HC Deb 12 November 1959 vol 613 cc676-86

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

7.11 p.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

Before I come to the subject matter of the Adjournment debate, I should like to say how sorry I was to read in the papers this evening of the accident in Harwich Harbour involving the troopship "Vienna" and a train ferry boat. Fortunately, I am glad to say, it did not result in any loss of life or any injury.

My reason for raising the subject matter of the Adjournment is that in the threatened withdrawal of the Harwich-Shotley-Felixstowe motor boat ferry service there are a number of matters which should be discussed in the House even though this subject will be considered by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for the East Anglian Area on 8th December.

In the first place, I want to say at once that I quite understand the attitude of British Railways who, faced with a deficit in the last eight years of between £3,800 and £6,000 a year and in the immediate future with an estimated capital cost of £25,000 for a new ferry, and a further replacement figure of a similar amount in seven years' time, are doing what is only right in bringing this matter to the notice of the Transport Users' Consultative Committee. From a purely commercial point of view, it would be very improper of them to do otherwise.

But I want to ask whether the Government in such cases as this are going to stand aside and adopt a completely laissez-faire policy and allow the laws of supply and demand to work out regardless of need and regardless of the fact that had the railways not been facing such a big overall deficit in the country as a whole, they might have been able to meet the needs of the town of Harwich for a ferry or indeed provide some modified service or a more up-to-date service than the service which is at present provided.

I am sure that any fair-minded railwayman would admit, although it is difficult to assess, that there is some obligation of good will to Harwich, since the railways make considerable profits out of the Harwich-Hook services. But what disturbs me is that the immediate cause of the crisis has been the action of the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company in increasing their landing charges from £150 a year to £1,000 a year. No doubt they have been able to do this because their charges have been more competitive than those of British Railways on the freight side and in consequence they have attracted business to Felixstowe which otherwise might have gone to Parkestone and Harwich.

This, in my view, is likely to be only a short-term vicious circle of a crisis, now that British Railways, as I trust, will go out and be competitive and attract this business back to them, especially now that they have the freedom on charges to be competitive, particularly on the freight side of their business. Indeed, it would be only fair to say that I notice at present great activity on their part in seeking new trade. I am sure that they realise that it is on their ability to attract freight business to the railways that their future as a whole depends. But this is the real cause of the crisis that faces the railways. It is by curing this, and not in the cheese-paring economies that they are forced to make at the margin of their operations, that they will ever overcome their real difficulties.

In the meantime, whilst this larger crisis is being overcome, they are being forced to lose the good will of the public because of the economy measures which they are forced to take. In this interim period, therefore, it is not to the railways so much as to the Government that I am looking for possible help to overcome this crisis. I do not want to prejudice what will be said at the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, but from the point of view of the town of Harwich the closing of the ferry will have extremely adverse results.

In the last few years Harwich has seen the Navy go, and although great strides have been made to attract new industry to the area, I have no doubt that the closing of the ferry is bound to have an adverse effect on the trade of the town, depending largely as it does now on the amenities which it offers as a seaside resort. The ferry and the communication it offers to Felixstowe is part of these amenities. Without it, the old town of Harwich will be isolated and the alternative communication to Felixstowe is a 40-mile drive round the Stour Estuary.

I hope, therefore, that if the Transport Users' Consultative Committee considers that the British Railways' case is justified at this moment, the Minister will appoint a committee to look into this vital matter to the town of Harwich to see whether some other form of ownership, of perhaps a modified ferry service, cannot be initiated. Where public ownership fails, cannot we help to get private enterprise on the job? Can the Government give help to start off a private company, or can they help to see that some modified form of service is kept open, at least for the summer months, which certainly would pay? These matters are vital for the trade of Harwich.

I hope that this will be looked into, because surely there is some form of ferry service that would pay. Without a proper inquiry into these questions, it is impossible to be didactic and say exactly what should be done. I feel that I would not be fulfilling my duty as the Member for Harwich if I did not bring this matter to the Minister's attention. I trust that I shall have his co-operation in looking into this question of need, of which I am sure the British Railways themselves are fully aware but, in their present crisis, feel it is not incumbent on themselves to meet alone.

I would remind my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport of the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade on Monday when he was accusing my noble Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinching-brooke) of old-fashioned Whiggery and said: While the Tory Party believes in the free play of private enterprise, it has always believed it to be the duty of the State to intervene to correct chronic distortions of the economy which might occur through the unfettered exercise of private enterprise."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th November. 1959; Vol. 613, c. 160.] If the Government adhere to this philosophy there is a case for at least looking carefully into the needs of the town of Harwich for a ferry service. In my submission, the best way this can be done is to appoint a committee to look into the question. In this great year of progress and achievement we must ask ourselves whether it is fair to put the inhabitants of Harwich into the position they were in many years ago before the ferry was started, as there would be no alternative form of transport save a drive of 40 miles compared with the journey from Harwich to Felixstowe by the ferry, which is just over a mile.

In ending the case I am putting to the Minister, I congratulate him on having completed the hat trick, for this is the third time in three successive days that he has answered an Adjournment debate. I am only glad that I have been called a little earlier so that, after answering my points, my hon. Friend can go to an early bed, which I am sure he thoroughly deserves.

7.21 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

First, may I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) for what he has said. I was wondering, Mr. Speaker, whether you might be rather bored with seeing me appear at this Box as often as I have had to do in the course of this week. When my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport knew that I was to be his Joint Parliamentary Secretary, he said, "The one thing you will have to do is to work." I have certainly had to work this week, but it has been a pleasant experience. My only regret is that last night I did not have more time to develop the full case when we were discussing the London-Yorkshire Motorway. Perhaps it would have been better to have had that debate tonight and this debate on the Harwich Ferry last night.

I turn now to the restrained and responsible case put by my hon. Friend about the Harwich Ferry. He has outlined the basic situation. This ferry has been running for many years, operating between Harwich and Felixstowe and between Harwich and Shotley across the estuary of the Stour. It is operated by two boats owned by British Railways, both of them motor boats. There is the "Epping", which carries 125 passengers and was built in 1914 and there is the "Brightlingsea" which carries 231 passengers and was built in 1925. The two boats carry passengers only, because this is not a vehicle ferry.

The number of trips made each day in winter is six. In the summer the number of trips per day rises to twelve and the fare charged throughout the year is 1s. 6d. single and 3s. return.

During 1958 the ferry carried a total of 103,573 passengers. As the House will expect, the peak numbers of passengers were carried during the summer months: in July 22,000 passengers, in August just under 40,000 and in September 13,000. This would appear to indicate a rather large demand for the ferry, but the other side of the picture is that during the winter months, between October and March inclusive, the total number of passengers is only about 2,000 a month, an average of about 50 a day. The information I have from the British Transport Commission is that of those people there are only about nine regular passengers per day travelling between Felixstowe and Harwich and only four between Shotley and Harwich.

My hon. Friend already indicated to the House that the principal reason why the Commission now wishes to withdraw the ferry is finance. On its revenue account for the last eight years it has operated at a deficit, as my hon. Friend has pointed out. The figures have ranged between a loss of £3,800 and £6,000. In 1958 the deficit was £4,600. I did a little sum this morning when the figures were given to me—I expect ray arithmetic is correct. I worked it out that the Commission lost 10d. on every passenger it carried last year on this service. That is the revenue side. On the capital side, which looks particularly towards the future, the situation is even worse. The "Epping," built in 1914. has now come to the end of its useful life and has to be replaced if the ferry service is to continue. The estimated cost of replacement is of the order of £25,000. The "Brightlingsea," the more modern boat, is due to be replaced within the next seven years.

That is the broad picture of the finances of the ferry. I will now say something about the increase in dock charges made by the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company, to which my hon. Friend also referred. The position is that this private company, which operates the dock at Felixstowe, has by Statute the right to charge a maximum of 1s. per passenger landing or departing from its quays. If this were charged in full on a total of 100,000 passengers it would have meant that the railways would have had to pay £5,000 but, as my hon. Friend has said, some years ago an arrangement was reached between the company and the railways whereby the latter pay a total of £150 per annum for the landing rights.

I am told that the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company is a go-ahead concern. Felixstowe is a port which is developing fast and is taking a great deal of traffic which wishes to use a somewhat cheaper type of docking facilities than London provides. Because of this satisfactory development the management of the company came to the conclusion that its need for the quay space used at the moment by the ferry is such that it is no longer justified in allowing the railways to use it at the low figure of £150 a year. For that reason it made a proposal recently that the charge should be £1,000 a year. At once this raised the question of the future of the ferry for the British Transport Commission because, losing money on its revenue account anyhow, and faced with a substantial sum to be found on capital account in the years ahead, the decision of the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company to increase the charge so substantially meant that the Commission had to look again at the position, and it reached the decision to propose the closure of the ferry.

On this point I will say something about the commercial policy which is being followed by the British Transport Commission. In the previous Parliament many debates took place, particularly on the Adjournment, about the policy of the British Transport Commission to close branch railway lines and other uneconomic activities. As I said during the Adjournment debate on Tuesday last, the main problem to be faced by the Commission is somehow to reduce the enormous expanse of its undertaking. No longer is it possible in this country for us to support the full range of railway services economically, and therefore these unpleasant and often painful decisions have to be made by the Commission to cut out and to reduce, and often to remove, uneconomic services.

What the Commission seeks to do is to reduce its operating losses, and thereby make progress towards a point when it will break even in its accounts. This involves concentrating on those services which it operates which either pay their way now or which offer some reasonable prospects of paying their way in the future. That is the basic policy which the Commission is adopting, and it is one which has the general support of the Government.

May I turn now to this proposal? It is a proposal made by the British Transport Commission, to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, and my hon. Friend has already said, and the House knows, that these committees were set up by the Transport Act, 1947, with the intention of safeguarding the public interest. It is important to realise that these are committees of users, and not some kind of sham behind which the Commission operates. A glance at the membership of these Transport Users' Consultative Committees makes it clear that they represent, as they were intended to do, a very wide cross-section of user interests.

Agriculture is represented, and commerce, industry, shipping, labour and local authorities all have their representatives on these committees. The chairman and two of the members, who are independent, are appointed by the Minister of Transport, and the procedure is that when the Commission has a proposal of this kind to make for the reduction or the withdrawal of services, it must submit its proposals first to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for the area or region in which the undertaking lies.

In this case, as my hon. Friend has said, the proposal has been submitted to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for East Anglia. Once the proposal is before a committee, a very full investigation takes place. People often criticise the committees on the ground that they do not act in a judicial way in the sense that there is not a judicial hearing, with witnesses called and with counsel addressing the committees in lengthy, and presumably well-paid, speeches. But our experience is that the procedure under which the committees operate now, which is far more informal, with far more give and take across the table, if I may use that sort of expression, is infinitely preferable to the more judicial type of inquiry.

Mr. Ridsdale

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but may I ask him if the committee would consider alternative forms of transport if it decided—but perhaps my hon. Friend is coming to that point?

Mr. Hay

I am coming to that point. The position is that it conducts a very full investigation of the whole of the proposal. The committee looks into the economics and into the sums that have been done by the Commission. It looks into the question of any local inconvenience that will be caused, and, in this case, presumably, that would be a point which would rank very high in its study. It looks into the alternative facilities that there may be to the service which is being withdrawn, and I have no doubt that here again in this case the committee will look very carefully indeed at the fact that, if the service is withdrawn, there is only, as an alternative these rather lengthy bus journeys round the two rivers when people want to cross from one side to the other. The committees can and do look at any individual circumstances brought to their notice.

Once the committee has given that consideration, it comes to a decision and its conclusion then goes to the Central Consultative Committee for confirmation. If the proposals are confirmed by the Central Committee, which, incidentally, goes into the whole matter again, the Minister of Transport is then informed, and if necessary he can give the British Transport Commission a direction as to the course which it is to follow with regard to the particular proposal. I am told that in practice and in fact, there has never been an occasion on which the Minister needed to give such a direction, because the British Transport Commission, to its great credit, operates in the closest touch with these committees, and invariably accepts the verdict of the committees on their proposals.

With regard to this particular proposition for the Harwich-Felixstowe-Shotley Ferry, the present position is, as my hon. Friend has said, that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for East Anglia is now seized of the proposal, and will be holding a hearing on the whole matter on 8th December. From the point of view of my right hon. Friend, the case is now in the consultative machinery, and I am afraid that I cannot go into the merits, though I can see that there are merits on both sides. I have tried shortly to outline the facts. There it is; these are matters which the committee will have to consider.

The committee may approve the proposal made by the Commission, or reject it, or—and I address this to my hon. Friend particularly in the light of what he said—it can offer suggestions for further consideration by the British Transport Commission. It might, for example, suggest that further inquiry should be made whether some private boat service could be persuaded somehow to run the service in future, not perhaps on the same time-table or on the same scale, but to cover the particular anxieties of local residents. Whatever the Transport Users' Consultative Committee decides must come eventually to the Central Committee, and it then goes on to the Minister.

In these circumstances, my hon. Friend will appreciate my situation representing the Minister here tonight. I cannot go into the merits of the application, and we honestly think that it would be better for the whole matter to go right through the consultative machinery, which was set up by Parliament for this purpose. My hon. Friend said that he hoped that the Government would not adopt a laissez-faire attitude in this matter. Frankly, we do not intend to adopt a laissez-faire attitude in any matter. But in the light of the fact that we have got this machinery here and that it is working well throughout the country, and the fact that this particular proposal is only at its very early stage, and has not even started, strictly speaking, on its process through the machine, I do not think that it would be right for my right hon. Friend at this moment to appoint an inquiry, as my hon. Friend suggested, to go into the matter. There is the machinery, which works well, as I have said, and that is the sort of inquiry which the people in Harwich and Felixstowe would want.

My hon. Friend however, inferred and raised a somewhat wider issue that the Government should intervene with the Commission to stop it making economies of this kind, which he said were inclined to alienate the sympathies of the public to its difficulties. I am paraphrasing what my hon. Friend said, but I think I have got his point correctly—that we should take some action with the Commission to prevent it doing things which the public do not like and thereby making the public less sympathetic to the railways. I understand that to be the point which he was making. If that is what my hon. Friend means, I must say that it is not the policy of the Government to regard the British Transport Commission as anything else but what in fact it is—a commercial undertaking.

Mr. Ridsdale

I think that if my hon. Friend reads my speech, he will see that I also regard the British Transport Commission as a commercial undertaking. The point I am making is that there are some marginal cases of need, and it is not the obligation of the Commission as a commercial company to meet that kind of need. It may and could be said that it is the responsibility of the Government, if it does not adopt a laissez faire policy, to look into that need.

Mr. Hay

I thought that was what my hon. Friend meant. We regard the Commission as a commercial undertaking operating, as I said on Tuesday night, in a competitive field. It does not have a complete monopoly of transport in this country. It is true that there are these marginal, borderline cases where it may well be argued that the Government, for social reasons quite divorced from economics, should intervene and give instructions to the Commission to take this or that action. That has not been the policy of the Government heretofore. Though I will report to my right hon. Friend what my hon. Friend has said, I should not like to hold out high hopes to him or to the House that we were likely to change our attitude on this matter.

Anyhow, I hope that what I have said tonight will perhaps reassure my hon. Friend's constituents that the matter is by no means cut and dried but that there is quite a long way to go before a decision is finally reached, and that in the intervening stages there will be plenty of opportunities for the local inhabitants to make their views known, because the Committee has been set up to represent users and it is the users in Harwich and district with which we are mainly concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eight o'clock.