HC Deb 20 December 1963 vol 686 cc1634-63

12.27 p.m.

Mr Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Craigton)

I am very glad today to have the opportunity of raising the question of the functioning of the transport users' consultative committees, and I want to do that with reference to the question of rail closures. I hope that some of the things I shall say will be of relevance to the functioning of these committees in general.

I should, perhaps, say at the outset that I am particularly concerned with the Scottish position There have been tremendous protests in Scotland about rail closures for the last fortnight or so. Indeed, it is hardly possible to pick up a Scottish newspaper these days without seeing the report of another protest meeting being held by rail users, or some other kind of action committee, to fight Dr Beeching and the Minister on rail closures.

There has sprung up in the last fortnight a whole network of committees in Scotland which are now fighting the Government's proposals for Scottish railways. In fact, a meeting is to be held in Perth, on Monday next week, when there will be a co-ordination of all these action committees. Therefore, there will be a Scottish campaign against rail closures in Scotland.

I want to say seriously to the Minister that I cannot remember any other issue on which there has been such unanimity and strength of feeling in Scotland as on the question of Dr Beeching's proposal for closing railway services It is against that background and in that context that I want to discuss the rôle of the transport users' consultative committees. These committees, as they are established at present, deal only with the closures of passenger railway services. They have no jurisdiction over the closure of freight services, but, of course, in many instances the cutting out of passenger services is only a prelude to the closing of the lines altogether, for freight and everything else.

A change was made in the position of the transport users' consultative committees arising out of the 1962 Act, in that they no longer make recommendations to the Minister about closures but are simply given the task under that Act of reporting to the Minister on the possible hardship which will accrue to passengers and others if the railway lines or the stations are closed.

In practice, however, this is very much a theoretical restriction on the activities of the committees, because they take evidence about a number of other things This is the first point of criticism which I wish to make about the functioning of the committees, that there is a considerable amount of confusion, not only among members of the public and transport users but also to some extent among the members of the committees, about what is the function of the committees under the 1962 Act.

For example, there has been a great deal of controversy about the kind of financial evidence which they should accept from the Railways Board The other day in this House the Minister said that, strictly speaking, financial evidence was completely irrelevant I agree, if one takes the most narrow interpretation of the functions of the Committee under the 1962 Act. But if that is irrelevant, one asks why financial evidence is given at all.

Many objectors feel that the financial evidence given by the Railways Board is extremely tendentious. Yet they have no opportunity, in the workings of the committees, to cross-examine the Board about the evidence which is put forward. The Minister has given some attention to the kind of evidence which should be placed before the committees. He had Sir William Carrington prepare a report for him on this matter. I have read that report, which I find an extremely muddled document It is muddled because Sir William does not apply his mind to the question of what consultative committees are meant to be doing and what financial evidence is relevant for them to consider in that context.

A full profit and loss account cannot be given for these railway lines, or at least not without a tremendous amount of difficulty, and it would involve a great deal of estimating and assumption. So what is going to the committees at the present time is only part of the financial information which would be required to make an accurate profit and loss account about the effect of the closures. In such a case one would have to take into account the prospective losses on alternative services, whether by bus or other means, and the improvements which would be required in road services, and all the rest of it. What is happening at present is that inadequate and insufficient information goes to the committees to enable them to look at the whole question of profit and loss in the widest financial context.

This is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. It is unsatisfactory in the first place because, strictly speaking, it is irrelevant to what the committees are meant to be considering—the narrow question of hardship, as they have interpreted their functions at present. It is unsatisfactory because objectors have no opportunity to examine the figures of the Railways Board, if they are put forward, or where it is suspected that the figures are not as accurate as they might be, they have no opportunity to raise queries in public with the representatives of the Railways Board. It is unsatisfactory for another reason. Obviously, the figures which are brought forward by the Board for the financial operations of any line or station which is to be closed show that it is working at a substantial loss.

The whole railway system is working at a loss of £150 million a year. One would, therefore, consider it to be extraordinary if the figures for a particular branch line or station did not show that that also was running at quite a substantial loss. All that happens, following the production of these figures, is that there is an attempt—I think a successful attempt—to introduce a prejudice into the discussions, because the committee is bound to take into account the fact that substantial losses are shown by the figures brought forward by the Railways Board. Yet, at the same time, there is absolutely no opportunity to consider the question, even financially, in a wider context.

This is only part of the unsatisfactory nature of the present hearings of the committees. Much more important is the interpretation of what is hardship. Is this individual hardship, or can we interpret it in a much wider way? The committees have chosen to interpret this, as I understand it—and I have seen some of the reports of the Scottish area committee—in the very narrowest sense of individual hardship That is all they are concerned about. They do not listen to representations about any other aspect of hardship which may arise because of the closure of a line or station.

Even on this question of individual hardship, the committees tend to interpret the whole question very much more narrowly than they ought. For example, they take no account of the relative comfort, efficiency and punctuality of the alternative services to be provided by buses, compared with the rail services which are to be discontinued. Of course, they could have absolutely no consideration of the question whether the alternative bus services to be provided will be permanent.

So far as one can see there is absolutely nothing to prevent a bus company, which has put on extra services in the case of a rail closure, from discontinuing the extra service in three months, six months, or a year hence. There is a great deal of misunderstanding and dissatisfaction about this, and about the obligation of the Railways Board to subsidise bus services which replace railway services where those bus services also are running at a loss. The Minister, at one time or another, has said that the Railways Board does recognise some obligation. But it is by no means clear that the Hoard recognises it in all the circumstances where there may be such a loss.

Even more important is the whole question of hardship in the much wider sense. At present, consultative committees take absolutely no evidence and no account of the general economic development of the area concerned. I should have thought it a truism, to be recognised even by the Minister of Transport, that railway services are extremely important from the point of view of the economic development of an area. As a matter of fact, the White Paper on Central Scotland makes exactly that point, that rail services and proposals for closures will have to be considered in the context of the development plans, for the area.

But the consultative committees take no account of that at all. They do not consider the economic implications, or interpret hardship in the wider sense that economic hardship may accrue to an area if a line is closed down; or the disadvantage to which people in the area may be put from the point of view of future economic development. This is not a question of branch lines running to remote places in the Highlands, because Dr Beeching's Report for Scotland proposes the discontinuance of rail services to two of our new towns East Kilbride and Cumbernauld, and, if these are not growing development areas, what are they?

I could give similar examples from all over the United Kingdom. I wish to draw the attention of the Minister to what was said only this week by Lord Polwarth, who is Chairman of the Scottish Council (Development and Industry) and, incidentally, a Tory Member of another place.

Lord Polwarth said this week that the Government's policy of railway closures were …a fine economic example of sawing off the branch on which you are sitting. No one is more experienced than he in the problems and prospects of Scottish economic development and he seems to be satisfied that the way in which present Government policy is operating will not safeguard the economic development of parts of Scotland.

The same applies to the Highland Panel, one of the most respectable bodies appointed by the Government in all Scotland A fortnight ago the Panel announced that if the rail closures from Inverness to the North went through the Panel would resign en bloc. I hope that the Minister takes this seriously, because this is a very respectable body which in the opinion of some of us has not been nearly radical enough in its proposals and reactions over the last few years. When even that body is to resign. I hope that the Minister recognises the seriousness of the situation.

I know that in reply to the debate the Minister will say that these consultative committees do not need to consider the wider aspects of the question, because they simply report to the Minister and it is the Minister who takes all these wider aspects into consideration before he makes his final decision. If he thinks that it is any comfort to the people of Scotland to know that he will take the final decision, I ought to disabuse him at once, because that is exactly what worries people in Scotland. It is no comfort to them to know that he is to take the final decision.

Apart from anything else, people find a great deal of understandable difficulty in knowing what is the Government's comprehensive transport policy. The criticism expressed not just by hon. Members here, but by people outside, is that what is wrong is that the Government have no comprehensive transport policy and is unable to consider proposals for the railways in this wider context.

We are assured that the Secretary of State for Scotland will be consulted by the Minister of Transport at every point so that no closure will take place without the Secretary of State's consent. But the Secretary of State is not mentioned in the Transport Act, so that this is purely a formal inter-departmental arrangement between the Minister of Transport and the Secretary of State. Incidentally, I am disappointed that there is no representative of the Scottish Office on the Front Bench this morning. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport is here, but he no longer represents the Scottish Office. We are always assured that the Scottish Office is keeping a close eye on this matter and that nothing will happen without its knowing about it.

Mr John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

A closed eye.

Mr Millan

This does not satisfy people in Scotland I will not quote from any Opposition source, but I would draw the Minister's attention, for example, to the fact that I noticed from the newspapers that the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Sir J MacLeod) says that he will resign the Government Whip if the Government close railways north and west of Inverness. He does not seem confident in the ability of the Secretary of State to look after the interests of Scotland.

Sir John Brooke, chairman of the Ross and Cromarty Unionist Association, commenting on a resolution calling upon the Prime Minister to dismiss the Secretary of State, said: The Secretary of State has never raised any fight He has made many promises but has not said anything to confirm his original statements. These are quotations from good authentic Tory sources. If they do not trust the Minister of Transport and the Secretary of State, I see no reason why the rest of us should trust them.

The Secretary of State for Scotland obviously took fright at this at the beginning of the week, because, earlier there was an inspired leak in the newspapers, from the Secretary of State, saying that we need not worry about closures and asking what was this nonsense about Beeching and the Minister closing down railways. It would not happen because the Secretary of State would step in and stop them The Scottish Daily Express on Wednesday, carried the headine on the front page, "They are Saved". The Secretary of State was going to save the railway lines in Scotland and there were not to be any closures and we need not worry about them. This came straight from the Scottish Office Next day, the thing having been given this tremendous publicity, we had what was a retraction from the Scottish Office.

The Minister of Transport (Mr Ernest Marples)

The hon. Member has not been as moderate as he was in Standing Committee when we discussed the Bill as it then was Has he any evidence that the Scottish Office has inspired that sort of thing?

Mr Millan

There is plenty of evidence I know exactly where it came from and, in any case, the report itself makes clear—

Mr Marples

I must press the hon. Member for that evidence to be disclosed.

Mr Millan

The fact is that these statements appeared in every newspaper, not just the Scottish Daily Express, and were quoted in many cases as representing to have come from a spokesman at the Scottish Office. I cannot give the exact quotation from the Scottish Daily Express, but I am absolutely clear that this was what happened and I can present evidence to the right hon. Gentleman at the end of this debate. If he consults the Secretary of State for Scotland, that right hon. Gentleman will confirm that what I say is absolutely accurate. This came from the Scottish Office.

Mr Marples

I am very grateful and I shall look forward to receiving the evidence.

Mr Millan

The Scottish Office was then put in the position of having to retract to some extent and to say that this was not really true. The Secretary of State had not gone as far as this and the fact was that there was nothing definite about railway closures. One would not know what was to happen until the consultative committees reported on these various closures to the Minister.

This action is only a typical example of the confusion about Government policy on closures It is extraordinarily difficult for any member of the public to find out exactly what Government policy is. They want to know whether Dr Beeching's proposals will go through or not and they are not satisfied with the ambiguity of Government statements, whether they come from the Secretary of State or the Ministry of Transport. If the Minister wants to restore any confidence at all among the people of Scotland about rail closures he ought to come to a conclusion about them and say exactly what the Govern- ment intend to do about the Beeching Report. In particular, he should try to relate that report to the Government's White Paper on Central Scotland, the prospects for economic development in Scotland and the rest The present situation is creating the maximum confusion and lack of confidence in the Government.

The right hon. Gentleman must look at the functioning of the consultative committees. He must make up his mind either to restrict them to the most narrow interpretation of hardship, in which case the financial evidence and the rest given by the Railways Board should be ruled out of order as completely inadmissible and we should then have these committees exposed as the farce they are at present, or he must reform procedure to allow these committees to look at this question in the wider economic and social context. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will choose the latter alternative, but if he does not he should put a stop to the farce that these committees are considering in any real sense the proposals put forward to them by the Railways Board.

I am clear that the present situation cannot go on. There is growing concern about it in Scotland and there is public agitation. It arises from the ambiguity of Government policy and the unwillingness of the Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland to say exactly what that policy is and to give the pledge for which people in Scotland ask that the Beeching proposals will not be carried through, because this would mean the economic end of many areas in Scotland.

Unless we can get that pledge from the Minister this morning, the confusion and lack of confidence in the Government will continue. I warn the Minister of Transport—and it gives me no pleasure to say this—that nothing will do his policy more harm in Scotland at the General Election than the appalling muddle and mismanagement of the Government's railway closures policy.

12.50 p.m.

Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)


Mr Speaker

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D Robertson) require; leave of the House, because he has already spoken to this Question. Maybe he will have it I will call him and we shall see. Sir David Robertson.

Sir D Robertson

I beg pardon, Mr Speaker?

Mr Speaker

The point is that the hon. Member requires the leave of the House to speak again because he has already spoken to this Question.

Sir D Robertson

When I came into the Chamber this morning I did so to listen to a statement on the conflict of views between the Secretary of State for Air and an hon. Member opposite However, I could not resist rising to my feet in this debate. It did not occur to me, as this is another debate, that I would need the permission of the House, but I now ask for permission to speak as the only back bencher from the Highlands in the Chamber who is interested in, and present for, this vitally important matter of railway closures.

Mr Rankin

The only Tory back bencher.

Mr Speaker

I hear a silence pregnant with assent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has leave.

Sir D Robertson

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr Millan) on making an excellent speech I took part in the first day's debate on the Beeching plan on 29th April. It continued on the next day, and I do not think we have had such a debate in this House until today. At least, if there has been one, I am not aware of it.

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

We had one last night.

Sir D Robertson

I was not here last night.

The position in Scotland is very serious. The hon. Member for Craigton referred to the agitation that is going on, but it is not only to be found in Ross and Cromarty. It is going on all over Scotland. I have never known any think like it in my lifetime The Government should be apprised of that fact because the people in Scotland are beginning to see what a raw deal they have had for a long time.

Our numbers in Scotland were always a little fewer than in England, but during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the whole of this half century we have been losing more and more of our people who have been drifting overseas and to the South until a situation has been reached in which we enjoy only 8 per cent. of the manufacturing industry of Great Britain.

It was a totally different story when I was a young man in Glasgow. We enjoyed very much more of the manufacturing industry England has not been a very good big brother to us. I am sorry to say that, because I have lived in England for over half a century and I have received great friendliness and kindness from the English. I have always regarded us as one people. But we are not one people when we consider the location of people and industry.

This situation must be changed. I am certain that nobody more than the English would want the situation to be changed because they are the main sufferers in the long run. Owing to the railway situation in Scotland we are threatened with losing 41 per cent of it, and I am not smiling at that as an hon. Member is doing. What is the percentage in England? Perhaps the Minister will tell us before the debate is over. This is due to the failure to distribute people and industry. That is the beginning and end of it.

The Highland area, which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Sir J MacLeod) and four other Members, is almost half of Scotland territorially, and there are five Members representing that area out of 71 Scottish Members. That area accommodated one-third of the people of Scotland 150 years ago. Now it carries about 4 per cent. There are 50 million people south of the Cheviots, 5 million in Scotland, and fewer than 250,000 in half of Scotland, and that is the half that is to be torn to ribbons if this railway threat comes about.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton wants to know what the Government policy is. The policy for the West Coast of the Highlands is to be totally different from the policy for the central part and the rest I have known the West Highland line since I was born. In fact, it was completed shortly before I was born. It is a very small line compared to the great line which begins at Euston and goes up to Crewe, Carlisle, Stirling, Perth, Inverness, Dingwall, Invergordon, Wick and Thurso. It was the lifeline of the Navy in two world wars. It is part of the longest rail journey in Britain, and it has given a magnificent service.

One can leave a full day's work behind in London and dine, sleep and breakfast on the train, arriving in Inverness at 8.30 the following morning, ready to face another day's work. If one goes by air in an hour or two one can put in a day's work there, and come back to London and make a speech, as I have done on one occasion at least. It was Government policy which saved the West Highland line. The Government decided to put up so many million pounds of capital to establish a pulp mill, which Britain badly needs, at Corpach, near Fort William. More than one is needed; several are needed.

Because of that industry the West Highland line from Glasgow to Fort William, Mallaig, the tourist and herring line, is being saved. I suggested to the right hon. Gentleman on 29th April that he should give us one or two more pulp mills in order to save the much more important line north of Inverness. But nothing has happened, and nothing will happen unless the House of Commons takes the bit between its teeth and sees that this comes about.

There is dreadful overcrowding in the south of England, where the bulk of us live and work—in London and the South-East, in Birmingham, Coventry and the West Midlands. It is not pleasant living in overcrowded houses and trying to find accommodation, crushing into the tubes if one is lucky enough to get in before the doors close, and waiting for buses. The scenes on the mainline railway stations, at Liverpool Street, Victoria and the others, are appalling. We have created a monster. Nobody can challenge that fact.

However, I give my right hon. Friend credit for what he is trying to do. I have always regarded him as a first-class Minister, as I know he is, but this situation is above his head. This is a Cabinet job. All this can be saved by the location of industry in Wick and Thurso.

When I suggested that the Government should site an atomic plant in my constituency I met Sir Christopher Hinton, who was then the head of the Atomic Energy Authority, and he told me how unsuitable Caithness and Sutherland or any part of the Highlands would be. One of the great difficulties that he foresaw was that the talented people, the scientists and technologists and particularly the professors from the major universities at Oxford and Cambridge, had to be near the plant. It is necessary that they should be there from time to time. I told him that I had three dukes in my constituency, rich men, who could afford to go and live anywhere. I have 20 millionaires who misuse land. Far too much land is devoted to sport. I am all in favour of sport, but not unbridled sport.

That is what is happening. Let us have some industry in towns like Wick, which is over 1,000 years old. We need industry in Thurso, too. I must not overlook the sequel to the Thurso story. The Dounreay atomic plant near Thurso employs, I believe, 3,000 people. Before that plant came, the population was 2,500 or 3,000, and it is now 10,000. That is the magic which has worked since 1954 or 1955 in the town of Thurso, which was once much more of a town find which is now seeing finer days, with a population exceeding what it ever had before. This has happened because one plant has arrived. The same has happened to Fort William. The town is saved and the railway is saved because one plant has come in.

I appeal to the Minister to realise that here lies the solution to our problem. He will be greatly helped, I am sure, by the people who are so tired of the appalling overcrowding in the monster areas of the Midlands and the South where far too many people live. We have all the things we want in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Craigton has dealt with the consultative committees. I once wished to consult the consultative and I asked where its address was. I was told that it could be found in the headquarters building of British Railways in Edinburgh. I went there and I met the secretary, a charming gentleman who had for many years been in the railway service. He may have retired prematurely or, perhaps, retired at the end of his time, and he has taken on this job. He sat in a room adjoining the office of the railway manager.

I came away with the feeling that I had not been talking to someone who really was independent. He may be on the salary list of the railway—indeed, I am sure that he is—and that is not a very good start for a transport users' consultative committee, particularly in a place like Edinburgh, where there are all kinds of professional people, lawyers, chartered accountants and others, who would be only too willing to take on part-time secretarial duties of that kind. I suppose that the railways appoint the consultative committees. Is that what happens? They are not appointed by the House of Commons, so far as I know. It is not a good set-up. I do not for a moment suggest that the members of the consultative committees are not good men and true, but, if they or their officers are housed in the railway building and they meet railway officials day by day, they are bound to be influenced. I do not think that it is a good start.

The Minister tells us that nothing will happen until we get alternative services. But what kind of alternative services are they to be—double-decker buses which get crowded and gummed up inside and out in rainy or frosty weather, buses which travel at a very slow pace? That is no alternative. The need can be met only by the very latest special type of bus used by B.E.A., B.O.A.C. and by the airlines on the Continent—fast buses serving meals in the same way as they are served on aeroplanes, with toilet facilities, and so on. But nothing of that sort seems to be suggested. We have just the big mailed fist of threatened closures.

It is up to us to put things right. The House of Commons must bring some clarity into these things. There is not much chance today, with less than a dozen Members in the Chamber, but perhaps we shall be helped by the Press which faithfully reports what is said here today. The situation is thoroughly unsatisfactory, and, in the ultimate, the House will decide what has to be done.

If, by any chance, any Minister of Transport were so misguided as to attempt to use his powers over the head of the House of Commons, the House would be bound to take action. I cannot see any Government being returned who embarked on the large-scale closures which are now threatened. Dr. Beechingis doing his job well, in accordance with his terms of reference, but his terms of reference will not do. Hon. and right hon. Members are the ultimate authority here, and the people would soon throw out the party which closed railway lines on this scale.

The remedy is so easy. Stop handing out industrial development certificates like tracts. Stop all the office building concentrated in London and the South. Every manufacturer and all those who sell consumer goods, pills, neck ties, boots and shoes, clothing and the rest want to crowd into the market in the South, because they pay only delivery costs. Transport costs are negligible. We are being made slaves. We are creating communities of ants.

Let any hon. Member who does not accept what I say go out of this self-contained place in which we spend so much time and look at London in the rush hours, between 7 and 9.30 a.m. and between 4.45 and 7 p.m. I see it. I make a point of doing so. I remember what a pleasant place London was when I came here in 1912. The underground railway, the tube and the buses were running and invariably—except for the occasional exceptional time—one got a seat. Today, one can hardly find a strap to hang on to.

The remedy is in our hands. We meet here day after day and night after night, discussing all kinds of matters which have not anywhere near the size of this problem. There are millions of people still coming to swell the population of the overcrowded centres of the South. We must call a halt.

1.6 p.m.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

I wish to raise a special point, but it may, perhaps, be useful for someone from England to add a word to the eloquent orations which we have had from north of the Border. On Tuesday last, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice), who is a very moderate man and well informed, said that he thought that the creation of the Central African Federation by the Conservative Government in face of the opposition of the African population of the territories had been a monumental folly. In the same class is the policy of the Beeching Report.

None of us blames Dr. Beeching. We all know that he was not allowed to make a scientific study. It is said that his Report represents the first real study ever made of our railway system. In my opinion, having studied these matters for a long time, as the Minister knows, the Report of the British Transport Commission for 1952 and the plans put forward by Lord Robertson in 1955 were both much more scientific studies of the railway situation than the Beeching Report.

I remember very well that, within a fortnight of the Minister taking his present office, his Parliamentary Secretary said, during an Adjournment debate that, of course, the railways must contract and we must have a much smaller railway system in future. What a fantastic proposition, if one considers for a moment, as the Government always tell us, that our standard of living is to rise by 100 per cent. over the next 20 years, that travel will more than double and that goods transport will more than double.

Of course, the Minister loves road transport. We know that. In my constituency we have a little experience of what road transport means today. Forty million tons of coal per annum are going on the roads. Every working hour, from Monday at 10 a.m. to Friday at 5 p.m., according to the chief constable's report, 240 lorries pass through Derby. That is four lorries a minute, each carrying 10 tons, and each pouring out diesel fumes up the hill over which they go. This is a very serious grievance to the people of Derby.

I am concerned specially with the railway closures proposed in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and the objections which have been made at the T.U.C.C. hearings there. Up to May this year, if my information is correct—and I think it is—340 branch lines and 4,000 miles of track had been closed. These massive closures have saved the railways less than 2d. in the £—under 1 per cent. of their costs. They have been very costly to the nation, and no official estimate has been made and no account taken of this. Not least costly has been the grave inconvenience and discomfort caused to multitudes of people who used to travel by rail and still wish to do so.

It is proposed to close a further 5,000 miles of our lines. The Notts and Derbyshire branch lines are part of them. One closure in the Notts and Derby area to which strong objection has been made is that of the line from Friargate Station, Derby, to Victoria Station, Nottingham. Hearings were held a few weeks ago, in October. The objectors included the Derby County Borough Council, the Ilkeston Town Council, this Derby area trades union council, the Midland region of the National Union of Mineworkers, the North-East Derbyshire Rural District Council, the Stanley and Cossill Parish Councils, the Nottinghamshire County Council and a host of other councils, organisations, trade and commercial interests and schools.

I have been able to study only the newspaper reports of those hearings, but, on that evidence and on a great deal of other evidence which I have heard, I support everything which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) said so well when he opened the debate about the nature of the hearings when a T.U.C.C. meets to hear objections to a closure. I agree with what he said about the financial evidence which is given to the committee. I have had a copy of that in the case which concerns me, and it is fantastically inadequate. I agree with what he said about considerations concerning general economic development. I thought that his example of the new towns in Scotland was particularly telling. I agree with what he said about the definition of hardship. In view of the nature of T.U.C.C. hearings, I agree with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, last summer, namely, that the consultation with those who object to closures is the sort of consultation that a condemned man gets when he is asked what he wants for breakfast before they hang him.

As I have said, I wish to raise a special point. I tried to get the record of the hearings before the East Midlands T.U.C.C. on the closure of the line from Friargate Station, Derby to Victoria Station, Nottingham. The secretary and chairman of the committee treated me with the greatest courtesy. We exchanged a number of letters. However, they said that they could not send me a copy of the proceedings at the hearings. They said that it would be misleading if I had it, because I should also have to have a copy of the objections which had been put in, and that could not be given to me. Therefore, I had to depend entirely on what appeared in the Derby Evening Telegraph and the Derby Advertiser.

I think it utterly wrong that Members of Parliament should not have the full evidence on which such important public decisions are made. If it is important to me and to the people of Derby to know the full case, how much more important must it be to my right hon. and hon. Friends in Scotland?

I submit to the Minister that a T.U.C.C, with its present resources and staff, is unable to make the full record that is needed. He should make it his business to ensure that every T.U.C.C. is given professional help in making a full transcript of everything that is said at the hearing and in putting into print the objections which are made, which should be freely available to members of local borough councils, to bodies like trades councils, to Members of Parliament and to others interested in a responsible way in the decisions which the Minister has to make.

The present practice is utterly undemocratic and is open to the gravest objection. It is a monstrous abuse of Parliamentary procedure that a Minister should make such decisions without people having the evidence which they need on which to judge his actions.

1.16 p.m.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

It has been rightly said this morning that the fundamental problem in the Highlands of Scotland is the lack of industry. I am sure that the Minister agrees with that. The trouble confronting the Scottish people—and again I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman recognises this—is that if railways, which are essential to industry, are closed, the industrial position in the Highlands will be made even worse than it is.

I want to take up a particular example. If there are to be growth points in the Scottish Highland area, as a sequel to the new plan for Central Scotland, then Inverness, Thurso and Wick are the obvious places for them. Yet, with that knowledge in the right hon. Gentleman's possession, it is now proposed to close the Inverness, Wick and Thurso railway line. Such an action would destroy the very basis of the type of industrial planning which the Government propose for Central Scotland.

I do not wish to interrupt the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, but I should like them to listen carefully to what I propose to say. The fundamental danger of the new plan for growth points in Central Scotland and its development is that it is based on the idea that there will be wealth created in that area. As a result, a part of that wealth will be squeezed up to the Highlands. That plan cannot work if the transport facilities in the area are reduced or taken away. The idea of growth points in Central Scotland has the additional danger that it will not necessarily send wealth into the Highlands. It will simply attract labour from the Highlands into Central Scotland, which will further depopulate an area which we want to keep alive.

There is historical proof of that fact. The city to which I belong, Glasgow, was a great growth point 100 years ago. Because of that, and because of the investment poured into the area, thousands of people were attracted to Glasgow. Wealth did not flow into the Highlands. This policy did not help Highland development in any way. Labour was attracted to the City of Glasgow, and the Highlands were depopulated while wealth increased in Central Scotland.

These are the sort of problems which we must face and which the Government should be facing now. It is important that they should be planning, not for areas, but for overall development, industrial and otherwise, in the United Kingdom.

I will be as brief as a Scotsman can be in circumstances of this nature, but I want to emphasise one or two points made by my hon. Friend. The first concerns the nature of the opposition which has been generated to the Government's suggestions about railway closures. First, there is the Highlands Panel, which has the general care of the Highlands in its hands—and which objects. Secondly, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, a body which handles Scottish development, industrially and commercially, objects. Thirdly, the Lord Lieutenant of Inverness-shire, Lord McDonald, who voices the overall interest of Inverness-shire, also objects. The Co-operative Movement is protesting because of the danger to its commercial and domestic consumer interests.

This is taking place in an area which is predominantly Conservative and in which the Labour Party hold only one seat. All this opposition comes from that particularly Conservative part of Scotland As has been said, the opposition has been increased on the external side, as it were; because the internal machinery for expressing dissent and getting satisfaction from the Minister about his proposals—the transport users' consultative committee—has been shown to be completely unhelpful.

Faced with all these revolts in this area of Scotland, the Secretary of State has intimated that he will appoint a Highlands Transport Board to review the needs of the Highlands for transport services by land, sea and air. Will that body become a reality? Are we to have a Highlands Board to do a job which has been done already by a committee which reported earlier in the year? I refer to the Report of the Highlands Transport Inquiry, which covers rail transport, road transport, sea services and air services. All that it is necessary to do has been done already to cover the field which the Secretary of State has indicated merely to stifle objections and opposition on the eve of an election.

May I quote briefly from that Report which was issued in the spring of this year dealing with transport services in the Highlands of Scotland? I ask the right hon. Gentleman to listen carefully to what the Report says, because he is one of the Ministers who sponsored it. Referring to transport services of all kinds in Scotland, this is what is said: This system is inadequate for present traffic in summer and will become increasingly so in the years that lie ahead, particularly as regards the remaining single width roads which run from the main system to Mallaig, the Kyle of Lochalsh and Ullapool and as regards the main approach to the Highlands from the West of Scotland. The Report goes further and says: It cannot be too frequently stated that if the Highland road system is to catch up with the development of road transport, and still more if road transport is to expand to fill the volume left by any contraction of rail transport which the Minister proposes, then substantial capital expenditure is needed on these main roads and at a much higher rate of progress and investment than is contemplated at the moment. No greater condemnation, I suggest, could be made than is contained in this Report of the transport services of that part of Scotland. And yet, merely to buy time, we are told that there is to be another Report on the Highlands transport system. Surely it is a waste of time. The one thing which the Minister can do this morning which would be more useful than any reports would be to say that he will abandon the Beeching proposals so far as they relate to the Highlands of Scotland.

1.25 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Ernest Marples)

Obviously, there are many misconceptions about the procedure for rail closures. The speeches which have been made today show that the subject needs explaining again, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) for giving me tie opportunity to do so.

There are two groups of problems. First, the ordinary man wants to know, "How will this affect me? What alternatives are there? Shall I still be able to get to my work, to the shops, or to my holiday resort?" Secondly, there are questions which concern mainly the Government and local authorities—how this will affect the roads and road traffic, the prospects for the development of the area, defence plans and so on. The closure procedure provides for the consideration of both aspects.

I will deal, first, with the position as it affects this individual. The procedure should, in the first place, see that he knows how he will be affected by it. Secondly, it should give him an opportunity to ledge an objection. Thirdly, it should see that he can present his case fully and have it fully considered. The closure machinery meets these three points—and I want to stress that. First, it should le people know what is going to happen. The Railways Board has to publish advance information on closures in accordance with directions which I have given it under Section 54 of the Transport Act, 1962. This gives ample advance warning. Most of the closures now being considered were published in the Beeching Report in March, so that plenty of notice has been given.

But when the Board wishes to go ahead it must give notice in accordance with Section 56(7). This, first, tells people what they need to know, such as the details of the services to be closed, alternative bus services available, extra bus services to be provided, and how to lodge objections; and, secondly, is published where people can see it, in the local newspapers and on the stations which people use—if, in fact, they use those stations.

When the notice is published, anyone who uses the line may lodge an objection. I repeat, "anyone". He has seven weeks in which to do it from the first appearance of the notice of closure. If there is one objection— indeed, if there is only one objection—the closure cannot take place without my consent, and the full procedure is put in motion. When I say "anyone", I mean anyone. The effective first petition in one case has been lodged by a 10-year-old boy who goes by train to Pitlochry for his music lessons on a Saturday. This may be the only objection in this case. But it is just as effective and will be just as carefully considered as an objection from a county council.

I turn to the alternative services. One of the things which matters most to the present user of a rail service is the alternative service. When they advertise a closure, the railways say what alternative services they think will be available. One of the most important parts of the report of a transport users consultative committee is that which deals with these services. If someone is told that his railway line will be closed, his first reaction may be "Don't do it"; but his second reaction may be, "How do I get from A to B if there is no train?" That is what interests him most— getting from A to B if A, the station on his line, is to be closed.

Hon. Members opposite often say that there ought to be a comprehen- sive transport plan before any railway lines are closed. The hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Gunter) has gone as far as anybody. Not only does he want the whole of rail, road, air and sea services looked at comprehensively, but I understand that he wants to take into account hovercraft as well, and also the laying of pipelines. That is of no use to the man actually using the railway service; he wants to know how to get from A to B. That is when the T.U.C.C. gets down to great detail, on how to get from A to B. If the man learns that a pipeline is being built in Birmingham or London, that will not help him to get from A to B.

Mr. Millan


Mr. Marples

I am sorry, but I hope that I shall not be interrupted, because we have taken up a lot of time already.

Getting from A to B is what T.U.C.C.s are interested in. They consist of persons who give their services voluntarily and most of them are appointed after consultation with a wide variety of local interests. I should like to pay a tribute to the way they have tackled their very heavy volume of work and for the immense assistance they have given to me, though their careful and detailed examination of every closure.

Questions have been asked in the House today, and elsewhere about their functions and procedure. Why do they not conduct their business on more formal and judicial lines? Why do they not allow objectors to cross-question the Board's representatives on the justification of a proposal? Why are they not supplied with the fullest possible estimates of the financial effects of proposals? Why do they not consider all the factors in a case such as its effect on local employment or the location of industry?

These questions can be answered only when we realise what the committee's job is and why. It is not their job to say whether a closure proposal is commercially justified. That decision rests firmly with the Board. It is not their job to say whether the closure should take place. This can only be done by someone who has all the facts available. The facts would include the cost of investment in new roads, the risk of road congestion, plans for industrial or housing development, the needs of defence, the possibility of establishing new towns, and many others. On these points, in general, the facts are known. They are available to the central and local government. What is needed is to assess the relative importance of all the various factors. This is not a job for a committee representing users. It is a job which only the Government can do. It must be done by my colleagues and myself. We cannot pass on the responsibility to anyone else, and do not seek to do so.

What, then, is the job of the T.U.C.Cs.? It is, first, to hear and assess the evidence of hardship to people who will be personally affected by the closure, secondly, to consider whether any alternative services are needed, and, thirdly, to make proposals, if they wish, for such services. For this purpose all objectors have a chance of making their case to the committee, and this applies to those who cannot afford legal representation as well as to those who can.

The informal procedure makes the committee accessible to those who might be afraid to appear before a more formal one. A schoolboy appeared before the London committee last week. And why not? If he and his friends use the trains they have as much right to be heard as anyone else. The schoolboy was most assiduous in his work; there are 450 regular users of the train and he produced a petition with 1,000 signatures.

Another question is: why do not the committees get detailed financial information? Why cannot objectors challenge the Board's estimates of savings it will make? The committees do get some financial figures. They get these because they have asked for them. They find it helpful to have some idea of the sums involved as background knowledge and to help them avoid wasting effort on considering in detail alternative services whose cost would be far greater than the cost of the service they replaced.

The provision of these figures is essentially a matter between the Railways Board and the T.U.C.Cs., but in view of the interest shown in the subject by hon. Members and others I decided to ask an eminent accountant to examine the situation. I took the advice of the President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, and, as the House knows, on his recommendation I asked Sir William Carrington to do the job. His report is available in the Library.

Sir William's main conclusion is that the figures currently supplied by the Railways Board are appropriate for the purposes of the consultative committees and are compiled on bases which are well founded and sound in principle. I should like to interpose here and say that I am sorry that the hon. Member for Craigton, who is a chartered accountant himself, saw fit to accuse Sir William Carrington of "muddled thinking"—I say muddled thinking in quotes—in making his report. He is an eminent chartered accountant appointed on the recommendation of the President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. He is impartial and has professional skill.

The committees have accepted his findings, but the figures are not open to question at the T.U.C.Cs.' hearings and the reason for this is twofold. First, because it is not the committees' job—

Mr. Millin


Mr. Marples

I am sorry, but the hon. Member had a very fair hearing and other hon. Members have taken a lot of time, and I think that we must remember there are other subjects to discuss.

Mr. Millan

I wanted only to raise a point about Sir William Carrington.

Mr. Marples

This is because it is not the committees' job, as I have explained, to examine the Railway Board's case for the closure and, secondly, because the figures are only intended as background information. They are not relevant to the committees' main job of assessing hardship. For the same reason committees do not normally allow objectors to cross-examine the railway representative about the figures, but they are normally allowed to question him about matters of detail within the committees functions such as details of the proposed closure, alternative services, statistics of the use of the line, the number of passengers joining and alighting, and so on. But the Railways Board has to give me, as the responsible Minister, the fullest available financial information before I reach my decision.

I have dealt with the T.U.C.Cs' job and the way they carry it out. I have explained how the other information which may be relevant reaches me from local authorities, from my colleagues in the Government and from the Railways Board. All this is brought together in my Department. It is considered with the greatest care and in the greatest detail. I wish that I could show some of my files to hon. Members who have expressed doubt about this procedure. How do we actually go about it? First, a schedule is drawn up showing all the features of the case, including the details of the service to be closed, the use made of it, the existing alternative services, and those proposed by the Board, or by the T.U.C.C., the number and nature of the objections, the proceedings before the T.U.C.C. and its findings, representations on subjects other than hardship made by local authorities or others, the views of hon. Members who have written to me or attended and spoken at the hearing, a note of points drawn to my attention by other Departments, and a report on the effect of the closure on roads and road traffic by my divisional road engineer, or the chief road engineer in Scotland.

This schedule is considered by a working party of officials of all the Departments affected, and the various sides of my own Department. Where closures in Scotland and Wales are concerned the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister for Welsh Affairs will be represented. The working party considers all aspects of the case. If necessary, it gets additional information. Then it makes a recommendation to me.

When I receive the papers, they include advice from all the Departments on the implications of the proposal as well as the views of the T.U.C.C. If necessary, I can then consult my colleagues further, as I always consult the Secretary of State for Scotland on Scottish cases. Then I have available to me a vast amount of information, but it may happen that in one or two cases—and this possibly happens mostly in conurbations—I still have not enough to make a final judgment. In that case I will commission further studies or hold up the case until the results of a transport survey are available. But I cannot accept that all closures in an area should be held up just because a transport survey is being started.

Some cases are quite clear-cut. There are lines with few passengers and vast losses, which we must get rid of. There are others of no use as railways, but whose routes are of value. Here, we can close the service while retaining the land. In each case I will try to find the right solution, but the taxpayers should not have to pay for services which cannot be of any real use. As a railway man said in a recent letter to the Daily Telegraph, it is not the Minister of Transport who is closing many of these lines. It is not even Dr. Beeching. It is the massive, cheerful, and indomitable refusal of the public to use them which is closing the lines.

I apologise for having gone rather wider than some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Craigton, but it is necessary to cover the whole range of their duties on closure proposals to show, first, how the T.U.C.Cs fit into the picture and, secondly, how the functions given them under the Transport Act, 1962, are the right functions, and that they have been appropriately exercised.

The committees concentrate on the hardship which may be caused to the individual user and on what really matters to the user: how he is to get from A to B. Will there be a bus? Will it connect with the main line train? Will it get him to his work on time? I rely upon these committees for advice on all these aspects of a case. Nine times out of ten I accept, with little change, if any, the committees' ideas of the alternative services required. Those services go into the schedule of conditions to my consent—sometimes pages of conditions.

That means that the rail service cannot be closed until the bus services are running. But the other factors which have to be considered are the province of central and local government. It is like our policy for transport—each bit does the job for which it is best suited. The result of all these arrangements is the presentation of a co-ordinated case to me, as the responsible Minister, for decision.

This does not mean rubber-stamping. I treat each case on its merits. Only this week I announced my decision on the Woodside-Sanderstead closure. In the circumstances of this case, closure could not be the right policy at this moment. So we are keeping the line open for three years. Our policy will continue to be to treat each case strictly on its merits, but relate it to the wider structure of planning and development; and, above all, to take account of the needs of the individual user.

I have been in this House a long time, and I can assure hon. Members that the Parliamentary Secretary and I examine the proposals with infinite care and attention to detail and literally spend hours on them. If we are not satisfied, we send them back for more information. Some of the things that have been said today show that there is widespread misunderstanding—Ishall not go further than saying that. We have had accusations that the Government are closing this or that service. But these are proposals made by the Railways Board. Dr. Beeching cannot effect the closure of a passenger line if one passenger objects. It has got to come to the Minister. I give great care and attention to detail, and I am quite satisfied myself that we are doing the job as well as it can possibly be done.

Mr. Millan

May I say one word, because the right hon. Gentleman would not allow me to interrupt, about the Carrington Report? Let me make it clear that I said that it was a muddled Report. I stand by that. But I was not, of course, accusing Sir William Carrington of professional incompetence. I was saying that he did not apply his mind to the question of what the functions of the committees were. That is where he goes wrong and where the Minister goes wrong as well.

Mr. Marples

It is on the record, and I do not want to argue it with the hon. Gentleman. I think that the phrase he used was "muddled thinking".

Mr. Millan


Mr. Marples

I did not say that the hon. Gentleman accused him of professional incompetence, but that he accused an eminent chartered accountant of being muddled in his thinking.

1.45 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

I shall not take up the time of the House for more than a few minutes, but there are two things which I should like to say. First, I do not disagree with the Minister in his definition of the duties and responsibilities of the transport users' consultative committees. Those duties were laid down in the 1962 Act, and we on this side of the House do not object to those definitions as they are stated. But there is one point in this connection that I should like to put to him.

There has been, as he is aware, very strong feeling in some parts of the country that the figures put forward to the transport users' consultative committees concerning some of the lines to be closed do not take into account various factors which should have been taken into account, and that the case for closing these particular lines is therefore weak. I agree that it is not the duty of the transport users' consultative committees to consider the calculations. They cannot do it; they are not equipped to do so. But what is worrying many of us is whether arguments to this effect will be fully considered by the Minister when a proposal comes to him for final decision.

If there is a strong case, which some of us may have—or anyone may have—that the figures respecting a certain closure are unjustifiably pessimistic, and should be revised in the light of other factors, will that argument be taken fully into account by the Minister when he comes to make his decision?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is aware—if not, he should be aware—of the great anxiety throughout the country about the major closures which are contemplated under the Beeching Report. I am not talking about small closures here or there, about which there may be very little difference of opinion, and which we do not oppose, but about those major closure proposals which have come to the transport users' consultative committees, and most of which are there now. For that reason the strong feeling which is held in the areas concerned has not been reflected in this House because the time has not come for that. The Minister has not yet become responsible for decisions.

But I want to warn him that when the time comes, when these proposals come before the Minister and, therefore, they become a ministerial responsibility and he is answerable to the House, public opinion will be reflected very vigorously indeed in the views expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, many of whom hold the view we expressed at an earlier stage, that the proposed closures go far too wide, and that Dr. Beeching was not able—and we fear that the Minister, by inclination, will not want to—to take sufficiently into account the economic and social consequences the closures will bring about.

Today, we have had a preliminary skirmish about some of these proposals, but when the time comes—it may not be far distant—I am certain that we shall hear in this House very much more vigorous and stronger objections, and on more formal occasions, to some of the large-scale closures which are proposed and which, we fear, the Minister of Transport will quite improperly agree to.

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