HC Deb 31 March 1965 vol 709 cc1650-5
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Tom Fraser)

Mr. Speaker, with your permission and that of the House, I will make a short statement on two aspects of policy in respect of railways, one of which affects other nationalised industries.

In my statement to the House on 4th November last, I explained that my policy on passenger closures was being developed in accordance with the Government's policy on national and regional planning. Now that regional economic planning councils and boards have been established for most of the country, I have decided to consult them about any proposed withdrawal of passenger services. Accordingly, as from today, where regional councils and boards exist they will be given full opportunity to advise me on the planning implications of any proposed closure for the regions with which they are concerned before I make a decision.

This arrangement will apply to all outstanding proposals published by the Railways Board on which I have not yet reached a decision and to all proposals which are published in the future. It will apply also to those not published, but referred to me to consider whether they are clearly unacceptable from the start under the special arrangement I announced in my previous statement.

This procedure will ensure that regional planning is not prejudiced by rail passenger closures and will ensure that, in those cases in which I decide that closures are justified, I have been able to take account of all relevant considerations.

As the House knows, I have also undertaken to make a further statement on workshop policy. This involves much more than British Railways workshops, although these are the establishments about which hon. Members have expressed most concern. The Government are convinced that not only the British Railways Board but other nationalised industries should be free to employ and develop their manufacturing resources to the best effect. We intend, therefore, as opportunity arises, to introduce legislation to remove the statutory limitations which impede the nationalised industries.

The reorganisation of the railways workshops is now almost complete and their modernisation well advanced. The removal of the restrictions will enable these national assets to be employed to the fullest extent.

Mr. Powell

While commiserating with the right hon. Gentleman on having failed to stop the leak in his Department, so that the second part of the announcement which he has just made was made known to the House through the national Press this morning, may I ask him two questions about the two parts of his statement?

On the first, as another procedure, another stage of procedure, is now to be added, will he do his best to ensure that this does not further delay the taking of decisions when these proposals come forward, so that there is not an extension of uncertainty?

On the second part of his statement, does he realise that there can be no real competition between private enterprise, on the one hand, and, on the other, corporations which are financed on public credit and whose losses are met by the general taxpayer and that such bogus competition can give no indication of whether the nation's resources are being used to the best effect?

If he is determined to persist with this kind of legislation, will he at least give the assurance that these activities will be accounted for separately upon a basis which enables the results to be realistically judged and appreciated?

Mr. Fraser

I can understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern about leaks. I saw a little reference in one newspaper this morning to the second part of my statement and right away I resolved to do my best to see that Government security did not get quite as bad under the present Administration as it was under the last.

To come to the other two matters on which he addressed question to me: first, the other stage of procedure in regard to passenger closures. I should have thought that the other stage of procedure which I have mentioned is in keeping with the statement I made on 4th November last and is strictly in keeping with the promises which my party made to the electors before the last election.

It is even more important to get the right decision than to get a quick decision, although I do not envisage that the further consultation which I have mentioned will necessarily delay the decision which will be reached, because the consultation with the regional councils and boards will in most cases be made at the same time as the proposal for the withdrawal of the service is being considered under the procedure set out in the 1962 Act.

To answer the right hon. Gentleman's point about the workshops' freedom, I would just like to tell him that we are concerned to see that the nation's resources are properly and fully employed, and are seen to be properly and fully employed. The nationalised industries are at present free to purchase from private enterprise. Private enterprise is not free to purchase from the nationalised workshops. There have been many occasions when the workshops could have supplied a need in the community by the proper utilisation of the nation's resources, but were prevented from doing so, in some cases, by the limitations imposed by the statutes and in other cases by the limitations imposed by my predecessor.

The assurance which the right hon. Gentleman sought is an assurance which I am sure he will seek further when the legislation is brought before the House.

Mr. Popplewell

Is my right hon. Friend aware how much we on this side of the House welcome his statement and congratulate him on having made it?

To press him a little further, since he said that he will discuss the question of closures with the regional economic planning councils, do I take that to mean that he will discuss it not only with those councils which have already been set up, but also with the councils which are planned to cover certain areas but which have not yet been established? Would he also bear in mind that there are certain areas—for example, in East Anglia and the South-West—which are not covered by economic councils and that these are equally important from the closure point of view? Will he have a further look at this matter?

Is my right hon. Friend aware how much we welcome his decision to give full commercial freedom to the railway workshops? Will he ensure that railway management takes full advantage of the statement that he has made? Does he contemplate making a further statement about land, and also about the sundries traffic on the railways, which has been so grossly neglected in the Beeching programme but which can be a very useful revenue-producing unit?

Mr. Fraser

The Government have in mind the problem of land to which my hon. Friend has referred, but, as he knows, this is a matter that goes far beyond the responsibility of the Ministry of Transport, or even of the Railways Board. It is a matter that must be dealt with more comprehensively and I should think that any announcement on it would come from one of my right hon. Friends.

I do not have it in mind at present to make a statement about the sundries traffic.

In reply to the first part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, I shall consult the councils and boards in those parts of the country where they have been set up. The only part in which they have not been set up is the South-East. I will continue to have the advice of the Departments concerned—mainly, Housing and Local Government, Economic Affairs and the Board of Trade—and of all those people involved in the review that is being made of the South-East Study.

Mr. Webster

Does the Minister intend to consult his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs who, in 1960, in the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, which was then dealing with the affairs of British Railways asked, as Question 1444: What you are saying is that"—

Mr. Speaker

Order. As far as I can hear, that is a verbatim quotation from something, and that would be bad in a question, let alone on a statement.

Mr. Webster

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. Did not the Minister's right hon. Friend then infer that prices quoted did not adequately cover overheads? Will the right hon. Gentleman inform us to what extent he intends to use the taxpayers' money to subsidise a nationalised industry against private industry?

Mr. Fraser

What I want to ensure is that the capital equipment provided with the taxpayers' money will be employed in the service of the nation.

Mr. Shinwell

Has not my right hon. Friend taken note of the fact that for many weeks now—indeed, many months—hon. Members opposite have, quite rightly and legitimately, asked that some restraint should be placed on the closure of branch lines? Now that he has satisfied them that the matter is to be properly reviewed, will he try to find an explanation for their protests?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that the Minister has any responsibility for finding explanations of that kind.

Mr. Bessell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement will be widely welcomed throughout the country? Will he now seek powers to order the reopening of lines if this is advised by regional councils or boards, and if the permanent way is still in existence? Further, where boards do not yet exist, will he undertake not to authorise any further closures until councils or boards have been established? Finally, will he ensure that the information supplied to councils and boards by British Railways is factual and actual?

Mr. Fraser

I have no reason to believe that the Railways Board ever supplies information that is not, to the best of its knowledge, factual. [HON. MEMBERS: "oh."] I have no reason whatsoever to believe that. I must say that I think it monstrous to suggest that a great public corporation like the Railways Board will submit for the consideration of other public bodies deliberately inaccurate information.

I cannot undertake that no closure of a passenger service will take place until a council has been set up. The interests of those areas in which councils have not yet been set up are being safeguarded, I hope appropriately, by the Government Departments concerned, and I will consult those authorities before reaching a decision. But, at the end of the day, the responsibility for deciding whether or not consent will be given is mine, and I must be willing to take it, and not put it off to some time in the future when a regional council and board might be set up.

The hon. Gentleman referred to power to reopen lines already closed. I must say that I am not satisfied that I would be serving the interests of either British Railways or the nation if I were at present to seek power to restore services that have been withdrawn. I would not wish to commit myself to seeking such power merely on the advice of one regional council. I would clearly take into account any advice given to me by a regional council, but I think that it would be foolish of me now to commit myself to accept any such advice of this sort if it were given.

Mr. Ted Fletcher

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be warmly welcomed in Darlington, the home of the railways? As I am sure that he is aware that the railway workshops in Darlington are under sentence of death at the end of 1966, may I ask when he will be in a position to make a statement about the future of railway workshops?

Mr. Fraser

I do not think that I will be making a statement as to the way in which the Railways Board will decide its responsibilities in regard to the expansion or contraction of individual workshops in the country This really is a responsibility of management which I must leave to the Railways Board.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must get on.