HC Deb 13 March 1957 vol 566 cc1207-51

Order for Second Reading Read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

7.1 p.m.

Sir Robert Grimston (Westbury)

I wish to raise a point on Clause 43, which I propose briefly to explain. I hope that the Minister will make clear his intentions concerning this Clause. Perhaps I ought to say that I am speaking on behalf of the Urban District Councils' Association, of which I have the honour to be President. The Association feels some uneasiness about the operation of this Clause.

As I understand, the effect of the Clause will be to abrogate the statutory safety provisions which now operate at level crossings over railways and, at the application of the British Transport Commission, will enable the present statutory arrangements to be done away with and replaced by Orders made by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation. Many of the present statutory provisions are enshrined in Acts of Parliament of some antiquity.

If hon. Members will examine the Clause, they will notice a reference to the Highway (Railway Crossings) Act, 1839, and to the Act of 1854. Because of technical progress it is quite obvious that it would be possible to do away with some of the statutory provisions and to introduce more modern methods of control—possibly remote control, lights, automatic control, and so on—much in the same way as we got rid of the man who used to walk in front of vehicles on the highway with a red flag.

Local authorities are uneasy because, as the Clause is drafted, there seems to be no limitation of its scope and location. I should be glad if the Minister would say how he intends to operate these powers when the Transport Commission applies to him for alterations in the safety regulations at level crossings. It would seem that if there are to be easements, such easements, and, perhaps, in some cases, experiments, should take place on roads where traffic is very light and in areas which are thinly populated, at least to start with. I consider, also, that it would be advisable—I hope the Minister will agree—that my right hon. Friend should consult the local authorities concerned, and possibly the police as well, before making Orders doing away with safety devices which have been in operation for many years.

That is the point which I wished to make and I do not propose to elaborate it. I think that it is understandable that local authorities should feel uneasy, although they do not wish to be in any way obstructive; but it would be helpful if, before we give a Second Reading to this Bill, the Minister would tell us what are his intentions.

7.5 p.m.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

I wish to support what has been said by the hon. Member for Westbury (Sir R. Grimston). I regard the powers included in Clause 43 as sweeping, and I feel that, as a House, we should be very careful about what powers we grant to outside monopolies in a matter of this kind. Sometimes powers are given to corporations and other bodies which have a vital effect on the citizens of this country.

Clause 43 is entitled: Power for Minister to authorise special safety arrangements at public level crossings. I think it might well be altered to read: Power to relax safety arrangements at level crossings. As was said by the hon. Member for Westbury, the provisions of this Clause will result in the sweeping away or abrogation or modification of powers contained in the Highway (Railway Crossings) Act, 1839, Section 47 of the Railway Clauses Act of 1845 and Section 6 of the Railway Clauses Act of 1863; and, what seems to me far more significant, any other provisions of the same or similar effect …in any enactment relating to any level crossing at which a public carriage road is crossed on the level by any railway of the Commission … Goodness knows how many Acts are involved there. The House will require from the Minister an explanation of what powers the Transport Commission is seeking.

The provisions of this Clause would be effected by an Order of the Minister.

I gather that that would be a Departmental Order and not a statutory Order, so that the House would have little time to consider it or even knowledge of what was actually happening. The Clause requires 28 days' notice to be given to the authority concerned. That seems a very short time. I know that 28 days is the minimum time, but those of us familiar with local government know that a matter of this kind would be considered by a sub-committee which would pass its recommendations to the full council; so that 28 days is a ludicrous period to suggest.

Section 40 of the British Transport Commission Act, 1954, empowers the Minister to consent to the removal of gates at any level-crossing at which a public carriage road is crossed on the level by any railway of the Commission … and the Minister can authorise a lifting barrier to be substituted for gates at such level crossings. These powers have been in existence now for more than two years, in fact, two-and-a-half years, and I wonder whether the Minister can say how many experiments of this kind have been tried. I understand that the answer is, none. If that be so, it seems rather extraordinary to give wide powers of this kind to the Commission and to the Minister which they have not seen fit to exercise. One wonders whether it is because they are reluctant to use those powers. If they are, it seems to me that the powers should be withdrawn.

Clause 43 authorises more traffic signs as well as barriers and lights. For years the House has been exercised about traffic signs and other hindrances to traffic on the highway, but we must remember that at these level crossings trains have full precedence over pedestrians and road traffic. The penalty for an accidental mistake, or a deliberate action by a pedestrian or the driver of a vehicle, can be a severe one. It may well be death or very serious injury.

I wonder what will happen to disabled people—the blind, the deaf, and even the colourblind. All those are subjected to special dangers, especially at crossings, where the speed of an approaching train may be 60 or even 80 miles an hour, and which may have a bend on one side or the other. If the Clause is agreed to shall we be giving civil servants power to sanction Departmental Orders without the specific consent of the Minister? I wonder whether these Orders receive the personal attention of the Minister or the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, or whether they are authorised by a civil servant in the Ministry.

So far, we have been dealing with the general powers conveyed by Clause 43, but I now want to draw attention to Clause 49, which affects a footbridge in my constituency. There are special objections to the removal of this footbridge. If Clause 43 is passed I gather that it will never be necessary for the Commission to promote a Bill seeking powers to remove a footbridge in such circumstances. The footbridge is at Camborne, and was built as a result of the Great Western Railway (No. 1) Act, 1894, which provided that a bridge for foot passengers should be so built.

The name of this bridge is Stray Park Crossing. The name is a fascinating one for all those who come from Cornwall, because it is the name of a mine, and many of the hundreds, if not thousands, of mines in Cornwall have very attractive names. At one time the Stray Park mine, now abandoned, was close to this crossing. The bridge is the subject of a petition by the Camborne-Redruth Urban District Council, and it will presumably be considered by the Committee after the Bill receives a Second Reading. I do not propose to oppose the Second Reading, but I wanted to use this opportunity to draw attention to certain effects of these two Clauses.

The crossing is used by 573 vehicles and 1,250 pedestrians a day. The footbridge was obviously provided out of necessity over sixty years ago. In postwar years two new housing estates have been built on one side of the bridge, and the people from those housing estates and the surrounding area cross the footbridge to go to the large engineering works situated fairly close by; to the schools; to the shopping centre in Camborne, and so on. It is, therefore, a vital link between these estates and important parts of Camborne, and Camborne is part of the Camborne-Redruth urban district, which has a population of nearly 36,000. There are three other small footbridges in this locality.

The railway runs from east to west and it is the main line from Paddington to Penzance. The real reason why the Commission has promoted a Bill containing these two Clauses is to save the cost of maintaining the footbridges. We ought to consider not the comparatively small cost to the Commission, but the safety and convenience of the people in the neighbourhood. If these powers are granted they will apply to footbridges of the same kind all over the country. I suggest that the interests of our citizens are paramount and that a monopoly, even of the State, must not be permitted to ride roughshod over the needs of those citizens.

Under the provisions of the British Transport Commission Act, 1954, and Clause 43 of this Bill, bureaucrats of the Ministry and of the Commission will be able to override the needs of the public and, indeed, the wishes of the properly elected local authorities. The powers contained in Clause 43 are excessive. They are a "try-on" by the Commission. Parliament ought not to surrender its powers lightly. I hope that the Minister will weigh very carefully all the pros and cons of the matter and will find it possible to advise the Committee to reject both Clauses.

7.18 p.m.

Mr. E. Partridge (Battersea, South)

I had put down on the Order Paper a Motion that I had intended to move, which would have instructed the Select Committee to which the Bill was referred to delete Clause 17, which deals with docks and inland waterways. When reading the Bill I was very surprised to find that it contained such a Clause. Last year a Bill was introduced by the British Transport Commission asking for powers to close many sections of our inland waterways. After a good deal of opposition by some alert Members of the House, the Minister thought it advisable to appoint a committee. The Bowes Committee was duly appointed, and is at present examining the whole question of our inland waterways. It was, therefore, all the more surprising to find a Clause which sought to abandon more of these waterways.

Looking at the Bill, one cannot be at all sure what the Commission is up to.

The powers it seeks are contained in Clause 17, but their details, such as they are, are to be found in the Fourth Schedule. The first item in that Schedule does not make it clear whether the canals to be abandoned are one or 20 miles long. It is only after taking a good deal of trouble that one can find out exactly what is involved.

After having received certain information, I thought it wise to withdraw the Motion from the Order Paper. I did it for one main reason, namely, that of the five items mentioned in the Fourth Schedule, four refer to only very small lengths of canal and those, in the main, are at the ends of small spurs of the canals. According to my information, three of them are necessary so that rebuilding work may be carried out in factories.

One would not want merely by reason of a quarrel with the Commission to hold up what would otherwise be very desirable work. It is, therefore, because I believe that these works are necessary, and because I understand that the Commission has agreed with the Minister that the funds which accrue as a result of the disposal of these unused spurs will be put into a separate account, that I have withdrawn my Motion from the Order Paper. I hope that the Minister, when he intervenes in the debate, will confirm that the proceeds of the sale will go into a separate account and be easily identifiable in the future.

I must say, however, that I found a good deal more difficulty in wanting to withdraw my Motion because of the reasons underlying the abandonment of the Ashby Canal. A good deal of expense will have to be incurred in the near future and some of it, I understand, will have to be borne by the National Coal Board by reason of its causing subsidence under the canal. Therefore, the poor taxpayer will "get it" both ways. If we say that the canal is to be maintained, the Coal Board has to fork out and the taxpayer suffers in the end. So, having given this very careful thought, and in the hope that the Transport Commission will not bring forward anything like this again, I did not think that it was right to press the point any further.

7.23 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Moyle (Oldbury and Halesowen)

I do not propose to keep the House for more than a few minutes, because the point that I am really concerned about is one that affects my own constituency. Before I come to it, I should like to say that I am very glad that the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Partridge) has withdrawn his Motion.

The hon. Member referred to the previous Bill of the British Transport Commission. I happen to know something about that Bill and to the best of my recollection—I do not argue the point—I cannot recall that the Bill provided for the closing of any canal. It certainly imposed upon the Commission an obligation to maintain the canals for which it was and still is responsible up to a certain standard of working efficiency which the Commission readily accepted. The only point in dispute was the definition as to what the obligation should be in law.

I may be wrong, but I cannot recall that in that Bill any provision was made for the closing of any section of our canals. The hon. Member will, of course, appreciate that whatever views he may have about the closing of the canal—and I do not wholly disagree with him—the concomitant of such a proposition is that obviously there will be a reduction in working costs for the Transport Commission, which would be passed on not only to the National Coal Board but also to the consumers and to British Railways to their advantage.

Sir R. Grimston

I think that the hon. Gentleman's recollection of the previous Bill was a little at fault. There was a proposal to close the Kennet and Avon Canal and the arrangement which was put eventually into the Bill was a result of the negotiations which went on before the Bill was passed in its present form.

Mr. Moyle

I do not wish to argue the point. I was only speaking of what was contained in the Bill and not of the antecedence of the Bill. I was referring to the Bill after the British Transport Commission, quite rightly, had consulted all the dissenting authorities with which they had to contend.

May I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), knowing that he is on our side, and that he would be a champion for the retention of our inland waterways, that I do not disagree with the plea that he has made in the past for the rentention of our inland waterways, but there are certain facts which the House ought to know.

First, if hon. Members will look at the Fourth Schedule to the Bill they will see that it is proposed by the Transport Commission to close part of the Oldbury Old Canal. That canal has no commercial value at all; indeed, for commercial and industrial purposes it has been out of commission for a very long time, has no social value and cannot be regarded in any way as an amenity.

My constituency, particularly Oldbury, is as jealous for the retention of its waterways as was Sir Alan Herbert himself, because the industrial history of my constituency has been built very largely around its canal. But the simple fact here is that the proposal to close this canal is supported by my local authority. I have visited the spot and examined the whole stretch of the canal. I have sought advice upon the matter and I can say that it is the desire of the local authority that this part of the Bill, referred to in the Fourth Schedule, shall be implemented during the course of the consideration of the Bill.

I go further. There is a firm which engages in heavy engineering, by the name of Edwin Danks, Oldbury, Limited, which has a national and, indeed, an international reputation, and which has stated that if this provision is retained when the Bill becomes law it is its intention to undertake to fill in the canal and to use it as an additional site for an extension of its own factory. What is more, the firm made the point, which I particularly stress, that any public footpath that may be lost in the process of closing this canal will be provided for by an alternative public footpath. I have received those assurances and I therefore have not the slightest hesitation in supporting this provision, in the Fourth Schedule, in so far as it affects my constituency.

I want to emphasise that there is no commercial transport value at all in this part of the canal and that it offers no amenity for the benefit of the community. In fact, as far as I can ascertain, it is the general desire that this part of the canal shall be closed. Having regard to the undertakings given quite voluntarily by this firm, I think that in the circumstances this is a very happy proposition. At least, I think so—and in spite of the general views expressed by the hon. Member for Battersea, South, who has already entered the lists, and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields who, if I anticipate him correctly, will enter the lists later, and in spite of their desire to retain our inland waterways, I hope that the House will agree with me that in this case this is a happy proposition.

7.31 p.m.

Mr. W. M. F. Vane (Westmorland)

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) spoke in favour of retaining a number of foot bridges in his constituency. I do not know his constituency and I should not like to imperil any of his constituents, but on the general point I feel that we are inclined to hamper the railways by insisting that so many of these not inexpensive foot bridges and crossings should be maintained when there is no particular reason for it. On the Continent of Europe people manage to cross railway lines between trains for their shopping and their daily business.

Mr. Hayman

May I point out that this crossing and others near it are in the centre of an industrial town which is the biggest in Cornwall?

Mr. Vane

I said that I did not know the hon. Member's constituency and had no wish to expose his constituents to needless or unreasonable peril, but, taking the general point, I think we are too inclined to insist in these days that the railways continue to spend money on certain works and fulfilling certain duties which no longer had very much purpose.

It always seemed to me that after the British Transport Commission was set up it would have to come to the House from time to time for additional powers, but I never expected that we should have a Bill of this scope introduced into Parliament annually—and a long Bill, affecting many people and many interests. Usually, because a proposal contained in one or two Clauses has created so much local opposition, we find on the Order Paper Motions suggesting that instructions should be given to the Committee to leave out one Clause or another. Hence, our discussions have generally been limited to those Motions and we have not had much opportunity of going a little wider. Today, we have that opportunity and it is surely the duty of the House, when such an opportunity arises, to go somewhat wider, because there are important principles involved.

The Transport Commission is the largest single industrial organisation in this country and in spite of its powers has very special difficulties. We ought not to criticise too freely its difficulties, because the position is not wholly of its own making. Nevertheless, we are entitled to see whether the Commission has done all it can to improve that position, and I think we should be reluctant to concede these many proposals unless we are satisfied that the Commission has done everything possible.

In this country we cannot afford to have railways other than of the best, but I sometimes wonder whether we shall make our railways as good as they should be as long as they fail to attract their full share of young men of the highest intelligence and administrative and commercial ability. I do not think that they are attracting their full share today. It is greatly to the credit of the railways that they operate as well as they do. That fact shows that there are more people than perhaps we suppose who think beyond the question of hard cash—"hard cash or …", which is one of the slogans of this week. This may not continue for very much longer.

The railways are often criticised for their administrative shortcomings. Some of these criticisms are justified and some are not. We criticise them for dirty trains but this is a criticism not of the railways but of ourselves, and we shall very soon have the strongest claim to be considered the dirtiest people in Europe.

At the same time, I think that a greater effort should be made to attract a larger proportion of able young men who will one day fill the highest appointments in the railways. When we in this House think of pay and prospects we generally consider the big battalions, but for one minute only I want the House to consider the few. I do not want to see the nationalised industries setting an example in paying what might be called absurd salaries, but I do not think that there is any future in offering so little in the way of prospects. Many of the best young men consider their prospects in the railways and then pass by and go elsewhere.

May I give just one example of what I mean? About fifty or sixty years ago men at the general manager level earned about £3,000 a year. In those days taxation was not as high as it is today. The same sort of responsibility today is rewarded by about £4,000 a year. Taxation is much higher and there are probably fewer perquisites. The young man in the railways who can look forward one day to filling one of those positions is probably not far off the mark if he thinks that after a life in some other industry he might easily earn up to twice that amount.

The House would be doing a good turn to the nation's transport if it encouraged the railways to prune some of their older and less live wood and to set out to recruit a bigger share of the top grade of the young men of the country, who in the course of time, and not such a long course of time, will work their way up. It might well be an economy in the end and there might be fewer shortcomings to criticise when these Bills are introduced into the House year after year.

I do not think that the House ought to look so favourably on another Bill of this kind unless and until we have been given an assurance about the quality of those who are filling the biggest jobs in the railways today and those who are being trained to fill those jobs when their turn comes.

7.38 p.m.

Mr. John Cronin (Loughborough)

The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane) will, I hope, forgive me if I do not follow him into the details of his argument. I am more particularly concerned with Clause 17 of the Bill. I should like, however, to associate myself with the compliments which he paid to the excellent work done by the British Transport Commission under considerable difficulties these days.

Clause 17 seeks to close to navigation a number of canals which are mentioned in the Fourth Schedule. I think most of us here sympathise with the views of the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Partridge) and all those other right hon. and hon. Members who are concerned that British inland waterways should not be closed without good reason, and I believe that the Inland Waterways Association is doing some excellent work in this connection. It is, however, unfortunate that a good cause is spoiled by not examining individual cases carefully, and I feel that to some extent that has been happening this evening.

The hon. Member for Battersea, South said he was reluctant to agree to withdrawing his Motion particularly with regard to the Ashby Canal. I do not know whether he is as familiar with the Ashby Canal as I am familiar with the canals of Battersea, South, but if he had gone to the trouble of investigating the matter more carefully I think he would have come to somewhat different views. The part of the Ashby Canal involved is 4¾ miles long. I agree with the hon. Member for Battersea, South that it is unfortunate that these distances are not mentioned in the Schedule. Had they been mentioned it would have been very helpful to those considering the Bill. That 4¾ miles of the canal has not been navigable for several years, largely because three miles of a contiguous part was closed by the London, Midland and Scottish Railways Canals Bill, 1944.

In addition, this canal has become unnavigable, because there is a large amount of subsidence under its bottom. The result is that there are great variations in depth, and it has been necessary artificially to lower its level in places to avoid the flooding of fields nearby. It has also been necessary—and this is rather important—to build a dam across it at a place called Ilott's Wharf. A canal with a dam across it is very effectively closed for navigation in any case, so here we are dealing with a canal already virtually closed, and are asked merely to give legal sanction to it.

Mr. Partridge

I did note all the considerations to which the hon. Member is now referring, but my reluctance arose from the fact that one closure leads to another, and this one may lead to another.

Mr. Cronin

I am obliged to the hon. Member for his intervention. It makes the situation clearer to know what is in his mind. I do not think that we can accept the premise that one closing necessarily leads to another.

Mr. Partridge

It always has.

Mr. Cronin

Closures may have followed each other in chronological order, but I do not think that it necessarily follows that they have led to one another. I am glad that the hon. Member has shown how he feels about this, but I should like him to consider some other points, when he deals with canals in the future. I am sure that we shall hear from him again on canals, beause it is a subject obviously near to his heart, but I hope that on future occasions he will consider individual cases a little more carefully.

The Ashby Canal has several humpback bridges, which are dangerous because the arch is very much higher than would normally be the case with bridges of that length. They are dangerous to vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and a source of considerable annoyance. Buses cannot pass over them. They were probably very good in the days of horse-drawn transport, but a village dependent on these bridges has to go without a bus service because of them. For instance, there is a village called Oakthorpe, where all the unfortunate inhabitants have to walk a considerable distance along an exposed road because no bus can cross the two bridges leading to the village.

I hope that the hon. Member for Battersea, South, can understand such a situation. Although canals are such desirable rural amenities they cause great difficulty when, for instance, an elderly lady has to trudge through the snow or rain in winter, perhaps with a laden shopping basket, for the best part of a mile, to keep open a stretch of canal which is not used. That is happening in the case of many of our canals.

Another unfortunate thing is that the Ashby Canal smells. In the middle of the last century, when the Thames suffered from this particular complaint——

Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield, East)

It does today.

Mr. Cronin

It was much more serious then. In those days, hon. Members were most vociferous about the smells from the river, and I think, Mr. Speaker, that you will probably recollect that sometimes the very Sessions themselves had to be regulated so as to avoid the strongest-smelling period. My unfortunate riparian constituents, dwelling on the banks of this canal, have no way of expressing their extreme annoyance at this olfactory disturbance every summer and that, I think, applies to many canals. There is no escaping the fact that canals do tend to smell, and that is something which the Inland Waterways Association should bear very much in mind when making these rather wholesale condemnations of individual closures.

It is important that the rights of fishermen should be respected. I do not think that very many fish are caught in the Ashby Canal. Its waters are not ideally suitable for the growing of edible fish—or even those which are caught only for sport—so I do not think that fishing rights will be seriously disturbed. Fishing rights must be considered in these cases, however.

Most important of all, when dealing with local matters, we in this House have to take considerable cognisance of the views of local authorities. This is not always done. In this case, I have had the most urgent representations from the Leicester County Council, from the Ashby-de-la-Zouche Rural District Council and from many parish councils, including the Oakthorpe Parish Council. All have expressed very strong views about the annoyance and the lack of amenity caused by the canal. I hope that the hon. Member for Battersea, South, will forgive me if I tend to drive this point home. We very much respect his views—an hon. Member who champions canals is always respected here—but we do beg him to look carefully in future into individual cases.

Turning to the other canals which are mentioned in the Fourth Schedule, I understand that, for all practical purposes, they are dead-ends. None of them carries any shipping. There is no navigation in any of them and, in all cases, the local authorities and the adjoining owners have pressed to have them closed. I understand that in the case of Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Walsall there are now excellent financial opportunities of disposing of the canal sites—opportunities which may not occur again. I therefore think that the case for Clause 17 is really overwhelming, and for that reason I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea, South for his perspicacity and reasonableness in withdrawing his Motion.

7.48 p.m.

Mr. Grant-Ferris (Nantwich)

I am glad to have the opportunity of following the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) on the subject of Clause 17, and of saying just a few words about it. The difficulty here lies, to some extent, in a lack of realisation of the part of the British Transport Commission as to what is, in fact, the best and easiest way in which to get its Private Bill business through this House. It knows, as we all do, that there are many hon. Members on both sides who are deeply interested in our canals, and are anxious to see them play the valuable part which they believe them capable of playing in the future.

This Bill was produced in the ordinary way, and at the appropriate time last November, but the first information that anyone on this side—and, though I cannot speak for hon. Members opposite, I shrewdly expect that the same applies to them—had of what was in mind was that there, in this Bill, was Clause 17, which purported to make certain closures of canals. On principle, many hon. Members are inclined to look very closely before they can possibly agree to further closures, especially after the debate last year when it was proposed to close the Kennet and Avon Canal. This House then made it clear in no uncertain manner that until a later date, when the future of the canals should he decided, it would not tolerate any such closure.

It must, therefore, have been obvious to the Commission that its proposal would be bound to meet with some opposition. In any case, it would have been wise and intelligent first to have consulted those on both sides who are interested in these matters. After all, this is not Government business; this is not the business in which the usual channels operate. This is Private Bill business and it is, technically at any rate, quite within the prerogative of any hon. Member to vote in any way he thinks fit. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport can say what he thinks we should do, but he does not use those means by which he fills the Lobbies to his own advantage at other times, so we are quite free to do what we would like to do.

Of course, this must be well known to the Transport Commission, and it should act accordingly. If it had done this and had explained to people exactly why it wanted to make these closures, one might have understood, at any rate in most of the cases, that they were perfectly reasonable demands.

The principle of closure is something about which we feel particularly anxious. We do not want any further closures, if possible, until we know what is going to be the overall policy of the Government following the Report of the Bowes Committee which we hope will be available some time before the end of this year. A lot of bad feeling could have been avoided if the Commission had adopted that line of introduction instead of merely leaving it for us to find out at our leisure.

Mr. Ernest Davies

The hon. Gentleman has made an important suggestion and I am trying to follow him. Does he take the view that the Commission is under an obligation to consult informal groups or individual Members when it thinks something is in its Bill which might cause controversy? The Bill is placed before the House and it can be debated here. There is the usual procedure. If, on every one of the matters in this Bill which might arouse opposition, the Commission has to consult Members, it seems to me that the procedure will be prolonged.

Mr. Grant-Ferris

I can see the validity of what the hon. Gentleman suggests, but we have to be practical men. If one wants to get anything done, it is a very sound principle in life to "roll the pitch" and find out beforehand whether one is going to whip up any opposition.

I agree with the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) that there is no clear obligation in law or in any other way upon the Transport Commission to act in that way, but I think that when the Commission has been in existence long enough and has learned some of the niceties of Parliamentary procedure—and I use the word "procedure" in its widest and not its narrowest sense—the Commission will find that it will greatly assist the speeding up of the work if at an early stage it takes people into its confidence in this Private Bill legislation.

The hon. Member for Loughborough spoke about the Ashby Canal, about which he knows a great deal. There may well be very good reasons why this canal should be closed, but I do not agree that the reason for closing it should be to enable bridges to be put over it to facilitate the passage of omnibuses but which, at the same time, would hinder any navigation which might be thought to be necessary in the future. If that principle were to be accepted in general, it must be remembered that there are many other canals in the country, as the hon. Gentleman said, with regard to which arguments like that could be advanced for the erection of bridges which would interfere with navigation. Those canals might have a much stronger case than the Ashby Canal for being left as they are pending further development in the future.

The whole question of the closure of stretches of canal involves the possibility that if a certain length is closed it is likely that it will lead to a further closure. If the hon. Gentleman asks me to give examples here and now, I cannot do it but I certainly could give examples to him.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

There is the Stroud Water.

Mr. Grant-Ferris

Yes, that is an example of a canal part of which was dosed to begin with and a lot of which was closed later on. There are other examples, too. There is no doubt that this closing of lengths of canal leads to further closures, and this is often planned with that end in view. We must watch that possibility very carefully.

Mr. Cronin

I think that the hon. Gentleman should elaborate this point further. It is a very important point of principle. Why does the hon. Gentleman think that if closure were allowed of part of the canal it must lead to further closures? Why does he think that many of these closures are intended for the purpose of future closures?

Mr. Grant-Ferris

The people who have been anxious to "kill" certain lengths of canal have felt that it would not be possible to do it all at once, so they have done a certain amount in the knowledge that as opportunity presented itself in the future they would close a bit more. That is what has activated the mind of the authority which has had control of any canal which it was proposed to close.

I believe that I am allowed to quote something which has been said in another place this Session, so long as it is not part of a debate. I understand that today the noble Lord, Lord Ammon, was informed by the Government——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)

Does the hon. Gentleman intend to quote a Ministerial statement?

Mr. Grant-Ferris

No, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I understand—and the Chairman of Ways and Means informed me earlier this evening—that I should be in order in referring to a Question asked in another place, but not to a debate.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If the hon. Member intends to refer to a Ministerial statement in answer to a Question, it will be in order.

Mr. Grant-Ferris

This was a statement in answer to a Question which was asked today by Lord Ammon. The Question related to the amount of the increase of traffic on the waterways of this country due to the Suez crisis. The information which was given was of a most interesting character, that the overall increase in traffic was no less than 9 per cent. A 7 per cent. increase in the traffic on the waterways of England, if maintained for one year, would wipe out the whole of the deficit. Therefore, if this situation lasts another year, we are out of the "red" in the canals. It just shows what can be done if there is sufficient effort and interest.

No doubt, if I were to continue along that line, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you would rule me out of order, because it is not strictly part of the Bill which we are discussing. I will, therefore, conclude by saying that I hope that in the future these difficult situations will be avoided, as they can be with a little understanding on both sides.

7.59 p.m.

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

I am interested in this Bill because there happen to be seven level crossings in my constituency which it is proposed to close down. I am not opposed to doing away with these level crossings so long as necessary precautions are taken to warn road traffic. That matter has been mentioned by several speakers this evening, and I would emphasise the point because it is important that safety precautions should be taken.

On many of these level crossings there is a crossing house which obscures the view on the road, and unless some precautions are taken to warn road traffic of an incoming train there will certainly be accidents.

I want to emphasise a point which has been made previously in this debate. I think that before the British Transport Commission brings in a Bill of this sort to close either crossings or docks, or whatever it may be, notice should be given to the local authority, so that if the local authority has any objections or wishes to point out any dangers involved, the authority could inform the Member of Parliament representing that area to the effect that it had an objection to that particular closure.

In this case, I had no knowledge from any of the local authorities with regard to the closure of these crossings, but I am quite sure that if they had had notice of what was proposed to be done, they would have written to me asking me to call attention to certain dangers that might arise. Therefore, I think it is right that before the British Transport Commission takes any of these steps, though it cannot of course advise individual Members, it should inform the local authority so that it may take up the matter with the Members of Parliament concerned, and they might be prepared to call attention to the matter in this House.

It so happens that I was interested in branch railways, and so on, with the result that I happened to look through this Bill; otherwise, if I had not been interested in the matter, the closure of these level crossings might have gone through without any comment from me. I do not know what my hon. Friend will say in reply, but we did debate this matter on the Transport Bill which I introduced over twelve months ago, and we called attention to the fact that railway crossings on certain lengths of railway that are not used to a large extent were out of date. We suggested that traffic lights should be provided to be operated by the oncoming train sufficiently far in advance of the crossing and operated again in order to give the "all clear" as soon as the train had passed the level crossing. I think that that can be done quite easily.

What I want to call attention to in particular is the experiment which the British Transport Commission is conducting with fly-weight diesels and railcars, and I hope that the result of these experiments will be to show that they can be successfully and economically operated on some of these lines which are at present either closed, partly closed or are under threat of closure. I should be glad if my hon. Friend has any information to give to the House on the result of these experiments, and whether they might give some hope to my own particular area, in which we have a large length of railway which is either closed or used only by an occasional goods train.

In considering the abolition of level crossings, it should be borne in mind that it may not be advisable to do away with them entirely if diesel cars or single-unit trains can be operated to give an adequate frequency of service, although I think that level crossings are actually a little bit out of date. I know that two experiments are being conducted at present, and perhaps my hon. Friend will be able to tell me whether there are any more. I am particularly interested, because I think it is time it was decided—whether these experiments are successful or not—to do away with some of the railways which are closed and which are a liability to the British Transport Commission in having to maintain fences, bridges and embankments and keep them clear of weeds, and so on.

There is one length of railway in my own constituency which was closed three or four years ago, and which must be a very great expense to the Commission in keeping that line permanently closed, if there is no hope that it will ever be brought back into commission. If it is decided that it is not wanted, consideration should be given to turning it into a tarmac road, or, alternatively, pulling up the rails and scrapping them. It would not be a question of selling the land to the neighbouring owners because the cost of reinstating it would probably be more than it is worth, but certain steps could be taken to cut down the expense involved in maintenance. I hope, therefore, that the British Transport Commission, when it has decided whether the diesel experiment is successful or not, will then take steps to cut out some of its liabilities.

On Clause 17, I agree with what has been said by several speakers in the debate that the closing of a small portion of a canal can quite easily lead to the closing of a larger section. I think the Transport Commission would have been right if it had stated, in connection with the Ashby portion of the canal which it is proposing to close, that there was another length of four and three quarter miles which it seems to me may be threatened with closure at some later date, and I think that one of my hon. Friends would not have withdrawn his objection to the closing of a small portion if he had known that there was a very much larger section that might also be threatened.

I am afraid that I am rather suspicious. I have a feeling that if the Transport Commission wants to close canals, that is the way it will do it, just as when it wants to close branch railways it first of all stops the passenger traffic because it is not economic, and at some later date has only two or three trains a day operating. For that reason, I must say that I am more than suspicious, just as I am suspicious of the figures that are put forward by the Commission when it wants to close either a line or a canal. Some fantastic figures have been given, and I think the House ought not to accept them quite as easily as it has been inclined to do. I have in mind the figures that were given in connection with the closing of the Isle of Wight railways, which were later proved to be completely wrong.

Therefore, I think that in the case of these Bills which come before the House Members should very carefully look through them to see what they really mean, because in a voluminous document like this it is quite easy for something to be slipped through which might have a great effect on a particular area. I think the local authority of that area should be advised and that hon. Members concerned should also be notified of what is proposed, so that they can tackle these problems as they arise.

In conclusion, with regard to the canals, although the point has been made before in this House, I still maintain that it would be a good plan if all the canals were placed under control of a completely different authority. I think that there is a tendency for the Transport Commission to want to drive all the business off the canals and on to the railways, and I myself would rather see the canals in competition with the railways. I am a great believer in competition, and, if we want good service, then we must have competition. I do not believe in bureaucracy, and, for that reason, I thought it would be a good plan if the canals were handed over to another authority in order to see what sort of a job it could make of them.

8.8 p.m.

Mr. Horace E. Holmes (Hemsworth)

For a few moments, I want to refer to Clause 17 (2, a), which reads: all rights of navigation along on or over the waterways and all rights of user by barges or other boats of the waterways shall cease and he extinguished; Under paragraph (b) in the same subsection, similarly, it is provided that there shall cease to be any obligation— (whether statutory or otherwise) to keep the waterways open for navigation or to maintain the same"— and so on. The point that is worrying me and my particular neighbourhood, as well as other areas in South Yorkshire and the West Riding, is that we have a wide network of canals in which certain sections have been closed and are no longer used, and which have become not only stagnant but dangerous. Local authorities, medical officers of health, the health inspectors and all kinds of people of that character have done their best to draw atention to these dangerous, filthy and unhygienic miles of unused waterways, and they are very anxious that something shall be done about them, and done quickly.

I fully appreciate that a Select Committee is sitting at present and that sooner or later a report will be brought forward, but, in the meantime, these miles of partly empty waterways are dangerous, and without any prospect whatever of being used again. It is known that there is no prospect of their being used again. The banking is becoming dangerous, and the water is filthy. The amount of refuse there is surprising, and it is surprising where it comes from. These places are becoming filled with refuse, tins and rubbish of all sorts, breeding disease.

It is a matter of grave concern to local authorities in the area. I hope that sooner or later somebody's attention will be drawn to the fact that there are these stagnant, dangerous, unhealthy, disease-breeding places, and that they will be dealt with in some way or other. In the particular area I have in mind, there are nearby collieries which are spoiling the countryside with dirt stacks. It might be possible to use pit refuse to fill up these unused waterways, and thereby obviate the necessity to build stacks. I earnestly hope that something will be done to improve the condition of these places.

8.11 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

I hope that the hon. Member for Hems-worth (Mr. Holmes) will forgive me if I do not follow him in a consideration of Clause 17. I want to address myself to Part II of the Bill, Clauses 7 and 8.

I am not speaking in order to oppose the Bill, but I object to the principle which is contained in Clause 8, and Clause 8 flows from Clause 7. Hon. Members will have noted that Clause 7 deals with the Kingsferry Bridge, a bridge which crosses the River Swale and links the Isle of Sheppey to the mainland. This bridge originally was controlled under the Sittingbourne and Sheerness Railway Acts of 1856 and 1861. Part of those Acts laid down that in no circumstances whatever were the railways to hinder the passage of vessels up and down the navigable part of the river for a period over 25 minutes. No doubt, the Minister is fully aware that the river is now navigated, as it was then, to a very large extent by sea-going vessels. The old bridge, which is what Clause 7 deals with, had a navigational opening of 58 ft. 6 ins., and the maximum length of vessel which normally went through this navigational opening was round about 135 ft. with a draught of 20 ft. There was, quite naturally, a limitation on the beam of the vessel by reason of the size of the opening, that limitation being 44 ft. But this beam of 44 ft. was the limitation laid down by the pilot of the vessel.

By Clause 8, the British Transport Commission seeks power to build a new bridge. That new bridge will undoubtedly be a much better bridge than the old bridge. It is to be a bridge of the vertical lifting type and will, in fact, give an operational opening of 90 ft. as opposed to the operational opening in the old bridge of 58 ft. 6 in. That is all to the good.

The principle, to which I object most strongly, will not in practice be upset in this particular Clause relating to this bridge because the speed and set of the current in this river is such that a vessel which had a larger beam or greater draught than the operational opening of the new bridge permitted would not be the type of vessel to navigate that river. But the reason I am speaking tonight is this. The principle which has been injected into the Bill, which I find utterly repugnant to our normal legislation, and about which I feel sure I shall receive some sympathy both from the House and the Minister, is to be found in Clause 8 of the Bill. Hon. Members will see that the Clause arbitrarily sets down the nature of the vessels which can operate and pass through the bridge. Reference is made in the Clause to the dimensions of vessels passing through Kingsferry Bridge. Subsection (1) provides: It shall not be lawful for any vessel exceeding fifty-five feet in extreme breadth to pass through or under the new bridge. Subsection (2) provides: The owner or master of any vessel which passes through or under the new bridge in contravention of the provisions of this section shall be liable for every such offence on the first occasion to a penalty not exceeding fifty pounds and on any subsequent occasion to a penalty, not exceeding one hundred pounds. Subsection (3) provides: An application may be made to the Minister at any time by any person or body representative of persons appearing to the Minister to have a substantial interest for an alteration of the dimensions referred to in subsection (1) … What do those provisions do? As I read them, they seek to take away authority from the master of a vessel. It is really quite absurd to imagine that at any time masters of vessels hazard their own ships. That is not the way that a master in command of his ship works. It has always been the rule, from nearly time immemorial, that the captain of a ship is in charge of his ship and responsibility for the navigation of the ship rests upon him; moreover, there is no one who may tell him whether or not he should or should not pass through a particular channel. The principle which lies behind these two Clauses is a principle which the House should not accept. I believe that the master should at all times have complete discretion in the navigation of his own vessel.

Another difficulty would arise if this Clause were allowed in Committee to remain worded as it is at the moment. According to subsection (3), persons may make representations to the Minister on the subject of vessels of different size passing through or under the bridge. We must also remember that the matter of shape may enter into this. In this fast-changing world, the design of vessels does not remain static. Far be it from me or, I suggest, from any hon. Member, to pretend to be able to state at this moment what will be the design of ships in many years to come. If, as the Bill allows, representations can be made to the Minister, the burden of decision is placed not upon the master of a vessel, but upon the Minister. I cannot believe that any Minister of Transport would desire or wish to have that burden of decision with regard to navigation resting upon him.

I sincerely trust that in his reply tonight the Minister will at least say that this matter will be given consideration and thought before the Committee stage of the Bill. I feel certain that in that event we may well find the Government suggesting a different wording or the omission of the principle which underlies Clause 8.

Mr. Ede

I have tried to follow what the hon. Member was saying and I am interested in the Clause. What dimension other than the beam comes into consideration under Clause 8? I know that the rubric at the side alludes to "dimensions," but in the Clause itself the word is in the singular and the dimension is a beam not exceeding 55 ft. There is nothing about draught or length. Apparently, the only thing controlled by Clause 8 is the beam of the vessel.

Mr. Marshall

The right hon. Gentleman has quite rightly pointed to the fact that Clause 8, which I read, states in subsection (1) that It shall not be lawful for any vessel exceeding fifty-five feet in extreme breadth to pass through or under the new bridge. The point I was trying to make was that in the case of the new bridge which is to be built, any vessel of a greater size of beam would not, in fact, operate because of the current and the speed of the current.

Mr. Ede

I know the river well. I have navigated it.

Mr. Marshall

Subsection (1) seeks to embody in the Bill the principle that it shall not be lawful for any vessel exceeding a certain measurement to navigate the river through the operational opening of the bridge. The moment that the Clause does that, it takes away the full discretion of a master in command of his vessel. I do not believe that to be wise, neither do I believe that it is wise to have in the Clause a provision whereby people can submit for the discretion of the Minister a case as to whether a different type or size of vessel should be allowed. Anything that concerns the navigation of a vessel should be left completely in the hands of the master.

Mr. Ede

In subsection (3), the words are "the dimension." That is the only thing that can be put up to the Minister for his discretion.

Mr. Marshall

That is true, but concerning both the dimension and the question of the beam discretion is being taken away from the master in command of a vessel. It is my belief that masters do not hazard their vessels and that a master is at all times the most competent person to judge whether he should go through a bridge. There is, therefore, no necessity or requirement to put this into legislation, as it is the natural overriding responsibility of the master of a vessel.

8.25 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

I wish to revert to the speech of the hon. Member for Falmouth nad Camborne (Mr. Hayman), who is no longer in his place but who made one or two points to which a reply should be given. I shall not answer at length the hon. Member's reference to Clause 49, about the footbridge at Camborne. I know the bridge, but not its history. It is true that it is in a built-up area, but from its position and its name I suspect that it was a bridge built for the convenience of tin mines.

Miners in all parts of the country are much the same in that they are bold men. Wherever a mining district has a level crossing near a mine, it will be found that a footbridge has been constructed because the men coming off work tend not to bother about the crossing gate if it is closed but climb through it notwithstanding that a train may be approaching. For that reason, extra precautions were taken near mines in mining districts. When a mine ceases to operate, they are no longer necessary.

The hon. Member made a number of observations concerning Clause 43. He seemed to think that it was a rather bureaucratic Clause. I was surprised at that form of criticism coming from the other side of the House. The answer to the hon. Member is to be found in the dates of the Acts which are referred to in subsection (1). It refers to the Highway (Railway Crossings) Act, 1839, and the Railways Clauses Consolidation Act, 1845, and the Railways Clauses Act, 1863. All those Acts were passed in the early days of the railways at the height of the Industrial Revolution.

In dealing with early railway legislation, one should remember the psychology of the people at the time. In the course of about ten years, the whole face of the country had altered. Whereas in the early 1830s or even in the mid-1830s the country was accustomed to the turnpike roads for the ordinary form of transport, in ten or fifteen years everything had altered, the railways had a complete monopoly and the psychological shock to the people was quite considerable. For that reason, the early railways legislation was fairly severe. It was a reflection of the mood of the time.

I have on a previous occasion in this House referred to a striking passage which Dickens put in "Dombey and Son", in which he compared a railway engine to the wings of the angel of death. That was the way in which people in those days regarded the railways. They looked upon them as something terrible and dangerous against which the most elaborate precautions had to be taken.

The result is that our early railway legislation contains most elaborate precautions which other countries that developed their railways later did not find it necessary to include. Even in the case of small crossings on roads which were little used, there were provisions necessitating a crossing keeper, double gates and all sorts of things. No other country would think of insisting upon anything of the kind.

Anywhere on the Continent, anywhere, I believe, in America, too, one can find crossings which are not protected in this elaborate way. It is a little inconsistent of hon. Members to complain, as they so often do, that the British Transport Commission is closing branch lines or not running its operations for profit and at the same time to insist on British Railways maintaining obsolete safety precautions or excessive safety precautions in many places where they are now quite unnecessary.

Some of the fears of the hon. Member are a little unreasonable because many safeguards are provided for in the Clause. An Order made under the Clause can be made only after the Commission has approached the Minister and after the highway authority has been notified, and also the local authority within whose district the level crossing is situated, if the local authority is not the highway authority. The local authority, which knows all about local conditions, will be notified and will know whether there is any provision which in its opinion is unsatisfactory and, no doubt, it will make representations about that.

Subsection (2) refers to barriers, lights, traffic signs and automatic and other devices and appliances which an Order may require to be provided. I take it that this subsection relates to various conditions which are applied in many continental countries. I remember being very interested, many years ago, in a system in Switzerland. It was a system whereby as a train approached a crossing it automatically rang a bell and a gate unfolded, descending as a road barrier. Thus, a barrier and a warning were at once provided.

Mr. Hayman

The hon. Gentleman has had great experience of railways. Can he tell the House why the private railway companies did not try out this idea?

Mr. Wilson

Because they were prevented from doing so by this House. This House, in its early railway legislation, imposed very severe conditions upon the railways. It imposed them in the Private Bills promoted when the railways were built. The restrictions were very severe indeed. Most of our railways were built in the 'forties of the last century, or consist of amalgamations of railways built about that time. Stringent restrictions were imposed in those early, original Acts upon the activities of the railway companies.

Mr. Hayman

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us anything about the few years immediately before the railways were nationalised?

Mr. Wilson

Yes, certainly I can. I do not know whether this is strictly in order on this Bill, but the intention of the square deal—"agitation" I was going to say, but that is not the right word—campaign was to get rid of many of the old obstructions which were cluttering the railways and preventing them from developing.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Member will not pursue this matter any further on this Bill.

Mr. Wilson

I wondered whether I should be in order in answering the hon. Gentleman's question, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and I did apologise in advance.

Clause 43 is overdue, and it will be a great help to the Commission in appropriate cases in getting rid of some of the excessive safety precautions at crossings. I think we can leave it to the Ministry and to the local authorities to insist on seeing, when orders are made, that there is no undue danger to the public. I do not think that any complaint can be made about the Clause.

8.34 p.m.

Sir Charles Taylor (Eastbourne)

I wish to refer to Clause 51. Under paragraph (b) a section of railway in East Sussex, that between Lewes and East Grinstead, is to be closed. It will not be the first time that that section of railway will have been closed. It was closed some years ago by the British Transport Commission, some of us believe illegally. It was then reopened. It is still open, but under the Bill it is the Commission's intention to close it again.

I do not want to go into the rights or wrongs of the Commission's wish to close it, but some hon. Members, and particularly my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Major Beamish), and other East Sussex Members feel that the local people, the local authorities and the users, were not given a fair hearing when the whole matter was submitted to the South Eastern Area Transport Users' Consultative Committee. We therefore made representations to the Chairman and certain members of the Transport Commission.

An assurance has now been given by the Chairman that the Commission, if it is granted the powers which it seeks in Clause 51 to close the East Grinstead and Lewes line, will not exercise those powers before submitting the matter again to the South Eastern Area Transport Users' Consultative Committee. The Chairman goes on to say that he is advised that, under Section 6 (7) of the Transport Act, 1947, the Consultative Committee is bound to consider the Commision's submission.

On that assurance, my hon. Friends and I wish to withdraw our objection to the Bill, but I felt that it was desirable that the assurance should be put on the record of the proceedings of the House.

8.37 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield, East)

On some occasions when British Transport Commission Private Bills have been before us we have had a general debate on the affairs of that public corporation. This Bill is so narrow in scope that that does not arise today, but I would refer to the fact that a long time has elapsed since we have had a general debate on the Transport Commission's affairs. Last year we had no debate on its Report and Accounts, which I think was very regrettable.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) referred to the closing of the Lewes and East Grinstead branch line. I do not want to go into the substance of the matter, but it seems to me that the Commission has treated his representations with very great consideration and generosity in resubmitting the case to the South Eastern Area Transport Users' Consultative Committee. When the matter came before it on an earlier occasion much evidence was produced. I remember the case. The decision that the Commission was justified in seeking the closure of the line was upheld by the Committee. I believe that the case was then considered by the Central Consultative Committee, which again upheld the decision of the South Eastern Area Committee. In view of the very heavy losses which are being made on this line and the very small traffic that it carries, I would find it very difficult to believe that any other decision could be reached, but that remains to be seen.

I rose to refer very briefly to the closing of the canals, which has formed the main part of this debate. I can quite sympathise with those hon. Members who in the past have opposed the general principle of closing canals when they were not used to a great extent and were un-remunerative. That does not arise on this occasion. If there had been any major closure, such as the one which came before us exactly a year ago, of the Kennet and Avon Canal, hon. Members would have risen to question the wisdom of the Commission in making those proposals while the Bowes Committee is sitting.

In the case of the five closures which are included in the Bill, in no case is the small section of the canal involved being used for navigable purposes. In no case, I understand, are they amenities in the sense of being used for fishing or pleasure craft, and in some of the cases the land now occupied by the unused section of the canal can be turned to a useful purpose. The two hon. Friends of mine who have spoken in connection with the Ashby Canal and the Oldbury Old Canal have given fully justifiable reasons why approval should be given to the closure of those two small sections. I was therefore very much surprised when I found that the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Partridge) put down his original Motion for an Instruction to be given to the Committee which may consider this Bill to delete Clause 17 because, as I say, in every case there has appeared to me to be reasonable justification for the closure of the canals. Further, in no case had a petition been lodged in connection with the Bill against the closures, and in every case the closure of these small sections was supported by the local authorities, which is a very different position from the situation we had before us last year in connection with the Kennet and Avon Canal.

There was one reference made by the hon. Member for Battersea, South which gave me some concern. The hon. Member referred to the fact that some undertakings had been given to him—or he hoped that the Minister would give these undertakings—concerning the funds which would be realised by the Commission from the disposal of these small sections of their canal undertaking. He said that these funds should be put into a separate account and be identifiable. What his object was, I do not know; no doubt the Minister will be able to tell us if these undertakings have been given.

If the object is that, should there be any change in the operation of the canals, should there be any transfer of the canals from the Commission to some other organisation, this money should then pass to them, it seems to me a most extraordinary suggestion. In that case it would be reasonable to expect that any expenditure which the Commission may now make on the upkeep of derelict canals that would later be transferred to the other organisation, should equally be taken into account and the Commission should be recompensed for that expenditure. In other words, I would like the Minister to make it clear, if any undertakings have been given, what undertakings they are and exactly what they mean. I would like him to make it clear that the Commission is being treated fairly in this connection, and that if any liabilities are being placed upon it as regards the disposals, the House will be fully informed as to what they are; similarly, if there are liabilities being placed upon the Commission, that it shall be fully compensated for them in due course.

Though one can sympathise with the concern of the House over the future closures, I hope that the House, having heard tonight from those hon. Members in whose constituencies these sections of canal are situated the reason for the closure, which no doubt will be confirmed by the Minister, will feel differently from when they put their original Motion on the Order Paper.

The hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) suggested that the Commission should have consulted hon. Members in connection with the closures. I intervened to ask him exactly what he meant by that. It seemed to me a most extraordinary suggestion. There are 630 Members of Parliament. If the Commission brings a Private Bill before the House, as it is doing now, the mere fact that the Bill will be debated gives hon. Members every opportunity to table Motions or Petitions if they wish to do so. It seems to me that the procedure of the House enables all hon. Members to express their views and take any other action they desire. I feel that if the Commission consults, where necessary, other authorities—such as local authorities—and bodies concerned, it is fulfilling its duty. I do not think it has any obligation whatever to consult Members of Parliament about details in its Private Bills.

In considering all these matters, it is necessary to keep in mind what we expect of the Commission. We have imposed upon it the obligation to pay its way. It is not doing that at present, and the Government are advancing money to meet its deficit. Nevertheless, the obligation to pay its way remains, and, therefore, we have to consider all the Commissions proposals from the point of view of whether they are directed to assisting it to pay its way, whether they are commercial propositions. As I read them, the very large number of proposals in the Bill are made to relieve the Commission of liabilities with which it is no longer necessary to burden it, such as in regard to level crossings and canal closures. We expect the Commission to operate commercially, and we must not prevent it from doing so for merely local reasons.

Mr. Hayman

Would my hon. Friend agree that whatever economies the Commission might effect should not be at the expense of the safety and convenience of the people in the neighbourhood?

Mr. Davies

I certainly agree with that, but I have sufficient faith in the Commission to believe that it would never take action which it considered increased the risk to the public which it serves. I do not think there is any danger of that. The Commission certainly has obligations to act in the public interest and to operate a public service. I feel sure that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

8.48 p.m.

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

The debate has ranged widely, as one might expect on a Bill of such massive proportions as this one, which offers so many interesting topics for discussion. I feel that I might usefully deal with three main topics which have been raised—canals, level crossings, and, a matter of very great interest in the South of England, the line in Sussex.

First, however, I would say a word or two to my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) about the important point he raised in connection with Clause 8. He suggested that the Clause would interfere with the traditional authority of a master in sailing his ship, and that, therefore, it was wrong in principle. I am sure that the Commission will take note of his comment and no doubt the matter will be considered in the Select Committee, for it is appropriate to consideration in Committee. I would add that the point has given the Ministry some anxiety, so I sympathise with my hon. Friend's anxiety. In fairness to the Commission, I ought also to add that there have been a number of occasions when vessels have collided with this bridge and thereby cut off the Isle of Sheppey from the mainland, and I suppose that this Clause is a product of their concern over this. This point, also, can be dealt with in Committee and I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter.

Turning to the considerable discussion we have had on Clause 17 and the Fourth Schedule, I should say to my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea, South (Mr. Partridge) and Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) that we appreciate their deep interest and concern in the future of the canals. We understand their wish to have certain assurances. May I briefly run through the items in Clause 17 and the Fourth Schedule? May I say here that I was glad to have the support of the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle) regarding the Oldbury Canal and the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) regarding the Ashby Canal, about which I know some hon. Members have experienced difficulties.

There are five lengths of canal in question. They are all terminal lengths, and, as has been rightly said, they all ceased to be navigable a good many years ago. There are no sound local reasons for keeping them open; in fact, there are sound local reasons for their closure. So far as I know, there are no coarse fishing interests in any of them. There is the Ashby Canal of 4½ miles from the northern terminal; the Birmingham Canal, that is, the Oldbury Old Canal mentioned by the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen; the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, of 510 yards to the Liverpool terminal; the Swansea Canal of 1½ miles, that is, the remainder of the canal within the borough, and the Walsall Canal of 154 yards to the terminal of the Monway Branch.

The Ashby Canal has for long been the cause of serious difficulty. Mining subsidence has disturbed the levels, with the result that parts are very shallow. In other parts the banks have subsided and neighbouring fields have been flooded, causing a great deal of trouble to the local farmers. There is the point to which the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen rightly drew attention, that some of the villages are cut off from the local bus service because of the hump-back bridges.

I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich that, of course, hump-back bridges could be rebuilt to carry any kind of traffic. But it is an enormously expensive thing to do that while providing sufficient head-room to permit the navigation which is required until the canal is closed. So that it is fair to say that until the canals are officially closed the bridges cannot be dealt with in a sensible way. Pressure to that end from local people and local farmers is undoubtedly justified.

The Swansea Canal is not dissimilar. It has been unfit for navigation for many years and the authorities there wish to flatten out some of the hump-back bridges so that they can complete major road works on the A.48 London-Fish-guard road. The other three closures, the Oldbury Canal at Birmingham, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the Walsall Canal are all proposed in connection with local industry. They are all quite short lengths. The industries concerned have asked to purchase these sites, and close off the canals, and bear the cost of doing that as well as paying good money to buy them. There is really a very strong local argument in each case.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend feels that while the Bowes Committee is sitting to consider the whole future of our inland waterways the effect of its report should not be prejudged by any action of this kind. I recognise the sincerity of that view, as I am sure that the Commission does, and it is following it as far as it reasonably should. I say "reasonably should" because it is quite obvious that in these five cases great benefits will accrue to the people in all the localities concerned from proceeding with the five closures in advance of the Bowes Committee reporting.

To meet the difficulty that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South sees, in connection with the disposal of some of the assets of the inland waterways before the Bowes Committee reports, the Chairman of the Commission has undertaken to ensure that the receipts from the sale of these three sites to local industrial interests will be recorded in the accounts of the Commission in such a way that they can be identified as capital assets of the inland waterways against the future. It will make quite sure that these assets are preserved as assets of the inland waterways, and that the Bowes Committee report will in no way be prejudged.

As I think the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) was hinting, it is fair to point out that the Commission, without any direct obligation to do so, has engaged upon a number of capital works in connection with some of the inland waterways and has committed itself to the expenditure of no less than £5½ million in modernisation. That is a cogent earnest of its good faith, and that it will do well by the inland waterways. I do not doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich, who has advised the Chairman to "roll the pitch" before bringing in his Bill, will take note that it has been well rolled in this respect.

Mr. Ernest Davies

Can the hon. Member explain the exact object of putting these moneys to a separate account? I do not see the purpose of it. Is it so that the money can be transferred later, upon the recommendation of the Bowes Committee, if it recommends a new organisation? In that case, would it not be right for the Commission to be paid compensation for any money that it spends from now on in maintaining derelict canals? If it is to be prejudiced in regard to its assets it should equally be recompensed in respect of its liabilities.

Mr. Nugent

Heaven forbid that I should try to define upon what basis such a hypothetical transfer should take place. All I have said is that the Chairman has undertaken to ensure that these transactions shall be so recorded in the accounts of the Commission as to be identifiable.

Mr. Davies


Mr. Nugent

Because I accept the point that these are assets of the inland waterways. It is a fair point for my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South to make, that they are assets of the inland waterways; that the issue of their future should not be prejudged, even in theory, and that it is, therefore, fair to record that these transactions have taken place. I cannot see that anybody will suffer by it, and it preserves the principle referred to by my hon. Friend.

I turn now to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor), and his anxiety about the Lewes-East Grinstead line, which can be closed by the Commission under powers given to it by Clause 51 (b). I should like to put the facts on record very briefly. The Commission is asking for this power to remove the doubt which arose following its closure of the line in 1955. In the interim, in response to local action which took place following that closure, the Commission reopened the line in August, 1956, and it is still open.

The Commission has a strong case for closing the line. Before the closure, in 1955, there was an annual loss of £60,000 a year and the Commission has satisfied my right hon. Friend and myself of that. Although it submitted it to the South Eastern Transport Users' Consultative Committee and, indeed, to the Central Consultative Committee, both of whom endorsed what the Commission had done in its proposal to close the line, it is evident that local opinion is not yet fully convinced of the soundness of the Commission's case. Consequently, the Chairman of the Commission has undertaken, as my hon. Friend has said, not to proceed with the matter until it has been again considered by the South Eastern Transport Users' Consultative Committee.

Mr. Baldwin

Would it be possible for the Consultative Committee to hold an inquiry and have this matter thoroughly thrashed out, with witnesses and evidence as to the costings and losses supposed to be made, because it is one of the few cases dealt with where there is evidence to prove that the figures put forward by the Transport Commission were completely "phoney"? I think it only right, when the Commission makes a decision, that the Consultative Committee, instead of endorsing what the Commission puts forward, should have an inquiry and call evidence as to costs.

Sir C. Taylor

And, also, that the inquiry should be held locally.

Mr. Nugent

I am satisfied that in this case there is nothing "phoney" about the Commission's case. My right hon. Friend and I take the point that public opinion is not convinced and, therefore, my right hon. Friend is asking the Chairman of the Consultative Committee if he will hold an inquiry locally and admit the public to it so that they can be convinced that the Commission's case is sound.

Mr. Ernest Davies

Is it not a fact that local authorities and any local organisations have had an opportunity of making their representations to the Consultative Committee? In each case, when the closure of a branch line comes up, reference is made to the Consultative Committee and those who object to the closure have full opportunity of stating their case to the Committee.

Mr. Baldwin

When the Consultative Committee wanted the Transport Commission to produce witnesses in the Isle of Wight so that they could be cross-examined, it refused. Nobody could find out whether the figures were correct.

Mr. Nugent

The hon. Member for Enfield, East is correct in saying that the Consultative Committee is a very representative body, which includes representatives of local authorities, and is constituted in a way which is intended to carry public confidence. I think that we must be careful not to overload the Committee with too onerous duties or we may find it difficult to find people of the right calibre to serve on it. Different committees function in different ways. Some make the practice of having the Press present, others do not. The whole object is that they should satisfy general consumer interests. We fully take that point, and I am quite certain that, if we follow the inquiry procedure in this case, local public opinion should be satisfied, on the old traditional principle that not only should justice be done but that it should be seen to be done.

I should like to say one word about the level crossings on which we have had a number of speeches, particularly on Clause 43. If Parliament decides to give the Commission these powers it will open the way for very important new developments in level crossing technique. I quite understand the anxieties expressed by some hon. Members, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Sir R. Grimston) on behalf of the Urban District Councils' Association and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) about the safety angle. I will say a word or two about that in a minute. The object of Clause 43 is to allow dispensation at selected public road level crossings from the statutory safeguards of the legislation of the last century. These very broadly require that there shall be the traditional gates, which we all know, and attendants at these crossings.

Clause 43 also provides safeguards, and this is a point with which my right hon. Friend the Member for Westbury particularly asked me to deal. The Commission must give notice to the local authority concerned, with a minimum of 28 days, before it makes a proposal which comes to my right hon. Friend the Minister. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne asked whether 28 days is enough as a minimum. That is a Committee point and undoubtedly it will be fully argued. I should not like to say whether it is enough or not, but if it is not enough the point will be brought out in Committee. I hope it should be enough, but the intention is that this will allow the local authority concerned to make representations to the Minister before he makes an order.

Mr. Hayman

Did the Joint Parliamentary Secretary say that 28 days should be enough? If he looked at council work I think he would revise that view.

Mr. Nugent

I have been on local authorities and I agree that it might not always be enough. I said that I was not prepared to say whether it was enough but that it was a matter which could be argued in Committee. I have no doubt that the right answer will be found.

I should like to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury that in this connection the "local authority" means the highway authority or the local authority if it is not the highway authority. That covers an urban district or rural district council if it is not the highway authority, and it ensures that those authorities are fully consulted. In practice, the proposed crossing would be visited by an inspecting officer of the railways and a representative of our Chief Highways Engineer, with a parallel arrangement in Scotland, and they would always invite the local and the highways authorities to discuss the project on the site with them if they so wished.

I believe that these safeguards will ensure that these innovations are made only at suitable level crossings. I emphasise to my hon. Friend that the intention is not to introduce the innovations widely and generally. The intention in the first place is to introduce them experimentally at a few selected places so that we may have the opportunity of seeing how they work in this country. There should be every safeguard to see that they are not introduced in inappropriate cases.

Mr. Hayman

Would the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend consider the possibility of a public inquiry being held if there is an acute difference of opinion between the local authority and the Transport Commission?

Mr. Nugent

I would sooner that we dealt with such problems as that when they arise. I can give the hon. Member the assurance that it is the wish of my right hon. Friend and myself, and, I am sure, also of the Transport Commission, to advance in this matter with the confidence and co-operation of public opinion. We are making an innovation here and the last thing that either the Commission or we wish to see is something which will startle and upset local opinion.

I want to deal with these innovations in a little more detail, because I believe that they are very important and will be a great help to the Commission as part of its modernisation plan if they turn out satisfactorily. The need for this power to make this development is twofold. First, it is to relieve the Commission of the increasingly heavy problem of maintaining and manning all existing crossings of public roads, especially at relief periods; not only manning them, but manning them with men of suitable calibre—men who are reliable enough to do this very important job.

The cost is also increasingly heavy—over £1 million a year now on this alone. Here, I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) that if these experiments prove successful and it appears safe and practical over the next few years to introduce more of these automatic arrangements at crossings, it will undoubtedly be some help in the problem of keeping branch lines going, because the cost of running them will decrease.

The second need is to get the benefit of modern progress by installing this automatic and remote control apparatus where appropriate. The benefit on traffic delays will be quite substantial. The average traffic delay at a level crossing is three to four minutes; with these devices it is only three-quarters of a minute. Such devices have been very widely used on the Continent in recent years, and in the United States. Members of Parliament may have seen them when they have been in France and elsewhere; I think that there are 700 or 800 of them in France now.

An hon. Member asked whether we ourselves had already used such devices. Of course, we had not the power to do so. The only experimental installation which has been put in, that I know of, has been a lifting barrier in Yorkshire. That is operated from a local signal box, so it is still hand-worked and still involves the problem of a man to operate it.

Mr. Hayman

May I ask the hon. Gentleman whether that has been installed since the British Transport Commission (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1954?

Mr. Nugent

No, it was installed before then, under a 1947 Act; the 1954 Act would only have given similar powers to install the complete lifting barrier, and would not have given powers to install the automatic operation and remote control which this Bill would do.

Let me say just a word or two on speed. Our existing system has been claimed to be the safest in the world, and I think it is so, but my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) made, I thought, a very valuable intervention when he called attention to the atmosphere in which the legislation governing it was made. Over a hundred years ago, when we were pioneers in the world of railway making, and the whole business of railways was, to say the least, a very startling affair, people, not unnaturally, thought that there should be the most complete safety measures possible.

Other countries built their railways later and, in the light of our experience, found it quite safe to proceed with something far less onerous and expensive. We think that the time has come here to get the benefit of these new arrangements where we can. We believe that though these arrangements do introduce new risks they are, nevertheless, manageable risks, and that we should certainly experiment with the new arrangements in a few selected places to see how they go.

We have had an expert working party on this matter, and it has visited certain countries in Europe in recent months to study their arrangements and how they were working. The working party has completed its report—a very interesting document, I think—and we are doing all we can to hasten its publication so that hon. Members and the public can be as fully informed as possible on this subject; what is proposed and what the implications are. I hope that it may be possible to get the report published in the course of the next month or so, if possible before the Committee stage on Clause 43, so that hon. Members and others may have the benefit of it when they come to consider this very important matter.

We have had some very helpful comments on these topics, which I am sure the Commission will take note of; and I feel that we have now discussed it in sufficient detail for me to ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I regret to hear from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that this proposal with regard to level crossings is only to be an experiment in selected places. I think that adds point to the criticism made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) when he drew attention to the sweeping nature of the powers here.

There are not only the three Acts of Parliament mentioned. Clause 43 (1) states: … any other provisions to the same or similar effect incorporated with or contained in any enactment … If this Clause goes through in its present form, we give a complete blank cheque for the British Transport Commission to fill in at will. I hope that in Committee the Ministry will make representations that will enable those sweeping words to be swept away.

Mr. Nugent

I wish to make it quite plain that the introduction will be on an experimental basis in a few selected places, but, if the experiment is successful, naturally a more general installation will follow.

Mr. Ede

If the experiment is not successful, the British Transport Corn-mission will be armed with the powers and can then go on to do what it likes. If ever there was a loosely worded Clause, this is one. Look at subsection (5): Before applying to the Minister for an order under this section the Commission shall give notice in writing to the highway authority (and also if the local authority within whose district the level crossing is situated is not the highway authority to the local authority) of their intention to do so accompanied by a copy of the draft order which the Commission intend to submit to the Minister and the said highway authority and local authority shall be entitled to make representations to the Minister in respect of the said application within such period not being less than twenty-eight days as may be specified in the notice. There is not a word in the Clause about what the Minister is to do with the representations when he gets them. I suggest that the Clause needs carefully examining to make quite sure that it does not arm people with powers that may be misused, and that it imposes on the Minister a duty to examine and consider the representations that are made to him. As the Clause is at present worded, it is a blank cheque with no limitations on it and I think it ought to be resisted by the House.

I want to say a few words about some remarks which fell from the lips of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) who objected to what the hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) said about consultation between the British Transport Commission and Members of the House. I do not know how many private Bills—not private Members' Bills, but private Bills—my hon. Friend has proposed, but as one who has been responsible for promoting several private Bills for local authorities and for other bodies and having to champion them in the House, I can say that it is the almost inevitable procedure of promoters of private Bills to try to find out which Members are interested, and particularly which Members are likely to be critical and hostile, and to consult them about the procedure on the Bill, because that course, if followed, saves a great deal of expense in the Committee Room.

The British Transport Commission knows very well who are some, at least, of the Members who are interested in the canals. In fact, representatives of the Commission came to see us in two consecutive years. Some of us were even stood a lunch. All this is part of the usual procedure, and it is to be regretted that on this occasion, when the Commission had a rather better case than it had on the previous two years, it did not give us the information that has been given here tonight, for I am quite sure that it would have saved hon. Members themselves some trouble and anxiety, and would at any rate, I am quite certain, have resulted in no Motion appearing on the Order Paper with regard to canals, so that that part of our proceedings tonight need not have taken place at all.

I hope that the British Transport Corn-mission will realise that in dealing with this matter in this way, it is in the position of an ordinary promoter of a private Bill, and that it owes the same duty to hon. Members, who are known to hold strong views on the matters that may be included in its Bills, which every other promoter of a private Bill regards himself as being under an obligation to take upon himself.

I am glad to observe that tonight there has been no assumption on one side of the House that because this is a British Transport Commission Bill, it must be bad, and, on the other side of the House, that because it is a British Transport Commission Bill, it must be good. The British Transport Commission is a human institution capable of error, though not often in my view committing it, but under the same obligations which every other human institution should take into account when the feelings of those whose interests—not using the word merely in the financial sense—in public affairs may be affected by its transactions. I hope that what was said by the hon. Member for Nantwich and what I have ventured to say myself will be paid some attention if another Bill dealing with canals should be submitted to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills.

Forward to