HC Deb 04 June 1965 vol 713 cc2219-34

3.50 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Royle (Richmond, Surrey)

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) has been talking of the extraction of water; I am glad that he has ceased to extract time from my Adjournment debate.

I should like to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for yet again giving me the opportunity to raise the subject of the passenger services on the Richmond to Broad Street railway line. I apologise to the Parliamentary Secretary for dragging him here for the final debate before the Whitsun Recess. I am sure that he is, as I am, anxious to get away, as this has been an extremely busy week. I would also say how much we on this side of the House are mindful of the hard work that he has put in at the Ministry over the last few months. We realise that he carries much of the burden of the Department in the House of Commons. He has carried it with great ability, and I congratulate him. I hasten to add that this will not stop me making criticisms this afternoon.

My aim is to try to persuade the Minister to end the existing uncertainty about the future of the passenger services on the Richmond to Broad Street line. The proposal to close these railway services was contained in the original Beeching Report in 1962. As I said on 11th December, 1964, I have always fully supported Dr. Beeching's modernising proposals for British Railways, but everyone probably accepts that certain proposals can be classed as major closures that are clearly unacceptable for various social reasons. The passenger services on the Richmond to Broad Street line come under that category.

The Minister has said on previous occasions in the House that he considers that proposals for major closures should always be looked at carefully. I suspect that behind the scenes he probably accepts that these passenger services must not be stopped, but I want him to say so in public. That is why I asked for this debate.

I have put the case against the closure of passenger services time and time again, and did so in the Adjournment debate on 11th December last, so I will not go into details now. A great deal of work has also been done by various committees, from Richmond to Hampstead, and they have produced extremely well-documented and impressive evidence to show why these services should not be ended. In spite of this, and of our debate last December, no action has been taken by the Government to end the uncertainty.

The Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister of Transport himself must be ashamed of the shabby story of broken faith with the electorate and the House of Commons. During the General Election campaign, pledges were made by Labour candidates in the constituencies through which the line runs that on taking office a Labour Government would remove the uncertainty about the future of the passenger services. I do not think that any hon. Member opposite will deny that. In our debate on 11th December last, the hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) indicated, in column 2076 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, his assent to this statement. So far, that pledge has been broken, because no effort at all has been made to end the uncertainty.

I turn now to the debate of 11th December, 1964. In that debate certain statements were made by the Parliamentary Secretary who is to answer the debate this afternoon. As reported at the foot of column 2080, he said: I have the utmost sympathy for the users of the line in their state of uncertainty and the fact that they are having to wait a very long time for an announcement to be made about its future. I can say that we and the Board are extremely anxious to come as quickly as possible to a definite conclusion on this matter, from the point of view of railway efficiency and finance and the social values involved. He went on: The Board has now told me that it hopes to reach a definite conclusion on the basis of all this within the next month or so. That was 11th December, 1964. He said: I cannot say what the conclusion will be. Only then shall we know exactly whether, for financial reasons, the Board still proposes to close the line or, perhaps, merely some of the stations on it or to withdraw the proposal altogether. At the end of the speech, he said: However, I can tell them two things. The first is that very soon indeed we shall have from the Railways Board either the cancellation of the proposal, or the full proposal or a modified proposal, and that will go through the 'early sift' procedure and be immediately considered by the Minister."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th December, 1964; Vol. 703, c. 2080–84.] That is nearly six months ago, and since then nothing has happened whatsoever. Since 11th December, 1964, some of my hon. Friends and myself, and some hon. Members opposite, have put down a series of questions to the Minister on this subject. One was put down on 11th February. The answer was received two-and-a-half months after that debate, and it was: The Board has not yet put any proposals to me. I understand that it is still examining possible ways of maintaining an economic service. I hope to have its proposals before very long."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th February, 1965; Vol. 706, c. 122.] On 24th February we finally received a statement from the British Railways which stated that the examination is aimed at determining whether more economic ways of running the service can be evolved while at the same time affording a satisfactory service to the public. New possibilities have enabled several alternative solutions to be studied, but until the whole examination is completed it is not the intention to make any proposal to withdraw the service nor does it follow that the outcome will result in such a proposal. The region appreciates the public anxiety and intends to resolve this matter as quickly as possible. Following this, during March and April, some of my hon. Friends and myself, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Dudley Smith) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Brooke), who is sorry that he is unable to be here but supports me today, asked further Parliamentary Questions of the Minister about what had happened. All that we got, I am afraid, was more evasion. At one point the Minister told me in the House that there was no uncertainty and that the statement by British Railways had ended it, when it was clear that it had done nothing of the sort.

I again look back to what the Parliamentary Secretary said on 11th December— The Board has now told me that it hopes to reach a definite conclusion on the basis of all this within the next month or so". I cannot help feeling that the Parliamentary Secretary must be a trifle embarrassed at having to sit here this afternoon and must feel that this is a sad story of unfulfilled pledges and assurances.

The Parliamentary Secretary is a member of a Government who were elected as a dynamic Government. Certainly there has been no sign of dynamism in reaching a decision on this matter over the past six months. I do not place any blame, and I do not think my hon. Friends place any blame, on British Railways. They have been making a detailed study and survey of the situation on this line. They have been making a great effort to obtain economies, which I welcome. Indeed, I have always had the utmost co-operation and courtesy in any inquiries which I have made from British Railways. The Region are making a mammoth effort to try to avoid closing the passenger service, and I in no way criticise them.

The criticism which I make is that I do not see why the Minister could not relieve anxiety by saying that if British Railways find that they are unable to make the necessary economies, and if they submit a firm proposal to the Minister stating that they intend to cut down or to stop the passenger services on the line, he will make it quite clear that he would turn down any such proposal.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Royle

In reply to a Question in the House on 11th November, as reported in column 999, the Minister said: As a matter of fact, with regard to a great many lines I shall ensure that there will be no uncertainty in the public mind at all, because the proposals will be put to me and I will make up my mind without putting the public to any uncertainty."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th Nov., 1964; Vol. 701, c. 999.] That statement reads strangely this afternoon.

I must confess to a feeling of gloom when I read the answer of Wednesday of this week to a Question put to the Minister on 2nd June. In reply to a Question from me as to whether the Railways Board have yet completed their investigation into passenger services, the Minister said: I understand that the Board's investigations are now nearing completion and that it expects to make an announcement within the next few weeks."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd June, 1965; Vol. 713, c. 228.] I do not know how long that will be or whether we shall have a decision by the Government before the next General Election—or whether the candidates all the way down the line when we have an October Election, as I expect we shall, will again be forced to say that they will end the uncertainty if a Labour Government is elected. It will be very difficult for them.

May I put some points to the Parliamentary Secretary. A firm proposal to close the passenger services has not yet been finally put to the Minister, although in principle it was suggested in the original report by Dr. Beeching. It is clearly unacceptable to the Minister if that proposal is made, for several reasons. I will not detail them beyond mentioning, in passing, the hardship which will be caused and the intolerable strain which will be placed on London Transport, because the Broad Street line provides a vital link across north-west London. For these and many other reasons, it is clear that the passenger services cannot be withdrawn. Will the Parliamentary Secretary therefore announce, in answer to this debate, that if a firm proposal to close the passenger services is put to him or his right hon. Friend by British Railways, he will not accept it and that he will class this suggestion as a major closure and, therefore, not allow the passenger services to be withdrawn?

That is all that the Parliamentary Secretary has to say today. It is quite easy. His right hon. Friend and himself have been making heavy weather of this for many months. By making a statement this afternoon, the hon. Gentleman would not only fulfil the election pledges which his party's candidates made before the election all the way down the line, but he would fulfil the assurances which have been given in the House by his right hon. Friend and himself on many occasions. He would end the uncertainty which is in the minds of many people who travel on the line day by day and, last, but not least, the hon. Member would give a great deal of pleasure to the hon. Member for Richmond, who would finally be successful in his efforts to get the line saved. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman would give great pleasure not only to hon. Members on this side, but also to hon. Friends on his own side of the House who have an interest in the line and two of whom I am glad to see present this afternoon.

I beg the hon. Gentleman to think again, to give a positive statement to finish this unnecessary controversy, which has gone on for far too long.

4.4 p.m.

Mr. Bernard Floud (Acton)

I join the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) in thanking you, Mr. Speaker, for enabling this debate to take place. I also join the hon. Member in his tribute to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who, as we all know, has carried an enormously heavy burden, particularly on Adjournment debates, during the present Session, mainly in dealing with requests by hon. Members opposite that the policy of the Minister of Transport in their Government should be reversed.

This is the first occasion when, as the Member for Acton, I have had an opportunity of speaking on the subject of the Richmond-Broad Street line and I should like briefly to refer to the importance of the line to people who live and work in Acton. The line traverses my constituency of Acton from south-west to north-east, with two stations in the constituency and one just outside it. It is of great importance not only to those who live in Acton, but to the many people who come to work there.

People who live in Acton use the line during the week to go to work in the City or in other parts of London. School-children in large numbers use it to go to and from school. In a constituency where 50,000 people come in from outside each day to work, a line of this nature is of considerable importance to them. We should not forget also the importance of the line at week ends and at holidays. For people who live in Acton, it provides a unique and easy method of travelling from Acton to such open spaces as Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park and Kew Gardens. They can get there far more quickly than by any other method.

Therefore, from the viewpoint of my constituents, the line is of real economic and social value. The closure of the passenger services would bring a great deal of genuine distress to many people in the constituency, a great deal of inconvenience to many people who use it regularly to go to and from work and, undoubtedly, increased congestion on the other routes which they would have to use.

My view is not merely that the line should be kept open, but that there is a strong case for developing the services on the line and making it much more attractive than it is at present. There is room for better services, certainly later during the evening. Many people who wish to travel on the line to see their friends in the evening are able to make their outward journey on the line only to find that there is practically no means of coming back along the line because of the scarcity of the evening services. It would also be well worth the while of the Railways Board to make the stations on the line a little more attractive. This in itself would do something to increase traffic.

I have never been convinced by the argument which has been advanced that it is impossible to include the line on London Transport maps. I accept the difficulty of transferring responsibility for the line from British Railways to London Transport—that would be difficult because of the freight complications—but I cannot see why it should not be included on the London Transport maps. I believe that there are many hundreds of thousands of people in London who have no knowledge of the existence of the line and who, if it were brought to their attention by being shown on London Transport maps, would use it and find it extremely valuable.

For all these reasons, I have always been convinced that on any intelligent consideration of the problem, taking into account not simply narrow profitability but the public service and economic and social needs, the decision must be that the line would and should be kept open.

The hon. Member for Richmond has referred to hon. Members on this side of the House who represent constituencies along the line making pledges, he says, at the time of the General Election. I merely told my constituents that I was convinced that if a Labour Government were returned to power the ultimate decision in this matter would be that the line would be kept open. Realising the unwieldy nature of some of these processes, I was not so unwise as to say that the decision could or would be taken immediately, because I realised that this might be more difficult.

In considering this question, we are entitled to consider why the uncertainty has existed and why the line has ever been in jeopardy. The simple answer is—because of the policies and doctrinaire attitudes of the former Conservative Government and, in particular, of the former Minister of Transport, the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples).

Mr. Royle

The hon. Gentleman may not know, because he was not in the last Parliament, that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Dudley Smith) and I opposed my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), who was then Minister of Transport, in his attitude to the Richmond-Broad Street line, in the same way as we oppose the present Minister's attitude.

Mr. Floud

I accept that entirely. Indeed, I knew it.

What we have on this occasion, and what we have had on many occasions since I have been in the House, is the spectacle of hon. Members opposite who supported the Transport Act, 1962, and who in general terms supported the Beeching proposals, pleading that these proposals should not apply to their constituencies. This is the not unusual technique, in my experience, of Tories suggesting that the rules should apply to everyone but themselves.

I have always been convinced, as I have said, that on any proper assessment of the problem the decision would ultimately be taken that the line should not be closed. The hon. Member for Richmond accuses the present Government, who have been in office for only about seven months, of being extremely dilatory in this matter. In fact, the proposal that the line should be closed was made many years ago and the previous Minister of Transport had much longer than seven months in which to make up his mind.

When the Minister is in a position, on the basis of recommendations from the Railways Board, to give us a decision on this matter, I am confident that the deci- sion will be that the passenger services on this line will not be closed. When that time comes, I agree entirely that all those who live along the line will owe a debt of gratitude to those who have campaigned individually and collectively, particularly the joint committee which, as the hon. Member for Richmond has said, has produced such good publications and information on this subject. They should also remember, if they are honest, that the fact that the line has ever been in jeopardy at all and that there has ever been uncertainty about whether it should continue to exist is entirely and solely due to the attitude of the party opposite and, in particular, of the Minister of Transport in the Conservative Government.

Although it is said that there is no gratitude in politics, I hope that, when the decision is announced, as I am sure that it will eventually be announced—the sooner the better—that the line will be kept open, those along the line will realise that they owe a debt of gratitude to those who have campaigned for it and that thanks will be due to the fact that we now have a Labour Government and a Labour Minister who view these problems from the point of view not simply of narrow profitability and financial accounting, but of the social and economic needs of the area and of those who live in it.

4.13 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Smith (Brentford and Chiswick)

This may seem to be a very narrow and parochial matter at the end of a day of very interesting and varied Adjournment debates. Nevertheless, I assure the House that it affects many people living in the London area. Although I agree with some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Floud), I must disagree entirely with some of the polemical points he made towards the end of his speech.

I pay great tribute to the assiduity of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) for continually pressing this point, not only during the time of the former Government, but certainly in the course of the last four or five months. But for him, this matter might have died a natural death. He has constantly pressed this point, and I hope that in the end he will be successful.

The hon. Member for Acton made play of the fact that this was an ideal of the last Government. I am positive that, if we had been re-elected last October, all the doubts about the line would have been dispelled and there would have been an announcement by now that the line was to remain in existence.

I should like briefly to support my hon. Friend. This is and always has been a special case. It is not one of the ordinary branch lines where hon. Members say, "This is a good plan for British Railways as a whole, but my line is peculiar and should be exempted." The line is almost an integral part of the London Transport system and if it is closed many hundreds of people would converge on to buses and the rest of the underground railway. I agree with the hon. Member for Acton that if only the line were incorporated into the London Transport system there would be far greater patronage of it than there is at present.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond that many specious promises were made at the election about the closure of this line. I exempt the hon. Member for Acton, but there were others who said that if the Labour Government were elected the line would be kept open and a decision made quickly. My opponent made that promise in my presence in the local town hall. He has now been replaced by another candidate and I hope that the same thing will not happen at the next election.

There is a great deal of feeling about this matter. If we could dispel the propaganda atmosphere of party politics we would all realise that a large number of people are concerned about the line. They feel that after 18 months' waiting there should be an announcement of what will happen. They still use the line, but they are worried that eventually an announcement will be made that it is unprofitable and will be closed down and they will have to find alternative means of transport.

I acquit the Parliamentary Secretary of discourtesy. The matter does not rest with him. It is a matter for Ministerial decision. The hon. Gentleman is one of the hardest-working members of the Government. I read in a newspaper the other day that he has answered a record number of Adjournment debates. He always seems to be here; he observes the utmost diligence in the pursuance of his duties. Nevertheless, the hon Gentleman is a worthy enough man to convey to the Minister that there are strong feelings on this subject and that the time is approaching when we should have a decision.

As a result of the activities of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond we have had two or three Adjournment debates on this subject and innumerable Parliamentary Questions. The time has now come for British Railways to say whether or not they propose to close the line and for the Minister to say whether or not he will countenance such a proposal. If, as the Parliamentary Secretary has said in an Answer, a proposal comes forward from British Railways in the next few weeks, and if that says that the line will be closed, will the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that the Government will say, "No. This is an important part of the London Transport system and whatever may be the question of the finances of the line it is essential that it should be kept open in the general interest of the public"? If the hon. Gentleman does that, he will earn the gratitude of hon. Members on both sides of the House and many people outside the House.

4.18 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

This is the second time that the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle) has raised this subject on the Adjournment. The hon. Gentleman started by making some rather nice remarks about me. I suppose that he hopes that he has softened me up, but I would point out that the hon. Gentleman's assiduity did not run to raising this matter on the Adjournment in the last Parliament. It was raised on the Adjournment by my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) and of course other hon. Members have played a part in other ways in raising this issue.

I must say once again that the constitutional and formal position of the line has not changed since the publication of Dr. Beeching's Report. The Richmond-Broad Street line is still listed in that Report for closure. But let me repeat that no proposal has been made to the Minister of Transport and therefore, since the publication of the Beeching Report, it has not fallen to the Minister of Transport to take any decision whatsoever about this line.

How did this situation arise? This is the second occasion on which we have discussed this matter, and it is fair enough to state the position. It arose because the Conservative Government insisted that the British Railways Board must pay its way. The Conservative Government imposed on the Board the statutory obligation to pay its way. Moreover, the Conservative Government and Minister of Transport instructed the Board, which that Government set up, to apply the profitability test to every local line and station. Those are the facts. During the last Parliament, we had many discussions about the terms of reference given to Dr. Beeching and the basic assumptions on which the Report was made. This line is listed for closure in the Report because of the application of the profitability test.

Hon. Members opposite are constantly denouncing nationalised industries for not paying their way. They are constantly pressing us about alleged extravagance in public spending, including the Treasury obligation to cover the railways deficit. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Acton says, we have a queue of Tory Members asking the Minister of Transport for heavy subsidies for their lightly used railway lines and stations. This has been my persistent experience.

Apart from Adjournment debates, I have been pressed to receive deputations from hon. Members who have in their constituencies railway services and stations which are notoriously unremunerative, which cannot pay their way and which do not fulfil the profitability test of the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples). Nevertheless, they press on us that these lines should be heavily subsidised by public spending. Some people might call this a piece of organised hypocrisy.

While the constitutional and formal position of the Richmond-Broad Street line has not changed, the policies have changed, because we have a Labour Government. Which policies have changed? First, we have declared for a co-ordinated and integrated transport system, and we are determined that this shall be established. Second, we have declared for economic planning, and the Government are engaged in establishing the machinery for economic and social planning. Third, we apply the test of social cost and benefit, which is of the greatest importance, to railway closures and, in road transport, to road schemes. We apply the test of what is the social significance and value compared with the social cost, and we make our judgment.

That is why out of the first 13 railway closure proposals put to my right hon. Friend by the Railways Board, he rejected five. He refused to give consent to five out of the first 13 proposed railway closure proposals—some of my hon. Friends thought that he should have refused more—on the ground that these lines should be kept open, not because of their profitability, unfortunately, but because of their social benefit and necessity for the community.

Moreover, in recognition of this, in January, when we in the Ministry of Transport managed to mount on Merseyside a conurbation/land-use transport survey with all the local authorities and transport providers, the Railways Board suspended the very controversial proposal to close the Liverpool-Southport line.

Mr. Royle

We want to save the Richmond-Broad Street line.

Mr. Swingler

The hon. Gentleman has waited quite a long time since the Beeching Report and he must learn to be a little patient. I am pointing out the principles of policy which are now governing the situation.

I come to the statement made by the Railways Board which was foreshadowed in my reply to the debate last December, when the hon. Member for Richmond first raised this matter. What did this statement say in the light of the policies which I have just mentioned? It said the Board was carrying out a new and comprehensive examination of the situation of the Richmond-Broad Street line. It said: This examination is aimed at determining whether more economic ways of running the service can be evolved while at the same time affording a satisfactory service to the public". That was the new approach published by the Railways Board on 24th February in the light of the newer policies governing the situation.

One point in passing, the Richmond-Broad Street line is now on the large map of London Transport. Hon. Gentlemen should inform themselves a bit better, and if they inquire of London Transport they will find a new—since the Labour Government came in—map of the situation and that that line is on it.

Finally, I will spell this out for those who can understand the principles on which this Government are founded. In the light of the statements of my right hon. Friend, this should not be necessary and the situation should not cause the anxiety and uncertainty which is alleged, but let me spell out what the situation is for those who can understand the present Government's policies. I have the full authority of my right hon. Friend to say this.

Those who understand the significance of the principles of the present Government will realise that the railway service represented by the Richmond-Broad Street line is going to continue. They will appreciate and understand, if they understand the principles to which I have referred, and the meaning of the transport policy which is being pursued by my right hon. Friend, that the railway service represented by the present line is going to continue.

In what form will it continue? We have set up a national board and charged people with responsibility for railway operations. We in the Ministry of Transport are not conducting railway operations. We have charged people with responsibility for working out the very difficult technical problems and problems of financial management and viability and so on. But I am saying quite categorically that those who can apply the principles about transport co-ordination, about the test of social cost and benefit, to the situation to which our attention has been drawn this afternoon, will see quite dearly that this railway service has got to continue in some form for the community's social benefit. We are in discussion with, and are awaiting proposals from, the Railways Board about how these principles are going to be applied.

Mr. Dudley Smith

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that when an application for closure comes the Government can guarantee that passenger services will be continued?

Mr. Swingler

Really. The hon. Gentleman must see that no proposal has come. As was said in the debate in December it would be foolish of hon. Gentlemen to expect me or my right hon. Friend to present views on a proposal we have not seen and do not know about. We cannot. How can we be asked to prejudge a proposal we have not seen? What I have said on the matter of principle of the transport policy we are pursuing should enable hon. Gentlemen and, I hope, the users of the Richmond-Broad Street line, if they apply the principles, to see that it is crystal clear that the railway service there will continue. Is that not enough? Will that not end the uncertainty? As the pattern evolves we shall see that the principles are applied to the proposals when they come.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock, till Monday, 14th June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 1st June.