HC Deb 19 December 1963 vol 686 cc1593-604

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

10.53 p.m.

Major Sir Frank Markham (Buckingham)

I rise to protest against the proposed closure of four railway lines and several stations in my constituency and in adjacent areas. The lines in question are the Bletchley—Buckingham line; the Wolverton—Newport Pagnall line; the Oxford—Bletchley—Cambridge line; and the Bedford—Northampton line. Over and above those, it is proposed to close the stations of Castlethorpe and Roade.

In this protest I have the support of nearly every Member for the four counties of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, and the support of nearly every local authority through which any of those railway lines pass. Indeed, the transport users' consultative committees must be snowed under with protests from these areas. In addition to those I have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones) and also of the N.U.R. group in this House.

This represents a formidable body of opinion and it is a great regret to me that the Minister has already refused to meet a deputation from the area, centred on Bletchley, known as the Steering Committee and which consists of representatives of all political parties and of the leading local authorities. The Minister has replied saying that the usual channels must be adhered to, that cases of hardship will be considered by the T.U.C.C. and that anything else he will himself consider at postal distance.

It is in the vast range of subjects that cannot be considered by the T.U.C.C. that we feel that grave mistakes can occur unless the Ministry is fully informed of what is in the minds not only of those of us who are directly concerned but of many others, including the leaders of the British Railways Board.

The area about which I am speaking is one of the fastest developing parts of the country. In Buckinghamshire alone there has been a 28 per cent. increase in population during the last 10 years. In Bedfordshire, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in that period. No other part of the country can show a similar rate of expansion. Added to all this is the fact that if one considers the area which is usually known as the Home Counties around London, one finds it estimated that there will be an increase of another 1½ million people within the next five to six years.

If the railways cannot make good in a developing area like this, it is obvious that they cannot make good anywhere. The electrification of the main line London-Birmingham is going ahead and this, we hope, will do something towards improving the services provided by the railways. This, however, is only part of the story, for the other points concern finance, railwaymen's transport and jobs, stewardship, costs of alternative services, and so on. And none of these can be considered by the T.U.C.Cs.

The Minister has laid it down in legislation that the T.U.C.C. may consider only oases of travelling hardship. Thus local protesters can be heard only on this one subject of travelling hardship. Any protests on any other subjects made either by individual objectors or local authorities must be made in writing to the Minister of Transport, who is already a prejudiced person, as it were, because he is carrying out the legislation that he has introduced by means of an organisation, and individuals which he has created or appointed, and often clashing with other policies which he has enunciated as the principal roads Minister in this country.

This shows that in these broad spheres of finance, transport, stewardship, costs of alternative services and many others we can appeal only to the Minister in writing. We are never allowed to see the replies given by the British Railways Board or another Ministry, and from the moment the Minister receives our letters of protest we are entirely excluded from any further investigation. This is wrong, unjust and does not even give the appearance of justice.

British Railways give us certain figures, but not the lot. We are told some of the costs, but not all of the takings. Not only the N.U.R., but, I believe, other bodies would like to have an opportunity to challenge the figures. These organisations say that the figures do not contain the accretion of the parcels services, advertisements and vendors. They also say that the railways have not included in the costs the future costs of caretaking of disused stations. There is also the cost, possibly, of subsidising the buses.

Let me refer to the railwaymen again, because theirs is one of the key protests that ought to be considered. Articles 51, 52 and 53 of the Handbook of the Transport Users' Consultative Committees state that if the railwaymen have a protest they can put their protests through the hierarchical channels of the trade unions. Their protests never get up through those channels. They are dead-ended at somewhere like branch level. Railwaymen both at Bletchley and at Wolverton have protested—and I believe them—that their protests got to the local consultative committee, and not a step further.

Many of these railwaymen are not only indignant, perhaps, at losing their jobs, but are more public spirited and are indignant at a good service being closed down, and indignant because there is no channel through which they can make constructive proposals for improving traffics on the railways. These are grave charges against the present system by which these railway closure inquiries are conducted.

Let me give another example of what this will mean to the railwaymen at the Wolverton works and at Castlethorpe and on the line between Newport Pagnell and Bletchley, which it is proposed to close down. Travelling daily from Newport Pagnell to Wolverton there are between 275 and 300 railwaymen. If this line is closed nobody cares "a tuppenny hoot" how these men will get to work in future. British Railways have said that it is not any business of theirs to provide transport for them. The transport users' consultative committee may say to the Minister that there may be hardship here, but it is not the committee's business to make constructive proposals to the Minister as to how that hardship can be dealt with.

If this hardship is to be met at all. they will have to organise about 10 buses, leaving at practically the same time from Newport Pagnell to Wolverton, and vice versa, to take not only the railwaymen themselves, but the school children. The Railways Board says that it is not its business how the children get to school, but that that is the sole responsibility of the local education authority. In short, the railway divests itself of its necessary public service and leaves the wounds to others to heal.

One of the most shocking things about the present system is that in a case like the Wolverton works it is not incumbent on the railways themselves to provide some alternative transport arrangements for their own workers who have been travelling by train hitherto.

Another thing that the railwaymen feel very keenly about is that some services are already so badly run that, for example, on the Bletchley-Bedford line, which it is proposed to close, passengers have to stand in two trains, in particular—the 9.5 a.m. from Bletchley to Bedford and the return train at 4.10 p.m. from Bedford to Bletchley. When a train is so crowded that passengers have to stand, there cannot be any good reason for closing the line; there is every reason why that railway service should be improved, and passengers given the comfort they used to get before the railways were nationalised.

That is the kind of thing that the railwaymen themselves would have liked to put before the T.U.C.C., but they were short-circuited in the channels of the trade union movement. We have the assurance by the Minister that he will consider anything that comes up before him, how can he make sure railway complaints will come to him? The Minister says, and has said many times, that when he gets these protests in writing he will consult other Ministries. Obviously, one of the first things is the provision of alternative road transport to replace the railways.

The Minister must, therefore, consult the Minister responsible for road transport, but he is himself the Minister responsible for road transport so that he is appealing from himself to himself. That is why I say that he is prejudiced on the question of further road programmes to replace the damage that will be done generally by removing these railways services.

The Minister of Transport can also approach the Minister of Housing. In all the cases I have mentioned the Minister of Housing must say, and I think that he will say to the Minister of Transport, "If you ask me about development in this area, all I can say as Minister of Housing is that we should wait for the south-east regional review." The South-East, as we know, is to be developed. London's expansion or relief will become more and more distant from London and new towns, like Bletchley, will be focal centres of new development, and it is here where this cross country line from Oxford to Cambridge centres at the moment. Will the Parliamentary Secretary give an assurance to the House that if such an answer is received from the Minister of Housing his right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport will postpone closures until the south-east regional review has been considered by the House?

Secondly, I should like to see all closures stopped until a better system of investigation has been worked out. It is evident throughout the country that the present system is received with considerable scepticism. The consultative committees have been looked upon as rubber stamps of British Railways. I know that this is not entirely true but that is the impression. I urge that the Minister should establish a new system of investigation which would give the impression of being much more just than does the present one. I beg of him also to suspend judgment on these four lines and the stations until the review of the South-East is available and we cars see what the future holds for this rapidly developing part of England.

11.7 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith)

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham (Sir F. Markham) for the lucid way in which he has made his case tonight. I am glad also to have this opportunity of dealing with such an important subject. My hon. and gallant Friend has certainly been most assiduous in his efforts to make representations about the proposed closures in his constituency. I do not want him to think from anything I say that I am not sympathetic to him in the situation he has described where the population in his constituency is increasing at the same time is there are these proposals to reduce the number of railways. But the picture which he has painted is not, of course, the whole story.

I should like to set it in its context, but, obviously, I cannot comment at this stage on the merits or demerits of the proposed closures he has mentioned, nor can I enter into discussion on the relevance or otherwise of various facts to which he has referred, such as passengers standing in certain of the trains in his constituency. On the other hand, I have noted what he has said and will report them most carefully to my right hon. Friend. The reason why I cannot comment fully on these matters of detail is that the future of these stations is, as it were, sub judice, and I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend will realise that for that reason I cannot be very specific in what I have to say.

This difficulty, which arises in all closure castes, as I am sure the House will realise, was dealt with by my right hon. Friend in a somewhat similar Adjournment debate in May. To save time and to avoid repetition of what my right hon. Friend said then, it might be helpful if I sent my hon. and gallant Friend, as I shall do, a copy of that debate. There ate, however, certain points which I can answer, but before dealing with them I think that it would be helpful if I were to explain how proposals are made by the Board, how representations are considered, and how decisions are reached, because my hon. and gallant Friend seemed to have doubts about fairness, particularly with regard to how decisions are reached. I hope that I shall be able to convince him that he should not be as doubtful as he now seems to be.

The first and most important thing to get clear is that the responsibility for deciding whether or not to propose a closure is a matter for the railway management. Often, hon. Members come to me and say, "Why are you proposing to close this line?", when what they mean is, "Why is Dr. Beeching proposing to close the line?". Why Dr. Beeching should be doing it is, of course, a question which the Minister cannot answer. After all, he does not run the railways; that is the Board's duty, and the Board has, to quote the words of the 1962 Act, to do it with "due regard" to efficiency, economy and safety of operation.

It was in fulfilment of this duty that, last March, in its Report, the Board gave in outline plans for closing about 330 passenger services involving over 2,000 stations. This was a general proposal, but when it comes to any particular line or station the Board must give formal notice, and this allows users seven weeks in which to object, and, if they do object, then the proposal cannot be effected without the Minister's consent. This is an important restriction on the railway management's discretion which was introduced in the 1962 Act, which my hon. and gallant Friend seemed to be complaining about, because it brings in both the T.U.C.C. and the Minister.

The new procedure thus gives full opportunity to discuss what really matters to passengers, that is: will there be hardship, and are the alternatives satisfactory? This is the only thing that a passenger is really concerned with—how to get from one place to another if the railway line is closed. The financial matters to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred and other wider planning considerations are utterly irrelevant to the passenger. He is concerned only with movement, not with costs, and that is why there is no wide-ranging discussion at the T.U.C.Cs. and why there is no cross-examination of financial figures, since whether the railways lose £5 or £500,000 does not really affect the hardship issue.

My hon. and gallant Friend may well ask, "If that is so, why should these figures of finance be mentioned at all, when they are clearly irrelevant to hardship?" The answer is that the T.U.C.Cs. asked the Railways Board to provide them because they find it helpful to have some idea of the sum involved as general background, particularly when they are considering possible alternatives.

Although the provision of these figures is essentially a matter between the Railways Board and the T.U.C.Cs., in view of the public interest which has been shown in them, to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred tonight, my right hon. Friend, on the recommendation of the president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, got Sir William Carrington to carry out an investigation, and his report, which is in the Library, shows that the figures are both appropriate for the consultative committees' purposes and are compiled on bases which are sound in principle.

What it amounts to is that the consultative committee's job is to report to the Minister on hardship. The committee does not—I cannot stress this too strongly—decide or even recommend whether a closure should take place. It is concerned only with deciding what hardship will be caused by the closure, if it takes place, and with proposals for alleviating that hardship.

I recognise that my hon. and gallant Friend has in his constituency a particular problem raised by the large number of railway employees who reside there. He has referred to various aspects of the problem. But I think that this is an internal matter for the railways. My right hon. Friend must be at pains not to interfere with the machinery which already exists in the industry for consultation between management and the elected representatives of the staff.

As my hon. and gallant Friend probably knows, before a closure proposal is published, the Railways Board consults these elected representatives at both regional and local levels, and the object of the consultation is not only to inform the staff representatives of the Board's intentions and their implications for the staff, but also to invite their comments—the very point which my hon. and gallant Friend made.

This is the established machinery, and it allows full opportunity for the staff to state their views. But if, as my hon. and gallant Friend has suggested, the machinery has got bogged down and if it is not working properly, this is a matter between the unions and Dr. Beeching, and I have no doubt that Dr. Beeching will pay attention to what my hon. and gallant Friend has said. To make absolutely sure that he does, I shall send a copy of this debate in Hansard to the Railways Board. This is essentially a question of management, and, therefore, not for the Minister. I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend, with all his wide experience in these matters, will realise that this is so.

To return to the procedure, having then received the report from the T.U.C.C. on hardship, the Minister must decide whether to give his consent to the closure or not. It is at this stage that other considerations come in. Dr. Beeching's object is to shape and operate the railways so as to make them pay. The job of the T.U.C.C. is to consider hardship to the passengers and ways of alleviating it. But the Minister's job is to take a much wider view, because it might well be that though a line was losing money and though there was no hardship caused to the passengers if it was closed, it would still be wrong to close the line, or at least to dispose of it, because of possible future industrial development or because of defence considerations or because of the growth of housing and population, such as my hon. and gallant Friend referred to, or, indeed, the pattern of road traffic.

This brings me on to one of the most important points raised by my hon. and gallant Friend, when he asked about the deputation which his local authorities wish to bring to see my right hon. Friend. This raises a matter of some difficulty which I shall try to explain to him, and I hope he will understand.

First, the Minister is in something like a quasi-judicial position on these cases. He has to reach his decision in the light of all the facts. For that reason it would be improper for him to discuss cases with any of the parties. He must hold himself aloof from all interested parties, railways and local authorities alike, so that he is quite impartial and is not prejudiced at all. I was rather sorry that my hon. and gallant Friend used that word, because my right hon. Friend goes out of his way to be impartial.

Sir F. Markham


Mr. Galbraith

I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will not interrupt me, because I should like to try to finish and I have not very much time.

Clearly, therefore, my right hon. Friend could not receive deputations for the purpose of examining the issues involved.

There is the further point that if my right hon. Friend saw one local authority he could hardly refuse to see another, and with over 2,000 stations involved, seeing all the interested local authorities would create a physically impossible task even for anybody as vigorous and hard working as my right hon. Friend.

Finally—this is most important—from the practical point of view there is everything to be said for local authorities putting their representations in writing. Not only does this help us to be sure that we have all the details but it enables my right hon. Friend to consult his colleagues, where this is necessary, easily and speedily.

I hope, therefore, that my hon. and gallant Friend will stress to the Bletchley Council that my right hon. Friend is most anxious to receive any representations which it wishes to make and that there will, indeed, be considerable advantage both to him and to it if it puts anything that it has to say about matters other than hardship to him in writing. I can assure my ton. Friend that in this way all the council's points will be most carefully examined.

The effect of all these arrangements is that when the report of the T.U.C.C. reaches the Minister he has also before him the representations of local authorities and the views of other Government Departments concerned, as well as the original information on which the board has based its proposals. All this evidence is then examined by a working party of Government officials representing the departments whose responsibilities are affected. The working party goes into every aspect in great detail.

The next stage is examination by myself. Finally, the proposal goes to the Minister, and I can assure the House that he considers every case most carefully. Thus, at each stage assessments are made, not just about hardship to users, but also taking into account the views of the departments concerned and the arguments against closure put forward by local authorities and other bodies. It is, in fact, a very thorough and painstaking process. My hon. and gallant Friend has said that there is no appeal from this examination by the Minister. Yet how could there be any appeal? To whom could an appeal be made? What the Minister does is to assess the relative importance of various factors, and in the final analysis this is a Government decision. It is not possible to transfer the responsibility to anybody else.

But I would like to make one thing quite clear to my hon. and gallant Friend and to the whole House. That is, that once a proposal is made it is not a foregone conclusion that the railway is going to be closed. The Government are very far from being a rubber stamp, as my hon. and gallant Friend seemed to suggest. Out of the cases which were decided this year, to give only two examples, one in a country district, the Alston line, in Northumberland, and another in a conurbation, the Sander-stead line, in Surrey, have not been closed because the Minister thought it would not be justified, taking all the issues into account. My right hon. Friend has also insisted on the continuance of the rail service over part of the Great Central line.

In the cases where closure is allowed, the Minister attaches conditions where-ever necessary to ensure that adequate alternative services are available to the travelling public. In all this we must remember the need to balance the various conflicting interests. The railways are losing vast sums of money—£150 million per annum—which is so often forgotten. That is why Dr. Beeching is making his proposals.

Then the interests of the passengers must not be forgotten, and here the T.U.C.C. reports on hardship and on alternatives. Finally, there is the wider aspect which is something which the Government have to decide for themselves. Nobody can do it for them, and that is why there cannot be an appeal. I think that this procedure is as fair as possible and ensures that justice is done.

I assure my hon. and gallant Friend again that the points he has raised will be reported to the Minister. I shall do it myself and I shall undertake to discuss any fresh points that he may wish to raise with me, although, of course, I shall not be able to comment upon them.

My last words are to repeat what my right hon. Friend has said many times, that however strong the financial and other arguments may be my right hon. Friend will see that, where necessary, adequte means of alternative transport are available before a railway passenger closure takes place. That is the important thing from the point of view of my hon. and gallant Friend's constituents, and I can assure him that it is very much in our minds all the time we study these complicated and perplexing problems.

Sir F. Markham

If I may be allowed one minute more, may I thank my hon. Friend for a very thorough survey of the points that I raised with him and also thank him for the thoroughness of his answer. There is only one thing that he has left out; he has not invited me to meet him again if I still feel dissatisfied.

Mr. Galbraith

I am delighted to give that assurance to my hon. and gallant Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Eleven o'clock.