§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)
I beg to move,That this House, deeply concerned to preserve the vitality, prosperity and emenities of the countryside, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to take such steps as are necessary to secure adequate transport facilities in such areas.I was fortunate enough to win first place in the Ballot for Private Members' Motions a fortnight ago and felt that this Motion was likely to command the interest of the House because it affects all parts of Great Britain and, therefore, many hon. Members would wish to speak partly on behalf of their own constituencies, as I do on behalf of mine.
None of us needs reminding of the poverty of the countryside in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. The 1914–1918 war provided a submarine threat to our country which put us in grave danger of starvation. It is interesting that towards the end of that war, the tractor, which is now so common throughout the countryside, was first introduced, I believe, from America.
In the 1920s, the great hope that agriculture might be put on a sounder and more prosperious footing was disappointed—I would almost say betrayed. At the end of the 1920s, the Labour Government of 1930–31 introduced the Agricultural Marketing Act, which led, under a Coalition Government, to the setting up of the Milk Marketing Board, which has done such great things for the country and for farming, and indeed, has brought about an agricultural revolution.
The Labour Government of that period were also responsible for the Road Traffic Act, 1930, which introduced a new licensing system for both passenger and road haulage transport to be administered by traffic commissioners. I emphasise that both these are examples of Government intervention.
Then came the 1939–45 war, which, again, brought to us the danger of starvation. We were saved only after the protracted Battle of the Atlantic, which brought fearful losses to our sailors, both of Her Majesty's Fleet and of the Merchant Navy.
49 The Agriculture Act, 1947, introduced by another Labour Government, again brought great hope to the countryside and immense benefit. No one in the House will dispute that. The countryside was rejuvenated. Today, the withdrawal of transport facilities, both rail and road, is putting the prosperity of the countryside in jeopardy.
The concern of hon. Members of this House about this aspect of our life is emphasised by the fact that in recent years there have been many Adjournment debates on the subject, one in 1955, another in 1956, two in 1957, three in 1958, three in 1960 and six this year already. This is the seventh debate on the subject this year. Most of these seven debates have been about the closure of railway lines.
I should like to make two quotations from the speech of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), when speaking in the debate on 3rd April, 1958. The hon. Member said:It is tragic that the work which is being done to give the countryside a share of modern amenities should now be threatened by a collapse of the transport system…there should be a frank admission of the seriousness of the problem, and no glossing over it. It should be made clear that the countryside is threatened with a situation which would be economically disastrous for the country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd April, 1958; Vol. 585, c. 1444–5.]Those statements were made by a Conservative Member of the House, and a former junior Minister, no less than three and a half years ago, but they are as applicable today as they were then.
I wish to spend a fair amount of time on the question of the closure of branch railway lines, because it was the threatened closure of a line in my constituency, running into the constituency of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard), that suggested to me that this Motion would be worthy of discussion. I want, however, to take the debate into a rather wider sphere.
The 1960 Report of the Central Transport Users' Consultative Committee states, in paragraph 9, page 5, that 60 per cent. of all proposals for closure of railway lines go through without opposition and quite a number of contentious proposals are either amended or rejected as a result of hearings by area committees. There are eleven area committees. The 50 total savings of all line closures since 1948 amount to approximately £4½ million a year. Volume 2 of the Annual Report of the British Transport Commission for 1960 makes it clear, at page 16A, that the total working expenses of British Railways for the year 1960 were no less than £546 million. Taking the saving on closures of lines from 1948 to the end of 1960 of £4½ million, we find that only 0.8 of 1 per cent. of the working expenses of British Railways was saved by those closures. That, I suggest, is a comparatively insignificant sum.
We ought to take into account Dr. Beeching's proposals for reorganising British transport to meet the wishes of the Government. I suggest that his policy will be one of great ruthlessness, particularly concerning branch lines. Therefore, we as a House ought to consider how the Government will apply a policy of social need, because rural transport of all kinds is a social need if we are to maintain a prosperous countryside.
I want to draw attention to one aspect of consultative committees which is not generally realised. It is that the secretaries of the committees are officers seconded by the Commission. It will be obvious that the officers are dependent on the Commission for promotion, which every ambitious young officer will expect to get. However, each secretary has a dual responsibility. He has a responsibility to the Commission, which pays his salary and controls his prospects. He also has a duty to the consultative committee, which is the consumers' council and whose duty should be to ensure that the rights of the public and consumers are protected.
Having served for many years in local government with a dual responsibility, I can assure the House that I know something of what I am talking about. In the Electricity Act, 1957, the Government re-emphasised the provision contained in the 1947 Act that area consultative councils for electricity should have the right and power to appoint their own officers and not rely on staff seconded by the electricity boards.
That brings me to the proposed closure of the Gwinear Road-Helston Branch line. The proposal is to discontinue the passenger train service and amend the freight train service. The 51 county council and all local authorities in West Cornwall are alarmed and I have received a large number of letters about it from individuals, some chambers of commerce, the National Farmers' Union and, indeed, certain individual industries.
Not only the immediate area of the branch line, but the whole of the Lizard Peninsula within the constituency of the hon. Member for St. Ives is affected. It is an area of rich agricultural land which also produces early horticultural crops, a feature of the industry in West Cornwall. The line also serves the Naval Air Station at Culdrose. Indeed, the Admiralty has recently come to my own town of Camborne-Redruth to seek permission to erect there 125 houses for its personnel. We have a very efficient technical college for Cornwall in Camborne-Redruth. Many scholars from all over West Cornwall and East Cornwall are students at the Cornwall Technical College.
British Railways offer certain alternative bus routes, but they admit that at certain times of the year even these will be inadequate. I am sure that anyone with a knowledge of the area who examines the list will notice at once that it is grossly inadequate even now and there is no guarantee whatever that these services will be continued. Indeed, the main operator is the Western National Bus Company. All the shares in this company are owned by the British Transport Commission. The bus company will undoubtedly apply the same criterion of economic working as British Railways now apply. The Helston-Lizard motor bus service was probably one of the first in the country. I have not verified that, but I think that I am correct in saying so. It was initiated by the Great Western Railway, certainly in the first decade of the century.
The economy of the area depends largely on agriculture, horticulture and the holiday trade, plus the Culdrose Naval Air Station. Those hon. Members who know the Lizard Peninsula will agree that it is one of the finest and loveliest areas in the whole country. I add that the closure will hit hardest the elderly, the poorer people, and those without transport.
52 Section 3 of the Transport Act, 1947, set out the keystone of the Act when it stated thatit shall be the general duty of the Commission so to exercise their powers…as to provide, or secure or promote the provision of, an efficient, adequate, economical and properly integrated system of public inland transport…for passengers and goods…in such manner as to provide most efficiently and conveniently for the needs of the public, agriculture, commerce and industry".The 1953 Act completely reversed the policies of all Governments for thirty years, which were to secure an adequate transport system. It instituted for the railways a fully commercial system and compelled the Transport Commission to dispose of many of its assets. It destroyed the prospects of any coordinated system of transport. Clause 3 of the Transport Bill, now in Standing Committee, merely says:It shall be the duty of the Railways Board…to provide railway services in Great Britain and…such other services as appear…expedient, and to have due regard…to efficiency, economy and safety of operation.That is all. It does not say that there must be an adequate system of public transport.
The Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, in paragraphs 421 and 427 of its Report,suggested that uneconomic services which the railways were required to provide on grounds of national interest or of social needs should be met by specific grant from public funds.This is a quotation from paragraph 50 of the White Paper, Reorganisation of the Nationalised Transport Undertakings, published in December, 1960, Command 1248.
The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) said on the Second Reading of the Transport Bill:…the 1947 Act clearly required something in the nature of a social service.It is an attractive but most dangerous idea to regard transport as a social service…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1961; Vol. 649, c. 1197.]I disagree with the hon. Member entirely. We cannot rely on a commercial system to provide adequately for the real needs of the countryside if the countryside is to remain live and vital.
53 A leaderette in the West Briton of 30th November, 1961, which is published in Truro, said:One of the tasks of Cornish M.P.s of the future will be to ensure that no part of their constituency is compelled to return to the isolation of its Victorian past.I do not think that we need go as far back as the Victorians, because I can recall when I was a younster people in my area who had never travelled more than four miles from their homes because there was inadequate public transport. I have seen people in my constituency walking four miles to save a 3d. bus fare, because they had not the money to pay it. That was in the old days, and I hope we are never again to see that state of affairs return to our country.
I must now refer to the Jack Report on Rural Bus Services. Many hon. Members will want to refer to that Report, I expect, because it was such an important milestone in the history of road transport in the rural areas, though the Government have yet to make any statement about how they will deal with the recommendations of that Report. The terms of reference of that Committee were:to review present trends in rural bus services and in particular to enquire into the adequacy of those services; to consider possible methods of ensuring adequate services in future; and to make recommendations.I draw attention to the fact that the word "adequate" appears there twice, and to the fact that these terms of reference were given by the Government themselves.
The Committee reported on 6th January, 1961, and the main conclusions and recommendations of paragraph 8 are:…the present and probable future levels of rural bus services are not adequate to avoid a degree of hardship and inconvenience sufficient to call for special steps; and we recommend mainly a system of direct financial assistance, in part from local and in part from central sources, and administered through the County Councils.Chapter 2 of the Report deals with the development of bus services, and Chapter 3 with the experience of other countries, particularly the United States, Sweden, Switzerland and West Germany, and it is noteworthy that in Switzerland, the Post Office operates a bus service 54 and is required to maintain this service in thinly populated areas. The same applies to West Germany.
Chapter 4 deals with the adequacy of rural bus services, Chapter 5 with un-remunerative services, Chapter 6 with possible solutions and Chapter 7 with the minibus, the village carrier and the postal bus. Chapter 8 deals with costs and fares, Chapter 9 with the fuel tax, and Chapter 10 with direct financial aid. There are three minority Reports, but I do not think that there is any need for me to go into any further detail, because there is enough there to occupy a full day's debate.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)
Has the hon. Gentleman noticed that the first minority Report, by Mr. W. T. James, showed in detail why the recommendations of the majority Report were impracticable in this country, except by a much greater expenditure than they thought?
§ Mr. Hayman
Minority Reports usually give reasons why those making them disagree with the majority recommendations, and I do not think there is any need to burden the House with further details of that kind.
On 28th March, of this year, the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) initiated a debate on rural transport, particularly dealing with the Jack Report. He said:At the moment, there are good grounds for suggesting that the Government are in danger of breaking faith with the countryside, and I, for one, am not prepared to support them in doing that."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th March, 1961; Vol. 637, c. 1299.]I hope that the hon. Gentleman is still of the same opinion. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary, in his reply, said:It is quite likely that at a fairly early stage we shall have to consider consultation with a number of outside interests on the Committee's findings and recommendations.Later, he said:The only additional information which I can give him is that we shall reach our conclusions on this matter as speedily as we can."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 28th March, 1961; Vol. 637, c. 1302–3.]That was nine months ago.
The Report deals with school buses, and, obviously, they will have to play a great part in the consideration which is 55 to be given to the future of rural transport. I could quote here an incident from my own county in which the substitution of contract vehicles contributed to a branch railway becoming uneconomic. In the opinion of the Cornwall Education Committee, the savings were so appreciable that it felt that it had no alternative. I expect that the figures which I shall quote for Cornwall will apply equally to every county in England.
The cost of school transport in 1951–52 was £64,000; in 1961–62, £167,000; in 1962–63, £175,000, nearly a threefold increase in eleven years, and amounting, approximately, to an 11d. rate now. Already, there are great difficulties for many students at technical colleges, of which I have already spoken. The position will be chaotic if many more bus and rail services are curtailed or abandoned. Surely, after all, if this country is to prosper, we must make the best use of all the technical facilities that are available, for the countryside as well as for the towns.
I will give one instance of what applies in my own constituency. Some senior students at evening classes at the Cornwall Technical College at Camborne-Redruth come from Falmouth, and they cannot get back home until eleven o'clock at night. These students have been at work all day before they begin a 12-mile bus ride to Camborne and then have a 12-mile ride back again.
The National Association of Parish Councils, in a letter dated 1st June, which was sent to the Ministry by the County Councils Association, says:The decline of other forms of rural public transport increases the importance of the rural bus services. Every stage in their decline makes a policy decision more urgent.Later in the letter, it is suggestedthat the subsidy should be derived from the Exchequer, and should be administered through or on the recommendation of the Traffic Commissioners, who have more relevant experience than any other body.I understand that the County Councils Association is strongly opposed to the suggestion that the county councils should contribute to the subsidy and should administer it, and I think that the County Councils Association is a body whose views we should take into account.
56 In my own county, I am informed that one nationalised industry expresses a preference for boys living in the immediate vicinity of the depot of that industry. Surely, that is an awful thing, because it condemns so many lads in the villages to no chance at all of getting into that industry.
One comparatively small factory in my constituency had to engage special buses because of the curtailment of public service vehicles. However, many hon. Members will want to emphasise other aspects of the situation and I will not refer to them now.
I want briefly to refer to the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts for October, 1960, which contains two lectures with subsequent discussions, one on "The structure and organisation of the transport system," by Mr. Gilbert J. Ponsonby, M.A., Member of the Institute of Transport, and the other on "Future developments of the internal system of transport," by Mr. D. L. Munby, M.A. They make excellent reading, but I will not deal with what they say now.
I cannot move a Motion of this sort without showing its implications for Great Britain as a whole. We now have for our consideration the preliminary Report of the 1961 Census. Referring to England it says that among the counties which have not kept all their natural increase—excess of births over deaths—or which have actually suffered a decline in population are Northumberland, Cumberland, Durham, Westmorland, the three Ridings of Yorkshire and Cornwall. That means that all the rural districts of England north of a line drawn from the Mersey to the Humber, and Cornwall, are becoming depopulated.
All the counties in Wales are suffering the same fate. The populations of the Welsh rural districts amount to 805,000. The total populations of rural districts in England and Wales are 9,250,000 and in the areas I have quoted the loss of population amounts to no less than 28.2 per cent. Of the 33 counties in Scotland, 15 had increases of population and 18 decreases. The landward population increased in 10 counties and decreased in 23.
I understand that the Scottish term "landward" means "rural". The seven 57 crofting counties had decreases of 2.8 per cent. compared with 2.5 per cent. between 1931 and 1951. The four Border counties had decreases of 6.3 per cent. compared with 2.2 per cent. between 1931 and 1951. Generally speaking, the increases have been confined to the Forth-Clyde area. In the decade 1951–61 the net loss by migration was 254,000, a figure higher than that of 248,000 in the 20-year period. 1931–51.
The lower age groups are those most affected. Wales has memories of the enforced migration of the inter-war years when Wales was seriously depopulated. In the century up to the financial crash on Wall Street in 1929, Cornwall's chief export was its young men. They went to every part of the globe. Are we to see that kind of thing again? It looks very much as though our proposed entry into the Common Market will have a serious effect on the countryside in Great Britain and that the concentration on the economics of transport will also hit the countryside.
An article in a daily newspaper last week described south-west Ireland as a land which was slowly bleeding to death and said that migration from Ireland amounted to 1,000 a wek, or a quarter of a million in five years. I draw attention to the fact that most of these areas, apart from those in the north of England, are the Celtic fringes of Great Britain. We ought as hon. Members, especially those of us who are Celts or who come from Celtic communities, to consider this subject very closely.
What will happen if the countryside is depopulated and there is another world war? I have mentioned what happened in 1917 when we faced near starvation, and the Battle of the Atlantic in the last war is clearly in all our minds. The countryside is our greatest asset both for feeding our bodies and refreshing us spiritually. Transport is the lifeblood of the countryside, but present Government policy seems to be directed towards the depopulation of rural areas. It negatives the Government's declared objective of steering industry into areas of high unemployment. As my constituency is one of those areas, I shall listen carefully to the Parliamentary Secretary's reply and I will closely watch the 58 Government's policies in the months to come.
I believe that a policy of the proper location of industry is vital to our wellbeing as a nation. We give vast agricultural subsidies and I suggest that the cross-subsidisation of rural transport by making small urban areas help to pay for the uneconomic country routes has reached saturation point, if it has hot gone beyond it. Subsidies are given to shipping services in the Highlands. The traffic commissioners already limit full freedom of operation, for both passenger and freight traffic, granting what are virtually monopoly certificates in certain cases. The Milk Marketing Board is a statutory authority which is efficient and which has revitalised farming in Britain.
Those are instances of Government intervention in industry. Why should we boggle at subsidising rural transport where there is a social need for it? I will not go beyond saying that an integrated system of public transport is absolutely essential. The fate of our countryside is at stake in this matter of public transport and I hope that the House will make it crystal clear that it requires the Government to keep rural Britain a green and pleasant land and to take such steps as are necessary to ensure the preservation of the countryside's vitality, prosperity and amenities.
§ 4.49 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Howard (St. Ives)
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) has given us a wealth of figures and statistics and, knowing that there are many hon. Members who wish to speak, I shall be brief, confining myself to a matter to which he referred and which affects both our constituencies, the closing of the Helston branch line, which is in my constituency.
It needs to be emphasised that in a memorandum from the railways it is stated that the matter has been under discussion with the bus company concerned, with a view to providing certain additional services, but that it is contended that those services could not possibly be provided on a remunerative basis. So it is a matter of "Heads you win, tails I lose." They do not say that they are going to give us any additional services.
59 The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne and I have had many letters from people saying that during the summer they cannot get on to a bus because they are crowded out with visitors. If this service cannot be run as a remunerative operation, why is there any objection to anybody else trying? So far as I can make out, the Western National Bus Company always objects to anybody else applying for a route. If it is no good to the Western National Bus Company, why should somebody else not be allowed to try? Why not let another bus operator try to provide a service?
The R.N.A.S. station which is in my constituency is a very important—indeed, a vital—training place for a certain branch of Royal Naval aviation. It is common knowledge that this station is to be increased in strength. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne has said that some approaches have been made about the building of houses in Camborne. I hope that they are built in Helston, because the residents in those houses will then not have so far to go to get to Culdrose and will not add to the already heavy traffic on the roads in summer.
From the horticultural point of view, like the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, I have had representations from the National Farmers' Union to the effect that it is not suitable to dispatch flowers or fruit on the buses. Representations which I support strongly have been made by the National Farmers' Union in appropriate quarters.
Perhaps one of the most important points on which the hon. Gentleman touched, and which I should like to emphasise, is the effect on the tourist trade if this branch line is closed. According to the paper with which we have been circularised, the authorities say, "That is all right. We will stop the expresses at more stations. Goodness knows, the Cornish Riviera Express is now slower than it was sixty years ago, and if it stopped at any other places it would not be an express at all. People would leave the train and try to get on to a bus which is already loaded. They would go to Helston if they were lucky enough to get on where they would have gone by train in any case. They would 60 then have to change from one bus to another to go out to the Lizard, another nine miles. This is not very encouraging to people wishing to spend their holidays in the Lizard area.
As the bus company cannot provide any additional services, and as no other operator is allowed to provide a service, I suggest that we approach the solution to the problem in this way. First, why not run a two-piece diesel unit? This has, I understand, been done at a place near my family home, Cirencester. If it can be done there, why can it not be done at Helston? If that cannot be done, what about attaching one passenger coach to the freight train? The freight train stops at all these stations.
It is not good enough to sit back and say that we cannot do these things. While I praise every effort to make the railways less extravagant, I think that it will never be possible to run them economically. The railways should be considered as a national asset, and they should be taken out of politics. In the present situation it is bad luck on the unfortunate railway employees, such as the guards and the ticket collectors, who come in contact with the public. They are the people who get all the kicks, not those who make these decisions in London and who do not see the public. The fact must be faced that although a branch line of this nature is run at a loss, it still renders a service.
There is a feeling that this is the thin end of the wedge and that the next step will be to close the freight service. I should like a reply from the Parliamentary Secretary on this matter of the buses, and I should like an assurance that if the passenger train service has to go, pressure will be brought to bear to increase the bus service. Failing that, I should like an assurance that we shall have either a two-unit diesel train or a passenger coach added to the freight train. Finally, I should like to be assured that the freight train service will not be closed in the foreseeable future.
I conclude by congratulating the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne on initiating this debate.
§ 4.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Frank McLeavy (Bradford, East)
I will follow the example of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) and speak briefly. I should like to join in 61 congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) on introducing this subject for debate, and on his excellent speech. We all know of my hon. Friend's great interest in the rural areas and of the contribution which has has made towards the public and social life of the area.
I speak on this matter probably from a broader angle than someone who is interested merely in the rural areas. I have had considerable experience in road transport problems and I think that I can speak with some knowledge on these matters as they affect both the rural and urban areas.
I do not think that we can consider rural bus transport in isolation. It is part of a wider issue, and is indicative of the national trend arising from heavy taxation. There is no industry in the country so heavily taxed as the passenger transport industry. It bears a tax which strikes at the very heart of this type of public service. There is no other industry which has contributed so much to the industrial and social life of the nation but which has received such harsh taxation at the hands of Parliament.
Let me consider the special position of the bus undertaking. What is not clearly understood by Members of Parliament and the general public is that the road passenger transport service is in an entirely different category from that of the road haulage undertaking. Yet, strangely enough, it is more heavily taxed by Parliament. The road haulage undertaking is concerned in the main with transporting a full load from one given point to another. It can choose its load from the point of view of whether it is desirable or profitable, and it is not expected by the State or by the general public to transport goods at a loss to the undertaking. In point of fact, the road haulage organisation is akin to ordinary industrial practices. It is a commercial undertaking plying for hire for profit.
The position of the bus undertaking is entirely different. I have said this time and time again in the House, but it does not appear to have aroused the type of support that one might have thought would have been the case. The bus undertaking is an entirely different 62 proposition. Every bus undertaking is licensed by the traffic commissioners. It has to maintain a reasonable scheduled service. Its fares are controlled by the traffic commissioners. Its passenger-carrying potential is subject to restriction by weather or by the changing habits of travel of the public. Full or empty, the buses have to run their scheduled services.
It is generally known that most of the bus services carry a high percentage of unremunerative mileage. This was brought out most forcibly by the evidence submitted to the Jack Committee on Rural Bus Services. For instance, the Scottish omnibus group stated that it was maintaining 355 unremunerative services out of a total of 747. This represents 24 per cent. of the total yearly mileage. Its loss for the year 1958, given in evidence before the Committee, in providing these non-paying services was estimated at some £587,000.
The Birmingham and Midland Omnibus Company Ltd. reported that, in 1958, 64 per cent. of its services and 32 per cent. of its mileage were unremunerative. The Public Transport Association, representing as it does all forms of road passenger transport, submitted a report to the Committee which showed that in the case of 19 representative companies extensively concerned with rural services the mileage of unremunerative rural stage carriage services had increased from 31.9 million miles in 1938 to 36.8 million miles in 1948 and to 55.1 million miles in 1958.
The road passenger transport industry has always recognised its obligation to provide a reasonable public service. It has willingly carried a reasonable percentage of non-paying mileage, but there is a limit beyond which it can go. Apart from the inevitable losses which must arise from the provision of unremunerative services, the bus undertakings are faced with declining traffic arising from the increase in the use of private cars and motor-cycles. Then there is the kindly motorist who gives a lift in his car to two or three of his friends travelling to and from work and the large building contractors who provide their own transport for the thousands of workers whom they employ in all parts of the country. All these factors are causing the present financial difficulties in our rural and urban transport.
63 There is yet another difficulty. It is the shortage of bus crews. The rates of pay and the conditions of employment have not kept pace with those prevailing in other industries. The industry does not now attract the better type of recruits. Staff come and go. After being trained rather expensively they leave, and it has become an extremely costly business. As a matter of fact, even the London Transport Executive is having to use agencies overseas to get recruits from our Colonies in order to try to maintain its transport system. I believe, and I have said so from time to time in the House, though without very much success, that nothing short of a bold, positive overall transport policy will meet the requirements of the community in the future.
I wish to deal briefly with two of the recommendations of the Jack Committee. I refer to the argument about reduced fuel oil taxation and or direct subsidy. I think that the most astonishing recommendation in the majority Report is that which suggests a kind of joint financial grant to rural services contributed partly by the Exchequer, on the one hand, and the county councils, on the other. No wonder that the recommendation was rejected immediately by the more practical members of the Committee, and no wonder it is opposed by the county councils and by the County Councils Association.
I have had considerable experience as a member of a county council and I know the very strong feelings of the urban areas now because they are, in the main, having to provide the public services to the derated rural areas. I know the strong feeling that always existed between urban residents who felt this to be an injustice which the county boroughs did not have to bear. I am positive that the suggestion that the county council ratepayers should make a financial contribution towards providing rural bus services is an absolutely astonishing one in view of the fact that the Government are raking off millions of pounds in taxation on the fuel oil used by bus undertakings.
I come to what must be my final point. What is the remedy? I know that it is very easy to criticise recommendations of committees and the views of Ministers. On those who criticise rests the 64 responsibility of putting forward a remedy which they think suits the case. I believe that the remedy to this problem lies in the lifting from the shoulders of the bus undertakings the heavy and unjustified penal taxation on fuel oil. I do not think that it can be done purely in respect of rural mileage. That is something which it is difficult to define, and, in any case, it would not provide a permanent solution to the problem. No one can justify the heavy fuel oil taxation on the bus undertaking which is a public service. Industry is free from such taxation although it uses by far the greatest amount of fuel oil.
My first suggestion to the Minister, therefore, is that the tax on fuel oil should be remitted entirely. This would enable the bus industry, which, in the main, is run on fuel oil, to provide those unremunerative services which are required in the rural areas and to staff their industry so that they could provide a proper and efficient service for the community. This would be the most sensible solution of the problem.
§ Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)
Does my hon. Friend realise that, if the policy which he suggests were put into force, it would result in an indiscriminate remission of fuel oil tax to bus companies? Bus companies operating in urban areas would reap the benefits in addition to those in the rural areas. The Jack Report states that the gross profit of some of these companies per mile would be considerably increased, and cites, for example, the Tilling Group, where it would have been double that of 1958.
§ Mr. McLeavy
I do not accept what my hon. Friend says. It is misconceived, for this reason. The fuel oil tax is not payable by any other section of industry which uses fuel oil. Why discriminate between a manufacturing industry and an industry which is a semi-social service? With regard to the other point that my hon. Friend raised about benefiting the urban areas, I thought that I had pointed out that the services in the urban areas and, indeed, in the city areas are being seriously curtailed between peak hour periods because it is impossible to carry so much un-remunerative mileage.
My hon. Friend also referred to the profits of the private companies. He 65 knows very well that I am the last man to be worried very much about the profits of private industry. However, let us be fair to private industry and recognise that the private bus undertakings have made a contribution to the bus services in the rural and urban areas at a considerable loss of profit because of their public-spirited attitude to the provision of transport for the community. I pay my tribute unreservedly to the privately-owned and municipally-owned bus undertakings which have made such a sacrifice in order that many unremunerative services may be provided for the community.
I am all in favour of a full remission of taxation on fuel oil to allow bus undertakings to carry out their responsibilities and, incidentally, to allow the traffic commissioners the right to ask the bus undertakings to restore some of the rural services which have been abandoned because of the financial situation. I think that my solution would deal with the point that my hon. Friend raised.
I come to my second point.
§ Mr. McLeavy
I come to my second point, and it is this. If the Government feel that they are unable, because of financial considerations, to give a full remission of taxation on fuel oil to bus undertakings, they should fall back on another way of assisting the bus industry. I suggest that they should spread the gross yield of the taxation on fuel oil over all the users of it. When I made inquires about this matter from the Treasury some time ago, probably about two years ago, I understood that, if the present amount that the Treasury received in fuel oil taxation were obtained by spreading the charge over all of the users, the tax would amount to just over 3d. per gallon.
I say this in all seriousness to the Minister. I know that this is not a matter that the Minister can solve merely as the Minister of Transport. It is something which must be examined by the Treasury. It must be the subject of a decision by the Cabinet. But sooner or later they will have to look at the whole of the transport problem and decide what is the best solution. I said when the Jack Committee was appointed—and I do not withdraw 66 the remark—that it was merely a device to delay a decision by the Government on this important matter. Twelve months or more have passed since the Report was published. I wonder how long we should have waited for a debate in this House on the matter if my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne had not seized the opportunity to raise it today.
This is the sort of thing to which I take objection. First, the ex-Minister of Transport who is now Minister of Defence—he is more to blame than the present Minister—pretended that he was so concerned about this problem that he wanted a committee to report on it. I told him at the time that the Ministry of Transport had in its files the complete answer to this problem. It knew all the facts before the Committee reported, and yet we have these delaying tactics, and then another delay of twelve months. Surely the time has come—
§ Mr. G. Wilson
In fairness to both Ministers of Transport, I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the Jack Committee was far from unanimous and recommended a variety of things which contradicted one another.
§ Mr. McLeavy
I have never disputed that the Jack Committee was far from being unanimous, but the point is that if my advice had been accepted by the then Minister of Transport there would have been no Jack Committee. The Minister had at his disposal all the necessary evidence on which a remedy could have been based.
In conclusion—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I apologise for talking so long, but if hon. Gentleman who say "Hear, hear" are happy about the position, and are satisfied with the muddle that has occurred over the last few years, and think that the position is good enough for the agricultural electors, I do not.
If this problem had a direct and serious effect on farmers, who out of the subsidies they receive are able to provide their own cars, we should have had a remedy more than five years ago. It is only because the problem affects ordinary agricultural workers and their families, and the small residents in the countryside, that the farmers and their organisations are being lukewarm about the matter. I tried to tease them in a 67 letter I wrote to The Times about six months ago, but nothing happened.
It is a scandal that bus services in the urban and rural areas are declining, and that we have not been able to obtain from the Government a sensible solution to a grave and serious problem.
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Mathew (Honiton)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) on his good fortune in the Ballot and on his wisdom in choosing this subject for discussion. Ever since I have been in the House this has been a recurring theme for discussion, especially in private Members' time, but, as other hon. Members have emphasised, we have seen no action taken by the Government.
Successive Ministers have refused to grasp the nettle. I agree that it is a complicated and difficult problem, as anyone who studies the Jack Committee Report can see, but in the meanwhile the problem is growing year by year, and, as more and more amenities become available to the townsmen in this age of supermarkets, super-launderettes, super-entertainment and super-buses, and so on, a minority of the population who live and work in the countryside in isolated areas have lost in the provision of amenities.
As progress has been made, albeit too slow in providing electricity and piped water, so one reads every week of country cinemas closing down. We have heard of branch railway lines being closed, and we know that more are to be closed as a result of the new policy, and we have heard of unremunerative bus services being taken off. Therefore, as progress is being made in providing greater amenities, especially by way of transport and recreation, to the majority of people, the minority, those living in the country, are becoming worse off.
Hon. Members often speak eloquently of the drift from the land. I think that the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. McLeavy) was a little less than fair in saying that farmers and their organisations have stood by indifferent to this development. I attend my branch meetings of the National Farmers' Union, and time and again farmers—and not affluent farmers—say that they want to 68 see the status of the agricultural worker lifted to something comparable to that of those who work in industry.
§ Mr. G. Wilson
Does my hon. Friend recollect that the Report by David St. John Thomas on Rural Transport Conditions published in the Lake District Transport Report pointed out that a considerable number of small farmers did not have cars and were dependent on public transport?
§ Mr. Mathew
That is particularly true even in my county which lies on the civilised side of the Tamar. We do not come from the Celtic fringe. I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
When we talk of status, it is not only a matter of money or wages. The drift to which hon. Members refer is a drift towards better amenities, and many of the things which the countryman had on his doorstep a few years ago are no longer there, and can be found only in the towns. Therefore, unless he has transport, he cannot take his family to enjoy them. However difficult the problem, a decision must be taken, and it cannot now be long delayed. To put it rather crudely, the Government have dithered long enough about this.
I agree with the hon. Member for Bradford, East that the majority of the conclusions of the Jack Report are unworkable. I am convinced that the expense of a county council subsidy would be far greater than the Committee calculated. Secondly, it would be administratively very difficult, because, as we all know, many of these routes run across county boundaries. Thirdly, if we are to have a system of this sort well administered, we should get as far away from local politics as possible. This is a matter of a public service. There should be no party political interest in it at all, and no regional interests should be concerned. It should be done by an administrator, especially if there is any question of grants, subsidies, or remission of tax, where there could be abuses which would have to be guarded against.
Whichever system is chosen to help bring transport to these isolated areas, it should be as simple as possible, and as economic as possible. We must avoid anything which would bring top-heavy administration, and with it the increased danger of abuse. I agreed with some of 69 the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Bradford, East, but a remittance of fuel oil tax on the scale suggested by him is quite out of the question, partly for the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson), and partly because of its huge expense. I suggest that the real solution is a simple adaption of the suggestion made by Mr. James, in his minority Report, where he came down on the side of selective remittances of fuel oil tax. This is simple, and could be done without setting up a great deal of machinery and a great many safeguards.
§ Mr. Mathew
I am not saying that it would solve every aspect of it, in all areas, but I am certain that in the very worst cases, where people are extremely isolated, it would make a great contribution, and that we would see a large number of services arising in those areas as a result of this incentive.
What I am suggesting is that anyone who is willing to operate a regular service between an isolated place—having the right to pick up in the area—to the local town centre or to a point where regular services are available, should be granted by the traffic commissioners in the area an allocation of duty-free fuel. I have in mind not necessarily existing operators. They might be big or small operators, people with large buses or mini-buses, even a village taxi-man or a private individual with a large car who is willing to undertake this service.
I have also in mind in certain villages of the type which are so isolated in the West Country a volunteer service, perhaps twice a week, run by an enterprising and public-spirited vicar or a retired person willing to do this for his community. If I am asked whether this will make the service economic, I suggest that a grant for maintenance of the vehicle in certain cases could be made by the licensing authority.
I am convinced that the traffic commissioners are the right people to administer such a service and that it should not be put in the hands of county councils. Already, in dealing with passenger service vehicles, the traffic commissioners have to decide the question of need. I would also point out 70 that the Jack Report refers to the difficulties about defining a rural area. I am certain that every traffic commissioner in the country has a very good idea of every part of his area which is starved of transport, because he will have had request after request about it and will have been in constant communication with local bus companies, asking them to run yet another unremunerative service to meet the need of isolated people. He would have to decide the size and allocation of the grant.
On the other side—because where one has two types of petrol, one with a duty remission, there is always a danger of abuse, as we know from our experience of petrol rationing—there are the regional transport office inspectors who can ensure that the services are run regularly and that there is no abuse. So there would be no heavy administration and no very great addition to the expense.
Lastly, I would urge upon my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that what hon. Members on both sides of the House are asking for is action. A decision must be taken. The problem is getting worse and worse. Whatever system is devised, let it be simple and speedy.
§ 5.34 p.m.
§ Mr. T. W. Jones (Merioneth)
I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) upon his luck in the Ballot and upon choosing this subject for discussion. Like me, he represents a preponderantly rural constituency, and, like me, he must feel very perturbed about the prevalent situation in his constituency, which is a purely rural one, just as mine is.
We had a debate on this subject in relation to the Principality at a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee exactly twelve months ago. But the situation has worsened in the meantime. It is because of that that I feel that one or two of the things I said then will bear repetition, and, indeed, should be re-emphasised in this larger Assembly.
I believe that transport services in rural areas should be regarded as a social service—that is my philosophy—and should be placed in the same category as the postal services and every 71 other service provided by the State. For this purpose, the profit motive should be relegated to a secondary position. In this respect, I do not agree with half the things that one hon. Member said about the bus undertakings.
The House cannot afford to ignore the persistent depopulation of our rural areas. We cannot afford to let our economy become top-heavy or lopsided. To build up flourishing urban areas at the expense of depleting and strangling the rural areas is a sure way to eventual economic disaster.
One reason for the persistent drift from the countryside is obvious. Young people are not content to be deprived of the amenities which make life so much fuller in the urban areas. They maintain—no one can blame them—that what is good enough for the urban dweller should be regarded as good enough also for the rural dweller.
The other day I was in a farm house where the occupants had seen their first television programme only three months previously. They were now able to enjoy that amenity because they had been connected to the electricity grid. When I asked them whether they realised that it did not pay the electricity board to provide that service, they readily recognised that. I am sure hon. Members will not be surprised to know that I made a party point by telling them that they would never had had electricity if the industry had not been nationalised by the Labour Government.
§ Mr. Jones
Yes, the railways have been nationalised, but they are being run by the same people as ran them previously, which I have from time to time criticised in the House.
Here we have an instance of a nationalised industry where profit is not the deciding factor in relation to the needs of the rural areas. I am not so naive as to believe that the nationalised electricity undertaking is running at a loss. Overall it makes a substantial profit annually. What I wish to emphasise is that it is the service motive and not the profit motive which decides its policy. My contention is that the same policy should actuate the Transport Commission and the Ministry of Transport in 72 respect of rural transport facilities. I am prepared to agree that an overwhelming case can be made here and there for closing certain railway branch lines, but even then, surely other means of transport should be provided for the inhabitants of the villages and hamlets who have been deprived of these services.
Until recently in my constituency Bala and Blaenau Ffestiniog were connected by rail, a distance of about 22 miles. That service has been discontinued and it may surprise hon. Members to learn that it now takes 10 hours to travel from Bala to Blaenau Ffestiniog and back again. As I say, this is a distance of only 22 miles and once I could walk it in less time.
The closure of this branch line followed the recommendation of the transport users' consultative committee which was satisfied—according to the Report—that a better alternative than the railway would be provided by road access to Blaenau Ffestiniog. It was for that reason that the committee came to its decision; that a better road and a good bus service would join the two places. The Bala Urban Council wrote to Crosville Motor Services Limited asking for a bus, but got a blank refusal in reply. I am glad to have this on record because when this road is completed the Minister of Transport will be approached by the respective councils—of Bala and Blaenau Ffestiniog—to have this bus service instituted.
Crosville Motor Services has a monopoly on passenger traffic in North Wales and a monopoly of this kind presupposes a responsibility towards the travelling public on the part of that company in the remote villages as much as those living in the urban areas. It appears that the company has been bitten by the same bug as the Transport Commission, for it uses the same inevitable terminology—"it does not pay". One can anticipate a reply along these lines whenever one writes on this subject. Twelve months ago I received a letter from the clerk of the Penllyn Rural District Council. Penllyn is in Merioneth and is the rural area of Bala, to which I referred. The clerk wrote to me, and this is very illuminating:The bus operators appear to be too ready to discontinue services with the same excuse 73 'that it does not pay'. One service has been discontinued which, for the life of me, I am unable to understand. As you are aware, a fair is held at Bala on the second Thursday of the month and a sale on the fourth Thursday. There is no actual difference between the two, only in name.This is only a matter of terminology, and I have seen the suffering that can result from terminological inexactitudes.
The letter continues:The same people travel to Bala for both events"—for the fair and the sale, which are virtually the same—and Crosville run a bus service into the outlying areas on these days in particular, on the fair day they run a service to Llidiardau, but for some obscure reason they have withdrawn the service, yet it is the same people who patronise the service on both days.It does not make sense. But one comes up against this problem throughout the county and whenever representations are made all we are told is that "it does not pay".
Transport facilities in rural areas of this kind should be regarded as a social service. I should like to quote from a letter I received from the secretary of the county branch of the National Farmers' Union, which contains an interesting suggestion. It states:…there are still many small hamlets without a bus service and this county branch considers that it would be useful to merge the postal service with a public passenger service by means of a suitably adapted mini-bus.That is a very novel suggestion and one which could be put into practice. I hope that as a result of this short debate we shall receive some encouragement from the Minister.
§ 5.46 p.m.
§ Sir Gerald Wills (Bridgwater)
I, too, would like to congratulate the hon. Gentleman the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) on his success in the Ballot and on raising this subject.
No hon. Member from a wide-ranging rural constituency—and mine covers half of Exmoor, which is certainly wide-ranging and rural—can fail to be concerned at the reduction in public transport facilities which has taken place in past years. They are getting less and less and the convenience of the public suffers. Contrary to what many people in the towns seem to believe, many people living in villages and rural areas 74 do not have motor cars and a great number of them, for some reason or other, do not want to ride scooters, bicycles or motor cycles. Nevertheless, like so many other people, they want to get to the local towns to do their shopping, meet their friends, visit the market and perhaps go to the cinema. They are finding it increasingly difficult to do this.
Many of them—certainly those in my constituency, although the situation has improved—do not possess television sets, because there is no electricity and they are thus spared the treat of seeing the faces of some hon. Members. Nevertheless, they can hear their voices on their radio sets. In many cases public transport—or what little there is of it—gets to the towns too late and leaves too early to give people an adequate time in which to do all the things they want to do.
Education has already been referred to and since I wish to be brief I shall not deal with that matter. There is no doubt that the situation is getting worse and that unless something is done and policy decisions are made soon it will get worse still. I am, therefore, asking my hon. Friend to tell us that something will be done, that policy decisions will be taken, and as quickly as possible. As railway branch lines are closed more communities will be even more isolated than they are at present.
We must remember, too, that the types of buses used on the normal country routes are not really the right type to cater for the traffic as branch lines are closed. I often wonder how trunks and suitcases and the other impediments of the traveller can be adequately dealt with by the buses at present used on these routes. The type of buses used at airports would be more suitable for this task. These vehicles enable luggage to be loaded and taken out easily. I appreciate that other things are also needed, but this type of bus would certainly be of help, say, to the mother with six children who must board and alight with them and all her bits and pieces which she would normally take on a rail journey. The present type of omnibus is not manned or made to cater sufficiently well for such travellers by road who have been used to travelling by branch lines. As branch lines are closed, this different type of bus should be made 75 available so that in country districts it can link with the main line station.
It is very difficult for a townsman to realise what life in the remote countryside is like. This Motion seems aimed to bringing to our minds the fact that there is a considerable difference between living in the town and in the country. The townsman sees the countryside during the summer holidays when it is looking beautiful. He does not know what it is like when there is snow and rain and mud up to one's knees. We owe some consideration to the people who live and work in the countryside and produce the food which those in the towns eat.
We want to keep those workers in the countryside. We want to keep them happy and to give them as many of the amenities of town life as we can, within reason, bring there. One too often hears of young people leaving the countryside because of the lack of amenity. Many young wives prefer life in the towns. Contrary to what has been said, farmers are concerned about the lack of young people in the country districts. They are worried about the future and about whether they will get young men to work on their farms as they have done in the past. We shall not be able to preserve the life of the rural areas unless we do our best to bring some of the normal amenities of life to them.
We have a duty, more especially as these branch lines close, to do what we can to bring the right sort of transport to them. Whether we can do that by means of subsidy or grant, or a combination of the two, I do not know. Whether we use the recommendations of the Jack Committee's Report, or use some of them, something should be done about this matter as soon as possible.
There is a strong case to deal with this special problem in an exceptional way if we are to retain people in the countryside, keep it viable and alive, as we want it to be, so that we can continue to enjoy the fruits of the labour of those who live and work in it.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Tudor Watkins (Brecon and Radnor)
If the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Sir G. Wills) came to my constituency and spoke in a Nonconformist 76 chapel as he has spoken this afternoon, he would have another "call" because of the charming way in which he has put forward the requirements of people in the countryside. The only point on which I disagree with him is that I do not call these things amenities, but necessities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman), who moved the Motion, himself referred to amenities but I prefer to call them necessities. Rural transport is a necessity. In my constituency, which is a very large one, this is a big problem, especially in Brecon. What is to replace the closed branch lines, four of them, in Brecon?
Already sixteen branch lines have been closed in Wales since 1955. Some of my hon. Friends and I have put on the Order Paper a Motion about the closure of lines in Monmouthshire, which, for this purpose, includes the Brynmawr to Newport, Monmouth line.
Paragraph 6 of the last Annual Report of the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Wales and Monmouthshire says:We can only hope that the Jack Committee's findings will include some recommendation which will help the Consultative Committees to solve the problem presented to them by the need for finding reasonable alternative for displaced railways passengers.I put the query to the Minister. What is to replace the closing of lines in my constituency? We have had experience in Radnorshire where lines have been closed and the Transport Commission has said that we have alternative transport, but in twelve months that transport has been closed down. When we got into touch with the Commission, to our astonishment we were told, "That is not our problem now. Go to the transport users' consultative committee. Take your case there." These places are left high and dry without any transport service. Mid-Wales Motorways, Ltd. presented evidence to the Jack Committee saying that since 1954 thirteen market services have been withdrawn. Its fleet strength was down from 60 to 45 since 1950 and its staff had been reduced from 76 to 52. It stated:There are areas which his company serves within which the continuation of existing services must depend very largely upon the outcome of the present Inquiry.77 I join with the hon. Member for Bridgwater in thinking that the Government ought to make up their minds about what to do in this situation. The Chairman of the Western Welsh Omnibus Co., Ltd., at the annual meeting in July this year, said that 60 per cent. of its routes, or 35 per cent. of its total mileage, failed to earn the average cost figure, mainly on rural services.
In the White Paper on Government Action in Wales and Monmouthshire, 1960, there is a paragraph about rural transport services, which says that 774 services were granted a dispensation from the need to carry conductors. One does not like that kind of thing, but it shows the seriousness of the situation.
As several hon. Members said, the question of rural transport makes its contribution to the depopulation of the countryside. In the last census, in 1961, it was shown that the rural districts of Wales had this great problem to face. In Caernarvonshire there was a 7.9 per cent. decrease over 1951, in Cardiganshire it was 2.9 per cent., in Denbighshire 2.3 per cent., in Flint 1.8 per cent., in Merionethshire 9.2 per cent. in Montgomeryshire 7.5 per cent., and in Radnorshire 10.8 per cent. Some of the rural districts in those areas had such large percentages as 11.8 per cent. in Tregaron, and 14.6 per cent. in Knighton in Radnorshire.
I was surprised to read the speech of Lord Brecon when he addressed the Conservative Association in Llandrindod Wells last Tuesday. Incidentally, at that time I was with the chairman of the Welsh B.B.C. on behalf on my constituents inaugurating a television service. Lord Brecon said to his audience:Not one of you has come by train.I do not suppose that he would be asked to do so, but if he had addressed my constituency party he would find that some of the members could not come to a meeting by car because they have no cars. Farm workers have no chance of getting to central places because there is no transport for them. Lord Brecon could have said that he agreed with this or that recommendation of the Jack Committee's Report, but he said that he wasnot sure how this problem could be solved.The Minister will not say tonight that he can solve it, but the House is entitled 78 to know what is being done by the Government to meet the recommendations of the Jack Committee.
On the problem of depopulation in mid-Wales, the Jack Committee sent a sub committee to examine this transport question. There is a transport panel of the Council for Wales and Monmouth of which the chairman is my constituent, Alderman E. Kinsey Morgan. That panel has presented a Report to the Council for Wales. In replying to the debate, will the Minister say whether the Government will publish the Report as a White Paper on the problem of rural transport in the whole of Wales? In the Jack Committee's Report and the Report of this Council, there is surely sufficient evidence available for something to be done.
I asked for something to be done immediately, because I understand from the Radnorshire Association of Parish Councils that there are more than fifty communities in Radnorshire without a service, or without a service operating every day of the week. There are places like Bleddfa with no bus or railway service. There forestry and other workers and small farmers have no method of transport. The Mid-Wales Industrial Development Association is continually trying to encourage industrialists from the Midlands to come to Mid-Wales and other parts of Wales. In its Report it said:Any closure of Mid-Wales lines or reduction of services serves to make even more difficult the task of attracting industry to the area.It is similar in other counties where contractors and employers have to use their own transport to bring workers on to a job because of lack of public transport facilities. There are two famous forestry estates, Tirabad and Llwynygog, where there are no transport facilities whatever. There is a cluster of forestry holdings in the centre of a great rural area with no transport facilities, or with very inadequate facilities.
Not one hon. Member in this debate has said that the Government have been good about this matter. Therefore, I do not envy the Parliamentary Secretary who has to reply to the debate. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. McLeavy) about the question of fuel tax remissions. I hope that there will be remission, 79 because I do not like taxes of any kind, but I do not agree with the idea of applying it to those who make big profits. However, fuel oil is not used in all buses. They use petrol. Three-fifths of the buses in Mid-Wales use petrol. I favour a direct financial aid to operators on specific routes.
Why cannot these special operators be given a direct subsidy in the same way as civil aviation operators get a direct subsidy when operating in the Scottish islands? What is the difference? I am sure that my constituents, even the Conservative ones, would not object to a subsidy being granted to bus operators in the same way as subsidy is paid to farmers. Hon. Members may ask how it could be applied. I would apply it to the traffic commissioners and pay it per cost mile on rural routes. I should not differentiate if a bus route started in a rural district and went to an urban town.
I think that the problem is summed up in a letter which I received only last week. I did not then know that this debate was to take place. A nurse wrote to me from the General Hospital, Hereford saying:May I on behalf of several members of the nursing staff employed at the above hospital, point out that this particular line"—the Brecon to Hereford line—is our only means of transportation to and from homes in various parts of Breconshire and Radnorshire. I myself live in the village of Llyswen and as you are probably aware there is not a bus service in existence except on the Hereford Market day. If indeed the authorities decide to close the line we shall in all probability have to seek employment elsewhere.That would be a tragedy. There is a great shortage of nurses at present, and it would be a tragedy if they had to give up employment in Hereford Hospital because of the closure of a railway line and had to seek employment in other urban areas, adding to rural depopulation.
I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us some encouragement, and, if he cannot obtain sufficient information from the Jack Committee's Report, will look at the matter again after information has been provided from Wales and Scotland, too. The debate merits a reasoned reply from the Government Front Bench which I hope 80 will be satisfactory not only to myself and to others on the Celtic fringe of Cornwall and Wales who have been seeking to speak in the debate but also to all hon. Members who are interested in rural transport problems.
§ 6.6 p.m.
§ Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins) spoke with feeling and eloquence about rural transport problems. Both sides of the House are united in hoping that the Government will find at least a partial solution to the problem. I suppose that we are agreed that a complete solution is probably very difficult to find.
This is an acute problem, although it is not new. Various hon. Members have drawn attention to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) has done a lot about it. But it goes back a very long way. A former Member of the House many years ago investigated the kind of problem which we are discussing tonight. It was no less a problem 140 years ago, and his method of transport in those days was horseback. I refer to Cobbett's Rural Rides He had a lot of interesting things to say about the countryside and his remarks were somewhat more robust than some which we have heard today.
Nevertheless, these problems are very acute and the Jack Committee has set them out quite well, showing the kind of difficulties with which country people are faced. One interesting feature of the Report was the fact that the growth of private transport is greater in country districts than in the towns, despite the fact that, relatively, country people are much worse off than those in the towns. As the Committee points out, they are forced to buy private transport simply because public transport is not adequate for their needs. This does not mean that they can afford it. The first point which I want to make is that the petrol tax bears particularly hardly on them. They can ill afford private transport in any event, and the petrol tax was roughly doubled between 1950 and 1952. I hope that the Chancellor will bear in mind that to quite a large extent the petrol tax is a penal tax, particularly on country people.
The difficulty is accentuated at the moment. We have debated the Second 81 Reading of the Transport Bill, and from that debate we gathered that more branch lines are liable to be closed. Indeed, the main communication between my part of the country, Dorset, and the Midlands is threatened with closure at this very moment. We are also told that new roads will be denied us in the country districts, for fairly understandable reasons, because those roads need to be between towns, and the present stress is laid on urban motorways.
At this very moment, the bus services, far from increasing, are decreasing. The Jack Report gave a figure of 1,700,000 passenger-miles decrease a year, which is quite a large figure in the country districts, and the costs of operating country buses are rising all the time. How can this challenge be met? Here it is difficult to achieve unanimity. Indeed, there has been some division in the House tonight about what is the best way. The first solution listed by the Jack Report deals with the licensing system, and the first question which we should ask ourselves is haw far the 1930 licensing system—for that is what it is; it is not an old system—is still justified.
On Second Reading of the Transport Bill the other day we were discussing ways of freeing the railways from their old obligations, freeing them from restrictions on fares—they will be able to put up fares in London without the paraphernalia of going first to the Commissioners—and from their old common carrier obligations. How far is the licensing system necessary today when it is difficult to get operators at all rather than being a question of sorting out competing operators? I am not sure. I suppose that the traffic commissioners have done a good job and that there is a case for continuing them.
I want to turn to what seemed to me the more promising solutions. The majority recommendation of the Jack Committee was that there should be direct financial aid, but I am not much enamoured of this. One reason is that rural county councils such as my own can ill afford the contribution of a half or a quarter of the subsidy. Moreover, we want to keep politics out of this. Another reason which occurs to me is that once we start a subsidy, all the operators will apply for it, and it may not achieve all that is desired.
82 I support the view of the first minority Report in which Mr. James came down in favour of a selective remission of the fuel tax, not by having petrol drawn from a different source but by making a remission according to the number of rural stage-miles that any operator covers, remitting the tax by taking into account the type of vehicle which is used to ensure that they do not get too much.
I wonder whether we could not go further than that and have a method of granting a remission of fuel tax to operators provided that a certain percentage of their journeys are carried out in rural areas and outside urban areas. I understand that the commissioners can determine that quite easily. If operators fulfilled that condition they would have a remission of tax, which could be more than the total amount remitted in the other circumstances. The remission would be weighted to encourage the operators, some of whom are quite large companies and groups, to continue their rural services in order to earn this remission, and that would, therefore, be better than a flat remission on the mileage which they covered in rural areas.
I admit that the problem is not easy and that any steps taken can only be a mitigation. The petrol tax imposed on the private car is one of the problems. Nevertheless, I hope that a method will be found of keeping the buses going as long as possible. The trend undoubtedly will be for them gradually to operate less, as has been the case in America and other countries. But that is not an argument for not keeping the routes open as long as we can by any reasonable method. I hope that this problem will not drag on much longer, for it is about a year since we had the Report. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us something definite this evening.
§ 6.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)
I am extremely sorry that so many hon. Members on both sides of the House who wish to take part in the debate are unable to do so owing to lack of time. This is in part due to the fact that there was a long statement after Questions today. It is high time that the rules of the House were changed so that if time is taken at the beginning of the debate, it is added at the end of the debate. 83 [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I hope that the authorities will take note of that suggestion, which apparently has the support of all sides of the House.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman), who introduced the Motion, both on his good fortune in the Ballot and on the most helpful speech which he made introducing the debate. My hon. Friend and I have a good deal in common. We both belong to what he called the Celtic fringe, and we both represent constituencies of great beauty and character. Unfortunately they are constituencies with considerable problems, such as unemployment, depopulation, lack of amenities and the relative poverty of the local authorities.
By and large, in the context of the debate, the country can be divided into two parts. To the east and south there is relative prosperity, security of employment and adequate amenities. In the west and north there are lower standards. It is true that there is the tourist trade in the summer, and we are very glad of it and grateful to those who work in it, but we do not wish our constituencies to become merely the summer playground of more prosperous areas.
§ Mr. Denys Bullard (King's Lynn)
The hon. Member said that the east is more prosperous than the west. That may on the whole be true, but I hope that he will make allowance for the fact that there is a very considerable rural transport problem in the east, especially near the coast, but that speakers in today's debate have been almost confined to Wales, and the west and the southwest of England. Will he make full allowance for that?
§ Mr. Hughes
With the greatest pleasure. I was drawing a rough line, and in the east I will include the hon. Member's constituency within the area of which I speak. But, in general, the division which I have mentioned is right.
We are dealing today with one aspect of a larger problem of the amenities—that of rural communications; and we could not be dealing with it at a more opportune time, which is why we should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member 84 for Falmouth and Camborne for giving us the opportunity of this debate today. The Railways Board, under the provisions of the Transport Bill and in pursuance of the Government's policy, will no doubt close many more railway branch lines.
In my view the writing is on the wall. We have the warning of the County of Monmouth, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins). If the Minister tells the Railways Board that it must break even in five years, as I understand is the case, it will have no alternative but to curtail branch line services extensively.
I do not think that anyone would defend the proposition that all branch lines should be kept open even though their receipts are negligible, but surely there are branch lines—I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary agrees—which are well supported and which provide a vital public service, although they do not show a profit, and which are fulfilling an important function. This, of course, is the point of controversy. Each case should be considered on its merits, and the whole economic and social background should be taken into account. Now that the recommendations of the transport users' consultative committees will go straight to the Minister of Transport instead of going to the central Committee, the House will want to know on what criteria the Minister will be considering these cases.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones) pointed out so graphically, if we begin to think in terms of granting amenities to rural authorities solely on the basis of profit and loss, the rural areas will never get the amenities they desire and deserve. It may also be a short-sighted policy. Last year the Government introduced the Local Employment Act, which offers incentives to industries if they enter areas of high unemployment. But the closure of some branch lines may be a disincentive to industry. I am thinking of areas in Cornwall, Mid-Wales and Scotland, where industry is most needed. I know from experience that one question asked by industrialists making inquiries about these areas is, "What rail facilities have you in the area?" If we curtail the services in this way in 85 areas scheduled under the Local Employment Act we make them less attractive to the industrialists whom the Government say they wish to attract to those areas. The Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend should bear that point in mind.
I now turn to the question of road transport. Here we are fortunate in having before us the Report of the Committee presided over by Professor D. T. Jack. I thank him and his colleagues for the excellent work that they have done, and for the Report they have produced. Criticisms of that Report have been expressed today, but it has made it possible for us to consider the entire subject far more intelligently and comprehensively than would otherwise have been the case. To that extent, whatever we may think about the recommendations, we should be grateful to the Committee.
I also hope that we shall not be finishing with the Report today. For some time I have felt that we should have a full debate on the Report in Government time. When business questions have been asked hon. Members on both sides of the House have requested that time should be given to debate the Report, and I hope that there will be further opportunities for us to raise the matters with which the Report deals.
§ Mr. Hughes
That is a matter for the hon. Member's right hon. Friend. I shall be coming to that point in a moment, if the hon. Member will contain himself.
I say again that I hope that we shall not finish with the Report today, because many hon. Members will wish to make their views known. I shall not go into the Report in detail because of lack of time, but I want to mention some of its salient points. First, the Report makes it quite clear that considerable hardship is caused in country areas because of inadequate transport facilities. Paragraph 78 says:In order to give some idea of the order of hardship involved, we have heard of housewives living in villages with no bus service within two to three miles and able to reach the local shopping centre only by hiring a taxi at considerable expense; of a woman with small children who had to push her pram some 86 two miles along steep and narrow roads to the nearest bus; of young girls who, on leaving school, were unable to obtain employment because of the absence of a daily service to the nearest town but were too young to move into lodgings which their starting wages in any case would not cover; and of elderly people able to leave their village only on rare occasions when they can afford to share a taxi. These are the cases where 'hardship' seems a more appropriate description than inconvenience'.The Report contains other examples of hardship and inconvenience.
If nothing is done, and if the pattern of 1957–60 is repeated during the next few years, this hardship will obviously increase. During the period from 1957–60 the annual mileage of rural bus services was reduced by 18 million miles a year. If this rate continues there will be a further reduction of over 90 million miles by the end of 1965. Side by side with this we will have many closures of branch lines.
§ Mr. Hughes
My hon. Friend is raising another problem, but I am certain that what he says is true.
We must consider two arguments which may be advanced by the Parliamentary Secretary at this point. The first is that when a branch line is closed a condition may be made that there is a new or improved bus service to fill the gap. The second is that during the next few years there will be a great increase in private vehicles to compensate for any curtailment of public services. There is substance in both points, but we must remember that these substitute bus services are in many cases withdrawn after an initial period. People then have neither a train nor a bus service.
There is also merit in the argument that many more privately registered cars will be on the roads. Appendix C of the Report shows this very clearly. This will, however, have the effect of reducing the receipts of bus operators. If we have more cars on the roads there will be fewer passengers in the buses, and the bus operators will receive less money. They may then curtail the services still further, with the result that the residual proportion of the population still without private cars will have to face greater hardship than before. This is a vicious spiral.
87 After considering all the possible solutions, the Jack Committee came down firmly in favour of direct financial aid to be administered by the county councils. There has been much reference to that point in the debate. Arguments have been adduced both for and against the recommendations. I should like to have a good deal more information about the working of such a scheme before I came down finally in its favour. I should like to know what share of the financial burden will be borne by the county councils. The councils involved are those in the less wealthy areas, and the burden they would be called upon to bear could be beyond their means. There is also the question whether such a scheme could be effectively operated under the present administrative set-up of the bus industry. It is, none the less, worthy of careful consideration by the Government.
Then there is the question of the fuel tax, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield Digby). This tax should be reviewed. Its remission in full or in part would certainly not provide a full-time solution to the problem. This is made abundantly clear in the Report. Nevertheless, selective remission would provide a breathing space. It could be introduced fairly easily, and it would fill the gap for a few years while more permanent solutions were contemplated.
Finally, it should be made clear that the Government are responsible for the mess in which rural transport now finds itself. Criticism of the Government has come not merely from my hon. Friends but from hon. Members in all parts of the House. We must conclude that there is no national plan and no national policy. There can be no final solution until we have a properly integrated passenger transport system covering all travellers and all areas. That is the only true answer to the problem. Those of us who occasionally go back for interesting historical reading to "Britain Strong and Free" which was the Conservative Party Manifesto in 1951, read some revealing things.
Great pledges were made at that time and they won the election for the party opposite. On of them was that:Every practical step will be taken"—88 inter alia—to hasten the provision of better…transport in the rural areas.I do not want to make an unfair criticism, but the Parliamentary Secretary must recognise that things are infinitely more grave in the rural areas now than they were in 1951 when that promise was made.
What have the Government done in the intervening years? They have had ten years to improve transport and communications in the rural areas, but the situation now is far worse than it was then. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell the House whether now at last the Government have a policy. What is the policy? What observations has the hon. Gentleman to make on the recommendations of the Jack Committee? The House is entitled to know. We do not wish to wait another year or more before we receive information about the Government's policy. Let us know today.
Will there be remission, in whole or in part, of fuel tax, or will there be direct financial assistance? If the hon. Gentleman does not give us a satisfactory reply, we can only come to the conclusion that the Government wish to see the depopulation of the rural areas continuing. If it continues, some of the best areas in the country—Mid-Wales, Scotland, the north of England and Cornwall—will be denuded of their best men and women and the country will lose one of its sturdiest breeds. I ask the hon. Gentleman to treat this plea from the whole House with the greatest seriousness. If he gives a reply which is vague and devious, we shall raise the matter again, but I hope that he will respond with proposals which will satisfy the whole House.
§ Mr. A. V. Hilton (Norfolk, South-West)
On a point of order. May I ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on a matter which I regard as of great importance? Was it your intention that this debate should be confined to speakers from Wales and the West Country? I ask the question because I represent a rural constituency and so far every speaker, with one exception, has come from Wales or the West Country. How can I put the transport problems of Norfolk and of my constituents in particular to the House in these circumstances?
§ Mr. Speaker
I do not think that any point of order arises. I am very sorry that time has not made it possible to call more hon. Members who wished to speak.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)
Perhaps the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hilton) will be glad to know that there is an hon. Member from a rural constituency in some part of the United Kingdom other than Wales or the south-west of England who is now about to speak.
This has been a constructive and helpful debate. I would say, without wishing in any way to appear patronising, that the standard of discussion has been extremely high. I am most grateful to hon. Members for the care with which they have put forward the difficulties and the possibilities of their solution. I have listened to the whole debate and I hope that I will be forgiven if I do not reply to all the points made and if I do not comment on and reply to each of the individual local cases of closures of branch lines and withdrawals of bus services which, as I expected, have been deployed in the last two or three hours.
I want to come to the very heart of this important and difficult problem. I think that in many ways it is not nearly so simple as some hon. Members have suggested. I have noted running through almost all the speeches the theme that the rural areas are now becoming starved of transport. This is not so.
§ Mr. Hay
As my hon. Friend has just said, what has happened is that some parts of the country are becoming starved of public transport but, overall, the picture we have is of substantial transport facilities of all kinds still available in these rural areas.
The rural problem is an aspect of one of the two great problems that dominate transport not only in Britain but in every industrialised country. On the one hand, there is the big contest between road and rail and, on the other, the contest between public and private transport. The rural problem is a direct reflection of both of these, but particularly of the second because the rural 90 transport problem in Britain's countryside is basically due to the growth of private personal transport owned by the people who live there. There are other factors, some of which have been mentioned in the debate and some not.
Mention has been made of television in a somewhat different connection but, as the Jack Committee's Report makes perfectly clear, one of the major difficulties for bus operators in rural areas has been the growth of television. People no longer travel in the evenings to the towns for entertainment. They stay at home at their own firesides and watch television. This has been a potent factor in causing a decline in passenger journeys and occupied seats on the buses. There has also been an increase in mobile shops and delivery vans to housewives in rural areas, and there have been changes in the pattern of employment in the countryside. Many other factors come into the picture, but the big problem is the growth of private against public transport.
The hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes), who introduced a somewhat partisan note in his address, said that the whole situation was in a mess and it was largely due to the Government's lack of policy. He implied that what we had said in "Britain Strong and Free" in 1951 had not been carried out. Ten years had gone by, he said, and the transport situation in the rural areas had become worse.
What has happened? In Great Britain in 1950 there were 2¼ million motor cars. In 1960, after the ten years to which the hon. Member referred, there were 5½ million motor cars, an increase of about 3¼ million. The estimates of the Road Research Laboratory show that in 1965 there will be about 10 million and by 1970 about 13 million motor cars. I am quoting the figures for cars, motor cycles and mopeds which have been and are being used by people living in the rural areas. At the same time the number of buses and coaches in use has remained roughly static.
I can give the House another illustration. In August last year we carried out our annual traffic census and we found that for every 100 miles travelled by bus or coach in 1954 only 89 were travelled in 1960, whereas for cars the figure was 182 miles travelled compared with 100 in 1954. This growth of private vehicle 91 ownership has been particularly marked in the rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield Digby) made this point forcibly. It was noted by the Jack Committee in paragraph 18 of its Report when it said:There is also evidence that the ratio of private cars to the population is higher in rural areas than in urban areas…
§ Mr. C. Hughes
Would the hon. Gentleman accept also that the public transport facilities for people without cars have deteriorated in the last ten years?
§ Mr. Hay
That is what the debate is about and that is what I want to talk about. If the hon. Member will contain himself for a moment or two I will come to it.
As I was saying, there is evidence, as the Jack Committee pointed out, that the ratio of private cars to the population is higher in the rural than in the urban areas. In Great Britain as a whole, there is one car for every nine people. In Cornwall, there is one car for every seven people. In Anglesey, again there is one car for every seven people. In other parts of Wales—in Montgomeryshire, for example—the figure is even better, one car for every six people.
§ Mr. Hayman
Would not the Parliamentary Secretary agree that that is only what would be expected, and that in the great urban areas the number of cars would not be so high?
§ Mr. Hay
As I said earlier, there is a lot of transport but a diminishing amount of public transport. That is what the debate is about.
The decline in public transport services both bus and rail, has been substantial over the last few years, but we have to keep a sense of proportion about it. As we see the picture in the Ministry of Transport, the decline is there but it is not noticeably rapid. It is continuous. 92 It goes on all the time, but there is no speeding up of the process. There has been a dwindling away all the time.
Let me give an example. In the twelve months to 31st March last, in the Western traffic area six bus services were withdrawn but five of those services were, and still are, wholly or partly covered by services which continue to run. The other one, which served a route which is no longer covered, ran over 4½ miles in each direction one day a week and in the last six weeks that it ran, there were only two people per journey. The decline is there and the figures show a decline, but it is not quite as bad sometimes as it seems.
The question that we in this House and the country as a whole must face is basically a simple one. This is a decline which has been going on. Should we as a nation take special measures to prevent it going on? Obviously, that would involve some form of assistance, because we cannot physically prevent people who have bought their cars and motor cycles from using them and insist that they travel by bus or by train.
Should we, therefore, take measures to prevent it, or should we accept the situation? There is a school of thought which holds the view that this is part of a longterm economic and social trend which need not necessarily—I emphasise those words—be to the disadvantage of the country as a whole. Questions of this kind cannot be conclusively and finally answered without a good deal of searching thought and consideration.
There are many factors and points that have to be taken into account before coming to a decision. There is the question of rural depopulation—the demographic problem—to which a number of hon. Members, and particularly the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne and the hon. Member for Anglesey have referred. I detected a temptation on the part of a number of hon. Members who mentioned this to attribute the lack of adequate public transport as the cause and not the symptom of rural depopulation.
§ Mr. Hay
Yes, but there is a tendency for many people to imagine that what is causing rural depopulation is the 93 absence or lack of public transport facilities. All the evidence that we have—indeed, it emerges from a number of the documents such as the Jack Report—goes to show that that is not the case, and that the absence or the decline of public transport facilities in the rural areas is a symptom of the fact that the pattern of work in the countryside is changing, for all sorts of other reasons.
Then, there is the question of hardship. Is there intolerable hardship, or is there only inconvenience? The Jack Committee, in paragraph 9 of its Report, which summarised some of the other parts of it, came to the conclusion that hardship was undoubtedly involved to a small number of people, and that the degree of hardship might well be severe in individual cases, but that there was inconvenience to quite a lot of people. This view is borne out by conclusions reached by Mr. David St. John Thomas, who has written two admirable reports on rural transport, one generally and one on the Lake District, which, I expect, hon. Members have seen.
We must not forget that some cases of hardship, or, it may be, inconvenience, are always met in the countryside by a measure of neighbourly help. A lot of people who have a car are prepared to give a lift into the town on market day to their neighbours or friends, particularly if they know of an elderly person who has no means of transport of his own. There is a good deal of this sort of neighbourly assistance. I do not suggest that it is an answer to the problem, but it is a factor which has to be taken into account when weighing up the degree of hardship.
Then, there is the position of the bus industry itself. It is quite a big industry, employing, I understand, in the provincial areas at least, about 150,000 people whose jobs are to some extent involved in all this. It is a user of the products of an important part of the motor industry, products which have a good export sale.
Then, there is the position of the railways. As the House knows, there is a substantial operating deficit on the railways of £80 million a year. The Transport Commission is receiving direct Government financial assistance above the line, which this year will amount to about £130 million, to meet its deficit. 94 One is inclined to ask oneself how much of that deficit is due to uneconomic services which the Commission runs in the rural areas.
Dr. Beeching is having a number of traffic studies made. I hope that when these studies are completed and necessary data has been provided, we shall be able to come to a conclusion and to answer that question. I know that many hon. Members are concerned about the closing of railway lines in their constituencies and about what, if anything, will fill the gap which will be created. The hon. Member for Anglesey and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins) both asked about this.
On some lines, traffic has been so light that there is no gap to close. In the case of other lines, buses have been, and will continue to be, provided. This is the best way of trying to move people in the small numbers involved. The very fact that a railway service is withdrawn means that it was originally founded on the belief that there would be a comparatively large number of people to be moved regularly and that the number has dwindled away. The bus is much more flexible and much smaller to carry these smaller numbers of people. Therefore, in the rest of what I say, I hope that hon. Members will understand me if I concentrate on the bus rather than the rail aspect of the rural transport problem.
§ Mr. Hilton
Before the hon. Gentleman finishes on the question of closing the uneconomic sections of the railways, will he agree that to close them will throw additional traffic on to the road—more buses and more lorries to carry the goods formerly carried by trains?
My question is this. The roads, especially in Norfolk, are in a shocking state already. If the railways have to be closed in certain areas, will the Parliamentary Secretary make sure that additional money is made available to the county councils to bring the roads up to the necessary standard to carry the additional traffic?
§ Mr. Hay
I thought that the ingenuity of the hon. Member would sooner or later manage to get into the debate the point which he no doubt would have made if he made a speech. We always have regard to transport needs, whether 95 public or private, in deciding our road investment programme. We shall continue to do that in the years ahead.
I was dealing with some of the factors—not necessarily all of them—which have to be taken into account in dealing with these matters. I said that we must choose the course which we are to follow. Are we in this situation and against this background to give some measure of assistance to rural bus services in particular or, on the other hand, should we accept the change as being an inevitable one, long term?
On this point, however, I am quite clear. I do not think that we should or could embark on a large scale scheme of financial assistance to prop up services, whether they are bus or rail services, which are uneconomic or even downright loss-making on the sole ground that inconvenience or even hardship is being experienced by a limited number of people. After all, the plain fact is that the present difficulties are caused by a fall in demand in rural areas. I suggest that it would need very conclusive evidence indeed of severe and widespread hardship before we could justify State financial intervention on a large scale.
Because decisions on these questions are of great importance and are difficult, I must tell the House that the Government will need a little more time to reach them. I am sorry that I must disappoint hon. Members. I do not intend tonight to announce new policies or announce our decisions on the Jack Report. We have just received and published the Report of the Highland Transport Inquiry, which has not been referred to in the debate. I do not blame hon. Members for that, because it was issued only last Friday. This is a Report of an Inquiry set up by the Scottish Transport Council and the Advisory Panel on the Highlands and Islands. It is concerned with bus services in the Highlands and Islands. In that area there are many special aspects of this general national problem. What is interesting is that both the Jack Report and the Report of the Highland Transport Inquiry call for a subsidy for bus operators in respect of their rural services. They differ on the way in which such a subsidy should be administered. The Jack Report suggests that it should be done through county councils. 96 The Highland Transport Inquiry Report suggests that it would be better not to choose that course but to do it through an ad hoc authority.
In any event, whatever be the machinery by which one were to distribute the money, it would still be a subsidy. There are an increasing number of people in this country who today feel that we have too many subsidies already. Should we pay a subsidy for something which is uneconomic? Presumably we should pay one only if there is clear evidence of a grave and widespread social problem.
I regret that I must leave the question in the air, but that is exactly why the Government do not intend to be rushed into a decision on this matter. It is very easy to call for a subsidy. It is very easy for a Government to give a subsidy. It is very difficult indeed to take off a subsidy once it has been given. Temporary subsidies have an unfortunate habit in this country of becoming permanent ones. As our French friends say, Rien ne dure comme le provisoire. This is one of the things that we must have very much in mind.
I have concentrated on the financial side, particularly as regards buses, because the one thing on which everybody agrees when discussing the rural transport problem is that the problem is basically a financial one. There is a remarkable lack of unanimity on how the financial problem should be dealt with. Here I should like to say something about the remission of fuel tax to which the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. McLeavy) and other hon. Members referred. The Minority Reports of the Jack Committee held that this in some form or other was a solution to the problem. This is what the bus industry itself would like and its representatives have said so on a number of occasions in no uncertain terms. However, the Majority Report of the Jack Committee is of importance. After all, remission of fuel tax would cost, according to the Jack Report, about £12 million. I have reason to think that today the figure might be nearer £15½ million, but it is a large sum in any event.
The Majority Report of the Jack Committee rejected a remission of fuel tax on a number of grounds. The Report 97 said that it would be too sweeping and too imprecise. The Report said that it would create almost insoluble problems of defining what was a rural area, as opposed to an urban area. It pointed out that much more relief would in fact be given to the bus industry by remission of fuel tax than was justified by the facts. It pointed out, finally, that any solution of this kind could be only temporary and short term.
There is a further point which is not made by the Jack Report but which the Government certainly wish to make, namely that remission of fuel tax, in whatever form one chose to do it, would in effect be another form of subsidy. It would be a concealed subsidy, but it would be a subsidy nevertheless.
§ Mr. McLeavy
The Jack Committee's Report considered the remission of fuel oil tax only in respect of rural areas. My point was that there should be total remission of fuel oil tax for the whole passenger transport industry.
§ Mr. Hay
I understand that. A number of permutations and different alternatives have been put forward at different times, but all involve the surrender of revenue by the Exchequer. To that extent, since the tax is imposed over everyone who uses a motor vehicle, in effect a subsidy for somebody would be involved in this.
A large number of other remedies than financial ones have been proposed, but I am afraid that time does not allow me to go into them in any detail. There are such devices as higher fares, adjustments of the licensing system, and better use of the village carrier for passengers as well as for goods. It has been suggested that there should be a system of postal buses as they have on the Continent. It has been suggested that school buses should carry ordinary fare paying passengers where there are spare seats. It has been suggested that the minibus should be used much more widely than it is. Any of these methods can be used to meet a particular local situation, and many of them are used. However, according to the views of the Jack Committee—I think the Committee is right about this—even if we did all these things in combination we should still not find a complete solution to the problem.
98 All that I have been saying and all the considerations I have put to the House go to show that much more thought is still needed before we are able to come to a final decision. This thought should be directed to the basic question whether or not the decline in rural services, in a climate of the increasing use of private transport, should be artificially stayed by the financial intervention of the State. This is the question the Government are not yet ready to answer. I must make it clear that if the House passes the Motion, whichcalls upon Her Majesty's Government to take such steps as are necessary to secure adequate transport facilitiesin the countryside, the Government will not be prepared to hasten into precipitate decisions on this matter. We should not be doing our duty to the country as a whole if we did.
The Government welcome the debate. We welcome the thoughtful contributions that have been made. The debate will assist us greatly in coming to our decisions, and we shall make them as soon as we can.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)
In the few seconds remaining I feel that I must take the opportunity of saying that the reply of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has been most disappointing. We have heard the same reiterations of the problems. We have had the same cackle which we have had year after year, whilst the problems have become worse and worse. It is a great pity that during the past year, when the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary might have been looking into the problem of rural transport, they have spent so much time dealing with luxury travel across the Atlantic.
I must remind the Parliamentary Secretary that in our election addresses, time and again we have promised that rural transport would be given consideration. Indeed, it is encouraging to think that after all these years there are many other hon. Members who are alive to the seriousness of the problem. I must warn the Parliamentary Secretary—
§ It being Seven o'clock, the proceedings on the Motion lapsed pursuant to Order [1st November].