HC Deb 25 January 1961 vol 633 cc297-308

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

9.55 p.m.

Mr. James Watts (Manchester, Moss Side)

In the last Session of Parliament, I protested against the expense incurred by the British Transport Commission in giving a party to celebrate the electrification of thirty-eight miles of railway between Manchester and Crewe. Six hundred people were asked to luncheon and many more were transported at the expense of British Railways from London to Crewe and back and from Crewe to Manchester and return in a special train. The Transport Commission refused to tell me the cost on the ground that it was day-to-day administration. I said that this meant that the principle that grievance must precede Supply, the enforcement of which is one of the major reasons why Members of Parliament are sent here, had been changed to a new one, that Supply is to precede grievance.

Since then, two more parties have been held, one at the Abercorn Rooms, which the Lord Mayor of London attended and at which the Press reported that there were 270 guests to celebrate the electrification of part of the London-Chelmsford line. Inauguration of the Trans-Pennine Express took place in a special train which went on 29th December from Manchester to Leeds and back and consisted of six coaches and a buffet car. I am told that the train was only half full.

I have been denied details of the cost in a letter from the divisional transport manager dated 20th December, in which he said: As I emphasised in my letter of the 14th instant, the matter is in accord with normal commercial practice. Everything we do to increase our net receipts can only be to the advantage of the industry and to those who are dependent upon it. I do not think that it is in accord with normal commercial practice to send out a special train of six coaches and a buffet car to inaugurate a new service and to fill only part of it. In this case, British Railways operate a monopoly—British European Airways do not com- pete—and because of the congestion of the roads in these built-up areas, nobody would go on direct journeys to Leeds or Hull from Manchester or Liverpool except by express train.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport wrote to me about the Manchester-Crewe party that it boosted morale. I suppose he thinks that the same is true of all three parties. I am led to believe that these parties have done exactly the opposite, for they have been given at a time when a reverse attitude is taken to the claims of super-annuitants from the supervisory staffs and the needs of old members of the wages staff who are too old to come into the new pension scheme.

The supervisory staff superannuitants who retired before 1948 and were exempted from contributing to National Insurance get no National Insurance benefit at all. Those who come under Class III get only £158 a year in superannuation, which is £89 less than the £247 a year which married couples will receive in retirement pension from April next.

These people, who were managers in various parts of British Railways and who, like all retired persons, pay visits to the people who are still in work, naturally discuss the two attitudes. The first is that when the industry is £600 million in deficit and is losing £100 million a year, the Ministry of Transport supports the Transport Commission in giving to 1,000 people expensive parties in the last two or three months in the most public way. The second is that the Ministry turned down a scheme from the Commission in December, 1959, to help superannuitants. On 4th July, 1960, six months after the scheme had been put up, dtiring which time no decision had been reached—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Watts

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary said in the House that the Minister would prefer to have some indication of the amount of expenditure which the Commission was envisaging before he could take any decision upon it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th July, 1960; Vol. 626, c. 191.] But we do not know why there had been a delay of six months from December of 1959 until July of last year. Since then all plans have been in abeyance because of the investigation by the Stedeford Committee. Nor can I find in the White Paper on the Reorganisation of the Nationalised Transport Undertakings any reference to a possible betterment of the condition of the super-annuitants. I agree, of course, that categorically the expense of trips and the finances of insurance funds are, in the words of the Minister, "unconnected", but though this is financially true, I submit they are very much connected with reference to morale.

Mr. R. A. Blood, the chairman of the British Railways Superannuitants' Association, Manchester and District Branch, has written these words in a letter to me dated 21st January discussing the two attitudes. Here I wish to say that I think that if he had been in the House this afternoon and heard my hon. Friend say that the Transport Commission and the Ministry had a moral duty to look after these people and that legislation was not at all necessary because he really was taking the matter into consideration he might not have written me quite so bitterly but this is a new word of encouragement that we have had from the Front Bench at Question Time this afternoon, when the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said that the Ministry had a moral duty to look after these people, that legislation was not necessary, and that the matter was under consideration. If that is true the words that he wrote me might be modified, but what he wrote me was this: We had a meeting with the Minister of Transport on 16th December last and our deputation came away very despondent. I wish Mr. Ernest Marples was as earnest as his name would imply and I also wish I could refer him to the, National Assistance Board as he referred us. Mr. Blood sent me the minute of the meeting which confirms this quotation. It reads: 16th December. Meeting between British Railways superannuitants and the Minister of Transport in the House of Commons. The Minister recalled that he had been Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and knew from personal experience of people's reluctance to resort to State assistance. He felt however that he must stress the benefits to be gained from National Assistance by those persons who are really in difficulties. It was a remedy which was flexible and applicable where it was needed and administered fairly and humanely. If this is the answer to the British Transport Commission's proposals of December, 1959, for the benefit of retired supervisory staff it is a remarkable contradiction of the attitude of the Ministry to entertainment, but, of course, the same is true of the condition of the wages staff who are too old to come into the 1954 pension scheme and they will receive 9s. 9d. a week when they reach 65 after 40 years' service and retire, though they will in addition get National Assistance.

My submission, therefore, is that these entertainments should cease when the railways are in deficit, and that it will aid morale if they are discontinued till the needs of aged superannuitants and wages staff are released from the need to seek aid from the National Assistance Board.

10.5 p.m.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Edinburgh, Leith)

There is a great deal to be said for stressing the case for railway super-annuitants. I have been associated With two Motions on the Order Paper stressing the claims for railways superannuitants because they live in a plight which one would wish did not exist in this country.

[That this House, recognising that the resources of Railway Superannuation Funds have been insufficient to preserve the real purchasing power of the rates of benefit paid to members of such funds and totally inadequate to ensure that railway superannuitants received a share in the growing prosperity of the nation, as have National Insurance superannuitants, requests Her Majesty's Government to include in their plans for the reorganisation of British Railways measures to alleviate the economic plight of railway super-annuitants.]

[That this House, being of opinion that exceptional hardship has resulted to British Railways Superannuitants, many of whom are not in receipt of National Insurance benefits, in a period of declining money values, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to bring forward proposals for the alleviation of this hardship.]

I am bound to say to the hon. Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Watts) that it is a poor reward for forty years' service if one gets a pension of 9s. 9d. per week. But I also remind him that for thirty of those years the man must have been working for a private railway system. I agree that that is no excuse now that it has become a public concern and that one should not trade on the misdemeanours of those who ran the railways under private enterprise, but I wish that he could have said that the people who had the railways in the past had made adequate provision for these pensioners. If they had done so, then this extra burden would not have been placed on the industry when it was taken into public hands.

One of the reasons why the industry was taken into public hands was its past masters' failure not only to provide an adequate railway transport system, but also adequate and decent conditions for those whom they employed. If we start off with that understanding, then I can well understand the hon. Gentleman raising this case tonight. I agree with him that something ought to be done. I have been saying so for a long time. On the other hand, it is just a little mean to tack on to this special case—because there is a very substantial case for the superannuitants—an attempt to besmirch the Transport Commission for a little entertainment which it has carried out.

The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that today in every form of business this type of entertainment goes on, and, indeed, when we read of and hear and see the tremendous entertainment carried out by certain private business with a view to attracting new business and, I hope, providing better work and conditions for the people it employs and contrast it with the small effort by the Transport Commission, then to use that effort as a peg on which to hang the case for superannuitants does the case no good.

Only this afternoon, when we were discussing the affairs of the Post Office, the complaint from the benches opposite was the very opposite. Hon. Members opposite said that the Post Office was not using up-to-date commercial methods to attract new customers. Indeed, they suggested that the Post Office should go out to meet the public and to attract the public and even sell it telephones which. apparently, are non-existent. The argument was that the Post Office was not up-to-date in its methods.

The British Transport Commission, in the face of great difficulties, introduced new services. Those of us who were cursed for so many years with the old trains are delighted with the new diesel engines we have, and it was a very good thing to popularise them and to attract the public to them. The result has been, in my part of the country, that these services have attracted thousands of new customers. The Commission's efforts should not be maligned in this way.

It would have been much better if the hon. Gentleman had concentrated his case on the superannuitants and the pensioners, because there he has a substantial case. This is the second time he has raised the subject and the same point. The entertainment we are discussing tonight is the entertainment we discussed three months ago. I am told that the hon. Member for Moss Side is a little disappointed—

NIL George Lawson (Motherwell)

He did not get an invitation.

Mr. Hoy

He was invited, but he did not accept the invitation. Perhaps he did not appreciate that the entertainment was to be so good. At least, it was done with the good intention of creating new industry for the railways. I hope that it will create new industry and attract new passengers and that, as a result of it, there will be a substantial improvement in the position of the superannuitants and other pensioners.

I was heartened earlier today when the Parliamentary Secretary, in reply to the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward), said that this matter was being actively considered. That made two successive days on which statements have been made to prove that that is the case. Whichever party occupies the Treasury Front Bench, the House is often given the answer that a matter is under active consideration, but I think that on this occasion we have had proof that that is the case.

I hope that the superannuitants will get all they want, but it does not help the case which we are trying to make when attempts are made to use a small issue of this kind to make a contrast and to create ill-feeling which ought not and does not need to exist.

10.11 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

As previously, I put great emphasis on the need to apply the provisions of the Pensions (Increase) Act, 1959, to railway superannuitants. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Watts) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy), I drew some encouragement from the Answer of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side today. Having given us a lead, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will expect us to keep up the pressure. I am looking forward to the time when this battle is won.

In case the Parliamentary Secretary overlooked yesterday's debate, I contrast the attitude of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport with that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Yesterday, we were discussing pensioners of the Colonial Service who have not yet received benefits from the 1959 pensions legislation. The Secretary of State for the Colonies, after a somewhat heated debate, in sympathetic terms pointed out that those pensioners could no obtain the benefits of the 1959 legislation because they were the responsibility of other territories. The implication was that if they had been the responsibility of the home Government, he would have seen that their legitimate claims were met. If that is so, I can see no reason why the Minister of Transport should not accept responsibility for these pensioners who are entirely the responsibility of the home Government.

I do not dissociate myself from the railwaymen's claim for increased wages. Railwaymen have always had a raw deal and have always had to fight for what they have got. They were among the country's best servants during the war. When other big unions make their claims, Ministers hurry round to try to avert strikes.

Along came the old servants who served us during the war, who had nobody to speak for them but this House, and whose pensions have been eroded—for which we all have some responsibility —and all that happens is that we are told by the Minister of Transport, against the advice of the Chairman of the British Transport Commission—and I think that Sir Brian Robertson has played his part magnificently in this case—that nothing can be done. It is absolutely scandalous.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side said, the treatment of old servants is discussed by the people now working on the railways. We are repeatedly told that we cannot recruit responsible men to the railways. Of course not. They know how their grandfathers and fathers are being treated, and that affects their morale. It is a perfectly ridiculous situation, most unfair, most unjust, and I cannot see the slightest justification for it.

The Government have had to undertake the expenditure of £40 million because of the increase in railwaymen's wages. They hope now that they will get the best type of men into the railways, yet the people who during the war helped to run the railways, in the face of the enemy, are neglected because they have only a few voices to speak for them in the House of Commons.

It is simply disgraceful, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport will study the sympathetic way in which the case for colonial pensioners was received by the Secretary of State for the Colonies. If my right hon. Friend were as sympathetic and as co-operative as the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the case of the railways superannuitants would not wait very long before being settled.

I cannot believe that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has really had the case put to him. I wrote to the Chairman of the Stedeford Committee, or whatever it is, this great big business organisation headed by one of the great men who is supposed to know how to organise things, and as far as I know he did not make a single recommendation on this matter. That is how he thinks railway servants ought to be treated. If he did make a recommendation, I think that my hon. Friend ought to say so to clear his character. I have no use for any of them, and I can only hope that before long this claim will be met.

10.18 p.m.

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

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Watts) for having had the courtesy to give me advance notice of the points that he proposed to raise tonight.

As the hon. Member for Edinburgh Leith (Mr. Hoy) said, this is not the first time that my hon. Friend has raised an issue of this character. On 1st November we had a debate when he raised the question of entertainment provided by the British Transport Commission in respect of the opening of the Manchester-Crewe electrification scheme. I was obliged then, as I am afraid I am obliged tonight, to tell him that this was clearly a matter of the day-to-day administration of the British Transport Commission which Parliament had deliberately excluded from the ambit of Ministerial control.

As I think the House knows, under the 1947 Transport Act the Minister has only two major powers in relation to this sort of thing. The first is to give the Commission a general direction, on a matter which appears to him 'to be of national interest, to do something or to discontinue something it is doing. It is clear that this issue of entertainment could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be brought within that power.

The second power which my right hon. Friend has is to ask the Commission for information on a matter which he considers is of national or intrinsic importance. I must tell my hon. Friend again that the Minister of Transport does not take the view that the issue of entertainment expenses is a matter on which he is justified in calling on the Commission for information. I think that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith put his finger on the point when he said that the Commission, because it is a nationalised industry, is in no different position from that of private industry and commerce, which customarily engages in what I believe is called in the jargon promotional expenditure to try to raise business. In our view—and I am sure that hon. Members opposite share this view—because an industry is publicly owned, that does not automatically disqualify it from all the techniques and practices of publicising itself, its activities and services in the hope, often the justifiable hope, of increasing its business. At a time when the railways are and have been losing a considerable amount of money and the taxpayers have been obliged, in order to keep the service going, to provide substantial sums by way of direct subsidy, I think that anything that the Commission, in its various activities, can do to increase its revenue should be applauded rather than attacked.

That briefly is my position tonight. If the issue of the railway superannuitants had not been raised I should at this point have sat down. However, since my hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith, has raised the issue of the superannuitants, I ought to make one or two further observations. My hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side said that, until such time as the lot of the railway superannuitants has been improved by increases in their pensions by the Commission, all this promotional expenditure should stop. Even if that were accepted, I think that the House can be in little doubt that the amount of money which would be saved would be minimal compared with the amount which would have to be found to meet in full the demands of all the super-annuitants. It would really be a drop in the ocean. I therefore hope that, on reflection, my hon. Friend will feel that that is not a proposition which is tenable.

However, as I said at Question Time today, the position of the superannuitants is under discussion between my right hon. Friend's Department and the Transport Commission. I cannot add anything tonight to what I said this afternoon, at any rate on this point. However, I should like to say something about responsibility to my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth and to my hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side, who, I think, relying only on his memory, rather misrepresented, quite innocently, what I said this afternoon. I have obtained a copy of the report of what was said at Question Time this afternoon, and I find that what was said was this. The hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd), in a supplementary question asked: Does the Parliamentary Secretary agree that there is a very strong moral claim? Whatever the financial difficulties of implementing it, will he do his best to help the British Transport Commission to do something for these men? I replied: Yes. We have never been in any doubt as to the moral claim of many of these pensioners. It has been largely a question of finance. I shall stop there because the remainder of it is not strictly relevant to my point.

I wish to put that on record again, because it is not right to say that we in the Ministry of Transport accept responsibility for the superannuitants. We have a good deal of say in the matter. I do not deny that. We have some influence and we have some degree of responsibility, albeit a little remote, but the major responsibility rests fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Commission, because, as the hon. Member for Leith said, it is the successor to the old main line railway company, and the superannuation funds were taken over from those companies.

The superannuitants, to whom, like my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth, I pay tribute for the work which they did for the nation both during and for many years before the war, nevertheless are not in the category of public servants in exactly the same way as civil servants. So, therefore, their situation is a lithe different. Their superannuation payments come from the funds of the Commission and not from the funds of the Government. Of course, that makes it a little difficult for these matters to be treated quite as simply as some hon. Members would sometimes have us believe.

Dame Irene Ward

Is it not a fact that under the 1947 Act the Minister has powers of direction to the Commission if he cares to use them?

Mr. Hay

With respect to my hon. Friend, the position is somewhat more complicated than that. I have looked at this today and, as I understand it—I speak subject to correction because I have not the details before me—the position is that the Minister has not power to make a direction on this particular point. I think it is that his consent or approval is required in certain circumstances if the Commission wishes to increase the superannuation payments—

Dame Irene Ward

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, may I complete that by saying that the predecessor of the present Minister—that is my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Defence —when I was discussing the position with him and before my right hon. Friend took over as "boss", informed me that he had powers of direction but, in view of the financial position of the British Transport Commission at that time, he did not feel that it would be fair to exercise that.

Mr. Hay

I will look into the point, I cannot say fairer than that. I may be wrong—

Dame Irene Ward

You are.

Mr. Hay

My hon. Friend is seldom backward in telling Ministers when they are wrong, and she has not been backward again tonight.

I speak from memory, but I think that the position is as I have stated. I wish to put on record that the Minister cannot accept either a legal or a moral duty to increase the pensions of the super-annuitants because, as I said, their payment comes not out of public funds. In any event, as I said this afternoon, the whole problem of superannuitants is being discussed at present and I cannot anticipate any further statements which will be made. We have had this matter very much in mind in the course of the last twelve months during which we have been investigating the whole situation of the Commission and trying to formulate the proposals we have now presented to Parliament.

Mr. Hoy

The hon. Gentleman says they are discussing this at the present time. May we have it made perfectly clear? Does he mean that at present discussions are going on between the Ministry and the Commission?

Mr. Hay

The actual words I used this afternoon in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side were: the possibility of further supplementation is under discussion with the British Transport Commission at the moment.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.