HC Deb 24 July 1957 vol 574 cc416-8
47. Mr. G. R. Strauss

asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation what investigations he proposes to make in the purchasing arrangements of the British Transport Commission in accordance with his recent undertaking.

50. Mr. D. Jones

asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation what action he proposes to take to implement the undertaking given respecting purchases by the British Transport Commission.

54. Dame Irene Ward

asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation whether he is satisfied that the structure of the British Transport Commission gives it adequate powers to purchase stores and equipment in accordance with the best traditions of private industry.

61. Mr. Ernest Davies

asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation what has been the result of his consultations in the British Transport Commission in regard to the placing of contracts in connection with the modernisation programme of British Railways.

Mr. Watkinson

At my request, the Chairman of the British Transport Commission has sent me a full report. The report sets out the new purchasing policy which the Commission decided to adopt on 30th May, 1957, and also deals fully with allegations made in this House about specific contracts.

Because of the importance of this issue to the railway modernisation plan, which the Government are underwriting, I have felt it essential to ensure that the facts are established expertly and impartially. This is also the wish of the Chairman of the Commission.

I have accordingly asked Sir Harold Howitt, past President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, who, as the House knows, has a wide experience of financial and public affairs, to examine this matter and let me have his views upon it as soon as possible. It is my intention to publish his findings and the Commission's report.

Mr. Strauss

I think that everyone will be very pleased that the Minister has come to that decision about having an impartial investigation. I wonder whether he has considered a point which I put to him during the recent debate on this matter, that it might be helpful on this occasion to get the advice of a senior officer in the Ministry of Supply, because that Department is accustomed to buying large quantities of products from British industry, sometimes when delivery is very urgent. Would not the advice of such an officer be useful?

Mr. Watkinson

Perhaps I may add that I have told Sir Harold Howitt that he has complete freedom of action as to how to conduct this investigation. I think that it is also fair to say that, the Commission has particularly asked me that it should be as widespread and detailed as possible.

Dame Irene Ward

I thank the Minister for his decision, which will give great satisfaction to many people who have been very anxious about the whole purchasing policy of the British Transport Commission. Has he any idea when we may expect this report?

Mr. Watkinson

I have asked Sir Harold Howitt to do it as quickly as possible, but I am anxious, as is the Commission too, that it should be a very detailed investigation, and, therefore, I do not think that I can answer my hon. Friend's question today.

Mr. D. Jones

Will the Minister, first of all, confirm that the report is in fact the report of a committee of more than one high-ranking officer of the British Transport Commission, not presided over by Mr. Gethin? Secondly, in view of the grave apprehensions felt by large numbers of people, not least by the three-quarters of a million people employed in the industry, will he make available in the Library of the House a copy of the report which Mr. Gethin sent to him?

Mr. Watkinson

I do not quite know what the hon. Gentleman means. The report I am referring to, which I have, of course, handed to Sir Harold Howitt, is a report to me by the Chairman of the Commission. Sir Harold Howitt will undoubtedly ask for any further documents he wants, either from the Commission or anybody else, and I am sure that he will obtain them.

Mr. Goodhart

Can my right hon. Friend say anything about the procedure which will be used in this inquiry? Will Mr. Gethin or his counsel have an opportunity of questioning other witnesses and, in view of the grave public concern about the allegations which have been made, would not it be desirable to have this inquiry in public?

Mr. Watkinson

I do not think that my hon. Friend is, perhaps, helping his constituent by trying to put limitations and conditions on this investigation. I am anxious to have it done as expeditiously and efficiently as I can, and I am satisfied that that is best met by allowing Sir Harold Howitt to do what he thinks best.

Mr. Popplewell

Is the Minister aware that his decision thoroughly to investigate these allegations will be welcomed by all? Further, will he ensure that this impartial inquiry he has established will also go into the question of the closing of the Brighton locomotive works where, it is alleged, some 350 people have been engaged and are now engaged on producing complete direct admission valves for the continuous brake at a cost of about £6, and the contract has been let to private enterprise at a cost of about £15 for a complete direct admission valve unit? Will this committee investigate that particular type of matter too?

Mr. Watkinson

As the hon. Gentleman has mentioned it, I will certainly draw it to Sir Harold's attention.

Mr. Monslow

While I welcome the Minister's statement about the investigation he proposes, may I say that some of us, having long experience of the railways, have a very shrewd suspicion that Mr. Gethin was anti-nationalisation, anti-Labour and anti-trade union?

Mr. C. Howell

In view of the alarming statements which have been made in the Press accusing the British Transport Commission of discharging Mr. Gethin for making the charges, is not it possible for the charges and the report which Mr. Gethin is supposed to have produced to be made available in the Library for hon. Members to see?

Mr. Watkinson

I do not think that that is for me. I have seen to it that Sir Harold Howitt has a copy of Mr. Gethin's allegations. I think that that is all that I am required to do.