HC Deb 28 March 1961 vol 637 cc1297-304

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

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)

I welcome this opportunity of drawing attention to the Report of Professor Jack's Committee on Rural Bus Services. This is by no means the first occasion on which I have drawn attention to the problems of rural transport, and during the past ten years I have consistently urged upon the Government that action should be taken to improve public transport facilities in the rural areas. I have raised the subject so frequently in recent years that I am in danger of becoming a real bore on the subject and hon. Members may well think that I have rural transport on the brain. Nevertheless, I make no apology for raising the subject once again, more particularly for raising it now that we have the Report of the Committee. The Government and the country have all the information which is required for dealing with this vitally important subject concerning the well-being of the countryside.

After a good deal of delay and unnecessary dilly-dallying eighteen months ago, the then Minister of Transport agreed to set up that Committee to look into the whole problem of rural buses and to make recommendations to ensure that an adequate public transport service was made available in the rural areas. That Committee has now made its Report, and all that the rural areas want is action on the part of the Government.

I readily admit that unfortunately the Report of the Committee is not unanimous in its recommendations as to the action which should be taken and the form of assistance which should be given to rural transport. The Committee, was, however, unanimous in saying that hardship was being caused in the rural areas by the breakdown of the public transport system. Indeed, the whole Committee agreed that special steps should be taken, and taken urgently, to deal with the problem.

Those who have studied the subject during the post-war period would, I think, agree that it was scarcely necessary for the Government to set up a Committee to look into the problem and to discover the damage and the hardship which the breakdown of the public transport facilities has imposed on the rural areas, both to the life of whole communities in the more isolated parts of Britain and to family life. The breakdown of transport, the disappearance of both trains and buses, is causing obvious hardship in the rural areas. It is accelerating the depopulation of the countryside and encouraging the drift from the land into the towns.

In short, life in the countryside for those without private means of transport is becoming impossible. It is a commentary on life in the second half of the twentieth century that it is far easier to go from London to Tokyo or to New York than to go from one end of my constituency to the other. The lack of action by the Government during the past ten years whilst the situation has steadily gone from bad to worse just does not make sense.

Obviously the Government want to see a flourishing countryside. They realise that that is in the national interest. I am sure that the Government appreciate that today 5 per cent. of our workers produce 60 per cent. of our food supplies and directly or indirectly, by one means or another, every one of the public utility services in the countryside is helped by some form of financial subsidy. Whether it be the Post Office, water supplies, agriculture itself, sewerage services, electricity or telephones, every one of them, by one means or another, is given financial assistance. They are all supported and subsidised, and transport alone of the public services is left to flounder and fade out.

This is sheer idiocy, for without some form of public transport obviously the drift from the land will continue at an ever-faster pace. It is bound to accelerate. More and more branch lines will have to be discontinued and the Government will find that they themselves will have to find more and more money to subsidise the other essential services.

One of the fascinating aspects of this problem is that the Government cannot escape in the end from financial responsibility for it. If the Government refuse financial help to the public transport services in the rural areas the result will be that the bus services, along with the railways, will disappear. Much of the population will go too, though some people will linger on and they will cost a great deal more money than they cost today in the provision of school transport, health and hospital services and other essential services.

In Northumberland alone it is reckoned that if all the unremunerative rural services are withdrawn it will cost the education committee thousands of pounds a year more to run additional school buses. The same goes for the health and hospital services. Therefore, in the long run the Government have no chance of escaping their financial responsibility. The sooner they are prepared to face this problem in realistic fashion the better for all concerned.

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. Tonight I do not propose to go into the whys and wherefores of the recommendations in the Jack Committee's Report. It is up to the Government and Ministers to decide for themselves the best methods of assistance. All I ask is that the Government should act, and act quickly.

I believe that the Government are in some danger of getting their priorities wrong. It seems that they are quite prepared to find millions of pounds to support the Cunard Company and to subsidise luxury trans-Atlantic travel. There is no difficulty in finding money to build trans-Atlantic liners but when it comes to finding the very limited sums which are essential to assist rural transport the door is slammed in the face of the rural community.

This really is not good enough. People in the rural areas have been very patient in this past decade while they have seen public transport facilities steadily deteriorating. But their patience has been tried long enough. It is not in the national interest for there to be a complete breakdown in rural transport. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend can tell us of some change of attitude on the part of the Government. I would like to hope that there will be some assurance that the report of the Jack Committee will be implemented in the near future. It is for that reason that I welcome the presence of my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary tonight.

11.50 p.m.

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

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) said in opening this brief debate on rural transport, he has for a long time shown a considerable interest in the subject. I remember hearing him on one or two occasions in the past when he was debating in particular the problems of those who live in rural areas but whose bus services are inadequate. The concern that he shows in this matter is shared by all those other hon. Members—and I count myself among them—who represent rural areas.

To night he has sought to deal briefly—because this is a short debate—with some problems with which we are faced, and nothing that I want to say tonight is intended to minimise the seriousness of those problems. Indeed, it was because the Government felt considerable concern about the difficulties of rural bus services, in particular, that we decided, in September, 1959, to set up this Committee under the chairmanship of Professor Jack. Everyone who has read the Committee's Report will agree that it conducted an exhaustive inquiry and gave the whole subject detailed consideration. It went into a great many factors, and I think it right that it took adequate time to carry out its Investigation. There has been a little criticism of the fact that it has taken a year and a half to carry through its inquiry and produce its Report, but I am sure that it was right to make a good job of it, because a speedy report might not have been so valuable to the Government and the country. I would like to reiterate the thanks expressed by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport last week—the thanks of the Minister and the Ministry to Professor Jack and his colleagues for their work in this connection.

It might be helpful if I briefly summarise the main findings of the Jack Committee and the main remedies it suggests. Dealing with the findings, it suggests that the problem is caused chiefly by the growth of private transport in recent years and the changing social habits of rural populations. As my hon. Friend has said, it also finds that these changes have caused hardship to some people—a comparatively small number, but hardship nonetheless. It also finds that they have caused inconvenience to a rather greater number, and the Committee concludes that these hardships and inconvenience are sufficient to justify special steps being taken to put things right.

The remedies the Committee recommends are major and minor. The major remedy is the proposal that direct financial assistance should be provided towards the running of rural bus services, partly from Exchequer sources and partly local funds, and that the money should be administered principally through county councils. The Committee rejected the proposal, which has often been ventilated, that the fuel tax on rural bus services should be completely remitted by the Exchequer. It finds as a fact that this would give far too much assistance to the larger operators, would be imprecise in its incidence, and would be a once-for-all operation. It is only fair to add that there was a minority report by three of the members of the Committee disagreeing with this conclusion and holding that remission of fuel tax was the proper major remedy for the Government to undertake.

There were four minor remedies which the Committee mentioned. The first is that proper use should be made of the school bus services. The second is that more use should be made of buses for carrying parcels. The third is that there should be greater co-ordination of bus and mail services. Fourthly, the Committee felt that there was some scope for fares increases on some of the marginal services.

The House will appreciate that these are weighty recommendations and that they need a great deal of consideration. The Report was published on 15th March and it has therefore been in the hands of the public for just under a fortnight. I think that it is far too soon for firm views to have crystallised on the Committee's findings and recommendations. We in the Government have some slight advantage; we had the opportunity of seeing the text of the Report a little earlier than had the public, because it had to be printed and distributed. Discussions between the various departments affected by the matter have already taken place, and we are pressing on with them.

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. I think that this is necessary because already certain bodies seem to have gone on record with rather strong views, and these may need to be fully investigated. For example, within 24 hours of publication of the Report the British Omnibuses Public Relations Committee issued a statement to the Press using some fairly strong language about the Report. The Committee described it as "incomprehensible" and its recommendations as being "manifestly unworkable". The Public Relations Committee spoke of the Committee's "complete lack of appreciation of the essential basis and structure of the bus industry" and went on to say that the majority of the Committee were "unable to see the wood for the trees", and much in like vein. It may be—and I hope that it is the case—that in time this body, which is important and influential, will wish to take a somewhat milder line than in this initial statement, particularly when it and the members whom it represents have been able to give the Report the fuller study which I think that it deserves. In any event, we have to allow a certain amount of time first for the Report to be thoroughly examined. We must also consider in some detail the proposals, their implications and—this is extremely important—their repercussions in other fields.

As I said, we shall probably have to consult a number of interests before we can finally announce our views, and in this process it is right that we should await the general reaction from the public, and the views which members of the public wish to bring to our notice on the wisdom or lack of wisdom, as the case may be, of the Committee's suggestions.

My hon. Friend expressed the hope that tonight I might be in a position to announce the Government's views on the Report. I am afraid that, for reasons which I have just explained, that is not possible. He will remember the Answer which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport gave to his Question on 15th March. Beyond what my right hon. Friend then said, I am afraid that I cannot go tonight. The only additional information which I can give him is that we shall reach our conclusions on this matter as speedily as we can. We are aware that this is a big and difficult problem, and we are aware that it has been going on for some time and in some respects and some places may be getting worse. We have therefore just as much interest in reaching a solution as has any hon. Member. I am afraid that that is all that I can say tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock.