HC Deb 06 February 1964 vol 688 cc1333-7
Q3 Mr. Ross

asked the Prime Minister (1) if he will make a statement on the discussions he had recently with the delegation representing Scottish interests on the subject of rail closures in Scotland;

(2) if he will make a statement on the co-ordination of the activities of the Minister of Transport and the Secretary of State for Scotland with regard to proposed rail closures in Scotland.

Q7. Dr. Dickson Mabon

asked the Prime Minister what assurances he gave to the deputation to him making representations against railway closures on 27th January, 1964.

Q8. Mr. W. Hamilton

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his recent talks with representatives of the Scottish Council concerning the probable effects of extensive rail closures on the Scottish economy.

Q9. Mr. Milan

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his official meeting on 27th January with representatives of the North of Scotland Transport Conference and others on the question of rail closures in Scotland.

Q21. Mi. Manuel

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement regarding the assurances he gave to the Scottish deputation which met him last week in regard to decisions on the closure of Highland railway lines.

Q24. Mr. Malcolm MacMillan

asked the Prime Minister if he will specify the new assurances which he gave to the delegation from the Scottish Council and others on 27th January, regarding the measures which will be taken and the procedure to be followed, and the likely time involved, before the proposed withdrawal of passenger or other railway services in the Highlands will be made effective.

The Prime Minister

With permission, I will answer this Question and Question Nos. 6, 7, 8, 9, 21 and 24 together. I would refer—

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan

On a point of order. To protect the rights of hon. Members and to avoid the Prime Minister using the device of a previous Written Answer on these Questions, which he is obviously going to do, will you please notice, Mr. Speaker, that Questions Nos. 21 and 24 are about specific Highland matters and not on the generalities which the Prime Minister is now trying to answer?

Mr. Speaker

The Questions are as appears on the Order Paper. It is known to the House, from one of my own Rulings and others, that I am not concerned with the question of Ministers answering Questions together.

Mr. MacMillan

In which case, Mr. Speaker, may I ask the Prime Minister to give specific answers to quite different Questions?

The Prime Minister

The Answer I was about to give was this: I would refer the hon. Members to the reply which I gave to the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) on 4th February.

Mr. Ross

Making all due allowance for the tendency of people who go on delegations to see the Prime Minister to mistake courtesy for agreement, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware that there has been an incredible confusion of claims of concession and departmental denial? Did he, during the course of this meeting, either implicitly or explicitly, give this delegation any reason to believe that there would be a lapse of two to three years between the presentation of the Report of the Transport Users' Consultative Committee's inquiry coming into the hands of the Ministry of Transport and the Minister making his decision?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I told the deputation, as the communiqué after the meeting said, that all considerations would be taken into account by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Transport, but that we must go through the T.U.C.C. procedure.

Dr. Mabon

Is there any substantial difference between now and before the right hon. Gentleman met the deputation in relation to assurances? Can he explain why in the Scotsman and the Daily Record Lord Polwarth, the leader of the deputation, made it clear that the Prime Minister had given a specific assurance about what he called "time to do what must be done," and that Lord Polwarth called the interpretation of this phrase, "No major rail closures for at least two or three years"? Seriously, does the right hon. Gentleman realise quite seriously that any reputation he has for straight talking is now very much in doubt?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman says. It has been made quite clear. The chairman of the Scottish Council said that the Council had never said or implied that there would be a three-year stop on every closure in Scotland, and I never gave any such indication. What I said, and repeat, is that every consideration must be taken into account, economic and social. What time that will take I cannot say, but the Minister is obliged to take account of all those considerations.

Mr. W. Hamilton

Is the Prime Minister aware that if that assurance is worth anything—namely that he will take into account all the social and economic implications involved—it will mean waiting for the regional plans which the Government say they have in train for the Highlands and other areas? Is he aware that, on the Government's own admission, these reports cannot be produced within the next 18 months to two years? If he is aware of this and if the Prime Minister's assurances, are worth anything at all—and we very much doubt whether they are—the implication must surely be that there must be no railway closures for at least two years?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman continually doubts my assurances I do not know why he goes on asking for them.

Mr. Millan

Is it not rather extraordinary that the members of this delegation, who are not unintelligent men, came away from the meeting with the Prime Minister with the firm impression that the Beeching closures were to be delayed for up to three years? Was that assurance not given by the Prime Minister and, if not, could he give an assurance now that the Beeching programme will not be proceeded with in Scotland until these various investigations into economic and social consequences have been made by the Government?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the delegation came away with no such impression. [Interruption.] The impression they came away with was the right one, which I have given; that we would take the necessary time to look into all the considerations involved in the closure of any railway.

Mr. Manuel

Why did the Prime Minister not give the assurances asked for by the delegation? Is he aware that the Highland local authorities, in connection with rail closures and passenger train withdrawals, in the seven crofter counties estimate that road improvement works would cost about £20 million if these closures take place? If so—and I am sure that the Prime Minister does not doubt the word of these local authorities—will not the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would take much longer even than three years to provide the necessary road improvement works to allow the closures to take place? Does he not agree that he could have told the delegation that with perfect safety and, at the same time, have had the backing of these seven Highland local authorities?

The Prime Minister

That is no doubt one of the considerations which my right hon. Friends will take into account and about which, no doubt, we shall hear when the Highland Transport Board reports to the Secretary of State.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Tiley

On a point of order. Is not all this tedious repetition, and is it not rather shocking that Question Time should be used in this way?

Mr. Speaker

It is even worse that it should be used to raise points of order which are not points of order.

Mr. Malcolm Macmillan

Would the Prime Minister clarify several points? First, will he give some sort of reasonable time limit for the report on the Highland Plan, on which so much of this is based? Secondly, will he make it quite clear, after all the ballyhoo in the Press, and in spite of Lord Polwarth's statement, that the short answer to the question about any assurances of any kind having been given to this delegation is that no assurances of any kind were given which had not been repeatedly given on the Floor of the House? Thirdly, can he say whether that will be the limit of his reply and assurances to any further delegations on this subject, right up to election time?

The Prime Minister

No assurances were given to the delegation that I have not given time and again in this House. I am thinking of having a gramophone record made to save the time of hon. Members.