HC Deb 04 November 1964 vol 701 cc195-203
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Tom Fraser)

Mr. Speaker, with your permission and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the closure of railway passenger services.

As the House knows, no passenger closure can take place without my consent. While regional transport plans are being prepared, I shall not consent to any major closure, by which I mean a closure which is likely to conflict with those plans. I shall accordingly consider all closure proposals against the background of future economic and population trends, taking fully into account the possible economic and social consequences, including road congestion.

I have, therefore, arranged with the British Railways Board that, even in those cases where I think it right to grant consent, the track will be retained for the time being unless I agree otherwise. The same arrangement will apply to those closures where consent has already been given, but where there is no commitment yet to dispose of the track.

I shall certainly refuse consent or attach appropriate conditions to a consent, where I think this is necessary on account of hardship. For example, I have today decided to refuse my consent to the closure of 12 stations between Carlisle and Hellifield and the withdrawal of local services from this line.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have asked me to stop closures to which my predecessor gave his consent, or to resume services already withdrawn. I am advised that I have no power under the Transport Act, 1962, to withdraw a consent already given or to insist on the restoration of a service already withdrawn. But I have power to vary or add to the conditions attached to those consents, and I shall not hesitate to do this where I think it desirable. In addition, there will be the safeguard about the retention of track which I have already mentioned.

I believe that unnecessary anxiety and uncertainty have been caused in the past by the operation of the full procedure in respect of certain closure proposals which might have been seen from the outset to be clearly unacceptable. In these cases time and energy were wasted in the long process of advertisement, hearing by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, report to the Minister, and detailed consideration by the governmental machine. While I do not at present propose to ask Parliament to modify the statutory procedure, I have arranged for particulars of each passenger closure to be sent to me when the Board are ready to publish it. I will examine these quickly in consultation with the other Ministers concerned so that I may inform the Railways Board at once if the proposal in question is obviously unacceptable—at least for the time being—on account of its potential importance to national or regional planning. In such a case the Board have agreed to defer publication.

In these ways we shall ensure that no irrevocable action is taken which might prejudice the development of policies of economic and transport planning; that there will be full and proper regard to the social and hardship considerations; and that, at the same time, the railways and the country can achieve immediate financial savings wherever this is justified.

Mr. Powell

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in the case of future statements, he would be careful to ensure that the usual courtesies about notice are observed? He has been good enough to apologise to me in this instance, but perhaps I may draw his attention to that.

With regard to the statement, while noting wryly that the first fruits of the attempt to "Go with Labour" are to hold up the modernisation of Britain's railways, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions? The first is whether he has made any estimate of how long it will be before the new regional authorities have drawn up the transport plans and, consequently, how long the uncertainty is likely to last, to which his statement is bound to give rise?

Secondly, although he cannot estimate the full extent of the loss which these delays will impose upon the community, can he estimate the direct additional burden on the taxpayer as a result of the deficits of British Railways not being reduced so speedily?

Mr. Fraser

The right hon. Gentleman did not have the statement very long before I made it, and I apologised for the shortness of the time. I will endeavour in future, as and when I have to make a statement, to give my opposite number a little more notice than the right hon. Gentleman had today. The right hon. Gentleman of course is, not surprisingly, against our trying to fit the transport provisions of the future into national and regional plans, because he is notoriously against planning, anyway.

Mr. Costain

Answer the question.

Mr. Fraser

The right hon. Gentleman asked how long it would take before these regional plans were drawn up. What I have said in my statement is that we shall halt major closures while these plans are being evolved. It does not necessarily follow that we cannot do anything until all these plans are completely tied up. We have to have regard to what are the potential developments in the areas affected by proposed closure. Nobody can say how long or how short it will be. Under the previous Administration there were very many closures that caused a great upset to a great many people. Hon. Members on both sides protested and have appealed to me in this past week to undo some of the work of my predecessor. While I cannot undo all that he did I do want conscientiously to try to serve the best interests of the country in dealing with the problems which lie ahead of me now.

With regard to the extent of the loss to the railways, the advantage of closures to the Railways Board's accounts is important, but it is sometimes grossly exaggerated.

The closures to which consent has been given up to now would save the Railways Board about £6 million a year and the additional closures—if the whole of the closures provided for in the Beeching Report were to be consented to—would give an additional saving of £20 million. But nobody, not even Dr. Beeching, thinks that he will get anything more than a very small part of that in the course of the next year. As none of us knows yet how many proposed closures will be consented to, it is impossible for me to make an estimate of the amount.

Mr. Renton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we shall not advance very fast into the technological age by turning the country into a museum of obsolete railways? To what extent does he propose to abandon the principles which his predecessor laid down about the criteria by which lines are to be kept open or closed?

Mr. Fraser

I think that my statement has made clear that I think my predecessor was wrong in the criteria he laid down. It seems to me that he attached too much importance to the financial considerations. Importance has to be attached to the financial considerations, but I say that many Members of his own party think that my predecessor attached too much importance to these considerations. I am trying to take account of the wider but equally important considerations—the social and economic considerations that must be taken into account.

Mr. Popplewell

Is the Minister aware that we on this side of the House are delighted with his statement today and that we congratulate him, so early in the life of this Parliament, in making such a forthright statement? May we commend him very much for keeping open those stations in the Carlisle area?

May I ask him now, in order to relieve further anxiety that is felt by a very large body, namely, in connection with the closure of the Great Central Line—61 miles of track and 1,500 railway-men involved—whether this will be classed as a major closure to which he will not give his consent until he goes further into the matter?

Could we take it, in view of my right hon. Friend's forthright observations, that the modernisation, involving converting steam locomotives of British Railways to diesels, will be ended, and that, instead, they will be converted to electricity that will utilise our own coal and so save us on the balance of payments difficulties?

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is about closures, not about diesels. I think that we must confine it to the matter of the Minister's statement.

Mr. Fraser

I can tell my hon. Friend that I have not had any proposals put before me concerning the Great Central Line yet. I shall certainly consider it, to prevent the case going through the full procedure if I decide that that is the right course when I get the proposals from the Railways Board.

Mr. Dance

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of this statement, is Question No. 167 invalidated? It is down in my name and refers specifically to the Redditch-Birmingham and Bromsgrove-Birmingham passenger services.

Mr. Speaker

The Question is on the Paper. Maybe its prospects are better than those of further supplementaries.

Mr. Galbraith

This statement is quite interesting. I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it really means anything, or whether it is merely window-dressing to satisfy his own supporters? He has been in the Ministry now for a fortnight and he will have had an opportunity of looking at the procedure and at the previous situation of the lines which have been closed. Could he tell the House whether he thinks that in any of these cases the economic or the social or the road conditions have not properly been considered?

Mr. Fraser

The hon. Member is aware that when he left St. Christopher House, two weeks ago, he left behind him 30 or 40 closure proposals to which, at that time, he had not been able to give his consideration. I think it my duty to turn my attention to them rather than to go back over the proposals to which he and his right hon. Friend gave consent, inasmuch as I have been informed that I have no power to withdraw that consent.

Mr. Driberg

While congratulating my right hon. Friend on restoring the idea of the social value of a public service—an idea obviously unacceptable on the other side of the House—may I ask him whether one of the major closures to which he will not give his consent is that of the Barking and Kentish Town Railway, since this closure would drive tens of thousands of peak-hour travellers on to the already overcrowded roads of north and east London?

Mr. Fraser

I am obliged to my hon. Friend, but I should be further obliged to him if he would not press me today on individual closures. I have a great pile of them in the office and I have to give each of them individual consideration.

Mr. Thorpe

May I, first, thank the Minister for his care in seeing that advance notice of the statement was given at any rate to the Liberal Party? May I ask him three short questions? First, when is he likely to be able to make a similar statement about goods traffic, with particular reference to his policy on goods lines and individual stations?

Secondly, if it be a fact that he is unable to reverse a closure decision already taken or to reopen a line already closed, will he not hesitate to ask for such legislative powers as amendment of the Transport Act, if that is necessary? Support might well be forthcoming from certain quarters.

Finally, may I press him a little further on major closures? If an hon. Member from any part of the House makes representations to him that what at first sight appears to be a minor closure could, in fact, lead to major economic consequences, will he be prepared to consider such representations?

Mr. Fraser

May I deal with the questions one at a time? First, under the Transport Act, 1962, I have no power to consider the withdrawal of freight services at all. Under the Act the Minister of Transport is free to consider only the withdrawal of passenger services. I do not therefore want to undertake just now to make any review of the freight services. This also arises from the hon. Member's second question about amendment of the law. If I am satisfied, on a little further consideration of these problems, that amendment of the law is necessary, I shall not hesitate to bring my proposals before the House.

On major closures, I made it clear in my statement that I would follow a certain procedure with the Railways Board, with which it has agreed, before its proposals are published at all, and that I would tell them that there was no point in publishing certain proposals. If hon. Members have in mind that there are certain closures listed in the Beeching Report which have not yet been published with a date given, and that these are major closures, I shall be very happy to receive communications from hon. Members about them.

Mr. W. Hamilton

Does my right hon. Friend's statement mean that in Scotland, and particularly the north of Scotland, there will be no further closures until the Highland Development Board is set up?

Mr. Fraser

As my hon. Friend is aware, the lines out of Inverness, the line to Wick and the line to Kyle were clearly major closures which were unacceptable from the start. The Secretary of State for Scotland at the time made it abundantly clear in the north of Scotland that he and his right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport in the previous Government could not possibly consent to the closures. But all the anxiety and all the distress was gone through.

That is the sort of thing which I want to avoid in future, but I do not want to commit myself to the individual lines which would not be major closures. I have to consider them on their merits. I have no doubt at all that I shall feel obliged to give my consent in certain cases, and I have also no doubt at all that I shall feel obliged to refuse my consent in other cases.

Mr. Powell

May I press the right hon. Gentleman a little further on the question of timing, to which his hon. Friend's question has just drawn particular attention? We understand that regional planning boards are to be set up and that these are to produce the regional transport plans referred to in his statement. Surely he must have some idea of the length of time which the evolution to which he has referred must take and during which this state of uncertainty is bound to last.

Mr. Fraser

I do not think that anything I have said today will give rise to any additional uncertainty. I have indicated that in a good many cases of major closures I shall remove the uncertainty from the start. We are here not discussing the major closures, but the others which will go through the procedure. The major closures will not proceed until we see what are the needs of certain areas. When the regional authorities are set up, they will presumably remain in being for a great many years and will render very great service to the country, giving great offence to the right hon. Gentleman in so doing, because it will be planning.

All I have to say today is that we are working out these plans. Before we reach finality, and publish reports about them, we shall begin to have an idea of what the transport needs of the area are. At that point I shall be able to have further consultation with the board about the railway lines serving that area.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this subject now.

Mr. Hector Hughes

On a point of order. It is apparent that advance notice was given to certain hon. Members of the statement which has just been made. No such notice was given to the north-east of Scotland and Aberdeen. Aberdeen has suffered greatly by these closures. Will you not allow a supplementary question from Aberdeen?

Mr. Speaker

I hate to disappoint Aberdeen or the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes). He has been here long enough to know the difficulties of these cases. In the general interest I have to bring these matters to a close. We ought to bring this matter to a close now.

Notice of presentation of Bills. Mr. MacDermot.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Further to that point of order.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and learned Member must be good enough to hear me. The question of which supplementary questions can be permitted on a statement is one for me and must, in the general interest, be one for me. I much regret that I have to disappoint anybody, and not least the hon. and learned Member, but the matter of asking whether he may put a supplementary question does not, strictly, raise a point of order at all—and, in any event, we have gone beyond that.

Mr. Manuel

On a point of order—Later

Mr. Speaker

I understand that the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) has a point of order.

Mr. Manuel

We have rather departed from it now, Sir. In connection with your Ruling about calling supplementary questions, I wonder whether you recognise certain staff responsibilities to railwaymen which some of us hold in the House. We seem continually to be passed over on these matters.

Mr. Speaker

I am not aware of deliberately passing over anybody. Distribution in these matters is very difficult and it has to be left to the Chair. On no occasion do I get away with bringing the discussion on a statement to an end without disappointing somebody and exciting protest, and I have to get used to it.