, freight, and so on. Their membership consists of a number of public-spirited people who, in one way or another, use the services of the British Transport Commission. These people are willing to serve in a voluntary capacity on these committees. In the nature of things, their representative character could not be replaced effectively by full-time paid members. It follows, therefore, that to preserve the value of their function, which is considerable, we have to avoid swamping them with either exacting procedure or a large volume of small complaints. The hon. Member, of course, is fully aware of these considerations, but it does no harm to mention them to start with, because they put the whole matter in perspective.

It is, of course, the fact that the Commission has its own public relations staff and, as the hon. Member rightly said, it is the function of that staff to deal with day-to-day business and complaints and to cultivate good relations and do the utmost to give satisfactory services. The transport users' consultative committees are advisory bodies and are the safeguard to ensure that the Commission's response to consumer needs is adequate in a general way. Finally, my right hon. Friend the Minister is responsible to Parliament for the general function of the Commission.

The structure of the transport users' consultative committees involves a central committee. Nine area committees report to it. There are Scottish and Welsh committees also reporting and making direct recommendations to the Minister. The central committee itself reports to the Minister and makes its annual report, to which reference has been made in this debate. These committees normally function by consulting with the affected interests and sending copies of their minutes and recommendations direct to the Commission and to the Central Committee. The Commission always pays the closest attention to them. Finally, there is the safeguard that the Minister, if he thinks it wise and necessary, can give a direction to the Commission, following a report or recommendation from the central committee.

I will think about the point which the hon. Member has made about whether the area committees' reports should come to us in the Ministry and to the Minister. I am a little doubtful about that, but I will certainly consider whether it would be a valuable additional provision.

In regard to the need to make these committees less remote, I agree that we want them to be in touch with all transport users, but at the same time we must take care to avoid burdening them with too much. We must also take care to see that by any arrangement which is made to improve their contact with the general public they are, in fact, independent of the Commission.

The existing publicity arrangements are that all booking and rail freight offices can give the name of the committee locally to anyone who inquires. I noted what the hon. Member said about this, and I should be pleased to take the matter up if he tells me of the case where this arrangement failed. Curiously enough, in every post office the address is also posted up. It is also mentioned and described, and all individual committees, with their addresses, are given in the pamphlet The Village Bus, which has had a wide circulation. There are frequent reports of the work of the committees in the Press, and the Central Committee is considering bringing out a pamphlet on the lines of The Village Bus, with the names of local bodies, and so on, to do just what the hon. Gentleman wants. This Adjournment Debate may also help; there is no doubt that all this must have some effect.

Then there is the point about posting notices on station platforms. I think that that might associate the committees in an undesirably close way with the Commission and reduce, to some extent, the independence of their status. It might also encourage very minor complaints to be sent in with which they could not deal. This is an aspect of our need to choose between a voluntary body and a full-time body which could deal with more work, but which would not have the same personal touch and contact.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of an analysis of complaints. It is true that the committees do not see all the complaints. It would be a most formidable undertaking to submit all complaints to them, and I doubt whether they could go through them all. But there is a member of the Commission on the committees who will supply all the information which is wanted.

Mr. Snow

Does the Parliamentary Secretary say that British Railways do not have an analysis of complaints?

Mr. Nugent

They have a record of complaints, but I would not like to be completely definite as to an analysis. I therefore think it is unwise to go beyond the measures which I have stated, particularly in view of this new pamphlet which is being prepared.

The Central Committee has made a study of the question of unpunctuality, and the hon. Gentleman will have seen in the 1956 Report that there is reference to the causes of this. The Commission makes quarterly returns on unpunctuality, and The Railway Magazine has a monthly record of main line cases of it. So the information is there for anyone to buy; anyone who is interested can have a complete picture of how time-keeping is going on our main lines. So far as bad time keeping is concerned, the 1956 Report makes it clear that this is largely due to old fashioned and out of date equipment, and also, of course, to something quite the reverse—the modernisation work now going on. Track work interferes with running and proper time keeping. So the mere business of modernisation, of which we are gradually getting the benefit, is for the time being making for great irregularity.

The shortage of signalmen is, of course, rapidly being overcome by the system of coloured light signalling. That is a great economy as well as giving greater efficiency. In some cases it is a problem to find jobs for men who have become surplus. It is a matter of evening them out. That particular shortage to which reference was made in the 1956 Report will therefore disappear.

I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion about changing the function of the transport consultative committees from an advisory one. I think it would be impossible to do that with the present structure and personnel. I feel that we have about the right balance there, that these committees should be the watchdogs of the services provided by the British Transport Commission rather than the watchdogs of the efficiency of the Commission itself.

There is, of course, a continuing problem to find a really effective alternative to the commercial incentive in a nationalised industry. But I believe that we are making progress by the devolution of autonomy to the area boards which are functioning very well indeed. They themselves are devolving down the line greater responsibility to the men actually in contact with the transport users.

I believe that just as the Commission is modernising its mechanical and motor side so it is modernising its administrative structure in an endeavour to do just the things for which the hon. Gentleman is asking. These consultative committees can play their part in this matter, but the actual business of improving the relationship between transport users and the Commission itself, and, what is even more important, improving the standard of the service, is something which can only come about gradually. We are doing all what we can in the Ministry to encourage this. The transport committees are doing what they can, but there is no simple answer to the matter.

The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on the point in asking the 64,000 dollar question, which is what modernisation is about. Of course, to make us feel competitive with our European neighbours in a Free Trade Area it is essential to have an up-to-date and efficient transport system. We are gradually moving towards that position, but I doubt very much whether the consultative committees can be greatly strengthened as a weapon to that end. We can gradually make them better known. We will certainly do that, but I doubt whether they themselves can be used as a more powerful lever. They are now performing a useful function. If we wanted them to do so in a more precise fashion we should have to alter their membership and structure. I do not think we could replace them with something which would do the job better. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept the assurances I have given him.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-three minutes past Eleven o'clock.